“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…” – Charles Dickens
THE FALSE DICHOTOMY
First, a bit of history.
On February 23, 2017 at 2:01am, my friend Paul Nelson published a blog post dissenting from his role in our film Is Genesis History?
Just 17 hours later, the film was shown in over 700 theaters around the United States. It ended up being the highest grossing film in the country that night. Over 143,000 people spent two hours watching a documentary that makes the argument there are two competing views concerning the history of the earth.
The word “two” in the argument was one of the things Paul dissented from. He claimed we were creating a false dichotomy by not presenting all possible views in the origins debate.
Although in the film and in his full interview he employs this one-to-one comparison, his later reflection led him to re-evaluate what he said. He and I spoke about it and he asked if I would change the film.
I said it was too late at that point (the theaters already had the prints), but that I thought his statement was accurate: there really are just two primary views of earth history when one evaluates them as history.
As a philosopher, Paul seemed to be shifting back to viewing things from a philosophical perspective. The film, however, was not about comparing two different philosophies, but two different histories.
What is the difference between philosophy and history?
Philosophy is concerned with knowledge, ideas, causality, and logic; history is concerned with time, duration, people, and events. Over and over again, the film emphasizes it is comparing two views of history.
What are those two views?
People are exposed to the first view when they open a science textbook, watch a series like Cosmos, or see a film like X-Men: over billions of years, strictly physical processes operating without intelligent design formed everything around us. This is the conventional view that is pervasively taught throughout the world today.
The other view is found in the pages of the Bible. From the 15th-century BC to the present, people have been reading the account in Genesis and taking it to be literal history: God created the earth and universe in a period of 6 days; over a thousand years later, there was a global flood that transformed the earth. This is the historical Genesis view that has been accepted by the majority of Judeo-Christian societies for the last 3500 years.
WHAT ABOUT OLD EARTH CREATIONISTS?
There is, however, a group that adopts the conventional timeline of earth history yet also says it can detect signs of intelligent design in that history. In other words, the people in this group are making a philosophical distinction as to how they interpret the causality of the events in the conventional timeline.
Paul lists out a number of them in his article. Two from the 19th-century are Charles Lyell, a deist, and Alfred Russel Wallace, a theistic evolutionist; both rejected the possibility of divine revelation in history. Their view of design therefore had little to do with the actions of God as recorded in the Bible.
Paul then provides a more recent list that includes some Christians who have accepted the conventional timeline. They are often referred to as “old earth creationists.” Many are intellectually-gifted, godly men who have made important contributions to the origins debate.
Almost all of them accept the Bible as history. Yet when they come to Genesis 1, they say it is not an actual or literal history of the universe being created in six normal days; when they come to Genesis 6-8, they say it is not describing a global flood. Instead, they say the conventional timeline (13,820,000,000 years) provides the duration and sequence of events for the history of the universe.
I would observe that the exceptions these men are making have enormous historical consequences.
After all, old earth creationists say the traditional interpretation of Genesis concerning time, duration, people, and events is completely different from what actually happened. They argue for the reality of “deep time” with an entirely different duration and series of events.
What are the implications of deep time? Almost everyone recognizes how difficult it is to conceptually compare these two views. If years became size, it would be like replacing a small hill in your backyard with the entire Himalayan mountain range. If years became feet, it would be like walking a mile versus walking to the moon. These are gargantuan differences in terms of time and events.
This is why the following questions come up at the beginning of the film: Was the world created in six literal days, or billions of years? Was there a global flood, or a local flood? These are historical questions.
To put them in perspective, it would be like asking: did World War II last for 6 years, or 106 years? Was it a global war, or was it limited to Europe? Furthermore, if WWII did last for 106 years, then countless additional events had to have happened during that time. This is very important: one cannot significantly alter the duration of time without altering the events that go with it.
This is what you notice when you start digging into what old earth creationists actually think happened in the history of the world. It looks a lot like the conventional view of history, but with philosophical ideas about design and cause added in.
This is the reason their view was not included in the film. It is a mixture of the two histories that borrows from both, but is consistent with neither. It is not unique, but is a combination of the two.
WHAT ARE THE CONSEQUENCES?
The consequences of an old earth creationist view of history are a cascading series of re-interpretations that start at Genesis and ripple throughout the entire Bible.
Here are just a few theological and historical problems that result from this attempted marriage:
- The Bible never separates the creation of heaven and earth over a long duration, but lists them together as they are in Genesis 1:1. As Isaiah tells us, “God, the Lord, who created the heavens and stretched them out, who spread out the earth and what comes from it…” The conventional view, however, says there was no earth anywhere in the universe for the first 9,000,000,000 years of its history. This is a radical change in the doctrine of Creation.
