That the earth and the universe are millions (even billions) of years old is accepted as scientific fact today, not only by non-Christians but also by most Christians, including most Christian leaders and scholars. But this widespread belief in “deep time” is a relatively new phenomenon and it is vitally important to understand how it arose and became so accepted by Christians.
Before examining this history, we need to remember the words of the apostle Paul. To the Corinthian church he wrote:
For though we walk in the flesh, we do not war according to the flesh, for the weapons of our warfare are not of the flesh, but divinely powerful for the destruction of fortresses. We are destroying speculations and every lofty thing raised up against the knowledge of God, and we are taking every thought captive to the obedience of Christ (2 Corinthians 10:3–5).
Paul says we are involved in a great battle—a war of ideas. Speculations (or imaginations, as the KJV renders the Greek here) and lofty ideas are raised up against the knowledge of God, which therefore means against the truth He has revealed in His Word. Paul tells us more about these anti-biblical ideas when he warns the Colossian Christians: “See to it that no one takes you captive through philosophy and empty deception, according to the tradition of men, according to the elementary principles of the world, rather than according to Christ” (Colossians 2:8). Paul did not give warnings in vain. He knew it was a very real possibility that Christians could be led astray by false ideas. He warned Timothy about this when he said, “O Timothy, guard what has been entrusted to you, avoiding worldly and empty chatter and the opposing arguments of what is falsely called ‘knowledge’—which some have professed and thus gone astray from the faith” (1 Timothy 6:20–21). There is also the danger of cultural peer pressure. In Galatians 2:11–14, Paul describes Peter succumbing to it as he fell into hypocrisy and subtle gospel-subverting behavior because of the fear of man.
As we trace the history of this idea of millions of years, we will see that it is the product of speculation and imagination rooted in anti-biblical philosophical assumptions.
As we trace the history of this idea of millions of years, we will see that it is the product of speculation and imagination rooted in anti-biblical philosophical assumptions. And we will see that many good, sincere Christian leaders and scholars were taken captive by this idea, which in turn led to its widespread acceptance in the church over the past 200 years. Consequently, this led many to go astray from the faith, even into spiritual shipwreck.
The Origins of “Deep Time”
Geology, as a separate field of science with systematic field studies, collection and classification of rocks and fossils, and development of theoretical reconstructions of the historical events that formed those rock layers and fossils of rock, is only about 200 years old.
Prior to this, back to ancient Greek times, people had noticed fossils in the rocks. Many believed that the fossils were the remains of former living things turned to stone, and many early Christians (including Tertullian, Chrysostom, and Augustine) attributed them to Noah’s Flood. But others rejected these ideas and regarded fossils as either jokes of nature, the products of rocks endowed with life in some sense, the creative works of God, or perhaps even the deceptions of Satan. The debate was finally settled when Robert Hooke (1635–1703), a British naturalist, confirmed by microscopic analysis of fossil wood that fossils were the mineralized remains of former living creatures.
Before 1750, one of the most important geological thinkers was Niels Steensen (1638–1686), or Steno, a Dutch anatomist and geologist. In his geological book The Prodromus to a Dissertation Concerning Solids Naturally Contained within Solids (1669) he proposed the now widely accepted principle of superposition. This states that sedimentary layers were deposited in a successive, essentially horizontal fashion, so that a lower stratum was deposited before (and is therefore older than) the one above it. He expressed belief in a roughly 6,000-year-old earth2and that the global Noachian Flood deposited most of the fossil-bearing sedimentary rock layers.
Over the next century, several authors, including the English geologists John Woodward (1665–1722) and Alexander Catcott (1725–1779) and the German geologist Johann Lehmann (1719–1767), wrote books reinforcing this young-earth, global-Flood view. This was consistent with what the church believed for the first 18 centuries, as other chapters in this book document.3
In the latter decades of the 18th century, some English and European geologists attributed the rock record to geological processes over a long period of time rather than to the Flood. Several prominent French scientists also contributed to the idea of millions of years. The widely respected scientist Comte de Buffon (1707–1788) believed that the history of the earth was governed by the laws of nature. He therefore resolutely rejected a biblical Flood of Noah’s day. He imagined in his book Epochs of Nature (1779) that the earth was once like a hot molten ball (having been torn from the mass of the sun), which had cooled passing through seven epochs to reach its present state over about 75,000 years (though his unpublished manuscript says about 3,000,000 years). He also believed that through the influence of heat on “aqueous, oily, and ductile” substances the first living matter was spontaneously generated.4
The astronomer Pierre Laplace (1749–1827) proposed the “nebular hypothesis” in his Exposition of the System of the Universe (1796). This theory said that the solar system was once a hot, spinning gas cloud, which over long ages gradually cooled and condensed to form the planets. Though this speculative hypothesis (with no observational or experimental support) was rejected by most scientists at the time, it is the dominant view now as part of the big-bang cosmology. In 1809, Jean Lamarck, a specialist in shell creatures, advocated in his Philosophy of Zoology a hypothesis of biological evolution over long ages. Most scientists (including non-Christian ones) rejected the idea of evolution at this time, but this theory helped prepare the way for Darwin’s famous book Origin of Species in 1859. Lamarck’s imagined mechanism for such evolution (the inheritance of acquired characteristics) has long been shown to be false.
New theories in geology were also being advocated at the turn of the 19th century, as geology began to develop into a disciplined field of scientific study.
