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A Biblical Case for an Old Earth
A Biblical Case for an Old Earth
A Biblical Case for an Old Earth
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A Biblical Case for an Old Earth

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The present creation-evolution debate is often cast as a choice between two positions: naturalistic evolution over millions of years or miraculous creation six thousand years ago. When simplified, this choice is often presented as one between science and the Bible, a choice that leaves much ground between the two views yet to be

A Biblical Case for an Old Earth seeks to address the gap between theistic evolutionism and young-earth creationism by finally paying due attention to the biblical aspect of the debate. Both a scientist and a preacher, David Snoke presents a theological study of several themes in the evolution discussion, including the balance theme of Scripture and the day-age interpretation. Complete with an appendix that gives a literal translation of Genesis 1-11, this intriguing study will interest both scientists and lay Christians who want to dig into the faith-science intersection.
Release dateAug 1, 2006
A Biblical Case for an Old Earth
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David Snoke

David Snoke is associate professor of physics and astronomy at the University of Pittsburgh, a licensed preacher, and an ordained elder in the Pittsburgh presbytery of the Presbyterian Church of America. He has published over seventy articles in scientific journals and two scientific books. He also has published five philosophical articles in the Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith, a journal of the American Scientific Affiliation.

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    A Biblical Case for an Old Earth - David Snoke


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    © 2006 by David Snoke

    Published by Baker Books

    a division of Baker Publishing Group

    P.O. Box 6287, Grand Rapids, MI 49516-6287


    Printed in the United States of America

    All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form or by any means—for example, electronic, photocopy, recording—without the prior written permission of the publisher. The only exception is brief quotations in printed reviews.

    Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data

    Snoke, David, 1961–

    A biblical case for an old earth / David Snoke.

    p. cm.

    Includes bibliographical references.

    ISBN 10: 0-8010-6619-0 (pbk.)

    ISBN 978-0-8010-6619-1 (pbk.)

    1. Bible and geology. 2. Earth—Age. I. Title.

    BS657.S66 2006



    Unless otherwise indicated, Scripture is taken from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version, copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a division of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

    Scripture marked NIV is taken from the HOLY BIBLE, NEW INTERNATIONAL VERSION®. NIV®. Copyright © 1973, 1978, 1984 by International Bible Society. Used by permission of Zondervan. All rights reserved.

    Scripture marked NASB is taken from the New American Standard Bible®, Copyright © 1960, 1962, 1963, 1968, 1971, 1972, 1973, 1975, 1977, 1995 by The Lockman Foundation. Used by permission.

    The quote is from The Magician’s Nephew by C. S. Lewis copyright © C. S. Lewis Pte. Ltd. 1955. Extract reprinted by permission.



    1. Starting Assumptions

    2. The Scientific Case

    3. The Biblical Case I: Animal Death

    4. The Biblical Case II: The Balance Theme in Scripture

    5. The Biblical Case III: The Sabbath

    6. Concordantist Science

    7. Interpreting Genesis 1 and 2

    8. The Flood of Noah

    9. Implications for Theology

    Appendix: A Literal Translation of Genesis



    This book was instigated by a debate within the Presbyterian Church of America (PCA), my own denomination, in regard to the orthodoxy of the old-earth position. Young earthers say that the earth and all of creation is at most ten or twenty thousand years old, essentially the same age as the history of modern humans. Old earthers say that the earth is billions of years old, in agreement with the assumptions of modern geology. Some Christians insist that the old-earth position is theologically heretical, or at least heterodox, and some in my denomination want to deny pastors the right to preach if they do not hold to a young-earth view. The debate is not restricted to my denomination, however. Unfortunately, this issue threatens to divide Christians—many well-known seminary professors and teachers such as Meredith Kline and Michael Horton adhere to an old-earth view, while notable figures such as John MacArthur, for whom I have great respect, have publicly called the old-earth position theologically liberal, or heterodox.

