How old is the earth? How, exactly, did creation happen? Christian answers differ.
You’ve likely heard of the old earth versus young earth debate among Christians. Key within this controversy is the six-day period of creation spoken of in the book of Genesis.
Let’s look at three common interpretations of the Genesis creation story, evaluate how significant the issue is to the Christian faith, and examine how a similar controversy several hundred years ago was resolved in a way that fulfills the commands of both Christ and the Apostle Paul in regard to Christian unity.1
The three basic interpretations are young earth creationism (YEC), old earth creationism (OEC), and allegorical approaches.
Young Earth Creationism (YEC)
The historical interpretation of Genesis is that the seven days of creation are seven 24-hour periods—like our current days.2 When combined with the simple addition of the years provided in the Bible genealogies, the math results in a 6,000-year-old universe with the human race—starting with Adam and Eve—appearing on day 6.3
While some YEC advocates attempt to develop scientific evidence for a recent creation (known as creation science), others view the entire scientific enterprise with skepticism.4 Those who reject science either view scientific assertions of a 4.5-billion-year-old earth as a theory meant to cause Christians to doubt the Bible or as an impossible pursuit because of the flawed thinking of fallen humans.5
YECs assert that a natural reading of the Bible indicates that God intended that readers interpret the days of creation as ordinary 24-hour periods. With that said, it should be noted that some YECs would agree that the earth appears to be very old. However, they would argue that God created the earth with simply the appearance of age, just as he probably created Adam as a mature man, not an infant.
Old Earth Creationism (OEC)
OECs6 advocate a literal Genesis account, but they interpret the word “day” to be an era or some other kind of longer period of time.7 Another term used for this position is “Day Age.” That is, each day signifies an epoch of time, much as English speakers might refer to the “Day of the Pioneers” or the “Day of the Dinosaurs.”
Most OECs believe God supernaturally created the universe out of nothing and that Big Bang cosmology provides powerful scientific support for this. These OECs are “progressive creationists” in the sense that they believe God supernaturally intervened over the course of the six long periods of time to create the various plant and animal life-forms (the “kinds” mentioned in Genesis).
OECs oppose Darwinian evolution but not necessarily microevolution (minor changes within a species).8 Like YECs, OECs place a high value on biblical inerrancy. Most OEC advocates will admit that a natural reading of the English versions of Genesis lead to a YEC position, but they also point to Scripture that is supportive of an old-earth interpretation.9
This third category includes all Christians who do not believe that the Genesis days signify time periods of any sort. They maintain that the Bible is not intended to be read as either history or science.
A group of Christians who go by the name “evolutionary creationists” or “theistic evolutionists” (TEs) believe that God created Earth with the potential for life to unfold by naturalistic methods. Advocates of TE fall into the category of non-literalists.10
Historically, there have been other allegorical approaches that are not tied to either science or the issue of Darwinian evolution. One of these is called the “analogical approach,” which contends that Moses told the Genesis story in a way that the seven creation days would parallel the workweek, with God resting on the seventh day.11
That God created the universe—as opposed to some form of causeless self-creation—is a major Christian doctrine, along with original sin, the Virgin birth, the Trinity, the atonement, the resurrection, and salvation by grace through faith. These beliefs, among others, are set out in the various creeds and most doctrinal statements of evangelical Christian churches.
If the doctrines stated above are primary to what it means to be Christian, the issue over when God created is perhaps tertiary. While tertiary issues often set apart one Christian denomination from another, most Christians agree on the primary issues found in the historical creeds.
Resolving the Issue
In the early days of the Christian Church, disagreements of this sort were resolved by church councils. In more recent times, two such councils composed of conservative Bible scholars addressed the issue at hand. Both the Council of Biblical Inerrancy and the leaders of the Presbyterian Church of America (PCA) agreed almost unanimously to reject the inclusion of a young earth as criteria for inerrancy.12
We may want to take a lesson from a great seventeenth-century scientist who was also a devout Christian. Facing a heated controversy—which ultimately resulted in his excommunication from the Church—over whether Earth was the center of solar system (geocentrism) or revolved around the sun (heliocentrism), Galileo Galilei appealed to what is called by theologians as God’s “Dual Revelation.”
This doctrine, articulated in the Belgic Confession of the earlier Protestant reformers, says we can know God through 1) what we see in the created order (general revelation) and 2) what God reveals through Scripture (special revelation).13 Both the facts of nature and the words of God have the same author, argued Galileo, and therefore both must be true. This requires that our interpretation of Scripture and our interpretation of the facts of nature work together to inform each other.
Today, Christians do not divide themselves over heliocentrism versus geocentrism. It seems like a quaint controversy from the distant past. So too might the current conflict over the creation days someday. Regardless, some say, we will eventually have an opportunity to resolve this issue by asking the One who made it all. My guess is that, if this is true, being in the very presence of God will make the issue seem so irrelevant that no one will remember to do so.