On the origins of the universe… and defending our views of them unnecessarily.
But when American Christians use the word “creationist,” they’re often thinking of one group in particular: The folks who believe in
Seriously. This date isn’t deduced by observing the universe around them. If we did that—if we notice we can see stars in the night sky which are billions of light-years away—we’d come to the natural conclusion our universe must be old enough for the light from those distant stars to make it to earth. In other words, God created those stars, and likely started up creation itself, billions of years ago.
So why do they insist the history of the universe is less than a millionth of that? Well, they’re
So when we start from dates we know for certain, like when the Babylonians captured Jerusalem (16 March 597
In fact Irish archbishop James Ussher (1581–1656) did the arithmetic, and in his 1650 book Annales veteris testamenti/“Years of the Testament,” he concluded God said “Let there be light”
Yep, dude pinned down the date and time. ’Cause he believed the year began at the autumnal equinox, and in order for it to be evening then morning,
Young-earth creationists’ arithmetic often comes close to the good archbishop’s date, so lots of ’em figure why reinvent the wheel? They use Ussher’s numbers—which makes the cosmos only 6,019 years old, as of 2016. Bible says so.
And, insist young-earth creationists, if you don’t believe the cosmos is only 6 millennia old, then you don’t really trust the bible. You trust scientists, who tell you the universe is older. You trust your eyes, which show you billion-year-old galaxies through the telescope. You’re not supposed to trust your eyes, nor any of those godless scientists; you’re supposed to trust the scriptures. Placing anything above the bible means you’re foolishly undermining your faith. ’Cause real Christians believe the bible first and foremost. Heretics believe in the sciences.
So this is why a lot of Christians don’t believe in science. ’Cause they’re convinced science contradicts the bible… and they really don’t wanna go to hell for believing in science.
And this is why there’s a whole branch of Christian apologetics which fights specifically on behalf of young-earth creationism. Whole organizations, like Answers in Genesis and the Creation Research Institute, exist to provide Christians with really solid reasons why we should embrace young-earth creationism.
And not, say, old-earth creationism. Which is what I, and most Christians, believe in.
Yeah, there’s more than one kind of creationist.
You can likely tell I’m not a literalist. Nor a young-earth creationist. Used to be, in my Fundamentalist years. Like a lot of Fundies, I assumed it was the only valid interpretation of the bible. Therefore everything my science teachers taught me in high school were the lies of atheists and antichrists. Even though some of ’em appeared to be good church-going Christians in their off-campus lives: That’s just how duped they were.
I did know other creationist viewpoints existed. I just believed they were all various forms of compromise.
Intelligent design. A catch-all term for any and every kind of creationism, intelligent design (or
ID) won’t always flat-out say God created the universe. Just that something did. Advocates for IDfigure if they leave the creator vague, people might dismiss the fact it’s an inherently religious point of view. (“Hey, it doesn’t have to be God. It could be space aliens!” Fine; where’d the space aliens come from?)
Theistic evolution. Basically if you believe all the theories of popular science—and also believe God’s behind it all, using these processes to create the universe—you’re an evolutionist and a creationist. You’re both.
Yes, you can be both. Nope, you can’t still be a biblical literalist; that’s out. On its face the bible doesn’t appear to describe a universe which gradually came into being through physical processes, or life gradually evolving through natural selection. So if you still believe the bible, you gotta believe its creation stories are all metaphor.
Of course, literalists are gonna be really suspicious of you. ’Cause what else might you not take literally? Jesus’s resurrection?
Old-earth creationism. This one holds that the six days of creation in
Genesis 1aren’t literal 24-hour days. They represent periods of time. Long periods of time. Thousands, even billions, of years long. Hence this is sometimes called the day-age theory.
So on the first billions-of-years “day,” God created light; on the next billions-of-years “day,” God sorted out the earth’s geology; on the next billions-of-years “day,” God created the sun, moon, and stars; and so on. Because the “days” in which God created plants and animals are millions of years long, evolution is often considered an acceptable part of the process. With a little adjustment we can even get this timeline to sync up with popular science’s timeline.
Literalists don’t trust this theory either. The word yom/“day,” they insist, always means a 24-hour period. (Well, other than the nonstop day in
Zechariah 14.7. And Joshua once stretched the day out a bit longer, Js 10.12-14and in the New Testament, Peter said the Lord considers days and millennia to be interchangeable. 2Pe 3.8But anyway.)
