When it comes to discussions with my young-earth friends about the age of the earth, they basically have three major biblical arguments: 1) the 'days' in Genesis 1 are consecutive, 24-hour periods, 2) the geneologies in Genesis 5 and 11 are complete and can be used to work backward to arrive at an age for the earth, and 3) animal death before Adam is a heresy. There are other biblical arguments that they make, but I think they all pretty much can be subsumed under one of these arguments.
I want to talk in this post about how to interpret Genesis 1. I will say at the front end of this, however, that I am simplifying a rather complicated issue, but I will do the best I can to break it down in a way that remains faithful to the original text.
1. God has revealed Himself in two ways - special and general revelation. Although the information that we receive in these revelations is not completely the same, areas where there is legitimate overlap should never contradict. In other words, both the Bible and nature give us truth. Although we aren't going to learn about atoms or the planet Jupiter by reading the Bible, this information isn't any less true. Neither are we going to learn about Jesus' death on the cross by looking through a telescope. The Bible's focus is on giving us the information we need for salvation. But just because the Bible doesn't talk about DNA does not mean that it is somehow less true than the learning about the resurrection. It's just that people don't need to know about DNA in order to be saved.
2. The 'days' in Genesis 1 are not intended to be interpreted as consecutive, 24-hour days. Here is a brief overview of the reasons behind this:
- The Hebrew word 'yom' in Genesis 1 has three LITERAL definitions: 12-hours, 24-hours and a long, but finite, period of time. Just within the context of Genesis 1 and 2, I would suggest that ALL THREE LITERAL definitions are used. The period of "evening" to "morning" is a 12-hour period, not 24-hours. It is the time when a worker rests from his work. But then, in verse 14, the moon and stars are said to be in the sky in order to mark "days, seasons and years." Well there, it sounds like "yom" is referring to a 24-hour period of time. Then, in Genesis 2:4, the word "yom" is used to summarize God's activities on the entire creation week.
So, the relevant question is, which LITERAL definition is to be preferred when the author uses the sequence, "And there was evening, and there was morning — the n-th day"?
- The phrase "And there was evening, and there was morning — the third day" is a litany that signals the end of the day. But it says nothing about the length of the day itself.
- Each day concludes with the pattern "evening and morning," except the seventh. Why is that? I would say that it is possibly a signal that we are still in the seventh day and as such God is still resting from His creation miracles. Hebrews 4 seems to back this up by saying that we are still in the seventh day and that it will continue into the future.
- The events described in Genesis 2 appear to be an elaboration of Genesis 1:27-28. How could all of these events happen in one day?
- When Adam finally sees Eve at the end of chapter 2, he is so excited that he breaks out in poetry. He expresses his joy by saying, "At long last, here she is..." How could he say "at long last" if he had only been alone for a few hours? That doesn't really make any sense.
- Moses uses the word "yom" that way in Psalm 51 to say that a "day is like a thousand years" for God. The point here in this context is not the specific length of time. The point is to say that God stands outside of time; He is timeless. In other words, He is very old. But assuming Moses is also the author of Genesis, it is at least conceivable that he thinks of "days" as meaning long periods of time.
I would say that none of these reasons by themselves is enough to say that the long-age interpretation is a slam dunk. But when they are taken together, I think that they do build enough of a case to say that it is reasonable to suggest that the "days" in Genesis 1 might not be 24 hours long. Both the 24-hour day and long-age interpretation of Genesis 1 are LITERAL interpretations and both uphold the inerrancy and authority of Scripture.
If that is the case, and if God's two revelations will not contract, then why not let General Revelation decide which interpretation to choose? If the evidence from the record of nature clearly points us toward a young earth, then so be it. But if the evidence points us to an old earth, then let's embrace that.
And I would say that the most natural interpretation of the physical world is that it is telling us that the earth is old. Oh sure, we could bend over in a bunch of machinations and try to get around the evidence or explain it away, but why should we do that? It is so unnecessary.