    Theological liberalism does exist. We have seen a century of slide on almost every church doctrine. Because many Christians react so strongly against liberalism, however, sometimes leveling the charge of liberalism is an easy way to dismiss an opposing argument. Some Baptists dismiss those who baptize infants as liberal; Catholics who believe in the Latin rite dismiss those who believe in using the vernacular as liberal. This happens with more esoteric issues, as well: some people who believe in the eschatological doctrine of a pre-tribulational Rapture view all who disagree as liberal; within my own denomination, some have dismissed Presbyterian authors like R. C. Sproul and Francis Schaeffer as liberal because their writings do not conform to the doctrines of presuppositional apologetics expounded by Cornelius van Til. On many of these issues, however, Christians have learned that we can fellowship with people with whom we disagree on broad issues of interpretation of Scripture because we know that at least they share with us a strong view of the inerrancy and primacy of Scripture. Each of us must be convinced from Scripture, and often this means we must adopt a minority view for the sake of conscience, even if most conservatives believe otherwise.

    In this book I argue that the old-earth position is a valid, conservative, and orthodox interpretation of the Bible. This may shock some people—the young-earth position is so equated with orthodoxy that when I say that I believe in an old earth, people have sincerely asked me if I also deny the virgin birth, the bodily resurrection of Jesus, etc. This is partly because theological liberals assume that the earth is old without even a debate and mock the young-earth position, so that people associate the old-earth view with theological liberalism. Perhaps, however, people also make this association because some who adhere to the young-earth view encourage it, thereby preventing their opponents from getting a fair hearing among conservatives.

    In many people’s eyes, I have probably lost before I begin, because no matter what I argue from the Bible, they will say, But you have come up with this just because you want the Bible to agree with science. I freely confess to this charge—I would not have studied this issue with as great interest had I not wanted to see whether a young-earth view was strictly necessary. I discuss the validity of such an approach in chapter 1. I hope by the end, however, that if readers have not been persuaded to agree with my views, they will at least agree that my arguments are biblical, a viable position in a debate among Christians (similar to that over infant baptism) and not wild-eyed mangling of the Scriptures.

    Many of the proponents of the old-earth view adhere to a framework model of interpretation of Genesis 1; the framework model takes this chapter as essentially poetic, not giving any chronological information. This book presents the case for a day-age view that takes Genesis 1 as giving a real chronological sequence, but not necessarily of twenty-four-hour days. This position is too quickly dismissed by both sides, although many Christians who are trained scientists, such as Hugh Ross and Robert Newman, find this view very appealing.

    I thank Bruce Rathbun, Michael Schuelke, and George Hunter for critical reading of this manuscript in its early stages, and for many profitable discussions, despite our disagreements.

    1 Starting Assumptions

    At the very outset, let me say that my experience in science has affected my interpretation of the Bible. For some people, this is a cardinal sin. This is one of the most important issues before us. Is it ever permissible to allow our experience to affect our interpretation of the Bible? Or should I strive to study the Bible in an interpretive vacuum, with no reference to any of my life experience? Is that possible?

    To put it another way, it is very improbable that I ever would have come up with the view that the earth is millions of years old if I had never studied science. If I had never studied science, I also probably would not have come up with the idea that everything is composed of electrons, protons, and neutrons, or that life is based on DNA, or many other things that I believe. At first blush, one might say, So what? There are many things about the natural order that God has seen fit to let us discover by experience, which he does not discuss in the Bible. Most people have no trouble affirming that the theories of electrons, protons, and DNA, while not in the Bible, are compatible with the Bible.

    The difference between an old-earth view and the theory of electrons is that the Bible talks directly about the origin of the world in several places, while it does not talk much about the composition of things. In saying that the earth is millions of years old, and at the same time saying that I affirm the Bible is true and has no errors, I must argue that those places where the Bible speaks on origins are compatible with belief in an old earth. With electrons and protons, I do not have to compare my theories to any particular Bible passages.

    I believe that an old-earth view is compatible with the Bible. Nevertheless, I admit that my interpretation is a possible one, not an obvious one. The question that lies before us is therefore, Is it ever legitimate to prefer a ‘possible’ interpretation over a simpler, ‘obvious’ interpretation, based on our experience? I will argue that it is often legitimate.

