Dr. Albert Mohler – Why does the Universe look so Old?
I want to preserve the transcript of Dr. Albert Mohler’s speech at the 2010 Ligonier Conference.
A Transcript from the Ligonier Ministries 2010 National Conference Live Webcast
It is extremely assuring to see this room filled at this hour on a Saturday morning of people here to seek Biblical truth on any number of questions. This conference has hopefully drawn us to some of the most pressing questions that Christians face, the tough questions. It is an honor to be here as always with my dear friend Dr. R.C. Sproul, with so many others, all these speakers, and the dear colleagues in the fight of the faith in coming to understand the great truths of the Christian faith and how these might most helpfully be applied in the confrontation with the questions of contemporary life. For so many years Ligonier Ministries and R.C. Sproul have demonstrated that you really can teach the deep things of the Christian faith to a church and to Christians in the late 20th and 21st centuries. We are indebted to a model of such faithful teaching and it is on the basis of that, it is driven by years and years of ministry, it is living in the surplus of all of that teaching that we are able to be here today in this conference to ask these questions. And our absolute confidence is that there is no question Christians need fear. There are only questions we need to learn how to answer. This is a tough one. My assignment: Why Does the Universe Look So Old?
Well, we have limited options. Number one: Maybe the universe looks so old because it is so old. Option number two: Maybe the universe looks very old, but it is not actually so old as it looks. There could be perhaps a third option or any number of derivatives in which you simply say, “We can’t answer the question.” Or there would be some who would say, “The question isn’t important.” Now I’m going to suggest to you this morning that the question is extremely important and that it is one for which we must be ready to give an answer.
I want to invite you to turn with me to Genesis chapter one. We dare not seek to answer this question without first looking to the Word of God. [Reads Genesis 1, 2:1-3]. This is the Word of the Lord. What we have here in Genesis 1:1 – 2:3 is a sequential pattern of creation, a straightforward plan, a direct reading of the text would indicate to us seven 24-hour days, six 24-hour days of creative activity and a final day of divine rest. This was the untroubled consensus of the Christian church until early in the 19th century. It was not absolutely unanimous. It was not always without controversy. But it was the overwhelming, untroubled consensus of the church, until the dawn of the 19th century.
Four great challenges to the traditional reading of Genesis have emerged in the last 200 years or so. The first of these is the discovery of the geological record. Early in the 19th century, building upon discoveries made in the late 18th century, there became an awareness of fossils that appeared to be telling a story especially in that period of time. In the wake of the enlightenment – when expeditions were going to far corners of the earth for the first time, in the discovery of so many things that were new and unknown – the knowledge of a fossil record and various strata of fossil deposits became known. And that knowledge began to prey upon the minds of those who had been raised in a Christian culture, been taught Christian truths, and who had assumed that Genesis is the great historical account of how the world came to be. The second great challenge was the emergence of Darwin’s theory of evolution. Coming at the midpoint of the 19th century, we need to be reminded that Darwin was not the first evolutionist. We need to be reminded that Darwin did not embark upon the Beagle having no preconceptions of what exactly he was looking for or having no theory of how life emerged in all of its diversity, fecundity, and specialization. Darwin left on his expedition to prove the theory of evolution. A theory that was based upon the fossil record and other inferences had already been able to take the hold of some in Western civilization. The dawn of the theory of evolution presents a direct challenge to the traditional interpretation of Genesis and, as we shall see, to much more. (10:55)
The third great challenge in terms of the traditional understanding of Genesis came with the discovery of ancient near eastern parallels to the Genesis account. Once these ancient parallels became known, the Enuma Elish, the Epic of Gilgamesh, scholars began to look at these documents and then to look at Genesis and begin to see Genesis as just one more of these ancient near eastern creation accounts.
The fourth great challenge to the traditional interpretation of Genesis was the development of higher criticism, and in particular the development of the documentary hypothesis—a hypothesis and an approach to the Old Testament, in particular to the Pentateuch, that sought to establish different strata, different sources and to take the text apart, treating it as a merely human document and seeking to look at dependence and borrowings and polemics and literary styles.
These four movements together were devastating in terms of the larger Western consciousness to the traditional interpretation of Genesis. When you add together fossils, Darwin, ancient near eastern parallels, and the documentary hypothesis, you have a brew for a massive shift in understanding. Now when we ask the question, “Why does the universe look so old?” we’re asking it over against these challenges, and to each of those we will return. But first we need to define some terms.
