While many issues have divided the Christian Church since its founding, one issue that has been particularly and unnecessarily divisive in the modern era has been that of the age of the earth. Drawing wrong conclusions about the “Who” and the “Why” of creation have grave implications (implications for the grave!), but mistaking the “When” of creation is of little consequence when it comes to one’s salvation. It is, however, of great importance evangelistically, and since it has been causing considerable discord within the Church, it is important that this issue be clarified.
In this essay, we will consider the biblical texts that are applicable to this issue as well as the theological implications of the two main contenders — namely the “Young-Earth Creationists,” who claim that the age of God’s creation is only thousands of years old, and the “Old-Earth Creationists,” who believe both God’s Word and world point to an ancient creation, even one in the billions of years. We will also refer to scientific evidences as they impinge upon these biblical and theological issues.
Prior to examining biblical references that throw light on this issue, however, we need to first set forth a brief historical overview of the issue. First, it is important to note that the kind of polemics we see happening in the present debate is of fairly recent origin — in fact, only during the last few decades. The assumption made by many who hold the "Young-Earth Creationist" (YEC) view is that "Old-Earth Creationism" (OEC) is a recent compromise to try to accommodate naturalistic science. This, however, is an assumption not supported by the facts. In fact, the calendar-day interpretation of the creation days of Genesis has never been the exclusive view of the Church at any point in its history. There have always been Christian leaders, such as Origen and Augustine in the early Church and Anselm in the Middle Ages, who have held to interpretations other than calendar days. These "Church Fathers" wrote extensively on their interpretations of the Creation Days, and it appears that many understood them as being something other than 24-hour days (though, of course, none would have any reason to think in terms of many millions of years either).
Until the 20th Century, no church denomination made a young-earth, calendar day view into a test for orthodoxy, and none of the major creeds, confessions or catechisms of the Church have included such as part of their formulation. What was important to them with respect to the Creation was the doctrine of "Creation ex Nihilo," the fundamental teaching that the physical realm was created by God out of nothing that preexisted it. The timing of God's creation was of little importance and a variety of possible views were tolerated.
It is also important to note that the idea that the earth was much older than a simplistic reading of Genesis in English implied (namely about 6000 years) was something proposed by early scientists who were themselves Christians. This was long before the advent of Darwinian evolution and so was most definitely not an accommodation of that. Thus, the reason for the strong emotions that have attached themselves to this issue are derived (whether illegitimately or not) from the secular challenge that Christians perceive from Darwin's and his follower's attempt to explain life without any reference to the Creator. This is a challenge to all who hold a Christian worldview, whether YEC or OEC. So let's now take a look at the biblical evidence as it impinges on this issue.
First and most importantly, what does the Bible teach concerning the age issue? There are, of course, no specific teachings to the effect that “the Earth is x number of years old.” We can only infer a biblical understanding of this issue from what the Bible teaches concerning the creation. There are 20 chapter-length passages of Scripture that deal with the creation, in addition to numerous shorter passages and verses. One basic premise that we will be working with is that a proper interpretation of any biblical passage is one that is consistent with all of the other relevant passages in the entire Bible. Thus, a proper understanding of Genesis Chapter 1 is one that is consistent with Genesis Chapter 2, Job 38-41, Proverbs 8, Psalm 104 and other passages with creation-related teachings. Likewise, it is important to look at the original languages the Scriptures were written in, as well as their historical and cultural background, to determine how best to interpret their meaning. Reading only an English translation can sometimes limit one’s understandings of the issues involved.
I will, of course, have to depend on what recognized Hebrew and Greek scholars say about how best to interpret specific words and phrases, and, of course, there is not necessarily uniform agreement on such subjects. Nevertheless, such expert advice will at least give us an understanding as to what nuances are allowable within the context of the original languages.
Without a doubt, the most important issue along this line is the meaning of the Hebrew word translated “day” in the English. According to Hebrew lexicons, “yom” has 3 literal definitions: 1) daylight hours (about 12 hours), 2) a 24-hour day, and 3) an unspecified period of time, essentially equivalent to the English words, “epoch” and “age.” Which of these 3 literal definitions was intended for the 6 “creation days” of Genesis 1? To determine that, we need to look at the context of its usage, along with the related issue of what the phrase “And there was evening and there was morning” means.
