The age of the Earth is a hot button topic for Christians today. Science suggests that the Earth is old, but a large segment of western Christianity has put down big stakes on the claim that the Earth is young. We have to be careful here that this tension doesn’t overshadow the Gospel.
The issue of the age of the Earth has almost become a litmus test in some Christian circles for belief in God. But is it a good litmus test? Does the Bible speak to the age of the universe?
Frank Turek observes that we have to make assumptions when we talk about the age of the universe. (See The Bible and the Age of the Universe) For instance, when we measure the universe by the speed of light and determine that the universe is 13.8 billion years old, we are assuming that the speed of light has not changed. Is that a good assumption?
Yes, it is. If the speed of light changed, all the other laws of physics would have to change because all the laws of physics are tied into and relative to the speed of light. But, it’s an assumption, nevertheless.
Could God have changed the speed of light (and all of the other laws of physics along with it)? Sure, He could have. If God created the universe, He could alter all the laws that He established, and He could do it quickly.
There is no evidence for that, though. We would have to assume He did that. In fact, no matter what position a person takes in regard to the age of the universe, we must make assumptions that can’t be proven, says Turek.
Science assumes that nothing is true unless it can be proven by the scientific method. This approach has proven to be a reliable one when it comes to the natural world. But, is it a good assumption when it comes to anything beyond the natural world? Maybe not. The scientific method is rigged toward natural results.
Some Christians assume that nothing is true unless the Bible says so. That has also proven to be a reliable assumption for spiritual things – people who have trusted the Bible in this way have not been disappointed in the richness of life and connection with God that it produces. But, is it a good assumption when it comes to natural things? Maybe not.
The Bible, obviously, is geared toward spiritual, transcendent things. Jesus said “my kingdom is not of this world”. Should we rely on the Bible, then, as a text that drives science (which is the study of the natural world)?
This tension we find at the heart of the old earth/young earth controversy. Young Earth creationists urge that the Hebrew word translated “day” (yom) used in Genesis in the creation story means a “literal” 24-hour day. It certainly does mean 24-hour day, but it also means many other things. While people urge a literal translation of the Hebrew word, yom, the challenge is that it has more than one “literal” meaning.
Yom has the following meanings (among many others): period of light (as contrasted with the period of darkness); general term for time; point of time; sunrise to sunset; sunset to next sunset; a year (in the plural); time period of unspecified length; and a long, but finite span of time – age – epoch – season.
The reason that yom can mean so many things is that Hebrew has a limited vocabulary. Hebrew words often have to have various different meanings because of the rather small Hebrew vocabulary. The same Hebrew words often have a number of different meanings as a result. The particular meaning in a given sentence or phrase needs to be determined from context. (Wikipedia)
English is a more precise language than Hebrew (in the sense that English has a much larger vocabulary), but even English words have multiple meanings. We even have a word for this phenomenon: we call them homonyms. Fingers have nails but they don’t have nails (sharp, thin metal spikes). A bolt is a metal fastener, but a bolt can also be lightning moving through the atmosphere. A draft might be a current of air or a version of a document.
Frank Turek says, “Words don’t have meanings; they have usages. They only have meanings in their usage.” (See The Bible and the Age of the Universe) As an example, he asks what the word, bark, means. Out of context, we don’t know whether he means the bark of a tree or the bark of a dog. How the word is used in a given context suggests what it means.
Thus, in English, we have words that may have two or more meanings, depending on the context. This is even more true in the limited vocabulary of the Hebrew language.
Even if yom should be translated as a 24-hour day in Genesis 1, we still don’t know how old the Earth is based on Genesis 1. This is so because the days don’t show up until verse 3. Meanwhile, “in the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth….” (Gen. 1:1) This first verse in the Bible doesn’t say when the beginning was. If you want to take Genesis 1 literally, the heavens and the earth are created before the days even begin.
John Lennox, the Oxford mathematician, wrote a book called, Seven Days that Divide the World. The first point he makes in the book is that, “since the initial creation happened before day one, the Bible doesn’t say how old the universe is”. (Summarized by Frank Turek)
The second point John Lennox makes is this: even if the days are pertinent to the age question, the word for “day” in Genesis 1 could mean longer periods of time. It could mean an era or epoch of time. It could also mean a shorter period of time (12 hours or the time between first light and first dark). In fact, when it says, “he called the light day and the darkness night,” it suggests less than a 24-hour “day” (if we really want to take it “literally”.