If we’re talking about why the universe looks so old we need to ask the question just how old supposedly does the universe look? It’s fascinating when you look at the historical development of this question, that the expanse of time has grown exponentially once persons began to ask this question and to detach it from the Biblical reality. Just on the basis of scientific of phenomenological observation the age of the earth has been getting older and older. The scientific consensus right now is that earth, planet earth and this particular solar system, is approximately 4.5 billion years old. That’s billion with a “b.” The age of the universe is now established by scientific consensus to be about 13.5 billion years old. The distinction between the age of the universe and the age of the earth having to do with the age of the universe being tracked back to the hypothetical emergence of the Big Bang and with the radiological data and with the physical extrapolation about the expansion of the universe, the assumption is that it would have taken 13.5 billion years to have created this universe looking at the radiometric data that is found here on the planet and in particular that has shifted amongst scientists now more towards the debris from meteorites rather than anything that was considered to have emerged from within the earth itself. The estimation is it’s 4.5 billion years old.
Now just to place ourselves in the historical and intellectual context of our question, here’s what we’re really looking at. The inference and consensus of the church, through all of these centuries, that the earth and the universe, the cosmos as a whole, is very young, talking about a limitation of only several thousand years by the time you take the book of Genesis and especially its first eleven chapters, and you look at the creation account and you look at the genealogy and you add it all together you’re looking at no more than several thousand years. We’re talking about a disagreement that is not slight. The difference between several thousand years and 13.5 billion years is no small matter and I would argue it comes with huge theological consequences.
One of the assumptions you need to have in mind in terms of the assumption about the age of the earth that the scientific assumption comes down to this: uniformitarianism. The assumption that is crucial to establishing the age of the earth is based upon an intellectual assumption that was made in the early 19th century by Charles Lyell and others called uniformitarianism which assumes that the way we observe processes now is a constant guide to how physical processes always have operated. Thus a steady state of understanding physical processes is what we’re talking about as the secular scientific assumption. We gauge these things and measure these extrapolated billions of years based upon the assumption, the scientists will tell us, that things as they are now are as they have always been in terms of physical processes.
Now with that as intellectual background, what’s the urgency of the question? Why are we here at this meeting asking the question “Why does the universe look so old?” Is this an urgent question? Is it one that calls us to account? The answer to that has to be yes. And there are some recent developments that indicate again and again and anew why it is so. The controversy concerning Bruce Waltke, who even in recent months became a focus of controversy after making a video where he argued that, unless evangelical Christians come to terms with accepting the theory of evolution, we will be reduced to the status of a theological and intellectual cult. The urgency of this question and the demand for an answer comes over against what is pressed upon us with the definition of the assured results of modern science. Constantly we are addressed with the fact that science has now presented us with a knowledge, with an assured confident knowledge, to which we must give an answer. William Dembski in a recent book, borrowing from Cambridge philosopher Simon Blackburn, speaks of our current mental environment defined in this way. He says, “Our mental environment is the surrounding climate of ideas by which we make sense of the world.” As professor Dembski makes clear in his argument, the current mental environment in which we move and live and speak and communicate and preach and bear witness to the Gospel, is a mental environment that is shaped by the intellectual assumption that the world is very old. To speak in confrontation to that current mental environment, it is implied, comes at a significant cost. The old earth, it is suggested, and old being 4.5 billion years old for the solar system and 13.5 billion years for the universe, is simply part of that mental environment.
An even greater urgency is pressed upon us by the emergence of the new atheism—Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens, three of these four horsemen of the new atheism are scientists, two of them have made their reputation in the defense of the most extreme and yet now commonly held forms of evolutionary theory in terms of the scientific academy.
Richard Dawkins is the author of the book The Selfish Gene and it is Richard Dawkins who has suggested that Darwinism is what allowed him to become an intellectually fulfilled atheist. In their new argument very forcefully put forth, they are arguing that evolution is the final nail in the coffin of theism. And they are making the claim that the assured findings and conclusions of modern science make not only the book of Genesis, but theism, untenable. In his new book, The Greatest Show on Earth, Richard Dawkins goes so far as to suggest that deniers of evolutionary theory should be as intellectually scorned and marginalized as Holocaust deniers. Evolution, he says, is a theory only by arcane scientific definition. It is a fact—a fact he says no intelligent person can deny. We have the emergence of the evolutionary worldview and its hegemony in the larger intellectual elites.
