The age of the earth is a hotly debated issue among evangelicals. Old Earthers believe, like most scientists, that the universe is billions of years old. Young Earthers measure the age of the universe in terms of thousands of years. The debate is not new, but the insistence by some Young Earthers that belief in the inerrancy of the Bible demands a Young Earth position is relatively new.
The Biblical Status of the Young Earth View
In order to establish the Young Earth view, one must demonstrate that there are (1) no time gaps in the biblical record and that (2) the "days" of Genesis are six successive 24-hour days of creation. Unfortunately for Young Earthers, these two premises are difficult to establish for many reasons.
Possible Gaps in Genesis
The possibility for gaps in Genesis exists in many places.
(1) There could have been a gap of long periods of time before Genesis 1:1 (called Recent Creationism).
(2) There could be a gap between Genesis 1:1 and 1:2 (called the Gap Theory with or without an intervening fall of Satan, as C. I. Scofield had it).
(3) There could be long gaps between the six literal 24-hour days (Alternating Day-Age Theory). The point here is not to defend any one of these views, but it is to note that belief in an Old Earth is not incompatible in principle with belief in inerrancy and a literal interpretation of Genesis.
(4) There are also known gaps after Genesis. For example, Mathew 1:8 affirms that "Joram begat Uzziah." But in 1 Chronicles 3:11-14 it mentions three missing generations between Joram and Uzziah. Likewise, Luke 3:35-36 lists one missing generation (Cainan) not mentioned in Genesis 11:20-24.
So with both possible and actual demonstrable gaps in Genesis and in the genealogies, the "Closed-Chronology" view needed to support the strict Young Earth view is not there. This would mean that a Young Earth view of creation around 4000 B.C. would not be feasible. And once more gaps are admitted, then when does it cease to be a Young Earth view?
Evidence that the "Days" of Genesis May Involve More than Six 24-hour days of Creation
Not only is it possible that there are time gaps in Genesis 1, but there is also evidence that the "days" of Genesis are not 6 successive 24-hour days, called the Day-Age View (see Hugh Ross, Creation and Time and Don Stoner, A New Look at an Old Earth). Consider the following:
(1) First, the word "day" (Hb. yom) is not limited to a 24-hour day in the creation record. For instance, it is used of 12 hours of light or daytime (in Gen.1:4-5a).
(2) The word "day" is also used of a whole 24-hour day in Genesis 1:5b where it speaks day and night together as a "day."
(3) Further, in Genesis 2:4 the word "day" is used of all six days of creation when it looks back over all six days of creation and affirms: "These are the generations of the heavens and the earth when they were created in the day [yom] that the LORD God made them" (Gen. 2:4).
(4) What is more, on the "seventh day" God "rested" from His work of creation. But according to Hebrews 4:4-11, God is still resting and we can enter into His Sabbath rest (v. 10). So the seventh day of creation rest is still going on some 6,000-plus years later (even by a Young Earth chronology).
(5) Further, there are biblical alternatives to the strongest argument for a 24-hour day. (a) For example, a numbered series with the word "day" (as in Genesis 1) does not always refer to 24-hour days, as Hosea 6:1-2 shows. (b) Also, "evening and morning" sometimes refers to longer periods of time rather than 24 hours, as they do in the prophetic days of Daniel 8:14. (c) And the comparison with the work week in Exodus 20:11 need not be a minute-for-minute but a unit-for-unit parallel. Further, since the seventh day is known to be longer than 24 hours (Heb. 4:4-11), then why can't the other days be longer too. (d) As for death before Adam, the Bible does not say that death of all life was a result of Adam's sin. It only asserts that "death passed upon all men" because of Adam's sin (Rom. 5:12, emphasis added), not on all plants and animals. It only indicates that the whole creation was "subjected to futility" (i.e., to frustration-Rom. 8:20-21).
(6) Others like Hermon Ridderbos (Is There a Conflict Between Genesis 1 and Natural Science?) took the "days" of Genesis as a Literary Framework for the great creative events of the past. Still others (Bernard Ramm, The Christian View of Science and Scripture) considered the "days" of Genesis to be six 24-hour days of revelation (wherein God revealed what he had done in the ancient past to the writer of Genesis) but not literal days of creation. Again, the point here is not to defend these views but to point out that there are alternatives to a Young Earth view, most of which are not incompatible in principle with a belief in the inerrancy of Scripture.
(7) The Relative Time view claims the Earth is both young and old, depending on how it is measured. Gerard Schroeder, a Jewish physicist (in Genesis and the Big Bang), argued that measured by God's time when He created the universe it was only six literal days of creation. But measured by our time, the creation of the universe is billions of years old.
(8) The Apparent Age View proposes that the universe just looks old, even though it is young. The book by Philip Henry Gosse was titled Omphalos (1857), meaning navel, proposing that Adam had a navel, even though he was created as an adult. Likewise, on this view the first trees would have had rings in them the day they were created.
If there is evidence for Gaps in Genesis and a longer period of time involved in the six day of Genesis, then the Young Earth view fails to convincingly support its two pillars. At a minimum it leaves room for reasonable doubt. In view of this, one can ask why is it that many still cling to the Young Earth view with such tenacity as to make it a virtual test for orthodoxy?
