Several months ago my local community college hosed a science & religion symposium. "Science and Religion Symposium," as you may know, is code for, "we're going to talk about evolution and how fundamentalist Christians are stupid for rejecting it."
It was a two-night affair, headlined by Karl Giberson, a Christian man who earned his doctorate in physics from Rice University in Houston. He's an interesting fellow, incidentally; he teaches writing and science-and religion at Stonehill College, and according to his online bio "Karl enjoys writing in his gazebo, listening to Bob Dylan, watching re-runs of Star Trek the Next Generation, and drinking Diet Coke." But for the limp libation I heartily endorse the man's pastimes.
Dr. Giberson gave a captivating talk, one-part biography, two-parts science-and-religion. He spoke of having grown up a fervent believer in a young earth, cultivating a desire to obtain a doctorate and go work for the Institute for Creation Science out in California, seeking to prove beyond doubt that the earth is 6,000 years old and no more. He went to college and was shocked that his Christian professors of science believed the earth was, in fact, billions of years old. Long story short, he's a convert to the old earth view, and like most converts, Dr. Giberson is very vocal about what it is he converted from.
Yet he came off as a gentle soul, answering questions from the crowd that he's probably responded to a thousand times before.
So I was sitting there, in this symposium, attended by 50 or so very old people and 50 or so college kids staring at their phones "earning" some sort of extra credit, and it dawned on me: what a strange, strange discussion. There is one group of people who believes the earth is billions of years old, and then there's another group who believes that the earth is approximately 6,000 years old. Millions of years is not an option. Hundreds of thousands of years is not an option. It's billions, or a few thousand. There is no in-between.
The "Age of the Earth Debate!!!" has always interested me. I've never been all that intrigued by how the old the earth actually is, mind you. I just enjoy listening to the debate. Having enjoyed a pint many times while listening to various friends discuss the issue (not to mention watching innumerable videos online) I can sum up the debate. (YE = Young Earther; OE = Old Earther.)
OE: Why do you continue to believe in a young earth when astro-physicists, geologist, and biologists all proclaim the evidence says the earth is billions of years old?
YE: First, there are scientists who believe the earth is young. The scientific establishment silences their voices because they're operating from competing world views. But even if every scientist said the earth is billions of years old it wouldn't matter; the Bible says the earth is 6,000 years old, and ultimately that's my reasoning.
OE: Well, I don't mean to discount the renowned scientists produced by Liberty University and Orel Roberts... ahem, but the Bible does not say the earth is 6,000 years old. It offers a creation myth of the Hebrews which is clearly written in a different style than is Genesis 12 on, where the book slows down to focus on the history of Israel.
YE: Are you saying that the first 11 chapters of Genesis are untrue? Do you not accept that the Bible is inerrant? How can you even believe the resurrection, then?
OE: You know, the guy who coined the term "inerrancy" was open to an old earth. Regardless, i'm not saying that the firs 11 chapters of Genesis are untrue. I'm saying they're not intended as a literal, comprehensive history of the world, or as a rendition of the mechanics of how the universe was created. In other words, it lays the groundwork for the story of redemptive history, not the groundwork for science.
YE: Jesus and the apostle Paul believed Adam existed. Are you saying God himself, in the flesh, was wrong?
OE: I'm not saying that at all. Jesus wasn't offering a lesson on history, but a lesson on marriage in Matthew 19 and Mark 6. The purpose of the dialogue from his perspective was not to pronounce the age of the earth ,but to show that divorce is wrong, and that Moses' laws regarding divorce were an accommodation to the sinful nature of man.
YE: Well, even if you think you have an explanation for Jesus' discussions of the Beginning, you cannot explain Paul's comments without explaining them away. Do you deny that Paul thought Adam was real?
OE: First, let's drop "real" and go with "historical." Paul likely thought Adam and Eve were historical people, or that the names "Adam" and "Eve" represented historical people. There is no question but that Paul sets up a First Adam/Second Adam construct, but this has little to do with history and everything to do with Redemption History. We are given the story of Adam and Eve in Genesis for a reason--a theological reason, not a historical or scientific reason. That theological reason is quite clear if you read Paul--sin has indeed come into the world through our original ancestors, whoever they may be, and the only one who can redeem is Christ.
YE: You are at the precipice. I'd have to give serious consideration as to whether one can reject the historical Adam and still be a Christian. Too much depends on it.
OE: Pauline analogies don't depend upon the historicity of Adam, but upon Adam as presented in Genesis. There's a critical difference there--Paul is using the creation account to display that man is fallen, but just as sin is presented as coming to the world through one man, so we are redeemed by one man.
YE: If sin didn't actually come to the world through the one man, then Paul's analogy loses all force, and we may as well reject his conclusions regarding Christ since they rest on faulting footing.
OE: If you think Paul's point is a historical one, then you needn't concern yourself with the historicity of Adam, for sin did not, in fact, enter the world through Adam if you take Geneses as literal. Let's count the number of sins that occur before Adam takes the fruit:
1. The serpent plans to lie to Eve;
2. The serpent lies to Eve;
3. Eve listens to the serpent without running away;
4. Eve misquotes the commandment;
5. Eve lusts after the fruit;
6. Eve desires to be like God;
7. Eve takes the fruit;
8. Eve eats the fruit.
That's no less than eight sins before Adam enters the picture. Surely the serpent brings the first sin into the world; surely Eve is the first human to sin. So if Paul is seeking to share history with us on how death came into the world, he's dead wrong. As soon as Eve sinned, she merited death. So I might ask you, then, do you think Paul was wrong about how sin came into the world? Does he give a sloppy reading of Genesis?
YE: Original Sin is passed down through Adam, as he is the federal head of mankind. Sin passes generation to generation through the man, not the woman.
OE: Original Sin came to the world through the Fall, which is not a person but a process explained in the first few chapters of Genesis in poetic terms. And sin passing physically through sperm is laughable, at best. All of creation has been affected by sin, and i suspect most of creation is... unsullied by the physical seed of man.
YE: Seriously, do you even believe in the resurrection? If you can so easily dismiss the Biblical, historical record on origins, how can you trust the Bible at all?
And so it goes, with OE eventually accusing YE of being a pernicious moron with his head in the ground and peddling fanciful ideas around that have nothing to do with reality, and YE accusing OE of denying Christ himself.
But what they're both really arguing about is the meaning of inerrancy. They'll both claim to believe in the inerrancy of Scripture but YE will accuse OE of rejecting inerrancy because OE rejects YE's hermeneutic. All the while OE won't accuse YE of rejecting inerrancy, but instead will accuse him of being blinded to scientific realities. One thinks his counterpart is stupid; there other thinks his counterpart may not even be a Christian.
This is a most dangerous dynamic. We, as Christians, should recognize that the text of Genesis 1-11 is open to debate as to its meaning. We should acknowledge that if facts are learned that challenge our interpretation of a passage, we need to rethink our interpretation. At the same time, OE Christians cannot expect YE Christians to reject their YE view in light of the theological import YE theologians place upon a literal reading of the Genesis creation account. Gentle discussion is necessary in this regard, and all sides of the debate need to acknowledge that our religion is about the god-man, Jesus Christ, who was born of a virgin, lived a life of obedience to the Father, was crucified for our sins, was buried, and rose again on the third day, and that he will come again to judge the quick and the dead.