Everyone seems to agree that the first literal definition, “daylight hours,” is not what is intended. Some, of course, opt for a non-literal, symbolic meaning for “day,” but if we assume that Moses intended the word to mean a literal period of time, which is it: 24 hours or an “age?”
At first glance, the accompanying phrase, “And there was evening and there was morning,” would seem to favor the 24-hour interpretation. Our modern concept of one day is the time period beginning at midnight and running through to the following midnight. The Hebrews, however, considered the days of the week to begin at sunset and end at the following sunset. Thus, they think of the beginning of a day as evening and not midnight or morning. This is reflected in the order “And there was evening and there was morning” (as opposed to “And there was morning and there was evening”). “Ereb” (evening) and “boqer” (morning), can also be translated as “sunset” and “sunrise,” and thus can be understood as “beginning” and “ending.” In English, of course, we would normally consider “morning” as a “beginning” and “evening” as an “ending,” but since the Hebrews considered sundown as the beginning of their day, it is written in that order.
This Hebrew phrase is not found anywhere else in the Bible other than Genesis 1, and so other examples where “evening” and/or “morning” are used are not of much help in properly interpreting this unique phrase. One possibility is that this phrase was intended to communicate that each “day,” however long a time that was, had a definite beginning and ending. Judging from the Hebrew usage of a solar day beginning at sunset and continuing until the following sunset, if a creation day was intended to be mean a 24-hour period, one would think that the phrase would be “And there was evening and there was evening.” Thus, if taken in this sense, the days of Genesis would be just the nighttime period between sunset and sunrise — something that no one seriously proposes. This, then, is one clue that the creation days are not intended to indicate ordinary calendar days.
Other indications in the text likewise point to these creation days being some time period longer than 24-hours. For instance, in the Hebrew Genesis 2:4 uses the same word “yom” in the singular to refer to the entire period of time (6 “days”) that God was creating, which is clearly longer than a 24-hour calendar day. Likewise, the seventh day on which God “rested” from his creative activity does not include the phrase “And there was evening and there was morning” — an indication that something is different about this period of time. In fact, since the first six days all include this phrase, the implication is that the seventh day has not yet ended. God is still resting with respect to creation.
Hebrews 4:1-11 makes this clear when it describes the Sabbath-rest for God’s people. Beginning at verse 4, it states: “For somewhere [God] has spoken about the seventh day in these words: “And on the seventh day God rested from all his work.” …It still remains that some will enter that rest. …There remains, then, a Sabbath-rest for the people of God; for anyone who enters God’s rest also rests from his own work, just as God did from his. Let us, therefore, make every effort to enter that rest.” This clearly indicates that God’s “seventh day” is still ongoing — many thousands of years after he finished his six “creation days” with the creation of Adam and Eve.
This Sabbath-rest is not an all-inclusive rest, but only from the work of creation. In other words, God is not creating new life forms now — something that is testified to by the fact that no new species of animals have been observed to come into being since humanity has been on this earth. This interpretation is supported by Jesus’ words in John 5:16-18, where he defends healing someone on the Sabbath. He said, “My Father is always at his work to this very day, and I, too, am working.” Thus, God is not resting from work in general, but only from his “creation work.” We could paraphrase Jesus' words as, "Just as God works on His Sabbath Day, so I work on my Sabbath Day." God’s seventh day of rest has continued for many thousands of years, and thus this adds to the weight of the argument that the creation days of Genesis were similarly long periods of time.
There are many other pieces of biblical evidence to support this conclusion, but let’s just take a look at one more before answering some common objections. Genesis 2 gives us an account that centers on the creation of mankind in the Garden of Eden. First, God “plants” a garden to put the newly formed Adam in and then “made all kinds of trees grow out of the ground.” While in principle, this could have been an “instantaneous growth,” it certainly implies a more lengthy process. After all, God put Adam into the garden “to work it and take care of it.” Obviously, God wanted Adam to learn something from the experience of gardening — namely that “it is not good for the man to be alone.”
