A vocal set of Christians believes that the book of Genesis requires the age of the universe and Earth to be something like 6000 years. This belief is being reinforced by the release last year (2017) of the documentary Is Genesis History?, which was narrated by Del Tackett, and produced by Thomas Purifoy. The film is very well-made, and will undoubtedly be shown in numerous churches, youth groups, Christian schools, and home schools for years to come.
Thomas Purifoy recently published an article entitled Six Reasons Reformed Christians Should Embrace Six-Day Creation at Challies.com, the influential website of Reformed blogger Tim Challies. Purifoy concludes his article by saying that “6-day creation is the only longterm viable option for Reformed theology.” I also write from within the Reformed, and larger Reformation, community. There are many inerrancy-affirming, theologically-conservative, highly-qualified, Reformed scholars and pastors who disagree with Purifoy’s conclusion about young-Earth creationism being the only viable option for our theological community. I have drawn from the work of many of these pastors and scholars over the past four decades, and hope in this essay to show that one can be true to both the Word of God and to Reformation theology, and come to the conclusion that Earth may indeed be far older than 6000 years.
In his article, Thomas Purifoy gives six theological reasons for embracing young-Earth creationism. Four of the following section headings are identical in wording to those used by Purifoy in his article; two of the headings have been slightly modified. It should not be surprising that I, as an old-Earth Christian with deep roots in the Reformation, have almost identical statements as Thomas Purifoy regarding our theology of creation. This is because the age of the universe is a secondary matter, and Reformed young-Earth creationists and I have much more in common in regards to our theology than those points that divide us.
1. God’s goodness is indeed reflected in both the original and present creation
Thomas Purifoy had his heading worded a little differently for his first point in his Challies.com article – “God’s Goodness Must Be Reflected in the Original Creation.” I could have used the same wording, but I decided to expand the concept a bit.
In Genesis 1, God does indeed pronounce his creation to be “good,” and even “very good.” There is a bit of discussion among commentators about what exactly is meant by “good” in the opening passage of Genesis (1:1-2:3). Is this goodness the same as perfection, or is it a goodness of purpose? Young-Earth creationists often portray this goodness as meaning perfect in every way, without anything that we would consider to be a flaw. The pre-sin world is regularly depicted as being a gentle world, overflowing with abundance, and where the overall system is mature and complete, with no hint of anything in the least bit deadly or dangerous. The entire Earth is described in this young-Earth scenario as if the entire world were the garden of Eden. This perspective minimizes the fact that Genesis 2 portrays Eden as a limited sanctuary in Mesopotamia, with the world outside of the garden as a wild place in need of being subdued, or brought under the dominion of the newly-appointed viceregents over creation, Adam and Eve. This wildness implies lions and tigers and bears, not just bunnies and cuddly puppies (or domesticated, friendly Tyrannosaurus rexes). Perhaps the Earth of Genesis 1 wasn’t quite as tame as the young-Earth advocates believe it was. Like Aslan in the Chronicles of Narnia, the creation was good, but not necessarily tame or safe.
There is a clue in Genesis 2 that helps us narrow down the meaning of the goodness spoken of in Genesis 1. In 2:18 we are told that there was something “not good” in the creation: that the man was alone. This certainly indicates that the goodness in Genesis 1 is not the same as moral goodness; it was not immoral or evil that Adam was alone. It may also mean that the goodness referred to is not the same as perfection. In other words, something can be good in God’s eyes even if it is not yet perfect. It seems then, that the goodness referred to in Genesis 1 is a goodness of purpose, not a moral goodness—though God is morally good—nor a goodness of perfection. God saw that the creation was very good for the plans he had in mind.
That this goodness in Genesis 1 means something other than what young-Earth creationists claim is amplified by what the rest of the Bible teaches about the goodness of creation. We see in Psalm 19:1-6 that the heavens still declare the glory of God. In Acts 17:17, God’s present goodness in creation is revealed in his providential provision of rain and crops. In Romans 1:19-20 the creation still fulfills one of its purposes in that it declares God’s attributes, so that people are without excuse when they deny him. Paul, in 1 Timothy 4:4, declares this ongoing goodness of creation even more explicitly: “For everything created by God is good.” None of these biblical claims would hold true if the creation didn’t still retain a significant amount of its goodness even after Adam’s fall into sin. If our world in its present state can be described by God as being good, then there is nothing to stop God from considering the pre-Adam world as being good and ready for his redemptive plan as well, even over a period of many millions of years.