- Isaiah 45:18 tells us “The Lord, who created the heavens (he is God!),…formed the earth and made it (he established it; he did not create it empty, he formed it to be inhabited!)” Yet the conventional view says the earth formed slowly over millions of years and was unlivable for billions of years due to volcanism and lack of oxygen. In other words, the earth was created empty and was uninhabited by people for over 4,500,000,000 years. This alters ones view of the purpose of Creation.
- The conventional view says there were no humans in the universe for 99.9999% of its history, but Paul tells us in Romans 1:20 that God’s “invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made.” If man is the only creature in God’s image who can do this perceiving — the creature for whom He made the universe — why would he be nowhere to be found for practically its entire history?
- In the conventional view, there are approximately 13,820,000,000 years of corruption and decay, as well as 541,000,000 years of animal suffering and death, all before Adam. Although Christian theology and statements of Paul in Romans 5 (“just as sin came into the world through one man, and death through sin…”), Romans 8 (“For the creation was subjected to futility…”), and 1 Corinthians (“For as by a man came death…”) talk about Adam bringing death and corruption into the universe, the doctrine of a universal Fall must be changed because death and decay had been around for billions of years.
- According to the conventional view, the sedimentary rock layers covering the earth were laid down slowly over 541,000,000 years due to the gradual rise and fall of epicontinental seas. Those layers therefore cannot be the result of a global flood and judgment of God. This requires old earth creationists to reinterpret multiple statements in Genesis such as God bringing “a flood of waters upon the earth to destroy all flesh in which is the breath of life under heaven…” as well as statements by Jesus and Peter to mean something different than their literal reading (which is the way the church has always interpreted them). Instead of the massive layers of rock being a picture of Judgment, they become merely a picture of deep time.
- If the sedimentary rock layers were laid down over hundreds of millions of years, then one must explain the origin of all the billions of land and sea creatures fossilized in them. To fit these creatures in the conventional timeline of 541,000,000 years and yet appeal to a Creator, some old earth creationists introduced the idea of “progressive creation” events that happened every 20,000,000 to 30,000,000 years. According to them, God performed approximately 30 of these major creation events (sometimes followed by major extinction events) during the history of the earth before Adam. Not agreeing with that solution, other old earth creationists have employed “theistic evolution” with random mutations, natural selection, and death as the way God formed all the creatures on earth from a common ancestor. Needless to say, neither of these views can appeal to the Bible for positive support, and both are obviously inconsistent with the duration and type of events recorded throughout the Bible.
- This view leads those who accept the conventional timeline to the curious situation of God having been completely silent for 99.99% of the history of the universe. For a God that defines His relationship to us through Revelation of His actions in history — as Amos tells us “the Lord God does nothing without revealing his secret to his servants the prophets” — this is completely uncharacteristic, especially since the first chapter of the Bible appears to be just what He would naturally provide for us: a record of the duration of specific events that occurred with His verbal creation of the universe.
- Finally, although God says the world He made was “very good” and that He governs it according to His wise providence, if the conventional timeline is accurate, His providential care has primarily been spent slowly forming galaxies over 9,000,000,000 years, overseeing a lot of volcanic activity and the growth of bacteria over 4,000,000,000 years, then managing various creation and extinction events of trillions of animals for the last 540,000,000 years. In terms of time, man’s recorded history of 4 to 5,000 years on earth is totally insignificant. As Mark Twain pointed out, if the duration of the conventional timeline can be compared to the height of the Eiffel Tower, then man’s existence is like the thin skin of paint at the pinnacle point, “and anybody would perceive that that skin was what the tower was built for.”
Of course, this is just a short list.
My conversations with well-meaning old earth creationists lead me to believe that many of them are unaware of the actual historical and theological implications of accepting the conventional view of time.(1) I have seen a tendency for some to talk about “an old earth” and “billions of years” as something general and vague without realizing the consequences of their view.
They often rely on contemporary Bible scholars who are advancing new interpretations of Genesis 1. These scholars look at the first chapter in terms of a “framework hypothesis” or “analogical days” or a “cosmic temple” view.
What all these interpretations have in common is that they end up de-historicizing the text. It is as if they unscrew the six days of creation out of space-time history and set it aside, declaring it to be representative, theological, and non-literal. The conventional timeline of billions of years then quietly takes its place.
Yet time — as our calendars remind us — always ends up being specific.
THE OBVIOUS LINKS
“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…. It was the year of Our Lord one thousand seven hundred and seventy-five.” – Charles Dickens
Many people know the famous opening to the novel, but are unaware of what actually happens in it.
