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Does the Bible compel an old-earth interpretation?

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Published: 17 December 2020 (GMT+10)
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Why is there an origins debate in the church? What is the debate fundamentally about? It has always revolved around an apparent conflict. What conflict? The Bible seems to conflict with deep time. The Bible seems to present a timescale and event sequence for the history of nature that conflicts in countless ways with the standard ‘billions of years’ history of nature promoted by the consensus of modern scientists. All sorts of questions arise from this: Is this a mere appearance, or is it reality? If it’s a reality, does that mean we should reject the Bible? And so forth. When we begin addressing those questions, we’re engaging in the origins debate.

The Bible’s seeming conflict with deep time drives the origins debate

Note what the whole origins debate is predicated on: that the Bible (at least) seems to conflict with deep time. That should tell us something rather obvious about what the Bible seems to say: i.e. that the biblical evidence seems to preclude an old-earth interpretation.

This seeming conflict is reflected in most attempts to render Scripture and science compatible with each other. They almost always involve exegetical, epistemic, or hermeneutical moves to defuse the tension between the biblical and deep time frameworks of history. Gap theories and day-age theories lengthen the apparent timeframe of Genesis 1 to match deep time. Framework, figurative, and mythic theories attenuate or deny the apparently clear historical impulse of Genesis 1–11 so the historical ‘facticity’ of deep time isn’t undermined by the textual specifics of Genesis 1–11. Epistemic approaches say that any of these interpretive options is better than the ‘face value’ reading precisely because they’re compatible with deep time. And some approaches acknowledge that the Bible and deep time conflict, but say that any statement in Scripture that conflicts with deep time is incidental to the Bible’s main message and purpose, so the Bible can be wrong in these cases without undermining the trustworthiness of the Bible. Whatever we might think of these approaches, the Bible’s seeming conflict with deep time is a major reason behind all these re-examinations of the Bible.

Does the Bible seem to conflict with deep time?

But there’s always someone to disagree. Indefatigable protagonist of old-earth creationism Dr Hugh Ross, in his essay arguing for old-earth creationism in Four Views on Creation, Evolution, and Intelligent Design, apparently rejects the idea that the Bible even seems to conflict with deep time. Quite the opposite, in fact:

“Contrary to young-earth creationists (among others) who assert day-age creationists trust science more than the plain teaching of Scripture, biblical evidence for a creation history much longer than ten thousand years supports, and I believe should compel, the old-earth interpretation.”1

He then goes on to give nine points for which he thinks “[t]o defend the authority, inspiration, and inerrancy of Scripture from a young-earth perspective would seem all but impossible”.

Those are bold claims! After all, consider what Ross is not saying. He’s not saying that the Bible, despite appearances, is plausibly compatible with deep time. He’s not even saying merely that an old-earth interpretation is better than a young-earth interpretation. Nor is he saying that the science of deep time makes it impossible to read the Bible any other way.

Instead, Ross is saying that the Bible makes it seem all but impossible to defend a young-earth interpretation in a biblically faithful manner. Is this because he is so convinced by the science of deep time that he can’t fathom reading the Bible faithfully any other way? Maybe. But he doesn’t make that argument. His “nine points” are all supposedly biblical reasons to believe in deep time (or, at least, that the Bible teaches that the world is substantially (in the tenor of ‘orders of magnitude’) older than 6,000 years).

What about his “nine points” in favour of this claim? They are weak. Absurdly weak. Even when considered together. A longer Day 6 in Creation Week (point 1) isn’t needed, but still wouldn’t entail billions of years (Naming the animals: all in a day’s work for Adam). A continuing Day 7 (point 2) doesn’t fit the text, but still wouldn’t entail billions of years (God’s rest in Hebrews 4:1–11). Psalm 90:4 (point 3) says nothing of billions of years (2 Peter 3:8—‘one day is like a thousand years’). ‘Ancient’ hills, compared to God’s eternity (point 4) or not (point 5), don’t argue for billions of years without assuming a comparison for which there is no textual evidence. One example of numbered days (supposedly) not referring to 24-hour days (point 6) says nothing about whether the Genesis 1 days are 24-hour days, let alone argues for billions of years (see this entry on Hosea 6:2). Sabbath years (point 7) don’t argue for billions of years. The sacrificial system supposedly not guaranteeing pre-Fall animal death (point 8) doesn’t argue for billions of years. And ‘evening and morning’ language (point 9) emphasizes rather than obscures literal 24-hour days, and thus doesn’t argue for billions of years.

