A Forgotten Chapter and Theory in Creation Theology
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One Christian controversy in which I have had very little interest is about the age of the earth. Frankly, I could hardly care less. And yet, I know many conservative Christians who are obsessed with it and most of them have a particular theory to which they hold firmly. One such theory is generically called “young earth creationism” and begins with the adamant opinion that the Bible teaches that the earth and everything (outside of God) was created by God somewhere between four thousand and ten thousand years ago.
Educated people will remember that Bishop Ussher of Ireland (Anglican) stated unequivocally that God created everything in 4004 B.C. That became the standard view until the geological discoveries of Lyell and other geologists in the early 19th century. Very quickly the scientific community determined that all the geological evidence pointed to a very ancient creation (or beginning) of creation. Since then, of course, astronomy and anthropology and biology have supported the idea that the evidence reveals the universe and our planet to be millions if not billions of years old.
Young earth creationists, almost all of them very conservative Christians, have written tomes arguing against that “ancient earth” view upheld by the vast majority of scientists. Most of them attempt to develop and follow something called “flood geology”—the theory (which they do not consider a theory but truth)—that the flood of Noah recorded in Genesis explains all the “evidence” of an ancient world. Others, and this is the view I was taught as a child and youth, believe in what is commonly called “the gap theory.” That theory still has humanity being created only a few thousand years ago. Many adjustments and amendments have been made, but “young earth creationism” is still strong in conservative evangelical Christian circles.
I have taught about this doctrine and these theories to mostly evangelical college, university and seminary students for almost forty years. I cover most, if not all, of the various theories held by Christian theologians—from theistic evolution to progressive creationism to young earth creationism, etc.
I have found that very few students have ever heard of the “ideal time theory.” I’m curious why more young earth creationists do not hold it. It is irrefutable.
The ideal time theory was promoted by scientist and amateur theologian Philip Henry Gosse (1810-1888) in his book “Omphalos.” Gosse was a highly respected zoologist and a member of the conservative Christian sect often called Plymouth Brethren. He attempted to reconcile the scientific evidence of an ancient earth with his belief in young earth creationism by positing that God created the earth with the appearance of old age only some thousands of years ago. The “ideal time” is the unreal “time” before creation out of nothing. In other words, God created the world to appear AS IF it were however old science says it is.
Now, poor Gosse was laughed out of the scientific community in Great Britain. His son, Sir Edmund William Gosse (1849-1928), joined the ridicule in his book “Father and Son.” Whenever I have presented Gosse’s ideal time theory to students or anyone the result has been the same—ridicule and even claiming that it would make God a deceiver.
But, wait. Let me play “the devil’s advocate” (not literally but in terms of defending poor Philip Henry Gosse). Gosse was not a stupid man. But, as a conservative Christian, he began with the assumption and belief that God created the whole world (planet earth and the universe) ex nihilo, out of nothing. He argued that God would have HAD to create it with the appearance of some age. Why not that of being millions of years old? The idea that God could have created the earth with NO appearance of age, Gosse argued, is ridiculous. Was Adam created with no “belly button?” How old was Adam when God created him out of the dust of the earth?
Now, before the ridicule starts, let me bring in the modern West’s most influential philosopher, Immanuel Kant. Kant believed that we have no access to “things in themselves;” all we “know” are the appearances of things. Even time and space are “forms of intuition,” products of the mind. I will not go into detail about Kant’s epistemology but only mention that, if Kant was right, as many serious thinkers believed and believe, what science studies is not things in themselves but only the appearances of things—things (if they exist at all) that the mind has already organized using the mind’s “software” (to use an analogy). But was Kant ridiculed and laughed out of the philosophical community for saying somewhat the same as Gosse? Not the same, but somewhat the same—in terms of what the sciences study. According to both, the “things” sciences study are “ideal,” not “real.”
Then let me mention philosopher Bishop Berkeley who famously argued that “To be is to be perceived.” And theologian Jonathan Edwards (who was steeped in philosophy) who believed that God creates the whole universe ex nihilo (out of nothing) at every moment. Sure, Berkeley and Edwards were not taken very seriously (about these ideas), but they weren’t and haven’t been ridiculed and excommunicated from among their professional peers for holding and teaching seemingly ridiculous ideas.
Gosse’s ideal time theory is irrefutable. That’s both its strength and its weakness. What I mean is that it is irrefutable IF one believes in a creator God who created the universe and all that is in it ex nihilo.
Consequence: I have stopped arguing with young earth creationists who appeal to the ideal time theory. (But I know very, very few who do!) I wonder why more young earth creationists don’t appeal to it. It seems better than “flood geology” which is refutable by science.