Literalists feel the Genesis account only describes
special creation—that God specially, uniquely, distinctly created every species. Nothing evolved from anything else. At the very most, microevolution: Dogs and foxes and coyotes might be descendants of wolves; one bird might be the ancestor of many similar species of birds. But not distinct species.
Even though Genesis kinda describes all sea creatures and birds descending from a single common ancestor.
Genesis 1.20-23 KWL
- 20 God said, “Swarm the waters, you swarming, living soul.
- Fly, bird, over the land, over the face of the space in the skies.”
- 21 God created the great serpents
- and every living, crawling soul which swarms the waters, by species;
- and every winged bird, by species. God saw how good it was.
- 22 God blessed them, saying, “Bear fruit. Be many. Fill the waters of the seas.
- And bird, be many on the land.”
- 23 It was dusk, then dawn: Thursday.
In verse 20, God creates one šeréch neféš khayyá/“swimming, living soul” (
KJV“the moving creature that hath life”), and one of/“bird.” Not one of every species; one of each. (They lay eggs, so he didn’t need to create two.) God blessed ’em, and told each of them to multiply. And from those two species came every other species of sea creature and bird. Except perhaps the great serpents.
Now, if literalists were reading the King James Version, they might notice there’s only one moving creature, and only one “fowl.” (Then again they might assume “fowl” is plural—though it’s not.) But if you’re reading the
NIV, you’ll never catch any of this. The NIV’s translators have a bad habit of bending their translation to suit conservative Christian culture. To be fair, it’s hardly the only translation which does this. Genesis 1.20 NIV
- And God said, “Let the water teem with living creatures, and let birds fly above the earth across the vault of the sky.”
But I should point out not every old-earth creationist accepts evolution. Instead many believe in
progressive creation—that from time to time, God created a bunch of new species, and added ’em to his existing creation. The “Cambrian explosion,” fr’instance: About 542 million years ago, most life was single-celled or small colonies of cells. But in a relatively rapid period of time (if you consider 80 million years “rapid”) we wind up with complex creatures—with skeletons and eyes and legs and skin—like trilobites. Even Charles Darwin wondered how pure natural selection could produce complex life so quickly. Old-earth creationists figure this simply proves God was making new life. Just like he makes new stars.
Gap theory. A really popular alternative to young-earth creationism is the theory that God didn’t create the heavens and earth on the first day. ’Cause Genesis actually doesn’t say he did. Seriously.
Genesis 1.1-5 KWL
- 1 In the beginning, when God made the skies and land,
- 2 the land was unshaped and had nothing on it.
- The ocean’s surface was dark.
- God’s Spirit hovered over the waters’ surface.
- 3 God said, “Be, light.” And light was.
- 4 God saw light, and how good it was.
- God distinguished between the light and the dark.
- 5 God called the light day, and called the dark night.
- It was dusk, then dawn: Sunday.
“In the beginning,” the skies and land were already there. God had created them already. And we don’t know how much time elapsed after that first act of creation, and when God created light on yom ekhád/“Sunday.” Billions of years, perhaps. Enough time for the universe to become the age we see.
So plenty of Christians, who wanna still consider themselves biblical literalists, yet don’t wanna insist the universe is only 60 centuries old, go with this theory. Of course, this means they believe, same as the young-earth creationists, that plants and fish and dinosaurs and Adam and Eve were still created only 60 centuries ago. The earth may be as old as geologists say, but life isn’t as old as biologists say.
If their goal was to try to appease both scientists and literalists, really they’ve done neither.
Okay, so I said I used to be a literalist and used to be a young-earth creationist. What am I now? An old-earth creationist.
Why’d I switch? ’Cause I read the bible.
The stars between the waters.
The author of Genesis wrote the creation story to correct the other creation stories of the ancient middle east. Those stories always began with the pre-existing universe… then gods spontaneously sprang from it, and fought one another over it. One of the gods won, then reorganized the universe to suit him, then created humans to serve and feed him.
Not even close, responds Genesis: God came first, not the universe. God fought nothing, conquered nothing; there was nothing to fight. He reorganized the universe to suit humans. Then he put us in charge of it. (True, we’re doing a crappy job of things, but that’s a whole other article.)
