The title of this post is stated in the form of a question, because in it I merely seek to raise a question concerning the scriptural view of the age of the earth and the universe in which the earth exists. Part of the questioning format is due to the reason that I am thinking through this issue and do not wish to be unnecessarily dogmatic. Therefore I’m basically thinking out loud and putting my thoughts out there for interaction.
The scriptural text to be considered brings together what theologians call “general” and “biblical” revelation, which at times have come into conflict in Christianity. General revelation is the term used to consider what can be known of God apart from scripture. According to Millard J. Erickson general revelation is:
Revelation which is available to all persons at all times, particularly through the physical universe, history, and the makeup of human nature.
In contrast, biblical revelation, is what can be known of God through the Bible, and it is important to note that those that believe in God as the “author” of both revelations believe that they cannot ultimately contradict one another. But this supposition creates tensions and problems in the quest to harmonize general and biblical revelation. At the present time, the most obvious example of this is between those that believe that general revelation postulates that the earth is 4 to 5 billion years old, and those that believe that biblical revelation postulates that the earth is probably 6 to 10,000 years young. The former group are generally hold to what is known as “old earth creationism” (OEC) while the latter group are knows as “young earth creationism” (YEC).
This post will present an important text that may very well bridge the supposed “chasm” between general and biblical revelation, because it is a biblical text and therefore biblical revelation that speaks of general revelation. What the text seems to present is the universal “manifest propensity” of the response of humankind in regard to what creation has always “taught” human beings regarding the age of the earth and of creation. It thus presents two things: 1) an empirical observation of what humankind has universally thought about the age of the earth and creation; and 2) a propositional declaration that God has intended that thought to be produced in all humans of all times. The text is Romans 1:20, a well-known one from Paul who authored many of the books of the New Testament as many of you may know:
For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse.
Paul’s proposition is fairly simple albeit fairly radical, especially to our modern and postmodern ears. God’s “invisible attributes” have been “clearly perceived” by all people since the beginning of the world. The universality of this perception is more fully explained by Paul in what he wrote before and after the text of 1:20, but is hinted at in 1:20 by the words “they… (all people) …are without excuse.” Furthermore, the thing that Paul says is clearly perceived in creation “since the creation of the world” is God’s “eternal power.” Paul seems to be saying that creation itself seems to be “saying” to all people of all times that a main attribute of God is his “eternal power.” In other words, the observation of creation necessarily transmits an idea of eternality due to its own “given” attribute: creation itself seems to all humans to be eternal.
But this proposition of Paul, if I have given the correct sense of it, is dogmatically contradicted by Young Earth Creationists who deny that creation is old. To look at Paul’s proposition from the opposite angle, a young earth cannot produce the idea of eternality in and of itself. But YEC may respond by saying what they almost all admit, that the earth and creation “appear” to be old. But if that is actually the case it seems as though at least two serious problems arise: 1) Logically speaking, if the creation only appears to be old, then the correspondence between God’s and creation’s seemingly age-evocative attributes would also require that God only appears to be “eternal;” and 2) God’s intent that all humankind’s sense of his eternal power would amount to God presenting a false exhibit – a charade, something that in itself does not exhibit the attributes he intends to convey universally to all people of all times. God’s intent for general revelation, as stated in this text of biblical revelation, is that creation (and through it God’s own self) would be clearly and accurately perceived as eternity-evoking to all people of all times.
Therefore the proposition of Paul seems to be clear. What is necessary to support it though is the empirical evidence that humankind has indeed always “clearly perceived” that creation is evocative of eternality. It seems evident to me that the empirical evidence is “common knowledge” as part of the history of human knowledge and philosophy. One source that adequately brings together much of this material is presented in the puzzlingly near-anonymous work of the author of a web-site called exactlywhatistime.com. In one page called Ancient Philosophy the author demonstrates that until about the 6th century AD, the common knowledge was that the world itself was eternal, or at least eternally cyclical. Astronomical numbers were posted in support of this with cycles themselves consisting of repetitions from ten-thousands of years up to many millions of years. It was not until the early Christian apologists presented a defense of Creation that the eternality of creation itself was systematically challenged. In 529 John Philoponus of Alexandria wrote a critique titled On the Eternity of the World Against Proclus in which he challenged arguments put forward for the eternity of the world, which was the theory which formed the basis of pagan attacks of the Christian doctrine of Creation.
But does historical/empirical evidence that humankind always surmised the eternality of the world before the Christian doctrine of creation emerged prove too much? Not at all, for it actually serves to demonstrate that the eternity-evoking attribute of creation that God intended worked! God intended that Creation would evoke in people of all times and places the idea that it was eternal, and that therefore the invisible God, intuitively known through the agency of creation, had eternal power. What remained in God’s purpose was for God to bring to humankind a distinguishing between God and creation.
In conclusion, it seems that the recent trend toward young earth creationism denies God’s pedagogical intent for creation to instill in humankind the sense of eternality. The book of Ecclesiastes seems to show God’s method of evoking the concept of eternality in humankind by means of the seemingly endless natural cycles. Thus Ecclesiastes 3:11 aptly concludes sections of poetic narrations of the cyclical attributes of nature in 1:2-11 and 3:1-8.
He has made everything beautiful in its time. Also, he has put eternity into man’s heart, yet so that he cannot find out what God has done from the beginning to the end. (Ecclesiastes 3:11, English Standard Version.)
Furthermore, it seems that this text in Romans 1:20, which all admit to be one of the weightiest texts in support of Paul’s universal “gospel,” is an informative instance of “biblical revelation” regarding God’s revelational intent for the world, as “general revelation.” And it seems that Paul was fully aware of the fact that humankind had “followed the lead” of seeing the world itself as eternal and thereby also knowing intuitively the “eternal power” of God, even though they might also seek to repress that knowledge.
I also add that this has been an attempt to reckon with a direct text that seems to address the question of the age of the earth and creation, as opposed to drawing inferences from texts that do not directly address that question. These other (and unfortunately more well known methods) have included seeking to draw precise chronological information from Genesis as Bishop Ussher did in his findings that the earth was created in 4004 BC; or by concluding that the 7 day creation narrative simply requires a young earth due to other “theological” reasons.
I haven’t surveyed other texts in this post that have some bearing on the age of the earth, but may do so in the future since I think that similarly evocative texts are in the Bible, and ought to be considered. But hopefully, this introduction provides what I think might have been Paul’s own summation of what we are meant to know regarding the age of the earth through our experience as human beings in the world, through general revelation.
Thanks for reading this post and please feel free to reply with any comments or questions.
Bryan M. Christman @ Manifest Propensity, 2019. All rights reserved.