One of the issues that most divides Christians is the relationship between the book of Genesis and modern science. A central question is the age of the earth; closely related questions include the impact of the Fall of humanity on the world, as well as the extent of the Genesis flood.
What are the different views of Genesis?
The different interpretations of the early chapters of Genesis broadly divide into three views:
- Young Earth Creationism (YEC)
- Old Earth/Progressive Creationism (OEC)
- Theistic Evolution/Evolutionary Creationism (TE)
These are their general (though not necessarily universal) beliefs.
1. Young Earth Creationists (YEC)1
- God created the universe and all it contains in six twenty-four-hour days a few thousand years before Christ (Gen 1). On the last day, God created Adam and Eve.
- After the Fall, the physical world dramatically changed, including by the introduction of animal death (Gen 3).
- God initiated a worldwide flood in judgment for humanity’s sin, a flood that killed most animals and all but a few people chosen by God. God preserved a large portion of the species that survived on the Ark (Gen 7). The flood dramatically altered the face of the earth and generated most of today’s geological layers and the fossil record.
2. Old Earth Creationists (OEC)2
- God created the universe around 14 billion years ago in a creation event scientists call the Big Bang.
- God created different animals, plants, and other organisms at different times, spread across billions of years. The fossil record includes millions of species that went extinct before God created Adam and Eve.
- After the Fall, the physical world did not change dramatically, but God introduced human death. Animal death existed before the Fall.
- Many believe God initiated a local flood to kill all humans and neighboring animals that were not preserved on the Ark. Most of the earth was not flooded.
3. Theistic Evolutionists (TE)3
- God created the universe around 14 billion years in the past in a creation event scientists call the Big Bang.
- God created the physical laws such that a cell would spontaneously form and then evolve into the species we see today. The fossil record preserves evidence of species that went extinct throughout earth’s history.
- At some point after humans evolved, God initiated a relationship with them.
What factors influence Christian’s view of Genesis?
The factors that influence Christians’ understanding of Genesis include their understanding of the inspiration of Scripture, their trust in secular scientific institutions, and their theological convictions.
Young Earth Creationists
- They hold a high view of biblical inspiration and have low trust in secular scientific institutions—when the latter are making judgments in apparent conflict with Scripture.
- They strongly emphasize the divine inspiration of Genesis over the historical and cultural influences on the author. Consequently, they interpret the stories literally.
- They reject mainstream geology, cosmology, and evolutionary theory, which assume that the earth is billions of years old. They believe that the belief in an ancient earth and in evolutionary theory results from secular scientists’ rejection of God as Creator (Rom 1:18–20).
- They embrace historic Christian beliefs about creation, the Fall, and the biblical flood.
Old Earth Creationists
- They typically hold a high view of biblical inspiration and moderately trust mainstream scientific institutions on matters of cosmology.
- They commonly emphasize the divine inspiration of Genesis over the historical and cultural influences on the author. Some interpret the stories literally, but they believe a proper interpretation of the text must start from the author’s and audience’s vantage point. They argue that from this perspective, a literal interpretation is consistent with beliefs in an ancient earth, a local Genesis flood, and animal death before the Fall.
- They trust the conclusion of mainstream geologists and cosmologists that the universe and earth are ancient, but they commonly reject the idea that evolutionary theory explains the origin of distinct organisms, particularly that of humans.
- They typically embrace historic Christian beliefs about creation, the Fall, and the Genesis flood—as understood within their respective interpretive frameworks for Scripture.
- Some theistic evolutionists hold a high view of biblical inspiration. Others hold a lower view. Nearly all strongly trust secular scientific institutions.
- They emphasize the historical and cultural factors shaping the Genesis text over divine inspiration. They typically believe that the early chapters of Genesis do not represent modern forms of history but allegorical or poetic accounts of creation. A prominent example is John Walton, who argues that Genesis is not concerned with the material origins of the universe but follows the pattern of creation narratives from the ancient Near East in focusing on theological concerns.4
- They strongly trust the consensus views of mainstream science. They also accept the philosophical framework of secular academic institutions that only natural causes can be considered in explaining life’s origin and development. Consequently, they reject any argument that life demonstrates evidence of design.
- They often reject belief in a literal Adam and Eve that are the ancestors of all humans, and they typically reject the belief that God initiated a flood to judge sin. Some also deny the Fall.5
How do Young Earth Creationists calculate the age of the Earth?
