Astronomical evidence for an old earth
Most evangelicals are resolutely young earth creationists; that is, they believe God created the universe, earth, and all that is in it in six literal 24-hour periods about 6,000 years ago. However, science has increasingly provided evidence that earth and the universe are much older than that. The consensus among scientists is that the universe is about 13.7 billion years old and the earth is around 4.5 billion years old. Moreover, they say the weight of evidence in favor of an old earth is astronomical. Of course, the reason they can say that is because most of the evidence comes from the field of astronomy, but they also say that the astronomical evidence is so overwhelming that there is no room for debate on the issue. In fact, Christian astrophysicist Hugh Ross recently summed up the matter in a lecture by stating that in the opinion of astronomers, the young earth theory is in the same category as the flat earth theory.
If the evidence is so overwhelming, then why do so many conservative Christians insist that the earth is young? Their answer is very simple: because the Bible says so. Young earth creationists claim that Genesis 1 declares that God created everything in six days, not billions of years. Moreover, since the creation was completed with the creation of Adam, and Genesis 5 and 11 give us the genealogy from Adam to Abraham, Adam can be no more than about 6,000 years old. According to young earth creationists, to accept an old earth means abandoning the plain meaning of Scripture.
But is this an open and shut Bible case? Apparently not, because a large number of scholarly Christians who believe in the inerrancy of Scripture also either believe the earth is billions of years old or at least are open to that possibility, claiming Scripture is not as clear about the age of the earth as young earth creationists assert. For a list of some of these scholarly Christians, look here.
At this point I need to make an important distinction. Old earth creationism are not the same as theistic evolution, which fails as a theology and as a science. Theistic evolution fails the Scripture test because it claims man evolved from primates, while the Bible says man is the direct, unique creation of God. Moses uses the word bara to refer to the creation of man (Gen 1:27; 5:1-2; 6:7). This word means to make out of nothing (ex nihilo) and excludes the possibility that man could have evolved from primates. Theistic evolution also fails the science test, for there is no evidence in any field of science that demonstrates the claim that any species ever evolved from one genus or phylum to another. But old earth creationists are not evolutionists. They believe in the special creation of man, animals, and the entire created universe and deny macroevolution. The only necessary difference between them and young earth creationists is that they say the creation of the universe and earth took place much longer ago than 6,000 years.
The distant starlight problem
Probably, the greatest body of evidence for an old universe, and the biggest problem for young earth creationists, is distant starlight. Through recent advancements in technology, astronomers are able to see stars that are more than 13 billion light years away. But we would not be able to see those starts if the universe is less than 13 billion years old, because that is how long it would take for the light from those stars to reach us ( a light year is the distance light travels in one year). The stars would still be there, but we would not be able to see them. Numerous solutions to the problem have been proposed, like the ones listed here, or the one proposed by Russell Humphries in his book, Starlight and Time, though it has been thoroughly criticized by the academic community. Some of these criticisms and Humphries’ responses can be accessed here. Astrophysicist Hugh Ross explains here why all the proposals to solve the distant starlight problem fail.
Because of the failure of other explanations, and perhaps also because of the simplicity of the idea, one of the most popular solutions to the distant starlight problem is the appearance of age theory, which has evolved (pardon my use of that term) into the mature creation theory. In his article cited above, Ross reveals a reductio-ad-absurdum that the appearance of age theory produces. If the light from distant stars was created by God 6,000 years ago, then events we see from stars that are more than 6,000 light years away show events that never happened. For example, a supernova in a nearby galaxy was observed in 1987. Since that star was 179,000 light years away, either the star existed 179,000 ago or the supernova, which was visible to the naked eye in some parts of the world, never happened. If God created all the stars 6,000 years ago, then the light that reached earth in 1987 was a fictional account of an event that never actually occurred. This opens God up to the charge of being a deceiver.
It could be argued that the star was created 6,000 years ago and soon went into supernova, but that increases the distant starlight problem, because the usual explanation of how the light from distant stars is visible to us is that God created it when he made the stars. But this would require light from an event after creation to be created, on or after the 7th day, when God is resting from his work. It also presents the problem of why God would create a star only to destroy it a short time later.
The distant starlight problem is a very real one and should not be ignored. If God’s revelation contained in the Bible is true, then it will never contradict God’s revelation that is found in his creation. We can admit that we do not know the answer to the distant starlight problem, but as long as it exists, young earth creationists should probably be less dogmatic about their young earth view than many of them are. Some accuse old earth creationists of being unfaithful to the Scriptures and in need of repentance. If Scripture emphatically and unequivocally teaches a young earth, then they have a ground for such accusations. But if not, then such dogmatism is unwarranted.
My next article will address a few of the key texts of Scripture relative to the age of the earth. We will not try to determine if the old earth creationist interpretation of Scripture is correct. Our goal will be to find out if it is viable, even if unlikely. Then when we compare their interpretation of Scripture to the consensus interpretation of the cosmos, we can make an assessment of how much weight the old earth view deserves.
Richard Niessen, Starlight and the Age of the Universe. On line article.
Hugh Ross. Avoiding A Dangerous Trap. On line article, Jan 1, 1999.
Hugh Ross. More Than A Theory: Revealing A Testable Model for Creation. Grand Rapids: Baker, 2009.