“In the Beginning” Symposium, Part Three: The Age of the Earth

In-the-Beginning-slideThis is the third in a series of posts that describe my observations of a recent symposium held by City Bible Forum and CrossCulture Church of Christ. The event was titled In the Beginning: A symposium of science and the scriptures, and was held from 30-31 August 2013 in Melbourne. The speakers represented worldviews ranging from atheist naturalism to young-earth creationism (YEC) and old-earth creationism (OEC). I attended the symposium as an interested audience member, but I was not directly involved with it.

I have presented each session as an account of what I took from each presentation (and the panel questions afterwards), and inserted my own comments at the end of each. I am working from the notes that I made during each talk, so I apologise if I have misrepresented any of the speakers on what they were trying to say; I have written about each talk as I understood it.

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Session 3: The Age of the Earth

Charley Lineweaver

The first speaker in this session was Charley Lineweaver, a Professor in Astrophysics at ANU, and (in his words) “a full-blown atheist”. Lineweaver opened by giving, as he said, an atheist’s advice to a Christian audience: “If your faith depends on a 6000-yr-old universe, you have a tremendous problem. Doesn’t your faith have more to do with kindness, humility and love?”

Lineweaver moved on to a description of star formation, and pointed out that this process is ongoing. That is to say, the stars were not formed all at once. Also, stars are made primarily of hydrogen and helium, but we (as in, humans) are made mostly of carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, nitrogen, sulfur and potassium. The Big Bang, in contrast, only produced hydrogen and helium.

He then moved on to the issue of dogmatism in the scientific community. Science, he said, is indeed dogmatic, but only up to a point: if you present something that goes counter to well-established and well-supported theory, you will not be taken seriously unless you have serious evidence and the right understanding to back it up. If you don’t know anything about dating, and you’re claiming to know the age of the universe, you’re going to get dismissed pretty quickly. He argued that taking a marginal single source of evidence and dismissing all the rest in order to support your single pre-determined viewpoint is not reasonable for a scientist.

His next points related to astronomical evidence for the Hot Big Bang:

  • The expansion of the universe, as first deduced in 1929 by Edwin Hubble, from plots of the red-shift velocity of standard brightness stars. The consistency of observations led to Hubble’s Law, which states that recession velocities are correlated with distance. Lineweaver also spent some time trying to counter the idea of the Big Bang as an “explosion”: explosions have centres, with high pressure on the inside and low pressure on the outside. The universe is expanding, but it does not have a centre, and there is no “outside” that it is expanding into.
  • The finite age of the universe. It’s 13.7 +/-0.1 Gyr old. The sun is about 4.6 Gyr, dated by calcium-aluminium triplets in meteorites. (The Earth is a tiny bit younger, but not much). Incidentally, he said, the default theory of planetary systems has shifted to: “most stars probably have some type of planetary system around them”, but we don’t really have too many details on that yet. The galaxy disc of the Milky Way, he said, is about 9Gyr, and the globular clusters that form the galaxy halo are more like 12Gyr.
  • Big Bang nucleosynthesis. Starting with just protons and neutrons, we can theoretically describe the formation of H and He in the hot conditions just after the Big Bang (about 5000K). The oldest (most distant) stars are basically pure H and He.
  • Anisotropic distributions. Galaxies are not random, there is structure in the universe: large-scale galaxy distribution structure is governed by the hot and cold spots in the cosmic microwave background, and those structures come from quantum fluctuations from inflation followed by normal expansion. The large-scale structures look identical to the structure of space-time foam on the 10-33 scale of matter.

My comments:

The talk was really interesting and the visuals were great. Since my wife is an astrophysicist, there wasn’t a whole lot of new material for me here, but it was well presented. I did think that parts of the presentation were more like a public science talk, rather than specifically relating the material to the question of ages. There was evidence presented, but perhaps there was an underlying question that could have been better addressed: “Why should we take this evidence seriously, and why do you think the current interpretation of the observations is correct?” Perhaps a bit of a missed opportunity.

The talk also focussed far more on the age of the universe than the age of the Earth per se, although Lineweaver did make a clear theoretical connection between the formation of the elements that make up the Earth, and the age of the solar system, and the speaker is an astrophysicist and not a geologist. The dots were certainly there for those inclined to join them up.