Young Earth Creationists calculate the earth’s age using the genealogies in the book of Genesis.6 More specifically, the genealogies in Genesis 5–11 are used to calculate the time span between Adam and Abraham, and historical records are used to date Abraham. Several Christians since the early church have used this approach to conclude that the earth is younger than six thousand years. The most famous estimate was made by Irish Archbishop James Ussher (1581–1656), who placed the date of creation at October 22, 4004 BC. More recently, Dr. Floyd Jones calculated the same date.
A common criticism of this approach to dating the earth is that the book of Genesis skips generations in its genealogies. The response given by YEC proponents is that the timeframes given in Genesis are measured by the years between two events, such as the 130 years between the birth of Adam and the birth of Seth (Gen 5:3). The number of generations between the events is not relevant.
Historian Bill Cooper argued that the age of the earth based on the Bible is further supported by estimates of the earth’s age from many ancient cultures.7 Several ranging from China to Egypt also estimated that the earth’s age was in the thousands of years.
How do Old Earth Creationists interpret the six creation days of Genesis?
Old Earth Creationists have proposed different interpretations of the creation days listed in Genesis.8 Some of the most popular include the following:
1. The Day-Age theory
This theory views the days of Genesis 1 as indefinite periods of time. For instance, physicist Hugh Ross, founder of Reasons to Believe, has connected each day with a specific event in the history of the universe and the earth.9
2. The Analogical-Day theory
This theory views the days as cycles of work and rest by God, analogous to the cycles of work and rest in human life. The days do not correspond to specific lengths of time. A prominent proponent of this view is Old Testament Hebrew scholar John Collins.10
3. The Framework theory
This theory posits that the creation days do not represent a chronological sequence of creation events. Instead, the days follow a literary framework where the first three days describe the spheres or regions of the world (the heavens, the sea and sky, and the dry land), and the last three days correspond to the creatures that fill these regions (celestial bodies, sea creatures and birds, and land animals).
4. The Gap theory
This theory proposes that a gap of indeterminant time exists between Genesis 1:1 and 1:2. The first verse is about the creation of the world, and the second describes the undoing of the created order resulting from the fall of Satan. The six days that follow describe the restoration of creation. Modern scientific descriptions of the history of earth largely correspond to the period of the gap.
What scientific evidence is cited to defend YEC?
Proponents of YEC defend their view with several scientific arguments within the fields of astronomy, geology, and biology.11 Representative arguments include the following:
1. The unexpected presence of carbon-14
Carbon-14 is an isotope of carbon that should only last for hundreds of thousands of years before decaying into nitrogen-14. Yet carbon-14 has been detected in fossils of organisms that are believed to have died hundreds of millions of years in the past. Similarly, carbon-14 has been detected in coal and diamonds, which are also believed to be ancient. The detection of carbon-14 suggests that the fossils, coal, and diamond are far younger than estimated by mainstream scientists.
2. Existence of short-lived comets
Comets lose their mass every time they pass near the sun. The rate of loss suggests that comets should have a lifespan of only a few million years. This estimate contradicts the claim that our solar system is billions of years old since no source of new comets close to our solar system has been conclusively identified.
3. Faint sun paradox
Standard models of solar evolution suggest that the sun generated such low power in the past that all the water on earth should have only existed as ice. Standard models of geological evolution suggest that much of the water on the early earth was in a liquid state, which contradicts the assumption that the sun is billions of years old.
4. Salt concentration in the oceans
Salt is continuously accumulating in the oceans. If the earth were billions of years old, the oceans should have far higher concentrations of salt. The levels are more consistent with a young earth.
5. Helium in radioactive rocks
Helium is produced in zircon crystals from the radioactive decay of uranium. It quickly diffuses out of rocks, so it should entirely leak out in less than 100,000 years. The amount of helium measured in rocks containing zircon crystals today is far higher than expected if the rocks were 1.5 billion years old, as calculated by standard dating techniques.
6. Soft tissue in dinosaur bones
Soft tissues, such as blood vessels, have been identified in fossilized dinosaur bones that are believed to date to be over 68 million years old. This discovery suggests that dinosaurs lived much more recently.
7. Degeneration of the human genome
Human DNA constantly accumulates mutations, causing it to degenerate. Measurements of the genetic differences between individuals today suggest that humans appeared only thousands of years in the past.
What scientific evidence is cited to defend OEC?
