Why do we believe, contrary to young-earth creationism, that the heavens and the earth are significantly older than the 6,000-year history of man?
Presently, there are two main debates about the origins of the earth and the universe. One is the creation vs. evolution controversy being waged in classrooms, courts, mass media and even churches.
The second debate is among creationists themselves, although the discussion is certainly not as strident, since the identity of the Creator is not being questioned, the inspiration of the Bible is not being challenged, nor is Jesus Christ as Savior being doubted.
Creationists are typically classified into two groups—young-earth creationists and old-earth creationists. There are variations of creation models within each camp, yet the purpose here is not to discuss those differences, but rather to briefly lay out why we believe in what is labeled a form of old-earth creationism.
We believe that the physical evidence of the universe and the textual studies on Genesis 1 favor the universe and the earth being older than the 6,000 years man has existed. Our understanding is a logical, straightforward way of explaining Genesis 1 that is consistent with what we find in the physical world.
A proper biblical framework
As explained in the accompanying article " How Old Is the Earth? ", the earlier history of the earth and the universe can be understood to be compacted into the first two verses of Genesis 1. Namely, there was an original creation of the heavens (all the stars and galaxies) and the earth, at which time the angels shouted for joy at its beauty and majesty. Then there was a time when the earth was laid waste and became chaotic. Waters covered the earth, no continents were in view and darkness prevailed.
Here is one of a number of scholarly opinions about the meaning of Genesis:1:2 that reflect our understanding. Gleason Archer, professor of biblical languages, comments:
"It should be noted in this connection that the verb was in Genesis:1:2 may quite possibly be rendered 'became' and be construed to mean: 'And the earth became formless and void.' Only a cosmic catastrophe could account for the introduction of chaotic confusion into the original perfection of God's creation. This interpretation certainly seems to be exegetically tenable" ( A Survey of Old Testament Introduction, 1974, p. 184).
What follows in Genesis:1:3-31 describes the seven-day creation week of literally seven 24-hour days, wherein God sent forth His Spirit to "renew the face of the earth" (Psalm:104:30), creating a world habitable for humankind with the progenitors of the various life forms we see today. We can call this general explanation the "creation/devastation/re-creation model." Others refer to it as the "gap theory"—in reference to the gap in time and information between Genesis:1:1 and 1:2.
Evidence from the natural realm
The vast universe around us displays evidence of great age. The fact that we see light from extremely distant stars and galaxies, for example, indicates a universe much older than 6,000 years. A light-year is the distance light travels in a year, and we can see celestial objects much farther away than 6,000 light-years—including galaxies that are millions and even billions of light-years away.
Some have argued that God created the light from these distant objects in transit to enable us to see them today, but astronomers have witnessed celestial events farther away than 6,000 light-years. This is a serious problem for those who believe the universe is only 6,000 years old. For it would seem to indicate that these celestial events never actually happened—that they are part of a fictional "movie projection" of sorts, essentially a grand hoax, which is inconsistent with a God of truth (see Psalm:31:5; Isaiah:65:16; Titus:1:2).
Some young-earth creationists have proposed some interesting hypotheses as to how distant starlight can fit within their overall model, but these guesses, however well thought out, remain unconvincing.
Astronomer Hugh Ross points out regarding the universe's age markers: "Specifically, God has scattered astronomical 'clocks,' time-bound astronomical phenomena (e.g., supernovae, Cepheid variable stars, neutron stars, black holes, etc.), throughout the universe, and they all agree. They do not reflect differences of rate or dimensionality" ("Avoiding a Dangerous Trap," Reasons to Believe, Jan. 1, 1999, p. 2).
As to how old the earth itself is, that's difficult to determine. While earth scientists generally date its origins to around 4.5 billion years, this assumes reliable radiometric dating, a uniformitarian past and an evolutionary interpretation of fossil strata. The reality is that dating methods have certain weaknesses and that the Bible indicates a more catastrophic past—as the geologic record also appears to. Nevertheless, the geologic record still seems to support an age rather older than 6,000 years. And we cannot deny an age in the millions or billions—nor do we need to in accepting what the Bible says.
Some have suggested that if the earth and moon are so old, the dust accumulation on their surfaces should be much greater. This was a common young-earth creationist argument, but most have now abandoned it. Initially, back in the mid-20th century, some calculations put the rate of dust accumulation at a much higher level than what has been carefully measured today. The older calculations were claimed to support a recent earth. But now, through more precise atmospheric and satellite measurements, the rate has been found to be consistent with what one would expect in an old earth and universe.
Even if some findings still suggest a young age for various celestial objects, scientists through continuing investigation may yet offer a credible explanation, as has happened before. Moreover, we should remember that, on behalf of God the Father, Jesus Christ exercises power to sustain the universe (see Hebrews:1:1-3). So some things could actually be older than they seem. There would be no deception in this, for Scripture tells us of Christ's sustaining work.
Finally, without speculating on exactly how the universe developed from its initial creation to the time of Adam and Eve, here are several points of basic agreement between the Bible and the conclusions of scientists:
1. Matter, energy and time have a beginning.
2. The universe began at a definite point in time.
3. The universe and the earth are quite ancient—predating the world of man.
4. The universe is finite and gradually decaying.