This is why God then brought the animals that he had created before Adam for him to examine and name. In order to have any meaning, this process would need to include a careful examination of each animal to understand its characteristics so that it could be given an appropriate name. Neither Adam’s working the garden or his excursion into the world of animal husbandry would have been activities that were logically designed to be completed in a few hours on one calendar day.
On top of this, then, God caused Adam to go into a deep sleep, endure an operation and then recover from it to be presented with his newly created helpmate, Eve. Adam’s response, “This is now bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh,” in the Hebrew has the nuance of “at long last” (and is translated this way in several translations). If we require that this entire process be completed in just a few hours at the end of the sixth 24-hour creation day, it looses its meaning as a training exercise designed by God to prepare Adam and Eve for their roles in his creation. These and other biblical clues make a compelling case for the creation days of Genesis being periods of time much longer than 24-hour calendar days.
In itself, of course, this would not necessarily mean “millions of years.” In principle, these periods could still be fairly short, even months or years. Or, as several of the ancient church fathers had suggested, they might be 1000-year periods, based on the principle that “with the Lord a day is like a thousand years.” (2 Peter 3:8) If it were not for the fear that allowing for long creation days would open the door to “millions of years of death and suffering before the Fall,” I am convinced that ordinary Christians looking carefully at what the Bible says would easily reach the conclusion that the creation days were not intended to be taken as 24-hour days.
Common Objections to Long Creation Days
Perhaps the Scripture most commonly used to support the calendar day interpretation is Exodus 20:11, where God through Moses is expounding on the commandment to keep the Sabbath holy. “For in six days the Lord made the heavens and the earth, the sea and all that is in them, but he rested on the seventh day. Therefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy.”
Jesus tells us “the Sabbath was made for man” (Mark 2:27). It is part of our very nature to take time off from our work, and when we abuse our bodies through overwork, we pay a price. The principle being taught in the Ten Commandments is that just as God rested from his creative work on the seventh day, we also are to rest every seventh day. For human beings, that “day” is a 24-hour calendar day, but that doesn’t require God’s creation days to be the same. The pattern being established is one in seven. This same pattern is applied to agricultural land in Lev. 25:3-4, where the Lord commands the Israelites to work a particular field for six years and then give it a rest on the seventh. The appropriate time period for humans is one in seven days, but for the land it is one in seven years. God’s “day” of rest can be any period he so chooses, and the Bible indicates that God’s “Sabbath rest” (from his work of creation) is many thousands of years long.
In principle, God could have divided the time span he was preparing the earth for human life into any number of time periods he so chose. There is no phenomenon in nature that defines a 7-day week (as there is for day, month and year). Most people reading the Bible have simply assumed that the 7-day week was established because God had worked for 6 "days" (presumed to be of equal length) and rested on the seventh. It is my opinion that the evidence from both the Word and the world point to God ordaining the 7-day week as the ideal cycle for the way he created humankind, and then describing his creative activity in terms of being analogous to that. Such an understanding is consistent with the biblical data (though, of course, not required by it) and is also consistent with the data we have from the natural world (and in fact is required by that data if we take them at face value). This view relieves one from the often awkward forced-fitting of the data that is required by assuming every period to be of equal length and non-overlapping. This means that while the creative activity described on each of the 6 creation days represents the main themes of that particular period, it doesn't mean that, for instance, all the land plants were created during the third period, with none being created during any of the other time periods.
Another common objection is the claim that long creation days imply death before sin, and thus undermine the gospel message. There are many facets to this issue, but briefly, the main reason this argument does not carry weight is that the death that was introduced into the world upon Adam’s and Eve’s sin was spiritual death and not physical death. This is clearly spelled out in Romans 5:12, where Paul states, “Sin entered the world through one man, and death through sin, and in this way death came to all men, because all sinned.” Only humans are created in the image of God, and thus only they are capable of sinning against God. It clearly implies that the death being talked about here applies only to humans — namely spiritual death (eternal separation from God). The gospel message is that Christ’s sacrifice of his human life provided the way for redemption from the curse of sin and the spiritual death that accompanies it.
