Why I Don't Believe in a Young Earth

Some time ago, someone asked me:

Suppose–just for the sake of argument–you were convinced that an honest reading of the Tradition of the Church required you to believe that the initial chapters of Genesis were historical. Would you be able to do it, or do you think that Darwinism is so irrefutable that you would have to abandon or radically redetermine your faith?

I think this is the question that worries a lot of Catholics without a strong scientific background as they watch the evolution/creationist/ID debate on Catholic blogs. Here are these otherwise solid Christians taking common cause with the likes of the Richard Dawkins against their brother Christians. What gives? Are these folks really Christian? Do they care more about science than about faith? Do they only accept Catholicism so long as it agrees with science?

To the extent that one is confident that one’s scientific understanding of the physical world is accurate, a religion’s agreement or rejection of science can certainly affect one’s judgment of the religion. Augustine, in the Confessions, writes of how he was initially leery of Christianity because some of the apologists he heard endorsed cosmological models he knew to be false. Once again, one of the factors that caused him to reject Manichaeism was that his questions about physics and cosmology were put off with cheap rhetorical tactics rather than knowledge and substantive explanation.

The reason I would be troubled if I “were convinced that an honest reading of the Tradition of the Church required you to believe that the initial chapters of Genesis were historical” is not because I think that “Darwinism is so irrefutable that you would have to abandon or radically redetermine your faith” but rather that a whole host of fields from evolutionary biology and paleontology to geology, astronomy, physics and more all point to a very old universe. It is certainly true that I find the scientific evidence for the descent with modification of biological organisms to be quite convincing, but a truly literal/historical reading of Genesis such as Anglican Bishop Usher proposed in the 19th century (and which, I would argue, represented very much a 19th century approach to the Bible, at odds with the tradition of the Early Fathers and Medieval scholars) requires much more than the rejection of the details of the current evolutionary synthesis.

For instance, we know that light travels at a set speed of approximately 186,282 miles per second. For various reasons subject to fairly rigorous mathematical proof, we believe that various astronomical objects that we can observer are hundreds of thousands or millions of light years (the distance that light can travel in one year) away from us. Were the universe only 6-10 thousand years old, we should not be able to see those objects. (This is but one example among literally thousands that point to an ancient universe.)

If someone asked me to believe that the universe was created ten thousand years ago, he would be asking me to believe that the physical world, as examined with our God-given senses and faculty of reason, is intensely misleading. Not just difficult to understand, but directly misleading.

Some suggested that these apparent inconsistencies are a mystery, to which faith must be applied. The Eucharist, after all, does not look like the body and blood of Our Lord Jesus Christ. You could perform no scientific test that would allow you to determine that a consecrated host is different from an unconsecrated one. Yet Christ, the Bible and the Church all tell us that while retaining the physical accidents of bread and wine, the consecrated bread and wine are in substance the body and blood of Our Lord. And this I believe, and believe without question. Should the necessity come, I pray that I would die in and for that believe in union with all the holy martyrs throughout history.

However, I would maintain that the Eucharist is fundamentally different from the question of the creation of the universe. Christ told his disciples that unless they ate his flesh and drank his blood there would be no life in him. His disciples said “this is a hard saying” and some left him over it. Christ specifically presented the mystery of the Eucharist as something which runs contrary to our perceptions yet is necessary for our salvation. If Christ has put forward the doctrine that the earth was created within the last 10,000 years (contrary to all appearances) as a mystery of our salvation, then as in the case of the Eucharist we would be called to set aside the evidence of reason and our sense and believe Him. However, he did not. Nor, honestly, can I imagine why a young earth would be a necessary mystery of salvation — unless one adheres to what are traditionally Protestant standards of biblical interpretation in which the “plain meaning” of every passage of the Bible is necessarily true.

