Geology, the Flood, and Earth’s Antiquity
By Reed Benson
Perhaps one of the longest running and most important debates regarding the early chapters of Genesis involves the age of the earth. Is the earth relatively young, that is, approximately 6,000 years old? Or is the earth much more ancient, possibly millions or billions of years old?
This controversy has raged without pause for at least 200 years. Those supportive of a traditional and plain reading of scripture, which yields a young earth viewpoint, have come to be called creationists. Gradually, the creationist view has been eroded in favor of the ancient earth view, a viewpoint that accommodates evolution. This article will survey how the western world has moved away from a young earth concept to the ancient earth position.
For the first seventeen hundred years of the Christian Era nearly all students of the natural world took the six day creation literally. They also accepted the genealogical tables of Genesis chapters 5 and 11 as unbroken and accurate, and considered Noah’s flood global in scope. The greatest minds of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries remained steadfast in this young earth worldview. This included not only the most brilliant theologians since Saint Paul—men such as Desiderus Erasmus, Martin Luther, and John Calvin—but also the brightest natural philosophers (as scientists were then called). This list included Johan Kepler, the Father of modern astonomy, Isaac Newton, the man whose work in optics, physics, and calculus form the basis for many modern scientific disciplines, and Carolus Linnaeus, the Father of systematic biology. They considered the inerrancy of scripture a foundational stone of their worldview and did not doubt the validity of a straightforward interpretation of the early chapters of Genesis.
Geologists of this period also believed the earth to be young. In 1681, Thomas Burnet, a theologian and geologist published what came to be known as The Sacred Theory of the Earth. In it, he attempted to account for many of the natural phenomena in the context of Noah’s flood and a literal six day biblical creation. Following Burnet in 1697, William Whiston, Isaac Newton’s successor as Mathematics Chair at Cambridge University, published A New Theory of the Earth. While he maintained a young earth view, he anticipated the tendencies that would become popular a century later when he suggested that the six days were not 24 hours in length, but were each one year in length. But he remained true to the traditional conception of Noah’s flood, attributing observed geological phenomena to that event.
The man considered to be the pre-eminent geologist of this period was Niels Steenson, a Dane. He made extensive and detailed studies of rock layers in several different locations in Europe. His careful observations laid foundational principles regarding how various layers of rack strata would likely have been laid down with water being the primary agent of deposition. In 1669, he published his ideas in a book that came to be known simply by the Latin term Prodromus, or Forerunner. It is important to note the fact he never challenged the concept of a young earth. Indeed, his labors and writings regard such an idea as axiomatic. The evolutionary geologists of more recent centuries have tried to take his undeniably excellent work and read into it an old earth interpretation, but, in truth, it simply is not there. As the acknowledged Father of Stratigraphy, Steno (as Steenson is often called) stands as a stalwart defender of a young earth.
As the 1700s drew to a close, the spirit and mood of the French Enlightenment began to seep into the intellectual world. Anything but truly enlightening, this movement cast doubt upon nearly all basic Christian principles. In the realm of geology, this destructive spirit of skepticism resulted in new ideas about earth’s origin and development. George Leclerc, the Count of Buffon, explored the idea that the earth had been formed from a molten blob that gradually cooled. He went so far as to conduct experiments and then use that data to estimate earth’s age. He eventually came up with an age of over 74,000 years. He considered the seven days of Genesis to be seven epochs of cooling stages.
One of the most influential thinkers of this growing age of skepticism was James Hutton, a Scotsman. In 1795 he published The Theory of the Earth. In this work he emphasized his idea that the normal processes of erosion, deposition, and sedimentation are the only mechanisms that have ever been active. He rejected the idea of catastrophic events such as Noah’s flood and envisioned earth’s history as a slow and endless cycle of mountain building, and erosion, and sedimentation. The now famous statement of Hutton captured his worldview, "no vestige of a beginning, no prospect of an end."
The idea that earth’s age was considerably greater than the 6,000 years that a plain reading of Genesis reveals continued to gain momentum. By the early 1800s, the intellectual mainstream of Europe had largely rejected a young earth view. The next several decades witnessed a strong move to harmonize the Bible with an ancient earth. One of the most popular harmonizing ideas was Thomas Chalmers Gap Theory, also known as the Restitution Theory. Chalmers was a Scottish minister who proposed in 1804 that a lengthy and indefinite period of time had elapsed between Gensis 1:1 and Genesis 1:2. During this period, much interesting activity had occurred which would account for the time the new breed of geologists wanted.
