A Biblical Case for an Old Earth (Book Review)

“It’s not my fault,” I keep telling myself.  If the issue of the earth’s age doesn’t even enter my mind when Christian preachers and teachers become new to me, I can’t help it that my favorites believe the earth is likely very old—much older that the standard 6-10 thousand year range offered by young earth creationists (YECs).  So what if I think one of today’s best preachers is Tim Keller?  What’s it to you that one of the best Reformed discussions about the things that matter most in life happens weekly on the White Horse Inn broadcast?  Do you care that I think some of the insightful and groundbreaking scientific work by Christians is happening within the Intelligent Design (ID) movement?  And for a ready dose of “clear thinking Christianity,” is it OK that I admire and listen to Greg Koukl at Stand to Reason?  I can’t help it.  So sue me. ;-)

Of course most Christians won’t really care that all of the above appear to be old earth creationists (OECs)—or at least they lean that way.  Either way, that’s not why I pay attention to any of them.  So again, I reiterate—It’s not my fault.

It’s not my fault that I’m trying to give YECs a fair hearing but they keep accusing folks like me of theological liberalism we don’t agree with their interpretation of scientific facts.

It’s not my fault that I’m wondering if hard concordantism (the belief that the scientific data ought to always cohere to YEC) is the right way to read the Bible.

It’s not my fault that when I consider both sides of the biblical creation debate (YEC and OEC), I see strengths and weaknesses in the arguments of both, so that neither side seems to have an open-shut case.

At least that’s the way I’m leaning after studying a popular and well-regarded book from the OEC-camp called A Biblical Case for an Old Earth (BCOE), by David Snoke.  The author is a professor of physics at the University of Pittsburgh and an elder in the Presbyterian Church in America (my denomination).  Snoke is licensed to preach in his presbytery, so he is clearly both an active scientist and churchman.  His book, which was published in 2006, presents a humble thesis: that OEC is a viable and acceptably orthodox position to hold as a conservative, evangelical Christian.  At just under 200 pages and written for the intelligent non-scientist, BCOE is an accessible introduction to some of the main arguments proposed for believing the earth is probably as old as the secular scientific consensus.

Before the YECs begin leaving objections in the comments and characterizing their brother in Christ as if he is THAT Snoke, let me remind all my readers that the age of the earth not an issue to attack and divide over.  That’s the policy here at Dangitbill!  So if you can engage in respectful dialogue, please proceed.  But if you can’t help yourself because “It’s not your fault,” then move along—these aren’t the droids you’re looking for.  Ok, back to the real universe from our brief foray into the Star Wars one!

BCOE is actually a pretty good read.  It starts off a little stunted, but I’ve noticed that most books on science written by Christians (at least the ones I’m familial with) are a little clunky at first.  But maybe that’s appropriate since the move from the biblical text of the early chapters of Genesis toward concordantist-style creation science (of the Day-Age theology flavor) can be a little bumpy.  Maybe the rough transition is a hint that Genesis is not speaking in language and themes that have modern scientific theories of origins in mind?  Maybe that is not the purpose of Genesis 1-11?  But once Snoke gets out of first gear, the ride gets smoother and more enjoyable.

One of the things I noticed reading BCOE is that YEC and OEC have different fundamental principles regarding creation.  In other words, they don’t just differ on the interpretation of facts.  Instead, they rely on different facts to bolster their case.  For example, YECs are comfortable with ID arguments that highlight exquisite design in creation, even in cases of observable symbiotic relationships between different creatures that involve the cycle of life and death.  But OECs expand on this observation, drawing an overarching principle of balance in creation.  Snoke finds the theme of balance in nature throughout the Scripture, not just in the pre-flood narratives.  Balance is an interesting concept because it helps Christians to think about the existence of death through a new lens.  If the existence of creature death (not necessarily human death) is built into the fabric of creation, and the death we observe in the several natural “kingdoms” evidences harmony and balance, this leads us to view death in this balance as something not wholly evil.  Perhaps the beauty of its natural balance may even be construed as “good”?  Before you blow your top, note OEC arguments do not consider human death as part of this natural beautiful balance in order to avoid the theological implications connected to the Fall, Redemption, and Re-creation.  Basically, the point Snoke is trying to make is the LORD who created heaven and earth is not a teddy bear.  As C.S. Lewis quipped (and I paraphrase) from The Chronicles of Narnia about the Christ figure: “Aslan?  Of course he’s not safe!  But he is good.”  The balance theme testifies that the Creator of the Universe is dangerous, and he has created danger within his creation to show forth his fierce glory.  The astute reader must confess this is the biblical picture of God from the first page to the last.

