The beginning: When in the world was it?

Evangelicals agree that God created the universe. But when discussion turns to when and how, there"s debate.

Young-earth creationists argue that God created the world from nothing between 6,000 and 50,000 years ago in six literal days—and they say he did it merely by speaking. Old-earth creationists agree that the world came about by a direct act of God rather than evolution, but they say the universe is billions of years old and argue that the “days” in Genesis 1 do not refer to 24-hour periods. Some old-earth creationists say the “days” are indefinite periods of time while others say they are a poetic way of referencing the various aspects of God’s creative work.

Another group called theistic evolutionists claims that God used evolution to create, directing the process but not simply speaking things into existence. For theistic evolutionists, Genesis 1-3 is figurative.

What’s at stake in this debate? There’s disagreement on that too.

Some say inerrantists can disagree on how God created and that no key doctrine rides on this issue. But many theistic evolutionists claim souls are at stake. The gospel won’t be taken seriously, they say, if Christians reject standard evolutionary theory and claim direct creation. That’s an ironic claim to most creationists, who themselves claim that failure to read Genesis 1-3 as describing real, historical events leads to a compromise of the gospel.

At least one thing is clear: within evangelicalism—and even among Southern Baptists—there’s no universally accepted answer to the question of the earth’s age.

That hasn’t always been the case though.

“The history of biblical interpretation until the rise of modern science in the seventeenth century overwhelmingly supports a young-earth view,” writes William Dembski, an old-earth creationist, in his 2009 book “The End of Christianity” (B&H). “Young-earth creationism was the dominant position of Christians from the Church Fathers through the Reformers.”

The second-century Christian apologist Theophilus of Antioch and the third-century Christian historian Julius Africanus, for example, both calculated from the Bible’s genealogies that God created the world about 5500 B.C. In the medieval and Reformation periods, Thomas Aquinas, Martin Luther and John Calvin likewise held to a young earth, Dembski writes.

Still, there have long been Christians who believed the “days” in Genesis 1 to be symbolic rather than literal. Among them were Augustine, Origen, Justin Martyr, Irenaeus of Lyons and Clement of Alexandria. None of these believed the earth was more than several thousand years old, but modern old-earth creationists cite them as a theological precedent for interpreting the days of Genesis 1 as something other than 24-hour periods.

In 1859, when Charles Darwin published “The Origin of Species,” some theologians drew from the tradition of Augustine and company to explain how Scripture allowed for a very old earth. Theological liberals in Europe and America especially began to accept Darwin’s theory. One early proponent of evolution, Southern Baptist Theological Seminary professor Crawford Toy, was fired from his teaching post in 1879 for an unorthodox view of Scripture’s inspiration.

Increasingly, believers accommodated evolution and an old earth into their theological systems. Even such stalwarts of orthodoxy as Princeton’s B.B. Warfield and J. Gresham Machen argued that Genesis could be interpreted to accommodate evolution and an old earth. By the late 20th century, Christians professing inerrancy held a span of beliefs from young-earth creationism, to old-earth creationism, to theistic evolution.

Eric Mitchell, associate professor of Old Testament and archaeology at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, calls young-earth creationism a “faith position” that makes the best sense of both science and the Bible.
Among the reasons Mitchell believes Scripture teaches young-earth creationism:

  • The Hebrew word for day (yom) can refer to an indefinite period of time. But Genesis 1 specifies that the six days of creation each included evening and morning, indicating a 24-hour period is in view. The darkness of the first day begins at verse 1, and the morning of day one begins in verse 3. “Evening and morning constitute a day to the Hebrews,” Mitchell told the TEXAN. “This is the case even today.”
  • Some argue that there is a gap between Genesis 1:1 and 1:2, depicting a period billions of years long when the earth was “without form and void”—a gap between God’s initial act of creating and his ordering of the universe. However, the Hebrew grammar rules out such a “gap theory,” Mitchell said, noting that verse 2 is not a continuation of verse 1 but an elaboration of the state of affairs at the time of verse 1.
  • Taking each day to represent thousands of years is also implausible, Mitchell said. If each day represents millennia, man would have been created at the end of the sixth “day” and fallen during the seventh “day”—since the Bible depicts the fall as occurring relatively soon after man’s creation. But a fall on the day of God’s rest doesn’t seem to be what Scripture indicates, he said.