Circling back to the original question, I hope this at least provides some understanding of how I (as an orthodox Catholic who also is very attached to the findings of modern science) look at the issue. Honestly, the question of what I would think if the Tradition of the Church required a literal/historical interpretation of Genesis barely makes sense to me, since it seems to me that one of the great signs of wisdom in the Church (as opposed to the many sects that have broken off from her) is that she melds faith and reason so well in this regard — and has throughout her history. It’s not so much that I find the Fathers and Doctors of the Church silent in regard to whether it is possible that the history and cosmology of the universe are not literally as described in Genesis, but rather that it seems to me that they are nearly universally in agreement (when they address the matter) that Genesis is not primarily a historical or scientific narrative. Aquinas and Augustine both seem to agree that it is not only possible but indeed likely that the history and cosmology of Genesis are not literally true.

I am certainly willing to believe mysteries of the faith which are beyond any scientific proof — and contrary to any scientific data — (such as the Eucharist) but I simply cannot see how the creation of the universe is a mystery of this sort.

24 Responses to Why I Don't Believe in a Young Earth

  • IMO it’s quite easy for Catholics to reconcile science and the Bible. My trust and understanding of the Bible relies entirely on the Church. My faith in the Bible comes from Christ and His Church. I accept Genesis as sacred scripture because it’s part of the deposit of Scripture that served God Incarnate, but mostly because the Church Christ established and gave authority to said this is Scripture. If we’re going to accept the Church’s authority on that, it’s equally as important to understand it as the Church understands it.

  • I studed geology and ended up a young-Earther myself. The geologcal evidence for a young earth was too great to ignore. But this hasn’t threatened or altared my Faith. I don’t see science and religion as opposed to each other or as each other’s bed fellows because science is a ***tool*** that is used to understand Creation. It’s one of **many** tools that we use to understand Creation and the meaning of life etc. People keep elevating science far above what it is meant to be and that’s when the trouble starts.

  • Ooops, hit submit to fast. I was going to end with:

    It’s like trying to elevate the tech pub (Science) to the same level of importance and greatness as the actual helicopter (Creation)… (I was a helicopter mechanic in the Navy.)

  • St. Augustine wrestled with this same question when he was a Manichean. The Manicheans taught all sorts of doctrines that are quite familiar in New Age thought today and could easily be revived as a whole, and astrology was a big one. Despite what people mistakenly think today, back then astronomers had pretty good methods of observing and recording the heavens. St. Augustine was no dummy, and he noticed that astrology did not account for either how people’s lives worked out or how the heavenly bodies actually behaved. For a while he hoped that when he finally got to talk to the really smart Manicheans, they would be able to explain why this was so. But when he discovered that they couldn’t, he had to give up the Manicheans because he saw quite rightly that one simply could not be expected to believe what was obviously not true.

    It has always been a great comfort to me that one of the smartest men who ever lived stood up for that obvious principle long, long ago, and became one of the greatest Catholics of all time. He would not expect anyone to remain a Catholic if it required people to believe things about the physical world that are obviously not true. I think that he knew a lot more about how to read and understand the Bible than I do and he did not consider Genesis to be a treatise in natural history. People who do simply do not understand how to read the Bible. They are doing the best they can to reconcile faith and reason, and because they can’t do so with their mistaken way of reading the Bible but they intuitively realize that faith must inform reason, they choose to disregard what reason would otherwise show. The solution is of course to get a better handle on Scripture and reason.

  • Your post kind of put God in a small box.

    After all, isn’t anything possible with God?

  • In all truth it doesn’t matter if the earth is 10,000 years old or 4.5 billion. What difference does it make if the universe is 1.5 million years old or 15 billion? God stated, “I AM WHO AM”. He is now! Not yesterday and not tomorrow. RIGHT NOW! So we can conclude that time is a construct for our benefit and if called to Judgment right now do you think Christ is going to ask you how old you think the earth is?

    Our faith in Christ does not require a scientific understanding. Most Christians throughour history were ignorant and illiterate. Clearly salvation does no hinge on knowledge of the world or the universe. Know Christ – that’s it.

    Now He also made us curious and I beleive this to be true even before the Fall. It is what we are curious about that needs to be corrected, not the curiousity itself. He also gave us dominion over Creation, which we know includes all we can see no matter how many billions of light years afar it is.