Proponents of OEC defend their position with a variety of scientific arguments from the fields of astronomy, physics, and geology.12 Representative arguments include the following:
1. Radiometric dating
Multiple dating methods based on the radioactive decay of atoms consistently date the age of the earth, moon, and meteorites in the billions of years, and they date more recently formed geological samples in the millions of years.13
2. Seafloor rock dates
The dating of seafloor rocks based on radioactive decay matches the dating based on the velocity of the seafloor due to plate tectonics and their distance from the location where the rocks formed. The dates based on radioactive decay also match the dating based on the location of magnetic reversals in the seafloor.
3. Coral layering
Corals from different time periods display increasing numbers of layers per year, moving backward in time. The number of layers matches that expected from the earth’s slowing rotation due to the moon over millions of years.
4. Fossil record
The location of different preserved species in the geological column matches old-earth models far better than young-earth models.
5. Sedimentary formations
The layering in some sedimentary formations consists of pairs of layers that represent the two different soils deposited at different times of the year. The Green River formation in Wyoming contains millions of paired layers identical to those laid down today in certain freshwater lakes. The layering appears to document millions of years of sedimentary formation, and it is difficult to explain with a global flood.
What scientific evidence is cited to defend TE?
Proponents of TE defend their belief in an old earth with the same scientific arguments as proponents of OEC, and they defend their belief in evolution with arguments from the fields of paleontology and biology:14
1. Fossil record
Fossils have been discovered that appear transitional between two groups of organisms. For instance, the fish Tiktaalik has a fin with features that some believe resemble an amphibian wrist. In addition, a few sequences of fossils have been interpreted as displaying multiple steps in a large-scale transformation. The iconic example is the whale series, which starts with a land animal and ends with a fully aquatic animal.
The appearance of fossils in time and geography matches evolutionary expectations. Marsupials are only found in Australia, which is interpreted as demonstrating that a marsupial migrated to that continent and then evolved into the marsupials we see today.
3. Similarities between species
Similarities in the traits and genetics of different species can be arranged into a nested hierarchy, suggesting that they are all connected through an evolutionary tree. A group of species (e.g., mammals) has the same traits (e.g., hair) because those commonalities evolved in their common ancestor and then passed down the different branches of that group’s evolutionary tree. The same argument is made for similarities in different species’ embryological development: the development of an egg into an embryo and then into an autonomous creature after birth.
4. Observations of evolution today
Evolution can be observed in the wild, such as finch beaks becoming longer or thicker over time when the environment changes. Evolution can also be observed in laboratory experiments, such as bacteria developing resistance to antibiotics due to mutations and natural selection.
What are common criticisms of the different views, and what are the responses?
Proponents of each view have raised concerns about the other views. They have also offered responses to the criticisms of their own views.
Young Earth Creationism
The primary criticism of YEC is that the scientific evidence is far more consistent with an old earth.15 The evidence for an old earth is clearer and more direct, and independent methods for measuring age often closely match each other. In addition, scientific tensions with an old earth interpretation of the data are fewer, more indirect, and more likely to be overcome with new discoveries than the tensions with a young earth.
Many YEC proponents acknowledge that the scientific case for an old earth appears compelling, but they believe the theological and biblical tensions with the old earth position outweigh the tensions YEC has with the science. They also argue that scientists within an old earth framework are more numerous and better funded than those working within a YEC framework. Young Earth Creationists believe that with time their framework could eventually match the explanatory power of mainstream scientific models.16
Old Earth Creationism
Young Earth Creationists argue that attempts to accommodate Scripture with an old earth require interpretations that appear far less plausible than traditional interpretations consistent with a young earth.17 Attempts to accommodate an old earth with Christian theology also result in such tensions as accepting animal death and suffering before the Fall.18 In addition, the old earth view was not taught by any leading Christian figure for most of church history.19
Old Earth Creationists have attempted to reconcile apparent tensions of an old earth with Scripture and theology20 and with church tradition.21 They argue that the tensions appear less problematic than tensions between YEC and modern science. Consequently, accepting an old earth is more consistent with the totality of the evidence, so it incurs, as apologist Jonathan McLatchie stated, a lower epistemic cost.22
To accommodate evolution, theistic evolutionists have often jettisoned what have historically been considered core Christian doctrines.23 They have also reinterpreted Scripture and the writings of prominent Christian figures in church history, such as Thomas Aquinas,24 in ways that directly contradict the writers’ beliefs. Early church fathers explicitly rejected that natural processes could generate the order seen in life, and they affirmed that life demonstrates clear evidence of design.25
In addition, critics have posed several scientific challenges to evolutionary theory related to the fossil record, inconsistencies in evolutionary trees, excessive time required for genetic changes, and observed limitations on evolutionary processes.26 They have also demonstrated clear evidence for direct design in numerous biological structures and systems.27 Many of the design patterns seen in life closely resemble those employed in human engineering.28
Theistic Evolutionists believe that evolutionary theory is so well accepted by secular thought leaders and power brokers that Christianity must accommodate the theory to remain respectable. Evolution’s wide acceptance in secular universities and other institutions outweighs the tensions with Scripture, theology, church tradition, and specific scientific data.
