Happenings

Does the Bible tell Earth’s age?

Apr 2020    

Genesis 1 has been interpreted to mean that God created the world in six 24-hour days. Taking Adam to be created in that first week and adding up from all the Old Testament genealogies, Earth would then be only about 6,000 years old.

On the other hand, modern science has produced evidence supporting a much older Earth. For instance, cosmological evidence gives Earth an age of billions of years while geological evidence suggests homo sapiens have existed for at least 200,000 years. This has placed Christians in a seemingly intractable dilemma: either believe the Bible, or believe science.

A number of ways to reconcile biblical text and scientific data have been offered. One is to stretch the definition of each “day” in Genesis 1 to mean possibly millions and billions of years. But while the Hebrew word for “day” is sometimes used metaphorically to denote a long period of time, in Genesis 1 we are contextually bound by the week of seven “days” to the usual 24-hour definition. Thus, by virtue of sound biblical interpretation, this approach is not satisfactory.

Another way is based on an alternative reading “the earth became formless and void”, instead of the usual “the earth was formless and void” (Gen 1:2). This potentially creates a ‘gap’ of any number of years between the initial creation in Genesis 1:1 and a week-long reconstruction in the next verse. But since there is no prior mention of the earth’s condition, “became” is difficult to justify. Supporters of this ‘gap’ theory also appeal to destruction by Satan after he was banished from heaven as the cause for reconstruction of the formless void earth, but these are indirect inferences based on the already-tenuous “became” reading. Thus, this billion-year “gap” is also unsatisfactory for reconciling the Bible’s creation story with science.

The above approaches have attempted, unsuccessfully, to work within a literal understanding of the text to reconcile it with scientific data. There is, however, good reason to reexamine if Genesis 1 should be read literally in the first place. Not everything is to be taken literally in the Bible: clearly, Jesus did not command that we literally remove our eyes and hands when we sin (c.f. Matt 5:29–30). There is thus room for metaphor in the Bible. 

Reading Genesis 1 must already cause the modern mind to wonder if it should be understood literally. For example, how is day and night (created on Day 1) to be demarcated without the sun and moon (Day 4)? How is the sky a solid firmament (Gen 1:6–8, 17)? How was the “earth” created on Day 3 (Gen 1:10) different from the formless and void “earth” (Gen 1:2)? In light of this, it is difficult to justify that Genesis 1 is a scientific document.

But if Genesis 1 were non-literal, what is the significance of this metaphor? In the first three days, God separated and formed. In the next three days, He adorned and filled. Light (day 1) corresponds to the luminaries (day 4); sky and waters (day 2) correspond to birds and fishes (day 5); land and vegetation (day 3) correspond to terrestrial creatures (day 6). All this signifies the order and beauty in the way God created the cosmos. Humanity was created in His image, as God’s preeminent creature and His co-regent to steward and care over the rest of creation. On the final day God rested—not because He was tired, but as a celebration of His sovereign victory and a Sabbath sign for His people to rest on the last day of the week.

Ultimately, the Bible was written to present us—not with scientific facts, but with theological truths. Thus, it is not reasonable to expect the Bible to answer scientific questions, because the Bible and science fundamentally deal with different realms of knowledge. While science is operative only in the material realm, the Bible mainly speaks of the unseen realm of God and the human heart.

Accordingly, Christians need not reject science wholesale, but should seek God’s help to rightly discern which authority should be used to answer different questions. Just as we look to science to inform us about smartphones, medicines and geography, we must look to the Bible to tell us about God, the human soul and why we exist.

But are we then conceding our faith to modern science? How can we still claim the Bible as our highest and final authority? Firstly, by recognising that science is a function of the human intellect, and humans can be wrong; but the Bible is never wrong on matters of God. Secondly, science cannot account for all truth; for example, “I love you” can neither be proven nor explained by the scientific method. Finally, science has no instructions for holy living, but the Bible pierces our hearts and meets our souls’ needs, and our lives can be transformed when we know the sovereign God who made us in His image, and gave us order and rest.

In affirming the Bible’s utmost authority over our lives, we must allow it to speak with its own voice—by diligently seeking the best interpretive strategy for the various genres of its texts.

The views expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the official position of The Methodist Church in Singapore. This version of the article has been edited for brevity. The full article can be found at http://www.trac-mcs.org.sg/index.php/resources/bible-matters/26-resources/242-does-the-bible-tell-us

Daniel Lee is a member of Paya Lebar Methodist Church. After working in the public sector and as pastoral staff, he is now completing his final year of the Master of Divinity programme at Trinity Theological College.

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