I believe in the divine plenary verbal inspiration of the Bible and also have a doctorate in Theoretical Physics. I have spent a lot of time thinking about the question of the origin of life and the age of the earth. To be honest, I have to say that I find overwhelming scientific evidence for a universe that is 13.8 odd billion years old, and an earth that is about 4.5 billion years old. I also have to admit that I do not have a detailed way to reconcile the Bible and science regarding this matter to my complete satisfaction. On the other hand, neither do I find any blatant contradictions between the Bible and science. So I am at present content with not having all the answers. It is not a stretch for me to believe that there does exist a perfect reconciliation between the Bible and true science, even if I do not fully understand it right now. However, I do have a concern with the dogmatism expressed by “young-earth creationists” (by this term, I mean those who believe that our earth is just a few thousand years old and that God created the universe in 6 literal days). I also find a disturbing dishonesty in some of the things that they say and write, which I believe is doing much damage, by reducing the credibility that Christians have in the world today. Let me clarify what I mean.
The Scientific Method
All of Science is strictly speaking, “theory” and not “fact”. There is a level of humility in submission to observable experimental evidence that says that if a new observation does not fit existing scientific theory, then the scientific theory needs to be modified or recognized as incomplete, until the new evidence has a satisfactory explanation. So for example, early astronomers were able to explain the motion of stars and planets in the night sky by using a complicated model where the sun, stars and planets revolved around the earth. However with Kepler’s more accurate measurements, the theory had to be modified to one where the sun lies at the center of our solar system. Then Isaac Newton formulated his brilliant mathematical laws of motion and gravity that explained planetary motion and all the other known phenomena. Newton’s theory, known as Classical Physics, held sway until the end of the 19th century. However in the late 1800’s some new experiments were performed that defied explanation. This is what led to the revolutionary new theories of Quantum Physics, Relativity and Einstein’s Theory of Gravity, which not only explained everything that Classical Physics could explain, but also all the new experimental data, with remarkable mathematical precision. These theories also made new testable predictions, some of which were extremely non-intuitive. The predictions were soon tested and verified. So currently we have excellent working theories that can explain all known phenomena. However, there do exist some perplexing logical paradoxes without good solutions. There are also theoretical inconsistencies between Quantum Physics and Einstein’s Theory of Gravity at the tiniest length scales. Thus scientists believe that our current understanding of the fundamental laws of the nature is still incomplete, and research in this area is still very active.
The young earth creationist Ken Ham writes about “Operational (Observational) Theory” and “Historical (Origins) Theory“. This is a very artificial distinction. For example, we find this statement in the Answers In Genesis website: “All interpretations (theories) of the past [i.e. Historical Theory] are based on assumptions and cannot be equated with facts that are observable in the present [that is, Operational Theory]”. Ham is saying that if something cannot be observed, then we cannot be sure that it is true. Therefore our knowledge regarding past events cannot be made very confidently by science, simply because those events happened in the past. This statement is not true. By Ham’s argument, since no one has ever seen an electron our confidence in its existence should be tenuous at best. However no scientist would say that there is even a remote possibility that electrons do not exist. The fact is that even if something is not directly observable, its effects can be. The theory of electron existence is the best theory that explains all the phenomena that we now attribute to the effects of electrons, so we accept the theory without claiming that we need to actually see electrons to believe in them. It doesn’t even seem to bother anyone that according to the theory they are so tiny that we will never be able to see them. Science is a structured attempt to rigorously solve the complicated jig-saw puzzle of everything we observe in nature today – and we have tools that can probe the furthest reaches of the universe, and the innermost structure of atoms. Scientists believe that everything we observe is a consequence of simple so-called “fundamental laws of nature”. The remarkable fact is that with the large amount of data we have collected, the fundamental laws of nature as we understand them today, have a deep intrinsic mathematical elegance and simplicity. (Side note: personally, this leads me to worship God for His tremendous wisdom, because God created these laws as well. Science gives me new insights into the awesome majesty of God).