After a comparison in which two sorts of time in general are compared, Dickens gets down to business and tells us specifically when his story takes place: on the eve of the French Revolution. He then introduces people and events that are inextricably linked from the first pages to the end. Historical novelists do this because that’s the way time works.
If you look at the Bible, this is how it presents history. The creation of the world is linked to Adam and the Fall, then to Noah and the Flood, then to Abraham and the Covenant, then to David and the Kingdom, and finally to Jesus and the Cross. Events and people are always causally connected in time.
It is not general, but specific time. Adam was 130 when he had Seth; Noah was 600 when the Flood began; Abraham was 75 when he left for Canaan; David reigned for 40 years over Israel; Jesus was about 30 years old when He began His ministry. Luke links all these people in the context of one genealogy (the best way to track time for the ancients) to give us a complete history of the world.
We would know nothing about these people and events if they weren’t recorded for us in the Bible. For a Christian, knowledge of truth therefore rests on real history that has universal significance.
That history is essential for a proper understanding of everything around us. If we take parts away, replace it, or ignore things, there are significant consequences to how we see ourselves and the world.
This is important to remember as we consider the final comments in Paul’s post. He ends by explaining why he thinks time shouldn’t be the primary issue in “the current philosophical and scientific landscape of opinion about origins.”
Instead, he thinks the division should be based on epistemology, or one’s theory of knowledge. The debate should turn on one’s commitment concerning “what causes would be allowed in scientific explanation and what would count as evidence.”
In other words, he sees the rational detection of design in the world as the primary issue for origins.
He goes on to say that, by basing the distinction on time, one is inevitably grouping together people with differing views of epistemology. Of course, by basing the distinction on philosophy, he is grouping together people with differing views of history.
So which is the true dichotomy?
THE TRUE DICHOTOMY
Although I have great respect for Paul and appreciate his thinking, by dividing the issue on philosophy, he creates a basic problem for Christians.
As a set of beliefs, Christianity has a unique relationship to history. The Apostle’s Creed is really just a list of what one believes is true about history. It is no coincidence that it starts with “I believe in God, the Father Almighty, Creator of heaven and earth.”
The foundation of all true knowledge therefore rests on the history recorded in the Bible. Christians begin their understanding of the world and of themselves by recognizing that the Bible is an accurate and internally-coherent record of these events. Only after that has been established can they begin to build an epistemology.
If this sequence is not followed, Christians are cut off from knowledge in an area where divine revelation is essential: the origin of the universe and the global transformation of the earth by the Flood. If they can’t go to the Bible to speak definitively on these issues, they can’t go anywhere.
We see the results of this line of thinking in some of our pastors today.
One pastor I know referred to many in his denomination as being “agnostic” on the question of Genesis and origins. When marketing the film, our team spoke to a lot of pastors about promoting it, yet often received the curious response: “I personally agree with you, but I can’t bring it up in my church.” I recently looked at a list of online sermons by a prominent evangelical pastor who has preached for over four decades; there was only one on Genesis 1, and that was a sermon on marriage.
I realize these are anecdotal, but there seems to be a desire among many smart and influential Christians to push away the debate from time and history when it comes to questions about our origins. The result, although perhaps unintentional, is a push away from Genesis as a source of knowledge about the world.
It reminds me of the story of Hercules and his struggle with Antaeus. According to Greek mythology, Antaeus was the half-giant son of Poseidon and Mother Earth. He would challenge people to wrestling matches, and so long as he was touching Mother Earth, he could never lose. Hercules eventually defeated him by lifting him up and killing him.
I think the comparison is that when Christians stand on the history revealed in the Bible, they cannot lose. When they combine that view of history with a solid understanding of the creation itself, they become even more formidable. It is only when they are disconnected from Biblical history and the clear statements of scripture that their strength leaves them.
In the same way, when one reads conventional scientists talking about these subjects, it is easy to see that their commitment to deep time precedes their philosophy of knowledge.(2) That, in turn, informs their scientific interpretation of the data. They, too, implicitly know that their strength comes from being solidly fixed on their view of history.
This is why the film is about time. It is only when Christians see that one’s view of history is the defining question for origins that they can contribute toward building the positive scientific framework that will replace the conventional view.
And that is just a matter of time.
By: Thomas Purifoy, Jr. – Writer, Director
All verses taken from ESV, with exception of Romans 1:20 from NASB.
(1) The handful of examples where old earth creationists are trying to work out the details leads to all sorts of strange historical and Biblical conundrums. The quite interesting work of the brilliant Hugh Ross in Navigating Genesis is a case in point.
(2) Evolutionist Stephen J. Gould explores this in Time’s Arrow, Time’s Cycle in the history of the thought of James Hutton and Charles Lyell, two of the “fathers” of deep time.