    Before making this argument, I want to make clear that there are also illegitimate ways of letting experience affect our interpretation of the Bible. First, some people might argue that when I say that science has affected my interpretation, what I really mean is that peer pressure has affected my interpretation. In other words, they might say that I have changed my interpretation of the Bible because it is unpopular among my colleagues. If they were right, my approach would be illegitimate, but I hope that they are wrong, and that I have not caved in to peer pressure. I will not argue that there have been no Christians who have capitulated to prevailing views for social reasons, nor will I argue that there is no anti-Christian social pressure among scientists. Many Christians in the sciences have capitulated, in my opinion, and many of us are familiar with the intolerant spirit of political correctness on our campuses, as expressed in such things as speech codes.

    Some of us are familiar with pressure from the right, as well—from fundamentalists who use peer pressure to insist that anyone who rejects their view is liberal. All of us, including scientists, need to carefully distinguish between what are really facts, and what is merely the opinion of a lot of people. It is illegitimate to change our view of the Bible because we want a more popular interpretation.

    At the same time, we should recognize that no view that says that the Bible is true will be popular in the modern scientific world. In recent years, many scientists have joined together to form the intelligent design movement, which questions the mechanisms of Darwinian evolution while remaining open about the age of the earth. This movement has met with scorn in the secular academic world, as creationism in a cheap tuxedo.1 I hope that people will recognize the courageous stand that these scientists are taking.

    Second, I want to make clear that science is not some kind of higher authority that trumps the Bible. Because something has been observed through a microscope or a telescope does not make it more important than Scripture. Science is just a way of expanding and organizing our experience; therefore, science has the same authority as any human experience. It is illegitimate to place anything generated by human beings in a position of unquestioned authority over the Bible.

    The issue before us, then, is whether experience, including the expanded experience of science, may ever legitimately affect our interpretation of the Bible. I argue that honesty demands it in many cases.

    The Moving Earth

    For an example, let’s first consider the old debate that involved Galileo, of whether the earth moves. Many young-earth advocates resent being compared to Ptolemaics, because these days no one seriously argues that the earth does not move. In the sixteenth century, however, many intelligent people did argue that the earth does not move. Luther, Calvin, and Melanchthon all rejected the idea of a moving earth—Luther is quoted as saying of Copernicus, This fool wishes to reverse the entire science of astronomy, but sacred Scripture tells us that Joshua commanded the sun to stand still, and not the earth; even John Wesley many years later said that the Copernican system tends to infidelity.2

    These people were not stupid. On one hand, there was little scientific evidence for a moving, round earth, and that scientific evidence was available only to a few experts; on the other hand, there were apparently sound biblical arguments that the earth does not move. Psalms 93:1, 96:10, and 104:5 say in very definite terms The earth is firmly established; it can not be moved. What has changed since then—why doesn’t anyone debate whether the earth moves any more? Primarily, our experience has changed. Many of us have the experience of changing time zones and seeing the sun rise at an earlier time, perhaps even flying around the world, looking at planets through a telescope, seeing pictures of the earth from outer space, etc. Perhaps the most famous historical demonstration of the earth’s motion is Foucault’s pendulum, which showed that an object in linear motion, with no sideways forces, rotates relative to us as the earth moves.

    It seems obvious to us now that passages like Psalm 93:1 are poetic, referring to God’s protection and maintenance of the earth, and not meant to imply that the earth does not rotate. Even the passage quoted by Luther, Joshua 10:12–13, in which the sun stands still, does not change the opinion of most Christians that the normal behavior of the earth is to move. Various explanations of this miracle have been proposed, such as a complete, miraculous suspension of the laws of momentum to stop the earth in its orbit, or more mundanely, a miraculous optical effect that kept the image of the sun in the same position in the sky even as the earth continued to rotate to accomplish the purpose stated in the text, namely to give Joshua more light. But in the sixteenth century these would not have been obvious interpretations at all! A critic might have said, If you allow Psalm 93:1 to be taken as ‘poetic,’ why not other passages in the Psalms, for example Psalm 2:7–8, which teaches that God has a Son, or Psalm 32:1, which teaches that we can have our sins forgiven? Aren’t we on a slippery slope to allowing us to reinterpret anything in the Psalms we don’t like?

