Scientists say the world is really old, but my Bible teacher says it only appears old -- but it actually young, only 1000s of years old. What is the truth?

You may have noticed that there's no date in Gen 1:1, no footnote telling us the exact year of Creation. What about 4004 BC, the year of creation still occasionally taught in Sunday School curricula? One day I walked into a Sunday School classroom at the church where I was baptized. The building was empty, and a few of us college students had offered to do some cleaning. At the top of the blackboard I read -- to my surprise -- "Creation, 4004 BC."

4004 was the guess of the Irish Archbishop James Ussher (1581-1656), Professor of Theological Controversies at Trinity College in Dublin. By adding genealogies together, he arrived at 4004 BC as the date of Creation, and 2349 BC as the time of Noah’s Flood. Further to this, John Lightfoot, Vice-Chancellor of Cambridge University, supplied the exact time and day: October 23, 9:00 am!

But there are some serious problems with this approach. We sim­ply cannot add genealogies together and arrive at solid dates, since they often skip generations. Furthermore, names sometimes represent entire people groups. Yet even if this methodology were sound, it still isn’t possible to date Gen 1:1, since it precedes the first creation “day.” Finally, there are plenty of written records from Egypt and Mesopotamia from well before 3000 BC, so Ussher’s flood date hardly fits with the facts. For example, the great pyramids of Egypt are some 4500 years old.

Ussher's guess gained traction when the date began to appear under the chapter heading notes for Genesis1 in the King James Version. It does not show up in my oldest KJV, from 1795, but in both of my KJVs from the 1800s the date is visible. In the late 20th century, the NIV overtook the KJV in popularity among English speakers. Yet by this time the impression of a young earth had been bred into Americans (especially) for generation after generation.

Though Ussher’s view has been discredited, there are still a number of Bible believers who remain convinced the earth can­not be more than a few thousand years old. One movement com­mitted to a young age for the earth, and which rejects the currently accepted age of  14.7 billion years for the universe and 4.6 billion years for the earth, is Scientific Creationism. In the view of most scientists this movement is less scientific” and more like a forced interpretation of the Creation and Flood accounts to accommodate preconceived religious notions.

It may be asked why so few biologists and other scientists whose expertise lies in the fields critiqued by Creation Science bother to respond to their claims. I think this is due not so much to intimidation as to inability to see any benefit in entering the discussion. For an exception to the tendency for professional scientists to bother answering cre­ationist arguments, see Laurie R. Godrey, ed., Scientists Confront Creationism (New York: W. W. Norton, 1983).

So are the creationists right? Is the earth only a few thousand years old? Are most scientists fundamentally in error as to their conclusions about fossils and the age of the universe? If they are right, why does our world give every appearance of being ancient? Did God perhaps have good reasons for allowing the cosmos to exist for eons before the earth formed, so that everything would be ready when the first humans appeared?

Our cosmos requires billions of years:

  • To expand to a sufficiently large volume that it would not col­lapse under the force of its own gravity
  • To expand to a size large enough for heat and radiation not to kill all (future) living creatures.
  • For the formation of stars, which are basically ovens where nuclear fusion produced heaver and heavier elements. The 92 naturally occurring elements (from hydrogen to uranium), are formed in stellar nuclei.
  • For stars to run their course, and those exploding into super­novae to disseminate the contents of their nuclei throughout the universe.
  • For planetary formation to take place.

For this argument l am indebted to C. S. Lewis, who developed this line of thought in several of his books and essays. Yet it does seem that God’s normal way of working is through pro­longed processes. Second, the ancient earth was not fit for man’s arrival on the scene. Billions of years were required. Follow the stimulating discussion of this theme throughout Michael Denton’s Nature’s Destiny: How the Laws of Biology Reveal Purpose in the Universe (New York: The Free Press, 1998).

Now couldn’t God have created everything instantly, even or "fast-forward­ed" the process in the interests of saving time? Of course he could (Psalms 115:3). The real debate isn't over how powerful God is. It's about how we should interpret scripture.

For the earth’s atmosphere to form

  • To arrive at the right balance between land and ocean and for the sustainability of stable meteorology on the planet.
  • For volcanism to bring the heavier elements (metals) from the core of the earth toward the surface for metallurgical purpose. Man is unique in his technological ability.4
  • For ancient fauna and (especially) flora to be converted into fossil fuels.
  • For various evolutionary processes to run their course in pro­viding a physical body suited to man’s aptitudes and purpose.

The appropriate  question is not “What could God have done?” but “What did he do?” Ours does not appear to be a young earth, but rather a very old one. Were it a little younger, there would be no advanced life on the planet.