BCOE’s table of contents outlines the author’s case:

  1. Starting Assumptions
  2. The Scientific Case
  3. The Biblical Case I: Animal Death
  4. The Biblical Case II: The Balance Theme in Scripture
  5. The Biblical Case III: The Sabbath
  6. Concordantist Science
  7. Interpreting Genesis 1 and 2
  8. The Flood of Noah
  9. Implications for Theology

A summary of the problems with flood geology is one of BCOE’s strengths.  On pages 161-165 the author lists 15 miracles that had to occur if Noah’s flood was an earth-wide cataclysmic miraculous event.  Neither YECs or OECs suggest that Noah’s flood was a naturalistic phenomenon devoid of God’s miraculous action.  But if the flood miraculously covered the entire globe six-miles deep, subsequent miracles must have occurred to produce the post-flood world we inhabit now.  Of course God can do as many miracles as he pleases, but Snoke merely points out that there is no evidence (biblical or scientific) for any of the 15 miracles that must have happened to make sense of a global flood.  Here are just a few, quoting the author, to get you thinking:

  1. The miracle of transportation of millions of animals to the Ark from Australia, the Americas, Antarctica, and the islands.  Some species of small animals that exist only in small niches in the ecology could never have made it to the Middle East without miraculous intervention.
  2. The miracle of the compression of the animals in the Ark.  The described volume of the Ark is not large enough for all of the millions of animal species plus the food and fresh water they would need for 150 days at sea.
  3. The miracle of the feeding of special diet animals (e.g. the koala) on the Ark.
  4. The miracle of the preservation of the land under the weight of all that water.  Six miles of water would create pressures thousands of times atmospheric pressure.
  5. The miracle of the survival of fresh water fish in salt water (or salt water fish in fresh water).  Unless God miraculously kept the water from mixing, half of the species of fish would have died.
  6. The miracle of the sorting of fossils under water into layers…fossils are sorted by type into layers.  This sorting is not be weight, but by land versus sea attributes.  Land animals lie on top of layers of limestone (sea fossils), etc.

Clearly the OEC model requires reinterpreting familiar notions of what the Bible seems to plainly teach.  These reinterpretations also have implications for theology.  Following the author’s outline, there are a few ways Christians ought to look at nature anew.  For example, the forces of nature are not “evil” threats to us per se.  Only when God uses them for judgment against us do they become “evil” in this sense.  If a storm rages at sea but no one is there to sail through it, in what sense is that storm “evil”?  Another example: the lives of animals are fleeting and forgotten but God still values them.  Just not in the way God values humans, who are unlike the animals, uniquely made in God’s image and likeness.  Even though humans are the crown of creation, the universe does not revolve around us, but around God.  And finally, there is beauty and glory in the balance God built into nature.  Again, God is not nice, but he is good.

There are also several “non-negotiables” for OECs.  Consider these theological implications that must remain “on the table.”  From BCOE pages 192-194:

  • Adam was one, real, historical man (cf. Romans 5:15-17)
  • Noah was one, real, historical man
  • Life in all its diversity was created by sovereign, miraculous acts of God.  No evolution.
  • The second coming and final judgment will entail a complete re-creation of the universe and all physical laws (unlike the “re-creations after the Fall and the Flood as YECs claim)

Probably the weakest section of BCOE is the appendix which offers a “literal” translation of relevant passages from Genesis 1-11.  Snoke admits he is no Hebrew scholar, and has no formal training in reading and exegeting biblical Hebrew.  So he must rely on linguistic aids to “plug and play” alternative words that translators could use for earth, birds, animals, and “time-sequence” words.  Now, I’m no biblical Hebrew “scholar” myself, but I have studied the language in seminary and still try to keep my translation and exegesis skills sharp whenever I prepare a sermon from the OT.  Even with my one-year of language training I found myself cringing at Snoke’s attempt at woodenly literalistic translation because rather than clarify the Hebrew meaning, his word choice often obscured it.  Translation is just as much and art as it is a science.  Unfortunately some of the beauty of the Hebrew text is always lost in translation.  But it’s not necessary to lose meaning for the sake of argument.  Yes, erets can mean “land” or “earth” or even “ground” or “dirt/soil” depending on the surrounding context, but to substitute “land” for “earth” every time the word appears in the text is a bridge too far.  Why?  Because it changes the meaning of the early chapters of Genesis to focus on provincial matters rather than universal matters.  It creates a gaping hole in the creation narrative that makes it appear as if Yahweh God is not the deity of all creation, but only of the Promised Land and its people.  Snoke’s translation choice begs the question, “Is the Bible for all of humanity or not?”

Whether you are a committed YEC, an OEC, a believer in “theistic evolution”, or somewhat of an agnostic on the age of the earth and how to interpret the early chapters of Genesis, BCOE is worth your time to consider.  It’s not your fault if you’ve got an opinion, even a dogmatic opinion (!), one way or the other.  But it is your fault if you don’t educate yourself on differing views.

Resources

David Snoke Curriculum Vitae

Published resources by author David Snoke

Book preview at Google Books

Author David Snoke’s presentation on a Biblical Case for an Old Earth:

Multimedia resources by author David Snoke at The Discovery Institute

An Evaluation of Many Worlds Physics: A Conversation with David Snoke

Old Earth Creationism

Evidence for an old earth (written in 1999), by Matthew Tiscareno

Reviews

Amazon

Apologetics Press (negative)

Creation.com (very negative)

Goodreads

Planet Preterist

Through a Glass Darkly

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