The new atheism comes along with Daniel Dennett and his book Darwin’s Dangerous Idea suggesting that evolution is what he calls the universal acid. I have to tell you, every middle school boy knows exactly what he is talking about. Daniel Dennett talks about when he was in middle school and he imagined a universal acid. This is an acid that would be so powerful that nothing could contain it. You put the acid in the container, it consumes the container. You then find that it consumes the entire classroom as it breaks out of the laboratory. Then it consumes the entire school—every middle school boy’s dream! Then it continues to consume, and to consume, and to consume until eventually nothing remains. Daniel Dennett says that science has never discovered an actual acid with that physical property, but he suggests that Darwin’s theory of evolution is the intellectual equivalent of a universal acid. It destroys everything in its wake. It completely redefines every understanding of life and its meaning. And I would argue that in that sense he is right.
Darwinist evolution is the great destroyer of meaning. Not only the meaning of the book of Genesis, but of almost every dimension of life. The background of this is also panic among the cultural and intellectual elites. In the United States and increasingly in Great Britain and in Europe and beyond, the intellectual elites are absolutely frantic. They’re scratching their heads in incredulity. How is it that after the Darwinist revolution, after the hegemony of evolutionary theory in the sciences, a majority of Americans still reject the theory of evolution? It is driving them to distraction. My favorite illustration of this is from the year 2003 when Nicholas Kristof wrote an article about the virgin birth of Christ in his column in the New York Times. And he said—as I paraphrase him—I am absolutely frightened to live in a society where there are more people who believe in the historicity of the virgin birth than in the reality of evolution. Well “wake up columnist Kristof!” It’s not just in America. Creationism and the rejection of evolution is not losing ground in Britain and in Europe, it is gaining ground. And intellectual elites on both sides of the Atlantic are in sheer panic. How can these things be?(22:00)
It’s not just panic amongst the cultural elites in the secular world however. It is also panic among the theologians. There is the warning from Professor Waltke, that if we do not get with the program we will be marginalized as a cult. There are the warnings of people like Peter Enns, the website BioLogos—a movement started by Francis Collins, now the director of the National Institutes of Health under President Obama, formerly the head of the Human Genome Project, the author of the book The Language of God in which he makes his own argument that, unless we get with the program, we are going to be intellectually marginalized. And Francis Collins makes the point made by so many others that we will actually lose credibility sharing the Gospel of Christ if we do not shed ourselves of the anti-intellectualism, which is judged to be ours by the elite if we do not accept the theory of evolution.
And it’s not just in that circle as well. There are evangelical elites—the faculties of evangelical colleges and universities and seminaries. There are authors such as Karl Giberson and his book Saving Darwin; and then it goes back in terms of the evangelical movement to the emergence in the middle of the last century of the American Scientific Affiliation. Figures such as Bernard Ramm, a well-known evangelical theologian, who argued that there must be an acceptance of evolutionary theory amongst evangelicals.
In light of this, what are our major options? Thinking about the theories of the age of the earth, theories of the interpretation of Genesis 1 and Genesis 2, I’ll reduce the options to four. The first is the traditional 24-hour calendar day view. Now this is the most straightforward reading of the text. As we read and heard the text Genesis 1 through the first three verses of Genesis 2, the most natural understanding of the text would be that what is being presented here by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit is a sequential pattern of 24-hour days. The pattern of evening and morning, the literary structure, all of these things would point in a commonsense manner to 24-hour days. These 24-hour days would reveal a sequence, increasing differentiation, eventually presenting in the climactic creation of man as the image bearer of God. Six days of active creation and one day of divine rest. (25:29)
The second option is what is known as the Day-Age view. In this view, what is argued over against the data that is coming to us that is claiming to represent a very old earth, what is presented to us is the option the Hebrew word Yom in this case need not always refer to a 24-hour calendar day but might actually refer to a much more indefinite presumably very long period of time. The Day-Age view, as held by most of its major proponents, would hold that what we have here is indeed a sequence. There’s a sequential understanding of creation towards greater differentiation, greater specialization pointing toward the creation of humanity as the image-bearers of God, but that these days, though sequential, are overlapping and not entirely distinct and are not to be taken as 24-hour chronological days, calendar days, as we know them.
