Arguments Against Old-Earth

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The word 'creationism' has become a bait-and-switch term in the mouths of certain people. It first gets used to mean some very general thing when you figure out who counts (i.e. someone who believes God created or someone who believes God fashioned the universe via some means that wouldn't be likely if naturalism would be true). But then it gets applied as if it means a much more specific view, one seen as implausible by many who hold to creationism in the broader sense. When you want to say bad things about all the people who count in the more general sense, you call them creationists, and thus you associate them with those who hold to the more specific view that's much less tolerated.

For the sake of this post, I'm reclaiming its meaning in the general sense as perfectly legitimate for all who believe God created the universe. It therefore applies as much to those who accept a divine explanation behind the standard scientific account of the natural causes of human origins as much as it does to those who accept a supernatural method to begin with.

Now here are some possible views:

Naturalism: God doesn't exist, and so God had no role in human origins.

Non-creationist theism: God exists, but God didn't guide the origins of human life in any significant way, certainly not with any intention that we or any beings like us would come along.

Barely-creationist theism: God did guide along the causal processes that led to human life to some degree, but God had no concern for that aspect of the process. We're just a side-effect.

Creationist evolution: God fully guided the process of human origins by means of the standard scientific model (or something close enough to it), including natural selection and common descent of humans from animals, with the goal of producing the life forms that resulted, including human beings. Random chance, as usually thought of in evolutionary theory, is really just statistical frequency, with God guiding the process. This view is sometimes called theistic evolution, but that name technically applies to the above two views as well.

Old-Earth, non-evolutionary creationism: The Earth is as old as the standard scientific account takes it to be, and the universe is as old as the standard scientific account takes it to be. But the standard scientific account is wrong about human origins. The mechanism usually described as natural selection and random chance (which is really divine guidance) are real and observable on the small scale, but inter-species evolution did not occur (or, on a variation, it occurred for other animals but not for humans). This view is sometimes just called Old-Earth creationism, but that view technically could apply to the above view (or even the above two).

Young-Earth creationism: The Earth is about 6000 years old, and the creation framework of Genesis 1:1-2:3 describes God's creation process chronologically and with the creation days of the poetic narrative corresponding exactly to 24-hour periods in real time. Sometimes this view is simply called creationism, but that name could apply to all the views in this list except the first one.

Those who hold to the young-Earth model criticize all of the other above views. Here I'm interested only in biblical arguments. Naturalism is easily ruled out biblically, since it denies the very existence of God, and non-creationist theism and barely-creationist theism also seem a little hard to fit with the biblical view of God creating human beings with particular intent. So among those who accept the Bible as authoritative, you're not going to find very many people who accept any of those views, even if conceptual space allows for them.

I'm interested in the arguments Young-Earth creationists use to argue against the other two remaining views. They argue that those two views cannot be held consistent with a high enough view of the Bible as authoritative and infallible scripture, and I can think of three arguments along those lines.

One argument targets common descent, because they think "created according to their kinds" cannot mean that animals were created according to their kinds by means of creating other species first and then slowly evolving them to new kinds. The above sentence would be meaningless if it couldn't mean that, and it's not, so I think that debate is easy to resolve. It can indeed mean that.

The second argument is directed against all old-Earth views, namely the less-than-convincing argument that Genesis 1:1-2:3 has to be taken so that the days within that account must refer to periods of time rather than an organization according to theological purposes. You first have to assume that it means 24-hour periods within the text's framework, which I think is indeed plausible, indeed almost certain, but then you also have to go beyond that to assume that the text's framework corresponds to an actual chronology rather than a theological organization according to the themes the author intended to bring out in contrast with similar creation myths from the time. It's the second assumption that I don't see a strong enough warrant for to counteract the overwhelming scientific evidence for a contrary view.

But there's another biblical argument against old-Earth views that I think has more punch to it. Old-Earth views require animals to have been around for much longer than human existence, killing and eating each other. I suppose there's no absolute requirement for that. Maybe they just had the teeth for carnivorous lifestyles long before they needed them or something, because God foresaw what they would need for after the fall. But such a view seems unlikely to be true. So it seems the fossil record as it stands does require believing that animals killed and ate each other before the first human sin, and animals would have been as much as a threat to the first humans, it seems, whether humans were created wholesale out of dust or out of dust by means of a long chain of natural selection and random chance moving through different species until you got the level of complexity of a human being.

The problem is that the biblical narrative does seem to assume that death came as a result of the fall. So it seems there's a conflict between the biblical narrative and the old-Earth view, even the old-Earth view denying common descent. This isn't just from Genesis 3 saying that death is a result of the fall. Isaiah 11 has the wolf, lamb, and leapard lying down with a young goat in the restored creation undoing the fall, and children play with snakes, with lions eating straw. It's as if the fall is undone, and part of that is undoing carnivorous animals' diets.

