The biblical doctrine of creation is foundational to our Christian faith. Questions about creation have an important bearing on our view of the Bible and, therefore, on our view of salvation and the reality of our personal salvation.
Because our eternal destiny hinges on the truth of God’s Word, we become very agitated in discussions about the nature of creation, especially when views of origins that seem to undermine the Bible are advanced. For example, the assertion that the earth might be several billion years old commonly provokes a negative emotional reaction. To many Christians, that assertion seems flatly to contradict the Bible. Moreover, it is often claimed that scientists cannot really know the age of the earth anyway.
Reconstructing The Past
Such skepticism raises an important question: How is it possible to know anything of the prehistoric past? Non-Christian geologists who have no interest in what the Bible says about the past seek to reconstruct the history of the earth by carefully examining evidence contained in rocks and other geological features. They interpret the evidence in terms of a principle of analogy with the present. They assume that the processes operative during the earth’s past were the same as, or closely analogous to, those operating at the present time, and were based on the same laws that govern the present behavior of nature. When we discover past effects that correspond exactly to effects we observe today, we conclude that the cause of the past effects is like the cause we now observe producing those same effects today.
For example, a geologist discovers gravel deposits, layered mudstones containing isolated pebbles, and grooved, polished bedrock surfaces. He interprets this as the result of glacial erosion and deposition simply because such situations are characteristic only of modern-day glaciers.
The Matter Of Miracles
Geologists seek to understand the past. Because the Christian geologist believes in the reliability of the Bible when it speaks about the past, he knows that miracles have occurred. Belief in miracles, however, presents him with a methodological problem in reconstructing history. Can the Christian geologist assume the analogy of the past with the present as the non-Christian does? If indeed God, in penetrating history, suspended the ordinary laws and processes of his creation, how then can one possibly distinguish a geological feature formed as a result of a miracle from one formed by ordinary, providentially controlled processes?
For example, how can a Christian geologist studying salt deposits in the Dead Sea area ever hope to distinguish a mass of salt formed by the miraculous transformation of Lot’s wife from other salt masses formed by such ordinary processes as the evaporation of saline lakes?
More important, suppose that God created the world by means of ordinary processes together with several miracles. The result would be that many geological features would have the appearance of age and development by natural process. How then could a Christian geologist distinguish glacier-produced gravels and polished bedrock surfaces from similar deposits that were created miraculously?
Is the Christian geologist “fettered” by his belief in miracles so that he must forever remain skeptical about reconstructing the past from geological features observed today? Or are there biblical guidelines that will enable him to develop a viable method for reconstructing the past?
Miracle, Providence, And The Bible
Scripture teaches that God is a God of order. He is not whimsical or arbitrary. The Bible constantly makes reference to the laws, decrees, and ordinances that he established in his creation (Ps. 104:5–9; Ps. 148:3–6; Job 28:25–27; Job 38:8–11, 33; Prov. 8:27–29; Jer. 5:22, 24; Jer. 31:35–36). God made a “covenant,” so to speak, with his creation so that the constituent elements of the created order—such as day and night, the sun, moon, and stars, seed time and harvest—behave in a regular, periodic manner (Gen. 8:22; Jer. 33:25–26).
God appeals to his “covenantal” relationship regarding day and night and the laws of heaven and earth as evidence of his faithfulness to his people Israel (Jer. 33:25–26). This recurrent biblical theme of order and predictability in God’s creation lays the basis for scientific work, making it legitimate to assume the general continuity of law and natural processes throughout time. Like causes generally produce like effects, and so generally, like effects in rocks were produced by like causes.
Scripture also plainly teaches that God has miraculously intervened in the ordinary course of events. He performed his miracles, however, for a definite purpose, not simply for man’s entertainment. These miracles occur at crucial junctures in redemptive history: the deliverance from Egypt; the entrance into the Promised Land; the earthly ministry of our Lord; the apostolic age. Miracles called attention to God’s mighty acts of deliverance and attested to the truthfulness of the message of the prophets and apostles. This sparing use of miracles implies that the Christian may interpret most past events in terms of ordinary historical and natural laws and processes. Even the definition of “miracle” demands assumption of a basic uniformity of the laws of nature, in contrast to which, from our human perspective, a miracle is seen as a miracle.
I propose this as a proper Christian procedure: We assume we can explain any past event in terms of processes like those of the present operating on the basis of ordinary laws that God established. But we must make an exception to this if it can be demonstrated from Scripture that such an event was miraculous.
For example, the Christian historian would not explain the birth of Christ in terms of natural processes because the Bible clearly indicates that a miracle occurred. On the other hand, the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, although unusual, could legitimately be explained in terms of natural processes providentially controlled by God. This is so because it cannot be shown that the Bible demands a miraculous event.