More to the point, though, we only need to turn the page over into the second Chapter of Genesis to find a clear example of the use of the Hebrew word, yom, to mean something other than a 24-hour day, summarizing all the creation to that point:
“This is the account of the heavens and the earth when they were created, in the day that the LORD God made earth and heaven.” (Gen. 2:4)(NASB, the most literal translation of the Bible)
Genesis 1, beginning with verse 3, goes through a litany of creation in six (6) “days”, and then, in the very next chapter, all six days are summarized as “the day that the Lord made the heavens and the earth” (Genesis 2:4). This is a good demonstration of how context is required to establish meaning and how we need to be careful about reading things “literally”.
To read the Bible “literally” we have to understand the “literal” meanings of the words. When words have many different “literal” meanings, we have to do some analysis based on the context to figure out which one is intended. Reading the six (6) days of creation together as “the day” God created the heavens and the earth, is the literal reading of that passage!
Another point Lennox makes is that the third day seems to require longer than 24-hours. The third “day” is when the earth grew plants and fruit trees. (Genesis 1:11-12) Of course, it could mean that they appeared (not grew) in this period of time, but the language suggests more than simply appearing. Maybe God sped up the growth, which is possible, but then you are making an assumption you can’t prove again.
Perhaps, the most significant point to be made, however, is that the seventh day hasn’t ended yet! Hebrews 4:3-8 suggests that we are still in the seventh day:
3 “For we who have believed enter that rest, just as He has said,
“’As I swore in My wrath,
They shall not enter My rest,’
“although His works were finished from the foundation of the world. 4 For He has said somewhere concerning the seventh day: ‘And God rested on the seventh day from all His works’; 5 and again in this passage, ‘They shall not enter My rest.’ 6 Therefore, since it remains for some to enter it, and those who formerly had good news preached to them failed to enter because of disobedience, 7 He again fixes a certain day, ‘Today,’ saying through David after so long a time just as has been said before,
“’Today if you hear His voice,
Do not harden your hearts.’
8 “For if Joshua had given them rest, He would not have spoken of another day after that.”
God rested from creation in the seventh day, and it remains for some (those who believe) to enter into His rest because we are still in the seventh day – the day of God’s rest. “Today if you hear His voice, do not harden your hearts.” This is the point of Hebrews 4: today is still now. We are still in the seventh “day”, while God is resting, waiting for us to enter into that rest.
Frank Turek believes, as I do, that the better evidence and the better interpretation of Genesis 1 is that the Earth is old, “but that God created is more certain (and more important) than when He created!”
Turek adds, which I believe as well, that there is no conflict between science and the Bible; there are only conflicts between some interpretations of the Bible and (the conclusions to be drawn from) the scientific data.
Turek also adds, in characteristic clever fashion, that “science doesn’t say anything”; scientists say things. We always have to ask whether they are interpreting the data right. But, we have to ask the same question of our interpretations of the Bible.
Finally, Turek urges, “Do not make this a test for orthodoxy!” Go ahead and feel strongly about your own interpretation, but hold it loosely. The age of the Earth isn’t a central tenet of Christianity.
Your entrance exam for heaven isn’t going to depend on whether you think the world was old or young. It will depend on what you did about Jesus. Did you believe? Did you submit yourself to God in Christ? For similar reason, as some in the Corinthian church were arguing over peripheral things, Paul told the Corinthians he came to them focusing only on Christ, and Him crucified. (1 Cor. 2:2)
We can get off on tangents to the Gospel when we focus too emphatically on peripheral things. Paul calls them “vain discussions“. When we focus on the peripheral things, we diminish the Gospel and even risk falling into heresy. Paul always brings us back to Jesus, and Him crucified. This is the mater of “first importance”, Paul says, “that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, and that He was buried, and that He was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that He appeared…. (I Cor. 15:3b-5a)[i]
The Bible really doesn’t tell us how old the universe is, but it does tell us, in no uncertain terms, what the Gospel is. The age of the universe isn’t essential to an understanding of Jesus and following Him. The Gospel is the central message of the Bible. “Jesus is the way, the truth and the life”; there is no other way to the Father. (John 14:6) We can have our theories about the age of the universe, but have to be on point about our understanding of Jesus and the Gospel.
[i] See 1 Corinthians 15:1-8
“Now I make known to you, brethren, the gospel which I preached to you, which also you received, in which also you stand, by which also you are saved, if you hold fast the word which I preached to you, unless you believed in vain.
For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received, that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, and that He was buried, and that He was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that He appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. After that He appeared to more than five hundred brethren at one time, most of whom remain until now, but some have fallen asleep; then He appeared to James, then to all the apostles; and last of all, as to one untimely born, He appeared to me also.”