New theories in geology were also being advocated at the turn of the 19th century, as geology began to develop into a disciplined field of scientific study. Abraham Werner (1749–1817) was a popular mineralogy professor in Germany. Unfortunately, as one evolutionist historian of geology put it, “Werner was disposed to teach dogmatic theory and speculation with little regard for facts and apparently little, if any, regard for demonstrable principles. . . . He proposed his own ideas based primarily upon assumptions.”5 His 28-page book on mineralogy, Short Classification and Description of the Various Rocks (1786), included a short section laying out his theory of earth history based on his study of sedimentary rocks near his home. He speculated that most of the crust of the earth had been precipitated chemically or mechanically by a slowly receding global ocean over the course of about a million years. It was an elegantly simple theory, but Werner failed to give careful attention to the fossils in the rocks. This was a serious mistake, since the fossils tell us much about when and how quickly the sediments were deposited and transformed into stone. Werner was a dynamic and popular teacher and many of the 19th century’s greatest geologists were his students. Although his simplistic theory was quickly discarded, his idea of a very long history for the earth stuck with his students.6
In Scotland, James Hutton (1726–1797) was developing a different theory of earth history. He studied medicine at the university. After his studies, he took over the family farm for a time. But his real love was the study of the earth. In 1785, he published a journal article and in 1795 a book, both with the title Theory of the Earth. He imagined that over long ages the continents were being slowly eroded into the oceans. Those sediments were gradually hardened by the internal heat of the earth and then raised by convulsions to become new land masses, which would eventually be eroded into the oceans, hardened and elevated. So in his view, earth history was cyclical, and in a famous statement which brought the charge of atheism from many of his contemporaries, he said that he could find no evidence of a beginning in the rock record, which made earth history indefinitely long. He too paid little attention to the fossils in the rocks.
One who did pay much attention to the fossils was Georges Cuvier (1768–1832), the famous French comparative anatomist and vertebrate palaeontologist. In the late 18th and early 19th centuries he developed what became known as the catastrophist theory of earth history. It was expressed clearly in his book Theory of the Earth (1813).7 Cuvier believed that over the course of long, untold ages of earth history many catastrophic floods of regional or nearly global extent had destroyed and buried creatures in sediments, with some of them being preserved as fossils. All but one of these catastrophes occurred before the creation of man, according to Cuvier. He strongly rejected Lamarck’s theory of evolution, believing that God supernaturally created different creatures at different times in earth history.
William Smith (1769–1839) was a drainage engineer and surveyor, who in the course of his work around Great Britain became fascinated with the strata and fossils. Like Cuvier, he rejected biological evolution and had an old-earth catastrophist view of earth history. In three works published from 1815 to 1817, he presented the first geological map of England and Wales and explained an order and relative chronology of the rock formations as defined by certain characteristic (index) fossils.8 He became known as the “Father of English Stratigraphy” because he developed the method of giving relative dates to the rock layers on the basis of the fossils found in them, a method still used today by evolutionary geologists.9
Two other catastrophists need to be mentioned because of their great influence on the church. One was William Buckland (1784–1856), professor of geology at Oxford and the leading geologist in England in the 1820s. Initially, he followed the catastrophist views of Cuvier and Smith. Like a number of scientists of his day, Buckland was an Anglican clergyman. Two of his students, Charles Lyell and Roderick Murchison, went on to become very influential uniformitarian geologists in the 1830s and beyond. In his Vindiciae Geologicae (1820), Buckland argued that geology was consistent with Genesis, confirmed natural religion by providing evidence of creation and God’s continued providence, and proved virtually beyond refutation that the global, catastrophic Noachian Flood had occurred. However, the geological evidence for the Flood was, in Buckland’s view, only in the superficial formations of sands and gravel and the topographical features of the continents. He believed that the thousands of feet of sedimentary rock layers (like we see in the Grand Canyon) were antediluvian by untold thousands of years. To harmonize his view with Genesis he considered the possibility of the day-age theory, but favored the gap theory, both of which were developed in the early 1800s. In so doing, he gave absolutely no analysis of the text of Genesis to show how old-earth theory could be harmonized with the Bible. He simply quoted other geologists or theologians as his authority. And like Cuvier, he believed in multiple supernatural creations and that the creation of man was only a few thousand years ago.
Three years later, Buckland published his widely read Reliquiae Diluvianae (1823), providing what he thought was a further defense of the Flood (albeit limited in its geological effects). While he discussed superficial geological features as further support for his views, he again failed to deal with the biblical text regarding the Flood. It is clear from Buckland’s personal correspondence in the 1820s that, in his mind, geological evidence had a superior quality and reliability over textual evidence in reconstructing the earth’s history, because written records were susceptible to deception or error, whereas the rocks were truthful and could not be altered by man.10 He did not assert that the biblical text had errors, but he certainly implied it with this line of reasoning.
Adam Sedgwick (1785–1873) was Buckland’s counterpart at Cambridge, receiving the chair of geology in 1818, at a time when by his own admission he knew next to nothing about geology. He was a quick learner, however. He too was an ordained Anglican clergyman and insisted all his life that old-earth theories did not contradict the Bible. But neither in his initial years as a catastrophist nor later during most of his life as a uniformitarian did he ever once even attempt to show how geological theory and the text of Genesis 1–11 could be harmonized.11 It is not even clear if he held to the gap theory or the local Flood or tranquil Flood views of Noah’s Flood. It should also be noted that Sedgwick helped train Charles Darwin in old-earth thinking while the latter was a student at Cambridge. Darwin then simply applied those anti-biblical ways of thinking to develop his theory of slow gradual biological evolution. When Robert Chambers published a theory of evolution in 1845, Sedgwick vociferously opposed it in an 85-page review article, calling it a “strange delusion” under the influence of “the serpent coils of false philosophy.”12 In 1865, in the wake of the publication of Darwin’s Origin of the Species (1859), Sedgwick joined 616 other signatories of a declaration presented at the annual meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science. These signatories expressed their concerns that Darwin’s theory was “casting doubt upon the Truth and Authenticity of the Holy Scriptures.”13 So, by undermining Scripture through his advocacy of old-earth geology, this Anglican clergyman and Cambridge professor (Sedgwick) paved the way for Darwin to undermine Scripture further through biology, much to Sedgwick’s dismay.
Through the influence of Buckland and Sedgwick and others, old-earth catastrophist (or “diluvial,” as it was sometimes called) geology was widely accepted in the 1820s by most geologists, and by many clergy and theologians in Britain and North America.
