I became a young-earth creationist in my sophomore year of high school. It was not a scientific decision. I had just become a Christian, and it was clearly taught on the first page of the Bible. I was young and impressionable. I took up the cause with zeal.
A teenager who thinks they have the absolute truth from God can be dangerous, as we’ve seen with Islam. Thankfully, I was merely embarrassing.
I argued against evolutionist teachers and students, but I never really cared about science except to defend my faith. It usually ended with everyone frustrated.
The truth was simple: In the Bible, God told us he created the universe (along with all of earth’s plant and animal species) in six 24-hour days. Adam and Eve were created and we descended from them. Later, God sent a flood to destroy mankind and only Noah and his family survived. There was no doubt in my mind these events happened, which meant two foundational teachings of modern science, old earth and evolution, must be wrong.
(An aside on terminology: When I use the term creationism I mean young-earth creationism. Theistic evolutionists are creationists in the sense that they still believe God created everything through evolution, but are rarely labeled creationists.)
After graduating from high school, I went to a Baptist college where my beliefs in young-earth creationism intensified. My science class spent most of the time mocking evolution and old earth theory.
The professor would say things like, “If there was evolution, don’t you think there would be transitional fossils lying everywhere? But show me one. Just one! Yet those God-haters can’t even do that. And if everything evolves, why don’t we see it all around us? Have you ever seen a monkey turn into a human? And anyway, why do monkeys still exist if humans came from them? And not to mention all their dating methods are completely inaccurate. How could anyone believe something so absurd? They just believe it because they hate God and reject His Word.”
These were arguments veiled in science – they appeared scientific, but were actually based on an interpretation of the Bible. If the Bible is the word of God and teaches young-earth creationism, and the earth is old or evolution is true, then the Bible must be wrong. If the Bible is wrong, Christianity is wrong. Thus, we thought, the earth must be young and evolution must be false, and any evidence that appears to the contrary cannot really be contrary, but misinterpreted.
I knew Christianity was true – it changed my life. Who were a bunch of stupid, godless scientists to tell me my religion was wrong?
After college I became friends with a theistic evolutionist, who made it easier for me to believe Christians could be evolutionists. (I remember his confession well. He came up to my cubicle, rested his arm on the partition wall and said, “Josh, I’m an evolutionist.” It was like confessing a murder.)
While my friend was the only Christian evolutionist I knew personally, I knew many who believed in an old earth. I disagreed fiercely at first, but eventually decided it was unimportant to the claims of Christianity – just like a spherical earth or a heliocentric solar system is, even though neither were believed by the biblical writers.
Around the same time I began enjoying the intellectual freedom of reading. It started with a few classic novels and swelled into a multi-disciplinary interest. I started thinking more clearly and became more analytical of my surroundings and beliefs.
One might say that reading brought me out of creationism. No wonder I was taught a fear of books outside the Bible and orthodox theology.
The Earth Gets Older
There are times in our lives when the scales fall from our eyes and we see something clearly for the first time. For me, it usually happens through reading books.
Looking back, the experience often seems instantaneous, but it always takes cultivation. Because of my experiences and reading I was at a place where it was possible for me to believe the earth was old. So when I picked up A Short History of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson, I was in danger of reading it with an open mind.
As I read, my belief in a young earth crashed down. None of the arguments made sense anymore. There was too much evidence for an old earth. When did all those gigantic asteroids hit the earth (or the moon)? When did the mega-volcanoes (like Yellowstone) erupt? How could the fossil record be so consistently layered and dated? These sorts of questions finally led me to accept that the earth is around four and a half billion years old.
It was a relief to me. I was able to enjoy the world around me without being so defensive. There would be no more rolling eyes every time someone said “million” next to “years.” It also solved my biggest young earth quandary: If a star were so many million light-years away, wouldn’t it take that many years for us to see it? If so, how could the universe be young? The only answer that made any sense was that God created the universe to look old.
Even if God made earth appear old, then the only way to understand it is through pretending it is old. And what’s really the difference between pretending it’s old or really believing it’s old?
Species Get Older
So I accepted an old earth. Though I said it was a relief to me, it was also unsettling. One of my foundational beliefs was shown to be faulty, and buildings I had thought sturdy crumbled at unexpected and inconvenient times. Everything needed re-examining – especially evolution.
After I accepted an old earth, I began having doubts about Genesis as literal history. This was heresy as far as I was concerned, and it plagued me. All the elements of a standard creation myth were there – was it possible Genesis was a God-inspired creation myth? Perhaps it was a literary way for God to reveal his creation to his people, and wasn’t intended as scientific treatise.
As I re-read the story it seemed obvious it couldn’t really be history – or if it was, it was completely unverifiable: Eve is created from Adam’s rib; a snake converses with and tempts Eve; God puts a very desirable fruit tree in the garden then commands man not to eat it; eating this fruit causes all the world’s pain and suffering; God curses Adam, Eve, their descendents, and the earth; “every living thing” is destroyed by a worldwide flood; all our modern animals descend from the originals on Noah’s Ark; and so on. After years of struggling through the issues, I decided it was a profound story that helps us understand the human condition, but was unlikely to be literal history.