In any case, the Bible clearly teaches that miracles are the rare exception rather than the rule. Therefore, we have solid biblical grounds for holding that any given geological process or event occurred in the ordinary course of nature unless there is some special reason for a divine miracle. It is also likely that a geological event must have some crucial significance in the history of redemption if we are to explain it as the result of a miracle.
So the Christian geologist should attempt to reconstruct earth’s history by interpreting the evidence in rocks and geological features. But he must also assume that the past was fundamentally like the present, with the sparing occurrence of miracles, and with the biblical emphasis on the orderliness of nature as part of God’s providential upholding of his creation.
Creation And Geology
How then should a Christian geologist deal with those rocks and geological features that were formed during the six days of creation? Does he simply describe them, use their resources, and explain them as the product of God’s miraculous fiat? Or, may he legitimately interpret them in terms of present-day processes and laws?
Many Christians claim the Bible demands belief in a creation that was studded continuously with miracles. Fiat creation is said to be identical to miraculous creation of various entities so that rocks, trees, lions, stars and the like were created only a few thousand years ago, virtually instantaneously, and in fully mature condition. Thus, lions, trees, and rocks created during the six days were supposedly created with only an appearance of age and historical development. Adherents of this viewpoint maintain that it is illegitimate to reconstruct the past from the evidence of ancient rocks by using any principle of analogy with present processes and laws. This is because miracles involving instantaneous creation are not analogous to what happens now.
I agree that the initial creation (Gen. 1:1) was miraculous. And I insist on upholding the power of God in creation. But I maintain that the text does not insist either that the creation “week” was dominated by pure miracle or that natural processes were unimportant or nonexistent. Many Bible-believing theologians and commentators have noted that much of the language of Genesis 1 (for example, the development of vegetation on day three) strongly implies the processes of natural growth and development, initiated, nevertheless, by the fiat of God’s word (“Let the earth produce grass”). Others have argued that the days of Genesis 1 were long periods of time consistent with the discoveries of geology. Such theologians come from a variety of evangelical traditions and include such men as Charles Hodge, A. A. Hodge, B. B. Warfield, W. G. T. Shedd, J. Oliver Buswell, Jr., Alexander Maclaren, James Orr, Herman Bavinck, Tayler Lewis, Francis Hall, A. H. Strong, Bernard Ramm. Friedrich Bettex, Orton Wiley, John Miley, J. P. Lange, and Franz Delitzsch.
Even older theologians like Saint Augustine and John Calvin held views of creation that anticipated these more recent scholars. The conservative Presbyterian scholar, B. B. Warfield, for example, points out that Calvin restricted the use of the great word “creation” to the initial act, and taught that in ordering the universe over the six days God used ordinary natural means. Amazingly, Warfield goes so far as to term Calvin’s view “pure evolutionism”!
In any case, it certainly cannot be demonstrated conclusively from Scripture that the six days of Genesis 1:1–30 must be exactly 24 hours in length fitting into a single seven-day week. And the Christian geologist need not assume that all geological features were created with an appearance of age. He may assume that rocks, mountains, and other geological features of the six days of creation were formed through processes analogous with those of the present. And he has the right to use evidence contained in those rocks to reconstruct the past by analogy with the present. This also helps us avoid the problem of why God should have created a rock deposit that looked as if it had been formed by glacial action but really had not.
Evidence For The Earth’S Antiquity
If we assume that the rocks of creation week were formed by processes we can know and interpret in terms of today’s laws, we find by analyzing the evidence in these rocks that Earth is extremely old and has a long, complex history. The geology of eastern Pennsylvania and New Jersey illustrates this. In general terms the area consists of a thick series of layers of sandstone, shale, limestone, and coal, which have buckled and in spots been penetrated by hot, molten silicate materials called magma.
The following general history of the area is based on the work of hundreds of geologists during the past 150 years. First, an ancient rock surface was submerged in the sea and covered with beach sands, followed by fossil-bearing limestone deposits similar to those now accumulating on the shallow continental shelf off the southeast coast of the United States. Then deep-water and mud and sand were deposited on top of the earlier fossil-bearing limestone deposits. After these layers hardened into rock, they were folded, uplifted, eroded, and buried under another very thick accumulation of river, beach, and marine sediments. All this in turn was hardened into rock and again folded, uplifted, and eroded. On top of this erosion surface, river and lake sediments containing dinosaur fossils were deposited along with volcanic lava flows. After tilting, these layers eroded. Next, a thick sequence of sand and gravel was deposited along the east coast, and finally gravels left by vast glaciers in the northeast bring the story up to the present.