2. Adam’s sin resulted in human spiritual and physical death
In the Challies.com article, this was stated as “Adam’s Sin Resulted in Universal Corruption and Death,” which goes well beyond what the Bible itself says about death in the natural world.
As an old-Earth Christian, I believe in a real Adam who committed a real sin which brought spiritual and physical death to the human race. The Bible nowhere states, however, that animal death is the result of human sin. The relevant passages (in Genesis 3:14-19, Romans 5:12-17, Romans 8:19-22, and 1 Corinthians 15:21-28;35-57) all make a connection between Adam’s sin and human death, but none of these passages tie animal death to Adam’s sin.
Because of this, we cannot say with theological certainty, as Purifoy does in his article, that the fossils in Earth’s crust are a testimony to God’s judgment on human sin. The fossil record is simply not a topic the Scriptures address. The Bible is silent on the topic of animal death before the fall, and does not even say that animals were created to be immortal. Instead we see in the Scriptures that carnivorous activity is a normal part of God’s good creation. In Job 38:39-41 and Psalm 104:21-22 (which is a re-telling of Genesis 1 in poetic form), God is the one who provides food for the predators, with no hint that this is evil or something less than good. We may cringe a bit when we see a cheetah take down a gazelle in a documentary, but there is no sign in the Bible that either God or the ancient Hebrews viewed predator-prey relationships as evil or as the consequence of Adam’s sin.
The “universal corruption and death” dogma is often stated as one of the prime biblical arguments for a young Earth, and yet this doctrine is neither “expressly set down in Scripture” nor may it be “by good and necessary consequence deduced from Scripture” (Westminster Confession 1.6, slight grammatical rewording). Despite this, young-Earth creationists often hold this “no animal death before the fall” teaching forth as a litmus test of Christian orthodoxy.
3. The pattern of creation/fall/redemption culminates in the new creation
My wording of this third point is identical to how it was worded in Purifoy’s article.
The outworking of salvation history in the young-Earth perspective is:
The outworking of salvation history in the old-Earth perspective is:
The content and truthfulness of the gospel does not depend in any way on the age of the Earth. In his article, Purifoy suggests that the miracles of Jesus, and the future redemption of the creation, point both back to the original creation and forward to the upcoming new creation. There is no problem with this in itself. But then he states, “For the bookends of creation to match, they must be mirrors of each other. This is only possible with 6-day creation.” There are many connections between Genesis 1-2 and the final chapters of the Bible, Revelation 21-22, but I am not sure that Purifoy’s “mirroring” can be supported from Scripture. There are not only many parallels between Genesis and Revelation, but a number of contrasts as well. In Genesis, the world is immature; in Revelation, the world is mature. In Genesis, the world is pregnant with possibilities; in Revelation those possibilities have come to be. In Genesis, the couple is naked; in Revelation the multitude is clothed in Christ’s righteousness. Genesis has a garden; Revelation a city. It is not necessary for the New Jerusalem to be a mirror of the Garden of Eden (though there are important parallels), so there is no need to have matching bookends, and the declaration of “only possible with 6-day creation” falls apart.
4. Scripture must be used to interpret scripture
Again, my wording of this point is the same to how it is worded in Purifoy’s article. As the Westminster Confession of Faith puts it, “The infallible rule of interpretation of Scripture is the Scripture itself” (1.9).
The rule of letting Scripture interpret Scripture does not necessarily lead to the conclusion that Earth is only 6000 years old. Even a straightforward comparison of Genesis 1 and Genesis 2 should be enough to tell us that at least one of these texts is meant to be taken as something less than a completely literal passage. This should lead us to a further investigation of genre, which is a topic that is often oversimplified in young-Earth literature to “if it isn’t poetry, it must be historical narrative.” If we get the genre of a passage incorrect, then it is likely we will get the interpretation of the passage at least partly incorrect. Many scholars do not believe the genre is “historical narrative,” so it is quite possible that the young-Earth interpretation is incorrect as well.
