God’s Goodness Over Millions of Years? An Introduction To Old-Earth Theology

Thanks to churches, schools, books, and other materials, I grew up with a lot of exposure to young-earth theology. It’s a fully-developed Biblical paradigm that goes far beyond a “literal” reading of the “days” of Genesis. The cohesive worldview, constructed from verses all over the Bible, involves an original perfect creation that was radically ruined by Adam’s sin and will one day be radically restored again.

I knew people argued for taking the “days” of Genesis metaphorically. I tried to be open-minded to the possibilities – maybe there are some poetic elements in the opening chapter – but I was never persuaded by arguments about Genesis that ignored the rest of the Bible! I couldn’t wrap my head around “millions of years” without forsaking everything I thought the rest of the Bible taught about sin and death.

Until recently, I didn’t really know anything about “old-earth creationism.” I guess I thought it meant maybe you thought the oldest rocks on the Earth or the core or whatever could be really old, but if you believed the Bible you still pretty much had to go with animals in a perfect six-day creation and a global flood to form all the fossils and so on. After all, the only alternative was to start metaphorizing the whole thing and lose a literal Adam and Eve and the whole theology behind sin and the cross and the second coming and everything else…. right?

Actually…. No.

Old-Earth creationists (OEC) treat the Bible just as seriously and inerrant as Young-Earth creationists (YEC). They believe a lot of the same things about Adam and Jesus and everyone in between. But they don’t believe the Bible supports the same paradigm about the world before Adam. If we come to all those supporting verses with YEC-colored glasses, than they all look like they do. But if we try a different pair, well, maybe the text doesn’t literally say some of the things we think it does.

This post is not intended to be a comprehensive look at old-earth theology, which has a lot of complexities and variations (just as young-earth theology does). Nor is it intended to argue that old-earth theology is a better interpretation of the Bible than young-earth theology. It is simply intended to introduce the theology to those who may not be familiar with it. Even if you don’t agree with the old-Earth paradigm, I think more people should be aware of it.

So what is it?

Adam, Christ, and the Animals

“Therefore, just as sin entered the world through one man, and death through sin, and in this way death came to all people, because all sinned” (Romans 5:12)

“For as in Adam all die, so in Christ all will be made alive.” (1 Corinthians 15:22)

Paul’s letters paint clear parallels between Adam and Christ. OEC’s tend to agree YEC’s on these parallels. But what kind of death was entering the world? It didn’t necessarily affect everything we call “alive” today; even YEC’s don’t usually define this “death” so strictly as covering every cell at the molecular level, allowing plants to “die” as food sources before the Fall. Some even define Biblical “life” via passages referring to the “breath of life” or “life is in the blood” and allow for insects or other invertebrates to have perished pre-Fall as well.

So the OEC question is somewhat narrow: did Adam’s sin bring death on the set of animals that couldn’t have already been dying? “Death came to all people, because all sinned.” Romans says humans all die because we all sin, but it doesn’t follow that animals die for their sins. OEC’s also say it seems strange to include animals in 1 Cor 15’s “as in Adam all die” since we don’t believe they are included in the resurrection of Christ’s “all will be made alive.”

Whereas YEC’s use these passages to argue that Adam’s sin introduced death to all of creation, OEC’s argue that these passages only literally refer to humans.

But even if Paul’s theology doesn’t forbid the possibility of animal death before humanity’s sin, doesn’t God do so in Genesis?

Perfect vs. Very Good

“God saw all that he had made, and it was very good” (Genesis 1:31)

Old-earth and young-earth models agree that after God finished his creation with the creation of man, everything he had made was very good. But what does that mean?

YEC’s say before sin entered the world, it was perfect, free from all death and decay. How could millions of years of animals tearing each other to pieces be “very good”? This is a powerful argument, but OEC’s say this is simply an emotional one, and it does not use Scripture to define what “very good” could or could not be.

OEC’s argue that God said his creation was very good, but not perfect. There are distinct Hebrew words used for both throughout the Bible, so perfect could have been used if that was intended. OEC’s argue that an intricate, well-balanced ecosystem of predator-prey relationships can, in fact, be “good.”

They point to Psalm 104, which in many ways parallels the creation account, and says this when it gets to the animals:

The young lions roar for their prey, seeking their food from God…

These all look to you, to give them their food in due season.
When you give it to them, they gather it up; when you open your hand, they are filled with good things.

Creationists of all stripes acknowledge this when we marvel at the complexity of God’s creation in today’s world, like the bombardier beetle’s two-chambered explosion factory, or how lizards use their blue tails to escape birds. While we use these elaborate defenses as arguments against undirected evolution, we often don’t think about the fact that they are only so amazing because they are used to defend against other animals that want to eat them! Nor are any of these defenses perfect enough to allow all members of any given species to always escape. Of course, that would not be very good for their predators, who have their own specialized complex features for capturing prey.