This entire sequence of events for prehistoric Pennsylvania and New Jersey can be discovered by comparing these layered rocks with comparable deposits being formed today. Some creationists question the vast amount of time involved in such a sequence of events. But for the professional geologist, biblically oriented or not, the large amounts of time involved in the geological processes described are evident from several considerations.
1. The varied characteristics of different rock formations suggest that sediment was deposited in a variety of environments. Now, great thicknesses of sediment generally accumulate slowly. For example, river deposits several hundred feet thick indicate the long-continued existence of that river. Transition from one environment to another is also very slow. Yet, in the eastern United States we see rock sequence reflecting numerous examples of radical changes in environment, each appearing to have existed a long time.
2. The very distribution of fossils suggests that long stretches of time were involved in the development of the rocks in which they are found. Specific fossils are restricted to specific types of rock formations. This distribution suggests the periodic appearance of new forms and extinction of old forms. If all these sediments were deposited in a very brief time span, a given fossil animal would be distributed throughout the entire succession of sediments rather than in specific layers.
3. The transformation of sediment into rock, the tilting and uplifting of that rock, and extensive erosion of solid bedrock are all processes that require much time. Rapid transformation into rock is very unusual and develops only under restricted circumstances. The present existence of thousands of feet of unconsolidated sediments off the Atlantic and Gulf coasts testifies that ordinarily such transformation does not occur quickly. Uplift of rock also occurs slowly. Although rock may be elevated several feet during a single earthquake, an uplift of thousands of feet would require a succession of events acting over a long time.
4. In the light of what we know about the physical properties of rock layers, we can demonstrate mathematically that tens or hundreds of thousands of years would have been required to develop folds on the scale of those in the Appalachian mountain system.
5. The sedimentary rocks have lava flows interlayered with them or igneous (magma-formed) rocks cutting across them. These rocks require time to solidify and cool to room temperature. Hawaiian lava lakes have taken as long as 16 years just to solidify to a depth of 50 yards. The time to cool to surface temperature was much longer. And in the rock record, there are lava flows thicker than the Hawaiian lakes. Successions of lava flows might thus require hundreds of years to form and cool. Moreover, many rocks then cooled from hot magma developed far underground where their heat would have been lost much more slowly than if they had cooled on the earth’s surface as lava does. The mathematical theory of heat conduction demonstrates that in some cases as much as a million years would have been necessary for the heat of the magma to be dissipated so that solidification could occur.
Thus, the cumulative weight of several lines of evidence from the rock record, supplementing each other in every area of the globe, has persuaded most geologists, Christian and non-Christian, that the earth has experienced a long, dynamic history.
But none of the above lines of evidence provides us with dependable means for determining the exact age of a rock or geologic event. For that we appeal to radiometric dating.
Radiometric dating concerns certain isotopes (varieties of atoms of given chemical elements like uranium, carbon, potassium, and rubidium). These isotopes disintegrate spontaneously at measurable, specific rates into other isotopes known as daughter products. To obtain the age of any material, geochronologists measure the quantities of radioactive isotopes and their daughter products in it, thereby obtaining an indication of the extent of disintegration. Corrections are made for the amounts of daughter isotopes in that material when it was formed. Through mathematical calculation, the age of the specimen can then be determined.
Dozens of laboratories around the world are engaged in the radiometric dating of geological materials. Since the early part of the century, numerous techniques have been developed. Those with too many pitfalls have been discarded while sound methods have been refined. Consequently there are thousands of age determinations of rocks and minerals that have almost invariably yielded ages of millions to billions of years. Mathematical analysis of the distribution of uranium and lead isotopes suggests that Earth itself is on the order of 4.5 to 4.7 billion years old.
Even outer space offers testimony to antiquities of this magnitude. Radiometric dating of many meteorites that have fallen to the earth indicates ages of between 4.5 and 4.6 billion years. And combined with the mathematical analysis of the distribution of radioactive elements on the moon, the radiometric dating of samples indicates it is about 4.6 billion years old. The very consistency of these results from separate bodies in the solar system reinforces the validity of radiometric methods.
The geological evidence is utterly incompatible with the idea that the globe is only a few thousand years old. The only consistent way to maintain such an idea is to hold that virtually the entire rock record is the product of pure miracle. But Scripture certainly does not lend itself to such a conclusion.
Many Christians are afraid to accept the conclusion of the earth’s antiquity because they think that this somehow establishes the validity of evolution. While significant biological evolution would not be possible in a recently created world, it is also true that significant biological evolution is not a logical necessity in an ancient world. The validity of biological evolution must be considered separately from the age of the earth.