But evolution still didn’t make sense to me. How could species gradually change into other species? This is one of the biggest hurdles to evolutionary belief – like heliocentrism, it defies common sense. Our lives are so short that we find it difficult to imagine what a few million years can do to a species. So we, perhaps understandably, reject it.
I didn’t understand evolution. I didn’t understand biology, either. I was afraid that might have something to do with it, so I started studying. I had to find out for myself.
I began by reading scientists like Stephen Jay Gould, E. O. Wilson, and Lewis Thomas. I brushed up on biology with a textbook, watched documentaries, and argued about it with a few select friends (as a fundamentalist you have to be careful, you know), all the while hashing things out in my head and my journal.
Gradually, evolution began making sense. Once an appalling thought, it now seemed to fit with the character of God, who always uses means. The impossible seemed possible – indeed, seemed historical. I had been grossly misinformed about evolution and evolutionists by creationist literature. So when I began to grasp the real arguments and evidence, the objections of my spiritual childhood vanished.
I’ll give one example: I had always heard there were no transitional fossils and it was common knowledge for creationists and evolutionists. Not true. There are many transitional fossils: reptiles to birds (like Sinosauropteryx, Caudipteryx, Protarchaeopteryx), mammal to whale fossils (whale fossils have been found with legs, like Rodhocetus and Basilosaurus), and yes, even ape-to-human fossils (like Australopithecus afarensis, Homo habilis, and Homo erectus). Many vestigial structures also exist, showing links back to evolutionary history, like hind limbs on snake fossils, pelvises on modern whales, wings on flightless birds, and tails and extra ribs on humans.
It’s remarkable that we have any transitional fossils at all, since over 99.9% of all living organisms do not fossilize. “Only about one bone in a billion, it is thought, ever becomes fossilized,” explains Bill Bryson in A Short History of Nearly Everything. He continues,
If that is so, it means that the complete fossil legacy of all the Americans alive today – that’s 270 million people with 206 bones each – will only be about fifty bones, one-quarter of a complete skeleton. That’s not to say, of course, that any of these bones will ever actually be found….
Most of what has lived on Earth has left behind no record at all. It has been estimated that less than one species in ten thousand has made it into the fossil record…. Moreover, the record we do have is hopelessly skewed. Most land animals, of course, don’t die in sediments. They drop in the open and are eaten or left to rot or weather down to nothing. The fossil record, consequently, is almost absurdly biased in favor of marine creatures. About 95 percent of all the fossils we posses are of animals that once lived under water, mostly in shallow seas.
The transitional fossils we do have, however, don’t seem to bother creationists. They are either ignored or dismissed. Vestigial structures are explained away with a wave of a hand, because they believe accepting evolution means rejecting God. It is unlikely anything could be found to prove evolution to a creationist. Unlikely, but possible—after all, I’m living evidence.
Evidence will not change most creationist minds, because evidence is interpreted from presuppositions. A person who presupposes the Bible is wrong if evolution is true is not likely to see any evidence as supporting evolution. It’s just not going to happen unless they are willing to deny their faith.
But Christians do not have to deny their faith to believe in an old earth or evolution. There are, in fact, many ways to understand Genesis. The Bible was written by many authors and contains many literary forms. This means the Pauline epistles are interpreted differently than the poetry of Psalms. Young-earth creationists seem to ignore this with Genesis, asserting that any other interpretation than their own is heresy and unbiblical.
If they are right, we must reject Genesis as nonsense, for we are faced with irreconcilable contradictions with the text itself (like the differences between the two creation accounts), with logic (like how the millions of earth’s species could fit and be fed in a boat for a year), and with natural history (like how the fossil record contradicts the timeframe and sequence of both creation accounts).
But Christian scholars disagree as to how Genesis should be interpreted. There are many interpretations that allow for an old earth and evolution. For example, local creation theory says that the focus is on the local area, not the world; gap theory says that there was a catastrophe and a re-creation in-between verses 1 and 2; day-age theory says the days are ages; revelatory day theory says God revealed to the author of Genesis how he created the world in six days, but did not create the world in that timeframe; framework view says the six days provide a literary framework for displaying the acts of creation.
With a more generous understanding of Genesis, evolution is not quite so abhorrent, because it does not insist upon rejecting the Bible or God or Christianity. Jesus and Paul do not need to be rejected because Genesis is interpreted differently, anymore than Christians reject them now because they interpret “the four corners of the earth” as metaphorical. Thankfully, more and more Christian leaders and laymen are realizing this.
My journey isn’t over. I know I still have a lot to learn. I recognize this and try to be open to new ideas and to being wrong. I don’t want to defend my faith instead of seeking truth — for truth is, and has always been, my goal.