Lyell . . . insisted that only present-day processes of geological change at present-day rates of intensity and magnitude should be used to interpret the rock record of past geological activity.
A fatal blow to catastrophism came during the years 1830 to 1833, when Charles Lyell (1797–1875), a lawyer and former student of Buckland, published his influential three-volume work, Principles of Geology. Reviving and augmenting the ideas of Hutton, Lyell’s Principles set forth the principles by which he thought geological interpretations should be made. His theory was a radical uniformitarianism in which he insisted that only present-day processes of geological change at present-day rates of intensity and magnitude should be used to interpret the rock record of past geological activity. In other words, geological processes of change have been uniform throughout earth history. No continental or global catastrophic floods have ever occurred, insisted Lyell.
Lyell’s work led Buckland in the early 1830s to abandon this diluvial, catastrophist interpretation of the geological evidence. He publicized this change of mind in his famous two-volume Bridgewater Treatise on geology in 1836, where in a mere paragraph in one place and a short footnote in another place he described the Flood as tranquil and geologically insignificant.14 Sedgwick publicly recanted his catastrophist view in 1831, as he also embraced Lyell’s uniformitarianism.
Lyell is often given too much credit (or blame) for destroying faith in the Genesis Flood and the biblical time scale. But many professing Christians (geologists and theologians) contributed to this undermining of biblical teaching before Lyell’s book appeared. The catastrophist theory had greatly reduced the geological significance of Noah’s Flood and expanded earth history well beyond the traditional biblical view. Lyell’s work was simply the final blow for belief in the Flood. By explaining the whole rock record by slow gradual processes, he thereby reduced the Flood to a geological non-event. Catastrophism did not die out immediately, although by the late 1830s only a few catastrophists remained, and they believed Noah’s Flood was geologically quite insignificant.
By the end of the 19th century, the age of the earth was considered by all geologists to be in the hundreds of millions of years. Radiometric dating methods began to be developed in 1903, and over the course of the 20th century the age of the earth expanded to 4.5 billion years.
Assumptions, Observations, and Interpretations
What most people do not realize is that the old-earth theories (like Darwin’s evolution theory and the later big-bang theory of cosmology) were not developed by “just letting the facts speak for themselves.” It is critically important to understand the difference between observations and interpretations and the highly influential role that philosophical/religious assumptions play in making the observations, deciding what data to collect and report to the scientific community, and how the data is interpreted.
The architects of “deep time” were not unbiased, objective pursers of truth. There is no such person who has ever existed, and scientists are, by their academic training, often blind to the philosophical, non-scientific assumptions that affect what they see and how they interpret what they see, as well as what kinds of experiments they will do, what kinds of questions they will explore, and what kinds of conclusions they will consider as possible answers to those questions. Regarding early 19th century geology, a respected historian of science has noted:
Most significantly, recent work in cultural anthropology and the sociology of knowledge has shown that the conceptual framework that brings the natural world into a comprehensible form becomes especially evident when a scientist constructs a classification [of rock strata]. Previous experience, early training, institutional loyalties, personal temperament, and theoretical outlook are all brought to bear in defining particular boundaries as “natural.”15
We must also add other factors that can distort a scientist’s thinking or the published results thereof: peer pressure, greed, envy, love of money or reputation, etc., can lead to deception and fraud that can go undetected by the scientific community for a very long time.16 Now, it would be misleading and mistaken to think that all these factors influence all scientists to the same degree. Furthermore, a major component of anyone’s theoretical outlook is his religious worldview (which could include atheism or agnosticism). Worldview had a far more significant influence on the origin of old-earth geology than has often been perceived or acknowledged. A person’s worldview not only affects the interpretation of the facts but also the observation of the facts. Another prominent historian of science rightly comments about scientists, and non-scientists: “Men often perceive what they expect, and overlook what they do not wish to see.”17 A leading historian of geology, Martin Rudwick, provides an enlightening description of the controversy in the late 1830s over the identification of the Devonian formation in the geology of Britain. He wrote:
Furthermore, most of their recorded field observations that related to the Devonian controversy were not only more or less “theory laden,” in the straightforward sense that most scientists as well as historians and philosophers of science now accept as a matter of course, but also “controversy laden.” The particular observations made, and their immediate ordering in the field, were often manifestly directed toward finding empirical evidence that would be not merely relevant to the controversy but also persuasive. Many of the most innocently “factual” observations can be seen from their context to have been sought, selected, and recorded in order to reinforce the observer’s interpretation and to undermine the plausibility of that of his opponents.18
In Lyell’s covert promotion of Scrope’s uniformitarian interpretations of the geology of central France, Lyell had similarly said in 1827, “It is almost superfluous to remind the reader that they who have a theory to establish, may easily overlook facts which bear against them, and, unconscious of their own partiality, dwell exclusively on what tends to support their opinions.”19 However, many geologists, then and now, would say that Lyell was blind to this fact in his own geological interpretations.
So the influence of worldview on the observation, selection, and interpretation of the geological facts was (and still is) significant, especially given the limited knowledge of people individually and collectively in the still infant stage of early 19th century geology. As the philosopher of science Thomas Kuhn has noted:
Philosophers of science have repeatedly demonstrated that more than one theoretical construction can always be placed upon a given collection of data. History of science indicates that, particularly in the early developmental stages of a new paradigm, it is not even very difficult to invent such alternatives.20
The heart of the debate about the age of the earth and about how to correctly interpret the geological record is a massive worldview conflict.
Philosophical assumptions drove the development of the old-earth theories in the early 1800s. Two key assumptions were: (1) everything in the physical universe can and indeed must be explained by time, chance, and the laws of nature working on matter; and (2) natural physical processes have always acted in the same manner, rate, and intensity as we see operating today. These assumptions form the basis of uniformitarian naturalism, which took control of modern science in the early 19th century, decades before Darwin published Origin of Species in 1859. Although many scientists today allow for occasional large-scale catastrophes in their models of earth history, uniformitarian thinking is still endemic and naturalism is king. So the heart of the debate about the age of the earth and about how to correctly interpret the geological record is a massive worldview conflict.