This says nothing about the physical death of animals and whether that was part of God’s “good” created order. Claiming that the “cruelty” that goes along with carnivorous activity cannot be “good” is an appeal based on our human emotions and does not stand up to logic. First of all, let's look at biblical support for this understanding. Among the many I could raise, perhaps Psalm 104, a "Creation Psalm" paralleling Genesis 1, makes the strongest case. The beginning verses allude to the creation of the earth itself and the fact that there was initial ocean covering the entire planet. Incidentally, verse 9 states that after God created the dry land, he "set a boundary [the waters] cannot cross; never again will they cover the earth." In order to reconcile this with their teaching of a global flood in Noah's day (not Noah's "24 hours"), YEC must posit that this worldwide ocean that God causes to be limited to the present-day oceans so that they "will never again cover the earth" must refer to Noah's Flood. But the entire psalm is one of praising God for his initial good creation, in all its aspects. And so that is not the likely intent of the author. Rather, this reference to the initial covering of the earth with water is much more likely referring to the early earth, which was covered with water prior to the formation of land on the 3rd “Creation Day.”
Included in this initial creation, then, is God's creation of all animals — both herbivorous and carnivorous. Verse 21 says, "The lions roar for their prey and seek their food from God." Verses 27-28 then say concerning all of the animals, "These all look to you to give them their food at the proper time. When you give it to them, they gather it up: when you open your hand, they are satisfied with good things." If carnivorous activity was not a part of God's original "good creation," why would the psalmist be praising God for it? That this is a Creation Psalm is further testified to in verse 30, where, after describing the death of animals (even implying extinction), it says, "When you send your Spirit, they (animals) are created and you renew the face of the earth." The natural reading of this is that animal death played a part in God's creative activity in his preparing the earth for human occupation. It's also important to note that Adam was given the responsibility to name the animals, and in Hebrew, the name for "lion" is related to the word for "violence," apparently in reference to this particular animal's characteristics. This would certainly imply that Adam had observed "violent" carnivorous activity prior to the fall. Other Hebrew names for some carnivorous animals have similar word relationships.
Carnivores and herbivores are designed by God to fulfill specific roles in the ecological balance. A certain amount of suffering may indeed be borne by animals that are killed and eaten by carnivores, but there would be far more suffering borne by herbivores if they were allowed to multiply unchecked, as they would eventually eat themselves “out of house and home.” Thus, in effect, the carnivores provide a “service” that is necessary long term to maintain healthy populations (unless, of course, you posit ad hoc that as soon as animals reached an optimum population size they would have stopped having offspring entirely and would have just lived in bliss munching eternally on grass and leaves).
Moreover, carnivores were not designed to eat vegetable matter as their sole source of nutrition. They can only exist for any length of time if their diet consists mostly of concentrated nutrition. A T-Rex would not survive very long if it had to pick fruit one at a time and catch insects (which young-earth creationists often claim as not being “alive” in a biblical sense). Gulping down grass and leaves would not have been an option, as their digestive systems weren’t designed to process such low nutrition food. And what would a shark have eaten? Kelp? Likewise, what would the purpose have been for the vast array of sophisticated camouflage mechanisms if there originally were no carnivorous activity?
Again, the only solution to this dilemma would be an ad hoc hypothesis that is without any evidential support, such as these life forms evolving them very quickly after the Fall. Remember, if God is not creating any new life forms after “Day 6,” then natural process is all that is left. And indeed, this is the mechanism proposed to explain how the initial “kinds” taken onto the Ark (with its limited space) diverged into the vast number of species that have existed on the earth at one time or another in the history of life (however long that may have been). For instance, one pair of “cat kind” taken onto the Ark is surmised to have been enough to explain lions, tigers, cheetahs and any other cat that has ever existed. The ironic fact is that such ad hoc scenarios testify to a belief in the power of natural process evolution that far surpasses that any “atheistic evolutionist” holds! If natural process evolution actually had the power to do such transformation in only hundreds of years, then I can understand why millions of years would be perceived as a threat! It might explain without the need for a Creator how a simple one-celled “ancestor” evolved into us. But in reality, evolution has no such power. It might be able to explain such things as bacteria developing resistance to antibiotics, but not where bacteria came from in the first place. And even more, it cannot explain where we came from!
