When we are at our best, Christians display “unity in the essentials, liberty in the non-essentials and charity in all things.” Often attributed to St. Augustine, this motto actually comes from a Lutheran named Rupertus Meldenius, who wrote during the 30 Years’ War (1618-1648), a bloody conflict stoked with religious tensions (http://www.ligonier.org/learn/articles/essentials-unity-non-essentials-liberty-all-things/). I do not take Meldenius to mean that Christians cannot have strong convictions about secondary doctrines. Nor is this an excuse for doctrinal apathy or sloppy thinking. Rather, it champions deep church truths while fostering a spirit of humility.
I say all this because our questions about the age of the earth, the days of Genesis and whether or not there was animal predation before the Fall, all fall (no pun intended) into the category of non-essentials. Please hear me out! I am not saying that these issues lack substance—they can be weighty and substantial, but they are secondary. Good and thoughtful Christians come to the same text and walk away with different conclusions.
So, as we enter into these secondary but substantial doctrines, I’m challenging you to cultivate a hermeneutic of humility. Some of my favorite people disagree with my positions on the age of the earth and days of creation. That’s okay. There’s freedom to disagree and to do so without making the truth ugly. Regarding my secondary positions, it’s possible that I’m wrong. I’m humble enough to admit that, but I’m also confident enough in my position to put it forward for you to consider. It’s possible that I’m wrong, but I’m probably right.
THAT SAID (and repeated as often as necessary), what exactly does the Bible say about the age of the earth?
Evangelical Christians tend to fall into one of two camps: Young Earth Creation or Old Earth Creation (hereafter YEC or OEC). Young earthers believe that God created the universe and earth in six, 24 hour days of one earth week. The earth is no more than 10,000 years old and the apparent age of the planet is explained by God creating it with the appearance of age. Like YEC, Old earthers believe that God created everything, but that He did so a long time ago (around 8-15 billion years ago). Many OEC advocates hold to an old earth, but a young humanity (i.e. the earth is billions of years old, but humanity was created by an immediate act of God around 20-50,000 years ago).
I’ll tell you where I land on the issue later, but for now, let’s open our Bibles to Genesis 1:1. What does the first verse of the first book of the Bible tell us about the age of the earth?
In the Beginning: Point in Time or Period of Time?
“In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth” (Gen. 1:1).
The word beginning is how our Bibles gloss the Hebrew reshit. The issue at hand is whether or not the word is used to convey a period of time or a point in time. If we read beginning as a point in time it pushes us toward YEC. In the beginning, God created everything in an instant and immediately got to work on forming and filling the earth. The time span between God speaking the universe into existence and the days of creation is short. Day one happens moments after the creation of matter, space and time in verse one, followed by day two, etc. But if we read beginning as a period of time, that block of time could be substantial, even billions of years. So, which is it, point in time or period of time?
The best way to approach this is to let Scripture interpret Scripture. Let’s look at how reshit/beginning is used elsewhere:
In the Pentateuch
“…a land for which the LORD your God cares; the eyes of the LORD your God are always on it, from the beginning even to the end of the year” (Deut. 11:12).
With the words beginning and end, we see another merism at work (i.e. two opposites that when put together communicate the totality). Moses’ point in Duet. 11:12 is that God’s care is always on the Promised Land. But note the word beginning. Here it used to indicate a specific period of time, not a point in time.
In the Book of Job
“Though your beginning was insignificant, Yet your end will increase greatly” (Job 8:7).
Once again we see a period or duration of time. Bildad, a friend of Job and not a Hobbit, is talking to Job as he sits in a pile of sores and ashes. He does not have Job’s specific day of birth in mind, but instead a block of time—Job’s early years.
In the Prophet Jeremiah
“Now in the same year, in the beginning of the reign of Zedekiah king of Judah…” (Jer. 28:1).
The word reshit as a period of time is also used to talk about the early months or years of a king’s reign (Jer. 28:1). The NASB glosses reshit with the word beginning, “Now in the same year, in the beginning of the reign of Zedekiah king of Judah…”, while the NIV simply uses the phrase “early in the reign of…” Once again we see reshit used as a period of time and not a point in time. By the way, this is similar to how you and I might use the word beginning:
“At the beginning of the year I’m going to rotate the tires on my car.” Do you mean January 1st or a block of time after the start of the new year?
“At the beginning of my marriage I made a lot of mistakes.” Do you mean day one or that period of time called the early years?
What’s my point? The Biblical evidence suggests that God created over an unspecified block of time, not a moment in time. How long was that block of time? We don’t know, because the word reshit doesn’t tell us. The earth could have sat in its uninhabitable watery condition for a week or billions of years. God’s word choice steers us away from “moment in time” thinking. Hebrew scholar John Sailhamer, in his book Genesis Unbound, suggests that had Moses wanted to tell us that God created in a moment of time, he could have chosen other Hebrew words to make his point (rishonah or techillah), but he did not.
Does this mean that the YEC view is wrong? Not so fast! There are other lines of Biblical evidence to consider and after that, Young Earthers have scientific reasons to embrace their point of view. All I’m saying is that you cannot determine the age of the earth from Genesis 1:1. If you want to calculate the age of the earth, you’re going to have to do the math somewhere else.
Next Week: What about the Genealogies?