This is the fifth of a series of posts introducing Resources on Science and Christian Faith from the American Scientific Affiliation (ASA). These blog posts are based on the introductory essays that accompany each of the topics. Today we are using the topic of the Age of the Earth.
Using radiometric dating modern science has concluded that the earth is 4.54 billion years old. Geologists since the 18th and 19th centuries began to understand that the earth has a vast age (measured in millions and billions of years rather than thousands of years). The 17th century bishop, James Ussher, using dates of historically known events and assuming literal and gapless Biblical genealogies and an ordinary (six, twenty-four hour day) Creation week in Genesis 1, concluded that God created the world around six thousand years ago. Today’s young-earth creationists (YEC) continue to follow Ussher’s basic interpretative procedure. Others (old earth creationists, theistic evolutionists/evolutionary creationists, some Old Testament scholars) believe that there are approaches to understanding Genesis 1 in particular that do not require a conclusion that is in conflict with modern science. (See the “Reading Genesis” section for various perspectives.)
Most ASA members accept the consensus scientific view on the age of the earth. Already in 1949 based on radiometric dating techniques, ASA member Laurence Kulp said, “One of the most probable facts in geology, I believe, is that the earth is close to two billion years old…” Kulp’s early paper supporting the old earth position and criticizing YEC is featured in the collection below. A paper written for the ASA web site, “Radiometric Dating: A Christian Perspective” by physicist Roger Wiens has proved to be one of the most popular in terms of electronic downloads. Many of the resources here simply review the scientific claims for an old earth and then seek to understand that great age in light of what the Bible says. YEC have brought forward critiques of the various dating methods and conclusions drawn from them. Because ASA members have tended to accept the consensus view, the articles here summarize and engage the YEC criticisms. ASA members may disagree with the YEC position but acknowledge those who hold that view as fellow believers and worthy of respectful engagement. Randy Isaac’s review of the YEC RATE project and subsequent dialog with its authors illustrates this respectful engagement.
Many Christians today, especially those in conservative, evangelical churches, remain persuaded of the YEC viewpoint. Yet there are evangelical traditions and theologians who have long accepted old earth arguments. ASA members throughout its history have sought to convince the former group that the scientific arguments for an old earth are quite sound, rooted in the same science that has given us progress in medicine and technology. Largely evangelical themselves, these ASA members have also attempted to formulate ways of approaching this question that take seriously the Bible and evangelical Christian theology.
The last group of papers deals with the idea of apparent age. Here, the earth/universe looks old, i.e. old age is the conclusion you would draw from the scientific data. Even Isaac, in his discussion of the RATE project, seems to allow this view as one with scientific integrity because it admits to the consensus view. Many reject the view because it undermines the idea that we can draw reliable conclusions from our observations or even trust God’s revelation to us in creation. Nonetheless, apparent age is a method of reconciling the scientific data with the perceived need for a young earth.
Anyone interested in tackling the scientific arguments for the vast age of the earth or the related theological questions is encouraged to study these papers and talks.
1. What have you been taught about the age of the earth in your family, church, or school?
2. Which scientific arguments for an old earth do you know?