The worst problem for Ross’ nine points isn’t even that they are weak support for an old-earth interpretation. The worst problem is that none of them actually argue for what Ross needs his ‘old earth interpretation’ to imply—that the earth and universe are billions of years old. If his ‘nine points’ were cogent, at most they would argue that, despite appearances to the contrary, the Bible possibly doesn’t require a six-day, 6,000-year reading. But that doesn’t even suggest, let alone guarantee, any sort of old-earth interpretation, much less a ‘billion-years old earth’ interpretation.

landscape
The Bible’s references to ‘ancient hills’ don’t prove the Bible implies a billion-year old earth.

If the Bible didn’t seem to conflict with deep time—no origins debate

Indeed, I think Ross’ claim that the biblical evidence should compel an old-earth interpretation is matched in its boldness only by its absurdity. But it’s not simply because his arguments fail so badly. Crucially, it comes down to remembering what the origins debate is about: that the Bible seems to conflict with deep time.

How does this work? For argument’s sake, let’s say that the conflict between the Bible and deep time is merely apparent, i.e. the two don’t in fact conflict. Does that mean the Bible doesn’t seem to conflict with deep time? Not at all! Even Richard Dawkins could admit that life (superficially, he would say) seems designed, despite his absolute confidence in evolution. Likewise, any interpreter of Genesis who rejects the young-age view should be able to admit that the Bible at least superficially seems to conflict with deep time.

And if Bible and deep time don’t conflict, does that mean that the Bible supports an old-earth interpretation? Again, no. Most old-earth creationist commentators argue that the Bible doesn’t speak to the aspects of the history of nature relevant to deep time. If that were true, there would be no conflict. But why? Because the Bible actually presents a timeframe different from what it seems to at face value? No. It would be because of what the Bible doesn’t say. It wouldn’t (on this view) say anything relevant to the issue. But even there, the appearance of conflict remains. And that’s what generates the origins debate.

But let’s go further, and assume (again, for argument’s sake) that the Bible, properly interpreted, presents an old-earth view consistent with the modern academic deep time framework. Does that mean the biblical evidence should compel an old-earth interpretation? Still, no! Just because one interpretation is superior to another doesn’t mean the inferior view is completely baseless. And practically nobody in the history of the church (and nobody before the 18th century) thought the Bible taught an earth billions of years old. There have been plenty of biblical chronologists through history, and none of them arrived at a start date for history of billions of years ago. Were they all so unfaithful to the biblical text as to miss what Ross considers the ‘practical impossibility’ of defending biblical authority from a young-earth perspective? If the evidence really compels an old-earth interpretation of Scripture, as Ross states so boldly, this is utterly unexplainable.

The whole origins debate is rendered ridiculous if Ross is right about the Bible compelling an old-earth interpretation. If the Bible is as obviously an ‘old earth’ book as Ross seems to think, it should be unreasonable to think the Bible even seems to conflict with deep time. But it’s not. As anyone who can read a reasonable translation of Genesis can immediately see.

Conclusion

The very fact that there is an origins debate at all is proof positive that the Bible does not compel an old-earth interpretation. This is true even for those who think the Bible and deep time don’t conflict, or even that the Bible is better interpreted as an old-earth book. If the Bible didn’t look like a young-earth book at some level, there would be no debate.

References and notes

  1. Ross, H., Old Earth (Progressive) Creationism; in: Stump, J.B. (Ed.), Four Views on Creation, Evolution, and Intelligent Design, Zondervan, Grand Rapids, Michigan, p. 78, 2017. Return to text.