How should Christians engage those with differing views on the age of the earth?
Christians should engage those with different views on the age of the earth and related questions charitably and patiently. Sincere Christians have come to different conclusions, since tensions exist for each perspective. Christians should also make every effort not to caricature alternative views. God shows us abundant grace, even if our scientific and theological ideas are imperfect.
- What Happened on the 7 Days of Creation? (Walkthrough + Video)
- What Are the Christian Views on Creation?
- Little Lights: The Significance of Light in Genesis
- Creation Care: Conserving a Groaning Creation
- Prominent YEC organizations include the Institute for Creation Research and Answers in Genesis.
- The most prominent OEC organization is Reasons to Believe.
- Prominent TE organizations include BioLogos and the Faraday Institute for Science and Religion.
- John Walton, The Lost World of Genesis One: Ancient Cosmology and the Origins Debate (Westmont, IL: InterVarsity Press Academic, 2010).
- Karl Giberson, Saving Darwin: How to Be a Christian and Believe in Evolution (San Francisco, CA: HarperOne, 2009).
- See the Institute for Creation Research’s description of the calculation method, or see Answers in Genesis’s corresponding description.
- Bill Cooper, After the Flood (UK: New Wine Press, 1995), 122–29.
- Vern Poythress, Christian Interpretations of Genesis 1 (Glensdale, PA: Westminster Seminary Press, 2013).
- Hugh Ross, A Matter of Days: Resolving a Creation Controversy (Carol Stream, IL: NavPress, 2004).
- C. John Collins, Genesis 1–4: A Linguistic, Literary, and Theological Commentary (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 2005).
- Read the Institute for Creation Research’s list of the best arguments for a young earth here and here. Read Answers in Genesis’s list here.
- Read the American Scientific Association’s list of arguments for an old earth here.
- G. Brent Dalrymple, “Radiometric Dating, Geologic Time, and The Age Of The Earth: A Reply To ‘Scientific’ Creationism,” Reston, VA: US Geological Survey, 1982.
- Read the University of California, Berkeley’s list of evidence for evolution here.
- Read ASA’s comparison between the explanatory power of YEC and old earth models here.
- Andrew A. Snelling, Earth’s Catastrophic Past: Geology, Creation, & the Flood (Dallas, TX: ICR, 2009); and Kurt Wise, Faith, Form, and Time: What the Bible Teaches and Science Confirms about Creation and the Age of the Universe (Nashville, TN: B&H Books, 2002).
- C. Van Dam, In the Beginning: Listening to Genesis 1 and 2 (Reformation Heritage Books, 2021).
- Read Terry Mortenson’s critiques of attempts to reconcile Scripture and theology with an old earth here.
- Read Robert Bradshaw’s survey of the interpretation of Genesis 1–11 in the early church here.
- David Snoke, “A Biblical Case for an Old Earth” (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2006).
- Read John Millam’s defense of OEC in light of the early church fathers’ interpretation of Genesis here.
- Read Jonathan McLatchie’s response to Jim Mason’s defense of YEC here.
- Read Casey Luskin’s critique of theistic evolutionists’ prioritization of scientific consensus over historic Christian theology here.
- Fr. Michael Chaberek, Aquinas and Evolution: Why St. Thomas’ Teaching on the Origins Is Incompatible with Evolutionary Theory (Leicester: Chartwell Press, 2017).
- Watch John West’s lecture on the debate over design in the early church here.
- J. P. Moreland et al., eds., Theistic Evolution: A Scientific, Philosophical, and Theological Critique (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2017).
- Steve Laufmann and Howard Glicksman, Your Designed Body (Seattle, WA: Discovery Institute, 2022).
- Brian Miller, “Engineering Principles Explain Biological Systems Better than Evolutionary Theory,” in Science and Faith in Dialogue (Cape Town: AOSIS Publishing, 2022).