The third option is what is most commonly known as the framework theory. The framework theory leaps over the question of the length of the days suggesting that it is only a literary framework and it also suggests it is a non-sequential ordering in the text. It is a literary way of telling a story about the providential ordering of creation by God. And thus there is theological content to be derived from Genesis 1 and Genesis 2, but in particular in Genesis 1 we are not to trouble ourselves with the question about the length of time, nor even about the ordering and sequence of the days, but rather to see that this is God providentially ordering his creation for his glory.
The fourth option is to take the first two chapters of Genesis, and actually far beyond the first two chapters, into at least the first 11 chapters, as being merely literary. Understanding that what we have here is a parallel near eastern text, in this case customized for the worship and the teaching of Israel. It is a creation myth, a mythological rendering that marks the beliefs of the ancient Hebrews.
Now what do these have to do with the age of the earth? Well of all of these options, only the understanding of a 24-hour day creation necessitates a young earth. The rest of them all allow for, if they do not directly imply or assume, a very old earth. As we work backwards in terms of evangelical options, the idea that Genesis is merely literary has to be rejected out of hand as in direct contradiction to our understanding of the Bible as the inherent and infallible word of God. That option, for any credible and faithful evangelical Christian, must be taken off the table. So then we are left with the framework theory, held by some prominent evangelicals but, I would argue, one of the least defensible positions when we understand that it is based upon the assumption, not only that there may be a very long period of time that is involved and incorporated in Genesis 1 and in the sequence of the days, but actually that the sequence does not matter. It simply is not credible, at least to me, that God gave us this text with such rich detail and sequential development merely that we would infer from it his providential direction without any specific reference to all the direct content he has given us within the text. It certainly seems by any common sense natural reading of the text that it is making historical and sequential claims.
The Day-Age view, working backwards, is much more attractive on theological grounds—much more attractive on exegetical grounds. It involves far fewer entanglements and issues, but as we shall see it involves issues that go even beyond exegeses. (30:24)
The first thing we need to note, as has been noted by even more liberal scholars such as James Barr, is that any natural reading of the text would indicate that the author intended us to take 24-hour days, calendar days, as our understanding. I am arguing for the exegetical and theological necessity of affirming 24-hour calendar days.
The first issue we note is the issue of the integrity of scripture. And we must concede that those who hold to a Day-Age view or its equivalent, who argue for an old earth, in so far as they are our colleagues in the evangelical movement affirming the inerrancy of scripture, are seeking to do so in a way that does not do violence to the inerrancy of scripture. But I would simply respond most quickly that there is no such need for strained defense when it comes to a 24-hour understanding of creation. But there are issues far beyond exegetical issues that are at stake here. And as time is brief, I want to suggest that what is most lacking in the evangelical movement today is a consideration of the theological cost of holding to an old earth. This entire conversation is either missing or marginalized in the evangelical world today. It is my purpose as I have this opportunity to speak to you about this question today to suggest to you that the exegetical issues are real. And the exegetical evidence based upon a reformation understanding of scripture and the proper interpretation of scripture would lead me to a natural understanding of 24-hour calendar day creation. But I would wish to allow, just as a matter of conversation and consideration, that it might be possible that we could be over-reading the text in that regard. It could be possible that we are actually coming to this with the presupposition that it must be a 24-hour day and thus we should hear the warning that comes to us from those that hold to an old age of the universe that we just might be creating an intellectual problem here in late modernity that is not necessary. So I’ve done my very best to consider the question from that vantage point. And when it comes to the exegetical issues I will tell you that I think the exegetical defense of a 24-hour calendar day is sufficient. In other words, the exegetical cost—the cost of the integrity and interpretation of scripture—to rendering the text in any other way, is just too high. But I want to suggest to you that the theological cost is actually far higher.