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David Catchpoole

The second speaker in this session was David Catchpoole from Creation Ministries International, whose talk was entitled “Everything isn’t that old.” He started off by stating that evolution and cosmology “absolutely contradict what the Bible says”, and then asked, “If you can’t trust the first few pages of the Bible, how can you trust any of it?”

Catchpoole then went into a lengthy discussion of trait inheritance using an example of hair length in dogs and its impact on their fitness for survival in cold climates. He gave the illustration of a dog breed with two gene types for hair length: either long (L) or short (S), and hypothesised the breeding of two dogs with an “LS” combination (and thus medium-length hair). He said that this breeding could produce any of three types of offspring: very short haired dogs (SS), medium-length hair (LS or SL), or very long-haired offspring (LL). He then suggested that such dogs living in cold climates would grow over time to be dominated by long-haired individuals, which would survive better. Catchpoole also claimed that “the advantages of sexual [as opposed to asexual] reproduction are a mystery.”

His next point referred to a newspaper report that used the term “rapid evolution” in reference to changes in population characteristics of snakes after the introduction of on cane toads to Australia. It was not clear to me how this related to the age of the Earth, but perhaps he was making the point that evolution may proceed faster than the scientific establishment would think. This was followed by a marketing pitch for the book “Refuting Evolution”, published by Creation Ministries, and another pitch for Creation Magazine. Referring to the book, Catchpoole said, “As you can see, it’s a thin book, because [evolution] doesn’t take too long to refute!”

From this point the talk took a detour into a discussion of road rage and surveillance cameras. Again, it was not clear how this related to the question of the age of the Earth.

Moving back into biology, Catchpoole showed a picture of a liger (a cross between a lion and a tiger). He referred to the Genesis account of Noah’s ark, in which Noah took different “kinds” of animals, and said that if lions and tigers which are “entire different genera” can get crossed, the number of “kinds” that Noah would need to take may have been fairly low. He went on to say, “There’s absolutely no evidence that different organisms are related on a ‘tree of life’.”

This was followed by another detour into a discussion of fig leaves and sacrificial atonement via animal death. The link to the session topic was not clear. Catchpoole stated that the fact that we feel sad when our loved ones die is proof that death is not a natural part of life.

Moving to the title of his talk, he said, “How do I know the Earth is only 6000 years old? Because that’s what the Bible tells me!”

This was followed by a third detour, this time on marriage and the seven-day work week.

Catchpoole finished by repeating large sections of his talk from the first session of the symposium, including the insistence that all evidence “must be based on the testimony of two eyewitnesses”, and he closed by saying that while he couldn’t prove a 6000-yr-old Earth, “The old-age people can’t prove their stuff either.”

My comments:

I found this talk very disappointing and frustrating. There was extremely little discussion of the age of the Earth, and I thought that the biological material was very poorly covered. The description of trait inheritance seemed to misunderstand genetic theory, and suggested that traits that differ in parents are averaged (rather than the Mendellian concept dominant and recessive genes). There also did not seem to be a clear understanding of the distinction between species and breed, or that human-controlled selective breeding within a species tells us little about evolution. Lions (Panthera leo) and tigers (Panthera tigris) are certainly in the same genus. Further, I found it incredible that someone with a background in science could say that: “There’s absolutely no evidence that different organisms are related on a ‘tree of life’.” This statement seems to dismiss not only evolutionary theory, but also DNA and all of genetics. Similarly, only by dismissing all of genetics can someone say that: “the advantages of sexual reproduction are a mystery.” The speaker seemed unwilling to deal seriously with scientific theory and engage seriously with evidence.

The lengthy detours into unrelated topics were very frustrating. Most of the talk was spent insisting that true Christians could only honestly believe in a 6000-yr-old Earth. This seems to be a theological statement, but it was not presented from a theological or hermeneutic perspective. In response to the question, “If you can’t trust the first few pages of the Bible, how can you trust any of it?”, I might reply that if the trustworthiness of the rest of the Bible leads me to believe that the whole Bible is true, and if my reason introduces critical problems with my interpretation of the first few pages, then I would be inclined to reconsider my interpretation.