    The answer to this criticism is that many scholars have defined clear guidelines for interpretation of the Psalms to help us discern the meaning of the symbolism. Perhaps sometimes we err and explain away a passage in the Psalms that we should take more literally, but this does not mean that reading some things in the Psalms as symbolic or poetic makes interpretation of the Psalms entirely subjective. A sixteenth-century critic might answer, however, that our interpretation of the Psalms is suspect because no one ever would have deduced a moving, round earth from reading the Psalms. We have allowed our experience (in the sixteenth century, this would have been the experience of just a few elite scientists with telescopes) to affect our interpretation of the Bible.

    Note that the Roman Catholic Church at the time of Galileo was perfectly willing to admit that the earth appeared to move.3 It simply insisted, on the basis of the most natural interpretation of Psalm 93:1, etc., that the earth does not, in fact, move. Galileo could have published anything that said that the earth appeared to move, or that the simplest mathematical theory invoked the useful fiction of a moving earth. It was when Galileo moved from scientist to philosopher that he got into trouble, by insisting that the earth really moves.

    Even today, one could change one’s physics to put the earth in a fixed, non-moving reference frame. In that case, however, one would need to invoke numerous new forces to explain the Coriolis and centrifugal forces that occur in such a system and which give rise to things such as hurricanes. The observation that planets seem to move backward in the sky at times, known as retrograde, would also need an explanation. At some point, the sheer complexity of such a system leads one to say that if the earth does not really move, then God is a great deceiver to have made an entire universe that is perfectly harmonized to make the earth look like it moves, when it does not. One is faced with either utter complexity in analyzing experience, or a relatively simple change to a possible interpretation of the Bible.

    Modern Apostles

    Another area where our experience enters into Bible interpretation is in evaluating the claims of modern persons to be apostles like Peter and Paul. Many passages of the Bible can be used to make a very convincing case that the role of apostle should be a normal office of the Christian church, for example, Ephesians 4:11, which says, It was he who gave some to be apostles, some to be prophets, some to be evangelists, and some to be pastors and teachers (see also 1 Cor. 12:28). There is no explicit teaching in the New Testament that the role of apostle will cease.

    Why then do most Christians believe this role has ceased to exist? Second Corinthians 12:12 says that the marks of an apostle are signs, wonders and miracles. Many Christians, however, take the view that signs and wonders have passed away; they take this from passages such as 1 Corinthians 13:8, But where there are prophecies, they will cease. Such views are far from obvious or natural to many readers of the Scriptures—one must search high and low for oblique, vague references to this passing away of apostles and their signs and wonders. Much of the reason is that, in our experience, there is little good evidence for powerful signs and wonders of the type recorded in the Bible as accompanying the apostles (these are not the same as answers to prayer, which many Christians experience in the normal course of life).

    Biblical evidence for a passing away of signs and wonders is not completely lacking. Hebrews 1:1–2 says, In the past God spoke to our forefathers through the prophets at many times and in various ways, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, and through whom he made the universe. There is a sense of finality in this passage, that Jesus is the final word to humankind. Matthew 12:39 says, A wicked and adulterous generation asks for a miraculous sign! But none will be given it except the sign of the prophet Jonah. Taking the word generation to refer to the race of the Jews, as it appears to mean in other contexts (e.g., Matt. 24:34–35), this would mean that the Jews were not to expect a continuing series of miracle workers like the Old Testament prophets. In Matthew 21:33–39, Jesus tells the parable of the tenants in the vineyard, in which he says that the last prophet sent to Israel will be the Son. Daniel 9:24 says that the coming of the Messiah will seal up vision and prophecy. Taking these together, one can argue that Jesus is God’s final message, and the apostles were accredited to act as his agents for one generation (see, for example, Matt. 10:1 and John 16:12–13).

    Many Christians date the passing away of the apostolic age, along with its signs and wonders, to the destruction of the Temple in 70 AD. Those who believe in modern apostles, however, accuse those who don’t believe in modern apostles of letting their experience influence their interpretation of the Bible. Clearly, if there were many credible apostles performing believable signs and wonders, the view that these offices still exist would have greater credibility. Many charismatics point to various miracle workers such as Oral Roberts as new apostles and prophets. Other Christians,

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