STICKS AND STONES MAY BREAK BONES, BUT WORDS DO MORE DAMAGE THAN most people can imagine. Especially name-calling. “You’re dangerous!” “Deceived.” “A false prophet.” “A compromiser!” Charges like these by young-earth leaders, both spoken and implied, are intended to discredit, maim, and crush old-earth advocates, including me.1
Because I’m both an astronomer and a pastor, one who prefers to build bridges rather than burn them, I’ve been reluctant to participate in public debates with young-earth proponents. Yet in 1999 I consented to a nationally televised debate on the age of the earth and the duration of the Genesis creation days with Kent Hovind on “The John Ankerberg Show.” Ankerberg invited Hovind and me to dinner the night prior to the debate to remind us (as he had on several previous occasions) that we’d been selected for this public exchange because of our reputation as “gentlemen.” Ankerberg expected considerate behavior. I thought Hovind and I both understood and agreed. But during the debate, in spite of Ankerberg’s many remonstrances, Hovind let go of common courtesy, and I struggled to retain composure in the face of outrageous innuendos.2
Hovind is not the only Christian to call me (and other old-earth proponents) derogatory names. Nor is the problem new. Young-earth creationist Russell Akridge, addressing the 1982 Annual Creation Convention, berated astrophysicists and astronomers as “high priests of this decades-old cult” of the “big bang myth” and as “persuasive speakers [who] have deceived an unsuspecting public.”3 Making this kind of offensive claim against the worldwide community of secular astrophysicists and astronomers only drives resistance to Christians and Christian teachings deeper. Given scientists’ tendency toward independence and nonconformity, the suggestion that thousands of them would band together to carry out a plot to mislead the public seems unimaginable. Another explanation must exist for the strong and united confidence of scientists in the creation dates (as billions of years ago) for the universe and Earth.
Insults such as the ones described have generated hostility, to say the least. They shut down communication. And they hinder the witness of many scientists who love God and want to impact the world for Jesus Christ.
I came to trust in Jesus as my Savior after a two-year personal study of the Bible that convinced me that Scripture is free of contradiction and error—doctrinally, historically, and scientifically. But as a young man, I couldn’t find a church or Christian group (in walking or bicycling distance from my Canadian university) that upheld biblical inerrancy. Upon coming to the United States, I was overjoyed to meet many Christians, even fellow scientists, who were convinced that the Bible is completely trustworthy. Some showed great interest in my personal journey toward faith, especially in the study that led me, as an astronomer, to give my life to Christ. Within a couple of years, I was invited to speak on science and the Bible at a Christian conference.
After my first message, a group of angry men in crisp business suits headed my way. One of them waved the pamphlet What Is Christianity? in my face.4 He said, “I thought you were a genuine Christian, based on what you wrote here, but your other booklet forced me to change my mind.” The disturbing words in that “other booklet,” Genesis One: A Scientific Perspective, implied that the universe is billions of years old.5 So he and his friends concluded, “You cannot possibly be a Bible-believing Christian!” My wife, Kathy, stood by my side, too stunned to even speak.
This was my first exposure to the raging storm of the creation-day controversy. I offended those men by failing to mention the creation time-scale “problem” in my talk. Yet, up to that moment, I was barely aware that such a problem existed. The solidity of the scientific evidence for both Earth’s origin (a few billion years ago) and the universe’s beginning (a few more billion years ago) raised not a moment’s doubt about the necessity of a Creator. Nor did it cause me concern when I first read the Genesis 1 creation account. It honestly did not register with me that anyone could or would see a need to propose that the earth and universe are only a few thousands of years old or that the Genesis days are consecutive calendar days. The truthfulness of the text and the necessity of divine intervention faced no threat from the facts about Earth’s or the universe’s age.