Though the author of Genesis was correcting all the theological problems of the other creation stories—who did what, what’s his motives, where do we humans fit in the scheme—the author didn’t bother to correct any of the cosmological problems. ’Cause the author didn’t see any cosmological problems. ’Cause the author didn’t know astronomy. To be fair, neither did most middle easterners in the 10th century
So this is why we read about God creating a giant air pocket in the waters which make up the earth, and calling it “space”—
Genesis 1.6-8 KWL
- 6 God said, “Be, space in the middle of the waters.
- Be, distinction between waters and waters.”
- 7 God made space. He distinguished between the waters which are under space,
- and between the waters which are over space. It was so.
- 8 God called the space skies.
- It was dusk, then dawn: Monday.
—then putting the sun, moon, and stars into that air pocket.
Genesis 1.14-19 KWL
- 14 God said, “Be, lights in the space of the skies,
- to distinguish between the day and night;
- to be signs, seasons, days, and years;
- 15 to be lights in the space of the skies;
- to light the land.” It was so.
- 16 God made two great lights: the great light for ruling the day,
- and the small light for ruling the night, and the stars.
- 17 God put them in the space in the skies to light the land,
- 18 and to rule the day and night,
- and to distinguish between light and dark.
- God saw how good it was.
- 19 It was dusk, then dawn: Wednesday.
Yeah. I grew up thinking I was a biblical literalist, but somehow I never bothered to actually read the creation story literally. ’Cause when you do, you discover it’s got a profoundly weird description of space.
The universe… after we take the bible’s metaphors literally.
[From Internet Monk.] Apparently on the far side of the stars, even the ones a million light-years away, there’s the
But when young-earth creationists talk about the firmament, they don’t describe it on the far side of the stars. Just about all of ’em describe it on the far side of the clouds—holding back rain. Until the “windows of the heavens” dump it all over the earth in Noah’s flood.
See, that’s the problem: Genesis doesn’t describe a universe any larger than a few miles up. Because when it was written, the ancients didn’t know how big their universe was. The Greeks got a better idea of it eventually: Around 240
You see the diagram I’ve put on this page. I’ve shown it to young-earth creationists. Not one of them believes the universe looks like that. Nor should they. But that’s the sky as
Ergo the bible’s accounts must be metaphors. The writers of Genesis and Psalms and the Prophets produced Spirit-inspired poetry, not Spirit-inspired science. The point was to declare God’s greatness, or warn God’s people, not give cues to people at the Creation Museum on how Enoch liked to ride his pet triceratops.
Since I don’t see old-earth creationism contradicting popular science any (that is, once you figure it’s not a real problem if God uses evolution to create new life), I decided to go with that metaphor.
Fighting (in vain) for young-earth creationism.
As you can tell, young-earth creationism’s dirty little secret is that it doesn’t interpret the bible all that literally. It sees what it wants to see, ignores what it wants to ignore, and claims it’s the only orthodox belief Christians are permitted. What it really is, is anti-intellectualism, anti-scientism, disguised as Fundamentalism. Perpetuated by Fundies, like I was, who were wrongly taught we had no other options if we were true Christians.
So when young-earthers get into Christian apologetics, they’re always sidetracked by the fact they have to defend their really problematic worldview.
- Question. “If the universe is only 6,000 years old, how come there are trees on the earth which are 10,000 years old?”
- Answer. “Oh, they’re not really 10,000 years old. They only look 10,000 years old. When God created them, he didn’t do it from seeds. He created full-grown trees.” (Or he accelerated their growth.) “So on the third day of creation, they appeared to be 4,000 years old. And now they appear 10,000 years old.”
Sound reasonable? Sounds consistent with the scriptures, where God commands trees—rapidly full-grown trees, one would suppose—to produce fruit.
Genesis 1.11-13 KWL
- 11 God said, “Sprout sprouts, earth. Sow seeds, grass.
- Fruit trees, make fruit which has seed in it, by species, on the earth.” It was so.
- 12 The earth produced sprouts, grass sowed seeds by species,
- trees produced fruit which had seed in it, by its species.
- God saw how good it was.
- 13 It was dusk, then dawn: Tuesday.
I know God can do anything he wants, so I’ll concede God produced full-grown trees, fully capable of producing fruit, on the third day. Why not?
Here’s where I have a problem: Why would he create 4,000-year-old trees? Realistically?