Catchpoole said that he thinks that the Earth is 6000 years old because he believes the Bible and that’s what it tells him. I certainly believe the Bible, but it tells me no such thing about the age of the Earth.

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Lewis Jones

The final speaker for the symposium was Lewis Jones, from the Simeon Network. Although an astrophysicist by training, Jones was talking here on “The Biblical case for an old Earth”. He stated up front that his intention was not to challenge the 6-day interpretation per se, but more to show that the Bible can allow for an old earth without sacrificing consistency.

Jones said that “the grand story of history” that spans the Bible and ends in Revelation 22 actually starts in Genesis 2, not in Genesis 1. He gave two illustrations from scripture to support this thesis:

  • The word toledoth that is used in Genesis 2:4, “This is the account of the heavens and the earth when they were created”, is a genealogical term. The same word is used in the Old Testament for expressions such as, “This is the account of Noah” (Genesis 6:9); “This is the account of Jacob” (Genesis 37:2); and even (in its Koine equivalent) in the passage, “A record of the genealogy of Jesus Christ, son of David, son of Abraham” (Matthew 1:1).
  • Parallels between Genesis 2 and Revelation, which describes the “new creation”, with the Tree of Life and unmediated access to God (no temple required). Genesis 2 talks in similar language about the tree of life, and unmediated direct presence of God.

He then turned to the obvious question of, “then what’s Genesis 1 about?” Jones dismissed the idea that it was about the first 7 days of the history of the universe, mostly because the 7th day doesn’t end. What flows on from Day 7? Where is day 8? Nothing flows on, Jones said, because the “7th day” is eternal.

Considering the original audience, Jones suggested that Genesis 1 is a response to the idolatry of Israel as a preparation for entering the Promised Land, which is largely the purpose of the whole Pentateuch: to help Israel stay faithful and avoid idolatry as they enter the Promised Land (for example, see Deuteronomy 4). The Canaanite and Babylonian gods were “formed from the waters of the deep”, but in Genesis 1, “the spirit of God was hovering over the waters”, emphasising the distinction. The creation of the sun and moon is described as “two great lights”, despite the fact that the Hebrews had words for the “sun” and “moon”. But those words were the names of Canaanite idols, so Moses didn’t use them. Similarly, “God created the great creatures of the sea and every living and moving thing with which the water teems,” so don’t worship the animals either.

Jones suggested that the Bible generally works through progressive revelation: new meanings continually emerge from the text. For us today, then, Genesis 1 sits more as an overture to the rest of the Bible, a kind of thematic synopsis. It’s still a very important warning against idolatry, but it’s also to be understood like John 1:1-18, which is clearly not part of John’s main story, but he puts it up at the front to give a prologue to the life of Jesus. In the beginning everything was created. Then life was created. Then Light was created. Then a Man came into the world.

He pointed to these parallels:

  • Genesis 1: “let us make man in our own image,” and “let them rule over the fish of the sea”
  • Psalm 8:  “When I consider the heavens, the works of your fingers… what is man? …Yet you have given him dominion over all things.”
  • Hebrews 2:5-9: After quoting Ps. 8, Paul says that wait, at the moment everything isn’t subject to man! But perhaps the text refers to Jesus, which all of creation is subject to.
  • For the rest of the New Testament, the concept of “the image of God” is generally described as “in the image of Jesus”: this is what we are taught to work towards. So the text in Genesis 1 starts to look like a foreshadowing, a hint of the one who will truly be a man in the perfect image of God.

He turned next to the question of how to understand Genesis 2. He read Revelation 12:1-5, the passage about the woman and the dragon. This text clearly describes the birth of Jesus, but it has some pretty serious divergences from standard history. (For instance, there was no red dragon in the stable). The passage is describing a real, actual, historical event, but the description is nothing like what you would have seen if you were standing there with a video camera. Is it possible, Jones asked, that the early chapters of Genesis are written in a similar way?

