Today I want to come at this from a slightly different angle. Judging by the responses I got on Facebook and via email, many folks are willing to say the Earth is old but they’re still not cool with evolution. And that’s not even my main point. So how about this for a starting point:
If the book of Genesis had never been written, how would you believe the Earth and all that is in it were made?
As a theist, a person who believes in God, you would believe God made it. All this stuff had to come from somewhere, right? So God made it. But how did he make it? What did the creation process look like? How long did it take? Did he do it instantaneously, or did he do it gradually, over a really long period of time? And did he make our human race from scratch? Or did he mold us out of a previous species and develop us into something more aptly fitted for what he wanted to do with us?
If the Genesis creation account had never been written, you would not naturally conclude that God chose to do it in a matter of a few short hours. Not in this day and age, anyway. Nothing else in nature happens so quickly, and since nature is his handiwork, we learn much about how he works by simply observing how nature actually works, right? Things happen very gradually in nature, and big changes take a really long time to develop.
Before the dawn of a more scientific era, ancient people used to ascribe things like thunder and lightning to the gods. They didn’t know meteorological reasons for changes in the weather, nor astronomical reasons for changes in the seasons, so they blamed the gods. Monotheistic people just disagreed on the number of gods to blame, but they still saw things the same way in the end. Storms and tides and droughts and harvests were the work of God. Nothing else needed to be known.
Today we understand scientific reasons for all of these things that happen, but that doesn’t mean our faith is invalidated. Just because we understand now how a tree reproduces and grows, or how a mother’s body weaves together and nourishes the intricate parts of a fetus doesn’t mean we can’t give God credit for these incredible occurrences. On the contrary, we look, we marvel, and we worship. We say, “Look how elegantly God does his work!” You don’t have to discount the mechanics in order to honor the One Behind It All.
So why not conclude that God made our world very slowly over millions of years, as our science seems to clearly indicate?
The answer is that Genesis puts it differently. And many of us inherited a tradition of biblical interpretation which says that you should read those first few chapters very simplistically and forget anything else the rest of our scientific disciplines tell us.
My contention is that there are other ways to understand those first few chapters. They began as stories told by grandparents to their grandchildren in Mesopotamia many centuries ago. They are beautiful stories and they assert things about God and about his handiwork which distinguished those people from all the other people groups around them. Let’s celebrate that and receive it as inspired by God himself. But let us not insist that these stories overrule any other information we find in God’s creation, using the scientific lenses we’ve developed over the years. I don’t think that really does justice to the complexity of God’s handiwork, and it just makes us look a little dumb. I don’t think that honors him.
Does that mean we have to accept macroevolution? Must we accept that we came from monkeys? Well, I’m willing to suspend my judgment on that, but not on how long things seemed to have taken. I’m willing to concede that our fossil records are far from conclusive on the many transitions that this view assumes. But aside from trying to use Genesis 1-3 as a source of scientific information, would you naturally conclude something else? If you hadn’t been told that humans were made from scratch, would you feel so compelled to disbelieve the Darwinian outlook on biological development?
People addressing these questions generally fall into three broad categories. Young Earth creationists say it had to be six literal days, and it all happened a few thousand years ago. The flood buried a bunch of stuff deep in the earth and that’s why so much stuff seems to be older. Old Earth creationists still keep the framework of Genesis 1 and interpret the word “day” more figuratively, arguing instead that these may indicate really long phases of time. Thus the cosmos could be billions of years old but we’re still using Genesis as our guidebook for how it all happened.
Theistic evolutionists, among whom I guess I am now numbered, say that this is still trying to use Genesis as a science book. It still makes us do funny things with our scientific method. It’s like when certain middle eastern countries hold “elections” to determine the will of the people, but the outcome is so predetermined that everybody knows it’s not really an election. I think we fudge on the science way too much in order to preserve a way of interpreting Genesis which God simply is not demanding from us. I do not think he means for us to be so divided between our study of his creation and our study of scripture. I long for the day when we can just say, “Okay, so the world is really really old. Now let’s get on with understanding what he means to make of it all in the end.”
Now that‘s a question worth debating.