See, young-earth creationists believe God created certain things with age. Fr’instance, Adam and Eve. When he created them, they insist he didn’t make ’em little bitty babies. He made them adults. He made a “man” and a “woman,” and these words imply they were adults. (I say they don’t really. The reason we assume they were adult, is because Christian art depicts them as adult—and the reason Christian art depicts ’em adult, is because artists producing paintings of naked children is all kinds of creepy.) But okay, I’ll concede God created a young-adult Adam and Eve. Old enough to be strong enough to climb fruit trees. When God’s not trying to force us to utterly depend on him, he can be very practical.
So for practical reasons, God might create a tree which, on any other day, would be mistaken for a 20-year-old tree. ’Cause it has to be big and strong and mature enough to produce fruit. Makes sense. But back to my question: Why a 4,000-year-old tree? Why on earth would it need to appear so considerably ancient? What practical reason is there for this age? Especially since skeptics, 6,000 years hence, are gonna look at it and say, “Well this proves the earth is way older than you claim.” Seems its advanced-looking age is considerably impractical: It denies the Creator.
David claimed the skies declare God’s glory, and space (“the firmament,”
And really, if God created the universe to unnecessarily look old, it implies God created the universe to look deceptively old. Is it safe to embrace a worldview which describes God as a bigger, more successful deceiver than the devil?
Skipping creationism in favor of Jesus.
Here’s one of my favorite exercises with young Christians who wanna practice Christian apologetics.
- Me. “Okay, you’re the evangelist. And I’m the pagan who believes the earth is 4 billion years old, who believes in evolution. And… start.”
- She. “You believe in evolution?”
- Me. “Yep.”
- She. “Here’s why you shouldn’t.” [Insert clever argument against evolution.]
- Me. [Insert clever argument for evolution, which knocks her argument to pieces.]
- She. “Um…” [Tries another argument.]
- Me. [Whacks away that one too. I know a lot of the arguments, the counter-arguments, the counter-counter-arguments, and the counter-counter-counter-arguments. I can stymie them for hours, if need be.]
- She. [Getting really frustrated.] “Um…”
- Me. “Tell you what; let’s speed things up. Let’s say we had a nice three-hour discussion, and you managed to win me over. I now no longer believe in evolution.”
- She. [Relieved.] “Okay!”
- Me. [Looking at my phone.] “Holy frijoles, look at the time. We must’ve been debating for three whole hours. I’m so late for my next appointment. Gotta run.” [And I go sit down. The other kids giggle.]
- She. [Nonplussed.] “…?”
- Me. “How do you think you did?”
- She. “Well, I changed your mind about evolution.”
- Me. “Sure, ’cause I folded. In real life, with a really stubborn evolutionist, you’d’ve got nowhere. But okay, you changed my mind about evolution.”
- She. “So I won.”
- Me. “Did we talk about Jesus?”
- She. “No.”
- Me. “Are you sure you won?”
- She. “…No.”
- Me. “What’s more important, evolution or Jesus?”
- She. “Jesus.”
- Me. “So what should you have spent three hours on? Evolution or Jesus?”
- She. “But don’t we have to work on evolution first?”
- Me. “You tried that. How’d you do?”
- She. “Well, how would you do it?”
- Me. “I’ll show you. You be the evolutionist, I’ll be the Christian. And… start.”
- She. “Hi. I believe in evolution.”
- Me. “Me too. Can I talk to you about Jesus?”
If you don’t believe in evolution, fine: You can answer, “Cool. Wanna talk about Jesus?” Dodge that argument and get to what really matters. What only matters.
Do I need to prove any sort of creationism? Nah. I can just start talking about Christ Jesus. Who he is to me, how he changed my life, how he can change their life, how he wants a relationship with them. And if they wanna sidetrack me into some debate about creationism, I can slide us right back off that track: It doesn’t matter to me. Only Jesus does.
Yeah, plenty of Christians are gonna insist it does so matter. And maybe it will at some point. Later. After people become Christians and wanna understand God’s role in the cosmos. But in the beginning, when we’re still trying to introduce them to Jesus, it’s like telling a preschooler, “Before you can add 1 plus 1, I need to explain integers, whole numbers, and absolute value.” No I don’t.
Jesus is 1 plus 1. Creationism is pre-algebra. One thing at a time. Start with the basics. Stick to the priorities.