Many 18th and 19th century old-earth proponents clearly expressed their naturalistic uniformitarian worldview. For example, Buffon wrote:
In order to judge what has happened, or even what will happen, one need only examine what is happening. . . . Events which occur every day, movements which succeed each other and repeat themselves without interruption, constant and constantly reiterated operations, these are our causes and our reasons.21
Elsewhere Buffon argued:
. . . we must take the earth as it is, examine its different parts with minuteness, and, by induction, judge of the future, from what at present exists. We ought not to be affected by causes which seldom act, and whose action is always sudden and violent. These have no place in the ordinary course of nature. But operations uniformly repeated, motions which succeed one another without interruption, are the causes which alone ought to be the foundation of our reasoning.22
Hutton similarly wrote, “The past history of our globe must be explained by what can be seen to be happening now. . . . No powers are to be employed that are not natural to the globe, no action to be admitted except those of which we know the principle.”23 Elsewhere he rejected the idea of a global Flood on the basis of reasoning the present to the past: “But surely, general deluges form no part of the theory of the earth; for, the purpose of this earth is evidently to maintain vegetable and animal life, and not to destroy them.”24 Of course the present earth does support plants and animals, and there are no global floods today. But that doesn’t mean a global Flood didn’t happen in the past.
Obviously, by insisting that geologists must reason only from known, present-day, natural processes, these men ruled out a priori (i.e., before ever looking at the rocks and fossils) God’s supernatural creation of the world in six days and the supernaturally induced, global, year-long, catastrophic Noachian Flood, as described in Genesis. Werner, Laplace, Smith, Lyell, and other leading developers of old-earth thinking followed this same naturalistic uniformitarian reasoning. Sadly, many Christian geologists (e.g., Britain’s Buckland and Sedgwick, America’s Benjamin Silliman and Edward Hitchcock) were infected to varying degrees with this kind of thinking, apparently without realizing it.
It is no wonder that these old-earth proponents could not see the overwhelming geological evidence confirming the biblical teaching about creation, the Flood, and the age of the earth. It is equally unremarkable that all the geology students who have been educated with the same presuppositions for the last 200 years also have not been able to see the abundant evidence confirming Genesis. The rest of the public (blind to the presuppositions) is then easily led by the geologists (through the media, museums, national park signage, school textbooks, and science programs on TV) to accept millions of years.
Anti-biblical Attitudes among Geologists
Not only were the developers of old-earth theory biased by the above-mentioned various influences. Their naturalistic (deistic or atheistic) way of thinking also developed in the social context of an overtly Christian culture in Europe, and it was in most cases the result of a conscious rejection of Scripture (or at least Genesis). This anti-biblical worldview was often deliberately hidden from view in published works that played lip service to God’s existence. But unpublished writings from the same men are more straightforward. Buffon correctly perceived that his old-earth theory would not be acceptable to the Catholic Church. So although his unpublished manuscript estimates three million years for the age of the earth, his published book gives an age of 75,000 years (which was equally unpalatable to Catholic theologians). Jacques Roger, a leading 20th-century French historian of science, says that “Buffon was among the first to create an autonomous science, free of any theological influence.”25 Of course, the discerning Christian will realize that Buffon did no such thing. Rather, he wanted to enslave science to his own unbiblical theology and to “free” science from the Christian framework that was the womb for modern science and makes sense of the world.
Cuvier’s opposition to biblical truth was more subtle. In his Theory of the Earth, he briefly mentioned Genesis, the creation, the Deluge, and God, but dismissed all earlier efforts to make sense of the geological record in light of those two events. He himself made no attempt to correlate his theory with biblical history, except to allude to the post-Flood biblical chronology as giving a reasonable date for the Flood. But he did not specifically refer to any passage, and he ignored Genesis 1–9 and Exodus 20:8–11.
The uniformitarian geologist Charles Lyell explained in a lecture at King’s College London in 1832:
I have always been strongly impressed with the weight of an observation of an excellent writer and skillful geologist who said that “for the sake of revelation as well as of science—of truth in every form—the physical part of Geological inquiry ought to be conducted as if the Scriptures were not in existence.”26
Such reasoning might be permissible if the Bible did not describe any events relevant to the formation of the rocks of the earth (such as the creation week and the Flood). But since the Bible does speak of such events, Lyell’s approach is like trying to write a history of ancient Rome by studying the surviving monuments, buildings, artwork, and coins, while intentionally ignoring the writings of reliable Roman historians. The results would not be very accurate.
A few years earlier, Lyell had privately revealed his animosity toward the Bible and his devious plan to undermine its teachings. Writing to his friend Roderick Murchison (a fellow old-earth, uniformitarian geologist), in a private letter dated August 11, 1829, just months before the publication of the first volume of his Principles of Geology (1830), Lyell revealed:
I trust I shall make my sketch of the progress of geology popular. Old [Rev. John] Fleming is frightened and thinks the age will not stand my anti-Mosaical conclusions and at least that the subject will for a time become unpopular and awkward for the clergy, but I am not afraid. I shall out with the whole but in as conciliatory a manner as possible.27
About the same time Lyell corresponded with his friend, George P. Scrope (another old-earth geologist and MP of British Parliament), saying, “If ever the Mosaic geology could be set down without giving offense, it would be in an historical sketch.”28 Why would Lyell want to rid geology of the historically accurate (inspired) record of the Flood? Because as a Unitarian (or deist) he was living in rebellion against his Creator, Jesus Christ, and he wanted geology to function with naturalistic presuppositions. Lyell revealed more of his thinking when he wrote Scrope again on June 14, 1830:
I am sure you may get into Q.R. [Quarterly Review] what will free the science [of geology] from Moses, for if treated seriously, the [church] party are [sic] quite prepared for it. A bishop, Buckland ascertained (we suppose [John] Sumner), gave Ure29 a dressing in the British Critic and Theological Review. They see at last the mischief and scandal brought on them by Mosaic systems. . . . Probably there was a beginning—it is a metaphysical question, worthy of a theologian—probably there will be an end. Species, as you say, have begun and ended—but the analogy is faint and distant. Perhaps it is an analogy, but all I say is, there are, as Hutton said, “no signs of a beginning, no prospect of an end” . . . . All I ask is, that at any given period of the past, don’t stop inquiry when puzzled by refuge to a “beginning,” which is all one with “another state of nature,” as it appears to me. But there is no harm in your attacking me, provided you point out that it is the proof I deny, not the probability of a beginning. . . . I was afraid to point the moral, as much as you can do in the Q.R. about Moses. Perhaps I should have been tenderer about the Koran. Don’t meddle much with that, if at all. If we don’t irritate, which I fear that we may (though mere history), we shall carry all with us. If you don’t triumph over them, but compliment the liberality and candour of the present age, the bishops and enlightened saints will join us in despising both the ancient and modern physico-theologians. It is just the time to strike, so rejoice that, sinner as you are, the Q.R. is open to you.
