For most of human history, people have believed the earth to be very young. Some may not claim to know, but for Christians and Jews there was a recognition the world was on the order of thousands of years old. There was no conception of it being millions or billions of years old.
But as the centuries rolled along and we had the discoveries, especially in geology in the 19th century, a view developed that the world was perhaps older than many had claimed. Many secular scientists began to recognize that the earth was far older than was previously realized.
They developed a view of uniformitarianism. This is the view that we judge past history in the earth by what we observe today, with the understanding that the present geological forces we see operating now have operated in a like manner for much or most of past earth history. Contrasted with that view was what many believers had embraced, namely catastrophism. This is the idea that past earth history was punctuated by great catastrophes which account for the alleged signs of age in the earth.
The secular world, for the most part, embraced this ancient age of the earth. The discoveries in geology were a part of the reason the world embraced Darwin’s theory of evolution as it did. There was at least now a plausible case for the vast amounts of time necessary for biological evolution to accomplish what it claimed to accomplish. Christians continued to resist the idea of the old earth for much of the 19th century and and beginning of the 20th century.
But as the 20th century rolled along, more and more evangelicals began to embrace an old earth perspective and sought to harmonize the biblical teaching with the possibility that the earth was very very old. Now Christians are evenly divided between old earth creationism and new earth creationism.
While I am solidly in the camp of young earth creationism, my perspective is that age is not the critical issue. While I think the Bible taken in its clearest sense argues for a young earth, I can see that there are ways of reading Genesis that could account for vast ages of time. The plainest reading of Scripture supports the idea of a young earth, that God created the heavens and the earth in six literal days. The Hebrew word for day is yom, and while it can mean an indefinite period of time, the vast number of times it is used it is referring to a literal day. Every other time it occurs with a number in Scripture it means a literal 24 hour day. So my Bible exegesis governs my understanding of geology and cosmology.
This should not be a real divider among believers. The ultimate issue is not the age of the earth, but the evidence of a designer. Even if a Christian embraces an old earth perspective, they have to invoke God at multiple strategic places within the billions of years that preceded the present day in order to bring about the order and complexity not only in the universe, but also in biology. God has to account for the supreme level of information that characterizes the universe and the supreme level of complexity we see in biological life. God is the operative question here.
You cannot have the blind forces of nature lead to the high orders of complexity that we see in the world today. It simply will never happen.
The blind forces of nature will lead to order in nature, but they never lead to specified complexity, which is what we see in biology.
I think age is not the critical issue, but evidence for design. If there is evidence for design, you must invoke a designer. Actual design requires a designer, and you cannot get it through the blind forces of nature.
Charles Stolfus is the Director of the Lay Institute at Denton Bible Church.