Many Christian leaders and teachers have told us that modern science and the Christian faith can be compatible. But there are some conditions for agreement to happen. Supporters of science, in order to be compatible with Christianity, have to not insist that science explains everything, which would exclude recognition of anything supernatural. On the other side of this issue, Christians will have to recognize that the young-earth interpretation of Genesis is simply not compatible with anything remotely resembling modern Science.
The reasons for that have been explained in many ways, so I don’t need to repeat them here. Except, it does bear emphasizing that Darwinian evolution is not the big problem. It is theoretically possible to accept that the universe and the earth are billions of years old, and still reject the ideas of evolution.
Over the years, Christians who accept the authority of Scripture and also accept the reality of an old earth, have advocated several interpretations of the Genesis account of creation that are consistent with a very old universe. Some are more credible than others. To some extent, this is just a matter of hermeneutics. That is, what is the best way to interpret a particular passage of Scripture. If we can form a credible interpretation that does not do violence to the Genesis account and also at least makes intellectual room for belief in an old earth, that would seem to be a good thing. It would certainly make evangelism easier in our modern culture. And it would ease the intellectual conflicts experienced by Bible-believing Christians who work in the biological sciences.
On the other hand, if we change our interpretation of the Genesis account of creation, what problems might that cause for Christians who believe that the Bible is the inspired word of God?
First, we immediately worry about our understanding of the rest of the Bible. If we have misunderstood what seems to be the plain sense of the creation passage, does it not undermine our confidence in our understanding of the rest of Scripture? But that same kind of problem occurs with other Scripture passages as well.
If you don’t believe the Calvinist doctrine of predestination, then what looks like the plain meaning of the 9th chapter of Romans can pose a serious problem of interpretation. The plain meaning seems to be strict individual predestination. Then there is Luke 12:33. The plain meaning of what Jesus said is a problem for anybody with possessions.
Actually this can be a good lesson. Too often, Christians have made some interpretation of some passage, and then acted as if their interpretation was the actual word of God. For instance, the prohibition against alcohol in any way, based on Romans 14:21. Another example is the ban on borrowing money based on Old Testament laws. We should remember that the Bible was written to people of a very different culture. Add to that the problems of translation, and we should be careful about our understanding of any passage of Scripture. If our interpretations are valid, they will stand up when examined carefully. It actually honors God when we try to make sure that we have understood Him accurately.
At the same time, the Genesis creation passage is not really that plain. The sun, moon, and stars were created in the fourth “yom” (the Hebrew word that is translated “day”). So whatever “evening” and “morning” of the first three yom were, they weren’t sunset and sunrise. In fact, vs 14 says that the purpose of these lights is to separate day from night. And without these celestial bodies, what is the “light” in vs 1? These questions should tell us that there was a lot going on in creation that does not fit our normal human understanding. That might remind us of God’s questions to Job in chapter 38. Do we really think we understand any better than he did? Scientists, as well as Christian thinkers, have often been surprised by the weirdness of the universe and of life.
In fact, the vagueness about timing in the Genesis account is not a new discovery. Some early Christians teachers realized that the timing of creation was not an obvious thing. In 195 AD, the early church leader Clement of Alexandria asked “How could creation take place in time, seeing that time was born along with things that exist?” St Augustine in the fifth century and Thomas Aquinas in the thirteenth century believed that the Genesis account is allegorical because human thought can’t really grasp what happened at creation. These men lived and wrote many hundreds of years before modern science.
Another issue is whether it is legitimate to change our interpretation of Scripture based on knowledge from outside the Bible. Shouldn’t the Bible stand on its own? Not really, because all truth is God’s truth. If He really did take 16 billion years to form the universe into its present shape, then what he said to us in the Bible has to be understood to be consistent with that. There are other examples. What we learn from archeology and ancient history helps us to understand the significance of what the Bible says about events in Israel’s history. What we learn about ancient customs helps us understand some of Christ’s parables. Modern psychology clarifies what Paul wrote in Romans 7 about our internal moral conflicts.
It is hard to find any place in the rest of the Bible where our beliefs would be affected by the young-earth vs old-earth issue. There are many references to the fact that God created people and the earth and the heavens and everything. For instance, the first verses of John’s gospel and Paul’s sermon on Mars hill in Acts 17. But none of those references depend on the timing of God’s creation. The ideas that are taught are just as true whether creation was sudden or spread out over many billions of years, as we reckon time.
None of the history of Israel is affected by this issue. From the calling of Abraham to the kingdom of David to the prophets, it makes no difference whether the earth is young or old. None of the Mosaic Law given to Israel in the old testament is dependent on the age of the earth.
The Incarnation of God as Jesus Christ is not affected by the timing of creation. Nor is the fact that the crucifixion of Christ paid for our sins and reconciled us to God. The reality of his resurrection is not affected by the timing of creation.
Christ several times referred to the fact that God created the world, but said nothing about the timing or the methods. His teaching and his work are the same regardless of the age of the earth. All that counts is that God created everything, and we owe our very existence and our hope of heaven to him.