Death and decay are a necessary part of God’s creation, which he called good, and that is something that is not dependent our human sentimentality. It is guaranteed by the natural laws God created, under which the universe has always operated. The “second law of thermodynamics” governs heat flow, which is a necessary part of performing any kind of work, and clearly this was in existence before the Fall. The laws of physics did not change when sin entered the world, but the young-earth creationist understanding is that death and decay — which is also governed by the “second law of thermodynamics” — first came into existence at the Fall of mankind. According to Jeremiah 33:25, however, “the laws of heaven and earth” are fixed. The spiritual condition of sin does not change the physical laws God has ordained. It does, however, have a deleterious effect on how these unchanging laws play out in our lives. Genesis 3 indicates that because of the Fall, Adam’s previously enjoyable work became toil, while the pain Eve would endure in childbirth would greatly increase. It’s clear that sin did not introduce these for the first time, but only increased the level of discomfort associated with them.
It is clear that God knew that humans would abuse their freedom and fall in to sin. This was part of God’s overall plan for the universe. After all, it was God who allowed Satan to come into the Garden to tempt Eve. Theologians and philosophers have for centuries debated the difficult problem of evil and suffering, and there are no easy answers — particularly when it comes to why a specific individual suffers unfairly. Nevertheless, we can have a general understanding of God’s overall purpose in allowing evil. First of all, it was his will to create free moral agents and not preprogrammed robots that only follow him out of necessity without any free choice. It is not possible even for an omnipotent God to create free moral agents without the possibility of their choosing to rebel (anymore than it is logically possible for God to create a square circle). The freedom to love God and follow him is also the freedom to rebel against him. Thus, the purpose of this universe is two-fold. It was first necessary for God to create a universe like ours in order to bring together physical life with spiritual life in the form of us human beings. The second purpose is to conquer once and for all the problem of evil without compromising the freedom of his creatures, without which obedience would be meaningless.
One wonders if Adam and Eve would have lived in the Garden forever if they had chosen to resist Satan’s temptation and not sin. In his foreknowledge, God knew beforehand that first Eve and then Adam would succumb to temptation, and so this is a hypothetical question with no definitive answer. Nevertheless, the statement in Genesis 3:22 that man “must not be allowed to reach out his hand and take also from the tree of life and eat, and live forever” certainly implies that in theory Adam and Eve (and their descendents) could have physically lived forever there in the Garden. This too would have necessitated some sort of birth control when the earth was “filled,” — just as would be the case with animals in general not being allowed to continue multiplying indefinitely. If such a world were God’s intention, then, of course, it would have been possible. But the symbolism of the “tree of life” also implies that eternal physical life was not something that was inherent in Adam and Eve. It implies that in order for them to “live forever,” they would have to continue eating from that special “tree of life” that God provided. As that would not have served God’s purposes, they were instead banished from the Garden into a world where they had to work hard to “plant their own garden.”
Related to this issue is the fact that the YEC paradigm requires that the “Fall of Man” forced God to revamp his original “Plan A” and adopt a backup “Plan B” in order to eventually bring things back to his original goal of “Plan A.” In his book, “Peril In Paradise,” Mark Whorton does an excellent job in laying out these two paradigms, calling them the “perfect purpose paradigm” and the “perfect paradise paradigm.” He maintains that Genesis and the rest of the Bible teach that God’s “Plan A” was this “perfect purpose paradigm,” through which God has been working towards his predetermined purposes without being “caught off guard” by human sin.