Think with me here. As we are looking at the Scripture, we understand it to be as it claims, the inspired and inherent word of God. Every word inspired by the Holy Spirit. We believe that the speaking God speaks to us in this word. This is an inscripturated revelation of the one true and living God. But we also come to understand that this text is telling us a story, and that story, just in a redemptive historical framework, has to be summarized so that we know our accountability to the story and the narrative; the grand narrative of the Gospel can include no fewer movements than these: creation, fall, redemption, and consummation. We come to understand the grand narrative of Scripture, the redemptive historical narrative that is revealed in the unity of the Old and New Testaments in the consistent presentation of the revelation of God. And we come to understand that it begins with creation. It moves quickly to the fall. And then to redemption and consummation or new creation. We understand that the Bible presents a doctrine of creation that is more than merely an intellectual account of how the world came to be. It is a purposeful account of why the universe was created by a sovereign and holy and benevolent God as the theater of his own glory for the purpose of demonstrating his knowledge not only as creator but as redeemer. The doctrine of creation is absolutely inseparable from the doctrine of redemption. But it begins there in this story as is revealed in scripture. And thus we come to understand that what scripture makes clear is that God is revealed, how everything that is came to be, and why.
The second movement is of equal importance and that is the fall. Every worldview is accountable to answer the question “Why are things as they are? What is broken and how did this happen?” And the scripture so quickly takes us to Genesis 3 and to the fall and to human sinfulness and to the headship of Adam. And thus we come to Genesis 3; we come to understand that the world we know is the Genesis 3 world. The creation we observe is a Genesis 3 fallen creation. And we come to understand that if we had merely these first two movements in the redemptive historical narrative of scripture, we would be lost and forever under the righteous judgment and under the wrath of God. But thanks be to God.
These then take us, as scripture takes us, to redemption. And there we come to understand that God, before the universe was created, had a purpose to redeem a people through the blood of his son. And he does this. And we come to understand how the scripture presents this in terms of the person and work of Christ, the meaning of his atonement, and the richness of the Gospel. But the grand narrative of scripture does not leave us merely there. It points toward consummation, final judgment, new Jerusalem, new heaven, new earth. It points towards the reign of God demonstrated at the end of history and the conclusion of this age. It points us to a time when every eye is dry and every tear is wiped away—to a final judgment. To a dual destiny. Heaven and hell. It points us to a new creation, to a new heaven and a new earth that is not merely the reestablishment of Eden, but something far greater. For in the new creation, God is known not only as creator but as creator and redeemer. His glory being infinitely greater by our beholding, by the fact that we know him now as those who have been bought with a price, redeemed by the blood of the Lamb.
It’s important for us to remember our accountability in that narrative, because this raises some central questions—two in particular. The first is the historicity of Adam. In Romans 5:12 we read, “Therefore just as sin came into the world through one man and death through sin and so death spread to all men because man sinned.” Paul bases his understanding of human sinfulness and of Adam’s headship over the human race on a historical Adam. A historical fall. Adam may be—indeed I believe really is—the most pressing question: the historicity of Adam and Eve and the historicity of the fall. An old earth understanding has serious complications because the old earth is not merely understood to be old. The inference that it is old is based upon certain evidences that also tell a story. The fossils are telling a story. And the story they are telling is of millions and indeed billions of years of creation before the arrival of Adam. But the scientific consensus of the meaning of that evidence goes far beyond that to suggesting that there were hominids and pre-hominids and there were hundreds of thousands of hominids and there were, well let’s put it this way. It is possible to hold under an old age understanding to a historical Adam, to the special creation of humanity, but it requires an arbitrary intervention of God into a very long process, billions of years in which at some point God acts unilaterally to create Adam and Eve. Eve out of Adam.
It comes with very serious intellectual entanglements. It is actually difficult and that is reflected by the fact that the contemporary conversation in terms of the age of the earth is requiring a redefinition of who Adam was. Interestingly as I’ve looked at this question I’ve been surprised quite frankly to see how many older evangelicals had already seen this and come to terms with it. In his commentary on the book of Romans, John Stott actually suggests that Adam was an existing hominid that God adopted in a special way, and out of Homo sapiens God implanted his image, and made Adam particularly in his image by ensouling him, and creating in Adam not only Homo sapiens but Homo divinus. Let’s just imagine for a moment what that would theologically require. It requires that there were Homo sapiens who were not the image bearers of God. It requires an adoptionistic understanding of Adam, rather than special creation of Adam.
