What’s 13 billion years among friends?
20 / 11 13 15:35
Did the creation of the universe take 6 days or 13.7 billion years?
While working at MIT Lincoln Labs in the 1980’s, I heard an apocryphal tale of a student in line at a Cambridge grocery store with too many items in the “10 items or less” line. As the story goes, the cashier asked if he was from Harvard and couldn’t count or from MIT and couldn’t read. Similarly, those who debate the age of the universe always seem to be in one of two distinct camps - you are either a Christian creationist who can’t count (to 13.7 billion years) or a Christian scientist who can’t read (the Bible literally). In essence, “old earth” creationists are accused of taking a low view of scripture while the “young earth” creationists are accused of inventing pseudoscience to fit the Bible. As a scientist who also happens to read, I’d like to contribute my 2 cents on how to resolve this 5 trillion day disparity.
According to the latest scientific data, the universe is approximately 13.7 billion years old and according to chapter one in Genesis, the earth was created in 7 days. So, how can both accounts be true? I believe that the core issue comes down to the meaning of the word day or “yom” in the Hebrew text. “Yom” is used 2301 times in the Old Testament and although it is usually interpreted as a 24-hour day, there are other uses of the word yom including time, year, age, ago, always, season, eternity, etc. Those in the “young earth” camp claim that the word yom when used in conjunction with an ordinal number should always be interpreted as a literal 24-hour day.1 However, I’ve found that thorough Hebrew scholarship indicates otherwise.
The first occurrence of the word yom is in Gen 1:5 where the text says most literally, “And the evening took place, and the morning took place, day one”.2 Here the Hebrew term ‘echad’ meaning “one” is used versus ‘rison’ or “first”. Note that the word ‘yachid’ meaning the solitary number one is not used in lieu of the word ‘echad’ meaning a unity or cluster of the same thing. Those familiar with Hebrew will quickly notice that ‘echad’ is the same Hebrew word used in the Shema in Deut 6:4, “Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one (echad)” and in Gen 2:24, “Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one (echad) flesh”. There are profound implications for the use of the word echad in Gen 1:5 which I will delve into later.
Of the remaining five times the word yom is used in conjunction with ordinal numbers in Genesis 1, it is unprefixed on four occasions, namely, in Gen 1:8, 1:13, 1:19, and 1:23 (creation days 2 through 5). Unprefixed means that there is no Hebrew letter “heh” or a definite article “the” before the number in question.3 Not until we get to Gen 1:31 do we see the prefix “heh”. Therefore, day six remains the only creation day that can be properly interpreted as “the sixth day”. For the other five creation days, instead of saying, “the second day” or “the third day”, a more proper interpretation for days 2 through 5 would be to interpret those creation days as “a second time” or “a third time,” etc. Therefore, I believe that God did indeed create the heavens and the earth in six distinct, long, sequential periods of time that add up to billions of years (or trillions of 24-hour days). Note that the phrase, “there was evening and there was morning” mentioned in the first six “days” of creation is conspicuously missing from the seventh day. This harmonizes nicely with a literal interpretation of the continuing seventh day of rest referenced in Hebrews 4 which implies that we are still in the seventh day. Of course there are other Biblical and extra-Biblical reasons for why I’ve come to this conclusion which I’ll discuss in a future blog.
Let’s be clear. Although I am unashamedly in the “old earth” camp, I absolutely reject evolution (or more specifically macro-evolution) and theistic evolution since I do not believe a sovereign, purposeful, designer God would use an undirected process to bring about an ordered creation. In addition, there is not nearly enough time in a relatively short 13.7 billion years for evolution to occur.4
I also want to be clear that I fully embrace and fellowship with those in the “young earth” camp since we agree on two essentials, 1) that God created everything out of nothing (ex nihilo), and 2) Adam and Eve were real, historical figures made in the image of God and serve as mankind’s federal representatives.
Finally I wanted to also confirm that I fully embrace and believe in Biblical inerrancy. As a matter of fact, the International Council of Biblical Inerrancy (ICBI), the same group that issued the 1978 Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy, convened in 1982 to discuss the issue of the age of the universe. In short, they published a 92-page report4 that outlined four biblically acceptable views of creation days including:
1) Calendar-day: creation days consist of six consecutive 24-hour days that are historic and chronological,
2) Day-Age: creation days that are six consecutive long ages that are historical, sequential, and chronological,
3) Framework: the creation week is a metaphor used to describe God’s actions in creation, and
4) Analogical-days: creation days are analogous to but not identical to human days of unspecified length.
Although the age of the universe makes for an interesting intramural and sometimes heated discussion among Christians, let us not lose sight of the big picture that “The heavens declare the glory of God, and the sky above proclaims his handiwork”.5 Let’s bask in this miracle of creation and enjoy the goodness of God.
1 - MacArthur Study Bible, Commentary on Gen 1:5, Word Publishing, 1997
2 - Norman L. Geisler, Baker Encyclopedia of Christian Apologetics, p. 271, Zondervan 1999:
3 - Gleason L. Archer, Encyclopedia of Bible Difficulties, pgs. 60-61, Baker 1982:
4 - Hugh Ross, A Matter of Days, pgs. 241-244, Navpress 2004
5 - Psalm 19:1