Soon, an English geologist and minister named William Buckland was also promoting ideas that would harmonize Scripture with modern geology. He published two books in the early 1800s in which he discussed the possibilities of multiple catastrophes and Chalmers Gap Theory. He was adamant that the earth could not be a mere 6,000 years old.
Uniformitarian thinking was crystallized by Charles Lyell. His book, Principles of Geology, published in 1830, flatly rejected all catastrophic mechanisms and relegated Noah’s flood to an insignificant local event. This book tipped the intellectual tide away from the Bible to the extent that defenders of scripture were always on the defense and the new breed of geologists no longer felt the necessity of giving Scripture even lip service. Now the harmonizers now had their work cut out for them!
The first popular scheme to harmonize scripture with an ancient earth we have already touched on. This was Chalmer’s Gap Theory. New life flowed into this hypothesis with the advent of an articulate scholar named John Pye Smith. In 1840 he published a work entitled On the Relation between the Holy Scriptures and Certain Parts of Geological Science. The six days of creation were literal days to Smith, but vast quantities of time had passed prior to day one. He additionally argued with great zeal that the flood of Noah was a local event confined to the region of the Middle East. It is from Smith that the idea of the local flood first became popular.
Exceeding in popularity the Gap Theory, however, were those that considered the days of Genesis chapter one to be ages of undetermined time. Even though some geologists believed that the sequence of events as described in the six days of Genesis did not dovetail with the new geological theory, there were nonetheless many geologists who became ardent supporters of this means of harmonization. The most prominent among them was the Scottish geologist Hugh Miller. He could not accept the Gap theory’s alleged plunge into chaos and destruction just before the six days of creation. His book The Testimony of the Rocks, published in 1857, articulated the idea that the six days were prophetic or allegorical rather than literal historic events. Over the past 150 years since Miller’s book, his ideas have become the most widely accepted means by which harmonizers can accommodate the large amounts of time most modern geologists demand.
One more shot across the bow yet had to be endured by the literalists who were remaining true to the traditional young earth idea. In the late 1800s a book was published entitled Primeval Chronology by William Green. Prior to this book, nearly all Bible chronologies considered the genealogical tables of Genesis 5 and 11 to be unbroken. Using this as a basis, chronologists had estimated Adam to have been created somewhere around B.C. 4000. Green upset all of this with his assertions that these tables had people missing—many generations missing in fact. He therefore alleged that Adam lived much earlier than previously believed, although he did not pinpoint a date. The rising tide of evolutionary minded geologists and theologians who wished to harmonize their ideas with scripture quickly catapulted Green’s theory into the limelight.
Since that time geologists who have sought to correlate Genesis with the principles of uniformity and evolutionary geology have had to expand their timeline to ridiculous dimensions. Like an ever expanding rubber band, the age of the earth is getting always greater. John Phillips, a geologist of the late 1800s estimated the age of the earth as 96 million years. Charles Lyell had already suggested an age of 240 million years. Others made estimates ranging from 20 to 400 million years. As the twentieth century dawned, the estimates reached more than a billion years. By mid century various radiometric methods of dating had been developed that suggested ages of 4 billion years, even greater. The last two decades have expanded this even further by the use of space telescopes that are peering ever further into the distant reaches of outer space. Never reaching an end, the estimates of the earth and the universe are now in the range of 7 to 8 billion!
Where will this thinking end? When Hutton said, "No vestige of a beginning, no prospect of an end," was he right? The bald truth that the many generations of harmonizers have been reluctant to admit is the reality that geology based on uniformitarian and evolutionary principles cannot be reconciled with the Bible. Either the earth is young—about 6,000 years, or it is very old, some monstrously large age that evolutionary geologists cannot agree upon among themselves.
The period of compromise may be at and end. There is a body of biblically minded scientists from many differing disciplines that are working diligently to defend a literal six day creation, a global flood, and a young earth. Two of the more effective associations are the Creation Research Society and the Institute for Creation Research. There are also an ever rising number of books being published that argue very effectively in favor of a young earth. The long road of surrendering ground is at an end.
Harmonizing evolutionary and uniformitarian ideas with the Bible has become an absurd effort. Cling to the plain, traditional reading of scripture! Future articles will explain why modern radiometric dating methods are seriously flawed and why the young earth thesis is the only one that can be reasonably defended based on objective scientific data.