A Conversation with a Young-earth Creationist

Here is a second question from the reader whose first question I addressed in my last post. This one is in response to my book Paradigms on Pilgrimage: Creationism, Paleontology, and Biblical Interpretation, which I co-authored with Dr. Stephen J. Godfrey.  (The book is now available free online through the link provided.) The question has several parts, which I’ll take up separately. It has been edited for length.

• Do you believe that holding to “apparent age” (rather than real age) intimates that God is deceitful?

This question addresses the possibility that God created the world only recently, but gave it the appearance of great age.  I’ve heard this argument advanced by young-earth creationists to account for why scientific investigation in fields such as geology, astronomy, etc. concludes that the earth is billions of years old:  it  looks that way, for some reason, by God’s design.  After all, the argument continues, Adam and Eve each appeared, at the moment of their being freshly created, as if they had grown to adulthood over a period of many years.  I’ve even heard it said, in an extreme form of this argument that I recognize you are not suggesting, that God made the world look old so that those who chose not to believe the Scriptures (which are assumed to teach a literal six-day creation about 6,000 years ago) would be deceived by what their eyes and eventual scientific instruments saw, and they would suffer the ironic punishment of thinking they knew the truth while all the time they were believing a lie.

Let me state very plainly that this is not the kind of God I believe in.  As my co-author and I say in Paradigms on Pilgrimage, God has filled creation with marvelous things for us humans to explore, and we can do this without ever having to wonder whether we can really trust what our eyes are seeing and our instruments are detecting.  So yes, I would say that the “apparent age” position does imply, at least to me, that God is deceitful.

• In Christianity and the Age of the Earth, Davis A. Young asserts that “in spite of frequent interpretations of Genesis 1 that departed from the rigidly literal, the almost universal view of the Christian world until the eighteenth century was that the Earth was only a few thousand years old.” Do you think these many followers of Christ were “deceived” by Scripture into believing a young-earth view?

The reason why people universally believed in a young earth before the 18th century was that until that time, they were limited to the same observational world view and cosmology as the biblical authors.  And so it wasn’t a matter of scientific or pre-scientific investigations saying one thing and the Bible saying something else (and so “deceiving” people).

What’s far more important is that, by Young’s own account, Christian interpreters of Genesis made “frequent” departures from a “literal” view.  Young-earth creationism is inextricably linked to a literal view of Genesis.  But insisting on this view is the modern innovation.  The Christian tradition offers a rich variety of non-literal interpretations, along with evidence of literal ones.

Augustine, for example, argues in The City of God that the works of creation “are recorded to have been completed in six days (the same day being six times repeated) because six is a perfect number—not because God required a protracted time, as if He could not at once create all things . . . but because the perfection of the works was signified by the number six.”  Augustine also argues that time had to have been created simultaneously with the world whose creation is measured by time, a paradox that leads him to conclude, “What kind of days these were it is extremely difficult, or perhaps impossible for us to conceive, and how much more to say!”

So an appeal to the earlier Christian tradition does not reveal a long line of people who chose to believe in a literal reading of Genesis despite the evidence of science.  Rather, it introduces us to an ongoing conversation about that book among faithful people who held a variety of positions on how literally its details should be taken.

• Jesus, speaking of himself in the third person, said, “At the beginning the Creator ‘made them male and female.’” At the beginning—not 4.6 billion years later. Was Jesus being “deceitful”? He, the Creator, was there.

Actually, in this passage, Jesus is not appealing to his own firsthand knowledge of the events of creation, but to the Scriptural account of creation, by quoting from Genesis.  He says to the Pharisees who have come to test him on the question of divorce, “Have you not read that at the beginning the Creator ‘made them male and female’?”  The main point of this passage is to teach about the permanence of marriage in God’s design, not about the age of the earth.  Any inferences we draw about that latter question must be secondary.  And even so, we should take Jesus’ reference as applying to the beginning of the human race, the time when marriage was instituted, not to the original creation of the physical world.  So the issue of how long the world was around before humans were is not really relevant to this passage.

• I believe also that the Lord gave the Ten Commandments to Moses. The “six days” of Creation are related to sabbath observance (“the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God, on it you shall not do any work . . . for in six days the Lord made the heavens and the earth“). It is obvious that God did not intend for Jews to work for six thousand or million years and then rest for one thousand or million years. Creation chronology parallels sabbath chronology.

I think it’s more accurate to say that, at least according to the book of Exodus, sabbath chronology is intended to parallel creation chronology.  There are to be six days of work, and then a day of rest, because that’s how God did it, according to Genesis.  It is quite clear that Moses has literal days in mind for the Israelites to work and then rest.  But this is not dependent on the days of creation also being 24 hours long. The sabbath commandment echoes the phrasing of the Genesis creation account in several places, so it is clearly intending to draw an analogy there.  All we need to know is that there are six “days” of some sort in that account, followed by a “day” of rest, in order to draw an analogy to literal days in human living.  The Genesis days aren’t required to be literal days in God’s activity as well for the analogy to work.

We should also note that the sabbath commandment has a different rationale in Deuteronomy:  “Observe the Sabbath day by keeping it holy, as the Lord your God has commanded you. . . . Remember that you were slaves in Egypt and that the Lord your God brought you out of there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm.”  So the biblical grounds for “sabbath chronology” are not exclusively “creation chronology.”  The sabbath is observed for reasons that grow in variety and richness as God’s redemptive purposes continue to unfold.  By the time of the New Testament, the sabbath can even be observed by “honoring all days alike” just as much as by “considering one day more sacred than another.”

Thank you very much for your interesting questions!

Jan Brueghel the Elder, “The Creation of the World.” Brueghel portrays God as creating everything at once, as Augustine suggests God may actually have done.

Author: Christopher R Smith

The Rev. Dr. Christopher R. Smith is an an ordained minister, a writer, and a biblical scholar. He was active in parish and student ministry for twenty-five years. He was a consulting editor to the International Bible Society (now Biblica) for The Books of the Bible, an edition of the New International Version (NIV) that presents the biblical books according to their natural literary outlines, without chapters and verses. His Understanding the Books of the Bible study guide series is keyed to this format. He was also a consultant to Tyndale House for the Immerse Bible, an edition of the New Living Translation (NLT) that similarly presents the Scriptures in their natural literary forms, without chapters and verses or section headings. He has a B.A. from Harvard in English and American Literature and Language, a Master of Arts in Theological Studies from Gordon-Conwell, and a Ph.D. in the History of Christian Life and Thought, with a minor concentration in Bible, from Boston College, in the joint program with Andover Newton Theological School.

3 thoughts on “A Conversation with a Young-earth Creationist”

  1. I agree with all your main conclusions.

    In your discussion on Matt 19:3-12 you say: “The main point of this passage is to teach about the permanence of marriage in God’s design, not about the age of the earth.” I am not sure if you know this, but there is a teaching that all marriages are permanent and therefore all divorces, even for valid reasons found in Scripture, are invalid; I hope you do not believe this. In my understanding and the way I would word it is as follows: Marriage is a covenant which is terminated by either death or divorce; God’s perfect will is that it be ended by death and not divorce, but that God in his permissive will allows divorce for cause (violation of marriage vows).

    1. I basically agree with what you say here, with the one caveat that I think in recent years we have become too ready to accept and even encourage divorce in cases where there might still be hope for the marriage. I will soon post in response to a question I’ve received, “Biblically, may an abused wife divorce her husband?” In that post I’ll share some more thoughts about the possible dissolubility of marriage, from what I believe to be a biblical perspective.

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