A Theological Assumption
For some, the belief in a Young Earth seems to be based on a kind of intuition or faith in what they believe an omnipotent God should do. It reasons that if God is all powerful, then certainly He would not have taken millions of years to make the earth. However, by reduction ad absurdum, one could ask why God did not create it in six minutes or six seconds rather than six days? If He is all-powerful and can make something from nothing, then why did He not create the whole thing lock-stock-and barrel instantaneously!
Furthermore, it is not a question of what God could or should do; it is a question of what God actually did do. And it is presumptuous for a mortal to divine what God should have done.
The Evolutionary Fear
Many Young Earthers seem to be afraid to grant long periods of time for fear that it may help support an evolutionary conclusion. However, this is unnecessary for two reasons. First, time as such does not help evolution. Dropping red, white, and blue confetti from an airplane a thousand feet above the ground will not produce an American flag in one's yard. And going up to ten thousand feet (and giving it more time to fall) will not help. Time as such does not organize things into complex designs; it further randomizes the material. It takes an intelligent cause to form it into an American flag.
Further, separating God's supernatural acts of revelation to Adam, Noah, Abraham, Moses, and the prophets by many hundreds of years does not make them less supernatural. It just makes His revelation progressive over a long period of time. The same could be true of God's acts of creation if they were separated by long periods of time. The space of time between them does not make them less supernatural.
Second, there are plenty of other problems with macro-evolution for it does not explain (without an intervening intelligent cause) how (a) something can come from nothing; b) how non-life cannot come from life; c) how non-consciousness can produce consciousness, and d) how non-rational beings can produce rational beings. Longer periods of time as such do not overcome any of these problems; it takes intelligent intervention to do it.
As we have seen, both premise of the Young Earth view are open to serous objections. There is no air-tight case for a Young Earth view from a biblical point of view. So while a Young Earth may be compatible with inerrancy, nonetheless, inerrancy does not necessitate a belief in a Young Earth.
The Historical Status of the Young Earth Theory
Historically, the Young Earth view has never garnered an important, let alone a crucial role in the history of the Church. It was known to the early Church Fathers (see St. Augustine, City of God 11.6), but it was never made an essential doctrine, let alone given a special status. Indeed, the Old Earth view was never considered to be unorthodox. Nor was it adopted to make room for evolution since it was embraced by St. Augustine (4th century) long before Darwin (19th cent.)
First, Young Earth creationism was never given a creedal status in the early Church. It does not appear in any early creeds or in any other widely accepted creed in the history of Christendom.
Second, it was not even granted an important doctrinal status by the historic Fundamentalists (c. 1900) who stressed the inerrancy of Scripture. That is, it was not accepted or embraced by the Old Princetonians like B. B.Warfield, Charles Hodge, or J. Gresham Machen who also held strongly to inerrancy.
Third, Young Earth creationism is notably absent in the famous four volume series (1910-1915) The Fundamentals: A Testimony to the Truth, edited by R. A. Torrey and C. C. Dixon. In fact, not a single article in this landmark set defends the Young Earth Creationism view. Indeed, all the articles on science and Scripture were written by scholars favorable to an Old Earth view.
Fourth, the founders and framers of the contemporary inerrancy movement (ICBI) of the 1970s and 80s explicitly rejected the Young Earth view as being essential to belief in inerrancy. They discussed it and voted against making it a part of what they believed inerrancy entailed, even though they believed in creation, the "literal" historical-grammatical view of interpreting the Bible, a literal Adam, and the historicity of the early chapters of Genesis. Given this history of the Young Earth view, one is surprised at the zeal by which some Young Earthers are making their position a virtual test for evangelical orthodoxy.
If the Young Earth view is true, then so be it. Let us not forbid the biblical and scientific evidence be offered to support it. Meanwhile, to make it a tacit test for orthodoxy will serve to undermine the faith of many who so closely tie it to orthodoxy that they will have to throw out the baby with the bathwater, should they ever become convinced the earth is old. One should never tie his faith to how old the earth is.
Even if the Young Earth view is shown to be true, it would not thereby earn it a position in the Christian Creeds or the equivalent. This is another matter altogether reserved for truths that are directly essential to the Gospel (see Geisler and Rhodes, Conviction without Compromise). As important as creation is, when speaking of it the earliest creeds declare with The Apostles' Creed only that "I believe in God, the Father Almighty, the Creator of heaven and earth" and nothing about how long ago it happened.
Some Concluding Comments
After seriously pondering these questions for over a half century, my conclusions are:
(1) The Young Earth view is not one of the Fundamentals of the Faith.
(2) It is not a test for orthodoxy.
(3) It is not a condition of salvation.
(4) It is not a test of Christian fellowship.
(5) It is not an issue over which the body of Christ should divide.
(6) It is not a hill on which we should die.
(7) The fact of creation is more important than the time of creation.
(8) There are more important doctrines on which we should focus than the age of the earth (like the inerrancy of the Bible, the deity of Christ, the Trinity, and the death and resurrection of Christ, and His literal Second Coming).
As Repertus Meldenius (d. 1651) put it: "In essentials, unity; in non-essentials, liberty, and in all things charity." And by all counts, the age of the earth is not one of the essentials of the Christian Faith and should not be so used.