The age of the earth as a challenge to faith

The earth is 4,550,000,000 years old (give or take 70 million years). Homo sapiens has existed for 40,000 years. The raw data are apparently inconsistent with the anthropocentrism of the Bible.

Atheists regard human beings as an accident of evolution. The cosmos has no guiding intelligence behind it; evolution proceeds disinterestedly from cause to effect, with no telos (ultimate objective) in view.

By contrast, popular Christianity places humankind at the centre of all things (anthropocentrism). Human beings are the crowning glory of creation, and our redemption is the telos of salvation history.

(In fact, the Bible is more nuanced than the popular Christian interpretation of it would suggest … but we’ll get to that below.)

Mark Twain thought Christian anthropocentrism was ludicrous, and he set out to satirize it. (Hat tip, Edward Babinski.) I recommend that you read the whole of Twain’s essay:  it is a very funny presentation of a compelling argument. But, for those who don’t have the time, I will reduce Twain’s argument to two points:

  • • “According to Kelvin’s figures it took 99,968,000 years to prepare the world for man, impatient as the Creator doubtless was to see him and admire him.” (In fact, Lord Kelvin’s estimate proved to be wildly conservative:  today Twain would say, It took 4,549,960,000 years to prepare the world for man.)
  • • “If the Eiffel tower were now representing the world’s age, the skin of paint on the pinnacle-knob at its summit would represent man’s share of that age; and anybody would perceive that that skin was what the tower was built for.”

I would like to say that Twain’s essay effectively refutes merely a popular misunderstanding of the Bible:  not the Bible itself. And there’s some merit to the argument. Rightly understood, the Bible puts God, not humankind, at the centre of all things. Moreover, the redemption of all creation is the telos of salvation history:

… in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. For we know that the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now. (Ro. 8:20-22, ESV)

St. Paul understood that God is concerned with the whole of creation, not just with human beings. Even so, the Bible remains an anthropocentric book:

  • • 4½ billion years of history (the period before homo sapiens was created) is reduced to six days, dispensed with in the first twenty-five verses of the first book of the Bible.
  • • Mankind is indeed presented as the telos and crowning glory of creation:  created in the very image of God.
  • • Adam’s sin was an event so significant that it corrupted the whole of creation.
  • • The Creator entered his own creation by taking on human flesh.
  • • The death and resurrection of Christ qua man (the last Adam) are the events which effect the redemption of all creation.

We must face the question squarely:  does Twain’s parody hit the mark? Is it a send-up of popular Christianity, or does it raise troubling questions about the Bible and the Christian faith itself?

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6 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. 49erDweet
    Oct 24, 2006 @ 20:55:18

    I like to think I am a “pan-creationist”. That is, somehow, when all is finally known, I believe our understanding of the whole process will somehow “pan” out and everyone will discover (some to their surpise) that God rule’s supreme.

    Cheers

    Reply

  2. Stephen
    Oct 24, 2006 @ 22:22:54

    That’s the spirit, 49er!

    Reply

  3. Jamie
    Oct 25, 2006 @ 21:57:48

    I was going to reply to the last comments you had made on this post over on your old blog, but I guess you must have taken down the old blog already. Ah well. Saves me the work of typing up a response. 😉

    Reply

  4. Jamie
    Dec 14, 2006 @ 09:26:07

    Stephen: I still think that the notion of an old earth poses a crucial problem for Christians (if indeed it were true that the earth is billions of years old). But I ran across another blog entry this morning that speaks to a different angle of the anthropocentric problem that you raised in this post. I don’t totally agree with the author’s perspective, but I thought you might find it meaningful:

    http://bedejournal.blogspot.com/2006/12/are-we-very-big-or-very-small.html

    Reply

  5. katie
    May 07, 2007 @ 13:33:16

    howold did Lord Kelvin think the earth was and why did he thinkthis?

    Reply

  6. Stephen
    May 31, 2007 @ 20:28:33

    My source here is Bill Bryson’s book, A Short History of Nearly Everything:

    Kelvin continually revised his estimates downward, from a maximum of 400 million years, to 100 million years, to 50 million years, and finally, in 1897, to a mere 24 million years. Kelvin wasn’t being willful. It was simply that there was nothing in physics that could explain how a body the size of the Sun could burn continuously for more than a few tens of millions of years at most without exhausting its fuel.

    Now turning to Wikipedia:

    Not until 1904 was a substantiated solution offered. Ernest Rutherford suggested that the Sun’s output could be maintained by an internal source of heat, and suggested radioactive decay as the source. However it would be Albert Einstein who would provide the essential clue to the source of the Sun’s energy output with his mass-energy equivalence relation E = mc².
    In 1920 Sir Arthur Eddington proposed that the pressures and temperatures at the core of the Sun could produce a nuclear fusion reaction that merged hydrogen (protons) into helium nuclei, resulting in a production of energy from the net change in mass. …
    Finally, a seminal paper was published in 1957, entitled “Synthesis of the Elements in Stars”. The paper demonstrated convincingly that most of the elements in the universe had been synthesized by nuclear reactions inside stars, some like our Sun. This revelation stands today as one of the great achievements of science.

    Reply

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