Denis Alexander in his new book Creation or Evolution Do We Have to Choose?, a fellow at Cambridge University suggests, and I quote here, that “God in his grace chose a couple of neolithic farmers to whom he chose to reveal himself in a special way, calling them into fellowship with himself so that they might know him as a personal God.” Now is that in any way a possible, legitimate exegetical reading of Genesis? That God chose a couple of neolithic famers? What haunts me about that book is not just the contents of the book but what is on its front cover, a blurb from J.I. Packer who says “Surely the best informed, clearest, and most judicious treatment of the question and title that you can find anywhere today.”
Do we not take into account what this means? Well, many others are taking it into account. For instance at the BioLogos website, now becoming the locus classicus for discussion, you find the argument made by Peter Enns very recently, just even in recent weeks in a series of articles entitled “Paul’s Adam,” I quote here, “For Paul, Adam and Eve were the parents of the human race. This is possible but not satisfying for those familiar with either the scientific or archeological data.” He goes on to suggest that we must abandon Paul’s Adam and suggests that Paul as far as he refers to Adam in Romans chapter five is limited by his dependence on primitive understandings.
Karl Giberson, Eastern Nazarene University, says this “clearly the historicity of Adam and Eve and their fall from grace are hard to reconcile with natural history.” He says this, “One could believe for example that at some point” – this dismisses the kind of Stott theory now just so you hear, what I want you to understand from this is that holding to this doesn’t even give you any advantage. In other words, if you’re trying to make peace with the modern secular mind and you’re trying to meet the intellectual elites halfway, guess what? They won’t meet you halfway. Listen to this: “One could believe, for example, that at some point in evolutionary history God ‘chose’ two people from a group of evolving humans, gave them his image, and put them in Eden, which they promptly corrupted by sinning. But this solution is unsatisfactory, artificial, and certainly not what the writer of Genesis intended.”
That’s not said by someone who’s defending the book of Genesis, but rather the theory of evolution, and trying to remove the possibility of the very kinds of things that some who identify themselves as evangelicals are trying to claim. An old earth understanding is very difficult to reconcile with a historical Adam as presented not only in terms of Genesis, but in terms of Romans. It requires an arbitrary claim that God created Adam as a special act of his creation and it entangles a good many difficulties in terms of both exegeses and a redemptive historical understanding of scripture.
That becomes clearer in view of the second great issue at stake here, which is the fall. We understand from Genesis 3 and from the entire narrative of scripture from texts like Romans 8 that what we know in the world today as catastrophe, as natural disaster, earthquake, destruction by volcanic eruption, pain, death, violence, predation—that these are results of the fall. We end up with enormous problems if we try to interpret a historical fall and understand a historical fall in an old earth rendering. This is most clear when it comes to Adam’s sin. Was it true that, as Paul argues, when sin came, death came? Well just keep in mind that if the earth is indeed old, and we infer that it is old because of the scientific data, the scientific data is also there to claim that long before the emergence of Adam—if indeed there is the recognition of a historical Adam—and certainly long before there was the possibility of Adam’s sin, there were all the effects of sin that are biblically attributed to the fall and not to anything before the fall. And we’re not only talking about death, we’re talking about death by the millions and billions.
Some who hold to an old earth in dealing with this question suggest that what Paul is actually talking about—what the scripture claims—is when sin came, spiritual death came. But I would suggest to you that is a very difficult claim to reconcile over against the totality of scripture. And the whole idea that before there could be humanity and certainly before there could be Homo sapiens and before there could be Adam and before there could be sin, there were all the effects of sin written backwards. Let me just point out in the first place that no Christian reading the scripture alone would ever come to such a conclusion, ever. And once you try to come to that conclusion, it’s very difficult to actually reconcile with the scriptures, with the grand narrative of the Gospel. What sense does it make to point to the kingdom and the consummation as when the lamb and the lion shall be together and lay together, if indeed there was predation before the fall. If the animosity between the lion and the lamb is simply a part of a very old story, a very old earth, that we picked up as some kind of symbolic illustration, the writers of scripture simply borrowing it in order to point towards the reality of a new creation, well how are we to understand the scripture at all?