There are a number of things old-Earth views have had to say about this problem. One that I think makes some sense is that the Garden of Eden might have been a special place protecting humans from this, where the animals present were different miraculously. It's only human death that the fall brought on, not all death. But that doesn't solve the problem of how restoration undoes carnivorism, when carnivorism was never part of the fall.

It occurred to me when reading Isaiah 11 recently that this assumes something that most Christians don't actually believe. Hardly anyone who holds the Bible in high regard takes the human fall to be the first fall. How did the snake get to be tempting Eve to begin with if there was no sin in the world (and thus no death in the world)? We have to infer an angelic fall from elsewhere in scripture (although I don't think Isaiah 13-14 is a legitimate place to find direct support for that). I wonder if the use of the snake image for the tempter indicates that this angelic fall did affect non-human animals, and God generated human beings (whether by direct creation out of dust or by means of descent from animals affected by the fall) in such a way that human beings were not fallen (after all, animals here aren't fallen, just affected by the angelic fall).

Putting that together with some special provision in the Garden for removing the affects of the angelic fall from animals, I think the problem is pretty much resolved. I'd grant that it's a bit complex to be the most natural thing you'd think from reading the text. However, the issue here is never just the most natural reading of the text vs. a less-plausible reading of the text. It's a whole set of issues that complicate each other. You have the most natural reading of the text on one side with a completely impossible reading of the scientific evidence, and then you have a less-natural but certainly-possible reading of the text with a rather straightforward reading of the scientific evidence on the other side. Unless you want to make our interpretation of the Bible infallible rather than just restricting that infallibility to the Bible itself, it seems the less-plausible but possible reading of scripture with the possible interpretation of the scientific evidence is much more likely than the more-natural reading of scripture with its impossible reading of the scientific evidence.

So, although I said this objection has more force, I think there's enough to say about it that I don't think it's decisive or even worth all that much time worrying about. Those who hold to a high view of scripture can without too much effort accept either of the old-Earth views without this objection really being a problem.

15 Comments

Jeremy, thanks for the great thoughts. Been reading this blog for a while, and I always look forward to the next post!

Could you recommend any articles or books that support theistic evolution from a fair, intelligent, scripturally-conservative perspective? My dearest Fiance the Reformed Seminarian believes in a literal 6-day-creation (out of principle, lest we challenge the inerrancy of the Bible). While I was raised with the same views, over the years I've come to believe that the Genesis 1 & 2 creation accounts don't conflict with the scientific evidence supporting evolutionary theory. However, I find myself struggling to be able to articulate my position, and would love any more-academically-inclined resources that might help him better understand my point of view. :)

While you're at it, if you know of any quality reading that would support his position, I'd love to be fair and investigate that as well... Growing up, I heard all the "scientific" arguments for why evolution is a conspiracy against God and why all the "proof" indicates that really the Bible is right that the earth is only 6,000 years old. And most of that "proof" was along the lines of the Kirk Cameron video arguing that the banana fits in our hand perfectly, therefore it couldn't have evolved. But are there any reasonable scientifically-sound arguments against evolution that don't involve burying one's head in the sand? Perhaps there are - if so, I'd love to know so I can adjust my beliefs accordingly. If my beliefs are wrong, I want to know!

Neither of us really feel a need to completely agree with the other - we're comfortable holding different views (as long as the views are God-glorifying and don't deny His sovereignty or salvation), but it would be great to at least have a better understanding of why the other believes the way they do.

One good online look at creationist evolution (or theistic evolution) is at Francis Collins' BioLogos website. He's a geneticist who was one of the key figures in the human genome project, and his work in genetics is what convinced him that the standard scientific account of evolution is largely correct. It's not the fossil record or the usual things you might expect that did it for him. He's currently the director of the NIH. I don't like everything he says. I think he's particularly bad in his criticism of intelligent design, because he himself gives ID arguments, and he tends to misrepresent some of what the biological ID arguments that he disagrees with are really up to, but he's a pretty smart scientist who argues that common descent is compatible with the biblical narrative. He's got a book that deals with the subject too.

From the theological/biblical studies end, one place to look is Bruce Waltke, who discusses it in his recent Old Testament Theology. Almost all commentaries on Genesis in the last 20 years have at least adopted an old-Earth model, and some of them are at least open to whatever science might lead to on the process of human origins. Gordon Wenham and Victor Hamilton have pretty in-depth and well-respected commentaries on Genesis that take such an approach. Waltke has his own Genesis commentary also, and his is much less expensive. John Walton has a less-expensive one also, and I think he just recently published a book on the early chapters of Genesis.