The whole Bible, Jones said, was written with an historical agenda. So while the events that it describes are historically real, it does not necessarily follow that the historical events unfolded exactly as described. The genealogies are also theologically conditioned: Matthew describes “14 generations” from Abraham to David, from David to the exile, and from the exile to Jesus. But this doesn’t add up if we look at Chronicles: it’s not actually 14 generations. But that’s not what the genealogies are trying to actually convey: they are more about the ubiquity of death and sin in humankind. They are not reliable for dating because they are not intended to be reliable for dating.

The next question that Jones asked was whether creation is finished or unfinished. Genesis 2:4-8 specifically says that the garden is distinct from the world outside the garden. Why, asked Jones, did God have to take the man out of the world and put him in the garden? Romans 8 says that “creation is waiting for liberation from its bondage to decay”, which could be talking about the Fall, but could also be saying that the man was originally supposed to restore the world, but sin destroyed humanity’s relationship with God, and so sin stops us from doing that work of restoration as we were supposed to.

Finally, Jones addressed what he called “the key remaining issue”, the passage in Romans 5 that says that sin and death entered through one man. Does this allow for pre-Fall death, which is a requirement of an old Earth? Jones said that it depends what form of death we’re talking about:

  • Spiritual death? Jones doesn’t believe that this interpretation ties in with the rest of scripture.
  • Could it just be human death? If we are not referring to animal death, then the first evolved human could have been granted the image of God, and would then also have been the first instance of human death.
  • Human and animal death? This becomes a lot harder to reconcile, but Jones pointed to a theory by William Dembski: If we allow Jesus to save Abraham by working back in time, could we not also allow the Fall to work backward in time? So the effects of sin are in the world from the start, even though they stem from the sin of Adam.

My comments:

I really enjoyed this talk. There was lots of food for thought, and a good presentation of an old-Earth interpretation that stayed purely within scripture. Several of the ideas were new to me, and have prompted plenty of thinking and discussion since the symposium. The parallel between Genesis 1 and the opening passage of John is particularly powerful, I thought, and opens up a lot more possibilities in how we approach the first chapter of the Bible.

I was also impressed by the humility of the talk: interpretations were given as options among many possibilities. Particularly in light of Andrew Brown’s talk in the previous session, I thought this was a good approach.

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Panel Discussion (Charley Lineweaver, David Catchpoole and Lewis Jones)

David Catchpoole was asked, “If everything must be established on the testimony of eyewitnesses, can we convict people for crimes with no direct eyewitness (such as an unwitnessed murder)?” He replied that such people should not be convicted.

Charley Lineweaver was asked about the assumptions in cosmology. He replied that maths is based on assumptions, called axioms, and using those axioms, mathematicians “prove” things. But science doesn’t prove things, they get a whole lot of evidence. He mentioned that Richard Feynman had wanted to try to move in a similar direction, setting up some assumptions and using them to build “proofs”, but said that it’s tricky because the assumptions of science are always subject to review.

Charley Lineweaver was then asked what he thought of the whole Genesis discussion. He replied that he saw it like any other religion, and that he thought that all religions are false, so he saw it as another “made-up story that comforts people”.

David Catchpoole the interjected that living things seem designed, so there must be a designer, and since we as created things have the  capacity to communicate, he would expect the designer to be able to communicate. So he suggested that we could look at the communication in the Bible and see if it fits what we see in the world. (This was followed by a diversion to the story of Lazarus and the rich man).

Lewis Jones was asked why we should listen to the Bible. He pointed to Luke 16 as a parallel of how God has been communicating to creation for all time. But, he said, the unique quality of the Bible is in the character of Jesus, who claims to actually be God himself.

Lewis Jones was then asked, “If Genesis 1 is interpreted figuratively, like apocalyptic literature, why stop there?” He replied that there are several different styles of literature of in the Bible, but generally it’s clear what you’re reading. However, there are grey areas too, and Genesis 1 is one of those. He said that he saw the genealogies as a bit of a bridging mechanism, linking the historical to the more purely theological. When asked to expand on that last point, he continued: saying that the genealogies are “theologically conditioned” does not mean that they are not true in terms of lineage, just that they are not reliable for chronology.