There’s eschatological impact as well. And there is tremendous theological strain when it comes to trying to sever the doctrine of redemption from a straightforward understanding of the scriptural account of creation. We are reminded of how closely these are together. We are reminded that John Calvin teaches us that the knowledge of God is the knowledge of God as creator and as redeemer. The imperative that is presented upon us is not new. And much of the language that is used to confront Christians today on this question goes back all the way to Galileo. Galileo spoke of the two books as he defended himself. He spoke of the book of scripture and the book of nature suggesting that the believer ought to be accountable to both books. And that is a very attractive argument. It’s an attractive argument because we come to understand that the scripture itself tells us that there is a natural revelation, a general revelation. In Romans chapter one Paul goes so far as to tell us not only that God has revealed himself in nature, but that in nature even his invisible attributes should be clearly seen. There is a book of nature. We do learn much from it. We learn a lot of common sense observational truth from looking at the book of nature. We are not only licensed but as we are followers of the Lord Jesus Christ, as we are those who by God’s grace have grown to know him as creator, we are given the intellectual responsibility to come to know this earth and this cosmos and all that is within what we might call the Book of Nature because we come to understand that God has revealed nature to be intelligible. But clearly there is a problem. And again we go back to the fall. Because Paul makes clear that, even though God has revealed himself in nature so that there is no one who is with excuse—given the cloudiness of our vision and the corruption of our sight—we can no longer see what is clearly there. The heavens are telling the glory of God, but human sinfulness refuses to see what is plainly evident. Calvin puts it this way in Book One: he says this knowledge is either smothered or corrupted partly by ignorance, partly by malice. The universe is telling a story and Christians have affirmed that the universe is telling a story. Herbert Butterfield, the great historian of science, points out that Christianity was the seabed of the rise of modern science because Christians were confident that God had created the world to be known in an intelligible manner. (52:40) But modern science, part of the modern project, as driven by forces such as Darwin and his heirs, is seeking to present to the western mind and indeed to a global mind, an intentional challenge to the Christian account of the meaning of things. An intentional alternative to the Christian worldview and to the Christian Gospel. Evolution is central to the great secular mythology. This is why it is cherished so much by persons such as Richard Dawkins who again said that it is Darwinism that allows persons to be intellectually fulfilled atheists. Now this is not to argue that all who hold to an old earth hold to evolution in any form. Nor to theistic evolution, which had I time I would suggest is the consummate oxymoron. But rather I would suggest that it is, that is an old age theory of the earth comes with theological and exegetical complications that I believe are in the end insurmountable.
It is not fair to say that an old earth position cannot hold to a historical Adam. It is to say that it cannot hold to a historical Adam without arbitrary intellectual moves and very costly theological entanglements. It is to say that this position seems to be at an insoluble collision with the redemptive historical narrative of the Gospel. The cost to the Christian church, in terms of ignoring this question or abandoning the discussion, is just too high. The cost of confronting this question is also costly. It can be very expensive because it can create intensity and conflict and controversy but I would suggest that the avoidance of this will be at the cost of our own credibility.
The two books. We need to recognize that disaster ensues when the book of nature or general revelation is used in some way to trump scripture and special revelation. And that is the very origin of this discussion. We would not be having this discussion today. This would not be one of those tough questions Christians ask, if these questions were not being posed to us by those who assume that general revelation and indeed the book of nature is presenting to us something in terms of compelling evidence, compelling evidence that is so forceful and credible that we’re going to have to reconstruct and re-envision our understanding of the biblical text.
We need to think more deeply about this. The BioLogos website has just even in recent days focused its attention on the direct rejection of biblical inerrancy. Understanding that any rendering of the bible as inerrant makes the acceptance of theistic evolution impossible. Certainly implausible. Kenton Sparks writing on that website suggests that, intellectually, evangelicalism has painted itself into a corner—that we have put ourselves into an intellectual cul-de-sac with our understanding of biblical inerrancy. He suggests that the Bible indeed should be recognized as containing historical, theological and moral error. Peter Enns, one of the most frequent contributors to the site, suggests that we have to come to the understanding that, when it comes to many of the scientific claims, historical claims, the writers of scriptures were plainly wrong.
Our only means of intellectual rescue, brothers and sisters, is the speaking God, who speaks to us in scripture, in special revelation. And it is the scripture, the inerrant and infallible word of God that trumps renderings of general revelation, and it must be so. Otherwise we will face destruction of the entire gospel in intellectual terms. When general revelation is used to trump special revelation, disaster ensues. And not just on this score. It’s not just on the question of the age of the earth. What about other questions? The assured results of modern science. There is so much that is packed in that mental category, that intellectual claim. Just remember first of all that science has changed and has gone through many transformations. The assured results of modern science today may very well not be the assured results of modern science tomorrow. And, I can promise you, are not the assured results of science yesterday.