Of the critics of certain aspects of standard evolutionary theory, my view is that the better ones are actually criticizing the idea that natural selection and random chance would be likely to produce what we've got without a divine guide to the process. Most of the better intelligent design arguments are along those lines and are actually fully compatible with accepting common descent and natural selection as explaining how we got the species we've got. William Dembske is an old-Earth, non-evolutionary proponent, but he acknowledges that his arguments themselves tend not to support that view but more just support a divine explanation of some sort. Phillip Johnson commonly argues against a view he calls evolution, and some of his arguments are against common descent, but most of them are just against naturalism or a naturalistic process without divine guidance. I have a lot of sympathy for some but not all of what those two are up to. Michael Behe, who accepts common descent and pretty much the entirety of standard evolutionary theory (except the claim that it could have happened without divine guidance and intervention), is one of their closest colleagues and partners in the intelligent design movement.

There are those who make more robust criticisms of the standard evolutionary account (e.g. Josh McDowell, never mind the more extreme ones like Ken Ham or Henry Morris), and I think those arguments are less compelling (but there might well be legitimate points made in a lot of that work). It's obvious to me that Johnson, Dembski, and even Behe get regularly lumped in with such people, when their view is much more moderate from the perspective of the scientific orthodoxy, which is part of what I was complaining about with the use of the word 'creationism'.

Some of the work resisting current evolutionary theory is much better than the Kirk Cameron banana argument (which isn't about evolution anyway but is about whether there's a divine explanation). There are legitimate worries raised within the scientific community that evolutionary theory has had to respond to (some of which it's done and some of which it may not have done so very completely). Michael Denton wrote an important book a while back that has the interesting feature of being written by someone with no religious views to serve as a motivation. Some of his criticisms are simply in-house worries about how the current theories worked. The debate between Dawkins and Gould over timetables and intermediate forms is also a legitimate scientific issue, although those arguing against evolution sometimes misrepresent what the real issue is there (and I've been told that my understanding of it wasn't even quite right, but without being told what the problem is).

I don't imagine you probably intended your taxonomy to be perfectly exhaustive, but you don't have room in there for the interesting view defended by van Inwagen according to which God designed and (to some degree) guides the process, but what looks like random chance still really is random chance.

I was thinking about that as I was typing this up, and I hadn't really intended to exclude it as an option, but I was more focused on whether God guided things and what means God used to guide things and less on to what extent God controlled things, so I guess it got left out. I was thinking about his view as I wrote this, though.

I used to think Ken Miller's view was like that, but I think he might have a higher view of God's providence on the macro-level than van Inwagen, despite his insistence that you can't detect any such providential role in the scientific details. He actually thinks biological ID has a lower view of providence than he does, because he sees God guiding everything, and he (wrongly) thinks they see God guiding only little bitty things every once in a while (when in reality they think God's means of guidance for those little bitty things every once in a while is a different means from how God ordinarily guides things). He gets them wrong on that but in a way that makes me think he's got something more like a Thomistic view of providence.

Hi, Jeremy,

Why do you assume that "the fall" has to be an historical event, rather than an ontological one?

You seem happy to understand the days in ch.1 as something other than historical days...

It depends on what you mean by "has to be". I think you can take Genesis 1-3 by itself as an extended narrative and take the events described as a fall in the narrative to be referring to a status that's always true of human beings. It stands somewhat at odds with the insistence that God created everything good and that there's something the fall is a fall from. It's more of a step away from the narrative to do this than it is to think that an entire generation fell, and thus attempts to fit the whole narrative to a chronology other than what goes on in the narrative has fewer theological differences from the phenomenological perspective of the account than taking the fall itself not to refer to an actual event.

Once you bring in the rest of the Bible, I think it's a little harder to make such a view work. Paul seems to be treating the first Adam as a real person, and short of very strong reasons to the contrary I think we should assume he really does mean a real person. I wouldn't say that it's impossible to be an inerrantist while adopting a view like the one you have in mind, but there are strong biblical reasons to resist that if there's a way to take the text more at face value. There doesn't seem to be a good way to do that given what seems to me to be the best science when it comes to the chronologically-presented ordering within the narrative, and so it seems best to me not to take those chronological markers as referring to an actual chronology in time. But you can accept the entire evolutionary picture and think that God arranged for one generation, even one of two people, the first humans, to be morally innocent by some miracle, a state they subsequently fell from. That seems to me to be closer to the text than the view you have in mind, and the science itself seems silent on it (given that we are allowing for miraculous intervention and not just miraculous sustaining of the universe through divine establishment of causal processes).

Again I am not clear why you assume Paul understands the "first Adam" to be a historical personage, it seems to me he is more interested in him as a figure in an ontological drama, not a historical one. (Though I admit Paul might not have made that distinction, certainly not in those terms.)