David Catchpoole was asked about the contrasting creation accounts in Genesis 1 and Genesis 2: “Don’t they contradict?” No, he said, they don’t contradict, and then he encouraged people to buy a book from Creation Ministries if they wanted to find out more. (Charley Lineweaver then asked Catchpoole why whales have pelvis bones if they are made purely for the water. Catchpoole replied with a suggestion that they may be analagous to claspers in sharks, and then suggested that people buy a book from Creation Ministries to learn more).

Finally, Lewis Jones stressed that he was in complete agreement with David Catchpoole that “If I had to make a choice between 15 billion years and faith in God, I’d go with faith any day.” But Jones said that he doesn’t think that we are faced with having to make that choice.

My comments:

The last panel section was, perhaps inevitably, a bit of a mixed bag, but I thought the questions were good, and I think they gave the speakers a good opportunity to expand on areas that perhaps were a little glossed-over in the talks. It was interesting to listen to, and (like most of the symposium) gave plenty of food for thought.

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One thought on ““In the Beginning” Symposium, Part Three: The Age of the Earth

  1. the idea of the Big Bang as an “explosion”: explosions have centres, with high pressure on the inside and low pressure on the outside. The universe is expanding, but it does not have a centre, and there is no “outside” that it is expanding into.

    Strictly speaking it was indeed an explosion, but of space and not in space.

    The oldest (most distant) stars

    Of course the most distant stars “are” no older than the nearest. It is just that the observations we have of them are the oldest because the light has been travelling longest; switching places would not change our observations.

    He started off by stating that evolution and cosmology “absolutely contradict what the Bible says”, and then asked, “If you can’t trust the first few pages of the Bible, how can you trust any of it?”

    The constant g is not 10 m/s² (primary school). It is not 9.8 m/s² (high school) or even 9.81 m/s² (university). Do we throw out all our education because of such minor details? :-)

    Catchpoole also claimed that “the advantages of sexual [as opposed to asexual] reproduction are a mystery.”

    That is a very odd thing to say having just discussed adaptation!

    “rapid evolution”

    Eh. Probably better termed “rapid adaptation”, e.g. dog breeding. I wouldn’t call trait selection “evolution”.

    He went on to say, “There’s absolutely no evidence that different organisms are related on a ‘tree of life’.”

    Technically true, depending on your framework. If you assume that similarity means common descent, then he is wrong. But then where is your evidence for that assumption? You could equally well assume that automobiles were related on a “tree of translation”. :-)

    Catchpoole stated that the fact that we feel sad when our loved ones die is proof that death is not a natural part of life.

    How do we know that sadness is a natural part of life? ;-)

    I certainly believe the Bible, but it tells me no such thing about the age of the Earth.

    But it does — it is just that you do not understand that the Bible expects you to take that as a scientific fact. On the other hand if by “age of the Earth” you mean a scientifically quantified duration, then obviously not.

    Considering the original audience, Jones suggested that Genesis 1 is a response to the idolatry of Israel as a preparation for entering the Promised Land, which is largely the purpose of the whole Pentateuch

    This is likely the most useful observation of the entire conference. Genesis 1 is exactly that: a framing of the relationship between God and the Chosen People in contradistinction to the prevailing idolatry. There is only one God; the sun and moon are created bodies; suffering is a consequence of original sin; etc.

    This text clearly describes the birth of Jesus, but it has some pretty serious divergences from standard history. (For instance, there was no red dragon in the stable).

    I bet that there was. Satan is not exactly visible, after all. :-P

    Romans 8 says that “creation is waiting for liberation from its bondage to decay”, which could be talking about the Fall, but could also be saying that the man was originally supposed to restore the world, but sin destroyed humanity’s relationship with God, and so sin stops us from doing that work of restoration as we were supposed to.

    This strikes me as an extreme reach. The Fall is the obvious subject, and this alternate hypothesis requires a great number of entirely novel assumptions.

    he thought that all religions are false

    I would love to hear his strictly scientific rationale for that one!

    Charley Lineweaver then asked Catchpoole why whales have pelvis bones if they are made purely for the water.

    He might reasonably claim: for the same reason that keyless-ignition Mazdas have an ignition slot: commonality of design! :-)

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