BATTERED BY WORDS
Many Christians, including scientists and others who value science, have been displaced or alienated by this storm. Evangelical leaders who believe the Bible is true and that the universe and Earth are as old as the stars and rocks proclaim are often denounced as men and women whose lives and work “do not lead to soul-winning or spiritual growth, but to apostasy.”6 These are serious charges. Moreover, lists of the accused have been published, naming Calvin College geologist Davis Young, Pattle Pun and his colleagues at Wheaton College, most of the authors and officers of the American Scientific Affiliation, Gleason Archer, Charles Hodge, former young-universe creationist Dan Wonderly, Alan Hayward, Charles Hummel, Howard Van Till, and Hugh Ross. (Yes, my name shows up on the lists too.)7 Such lists, and the attitudes that generate them, cause many Christians to become distrustful and even disdainful of scientists. Without malice aforethought, they begin treating science as an enemy of the faith.
This polarization is not new. For the past 200 years, the scientific and religious worlds have thundered at each other in a series of stormy battles over God. Traditionally, conflict focused on crucial questions:
In the past 40 years, however, the debate has veered from these core issues. Now the hurricane of controversy whirls around a peripheral point—the age of the universe and of Earth.
Scientific discoveries keep the intensity of the tumult in the public eye. Ours is the first generation ever to measure the size and age of the universe. A few years ago, astronomers actually produced a radio image of the universe when it was just 0.003 percent of its present age—that moment in cosmic history when light first separated from darkness.8 Sadly (and ironically), news of this astounding detection raises anxiety rather than excitement in the evangelical community. Why? Though it magnificently affirms biblical cosmology, such data threaten belief in a recent creation date for the universe.
Many Christians are raised believing that to be true to God’s Word means to accept that the universe, Earth, and life were created in six 24-hour days, only a few thousand years ago. Most people lack the theological and scientific tools to think through the implications of this teaching. In an attempt to stay out of the storm, they remain distressed and confused. Yet a personal, internal storm constantly threatens to break out: scientific facts versus scriptural integrity, the natural record versus the written words of the Bible. These people love Jesus but long for simplicity—a cosmos not so mind-boggling, vast, and complex, with answers untainted by the presumed corruption of scientific and theological research.
In their bewilderment and longing, some of these Christians stay away from science, never even considering it as a tool for sharing their faith with those who don’t know Jesus. They steer clear of organizations that use science to reach people for Christ. Thus, their faith can’t be strengthened and supported by scientific evidences. Even more alarming, many skeptics who need solid evidence to resolve their doubts remain untouched by the claims of Christ. Such people (educators, politicians, community leaders, and others) perceive evangelical Christians as nonthinkers or even as antiscience or antirational.
Because the creation-day issue has divided many Christians into hostile camps, young- and old-earth creationists often focus more energy on defending their respective positions than on reaching out to those who don’t yet believe the Bible is true.
DISTORTIONS DELUGE SOCIETY
The young-earth viewpoint and the desire to avoid science have inoculated a large segment of society from taking seriously the call to faith in Christ. Thus, because of a belief in a universe and Earth only thousands of years old, the groundwork has been laid to discount the Bible’s credibility and remove “religious notions” from public education and the public arena.
Worse yet, courts in North America have come to perceive the length of creation days as a central issue of Christianity. Some leaders who don’t want creation taught in public schools are delighted that a majority of evangelical Christians accept a young universe and a young Earth. They exploit this belief to win their court cases, keeping creation teaching out of public institutions. Of greater importance, they believe that by discrediting Genesis they can demonstrate a flawed Bible. This “faulty creation message” is used to discredit the deity of Christ, the inerrancy of Scripture, the sanctity of life, doctrines on heaven and hell, and so forth. If the creation account is implausible, what basis remains to believe anything else the Bible declares?