P.S. . . . I conceived the idea five or six years ago [1824–25], that if ever the Mosaic geology could be set down without giving offence, it would be in an historical sketch, and you must abstract mine, in order to have as little to say as possible yourself. Let them feel it, and point the moral.30
From a study of Lyell’s writings, Porter concludes that Lyell saw himself as “the spiritual saviour of geology, freeing the science from the old dispensation of Moses.”31 So, behind the scenes, many early geologists were strategizing about how to undermine faith in the Scriptures, especially the history of Genesis 1–11 and to convince the Church that the Bible has nothing relevant to say to the question of the age and history of the earth. Those geologists were extremely successful in accomplishing their objective.
Science emerged from a philosophically motivated enquiry into the nature of our world, and it has usurped some of the mystery formerly included in religion.
But none of this is surprising when we consider the theological orientation of the men who were most influential in the development of the old-earth theory. Buffon was a deist or atheist, disguising the fact with occasional references to God.32 Laplace was an open atheist.33 Lamarck straddled the fence between deism and atheism.34 Werner was a deist35 or possibly an atheist,36 and hence “felt no need to harmonize his theory with the Bible.”37 Historians have concluded the same about Hutton.38 William Smith was a vague sort of theist, but according to his nephew (a fellow geologist) he was most definitely not a Christian.39 Cuvier was a nominal Lutheran, but recent research has shown that in practice he was an irreverent deist.40 Lyell was probably a deist (or a Unitarian, which is essentially the same).41 Many of the other leading geologists of the 1820s and 1830s were likewise anti-Christian. So these men were hardly unbiased, objective pursuers of truth, as they would have wanted their contemporaries to believe and as modern evolutionists and many historians of science want us to view them. The evolutionary paleontologist Philip Gingerich candidly admits, “Science emerged from a philosophically motivated enquiry into the nature of our world, and it has usurped some of the mystery formerly included in religion.”42
Theologians and Bible scholars need to grasp this point. Collins is wide of the mark when he states the following at the end of his brief discussion on geology in partial defense of his old-earth views:
First, it is true that modern geology does not depend on Scripture (it isn’t true that it ignores it, though: many works cite James Ussher’s chronology for the world). But this is a far cry from saying that it sets itself in opposition to the Bible. In fact, most of the pioneering geologists in early nineteenth-century England were pious Anglicans—some were clergy. It would only be right to say that geology opposes Scripture if we were sure that Scripture requires us to believe that the world is young—and the early geologists thought the Bible gave room for other possible interpretations.43
This statement is quite misleading. Those few modern geology books that mention the Bible or Ussher do so with subtle or blatant scoffing. They certainly never take the Bible’s teaching or Ussher’s scholarly work on chronology seriously. Furthermore, the early 19th century clergy-geologists (such as the Anglicans William Buckland, Adam Sedgwick, and William Conybeare) who advocated millions of years never showed from the biblical text how their views of earth history were consistent with Scripture. They simply asserted on their own authority that there was no conflict between the old-earth theories and Scripture.44 So, they may have been pious in the sense of a moral life, faithful church attendance, and faith in Christ as Savior, but not pious in how they handled (or rather ignored) the Word of God given in Genesis.
After discussing briefly the work of Steve Austin (PhD young-earth creationist geologist) and G. Brent Dalrymple (leading evolutionary geologist) on radiometric dating, Collins concludes his short section on geology with this statement:
There are plenty of technical details on both sides [of radiometric dating and the question of the age of the earth], and I don’t pretend to know how to assess them. However, I am confident in saying that Dalrymple45 has played fair with people he disagrees deeply with—he has read Austin’s material and measured it against reasonable criteria for a technical work. He found it wanting because it did not meet the criteria. It therefore doesn’t look to me like Austin’s claim to call into question radiometric dating should carry much weight with us. I conclude, then that I have no reason to disbelieve the standard theories of the geologists, including their estimate for the age of the earth. They may be wrong, for all I know; but if they are wrong, it’s not because they have improperly smuggled philosophical assumptions into their work.46
As we have seen, Collins is badly mistaken about the influential role of philosophical assumptions in geology. Is it not puzzling that Collins admits that the geologists may be wrong about the age of the earth, for all he knows, and yet he is willing to let those old-earth geological theories (which he admittedly is not qualified to evaluate technically) influence his interpretation of Scripture; and he rejects the arguments of Bible-believing creationist geologists who show both that and why those geological theories are wrong? It is sad to see an excellent Old Testament theologian with admittedly no training in geology or the history of geology telling Christians that the arguments of young-earth creationist PhD geologists should not carry much weight with Christians.