Some Dating Methods

  • Dendrochronology (counting tree rings) -- reaches back over 12,000 years.
  • Stalagmites (in caves) -- takes us back 40,000 years.
  • Glacial core samples (Arctic or Antarctic) -- provides over 100,000 years of history.
  • Sedimentation (oceanic) -- goes back 1,000,000s of years.
  • Radiometric dating (based on half-lives of isotopes) -- 1,000,000s and even 1,000,000,000s of years.

For more on determining the age of the earth, see Alan Hayward, Creation and Evolution: The Facts and the Fallacies. London: Triangle, 1985.

But what about next objection? Sometimes it is argued that God created the earth with an appearance of age. The “Omphalos Theory,” popularized by Gosse in 1857, is named after the Greek word for “navel,” omphalos. Since, it is claimed, Adam was formed as a fully adult male, he had a belly button. He may have appeared to be 25 or 30 years old, but in fact he was only seconds old. The first trees of Eden, by the same token, may have had tree rings (annual growth rings). Simply put, God made the earth with a built-in appearance of age.

But there is a problem here. Scientific evidence cannot be claimed for both a young earth and an appearance of age, which is precisely what the young earth advocates are doing. There should be no shred of evidence for a “young earth” if the Omphalos Theory is correct. Other creationists agree that the fossils indeed appear ancient, but God may have put them in the ground to test us, or harden the unbelievers. Yet such an approach seems to make God a party to deceit, the Bible says one thing, yet the physical world -- to which the Bible encourages us to look in order to appreciate the Lord and his works says another. And yet the Scriptures affirm over and over that God reveals truth through the creation (Psalm 19:1; Romans 1:20). You just cannot have it both ways.

We should not forget that even before Darwin (The Origin of Species was published in 1859), most geologists and churchmen alike already believed in an ancient earth, based on the fossil evidence and the geologic column. There are many methods one can use to show that the earth is far older than a few thousand years, including the evidence from the science of genetics, and the inter­ested reader can pursue this further.

Some believers reason, "If God did it, it would happen instantaneously, since God is all-powerful." But must it really be instantaneous? Would it really be less miraculous if the universe and the earth and even life developed in stages? God’s usual way is actually to work through processes, not instantaneous fiat (commanded) creation.

For example, God gives us children, yet there is still a nine-month waiting period. Or consider character change, which comes about slowly (Romans 5:3-4). What would there be to endure, if every trial lasted just moments? (Can you imagine God saying, “You don't need to diet—just fast for five minutes and you’ll lose all your excess weight,” or “Hang on now, if you persevere for four seconds you’ll  transformed into a mature, patient, and winsome individual”?) Creation is no less creation just because it occurs over a period of time.

The verb for divine creating, bara', doesn't require lightning speed. This is the word used in Isaiah 43:1 of the creation of Israel -- a process that took many centuries, from their entrance into Egypt till their emerge as a nation with its own laws, and later, land.

In short, nothing in Scripture or Nature -- the fruit of biblical or scientific study -- supports the theory of the young earth.

For more on this, I have provided a select bibliography. (A fuller bibliography will be found in the Recommended Reading section under Books & More at the homepage.)

  • Applegate, Kathryn and J. B. Stump, How I Changed my Mind about Evolution: Evangelicals Reflect on Faith and Science. Downers Grove, Illinois, 2016.
  • Colling, Richard G., Random Designer: Created from Chaos to Connect with the Creator. Bourbonnais, Illinois: Browning Press, 2004.
  • Collins, Francis S., The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Faith. New York: Free Press, 2006.
  • Denton, Michael J., Nature’s Destiny: How the Laws of Biology Reveal Purpose in the Universe. New York: The Free Press, 1998.
  • Fairbanks, Daniel J., Relics of Eden: the Powerful Evidence of Evolution in Human DNA. New York: Prometheus, 2007.
  • Falk, Darrel R., Coming to Peace with Science: Bridging the Worlds Between Faith and Biology.
  • Glover, Gordon J., Beyond the Firmament: Understanding Science and the Theology of Creation. Chesapeake, Virginia: Watertree Press, 2007.
  • Gonzalez, Guillermo and Jay Richards, The Privileged Planet: How Our Place in the Cosmos is Designed for Discovery.
  • Hayward, Alan, Creation and Evolution: The Facts and the Fallacies. London: Triangle, 1985.
  • Lamoureux, Denis O., Evolutionary Creation: A Christian Approach to Evolution. Eugene, Oregon: Wipf & Stock, 2008.
  • Miller, Kenneth R., Finding Darwin’s God: A Scientist’s Search for Common Ground between God and Evolution. New York: Harper Perennial, 1999.
  • Moreland, J.P. and John Mark Reynolds, eds., Three Views on Creation and Evolution. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1999.
  • Numbers, Ronald L., The Creationists: The Evolution of Scientific Creationism. Berkeley: University California Press, 1992.
  • Polkinghorne, John, Faith, Science and Understanding. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2011.