Why do some Protestants teach a “young earth” chronology?

ANNE ASKS: What is the explanation for today’s “young earth” movement among evangelicals? THE RELIGION GUY ANSWERS: This question  highlights the split between many Christians in science and a wing within conservative Protestantism that believes Genesis chapter 1 requires a “young earth” chronology with earth and all living things originating some 10,000 years ago, not the billions of years in conventional science. Confusingly, this is called “creationism” though Christians who accept the long chronology also believe God created earth and life. Most “creationists” also say God literally formed the world in six 24-hour days, immediately fixed all species and humanity without evolution, and caused a flood that covered the globe. In the 19th Century, geologists shifted to the vast timeline that was later confirmed by measuring radioactive decay in earth’s minerals. Long chronology was essential for Darwin’s theory that gradual evolution produced all biological species. Whatever they thought of Darwinism, leading evangelicals and fundamentalists originally saw no biblical problem with the new geology. Some figured the “days” of Genesis meant long “ages,” the “gap” theory proposed a vast era between the first two verses of Genesis, and there were other explanations. The “old earth” was accommodated by B.B. Warfield, the 19th Century formulator of “inerrancy” (the Bible’s total accuracy on history); William Jennings Bryan, the famous prosecutor of Darwinism at the 1925 “monkey trial”; “The Fundamentals,” the 1910-1916 booket series that gave rise to fundamentalism; and later on by numerous Christian professionals in the American Scientific Affiliation. Yet Gallup found in 2007 that two-thirds of grass-roots Americans (and not just Christians) think it’s “definitely” or “probably” true that God created humanity “within the last 10,000 years.” The expert on this is Ronald L. Numbers, who teaches the history of science at the University of Wisconsin  and wrote “The Creationists” (expanded edition, 2006). He takes special interest as someone raised in the creationistic Seventh-day Adventist Church (though agnostic as an adult). This growing international church of 18 million members is somewhat Protestant but quite distinct, for instance insisting that the Ten Commandments require Saturday worship. The church declares a “foundational” belief that the events of Genesis are “historical and recent, that the seven days of creation were literal 24 hour days forming a literal week, and that the Flood was global in nature.” That platform originated with church founder Ellen G. White (1827-1915), whose prophecies and visions have near-scriptural status among Adventists. White believed the long chronology “strikes directly at the foundation of the Sabbath” on Saturday. In 1864 White depicted a vision in which she was “carried back to the creation and was shown that the first week, in which God performed the work of creation in six days and rested on the seventh day, was just like every other week.” That inspired scientific hobbyist George McCready Price to defend a young earth on grounds that the worldwide flood disrupted the geological evidence. In Numbers’ scenario that Adventist theory was carried into conservative Protestant circles in “The Genesis Flood” (1961) by theologian John C. Whitcomb Jr. and civil engineer Henry M. Morris. By a decade or so after that book appeared, Numbers tells Religion Q and A, “the majority of fundamentalist evangelicals had abandoned an old earth for a young earth,” spurning standard geology and their Bible-believing forebears. Why? Numbers says “some did so for eschatological reasons, believing that consistency required that the same principles should govern the interpretation of the first and last chapters of the Bible. Others argued that evangelicals had been revising their reading of Genesis to accommodate scientific findings for more than a century — and that it was past time to start with a literal reading of Genesis and fit nature into that framework.” Others simply followed “young earth” Bible teachers in their church settings. Lament over creationism’s inroads figured prominently in “The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind” (1994) by historian Mark A. Noll, then at Wheaton College, a prime evangelical campus. He decried “serious damage to Christian thinking” that has “made it much more difficult to hear careful Christian thinkers” who are scientific experts. Noll said too many fellow evangelicals “forfeited the opportunity to glorify God for the way he had made nature” and discarded the biblical principle that God reveals himself in nature as well as the Scriptures. Conservative Protestants follow four options: — “Young Earth Creationism” proposes scientific and biblical arguments for its short chronology from groups like the Creation Research Society, Institute for Creation Research, and Ken Ham’s populist Answers in Genesis. — “Old Earth Creationism” accepts science’s standard long chronology but questions Darwin’s evolution theory. Hugh Ross’s Reasons to Believe represents this approach. –”Intelligent Design” likewise doesn’t question the long chronology but thinks the complexity of life forms makes Darwinism implausible, arguing academically without reference to God or Genesis. The Discovery Institute’s Center for Science and Culture leads this movement. — “Theistic Evolution” says God used the long timeframe and biological evolution for creation. Eminent geneticist and devout Christian Francis Collins, now director of the National Institutes of Health, originated one key proponent, the BioLogos Foundation. Among conservative Protestant denominations that officially address this, the Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod believes “the creation happened in the course of six consecutive days of normal length.” The Lutheran Church — Missouri Synod affirms that God “created all things in six days” but doesn’t specify 24-hour days and says “the Bible itself does not tell us how old the earth is.”

About Richard Ostling

Richard N. Ostling, a religion writer for the Associated Press, was formerly senior correspondent for Time magazine, where he wrote twenty-three cover stories and was the religion writer for many years. He has also covered religion for the CBS Radio Network and the NewsHour with Jim Lehrer on PBS-TV.


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