    I find it difficult to square the evidence (I am not a scientist) with a 10,000 year old earth. That doesn’t mean we won’t find evidence to the contrary and either way it will not change the most pivotal point in all of histroy, Our Lord’s sacrifice on the Cross.

    I don’t think God would deceive us into thinking the universe is 15 billion years old as some kind of trick. I also don’t think it matters to Him if it is 1.5 million years old or 150 trillion. He is very patient – we are not.

    I alos think that in order for our temporal reality to unfold and be reasonably perceptible by our limited minds it has to be 15 bil years old because our Sun and our location in the Milky Way would not be logically possible in a shorter period of time. Creation itself is a miracle; however, it unfolds in a natural and rational manner for us to understand which is totlaly necessary for us to even notice miracles.

    If God placed us right here in this vast universe suddenly, without context we would have to accept that as a miracle and miracles would then be facts and not mysteries. If miracles are not mysteries then they are not special and if not special then the Incarnation is nothing more spectacular than a lepton.

    Where’s the adventure in that?

  • Tito,

    To say that the earth is 6,000 years old is to make God a liar. Not a good idea.

  • BA,

    I wasn’t saying or agreeing with the young earth theory, more with some of the scientific propositions that were offered.

    God is capable of creating the speed of light at approximately 186,282 miles per second, instantaneously.

  • Good post, Darwin. If you get a chance, check out the blog of David Heddle. He’s a physicist–and a Reformed Christian who takes the same tack. One of his themes is that if the Earth is indeed 10K years old, God is attempting to deceive us through His act of Creation. Which, lest we forget, is a form of revelation itself.

    I think the distinction between the miraculous and the idea the universe is 10000 years old is this:

    (1) the first inverts/suspends/makes an exception for the natural law/order, (2) the second suggests there is no such thing as natural law or a natural order. Or certainly no way to discern the latter.

  • Good post, Darwin. If you get a chance, check out the blog of David Heddle. He’s a physicist–and a Reformed Christian who takes the same tack. One of his themes is that if the Earth is indeed 10K years old, God is attempting to deceive us through His act of Creation. Which, lest we forget, is a form of revelation in and of itself.

    I think the distinction between the miraculous and the idea the universe is 10000 years old is this:

    (1) the first inverts/suspends/makes an exception for the natural law/order, (2) the second suggests there is no such thing as natural law or a natural order. Or certainly no way to discern the latter.

  • Sorry about the double post!

  • Dale,

    No problem.

    I need to read most things twice in order to ingest the information, reminds me of my college days.

  • Tito,

    It is possible that God created the world five minutes ago, complete with fake memories of the past and fake evidence indicating that the world was much older. He could do that, but the question is why He would do so, and whether believing this is consistent with what we know about His nature.

    Similarly, God could have created the world 6,000 years ago, but planted evidence to make it look like the world was much older. He could do that, but it’s hard to see why He would do that, nor is it clear that His doing so would be consistent with what we know about His nature.

  • Tito,

    Perhaps this will help clarify a bit: I certainly don’t mean to say that God _could not have_ created the world ten thousand years ago. God, in his infinite power, could create the world in any way that he chose. Though of course, God being eternal, I think there’s merit to the Augustinian idea that God exists in a single, eternal present. And so from a God’s-eye view, this moment is one with the incarnation, and is one with Adam and Eve’s fall, and is one with both the instant of creation and the end of the world. The stretch of billions of years which to us looks like the long and gradual development of the universe is in God’s mind an instant of ever-flowering creation — and it’s only our view, trapped within the temporal timeline of creation, that makes it look like “God sat around for a few billion years before single celled life even developed”, as some complain.

    So my point is not that God could not have created the world another way than he did, or indeed tha we are definitely right in our current understanding of the physical history of the world (in that I’m sure there are a lot of things we don’t know or are wrong about) but rather that I have a lot of trouble with the idea of that all the indications that the world is ancient (from seeing objects millions of light years away, to geological strata, to continental drift, to radioactive decay, to the apparent history of the other planets, to fossils, to DNA, etc.) are misleading or explained by processes totally different from what we see acting in the world today (and in some cases, incompatible with the physical laws on the universe as we currently observe them.)