Fossils And Human Evolution
Human evolution must also be considered separately from evolution in general. I personally believe evolution must be rejected as the mode of origin for the human race because the Bible demands a miracle for man’s origin. If the fossil evidence is evaluated on the assumption that the human body emerged through the agency of ordinary providentially controlled biological processes, then a significant transition from ancient types to modern man over the past four million years seems plausible.
There are, for example, many humanlike fossil remains from eastern and southern Africa and from Asia. These remains suggest to many anthropologists a possible gradual transition of physical form from Australopithecus afarensis through Homo habilis and Homo erectus to Homo sapiens over the last four million years.
Moreover, there are indications of human cultural development associated with the remains.
The Christian paleontologist, however, must ask whether he can interpret the paleontological data solely in terms of natural processes or if he must assume that a miraculous act of God was the decisive factor. Is there any biblical evidence to indicate that the origin of man was something miraculous, or may we treat it in purely natural terms?
Biblical Data On The Origin Of Man
I believe Scripture compels us to accept a miraculous origin of man. In this conclusion I am supported by the overwhelming majority of evangelical commentators. Several lines of evidence support this conclusion.
1. The human race is presented as made in the image of God. This biblical teaching would call in question a derivation of human beings from animals that are not created in the image of God.
2. Genesis 2:7 says that when God breathed into man’s nostrils the breath of life man became a living creature. That which constituted man as a man also constituted him as a living creature. According to the Bible, man was not alive prior to his becoming man, so he is not a descendant of some other creature. Efforts to interpret this text in a purely figurative or allegorical manner are unsatisfactory because they ignore the structure of Gensis in which the book is divided into several historical narratives.
3. Scripture indicates that Adam and Eve were separate creations and that the man appeared chronologically before the woman (Gen. 2; 1 Tim. 2:13). The temporal priority of the man before the woman is incompatible with an evolutionary view of the origin of man.
4. Romans 5 and 1 Corinthians 15 teach that there was a distinct individual, Adam, who was the first man and by whose one sin plunged the human race into a state of condemnation. This individual is contrasted with the individual, Jesus Christ, by whose obedience God’s people were constituted as righteous. The individuality of Christ and the historical reality of his work demand, in terms of Paul’s analogy, that Adam, too, be a historical individual who committed a real act of disobedience in history.
The individuality of Adam is difficult to reconcile with an evolutionary origin. But even more difficult to reconcile is the matter of death. Evolutionary theory would demand that biological death be a normal, natural part of existence of the ancestors of man as they gradually evolved toward humanness. Death is presented in both Genesis and Romans 5 as the penalty for sin. Even though this death may have as its major component the radical loss of blessed fellowship with God, nonetheless the physical aspect of death is not absent. Why do we repeatedly read the monotonous refrain “and he died” throughout the Genesis 5 genealogy if physical death as punishment for Adam’s sin is not in view?
There is abundant evidence in Scripture to indicate that the origin of man in his totality was a miraculous event. The fossil remains, I think, may be interpreted to show an evolution of nonhuman animals, once created, and also of biological variation in man once created. But I do not think we can talk in terms of a biological transition from an animal to man.
If someone can propose a view of evolution that would be consistent with the biblical demands that man is created in the image of God, that the sexes appeared separately, that man was in no way alive until he became a man, and that there was a unique first human individual, Adam, who was punished for his disobedience and who experienced physical death because of his sin, then we might calmly and dispassionately consider that idea in the light of God’s word. To date, however, I have not seen a satisfactory evolutionary view for the origin of man. The theological consequences of accepting currently existing ideas for human evolution are far too devastating, as we have pointed out.
As shown by W. H. Green and B. B. Warfield, no serious theological problems are caused by accepting great antiquity for the human race. Exactly when a miraculous creation of Adam and Eve might have taken place, I do not know.
Man’s creation probably goes back at least 50,000 years inasmuch as religious burial practices and highly developed art indicate that Neanderthal remains are genuinely human. Whether or not earlier remains like various species of Australopithecus, Homo habilis, or Homo erectus are genuinely human, and thus descendents of Adam, is a judgment that must be left to Christian anthropologists. They are in the best position to interpret existing fossils and to evaluate future discoveries.
By contrast with human evolution, an ancient earth presents no serious negative theological consequence. Instead, the antiquity of the earth leads us to deeper wonder at the eternity of God just as the incredible vastness of the universe leads us to awesome wonder at his infinity.
Davis A. Young is professor of geology at Calvin College, Grand Rapids, Michigan. He is the author of Creation and the Flood (Baker, 1977) and Christianity and the Age of the Earth (Zondervan, 1982).
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