I could write about letting Scripture interpret Scripture in regards to Genesis 1, but will focus instead on the flood account of Genesis 6-9. One of the reasons I believe Noah’s flood may have been local rather than global in extent is by using Scripture to interpret Scripture. In almost all cases where universal language is used in the Old Testament, the meaning is something other than the superficial, literalistic sense. In other words, “all the earth” usually means something less than “all the earth” in the Bible. To give just one example, we are told in 1 Kings 18:10 that, “As the Lord your God lives, there is no nation or kingdom where my lord [Ahab] has not sent to seek you [Elijah].” No commentator will tell you that this passage must be taken literally to mean that Ahab sent people to all nations from the Aborigines to the Zulus to find Elijah. The literal words say “no nation or kingdom” without any sort of qualifier, but just about any reader, ancient or modern, will read this universal statement as meaning “no nation or kingdom in this area” rather than in the entire Earth. If non-universal language is the norm in the Old Testament—and it is—then we should be at least open to considering this to be the case in Genesis 6-9 as well.
5. Essential doctrines are related to history
Once again, as an old-Earth Christian, my wording of this header is the same as in the young-Earth article.
In the Bible, God often reveals himself not by giving us a list of doctrinal points, but by acting and speaking in history. In fact, Christianity is embedded in history in a way that perhaps no other major religion is. Creation and fall happened in real history. God’s covenant with Abraham, his giving of the law through Moses, and the kingship of David, are presented as real historical events, and are all part of salvation history. Most significantly, the incarnation, life, death, resurrection, and ascension of Christ all happened in history. If these events did not really happen, then Christianity is not true. As Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 15:14, “if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain.”
Once again, as an old-Earth Christian, I believe that Genesis is history. Many Christian doctrines are tied to the historical events of Genesis. Not a single one of these doctrines, however, depends on Earth being 6000 years old. “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.” This is a historical statement for us as Christians whether this happened in roughly 4000 B.C., or 13.8 billion years ago. The alphabet portion of the New England Primer began with “In Adam’s fall we sinned all.” This statement holds true whether Earth is 6000 years old or 4.6 billion years old.
6. Presuppositional thinking helps us understand the discipline of science
One final time, I have left the wording of this point intact from the article by the producer of Is Genesis History?
Presuppositional apologetics is based on the recognition that no one enters into an investigation with an empty mind, and that we all have prejudices that make us open to certain arguments, and closed to others. In other words, there are no neutral positions on any topic. As Christians, we carry certain assumptions about the nature of God’s Word and God’s world into investigations. We don’t take this approach because we have “blind faith,” but because the Holy Spirit has worked those convictions into our hearts and minds, and because we recognize that this approach seems reasonable in light of what we know about the world around us.
My basic presupposition as I approach the study of the relationship between the Bible and science is that all truth is God’s truth, whether it be truth revealed in God’s Word, or truth revealed in God’s world. If there seems to be a conflict between these two revelations, then either we do not correctly understand God’s Word, or we do not correctly understand God’s world (or maybe a bit of both). In the end, if we come to a point of complete understanding, there will be no conflict.
Sometimes young-Earth scholars express their presuppositional approach with a question such as, “Will you believe the infallible words of the Bible, or the fallible words of scientists?” This question assumes that there are some truths that are more true than other truths (as if one true thing can be truer than another true thing). It also makes the assumption that the young-Earth interpretation itself is infallible, when in reality our interpretations can be wrong. Fallible people misread God’s infallible Word, and fallible people misread God’s good creation. It is one thing to have a presupposition that the God of the universe has revealed himself in his inerrant Word; it is a mistake to start with the presupposition that one’s own interpretation, such as the young-Earth interpretation of Genesis 1, is also inerrant.
In his closing section, Thomas Purifoy quotes D. Martin Lloyd-Jones: “I have no gospel unless Genesis is history.” I can say, “Amen” to that.
A few years ago, I posted my “Creation Creed” here at GeoChristian.com:
As an old-Earth Christian,
I believe in a real creation from nothing by the triune God of the Bible,
And in a real Adam,
Who lived in a real garden,
And who committed a real first sin.
I believe that this sin had consequences:
spiritual and physical death for all of humanity.
I believe in Jesus Christ as our only savior,
And as the ruler and redeemer of all creation.
