Worldview: How old is the earth?

Worldview: How old is the earth?

There has been no shortage of attempts to determine and defend a particular age of the earth.

For many Christians, the Bible’s teaching seems pretty simple: the earth was created on the first of the six twenty-four-hour days of Genesis, which culminated with the creation of Adam, the first human. Adding up the genealogies in Genesis puts the age of the earth at about six thousand years.

Other Christians, ancient and contemporary, have not seen the creation account in strict historical terms. They focus on God as creator rather than on six literal days and think we should not try to specify the date of the earth.

Still others seek to integrate the general scientific consensus—that the earth is around 4.5 billion years old—into their theology. They adapt their view of the Bible to accommodate science and teach that the earth must be old.

Archbishop James Ussher dated creation precisely to 4004 BC. According to traditional Judaism, the year AD 2010 is actually year 5,770 of creation. The Jewish year of creation is Gregorian year 3761 BC. Both Ussher and Jews used the biblical genealogies (e.g., Genesis 5 and 10) and added up the number of years between Adam, Noah, and Abraham to arrive at their creation dates. That they differ somewhat on their dates indicates the difficulty of achieving high accuracy. Still, the method cannot be merely dismissed if one holds to inspired and inerrant Scripture. Jews, Ussher, and many Christians agree within a couple hundred years because of the precision of the genealogies in Genesis 5 and 11. They differ from the genealogies of Jesus in Matthew 1 and Luke 3, which show line of descent rather than specific lengths of time in each generation. The Genesis genealogies do not have large gaps. If one follows Scripture, Adam, the first human, was created about six thousand years ago.

However, believing in a recent Adam does not require a young earth. If one sees the days other than six twenty-four-hour days, then the age of the earth is not a biblical teaching. Those who agree with us that the Genesis days are twenty-four-hours long still may not hold that Scripture mandates a young earth. The creation of planet earth may not have been during those six days.

Many believe that Genesis 1:1 is a brief summary of an unspecified period of time—perhaps a minute or billions of years, since the Hebrew word for beginning, like its English translation, refers to inauguration rather than to a specific timeframe—that preceded the six literal days of Genesis during which God prepared Eden on the already-created earth as the dwelling place of mankind.

In the end, the date of the earth cannot be a closed-handed issue. It seems to us that those who strongly advocate either young- or old- earth dates are inferring a position from the Bible that the Bible simply does not state unequivocally. It must also be admitted that the age of the earth is not of great concern in the Bible. The great authors of the Bible, including David, Isaiah, and Paul, and Jesus himself, never referred to the age of the earth, even though they asserted God as Creator.

As Augustine rightly said, the Bible is not a scientific textbook seeking to answer the ever-changing inquiries of science but rather a theological textbook seeking to reveal God and the means by which he saves us. What the Bible actually teaches is inerrant truth from God that must be believed, but it does not teach everything we want to know. We must be courageous to receive and teach unashamedly what it does say as closed-handed issues1 but humble enough to let unclear and unrevealed matters be open- handed issues, avoiding unprofitable controversies.2

The question persists as to how we deal with the widespread scientific consensus that the earth is 4.5 billion years old and certainly appears to be old, even to nonscientists. Many solutions have been offered, including the following:

  1. Though the earth appears old to most scientists, it is in fact young, and the scientists are simply mistaken. Admittedly, Christians who hold this view are considered unscientific and even unintelligent by the watching world, but they retort that it is better to believe Scripture than the ever-changing theories of scientists.
  2. The earth appears old because it was made mature, like Adam was. If we had seen Adam and Eve just after they were created (remember, they were mature enough to be commanded to be fruitful and rule the earth), and asked them how old they were, we would have been astonished at their answer.
  3. The flood in Genesis 6 to 9 covered the earth universally, which compressed the geological layers and rearranged the topography so greatly that the earth appears to be old, especially when we assume geologic processes take long periods of time.
  4. The earth is in fact old, and the days mentioned in Genesis 1 and 2 are not literal twenty-four-hour days but rather extended periods of time.
  5.  The earth may be, or likely is, old. As our examination of Genesis 1:1 revealed, God created the earth during an indefinite period of time before the six days of Genesis. That could in fact have been billions of years ago, which would explain the seemingly old age of the earth. Then, in six literal days God prepared the earth for the creation of mankind and on the sixth day made the first man and woman.

This last view is quite compelling for five reasons. (1) It maintains a literal six-day interpretation of Genesis 1, which seems to be the point of the chapter. (2) It defines key terms biblically rather than scientifically. The word translated “heavens” is better understood as “skies”; “earth” (planet) as “land” (Promised Land); and “without form and void” (primordial chaos) as “uninhabited.” (3) It teaches that the first humans appeared recently. (4) It was the most common view of early Christians, such as Augustine, and did not fall out of favor until the rise of modern science. (5) It correlates with the findings of the scientific world from a biblical worldview. The teachings of the Bible always have priority in our theologizing, but of the possible biblical views, we prefer a view that explains the most data with the fewest difficulties.

While there is great debate about the age of the earth, there is much more agreement between the biblical and scientific data on the age of the first true Homo sapiens, that is, true humans who lived in villages and practiced agriculture. Scientists generally date the origin of true Homo sapiens to less than ten thousand years ago, even as they date other human-like beings much older. Even those people who are committed to naturalistic evolution and an old earth agree with the biblical data that, while the earth may be old, human life as we know it is relatively young. Their studies are now concluding that there was a first human female (“mitochondrial Eve”) and a first human male (“Y-chromosomal Adam”). These two original humans are genetically unconnected to other Homo species such as Homo neanderthalensis and Homo erectus. Therefore, even the most conservative Bible scholars and the most unbelieving naturalistic scientists agree that human life as we know it is, at most, roughly ten thousand years old.

Do you think the earth is likely old or young? Why?

12 Tim. 2:15; 3:16–17; Titus 1:9; Jude 3.

2Deut. 29:29; 2 Tim. 2:23; Titus 3:9.