Science Ch.10 - How Long Did Creation Take?

Does it matter whether God took billions of years or one week? Do fossils and genetic family trees point to real history or an apparent history that God hid for us to find? The answer affects how we think about God.


All Christians agree that the origin of life is unexplained by science. Actually, all scientists agree with this too – though most would say that partial explanations exist and they expect that a detailed explanation will be found eventually. However, many experts (including Richard Dawkins) conclude that the origin of life is so improbable that it will never be repeated.1 Dawkins says that life clearly started only once because all life on earth appears to be related, and we haven't yet found life elsewhere in the universe despite analyzing signals from space for decades.
The major question that divides Christians is how long God took over his creation. The text allows for various interpretations:
• The whole process in Genesis 1 could have taken one week.
• Creation of “the heavens and the earth” in verse 1 could have taken billions of years, with one week of special creation at the end.
• The “days” of creation could each have consisted of long periods of time.
• These six days could be a sample selected from throughout the long history of the earth.
       Does it matter? The fundamental message of Genesis 1 is that God is the only creator and that humans are (according to this account) the pinnacle of this process. This message can be appreciated whichever of these interpretations are applied. However, there are nuances and details of the text that give further clues about the actual process. Also, these different interpretations have consequences for how we regard God: surely he didn’t plant evidence for a long process in order to create doubt.

5-minute summary

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Taking the text seriously

Genesis 1 describes God working in potentially three different ways. He “created” things, “made” other things, and also “let” things happen. It is possible, of course, that the author is merely using stylistic variation so that the reader doesn’t get bored with repetition – though this seems unlikely given all the other repetition within the chapter. It is therefore likely that these distinctions express three different aspects of how God works.

       First, he “creates” things – Hebrew bara, that is, to bring something entirely new into existence. This word is used when
• matter is created (v. 1)
• the first animal is created (v. 21) – that is, the first “soul”
• the first human being is created (v. 27) – that is, the first “spirit”

       Second, Genesis says that God “makes” things – Hebrew asah, that is, to fashion from something that already exists. This word is used when
• the sky is made by separating the clouds from the waters below (v. 7)
• the larger animals are made (v. 25)
• humans are made (v. 26 – before they receive a “spirit”)

       The same verb asah is also used to describe the way that plants “make” fruit (vv. 11, 12), the way that God “made” Eve from Adam’s rib (2:18), and, later, when Adam and Eve “made” themselves clothes to wear (3:7). In all these cases, something is made from other things that already exist.

       The third way that God is described working is by giving permission – he says “let” this thing happen. The implication is that creation is waiting for God’s permission to let it continue:
• Let there be light (v. 3) after the creation of all matter. This presumably was the point when the stars ignited, about half a billion years after the big bang.2
• Let the atmosphere form (v. 6). This was the point when some of the water became water vapor.
• Let the land rise out of the sea and be separate (v. 9). In old-earth terminology, this was when plate tectonics produced land masses and mountains.
• Let plants grow (v. 11), with seeds that continue to make new plants.
• Let the sun and moon appear (v. 14). In old-earth interpretations, this was when they first became visible as the atmosphere cleared (v. 14).3
• Let animals grow (vv. 20, 24). This outline implies that God intervenes at a few key points in creation, and that he also “lets” his creation carry on doing what he wants.

       One surprising thing is that the start of life is not described as an act of “creating” life out of nothing (bara), or “making” life from preexisting things (asah). It is one of those permissive statements where God releases his creation to get on with it – he “lets” plants and animals form, just as he “lets” the land rise to form mountains. This may suggest that the start of life is actually part of a natural process built into creation, so there is a chance that scientists will eventually figure out how it happened.

