Certain debates in the Church consume far more time, effort, and attention than they should. I believe the age of the earth is one of those debates.
For the better part of a hundred and fifty years, Christians have been arguing over exactly how old the world is. While a traditional understanding says that creation is roughly 6000 years old, many in the scientific community argue that the earth has been around for least 4.5 billion years.
In the ensuing debate, young earth theorists say that old earth theorists are anti-bible. And old earth theorists say that young earth theorists are anti-science. And everybody sells tons of books and tickets to conferences.
But what if this question isn’t as life-threatening as we think it is?
The Christian faith can survive and thrive regardless of how old the earth is. This topic is definitely worth discussing and debating. But it should never become a dividing line like it has in so many Christian circles.
Here are 5 reasons why Christians need to stop arguing over the age of the earth as though the faith depends upon it.
1. We don’t actually know.
The simple fact is that we cannot definitively say how old the earth is. I say that as someone who takes the bible as my ultimate authority and source of truth. I believe Genesis 1 is true. But what is Genesis actually saying?
Genesis isn’t a science textbook.
We need to read Genesis 1 literarily rather than literally. Meaning we need to take into account the type of literature the author uses. In technical terms, Genesis 1 is written in elevated prose. Elevated prose isn’t quite a poem, but it is quite poetic. So we can’t take the chapter to be entirely metaphorical. But it isn’t exactly a science textbook either.
We can’t make ironclad scientific arguments based on a text whose point is entirely theological. Genesis was never written to give us scientific facts about the earth and how old it is. So instead of using Genesis 1 as a proof text for scientific claims, we should use it to establish theological arguments.
There’s more than one way to read the Creation Narrative.
What we should also consider is that this text has more than one reasonable interpretation when looking at the 7-day creation in Genesis 1.
The Hebrew word for day–yom–isn’t necessarily 24-hour period. It can be. But it can also refer generally to an age, a particular event, or even a series of events. Old Testament authors often speak of the “Day of the LORD.” This wasn’t necessarily a specific day, but referred to specific actions God would take to judge the wicked and vindicate the righteous.
The 7 days described in Genesis 1 may well be 24-hour periods. After all, they’re described as having evening and then morning like any 24-hour day. But we also have to explain how we had the concept of a 24-hour day on day 1, when the sun (by which we draw the conception of a 24-hour day) wasn’t created until day 4.
On the other hand, the old earth theory also has gaps in its explanations of the earth’s origins and development–such as how we reconcile an older earth with the historical narrative of Adam and Eve. Ultimately, both sides leave questions unanswered.
The science isn’t definitive either.
Brilliantly talented and educated scholars of faith have made compelling arguments for a young earth theory, while others have made an equally compelling case for an old earth theory.
After listening to the lecture of one scholar arguing for a 6000 year-old earth, I can be totally convinced by the evidence presented, only to listen to the lecture of another scholar arguing for a 4.5 billion-year old earth and be equally convinced by that evidence as well. Many times, it comes down to an issue of faith and pre-existing worldview.
All this amounts to the need for humility. Please leave a little space for the remote and unlikely possibility that you’re wrong. And act in charity to those on the other side of the argument.
2. Either way, God still made it.
When we spend all of our time arguing over how God formed creation (or rather when), what we often miss is the simple yet astounding truth that he is the one who made it.
A diatribe never filled anyone with a sense of wonder.
The creation God has made is incredible. It reveals to us so much of who he is. He’s creative. He cares about order, as well as beauty–form and function.
He cares about things as large as the unfathomable order of the cosmos. And he also cares about things as small as the number of legs on an insect and how they help it survive.
This is the God who loves and values you.
This is what Genesis is all about. The God who created all of this is the God who has created humanity in his image. From neutron stars, to misty mountainscapes, to butterflies and bumblebees, none of these are his best work. God’s most important work is us.
This is what King David writes about in Psalm 8.
“When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers,
the moon and the stars, which you have set in place,
what is man that you are mindful of him,
and the son of man that you care for him?”
This is what we ought to spend our time contemplating, discussing, and engaging in passionate discourse about.
3. There are more important hills to die on.
Whether the earth is 6000 years old or 4.5 billion years old, it doesn’t actually make an impact on our day-to-day walk with Jesus. As long as we all agree that God is the Creator of all things and that humanity is created in his image, what difference does it make how long ago it actually happened?
It’s concerning to me that many of us are willing to fight tooth and nail over the age of the earth when it doesn’t affect humanity today either way. And yet the same people remain silent on issues that affect humanity deeply. Issues like,
care for refugees, immigrants, and the impoverished,
the dignity of the unborn,
the need for racial reconciliation,
finding innovative ways to reach the lost,
And there are many more. Some of these issues are highly contentious. That’s true. But we aren’t so worried about being unapologetically contentious when arguing to the death about the age of the earth. Some things are worth being controversial over. The only question is which hills we’re ready to die on.
So why are we more concerned with how old the earth is than we are caring for the people who are living on it? Our energy could be so much better spent.
4. This question can become a false test for spiritual maturity.
In ancient Israel, wars and skirmishes were seemingly a part of everyday living. In one battle between the inhabitants of Gilead and the tribe of Ephraim, the Gileadites had secured a certain portion of land.
But the Ephraimites attempted to sneak back in. So in order to pass through into the encampment, the Gileadites made everyone say the word shibboleth. And because the tribes had differing accents, they were immediately able to tell whose side a person was really on, based on how they said shibboleth. Using this method, the Gileadites quelled a secret invasion.
Too many Christians use their view on the age of the earth as their own modern day shibboleth. “If you were really one of us, you would affirm what we affirm.”
But following Jesus doesn’t require a particular stance on the age of the earth. This is a false test of spiritual maturity that we need to stop inflicting on each other.
5. This question can become an unnecessary stumbling block.
When one of my friends was considering the Christian faith, one of his major stumbling blocks was that he couldn’t, in good conscience, affirm a young earth theory. But depending on who he spoke to, they either implicitly or explicitly told him that this was part of the package of being a Christian. And that gave him serious pause.
When this question becomes a stumbling block that keeps people from Jesus, we’ve seriously lost focus.
Let’s keep the main thing the main thing. This is what Paul argues in his letter to the Corinthians.
“For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures.” (1 Corinthians 15:3-4)
This is what we fight to the death defending. The resurrection of Jesus, not the age of the earth, is where we place our hope. And the best part is that this event is 100 percent historically verifiable.
Free to discuss, not to divide.
None of this means that I think we should stop talking about the age of the earth all-together. That wouldn’t be very intellectually honest of me.
But instead of letting the age of the earth divide us, we should let it activate our faith. Instead of letting this debate provoke a sense of anger and insecurity, let it provoke a sense of wonder and amazement at the mystery of who God is. Let all your unanswered questions fill you with hope and joy rather than fear and hate.
Think about it. We serve a God who is so big that we can spend our entire lives studying what he has created and still not understand it. But what we can understand is that this God loved us enough to invite us into a relationship with him through Jesus.