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Geochronologically Speaking

Geochronologically Speaking
Photo by NASA / Unsplash

Paradox: The Age of the Earth


                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                        

The Earth is, according to our current-best estimates, about four and a half billion years old (A). The Earth (again, according to the best of our current understanding) formed via the coalescence of matter orbiting the Sun at a distance of one AU or so. Gravity, over some period of time, compacted this material down into a planet — the one we call home. The other planets formed the same way. It took many, many years for the planet to cool enough for life to be possible. In fact, for the majority of the time the Universe has existence, life has not existed, has been impossible. We are a blip in the history of the Universe.

The foregoing paragraph is nothing but a collection of facts — although the specifics (e.g., the exact age of the Earth) are open to disagreement and debate; the base facts themselves are beyond dispute. It would be as reasonable to argue that the cloudless daytime sky is not blue as to argue that the Earth is not billions of years old. Is it possible that the Earth is not billions of years old? Of course, but that is incredibly unlikely. As Christians, we are beholden to believe these things, for to do anything else would be to deny the First Article, and to call God a liar. The Universe is ancient — God made it ancient.

And yet Scripture gives us the age of the Earth — and that number is significantly smaller than four and a half billion. In fact, the age of the Earth as calculated from Scripture is, as of AD 2022, approximately six thousand and twenty-six (B). As Christians, we are required to affirm Scripture as the plenarily verbally inspired Word of God — is free from error —, but we are not called to disbelieve clear truths in order to affirm Scripture. How do we resolve this?

The age of Creation (and the ages of the constituent parts of Creation) is a paradox. To affirm both A and B seems to violate, at least, the law of noncontradiction (and likely also the law of the excluded middle). Christianity is not an arational or an irrational religion. God is truth, and He does not call us to believe the absurd or anything false. And yet it seems that we must affirm A and B — claims that are seemingly mutually exclusive.

If I were to tell you that I am both thirty-seven years old and five thousand years old, you would rightly consider me insane (or, perhaps, presume that I am setting up to make some philosophical point). Yet, I am calling on you, for Scripture and the senses God gave you call upon you, to believe such contradictory statements about the whole of physical reality. And there is no appreciable difference between the two (i.e., calling myself two different ages and calling the Earth two different ages). Larger numbers may, for some, serve to highlight the contradiction, but a difference of one second is just as impossible and incoherent as one of billions of years. Your newborn child cannot simultaneously be one and two hours old, right?

And yet your newborn child could very well be both one hour old and two hours old. If, immediately after your child was born, you got in a vehicle and headed west and crossed into a new time zone, then, two hours after your child was born, he would be one hour old — according to the time of your present location. Some may contend that I am now playing semantic games — and perhaps I am —, but that is the point: It matters how we define our terms. If you were born on a leap day, then you will see relatively few actual birth days; even should you live into old age, you would die in your twenties, according to the number of your birth days that passed. You would, in fact, be simultaneously ninety-something and twenty-something. I was born in California (-8), but I have lived in Berlin (+1). Was I nine hours older when I lived in Berlin? Yes and no.

The issue gets even more complicated if we delve into gravity and relativity. You can, in fact, theoretically end up older than your older sibling, under the right circumstances. You would, then, simultaneously be the younger sibling and older than your older sibling. Time is not so simple as most would conclude from looking at a clock. Also, all the material in your body is as old as the Universe, but your individual cells may be mere seconds old — your body is simultaneously billions of years, some (relatively) small number of years, and (in part) mere minutes or seconds old.

And yet the foregoing examples are, admittedly, distinguishable from the case of the age of the Earth. The point is that these matters are not always as simple as they may initially appear, and we must carefully consider them. That the Earth is simultaneously thousands and billions of years old seems like a true, irresolvable paradox, but this is not true paradox. The resolution of this (seeming) paradox is as simple as carefully reading the first two chapters of Genesis (or just thinking about the issue carefully).

How old was Adam when God placed him in the Garden? This is not a trick question. Although the text does not give us an exact age, we do know that he was an adult — he was not a newly formed zygote. So, Adam was simultaneously some number of decades old and — at the moment God created him — one second old. (Of course, Adam was and is also eternal insofar as he first existed as an idea or a form in the mind of God.) The same is true of the Universe. When God spoke the Universe into existence, He did not speak a quark-gluon plasma into existence — He spoke a mature, fully formed Universe into existence. God did not 'merely' create energy (matter is merely energy obeying a speed limit) and then wait billions of years for galaxies, stars, and planets to form. He did not endure patiently through untold eras waiting for a mature Earth to form. God, in His infinite power and wisdom, spoke everything into existence as He wanted it to be. The birds were birds and not eggs; the wolves were wolves and not whelps; Adam was a man and not a child.

When men undertake to build something, we must begin at the beginning, for there exists no other possibility for us. We cannot speak a building into existence; we must lay a foundation. We cannot speak a book into existence (unless we are dictating it); we must grab a computer or a pen. We cannot speak a son into existence; we must find a wife. God is not so limited. The God Who could have raised up sons for Abraham from river stones just as easily spoke all things into existence, without any need to pass through incipient or intermediate stages. God created a mature Universe that appears to be — that is — billions of years old, but is chronologically thousands of years old. Thus, both A and B are true — perfectly so —, but in slightly difference senses.

This is, actually, not a true paradox. That which is irresolvable according to human reason but nevertheless true is an actual paradox — even if it may be resolved by resort to the infinitude of God. That which may be resolved by human reason — without resort to the infinitude of God — is not an actual paradox. The age of the Earth is no true paradox because it may (supra) be resolved employing nothing more than human reason. Now, it is true that God's omnipotence, omniscience, et cetera, are necessary to the resolution of this seeming paradox, but in a way that is different in kind from the case of the true paradox (as we will see). The age of the Earth — the truth of A and B — is readily explicable by and comprehensible to human reason; this is not the case with the true paradox. With the true paradox, the truth of each proposition may be independently shown (like here with the age of the Earth), but the truth of the junction or intersection cannot be shown (unlike here with the age of the Earth).

We will, in fact, be going through a series of true paradoxes and false (merely seeming) paradoxes. Try to figure out which is which (before reaching the conclusion of each article, of course). There are more true paradox than false paradoxes in this series. It is vital to include both, because the Christian must be able to distinguish them. Some who would lead you astray will employ false paradoxes when attempting to do so; such attempts will be less effective if you know what a false paradox is, and far less effective if you are able to reliably identify false paradoxes.

The Christian life is more than John 3:16 and the forgiveness of sins. God is truth and all truth is one, for God is one (and three, but we will get to that soon enough). The Christian may not — must not — deny any truth. The denial of any truth about reality is a denial of the First Article, wherein we confess our belief in "God the Father Almighty, Maker of Heaven and Earth". In confessing that God created all things (for that is what is meant by "Maker of Heaven and Earth"), we foreclose the possibility that anything in Creation is beyond God's control or that anything in Creation insofar as it agrees with God's pre-Fall design is wicked or false or wrong. God is the Author of all that is, of all that affirmatively exists. To deny the goodness of anything that god designed is to attribute imperfection or sin to God — both accusations are blasphemous heresy and no Christian may advance, engage in, or support either.

The truth matters. You must learn to recognize what it is — and what it is not. Therefore, let us examine a number of additional paradoxes.