Christian Responses to Old-earth Geology
During the first half of the 19th century, the Church responded in various ways to these old-earth theories of the catastrophists and uniformitarians. A number of writers in Great Britain (and a few in America) who became known as “scriptural geologists” raised biblical, geological, and philosophical arguments against the old-earth theories. Some of them were scientists, some were clergy. Some were both ordained and scientifically well informed, as was common in those days. Many of them were very geologically competent by the standards of their day, both by reading and by their own careful observations out among the rocks and fossils. They believed that the biblical account of creation and Noah’s Flood explained the rock record far better than the old-earth theories.47 Other Christians in the early 1800s quickly accepted the idea of millions of years and tried to fit all this time into Genesis somewhere, even though the uniformitarians and catastrophists were still debating and geology was in its infancy as a science.
In 1804, Thomas Chalmers (1780–1847), a young Presbyterian pastor, began to preach that Christians should accept the millions of years. He asserted that “the writings of Moses do not fix the antiquity of the globe. If they fix anything at all, it is only the antiquity of the [human] species.”48 In an 1814 review of Cuvier’s catastrophist Theory of the Earth, he proposed that all the time could fit between Genesis 1:1 and 1:2.49 By that time, Chalmers was becoming a highly influential evangelical leader and consequently this “gap theory” became very popular. It is noteworthy that although Chalmers was a pastor, he was not truly born again through faith in Christ until 1811, which was seven years after he had compromised with millions of years.50 He never questioned that old-earth belief after his conversion.
In 1823, a respected evangelical Anglican theologian, George Stanley Faber (1773–1854), became one of the early advocates of the day-age view, namely that the days of creation were not literal but figurative of long ages.51 Following out-of- date geological writings, he mistakenly thought that the order of the fossils (as the old-earth geologists presented them) “confirmed in a most curious manner the strict accuracy” of the order of creation events in Genesis 1.52 His argument shows that his interpretations of Scripture are heavily controlled by old-earth geology. He admits that the Church historically believed in a global Flood, but he rejected that idea because of geology and accepted Cuvier’s catastrophist view of earth history.53 He illogically argued that since God is still resting from His creation work, the seventh day of creation week has not ended and “is in truth a period commensurate with the duration of the created Universe.”54
All these views had one thing in common—they agreed that the Flood had no relevance in explaining the origin of the thousands of feet of sedimentary rock strata.
To accept these geological ages, Christians also had to reinterpret the Flood account in Genesis 6–9. We have already noted catastrophists such as Buckland and Sedgwick. In an 1826 article, John Fleming (1785–1857), a Presbyterian minister, took issue with Buckland and others by contending that Noah’s Flood was so peaceful it left no lasting geological evidence.55 In rejecting the catastrophic nature of the Flood, Fleming made no specific reference to the details of the Genesis narrative. This “tranquil Flood view” was not as popular at the time as the local Flood view of John Pye Smith (1774–1851), a Congregational theologian. He argued that the Flood was a localized inundation in the Mesopotamian valley (modern-day Iraq).56 After the victory of Lyell’s uniformitarian view in the late 1830s, those who still believed the Flood was catastrophic embraced the local Flood view. All these views had one thing in common—they agreed that the Flood had no relevance in explaining the origin of the thousands of feet of sedimentary rock strata.
Liberal theology, which by the early 1800s was dominating the church in Europe, was beginning to make inroads in Britain and North America in the 1820s. The liberals considered Genesis 1–11 to be as historically unreliable and unscientific as the creation and flood myths of the ancient Babylonians, Sumerians, and Egyptians. So, obviously, it was useless in understanding the geology of the earth. In spite of the efforts of the scriptural geologists, these various old-earth reinterpretations of Genesis prevailed so that by about 1845 all the commentaries on Genesis had abandoned the biblical chronology and the global Flood.57 By the time of Darwin’s Origin of Species (1859), the young-earth view had essentially disappeared within the Church. From that time onward, most conservative Christian leaders and scholars of the Church accepted the millions of years as scientifically proven fact, and insisted that the age of the earth was not important because, in their minds, the Scriptures were silent on the subject. Many otherwise godly men also soon accepted evolution. Space allows me to mention only a few examples.
The Baptist “prince of preachers,” Charles Spurgeon (1834–1892), uncritically accepted the old-earth geological theory (though he apparently did not realize that the geologists were thinking in terms of millions of years). In an 1855 sermon he said:
Can any man tell me when the beginning was? Years ago we thought the beginning of this world was when Adam came upon it; but we have discovered that thousands of years before that God was preparing chaotic matter to make it a fit abode for man, putting races of creatures upon it, who might die and leave behind the marks of his handiwork and marvelous skill, before he tried his hand on man.58
During his life, Spurgeon never gave any sustained attention in his preaching to the subject of evolution and the age of the earth, and he never explained how the Scriptures could be interpreted to fit the long ages into the Bible. His few brief statements show that he was opposed to Darwinian evolution, calling it a lie.59 However, in 1876, he was reasoning on the basis of the assumed fact of millions of years of history before man was created.60
The Presbyterian theologian at Princeton Seminary, Charles Hodge (1797–1878), strongly opposed evolution in his excellent book What is Darwinism? (1874), which he judged to be an atheistic theory. However, he made his peace with millions of years. Early in his life he favored the gap theory, but after 1860 he advocated the day-age view. He asserted, with very little supporting argumentation, that the Bible does not teach us about the age of the earth or the age of humanity.61 Like his father, A.A. Hodge (1823–1886) accepted deep time, but went a little further in toying with the idea that perhaps God used the evolutionary process to create.62 He also concluded that history in the Bible only goes back to the time of Abraham.63
B.B. Warfield (1851–1921) followed Hodge as the lead theologian at Princeton. He was an ardent evolutionist during his student years but vacillated in his confusing views on evolution over the course of his career. The editors of his works on the subject call him a “conservative evolutionist.”64 Given that he thought Adam and Eve’s bodies could have arisen by natural processes (under God’s providence, of course),65 “theistic evolutionist” is the label others have given him.66 As for deep time, he did not accept the greatest estimates of the geologists, but did believe in millions of years and favored the day-age view. He argued that the Genesis genealogies had no chronological value and so thought that the time from Adam to Abraham was closer to 200,000 years than 2,000. He said that the genealogies in Scripture “are, in a word, so elastic that they may be commodiously stretched to fit any reasonable demand on time.”67 The compromise of Hodge, Hodge, and Warfield, in spite of their good intentions and sincere evangelical faith, contributed to the eventual victory of liberal theology at Princeton after the latter’s death.68 The tragic spiritual demise of evangelist Charles Templeton (discussed later) was one of the consequences.
