7/22/2009

Expanse: Theology and an Old Earth

The heavens are telling of the glory of God; their expanse is declaring the work of His hands. —Psalm 19:1
While I was in college I began to be convinced by the scientific arguments for an old earth (something on the order of 5 billion years, and 14 billion or so for the universe). This was further cemented in grad school. It didn't line up with how I prefer to interpret the Bible, but I thought the Biblical evidence for a young earth less conclusive than the scientific evidence for an old earth (some remarks on that below). One thing that I never had, though, was a theological justification for why that should be so. It was an inconvenient belief, one that I did not know how to fit properly into the rest of my theology.

That changed when I compared the antiquity of the universe with what we are learning about God from the other sciences. As astronomy looks out it discovers unfathomable distances that testify to the magnitude of a God who fills it all. As Biology looks deep into the cell it discovers engineering far better than ours: ever-richer complexity, large interwoven networks of protein interactions, several overlapping layers of data storage in DNA, efficient energy transmission in photosynthesis (by way of quantum tunneling!). As Physics looks deeper, into the nature of reality, it finds an underlying order which bears witness to its Orderer. Below even that, we can see Divine whimsy in the chaos which this order is balanced precariously on top of. One could hardly think of a more counter-intuitive foundation than quantum physics, perhaps the richest paradox in the sciences. And when astronomy looks back on the incredible age of the universe, it tells us something about the Ancient of Days, old beyond human reckoning and seated on his throne.

In other words, the sciences are converging on Psalm 19:1. God is showing off! Everywhere we turn we see an expanse so massive that it displays a reckless disregard for our ability to understand. The heavens declare the glory of God, indeed. They have been singing it in ways that were not discovered for 14 billion years, and in ways that will never be discovered.

And that is why I think God took His time in creation. He poured Himself into it. It cannot hold his infinitude, of course, but it can give us a glimpse. And that tiny glimpse is enough to drown us a thousand times over. The great age which we find in astronomy and geology testifies to a God who is not slow as some count slowness. He is patient, eternal, and waiting for us.

Appendix: The Age of the Earth in Science and Genesis

This post is not about whether creation is old or not, it is about why an old creation is consistent with (and perhaps expected by) God's character. But I know there are lots of people (probably most of my 7 readers :-) who are still back at whether, which is a prior question to why. Briefly, this is why I think it makes sense to believe in an old creation:
  1. About the accuracy of radiometric dating: yes, those methods are based on assumptions and any of them could be incorrect. However, the rocks which are used to help date the earth were tested by several different radiometric methods, and all of them gave roughly the same answer (you can find this out in 5 minutes by googling "age of the earth"). If radiometric dating methods are unreliable, wouldn't you expect them to give wildly different age predictions?
  2. A shameless appeal to authority: J.P. Moreland gives an able defense of an old earth, and points out that some exceptional Hebrew scholars think the days of Genesis 1 aren't literal for textual reasons.
  3. Some thoughts on the Genesis account from an old-earth perspective (take with a grain of salt, I am not an expert): Genesis does not record the creation of the earth. "In the beginning" it is formless and void, apparently covered by water. Interestingly, this corresponds more or less to the scientific account of the early earth being, well, covered by water. So even a literal reading does not provide an absolute beginning date for its creation (how long was the earth "formless and void"?). Also, the order of creation corresponds very roughly to the order in which we find animals in the fossil record - plants (including photosynthesizing bacteria?), fish (birds don't seem to fit?), land animals and finally man.
  4. On the length of days in the Genesis account: the presence of evening and morning in the 3 days before the sun and moon were created argue against a literal reading, I think. The events of day 6 in Genesis 2 would be hard to fit into a 24 hour period (God creates land animals, man. Adam names all the animals, feels lonely, God creates Eve before sunset). This account (2:4-24) does not even mention the "days" of chapter 1, but it does use "day" in another sense: "in the day that the Lord God made the earth and the heavens" (2:4). Also, there is good reason to think that the seventh day was not 24 hours. It is never closed out by the "evening and morning" formula of the other days (2:1-3), and Hebrews 3:18-4:10 make a convincing case that the seventh day is eternal: there remains a "Sabbath rest" for the people of God, in which we enter in to His rest. Verses 4:4,10 make it clear that God's rest in this passage refers specifically to His 7th-day rest from creating.

I've glossed over some of the serious theological problems caused by an old earth. The best and most honest attempt to resolve these issues that I know of is this book by Bill Dembski[1]. I obviously don't think the problems are worse than those confronting a young-earth view. However, given the theological difficulties and my preference for interpreting Scripture straightforwardly, I respect those who hold to a 7-day creation. Sometimes God requires us to trust Him in pitch darkness when all of our reason cries out against it[2]. This kind of complete submission to the Word is a virtue, and it could be that I am wrong and the age of the earth is one of those areas where God requires it of us.


[1] Disclaimer: I've read a paper on which the book was based, not yet the book itself
[2] The faith of the thief on the cross is one of the most vivid examples of this.

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