God’s declaration that his creation was “very good,” should not be taken to mean that it was “perfect” in the sense that there was nothing present that would conflict with our understanding of a “paradise” (specifically no death of any animals). What it does mean is that everything in God’s creation serves its “perfect purpose,” which is to serve its function in reaching God’s ultimate goal — the final conquering of all evil without compromising human free will, as mentioned above. Christ, after all, is “the Lamb that was slain from the creation of the world” (Rev. 13:8). Numerous other verses likewise indicate that this was God’s plan from the beginning. He is not planning on “bringing things back to Plan A” by restoring “paradise” in a recreated Eden. He promises a brand new creation far superior to that. Thus, we can conclude that there never was any "Plan B" in the first place, and it's been "Plan A" from the very beginning.
God's Word and God's World
Earlier in the essay, I mentioned that one basic premise we must work with is that our interpretations of any biblical passage must be internally consistent with all other relevant biblical passages. Another basic premise we must work with is there must be a similar internal consistency between the truths revealed by God in his Word and in his world. Science, which is the human attempt to interpret what God reveals to us through the natural world, can (and often has been) in error. Likewise, theology, which is the human attempt to interpret God’s Word, can also be in error. But God’s Word itself and the facts that we can observe in the world he has created must logically be consistent with each other, since they have the same author, and God doesn't make any mistakes. Thus, any apparent conflict between science and our interpretation of Scripture should indicate to us that our scientific understanding, our theological understanding or both are in need of adjustment in order to reflect that consistency that must really be there.
There are obviously major discrepancies between the young-earth creationist interpretation of Scripture and the “standard” interpretation of the record of nature by mainstream science. I don’t think anyone would disagree that major adjustments would be necessary to bring these two into alignment with each other. But at which points should this reappraisal be done? It’s my conviction that both have major errors in need of correction.
Young-earth creationists are correct to point out that science is dominated by naturalistic philosophy that illegitimately limits what may be considered to materialistic causes alone. It needs to be pointed out, however, that this is a recent intrusion into the scientific enterprise, as the birth of modern science itself was dependent on the Christian worldview, and almost all of the early scientists were themselves dedicated Christians. With the exception of those who held a biblical worldview, essentially everyone in the ancient world believed that natural phenomena were governed by the whims of various gods or were the result of events happening in the unseen spirit world as such gods interacted with each other. Such a worldview would certainly short-circuit any fledgling beginnings of science, since there would be no reason to assume any phenomenon in nature could be described by universal natural laws. Thus, the focus would be entirely on trying to influence the gods through various religious rituals and magical incantations. It was only as people began to realize that natural phenomena are governed by natural laws instituted by the Creator that modern science even became possible.
The problem as I see it is not with ordinary “empirical science” (areas of science where direct observation and repeatable experiments are possible), but with “historical (or origins) science,” the study of past, unobservable, unrepeatable events. When studying the history of life — just as any good “historian” should do — we should analyze the evidence we observe in the geological record, etc. with an open mind and come to tentative conclusions as to which possible scenario best explains all of the evidence.
If some sort of supernatural element is not rejected a priori, as is the case with Darwinian evolution, then the obvious conclusion to draw from the objective evidence is that a supernatural Designer created the universe and fine-tuned it so that life would be possible. Likewise, the evidence leaves no room for any naturalistic scenario for the origin of life and at least the explosive radiation events such as the “Cambrian Explosion” (where large numbers of new life forms show up all at once in the fossil record with no apparent “ancestors”). In fact, there is no compelling fossil evidence for any kind of macroevolution, and so it is not unreasonable to conclude that all species were created by God through his direct intervention (though, of course, limited speciation by natural means alone cannot be ruled out either — especially for lower life forms such as bacteria).
All “creationists” agree that God created life, but there is disagreement as to when God created (as well as by what mechanism). As we’ve dealt with above, the biblical evidence at least allows for long “creation days,” and indeed, in my opinion, the only consistent reading of the biblical evidence concerning the timing of creation requires that the “days” of Genesis be long periods of time. Of course, that in itself doesn’t yield billions or even millions of years, and until modern science gave us the tools to analyze the record of nature, few if any could have conceived of the universe having been created billions of years ago. Materialists, even in ancient Greece, viewed the world as being eternal for philosophical reasons, since a universe having a beginning logically required a beginner — something that wasn’t compatible with their chosen worldview. But for the vast majority of people, creation was something that was on the order of thousands or tens of thousands of years old.