But then I have no desire to claim freedom from error for the Bible I think other claims are more important, that it is sufficient, perspicuous etc...

Again, I wouldn't say I'm assuming that. I'd want to argue for it if I were doing close exegesis of Paul. I do think it's one of the less likely interpretations, but what matters for this post is that I can explain the consistency of a high view of scripture, even maintaining such a view, with the consensus of science even if you accepted that relatively wholesale. Assuming a more conservative approach to the text and reconciling it with the scientific orthodoxy just means it would be much easier to do this with a less conservative view of the text.

Even if the Garden of Eden is historical, I don't see why it required miraculous intervention for it to be a safe place for humans. There are places on earth today which are quite naturally free from dangerous animals. Granted, these are mostly islands. Genesis 3:24 seems to imply that Eden was not an island, but also suggests that there was only one narrow entrance. So perhaps it was a peninsula, which could have been quite small, not large enough to support a population of large carnivores.

I think the greater challenge for old earth creationists (evolutionary or non-evolutionary) who believe in a literal Eden is to fit this into the rapidly advancing science of human origins. Presumably the Fall has to predate the departure from Africa (as I'm sure no one would want to claim that the black Africans who remained are not fallen!), which means that Eden has to be somewhere in southern Africa. But where, and when?

Like Bruce Waltke, I maintain that God individuated the species in the biosphere through the process of evolution. I am thus a CE in Jeremy’s terminology, though I prefer to self-identify as an EvC.

My main burden is to point out how wrongheaded it is to think that any one of the following positions is status confessionis: EvC, OEC, and YEC. Whoever insists that someone is beyond the pale because said someone holds to one or the other of the positions he does not hold, I consider to be an enemy of the body of Christ.

I’m not going to try to answer Peter’s questions. But I find Tim’s distinction (which he admits may be his distinction, not that of Paul or the author of Genesis) worth further discussion. My approach is different from that of Jeremy, who invents miracle after miracle in order to save CE from contradicting Genesis and Paul as commonly (and I think inaccurately) interpreted.

Gen 1 and Gen 2-3 are to be read canonically, which is to say, in their current sequence, something Jeremy fails to do.

Gen 1 assumes that the animal kingdom will pose a threat to humankind, with God giving humankind the task of subduing the animal kingdom, and thus protecting human life from animal violence for the sake of preserving the common weal.

Neither Gen 1 nor Gen 2-3 tell us when animals began to transgress God’s prescription according to which, and here God out-peta’s PETA, both man and beast were to be vegetarians (Gen 1:26-28).

By analogy with Gen 3-4, however, we might as well assume that animals transgressed the divine prescriptions from the start, with the first animal couple and the first set of sibs committing, as it were, the original sins. And if the animals did not pose a threat to the first couple in the garden, that was true insofar as they hewed to God’s imperative to subdue the animal kingdom.

Okay, enough narrativization of what I take to be true on the ontological and historical levels. In what sense are Gen 1-3 true ontologically, and in what sense historically?

Gen 1 – that creation is very good – is true, both ontologically and historically. That is, creation is very good by design (ontology) and in fact (history), even if it is not free from conflict, conflict that is assumed to be a constituent feature of it in Gen 1:26-28.

Gen 2-3 – that is, that man and beast have it within them to transgress divine prescriptions, and in fact do so - is true, ontologically and historically. I don’t make the distinction that Jeremy makes, in which he assumes that the serpent is not really a serpent, but a literary stand-in for an angelic being.

I admit that this construal has problems, such as, it makes animals accountable for their actions. But we do that, too. That’s why we kill wolves that kill sheep, or keep their numbers down to the point that they do not constitute an overwhelming threat to human beings and their livelihoods. Another possible objection is that, on this understanding, God equips both man and beast with everything they need to sin against an ideal baseline from day one. Not only against that baseline, but against each other.

I do not find this objection to have an intuitive basis. I have three children of my own, made in my image according to the diction of Genesis. It seems to me that my job description is pretty much that: to equip my children with all the tools they need to harm others and harm themselves. I do that because I hope they will (also) use those same tools to bear each other’s burdens, even lay down their lives on behalf of another. I have no illusions. They will use the tools I give them, and that nature has given them, according to the law of the jungle, and, I trust, according to the law of the Spirit to return to Paul. Meanwhile I pray and believe that, where sin abounds, grace will superabound.

Jeremy:

Can you point me to any theistic evolutionists/creationist evolutionists who interact with Romans 5?

thanks
jamin h

There's a response by Peter Enns here.

There's also a list of places where the issue gets addressed in one of the comments here.

I can tell you this much - anyone who listens to Transatlantic and Neal Morse deserves a second reading... :)

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