If you've explored this question, you've probably encountered conflicting messages—even among those who believe in the Creator. What does the Bible indicate?
How old is the earth? Some believe that God created the universe with a "Big Bang" followed by an evolutionary process over billions of years that eventually produced stars, planets and all life-forms—in the latter case, simpler organisms gradually giving rise to more complex ones. Others (like the United Church of God) believe that God created everything long ago, well before the time of man, but without using a macroevolutionary process in the development of life and its variety. People who believe either of these explanations are often lumped together as "old-earth creationists."
Another group believes that God created the universe and all life in six days about 6,000 years ago. Proponents of this explanation are sometimes called "young-earth creationists."
Young-earth creationists rightfully point out that if God could bring everything into existence in the blink of an eye, He didn't need an evolutionary process over billions of years to produce stars, planets and life. Yet as old-earth creationists point out, there are numerous scientific indications that the earth is older than 6,000 years, and a careful reading of the biblical account does not require us to fight against that evidence.
Evolutionists often ridicule the stance of young-earth creationists. They argue that you can either believe the scientific evidence or hold onto the illusion that God created everything 6,000 years ago.
Does the Bible give any indications about the amount of time that may have passed between God's creation of the universe and His creation of mankind?
Before the six days of creation
"In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth" (Genesis:1:1, emphasis added throughout). "Heavens" refers to the galaxies, planets and stars, including our sun. We aren't given a date when this occurred. This verse does not restrict the time frame to either 6,000 or billions of years ago.
Verse 2 then says, "The earth was without form, and void; and darkness was on the face of the deep." As with most of the Old Testament, this verse was originally written in Hebrew. And the Hebrew word translated "was" here can have the sense of became. The same word is used in Genesis:3:20, where we read that Eve "became the mother of all the living" (New American Bible).
Next let's consider the phrase "without form . " The Hebrew word for this phrase is tohu, which means formless, confusion, empty, wasteland, a place of chaos. The word "void" is the Hebrew word bohu, which means emptiness, void, waste or ruin.
Dr. Arthur Custance, in his book Without Form and Void: A Study of the Meaning of Genesis:1:2, states, "I am persuaded that there is, on the basis of the evidence, far more reason to translate Genesis:1:2 as 'But the earth had become a ruin and a desolation, etc.' than there is for any of the conventional translations in our modern versions" (p. 7).
Since Genesis:1:2 can either mean that the earth was or that it became "without form, and void," what do additional scriptures indicate?
Isaiah:45:18 says of the earth that God "did not create it in vain [ tohu ]," but instead "formed it to be inhabited." The Hebrew word for "vain" is the same word used in Genesis:1:2. If God did not create the earth (originally) as a formless wasteland, then something happened that caused it to become that way, sometime after God created it. We'll address what likely caused this state of confusion in a moment.
Genesis:1:2 continues, "And the Spirit of God was hovering over the face of the waters." Psalm 104 also describes some of God's creative works. Verse 30 says, "You send forth Your Spirit, they are created; and You renew the face of the earth." The word translated "renew" means to rebuild, renew or repair. This harmonizes with the understanding that the first two verses of Genesis show an initial creation of the heavens and the earth that was not in vain ( tohu ), followed by a catastrophic event that left the earth in ruins, followed by God renewing the earth by His Spirit.
Verse 3, then, actually begins the record of God's creative work of renewing the earth and preparing it for His new creative masterpiece—human beings!
Now, how long before this destruction and renewal was the earth itself created? A day before? A year before? A million years or more before? The account simply does not say when the earth itself was created. What it says is that during the six-day period described in the verses that follow, God brought the planet into an orderly arrangement that would support life as we know it.
Angels and the biblical record
The creation of angels and the record of their activity best harmonizes with a creation that existed prior to the seven days of re-creation or renewing the earth for human beings.
In Job:38:4-7 God asks Job, "Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth...when the morning stars sang together, and all the sons of God shouted for joy?"
The terms "morning stars" and "sons of God" both refer to angels. They all shouted for joy when God first created the earth. All the angels—including Lucifer, who later became Satan—were in agreement with God and were ecstatic about what He had just made. When the earth was first created, Lucifer was not yet corrupted with iniquity. It certainly seems that considerable time must have passed between the creation of the earth, when Lucifer was in agreement with God, and his later appearance as the evil deceiver to Adam and Eve in Genesis 3.
We find more details in Isaiah:14:12, where God says: "How you are fallen from heaven, O Lucifer, son of the morning! How you are cut down to the ground." Jesus Christ, who lived in glory with the Father from eternity past before becoming human, said that He saw Lucifer fall from heaven (Luke:10:18).
Isaiah:14:13-14 explains some of Satan's motivation: "For you have said in your heart: 'I will ascend into heaven, I will exalt my throne above the stars of God; I will also sit on the mount of the congregation on the farthest sides of the north; I will ascend above the heights of the clouds, I will be like the Most High.'"
In Ezekiel:28:14-16 God sheds more light on the story: "You were the anointed cherub who covers; I established you; you were on the holy mountain of God; you walked back and forth in the midst of fiery stones. You were perfect in your ways from the day you were created, till iniquity was found in you. By the abundance of your trading you became filled with violence within, and you sinned; therefore I cast you as a profane thing out of the mountain of God."
Something caused the beautiful earth—which all the angels were thrilled to see—to become a wasteland, choked with debris and incapable of supporting life. It seems likely that the rebellion of Lucifer led to this devastation.
Notice also Jude 6: "And the angels who did not keep their proper domain, but left their own abode, He has reserved in everlasting chains under darkness for the judgment of the great day." These angels abandoned the domain God gave them, the earth, either by leaving it (perhaps in the attempt to take over God's throne) or abandoning their responsibility to properly maintain it.
Summary of the scenario
So we don't know how long ago God originally created the heavens and the earth, but the biblical account reveals:
• God first created the angels at an unspecified time in the past.
• He then created the earth and material universe—including the sun and other stars. At this time all the angels were still righteous and rejoiced.
• The angels were given a domain, which included the earth.
• The angels may then have spent hundreds, thousands, millions or billions of years active in this domain, which likely included plant and animal life on the earth. There is nothing in the Bible to prohibit the existence of life-forms such as the dinosaurs in this pre-Adamic world.
• Lucifer eventually deviated from God's righteous way. He ultimately convinced one third of the angels to follow him in rebelling against God (Revelation:12:4).
• These angels became dissatisfied with their domain. Satan plotted to ascend into heaven and dethrone God.
• God cast Satan and the sinful angels down to the earth to await judgment. We find Satan already here to turn Adam and Eve against God soon after they were created.
• The result of Satan's rebellion likely resulted in the devastation (whether suddenly or over a long period of time) of the beautiful earth God originally created.
• God renewed the surface of the earth to support life and be suitable for His new creation—human beings!
The Bible actually shows an existing creation—earth and universe—preceding the six-day account of Genesis:1:3-31. Based on this record of angelic activity before the preparation of the earth for humankind, we conclude that the earth is much older than 6,000 years. For additional study, we recommend our free booklet Creation or Evolution: Does It Really Matter What You Believe? VT