Helpful Resources

Refuting Compromise, updated & expanded
by Dr Jonathan Sarfati
US $17.00
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The Genesis Account
by Jonathan Sarfati
US $39.00
Hard Cover
15 Reasons to Take Genesis as History
by Dr Don Batten, Dr Jonathan D Sarfati
US $3.50
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Readers’ comments

Grahame G.
I was listening to Hugh Ross dispute the meaning of "literal" with Jason Lisle so he could defend his definition of "day" being a "literal" definition. It seems to me that Hugh is near impossible to have a sensible conversation with. He believed the Big Bang theory at 16 and then at 17 read it into the Bible and hasn't grown in understanding since then. For me to say more on what I think is going on would be far less "kind" and "gentle" than CMI accepts so I'll refrain from sharing it here.
Richard S.
Calling forth St. Irenaeus to weigh in on matters of doctrine reminds me that he would not have minced words with the likes of Ross. By placing a product of human intelligence alone (i.e. "Nature") as the foundation for a critique of the Biblical text, placing human reason over Biblical Revelation, Ross has surely earned the title of HERETIC.

Value relativism and unearned collegial respect have surely made it more difficult for us "moderns" to state a fact unequivocally, leaving us all to IMPLY, but never to SAY. All honor to the good and faithful Bishop of Lyons who had no such impediments to telling it "like it is."
Thomas C.
How can present day humans conduct science that proves or disproves past events recorded in some historical account. They cannot. Science is only a this time, our time, enterprise. Can only be done in real time in the present. Any other 'science' account is to us reading/hearing it as an account about something someone else has done that we do not observe. A report of their activity, done in their time and observed by them and reported to others.
The one who observed the past must have been there and have been very accurate in order to record a history of that event that is authoritive.
David J.
(another) Great CMI article to help questioning Christians understand the arguments against the clear teaching of the Bible relating to an earth about 6200 years old. One CMI author helpfully wrote that in human terms (many generations) 6200 years is a log time...Just a suggestion. for CMI.. 2021? GLW--.(maybe I missed them) add to bookstore article/books/resources, first on basic debating (to help Christians in these last days) followed by philosophy basics including how those are used against Christians beliefs and teachings. Greg Koukl Book (& videos) helped me, not to debate but to understand what was being thrown at me and how to respond (if merited) with intelligence and in truth. Merry Christmas to all CMI staff and leaders. Your work and dedication has helped millions!
Bill P.
It's a simple case of what The Book of Romans (Scripture) says about the "last days". Many have already said that these letters in the N.T. have nothing to do w/today (I'm talking about those in many of today's churches) and in my own family it has already done damage. In these last days many will mock and scoff (willingly) creation, the world wide flood in Noah's Day, and The return of HIM who went willingly to the cross on our behalf to redeem us to His GOD and our GOD to His FATHER and our FATHER. It's sad that many refuse to read SCIPTURE both in O.T. and N.T. with an open heart and then go out and study the heavens and the earth and everything in them.
I give honor and praise to our Lord that a few have started their careers with the view of billions of yrs., evolution, YET through their work their eyes and hearts were opened to "The Love of The Truth" and they have come to faith in The Holy one of Israel, Jesus Christ. There are no billions of yrs. of time and all of the events that took place written about in Scripture (as GOD through HIS Holy Spirit moved HIS servants to write) did happen just as written, and "the time" that is left is very short.
Soon HE will return and on "That Day of The Lord" there will be no more doubters. Many will rejoice and their cups of joy will be overflowing, but sadly many will mourn when they see "The Son of Man" coming in the clouds of heaven in great power and glory.
Many lost sheep all over this earth yet our Lord is still out their (working), calling them even by name in hopes they will hear HIS voice, repent, and call on HIM to be saved. Again, the time for this is so near that it is no longer IMO "The Last Days" but instead it is The Last Minutes.

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