If each day represents thousands of years, “you would also have animals dying for millions of years before God creates man and there would be disease as well,” Mitchell said. “The fossil record shows tumors and disease in animals, animals eating each other, etc. How can this all be declared by God ‘very good,’ in 1:31 if this is the case before the fall of man?”

Mitchell continued, “Those who hold other views on creation often are relying on current explanations of scientific processes over supernatural creation. However, the fact that God created, does miracles, rises from the dead, etc., denies scientific process. I take Genesis 1 as God sharing with Moses (the author), ‘This is what took place: six 24-hour days.’ To say anything different implies along with the serpent, ‘Did God really say?’”

Kurt Wise, professor of biology at Truett-McConnell College in Cleveland, Ga., agrees. At times scientists produce evidence that strongly suggests life evolved over millions of years, he said in a Truett-McConnell chapel message last spring. But faith requires believing God’s Word even when it doesn’t seem possible.

“It looks like the evolutionary claim is true, and the evolutionary claim is contrary to the biblical claim,” said Wise, who earned his Ph.D. at Harvard under famed evolutionist Stephen Jay Gould.

Christians should not deny scientific evidence that seems to contradict the Bible or make up evidence to counter troubling data, Wise, a young-earth creationist, said. Instead they should believe God’s Word by faith then look for a better way to explain the scientific data, he said.

As an example Wise showed how positing a worldwide flood can explain fossil records that appear to indicate evolution.

“Evolution explains a lot,” he said. “… Unfortunately for (evolutionists), there’s more explained by the Bible. It’s as simple as that.”

Wise continued, “Because a person believes the Bible is true, they’re going to say, ‘I’m not happy with (evolutionists’ conclusions),’ go on and generate a scientific theory that explains far more than evolution.”

Not all Southern Baptists believe the Bible teaches creation in six 24-hour days. Bruce Gordon, associate professor of the history and philosophy of science at Houston Baptist University, calls himself an old-earth progressive creationist. He believes the universe is 13.7 billion years old and the earth is 4.5 billion years old, with unicellular life appearing 3.8 billion years ago.

But species did not evolve from other species, according to Gordon. Instead, God performed acts of direct creation at various points in the development of life. Both scientific and scriptural data suggest this explanation of the universe’s origin, Gordon, a senior fellow at the Discovery Institute, said.

“Darwinism is an inadequate explanation if you think of the evolutionary process as undirected,” Gordon told the TEXAN. “An examination of the discontinuities in the fossil record and the injections of information … at various points in biological history, plus the nature of the information structure of the genome itself all point toward intelligent design as a much better explanation of the origin and development of life.”

Countering the notion that old-earth creationists let science trump Scripture, Gordon gave several reasons why he believes the Bible teaches old-earth creationism:

  • The first day of creation doesn’t appear to begin until Genesis 1:3. “This opens up the possibility that there is an indefinite period of time there from God bringing the universe into being (until) the first day of creation as discussed in Genesis 1:3,” he said.
  • Genesis refers to evening and morning on the first six days of creation, but there is no such declaration for the seventh day. That suggests the earth is still in the seventh day, which is an indefinitely long period of time.
  • The earth’s distance from the sun determines the length of days, but the sun does not appear until the fourth day, indicating that the days referenced in Genesis 1 likely were not measured in 24-hour cycles.
  • Genesis 2:5-25 is an elaboration of the sixth day of creation. However, Genesis 2:5 refers to a time “when no bush of the field was yet in the land and no small plant of the field had yet sprung up,” an allusion to the springtime, suggesting that there was a cycle of unfolding seasons on the sixth day. If the sixth day included multiple seasons of the year, it could not have been a literal 24-hour day.

“A close look at the text leads to the conclusion that there are better interpretations of the text than six chronological, 24-hour periods,” Gordon said.