C.I. Scofield put the gap theory in his notes on Genesis 1:2 in his Scofield Reference Bible (1909), which had an impact on the thinking of millions of Christians around the world in the 20th century. It was a simple assertion with no argumentation in defense of it. The 12 volumes of The Fundamentals were published in 1909 to defend orthodox Christianity in the face of the challenge of liberal theology engulfing the Church at that time. Most of the 68 articles in those volumes are still well worth reading.69 But four of them were written on the subject of science and they all were compromised with millions of years, accepting what the geologists said and giving very little attention to the details of the text of Genesis.
In 1945, Wilber Smith, respected Bible professor at Moody Bible Institute and later at Fuller Theological Seminary, wrote a massive book in defense of the Christian faith, Therefore, Stand. He warned in the preface that Christians should not “compromise with these agnostic and skeptical tendencies” in our culture.70 But in his 86-page chapter on creation, he did precisely that, as he completely ignored the Noachian Flood, accepted what the leading geologists said about millions of years of earth history, and then argued for the day-age view of creation. He also insisted that the age of the earth is not taught in Scripture (though he ignored the Genesis genealogies, the numbering of the days along with the repetitive refrain about evening and morning, and God’s commentary on creation in Exodus 20:8–11). He did reject Darwinian evolution because of the scientific evidence for the fixity of species71 and because God completed His creative work at the end of the creation week after He made Adam and Eve. But in spite of his great learning and wide reading, he mistakenly told his readers that belief in a 6,000-year-old creation was a “medieval affirmation, which had no biblical foundation.”72 More recently, the late Gleason Archer reasoned:
From a superficial reading of Genesis 1, the impression would seem to be that the entire creative process took place in six twenty-four-hour days. If this was the true intent of the Hebrew author . . . this seems to run counter to modern scientific research, which indicates that the planet Earth was created several billion years ago. . . .73
Similarly, Bruce Waltke has asserted:
The days of creation may also pose difficulties for a strict historical account. Contemporary scientists almost unanimously discount the possibility of creation in one week, and we cannot summarily discount the evidence of the earth sciences.74
It is not the geological evidence or modern scientific research that makes the literal interpretation of Genesis 1 unacceptable.
But it is not the geological evidence or modern scientific research that makes the literal interpretation of Genesis 1 unacceptable, as these otherwise excellent Old Testament professors believe. Numerous similar statements from Christian scholars and leaders in the last few decades could be quoted to show that their interpretation of Genesis, like that of their predecessors over the past 200 years, is controlled or influenced by the fact that they assume that the geologists have proven millions of years. As a result, most Christian colleges, universities, seminaries, and mission organizations around the world are compromised with the millions of years. But, as their writings clearly reveal, these respected scholars and leaders over the past two centuries clearly have not adequately considered the theological implications of millions of years (e.g., death before the Fall) nor have they understood the non-scientific, philosophical (uniformitarian and naturalistic) assumptions that have controlled geology.75 Contrary to their sincere intentions, they have accepted ideas that implicitly and seriously undermine the authority of Scripture.
The historiography of old-earth proponents on this point also needs to be corrected. Davis Young, former geology professor at Calvin College who has influenced many theologians to accept millions of years, remarked about old-earth proponents in the early 19th century:
The contemporary church would benefit immensely from a rediscovery of the compelling writing of Smith, Hitchcock, and Miller. The specific exegeses of Genesis espoused by these individuals may be open to criticism, but it is to their credit that they viewed the growing body of extra-biblical evidence devastatingly opposed to the traditional ideas of the deluge not as a threat to faith but as an occasion for reaching a better understanding of Genesis.76
In reply, it should be noted that the minimal exegesis of Rev. John Pye Smith was refuted biblically and geologically by the scriptural geologist, Rev. George Young, who by both reading and geological fieldwork knew far more about geology than Smith did.77 Edward Hitchcock and Hugh Miller also did very little exegesis either. But if their exegesis of God’s Word was open to much criticism (as it was and still is), why should Christians trust their interpretations of the geological record (which is much more difficult to interpret than the propositional truth statements of Scripture), especially since those interpretations relied heavily on the interpretations of other geologists at the time whose presuppositions for interpreting the geology were hostile to Scripture? Davis Young is advocating, as he has for decades, that secular, anti-biblical interpretations of geological evidence be accepted as fact and used to reinterpret the text of Scripture. Furthermore, the decades following the deaths of Smith, Hitchcock, and Miller show that these old-earth theories were indeed a threat to the faith, as many once orthodox churches, seminaries, and denominations have now become liberal and apostate.
Young himself is moving slowly down that slippery slide. Early in the course of his academic career, at the time of his 1977 book Creation and the Flood (which greatly influenced many theologians), he believed in a global, tranquil Flood that left no lasting geological evidence, an illogical view that essentially turns the Flood into a myth.78 By 1995, Young had abandoned this view and began to argue that the Flood was localized in the Middle East.79 Also, for years he advocated the day-age view. In 1990, he acknowledged that he had repented of that view a few years earlier, because of all the “textual mutilation” and “exegetical gymnastics” involved. But that so-called repentance did not lead Young to believe Genesis is literal history, as the Church did for 18 centuries. Rather, Young advocated the utterly illogical view that Genesis 1–11 “may be expressing history in non-factual terms.”80 He said this because “[d]ickering with the biblical text doesn’t seem to make it fit the scientific data.” So, like most geologists and non-geologists, he has labeled as “data” what are actually interpretations of some of the data, based on anti-biblical presuppositions. Should any Bible-believing Christian trust a geologist (even if he professes to be an evangelical) who reasons and “repents” like that?