In the New York Times just in recent days there’s been a major article about one particular fossil which is claimed to be a hominid and just about a year ago that same paper presented it as irrefutable proof of a certain trajectory of human evolution. Now you have scientists coming back saying we don’t even believe that it’s a hominid fossil. The assured results of modern science? What do the assured results of modern science say about the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead? What do the assured results of modern science in terms of the methodological naturalism that is absolutely essential to modern science, what does it say about the virgin conception of Jesus Christ? The assured results of modern science? Science is now claiming to tell us about sexual orientation in terms of a physicalist explanation. Is the Christian church going to make its understanding of human sexuality and sexual morality accountable to the assured results of modern science? Are we going to submit our cosmology, are we going to take the redemptive historical understanding of scripture and submit this to interrogation by the assured results of modern science? Let me suggest to you the end of that process is absolute (commercial interferes here) [..] of Scripture includes the claim that Scripture is norma normans normata. The norm of norms that cannot be normed. Any surrender of that on any question leads to disaster.
In conclusion, there is a head-on collision here. There are those that claim there is no head-on collision. Francisco Ayala, who just won the Templeton Award, says that science and religion cannot be in conflict because they’re answering two different questions. Science is answering the how, and religion is answering the who and the why. That is intellectual facile. The scripture is claiming far more than who and why and any honest reading of the modern scientific consensus knows that it too is speaking to the who and very clearly speaking to the why. Stephen J. Gould, the late paleontologist of Harvard University, spoke of what he called non-overlapping magisteria. He said science and religion are non-overlapping magisteria. Each has its own magisterial authority and its own sphere of knowledge and they never overlap. Well the problem is they overlap all the time. They overlap in Stephen J. Gould’s own writings. We cannot separate the who and the why and the what, as if those are intellectually separable questions. In his new book Why Evolution is True Jerry Coyne cites Michael Shermer at the very beginning who says this, “Darwin matters because evolution matters. Evolution matters because science matters. Science matters because it is the preeminent story of our age. An epic saga about who we are, where we came from, and where we are going.”
Now it sounds to me like he’s talking about the why, not just the when and the what. I want to suggest to you that when it comes to the confrontation between evolutionary theory and the Christian gospel we have a head-on collision. In the confrontation between secular science and the scripture we have a head-on collision. I want to suggest to you that it is our responsibility to give an answer when we are asked the question “Why does the universe look so old?” In the limitations of time, it is impossible that we walk through every alternative and answer every sub-question. But I want to suggest to you that the most natural understanding from the scripture of how to answer that question comes to this: The universe looks old because the creator made it whole. When he made Adam, Adam was not a fetus; Adam was a man; he had the appearance of a man. By our understanding that would’ve required time for Adam to get old but not by the sovereign creative power of God. He put Adam in the garden. The garden was not merely seeds; it was a fertile, fecund, mature garden. The Genesis account clearly claims that God creates and makes things whole.
Secondly—and very quickly—if I’m asked why does the universe look so old, I have to say it looks old because it bears testimony to the affects of sin. And testimony of the judgment of God. It bears the effects of the catastrophe of the flood and catastrophes innumerable thereafter. I would suggest to you that the world looks old because as Paul says in Romans chapter 8 it is groaning. And in its groaning it does look old. It gives us empirical evidence of the reality of sin. And even as this cosmos is the theater of God’s glory, it is the theater of God’s glory for the drama of redemption that takes place here on this planet in telling the story of the redemptive love of God. Is this compatible with the claim that the universe is 4.5 billion years old in terms of earth, 13.5 billion years old in terms of the larger universe? Even though that may not be the first and central question it is an inescapable question and I would suggest to you that in our effort to be most faithful to the scriptures and most accountable to the grand narrative of the gospel an understanding of creation in terms of 24-hour calendar days and a young earth entails far fewer complications, far fewer theological problems and actually is the most straightforward and uncomplicated reading of the text as we come to understand God telling us how the universe came to be and what it means and why it matters.
At the end of the day, if I’m asked the question “why does the universe look so old?” I’m simply left with the reality that the universe is telling the story of the glory of God. Why does it look so old? Well that, in terms of any more elaborate answer, is known only to the Ancient of Days. And that is where we are left.