Thus for example, to simply dismiss the theory of evolution saying “No one has observed it” is a dishonest play on words and is not consistent with what true science is.
Order cannot come out of Disorder. Really?
A common argument is that life has a lot of structure, and that the “Second Law of Thermodynamics” says that everything tends towards decay, so evolution fundamentally contradicts this well established law of Physics, because the order we see today could not have come from disorder all by itself.
Well, this is not true. Consider a snowflake. Anyone who has seen one under a microscope (or seen a picture of one) sees amazing symmetry and structure in it. This structure arose out of many molecules of water that evaporated from earth’s lakes and oceans, and then condensed in the clouds above. Similarly, if we plant a seed on the ground, it grows into a plant with beautiful flowers and fruit. This plant exists because the seed we planted was able to absorb water, air and nutrients from the soil and the atmosphere, and the resulting growth that ensued could process sunlight through photosynthesis. Both of these are examples of how tremendous order can arise out of total initial disorder. The truth is, that the Second Law of Thermodynamics only applies to a “Closed System”, and our earth is not a Closed System, because it gets a lot of heat and light energy from the sun. So the theory of evolution in itself does not violate the Second Law of Thermodynamics.
What about Evidence Indicating an Old Universe and an Old Earth?
There are galaxies and other objects in the universe that we believe to be billions of light years away from us. This means that the light that reaches us from them had originally left them billions of years ago. In other words, those galaxies we see today are in fact what they looked like billions of years ago, which in turn implies that they existed billions of years ago. Similarly we can look at stalactites and stalagmites in many caves, the relative composition of radioactive elements in a rock sample, the tectonic plate structure of the earth’s crust, extensive fossil deposits, and the list goes on. There is a mountain of evidence that points to a universe that is about 13.8 billion years old, and an earth that is about 4.5 billion years old.
When young earth creationists are confronted with this kind of evidence that indicates an old universe or an old earth, there are usually one of two kinds of responses:
- God could have miraculously made the universe and the earth appear old. For example, He could have accelerated the speed of light so that these distant objects appear to be much older than they actually are. After all, didn’t God create Adam as a grown man appearing to be perhaps in his twenties when he was only a day old? The Bible says that nothing is impossible with God.
Regarding this argument, my response would be: “Yes, nothing is impossible with God. However, since God is the God of truth, does it seem consistent with His nature that He would make a young universe appear to be so incredibly old?”. This would then lead me to a more serious charge. “Please stop saying that your young-earth hypothesis is scientific. You have explained away observed evidence that does not fit your theories, by saying God could have done a miracle. So you have gone outside the realm of science and your position is therefore not scientific.”
A second argument that is pretty common goes along the following lines:
- There are assumptions made for the age calculation that may not be true.
Regarding this, we need remind ourselves regarding what the scientific method really is. Anyone who makes the argument about possible false assumptions has the “burden of proof” to come up with a theory that would provide a different age calculation for every disparate source of evidence that appears to indicate otherwise, yet should also continue to explain every other known fact. Such a theory would be radically different from the fundamental scientific laws of nature as we understand them today, so that is an extremely tall order. Yes – the evidence for an old universe and an old earth are so overwhelming that to overturn all of it would require a complete rewrite of all of modern Physics.
There have been papers published by young-earth creationists that attempt to deal with some isolated phenomena, not recognizing (or ignoring) the cumulative and consistent support from multiple scientific disciplines that would need to be explained if their theses are true. These kinds of papers usually have such blatantly inaccurate statements and/or false claims that they do not make it into any well-established peer-reviewed scientific journal. In fact, most scientists consider it a waste of time to even engage these people in debate.