    I certainly don’t think our current understanding of the universe is perfect, but I do think that as rational creatures we’re called to use our reason as best we can — and so I don’t think it would be in keeping with our calling as rational creatures made in the image of God to refuse to use our powers of reason and our senses to understand creation as best we can (and accept the conclusions of that study) just as it Augusine’s day it was his calling to understand the world through the best philosophical and scientific insights of his day, and Aquinas in his.

  • Darwin,

    Thanks for that articulate response.

    I don’t have much to offer to this intriguing debate which I have been enjoying reading (and learning a lot).

    But where I stand is that I do believe we are descended from Adam and Eve. Hence why I find it difficult to digest that we are descended from monkeys if we are made in His image. Not rhetorically or symbolically, but literally. We are made in His image.

    Not there isn’t anything wrong with eating bananas and hanging out on tree limbs, but we are special and are God’s most special creation.

    That’s my lens that I use.

    Sometimes a simple understanding can lead to the Truth.

  • Coffee Catholic writes Monday, November 23, 2009
    “I studied geology and ended up a young-Earther myself. The geological evidence for a young earth was too great to ignore”.

    In a nutshell. It is a question of scientific evidence. The Bible has nothing to do with the matter except for the non-scientific question of creation.

    Let geologists present the facts and we can go from there. The meaning of “day” and the order of creation do not affect the geological facts.

  • Darwin’s point was the same point as Pope Benedict in his Regensburg lecture — God has given us reason, which, though limited, is not to be dismissed for something sub-rational. God’s qualities, as revealed through revelation, indicate a God who does not contradict himself; reason of course is used to determine this — but if we say “don’t limit God,” then I guess we can all end up in the nominalist-voluntarist dream of God who is not limited, even by his own self-limitations.

  • Henry beat me to it… I thought of Regensburg as well.

    Tito, we are made in the image of God because we have an intellect, free will, and are made for relationship; God could’ve taken a pre-existing creature an infused these things (parts of a rational soul) at any time.

  • Interesting post, Darwin – and also interesting commenting.

    Chris, your point concerning the fact that the “image of God” is a good one. Are we to understand that being made in the “image of God” is describing a picture of a human? It seems clear to me that the human form as an image cannot be what is referenced in what we read in the Bible. What of people who are born with missing limbs or other deformities? To the outside observer, some of these people may not even appear human, yet we would not say that they lack the “image of God” we describe. Moreover, our bodies can be changed virtually at will by accident or design, yet I would argue that the image God placed in us is left unchanged, for God Himself is the only one with that power.

    For these reasons I have always equated our creation in the “image of God” to be the fact that we are given a soul that is indeed in the image of God.

  • No more they do.

    I guess I’m a bit confused as to what you mean by that in this context, though.

    As a Catholic who thinks that evolution is basically correct in regards to the history of life on Earth, I would say that at some point in history (when I would not presume to say) God infused our ancestors with immortal and rational souls, making them truly “human” in the sense that we mean the term (something which I would say is not reliant on a biological form, but rather on our nature). Not until that infusion of souls into what were, before that, bipedal and rather clever primates, did we become truly persons, truly made in the image of God, etc.

    At whatever point that divine spark entered humanity, we were permanently and irreparably set apart from the rest of the animal world, because we were no longer strictly animal, but rather both animal and rational, both animal and divine.

  • Darwin,

    Thanks for the explanation.

    I’m going to hang out in my neighbors tree house and eat some banana’s now.

  • “Gorillas don’t have souls.”

    Where in the world do you get this kind of nonsense from? By the fact that they are animals, they have souls — indeed they have a specific kind of soul which transcends the souls of plants (according to classical definitions). Catholic teaching has always said this.

  • Animals do not have rational souls. They have a vegetative and a sensitive soul that perish when they do. A good summary of Catholic teaching on this subject is linked below.

    http://en.allexperts.com/q/Catholics-955/soul-2.htm

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