       Another interesting point is that God “created” the first animal and first human being (vv. 21, 27). In the outline above, I suggested that these represent the first life on earth that was given a soul and the first life that was given a spirit, respectively. (For the distinction between soul and spirit, see chap. 16, “Animals Have Souls in the Bible," and chap. 17, “What Does the Human Spirit Do?”). If this is the reason for using “create” at these points, it explains why the text also says that God “made” humans (v 26). This “made” would refer to the long process in the ancestry of humans before the creative moment when God “breathed” into Adam (Gen 2:7) – that is, when he received a spirit. Immediately after this, God introduced the first human being to the concept of obedience and the tree that tested morality (vv. 8-9). This implies that he was no longer merely a clever animal, but a spiritual being with moral faculties.

       This initial period of creation in Genesis 1 wasn’t the end of God’s hands-on intervention. The Bible tells us that God intervenes at various times by means of miracles and revelations and that he constantly communicates personally with his people. However, that miracles are recorded rarely in the Bible implies that God rarely intervenes in this way. Most of what happens on earth is due to the natural processes that God has built into his creation. He continues to permit life to grow and develop, and the sun rises each day without needing permission or prompting from God.

Thousands or billions of years?

Can we decide whether this process of creation occurred over billions of years or over the period of a week?

       Scientific studies have concluded that the Earth is 4.5 billion years old and that life began some 3.5 billion years ago. Young-earth theorists have made commendable progress in developing different theories to explain the facts, rather than simply rejecting them like some theologians did in Galileo's day. A few, unfortunately, have acted like flat-earthers, simply shutting their eyes to anything that disagrees with their conclusions.

       Some young-earth organizations continue to interact in detail with the sciences – especially Creation Research, Answers in Genesis, Creation Ministries International, and the Institute for Creation Research. Some individuals and organizations from the traditional sciences have responded seriously – for example, BioLogos and Eye on the ICR, which often deal with issues in commendable depth, though most others have ignored them.4 Recently young-earth theories have been getting a lot of new attention from educators in countries such as Indonesia, Pakistan, and Turkey who are searching for ways to teach a form of biology that agrees with the Qur’an.5

       Personally I find the young-earth arguments increasingly difficult. A global flood simply can’t account for all of geology. The Gunnison River can only cut through the granite of Black Canyon at a maximum rate of one inch a century (much faster than now), and yet it is half a mile deep.6 The attempt to discredit dating methods is increasingly difficult now that there are so many to verify each other: carbon-14, tree rings, ice cores, growth rings on mollusk shells, beryllium-10, and about forty other methods that are all in rough agreement.7 It is easy for a nonspecialist to assume that all radiometric measurements are simply wrong, but it is harder to dismiss continuous ice cores that record each summer and winter for the last 160,000 years, which agree with tree rings whose overlapping patterns have recorded the warmth of every summer for 11,500 years.8

Genetic family trees

The explosion of information in genetics should now decide the debate. Complete human genomes of people from all over the planet now reveal the family history of the human race. We can follow the inheritance and movements of populations throughout history and verify them by other historical sources.9 These genetic differences don’t usually represent any improvement – they are like the patterns of people’s faces by which you can often recognize who is related to whom.

       We also have the complete genome of thousands of other species, and we can see that they display the same kinds of tiny differences. These differences also follow family trees, which match the relationships that were predicted by evolutionary theory.10 These differences can’t be related to function, because marsupial squirrels (one of those pouched mammals that developed in isolation in Australia) are genetically distinct from other squirrels even though they look and act almost identically.11

       The most detailed cross-species work has been done with mitochondrial DNA. Mitochondria are organelles that are present in the cells of every living plant and animal. Their DNA is similar throughout all these species – which is what we would expect, because they always have the same function: to produce energy. Geneticists have long known that there are small variations in the mitochondrial DNA of different species, and much smaller variations within each species. They were first studied in humans, and then in the drosophila fly, and now these genes have been mapped in about six thousand species.12

       When this inheritance in each species is constructed into a tree pattern, it matches the pattern that describes the differences in anatomy – that is, both genetics and anatomy imply the same evolutionary relationships. This might be expected if these genetic differences had an effect on, for example, the rate at which energy was converted – so that faster animals were able to produce a burst of energy. However, these differences occur mostly in areas that have no effect on the function of mitochondria. They confer no advantage to the animals that have them and are presumably caused by occasional accidents in duplication or individual mutations. Inheriting this kind of change doesn’t aid or hinder the next generation – but it does help us to trace their ancestry.