What changed this view? The evidence from the geologic record, along with astronomy. Some, however, view this as allowing science to dictate our interpretation of Scripture. While it is true that some Christians have allowed naturalistic philosophy masquerading as science to dictate the parameters they work with in interpreting the Bible, this need not be the case. The basic premise we work with is that all truth is God’s truth, and since God is responsible for both the words of the Bible and the facts of nature, they will never contradict one another. Thus, any apparent contradiction is due to one or the other not being properly interpreted.
There are literally hundreds of independent lines of evidence that consistently point to an age for the earth of about 4.5 billion years (and about 13.7 billion for the universe). Likewise, each one of the numerous “proofs” for a young earth of only thousands of years that are trumpeted by young earth creationists have major flaws in them. Other works are available that detail these arguments, and so I will not attempt to do that here. (For example, see the "God and Science" website)
The Appearance of Age Argument
When faced with the direct evidence for ages far in excess of the “biblical” (as they interpret it) age of the earth, young-earth creationists typically resort to the “appearance of age” argument. Just as God created Adam as an adult (he certainly didn’t look like someone 0 years old immediately following his creation), God also created a “mature” earth that didn’t need time to develop before it would be functional. It only had the “appearance of age.” This argument, however, falls apart at close examination. Adam is not here for us to examine in order to confirm whether God gave him at his creation any signs of wear and tear on his body commensurate with a 20 year-old body (or whatever “apparent age” he would have had), but I think it safe to conclude that he did not. Similarly, we can presume that Adam would not have had a belly button, as this would have falsely indicated that he had been born from a previously existing being.
We do, however, have the record of nature to examine as a reality check on the “appearance of age” argument. As an example of the kind of direct evidence for age (as opposed to inferred age from more indirect means), we can directly count tree rings to see how long a particular tree had been growing when it died. For instance, with the Bristlecone Pine trees of California and Nevada, we can directly count annual tree rings back some 9000 years. According to the YEC model, this would mean they were growing for many centuries prior to Noah’s flood, which would have wiped them out if it were truly global and only about 5000 years ago.
Numerous other similar time indicators have been studied that testify to ages far in excess of the 6000 – 10,000 years of earth history portrayed in YEC writings. One particularly strong piece of evidence is in the banding of coral as it grows. What is unique about coral is that it not only records an annual layer, but within that annual layer are 365 micro-thin daily layers. According to the YEC model, coral of any age should have always have essentially the same number of daily bands per annual band, unless a rapid spin down of the earth’s rotation is added to the equation.
Careful consideration of the implications of this and countless other age indicators demand one of two possibilities. Either they are real or they have been artificially superimposed to merely give the “appearance of age.” We can measure the earth’s present spin down rate at between 1.5 and 2 milliseconds per day per century. In 6000 years, that would only amount to a difference of about 0.12 seconds if the rate were constant. Of course, “we weren’t there centuries ago to measure it,” and so if it's necessary to rescue their model, young-earth creationists can always claim (ad hoc again) that the slow down rate used to be much higher.
Why is this an issue? Because ancient fossilized corals have been found with as many as 410 daily bands within each yearly band (with correspondingly fewer daily bands per yearly band in in strata higher up in the geologic column). That would correspond to a day being only about 21 hours 22 minutes long. This ancient coral is from what has been labeled the Devonian era, a period that various independent dating methods determine to be approximately 360 to 410 million years ago. This is in very good agreement with what would be expected if the present spin down rate has remained essentially constant during that time period. Since the moon is slowly spiraling away from the earth, the spin down rate would have been somewhat higher in the early part of that period, but other than that minor effect, there simply is no mechanism to explain any previous rapid spin down that could explain such huge differences in the length of a day so that the YEC model could account for this evidence.
Are we to suppose that the Creator planted this “pseudo-evidence” to give things an “appearance of age” in order to “test our faith?” Such a concept is utterly foreign to the God revealed in Scripture. The God of the Bible is a totally trustworthy being whose very nature is truth and who cannot lie (Hebrews 6:18). Yet that is the unintended consequence of proposing that God gives his creation a false “appearance of age.”