This creed is rooted in the historical events of Genesis.
I could say much more, of course, but have already written a far longer article than what I had hoped. This essay is not a comprehensive defense of any given old-Earth interpretation. Reformed Christians (as well as Christians from other traditions) who hold to the inerrancy of Scripture fall on both sides of the young-Earth/old-Earth debate. I hope that I have demonstrated that there are valid answers to the theological concerns that my young-Earth brothers and sisters in Christ have about the consequences of accepting an ancient creation.
Grace and Peace
I have a great amount of respect for both Del Tackett (who also narrated The Truth Project series) and Thomas Purifoy. Thomas did a tremendous amount of research in preparation for producing Is Genesis History? He read weighty books from both sides of the debate (but it seems only got personal input from the young-Earth side; I could be wrong) I have had some correspondence with Thomas (Facebook messenger), and he has always been gracious and articulate. I just think he is wrong, and that young-Earth creationism is neither biblically necessary nor scientifically credible.
I am a member of a church in the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA), a theologically-conservative Reformed denomination that affirms biblical inerrancy (Del Tackett, the narrator of Is Genesis History?, is an elder within the PCA). The PCA as a denomination takes no official stand on the age of the Earth, and has produced an excellent document outlining both young-Earth and old-Earth interpretations of Genesis that are acceptable within the denomination. This document is the Report of the Creation Study Committee. I highly recommend this report!
It is refreshing that Thomas Purifoy acknowledges, “I realize that intelligent and godly Reformed Christians hold to [old-Earth] models of Earth history.” In the past, the list of old-Earth Reformed scholars and pastors included B.B. Warfield, Charles Spurgeon, and Francis Schaeffer. In the present, this list includes Justin Taylor, Michael Horton, and John Piper.
I have written a number of (mostly) short articles about Biblical topics regarding creation in my GeoScriptures series (a series I hope to add to). I will highlight a few of these articles:
- Genesis 2:2-3 — God’s rest and the age of the Earth — There are good Biblical reasons for asserting that “day” in Genesis 1 can mean something other than a literal day.
- Genesis 6:1-9:17 — Reading the account of Noah’s (local) flood — A few valid translation changes makes the Flood account in Genesis read much less like a worldwide catastrophe.
- Genesis 7:19 — “All the earth” doesn’t always mean “all the earth” — Did the Chinese send people to Egypt to purchase grain from Joseph?
- Psalm 90:4 — God’s days are not the same as our days — “For a thousand years in your sight are but as yesterday when it is past, or as a watch in the night.”
I have written a number of articles about the age of the Earth and the extent and work of Noah’s flood on my blog as well. Take a look at the Best of the GeoChristian page. Here are a few highlights:
- The Pleistocene is not in the Bible — A critique of “When Was the Ice Age in Biblical History?” — Another bad answer from Answers in Genesis. This time it is about cramming multiple ice ages (and everything else that has happened in the Quaternary Period) and all human prehistory and history before Abraham into the period between 2250 and 2000 B.C.
- Six bad arguments from Answers in Genesis (Part 1) — Fossils at the top of mountains not evidence for a global flood.
- Young-Earth creationism and the intensity of volcanism — A June 2012 article from the Institute for Creation Research’s Acts & Facts magazine selects a handful of eruptions to prove that volcanic activity is winding down after the flood, and ignores thousands of other eruptions that go against this “trend.”
The ESV Study Bible is written from a Reformed perspective, and I have written a four-part series about the study notes. The study notes on Genesis, creation, and the flood include both young-Earth and old-Earth interpretations. One of the links I share most often with my young-Earth friends is the one about dinosaurs (actually the lack thereof) in the book of Job.
Another excellent article is PCA Geologists on the Antiquity of the Earth, written by eight geologists who are members of churches in the Reformed and theologically-conservative Presbyterian Church in America. The geological evidence presented by young-Earth creationists, such as in Is Genesis History? has failed to convince most Christian geologists, even those who hold to a high view of Scripture. One would think that if the arguments are even slightly compelling, that Christian geologists would jump in large numbers to the young-Earth side. They don’t.
Bible quotes are from the English Standard Version (ESV).
The Facebook discussion for this article is here.
Copyright © 2018, Kevin Nelstead, GeoChristian.com