Dembski, senior fellow at Discovery Institute’s Center for Science and Culture, argues in The End of Christianity that young-earth creationism “makes good exegetical and theological sense,” and adds, “I myself would adopt it in a heartbeat except that nature seems to present such strong evidence against it.” He opts for old-earth creationism, a theory that he believes is also consistent with Scripture.

The biggest problem for old-earth creationism is that it assumes natural evil (like animal death, decay and natural disasters) happened for millennia before the fall, yet the Bible teaches that all evil is a consequence of the fall, Dembski writes. So he argues that God brought natural evil to earth long before Adam and Eve sinned as a retroactive punishment for their disobedience, in a similar manner to God’s application of the effects of Christ’s death to humans who lived prior to it.

The Garden of Eden, he writes, was a segregated pocket of creation that God spared from the effects of the fall. He put Adam and Eve in that pocket in order to test them. They failed the test, causing God to curse all of creation.

Genesis 1-3 uses the concept of “days” to depict the order of God’s logic in creating, not periods of time, according to Dembski. He makes a distinction between ‘kairos” (God’s time) and “chronos” (our time).

Old-earth creationists like Dembski and Gordon point out that their position is different than theistic evolution. In fact, Dembski’s book “Christian Darwinism” (B&H) attempts to refute theistic evolution.

One prominent group that embraces theistic evolution is the BioLogos Foundation, “a community of evangelical Christians committed to exploring and celebrating the compatibility of evolutionary creation and biblical faith,” according to the group’s website.

“We believe that the diversity and interrelation of all life on earth are best explained by the God-ordained process of evolution with common descent,” the BioLogos website says. “Thus, evolution is not in opposition to God, but a means by which God providentially achieves his purposes. Therefore, we reject ideologies that claim that evolution is a purposeless process or that evolution replaces God.”

Modern science demonstrates “a gradual transition over 5 million years ago from chimpanzee-size creatures to hominids with larger brains who walked on two legs” and later to humans, the BioLogos website says. Humans descended from more than just two people, the website says.

Adam and Eve may have been a historical couple chosen by God to represent all of humanity even though they lived among a larger population, according to BioLogos. Alternately, Genesis 2-4 could be an allegory in which Adam and Eve symbolize the entire group of humans who lived 150,000 years ago, or Genesis 2-4 could be a parable about every human’s rejection of God, BioLogos says.

Despite the group’s claims that it holds a high view of the Bible, some Southern Baptist leaders believe theistic evolution is incompatible with orthodox Christianity. Southern Seminary President R. Albert Mohler Jr., for example, critiqued BioLogos scholars for denying that Adam and Eve were historical people.

“Ever since the challenge of Darwin and evolutionary theory appeared, some Christians have tried to argue that the opening chapters of the Bible should not be taken ‘literally,’” Mohler writes in an article on his website. “While no honest reader of the Bible would deny the literary character of Genesis 1-3, the fact remains that significant truth claims are being presented in these chapters. Furthermore, it is clear that the historical character of these chapters is crucial to understanding the Bible’s central message—the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

“The Apostle Paul, for example, clearly understood Adam to be a fully historical human who was also the genetic father of the entire human race. The fall of the human race in Adam sets the stage for the salvation of sinful humanity by Jesus Christ.”

Similarly, Southwestern Seminary President Paige Patterson said in 2010 that belief in theistic evolution is outside the bounds of the Baptist Faith and Message 2000.

“I would not consider orthodox somebody that wants to make Adam and Eve parabolic or something of that nature,” Patterson said. “I think that to move to a position, ‘Yes, God created everything, but Adam and Eve were just symbolic figure heads,’ makes a total disaster when you get to the New Testament.”

Yet Patterson believes debate between old- and young-earth creationists who are inerrantists can be constructive. The Southwestern faculty, in fact, includes creationists of both stripes, and Patterson said professors of both views have used their arguments about creation as evangelistic tools.

“Obviously, I think a correct interpretation of Scripture is always better than an incorrect one, and I happen to think the correct one is the young earth,” Patterson said at a 2010 panel discussion. Yet Dembski, who served on Southwestern’s faculty at the time, “with his old-earth position, has gotten an opportunity to witness to and even win some lost people who wouldn’t have given me the time of day.”

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