Light from distant stars and galaxies have travel times far in excess of 6000 years, and light from even the nearest star takes more than 4 years to reach earth. Thus, young-earth creationists have proposed that God created light from stars in transit so that the first humans could see them from the very beginning. But this means that even today, when we see an event, such as an exploding star, which is farther away than 6000 light-years, it is only an illusion. We're not seeing a real event, since the light produced by a real event wouldn't have reached us yet. Of course, adherents to YEC can still claim that God wouldn't be deceptive by creating the light photons in route so that we would see what we would have seen if the light had time to reach us normally. There are, however, travel distance effects that indicate whether the light has really traveled that distance, and so God's creating photons to make them appear to have really traveled that distance would be deceptive. In theory, a creator could do such a thing, but it would not be consistent with the attributes of the God revealed in the Bible.
One other point should be made about the appearance of age argument. Those who claim this as a way of explaining away the evidences in nature indicating great age also, for the most part, appeal to various evidences from nature they claim point to a young age for the earth. There is a glaring slip in logic here, as you can't have it both ways. If God truly gave his creation an appearance of age that doesn't correspond to its true age, then it would logically follow that there should not be valid evidences for a young earth either. Likewise, if the evidences from the natural world truly point to a young age for the earth, then the earth wasn't created with an appearance of age. You can't have your cake and eat it too.
The Bible tells us that God does speak truthfully through his creation.
"The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of men who suppress the truth by their wickedness, since what may be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them. For since the creation of the world God's invisible qualities — his eternal power and divine nature — have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that men are without excuse." (Romans 1:18-20)
Likewise, Psalm 19:1-4 tells us: "The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands. Day after day they pour forth speech; night after night they display knowledge. There is no speech or language where their voice is not heard. Their voice goes out into all the earth, their words to the ends of the world."
These Scriptures and many others make it plain that God is not deceptive in what he shows us through the record of his creation. Giving his creation an “appearance of age” that hides something’s true age simply would not be consistent with the attributes of God as revealed in Scripture. God has left his “fingerprints” throughout his creation so that careful analysis on our part yields true information about his creative acts — including their timing.
There is really a similar dynamic going on among atheistic evolutionists as we see in the "appearance of age" arguments of the YEC. It is termed "appearance of design," and while the proponents of this argument are at polar extremes from young-earth creationists, the dynamics are actually very similar.
For instance, biologist Richard Dawkins opens his book, "The Blind Watchmaker," with the comment that "biology is the study of complicated things that give the appearance of having been designed for a purpose." The equally atheistic Sir Francis Crick warns in his autobiography that "biologists must constantly keep in mind that what they see was not designed, but rather evolved." I could paraphrase Crick's sentence to make it applicable to YEC by saying, "Bible believing Christians must constantly keep in mind that what they see is not old, but rather young." Both camps reject the obvious conclusion that an unbiased examination of the evidence yields, because it doesn't fit into their preconceived framework of reality. In other words, "They do not follow the evidence wherever it may lead."
It is my conviction that an unbiased and consistent appraisal of both the biblical evidence as well as the evidence from the world God has created point to God’s direct and personal involvement in the process of creation during the entire time it has taken place. Young-earth creationists would no doubt agree with that statement as it is, but would say that God tells them in the Bible that the history of humanity is only very slightly (less than 6 days) younger than that of the universe.
This, however, contradicts the evidence God has left in his creation, and, in my opinion, is not consistent with the biblical evidence either. If I am in error at any point in this evaluation, I am open to correction, and I challenge my young-earth creationists brothers and sisters in Christ to likewise reevaluate their understandings of this issue. There simply is no good reason to allow the discord that exists in the Church today over this issue to continue to “poison the well” and be a hindrance to our common goal of bringing Christ and his salvation to a lost world. We all need to do a reality check on our understandings of both God’s Word and His World. “Test everything. Hold on to the good.” (1Thes. 5:21)