I was just reading in The Tyrannosaur Chronicles how “herbivores have laterally positioned eyes that give them something close to wrap-around vision and enable them to look out for threats, but predators have forwards-facing eyes for measuring the distances to their potential meals and calculating strikes.” Isn’t that amazing? Nature has literally thousands of connections like that! In any given predator-prey relationship, neither species has perfect offense or defense, just good enough to allow both species to continue to be fruitful and multiply in a beautiful balance.

And on that note…

The Past And The Future

A major element in the balance of today’s world is the cycle of birth, death, and rebirth. Old trees die and new trees arise from their decaying matter. Dead animals release nutrients back into the soil for the use of the living. Did God really intend all the animals to be fruitful and multiply but never die? Some OEC’s argue that given the rate some animals reproduce, this would have quickly overrun the Earth. Maybe God in his infinite wisdom could have initially created a totally different system that would have worked without any predators or death. After all, that’s what the future is going to look like, right? Well, let’s explore that birth-death connection a bit.

Our current world is full of births and deaths. Revelation presents a picture of a future with no more death. But Jesus also said there would be no marriage in heaven. Does this mean no births, either? Is there any indication of fruitful multiplying on that yonder shore? Or was that something from this world – including before the Fall – that is not going to be part of the new world? What if Isaiah’s prophetic imagery of the lion lying down with the lamb doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with the original creation?

OEC’s argue the Bible doesn’t say we’re going back to a garden. We’re going to a giant city, to a new heaven and a new earth. The restoration of an original perfect world that was lost has a nice feel to it, and the end of sin and death will certainly usher in a form of restoration… but what if God never intended the future to look quite like the past?

The Old Earth View of Creation

“when you take away their breath, they die and return to their dust. When you send forth your Spirit, they are created, and you renew the face of the ground.” (Psalm 104:29-30)

OEC’s believe God created the universe, and planet Earth, over time, based on a variety of scientific evidences they find convincing. They tend to be skeptical the evidence shows he used evolution, suggesting he may have introduced new life over time, pointing to geological features like the Cambrian Explosion.

Through it all they see an amazingly intricate and perfect plan to prepare the universe for the eventual creation of man in his own image. Edward Hitchcock pointed in the 1800’s to a greatly increasing understanding and appreciation of “the vast plans of Jehovah.”

Would that all be a big waste? A woefully inefficient process? William Lane Craig argues that waste and efficiency only matter to creatures with limits, and God in his infinity can do whatever he wants for his own glory.

When God was ready to create man, he created a garden, which OEC’s see as a special place of protection, separate from the rest of the world which he called them to “fill” and “subdue” (some argue there would have been no need to subdue the rest of the world if it was “perfect”).

The Old Earth View of the Fall

But when Adam and Eve sinned, they had to leave that garden. God told them the ground outside the garden would produce thorns and thistles “for you,” but that doesn’t mean the outside world didn’t already have them. The Bible doesn’t say God created anything new. It doesn’t say the garments God made for Adam and Eve came from the first animal to die. (It actually doesn’t say an animal died at all, though it’s a reasonable inference from the theology of blood sacrifice.)

Maybe the state of the outside world had something to do with the fact that evil already existed – Satan had already fallen and even made it into the garden somehow. Maybe Adam’s sin did cause the world’s entropic state but it somehow ricocheted backward through history just as Christ’s death covered the future sins of people not yet born. Maybe God had simply designated the universe to be “subject to decay” (Romans 8) from its physical laws from the very beginning as part of his almighty perfect plan. Whatever the source, OEC’s argue the Bible does not say the Curse introduced a new world of animal suffering and death. It simply says that Adam and Eve, instead of subduing that world as they were originally called to do, were now forced to toil and struggle within it, and yet even so, it still also contained goodness, sustained by God, who was still working his ultimate plan to reconcile all things to himself.

Final Remarks

I have not covered every Scripture passage YEC’s use to defend their position or OEC’s interpretations of them. I have not covered the all-important discussion of the Genesis “days” themselves. I have not delved into the variety of approaches within OEC theology and their differing views on “concordism,” or OEC views on Noah’s flood, or J. Gene White’s unique translation and his exemplar hypothesis. However, I have endeavored to show that the OEC approach to the Bible, whether it is right or wrong, is at least as serious as the YEC approach, in some cases taking some verses more literally, or at least not assuming they say things they literally do not say. If you found any of this interesting, feel free to further explore the articles, books, or podcasts below.

Resources For Further Investigation

Old-Earth Creationism: a Heretical Belief?” at Reasons.org (article)

Peril in Paradise by Mark Whorton (book)

Seven Days That Divide The World by John Lennox (book)

Dr. William Lane Craig’s Defenders podcast series on “Doctrine of Creation” and “Creation and Evolution” (podcast)

The Religion of Geology by Edward Hitchcock (1851) (summary of book with link to text)

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