       DNA includes more than just the genes that mirror the shape and function of an animal. For example, human DNA includes about ninety-eight thousand fragments of DNA originating from viruses. These were embedded during infections in one of our ancestors before the immune system defeated it, and a harmless fragment of DNA from that virus was passed on to their children. Most of these infections occurred a very long time ago, to ancestors who were apes or even worms. The same fragments of virus DNA can be traced through this very long ancestral tree.13

       To explain these fragments of ancient viruses without involving evolution, we would have to theorize that God deliberately inserted these bits of virus DNA into Adam. In fact, we only have those bits of DNA that we would have if we had descended in the way implied by our biology. That is, fragments that are found in all mammals or in all vertebrates are also found in humans, but fragments found only in birds or only in insects are not found in humans. These pieces of DNA generally make no difference to us – they are harmless accidents of history. But if God did deliberately insert these exact fragments into Adam’s DNA, they presumably would have a purpose. Was the purpose to make Adam appear to be related to all the other animals so that he seemed to have an evolutionary past?

       God could have deliberately placed these family-tree patterns into our DNA, along with an apparent age for everything else in his creation. However, I can’t imagine any purpose except to make us believe in evolution – when eventually we developed the technology to see these patterns. A simpler explanation is that all life is related, and that God created us over a very long period of time, as the evidence found in nature implies.

Summary


• The text in Genesis 1 can be interpreted in several ways.
• God is described as creating from nothing, making things from other things, and allowing natural processes of development.
• There are now so many dating techniques that verify each other that it is unreasonable to doubt them all.
• Genetic relationships mirror those predicted by evolution, even in DNA that is unrelated to shape or function.
• Proposal: A great deal of evidence suggests that all life is related through a family tree spanning billions of years. These relationships were not created by God merely to make the world appear to be old.

1^ Hear Dawkins at BBC In Our Time, “The Origins of Life” (tinyurl.com/DawkinsBBC).
2^ See Starts with a Bang, “What Was It Like When the First Stars Began Illuminating the Universe?” (tinyurl.com/FirstStarlight).
3^ See chap. 8, “Six Snapshots of Creation.”
4^ See, e.g., Eye on the ICR, “Nathaniel Jeanson’s Null Hypothesis” (tinyurl.com/JeansonNull).
5^ See I Love You But You're Going to Hell, “The Surprising History of Turkey’s Creationism” (tinyurl.com/TurkeysHistory).
6^ See Wikipedia, “Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park” (tinyurl.com/GunnisonCanyon).
7^ See Dr. Roger C. Wiens, “Radiometric Dating: A Christian Perspective” (tinyurl.com/WiensDating).
8^ Some young-earth theorists are still debating this robustly. See Answers in Genesis, “Do Varves, Tree-Rings, and Radiocarbon Measurements Prove an Old Earth?” (tinyurl.com/Varves).
9^ See Wikipedia, “Human Mitochondrial DNA Haplogroup” (tinyurl.com/HumanMitoDNA).
10^ See Promega/CURML Workshop Lausanne, “The Use of mtDNA Analysis to Identify Animal Species,” November 24, 2015 (tinyurl.com/FumagalliMtDNA).
11^ See George B. Johnson, “Convergent and Divergent Evolution,” Biology Writer (tinyurl.com/MarsupialSquirrels).
12^ See Dennis V. Lavrov and Walker Pett, “Animal Mitochondrial DNA as We Do Not Know It,” Genome Biology and Evolution 8, no. 9 (September 2016): 2896-2913 (tinyurl.com/AnimalMitoDNA).
13^ See Carl Zimmer, “Ancient Viruses Are Buried in Your DNA,” New York Times, October 4, 2017 (tinyurl.com/AncientViruses), and Wikipedia, “Endogenous Retrovirus” (tinyurl.com/WikiRetrovirus).

This was previously published in a similar form in Christianity magazine

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