An example of this line of reasoning is articulated in the book Steve Allen on the Bible, Religion, and Morality:
The fundamentalist argument against the scientific assertion of the great age of our planet—to the effect that God created the earth only about 6,000 years ago, including fossils embedded in rocks— is unworthy of serious discussion. . . . It is now recognized by every intelligent and informed person that the two [Genesis and science] cannot be reconciled. . . . Nor should we be guilty of the error of assuming that the problem relates only to Genesis. It touches the New Testament as well.9
Many educators use the age of the universe to marginalize, patronize, and abuse the Christian community with statements such as these: “If you are a Creationist, the Bible—not nature—dictates what you believe.”10 “The spurious stories in Genesis are simply absurd. Yet, they do represent a conceptual framework from the undisciplined imagination of a prescientific age.”11 “The biblical story of creation has great poetic beauty and metaphorical power.”12 These comments expose the widely held assumption that all evangelical Christians reject the integrity of science and accept young-universe creationism. (The term creationist, for example, is rarely qualified, though one can be a creationist without adhering to a young-universe view.)
Well-known atheist Michael Ruse goes even further: “There are degrees of being wrong. The Creationists are at the bottom of the scale. They pull every trick in the book to justify their position. Indeed, at times they verge right over into the downright dishonest. . . . Their arguments are rotten, through and through.”13
A DESTRUCTIVE CONTROVERSY
Few Christians comprehend the devastation wreaked by the creation-day issue. Many people dismiss the Bible because of it. The sad irony is that the creation date need not be a difficulty. (See “What the Fuss Is Not About,” page 19.) Twenty-one different creation accounts within Scripture (see table 6.1, page 66) emphasize most strongly the who of creation. To a significant degree, they explain the how of creation. And to a much lesser degree, they discuss the when of creation. In other words, the Bible itself places far more importance on the factual nature of the creation events than on the length of the Genesis 1 creation days.
The Bible’s central teaching about the steps men and women must take to receive God’s promise of redemption from sin, and to form a relationship with the Creator, makes this order of emphasis entirely appropriate. Misidentifying God or His key attributes could destroy the possibility of a person’s relationship with Him. Misunderstanding God’s strengths, capacities, and past works can impair the trust required to build intimacy. But misidentifying the timing of God’s past works in the cosmos has little or no bearing on that closeness. Nor does it bear upon the Bible’s authority. Yet this one doctrinal point stands at the center of the roaring tempest.
Young-universe Christians claim that the Bible can only be interpreted as teaching that all creation took place in six consecutive 24-hour days about 10,000 (104) years ago. Old-universe Christians say the text allows ample room, with no compromise of biblical inerrancy, for creation days of longer duration and even for a cosmic origin date of just over 10 billion (1010) years ago. Meanwhile, nontheists acknowledge that the age of the universe must exceed 10100,000,000,000 years for life to have any chance of self-assembly by natural processes alone (naturalism).15 Young-universe creationists differ from old-universe creationists by only six zeros, while a hundred billion zeros separate naturalists from those who believe in the Creator. In the past I’ve called this difference between young- and old-universe proponents trivial, referring only to mathematical terms. This perspective in no way suggests a trivial difference in other respects. My intent was to indicate that young- and old-universe creationists are mathematically much closer to one another than they are to any form of naturalism. Thus, the controversy seems largely unnecessary.
The emotionalism associated with the young-universe versus old-universe debate also seems unnecessary. I admit that my own attitudes need continual growth and change, especially when I encounter personal insults and injuries. So do my communication abilities. Defensiveness and hyperbole only contribute to the problem. Remembering the factual basis for my position helps me maintain a sense of objectivity:
Additional research will help resolve conflicts. Yet, with so many storm clouds swirling, can anyone hope for a peaceful end to the tumult? I can and I do. The desire for reconciliation motivated this book. It compels me to address the controversy.16 I write these pages with the hope that I can contribute to the peacemaking process by presenting sound reasoning that challenges unbelief and nurtures faith.
I’m persuaded that more than enough evidence is now available to resolve the conflicts between science and faith—young-earth and old-earth perspectives. No compromise of integrity is required by either side, not by the Christian who upholds the inerrancy of God’s Word nor by the scientist who trusts in the established facts of nature.
A first and essential step toward resolution is to trace the historical growth and development of the creation-day controversy. Bitter acrimony didn’t arise overnight. Though the date for creation has been debated since the birth of the Christian church, that discussion remained open and friendly for 15 centuries. Then, beginning just a couple of centuries ago, friendly dialogue degenerated into sharp polarization.