The sad irony of all this Christian compromise over the past 200 years is that in the last half century, the truth of Genesis 1–11 has been increasingly vindicated, often by the work of evolutionists who scoffingly reject God’s Word. Lyell’s uniformitarian Principles dominated geology until about the 1970s, when Derek Ager (1923–1993), a prominent British geologist, and other evolutionary geologists increasingly challenged Lyell’s assumptions.81 They have argued that much of the rock record shows evidence of rapid catastrophic erosion or sedimentation, drastically reducing the time involved in the formation of many geological deposits. Ager explained the influence of Lyell on geology this way:
My excuse for this lengthy and amateur digression into history is that I have been trying to show how I think geology got into the hands of the theoreticians [in context Ager has in mind the uniformitarians] who were conditioned by the social and political history of their day more than by observations in the field. So it was—as Steve Gould put it—that Charles Lyell “managed to convince future generations of geologists that their science had begun with him.” In other words, we have allowed ourselves to be brain-washed into avoiding any interpretation of the past that involves extreme and what might be termed “catastrophic” processes.82
Now, it should be obvious that if Lyellian, uniformitarian brainwashing blinded men from seeing the evidence of any catastrophic processes, it would have surely kept them from seeing any evidence for the year-long worldwide Flood described in Genesis. So, as one who rejected the inspired, inerrant, historical account of Noah’s Flood, the neo-catastrophist Ager continued to insist that geology offers no confirmation of the Flood. He could not see it because he did not want to see it. As Paul says, men “suppress the truth in unrighteousness” (Romans 1:18–20).
These “neo-catastrophist” reinterpretations of the rocks have developed contemporaneously with a resurgence of “Flood geology,” an interpretation of the rock record very similar to that of the 19th century scriptural geologists and a key ingredient to young-earth creationism, which was essentially launched into the world by the publication of The Genesis Flood (1961) by Drs. John Whitcomb and Henry Morris. This movement is now worldwide in scope83 and the scientific sophistication of the scientific model is rapidly increasing with time.84 It is incumbent on Christian scholars and other leaders to become informed about the growing body of scientific evidence that confirms the literal truth of Genesis. To say that creationists are not real scientists doing real science is a statement of ignorance or misrepresentation. Resources explaining some of that scientific evidence verifying Genesis are recommended in the appendix. I would especially draw attention to John Morris’s The Young Earth and Don DeYoung’s Thousands, not Billions (with the documentary DVD by the same title).
Disastrous Consequences of Compromise
The scriptural geologists of the early 19th century opposed old-earth geological theories not only because the theories reflected erroneous scientific reasoning and were contrary to Scripture, but also because the scriptural geologists believed that the Christian compromise with such theories would eventually have a catastrophic effect on the health of the Church and her witness to a lost world. Henry Cole, an Anglican minister, wrote:
Many reverend Geologists, however, would evince their reverence for the divine Revelation by making a distinction between its historical and its moral portions; and maintaining, that the latter only is inspired and absolute Truth; but that the former is not so; and therefore is open to any latitude of philosophic and scientific interpretation, modification or denial! According to these impious and infidel modifiers and separators, there is not one third of the Word of God that is inspired; for not more, nor perhaps so much, of that Word, is occupied in abstract moral revelation, instruction, and precept. The other two thirds, therefore, are open to any scientific modification and interpretation; or, (if scientifically required,) to a total denial! It may however be safely asserted, that whoever professedly, before men, disbelieves the inspiration of any part of Revelation, disbelieves, in the sight of God, its inspiration altogether. . . . What the consequences of such things must be to a revelation-possessing land, time will rapidly and awfully unfold in its opening pages of national skepticism, infidelity, and apostasy, and of God’s righteous vengeance on the same!85
Cole and other opponents of the old-earth theories rightly understood and warned that the historical portions of the Bible (including Genesis 1–11) are foundational to the theological and moral teachings of Scripture. Destroy the credibility of the Bible’s history and sooner or later (it might take decades) we will see the rejection of the Bible’s theology and morality both inside and outside the Church. The subsequent history of the once-Christian nations of Europe and North America has confirmed the scriptural geologists’ worst fears about the church and society.
It is time for the Church, especially her leaders and scholars, to stop ignoring the age of the earth and the scientific evidence that increasingly vindicates the Word of God.
One of the innumerable tragic examples of the consequences of this compromise with millions of years (and in many cases evolution also) is Charles Templeton (1915–2001). As a contemporary and friend of Billy Graham, many considered him to be an even more gifted young evangelist than Billy. He led many to Christ as he preached to thousands in North America and Britain. But he had questions about evolution. He went to Princeton Seminary in the late 1940s looking for answers. But by that time this seminary, where the orthodox Hodge, Hodge, and Warfield had once taught, was immersed in liberal theology. Templeton’s professors convinced him that he must accept evolution and millions of years, thereby destroying his faith in the foundational book of the Bible and undermining his faith in the gospel. After seminary, he preached for a few more years. But finally his shattered faith forced him to leave the ministry and go into journalism. He died in 2001 as a miserable atheist. But in 1996 he published Farewell to God: My Reasons for Rejecting the Christian Faith. At the conclusion of that book he wrote, “I believe that there is no supreme being with human attributes—no God in the biblical sense—but that life is the result of timeless evolutionary forces, having reached its present transient state over millions of years.”86
False ideas have terrible consequences. It is time for the Church, especially her leaders and scholars, to stop ignoring the age of the earth and the scientific evidence that increasingly vindicates the Word of God. The Church must repent of her compromise with millions of years (with the attendant ignoring or rejection of the global Noachian Flood) and once again believe and preach the literal truth of Genesis 1–11.