Note: This post comes from Nazarenes Exploring Evolution, a project from BioLogos’ Evolution and Christian Faith grants program.
Despite having been raised since birth in the Church of the Nazarene, I didn’t encounter the ideas of Young Earth Creationism until I was almost 17. That’s not to say that my church teachers accepted evolution, but none of them seemed to have a problem with the age of the earth. Much has changed in our church during the last 40 years.
I first encountered Creationist thought during high school in 1974 when I read the book Scientific Creationism by Henry Morris, the acknowledged father of the modern Creationist movement.[i] This book explained how the earth was created about 6,000 years ago during six 24-hour days, how all of the fossil-bearing rock layers were deposited during Noah’s Flood, how biological evolution was impossible, how scientists had conspired to make up theories that denied the evidence of Creation, and how true science confirmed a literal reading of the book of Genesis. Each chapter addressed an issue as a simple choice with only two answers (e.g., "Evolution or Creation?," "Accident or Plan?," "Old or Young?," "Apes or Men?"), and those choices were summarized in the conclusion with the following statement: "There seems to be no possible way to avoid the conclusion that, if the Bible and Christianity are true at all, the geological ages must be rejected altogether."[ii]
With a high-school level understanding of science and theology, I was convinced by this “either-or” argument and, to my knowledge, became the first Young Earth Creationist in my local Nazarene church. I knew the enemy and the enemy had a name. It was evolution.[iii]
After high school, I enrolled at Olivet Nazarene University. Initially, I had no goal in mind other than possibly studying science. I was placed in the Chemistry program and spent the first year getting required courses out of the way. One of those required courses was Old Testament Bible, during which I frequently argued with the professor whenever ideas were presented that didn’t support a literal reading of Genesis or a Creation event only 6,000 years ago. By the end of my freshman year, I felt led to change my major to a combined Geology-Chemistry degree. I had always loved collecting minerals, rocks, and fossils and dreamed of a career where I could travel to remote mountains and wild places. But geology also presented another challenge. I had heard that the geology professor didn’t necessarily believe the earth was young.
I remember going to that first Geology class armed with every available Creation Science argument, ready to do battle for the faith. Yet despite my preparation, it was for naught. I found myself walking the same path as the earliest geologists, who, starting from a perspective of a Biblical Creation about 6,000-years in the past, saw evidence in the rocks for so many different events and environments, which convinced them the earth was much older than a few thousand years. I saw how rock layers could be grouped into larger “geologic ages” based on their depositional environment and fossil content with boundaries defined by major environmental changes or an extinction event. I was shocked to discover that these geologic ages had been identified and named, not by God-denying evolutionists, but mostly by Christians and even ministers who saw their work as glorifying to God. Not only were the geologic ages real and the earth older than 6,000 years, but the fossils within them also told a story of change: starting in the oldest rocks with strange creatures unlike anything seen today, followed in order by the earliest appearances of fish, amphibians, reptiles, mammal-like reptiles, dinosaurs, birds, and placental mammals and with the youngest rocks containing fossils of extinct animals that closely resemble those extant. Thus, the rocks even supported one of the lines of evidence used by Charles Darwin in his argument for descent by modification (now called evolution).
Although I was fascinated by geology and had found a scientific field that I loved, my faith was in shambles. Based on what I had believed and read in the Young Earth Creationist literature, if the geologic ages were real, if the earth was old, if evolution had happened then the Bible was false, Christianity wasn’t true, and Christ’s death on the cross was meaningless. So what was left? I felt betrayed and seriously considered leaving the church. In retrospect, two factors kept me from leaving: (1) the support of a strong Christian family (and a young lady soon to be my wife) that gave me the freedom to question without condemnation; and (2) the strong witness of my Olivet geology professor, who had not only faced all of the same scientific evidence but was one of the most Christ-like men I had ever met.
But before I could move on, I had to recognize that I had been snared by a false dilemma and that the Bible didn’t need to be read as a scientific treatise on how to create a world. That was a time of turmoil and what I needed most was theological support that would allow me to reconcile what I read in the Bible with what I saw in the rocks.
Yet, in another way, I was fortunate. I had only lived with this false dilemma for three years before having to deal with scientific evidence that shook my faith. Unlike my own youth, today many young people in our churches have been inculcated since birth with these either-or statements through Sunday School, VBS, homeschool textbooks, and church-sponsored schools. How much harder is it for these students to study sciences like geology, astronomy, anthropology, paleontology, or biology and still preserve a faith that has been supported by a false dilemma? I have seen students break down into tears as they stood on an outcrop of rock and saw evidence that contradicted what their church had taught them. I have comforted my own daughter when she was told by a Sunday School teacher that she couldn’t be a Christian if she accepted evidence for evolution. I have talked with scientists who were once raised in a church and are now bitter agnostics because the church “lied to them” about science.My hope in these discussions is not that we all come to the same scientific or theological understanding of evolution or age-of-the-earth issues but that we can move away from the false dilemmas forced by an exclusive and rigid mode of biblical interpretation. God is too great and majestic to be confined in man’s theology. We have to allow Him to inspire and even surprise us from all of his Creation and not just from the Bible.