Old Earth, Evolution and the Bible
Many young-earth creationists claim that if one does not believe in a young earth and a literal 6 day creation,one cannot believe the things the Bible has to say about Jesus and salvation? Thus they make their interpretation of Genesis a critical requirement of true faith. There are a couple comments I would like to make regarding this:
- Usually when the word ‘evolution” is used in science, it describes the details of a certain process. Strictly speaking this has no bearing on the existence of God because the scientific method by definition does not deal with the issue of God’s existence. This is why there are many scientists who are believing Christians who do not find any conflict between their faith in a Creator God, and evolution. The following statement is often made by young earth creationists: “Darwin’s theory has been rejected by most modern scientists today”. It is true that the details of the mechanism in Darwin’s initial theory has changed with our increased understanding of genetic structure. However, the core concepts are still currently almost universally accepted. So here, the statement causes the general reader to understand it with a much broader brush stroke – which makes it a falsehood. Incidentally, evolution has actually been observed in the lab, consistent with modern genetic theory. For example, when a cold virus resists our antibiotic medication, it is because the virus has literally evolved into a different strain that is resistant to those antibiotics. The new strain could be one that has never existed before. This has led young earth creationists to make a distinction between “micro” and “macro” evolution, and they argue that “macro” evolution (i.e., evolution that changes one species into another) has never been observed. It is true that evolution from one species to another has not been observed, but this can be explained by the same mechanisms that have successfully predicted and verified micro-evolution. The predicted time-frames this mechanism would require for macro-evolution is longer than the few thousand years of known world history, and is therefore consistent with the fact that it has not been observed. Incidentally, the words the Bible uses about the origins of life on earth: “Let the earth sprout” (Gen 1:11) . “Let the waters swarm” (Gen 1:20) and “Let the earth bring forth” (Gen 1:24) is not inconsistent with God using some evolutionary process to make it happen.
- There are several alternate interpretations of Genesis 1 and 2 that allow for an old earth and a longer creation period. Some of these views are held by conservative Christian scholars and pastors. To go into more detail would be beyond the scope of this article. Suffice to say that I myself do not see the creation story as an open-and-shut case for a young earth and a literal 6 day creation. For more information, I would recommend reading the study notes on Genesis in the ESV Study Bible. These represent a balanced and accurate summary of various conservative evangelical views on these issues.
Science is our ally and not our enemy. Scientists desire to know truth about how the universe runs. Christians also desire to know a different aspect of truth that deals more with the “why” questions of our existence, and we believe that the Bible is the inerrant revelation of God. Ultimately truth by definition is consistent, so true science will never contradict the correctly interpreted truth of the Bible. What is fundamental to our faith is that God is the Creator of the universe and that God created mankind “in His image” starting with our first human parents Adam and Eve. This puts us in a different category to every other living creature on earth. Details regarding the age of the earth or the time-frames for the origin-of-life are secondary. Our unique status before God is outside the realm of science but does not contradict it. Evolution does not irrefutably imply that God does not exist, or that He did not direct the process in some way. Christians can be enriched by learning about our universe and the wisdom of God who created it, whether or not our universe is old, and whether or not God somehow used the process of evolution to bring about life as we know it.
So isn’t it time for us to stop wasting our energy on useless debates, or preposterously claiming that there is a giant conspiracy by scientists to expel God? In reality there are believing Christians in every scientific discipline (albeit a minority). While science cannot answer questions about God one way or another, the Bible does, because God has chosen to reveal Himself there. Yes there is a God who is the Creator of the entire universe. This God wants us to know that He created us “in His image” because He desires us to have a loving relationship with Him. Although we followed our first parents in rebellion against God, in His mercy He sent Jesus His only Son to die on the cross in our place and for our sins. Jesus rose again victorious on the third day, and freely offers us forgiveness for our sins and a restored relationship with God that can begin now, and will continue into all eternity. What an extraordinary gift this is! Let us not get distracted from sharing this amazing news. Let us allow scientists to do what they are eminently well qualified to do, and let us Christians not make naive statements in our ignorance, that undermine our own credibility. Rather, let us have a laser focus on doing what Jesus has commissioned us to do – to spread the stupendous good news about Jesus to a world that desperately needs Him but does not realize it.