Thursday, January 28, 2010

19th Century Creationism

During the early years of the lives of my four grandparents the last four decades of the 19th century, I have discovered that most theologians and Christians involved in science did not share the adamant belief prevalent today among 40% of Christians who call themselves young earth creationists. These modern YECs believe the earth, its life, and the universe itself is only a few thousand years old and was created in six consecutive 24-hour days, based on their view that Genesis 1-2 cannot be interpreted any other way.

My devout Christian grandparents, if they held such young earth beliefs, were certainly not strident in this regard. Instead, my extensive genealogical records show that the serious demands of supporting large families in primitive farming venues took precedence over deeper discussions they may have had related to earth origins. Among the more educated scientists and theologians of that period, the discussion was benign and assumed a character which may surprise us. The current strident insistence on six literal solar creation days and an earth only a few thousand years old was not a rigid tenet of orthodox Christian belief in those days.

Well-known Christians in the field of science during that era had no difficulty envisioning the creation days as long periods of time. Paleontologist Louis Agassiz (1807-1873) proposed the reality of Earth’s ice ages. The last ice age persisted for over one million years, the most recent of several extensive ice ages. John William Dawson (1820-1899) and James Dwight Dana (1813-1895), both prominent geologists, were both intense in their Christian faith. Arnold Guyot (1807-1884), physical geographer and geologist, was also a creationist who envisioned creation days as lengthy epochs. All of these well-known scientists read and respected the first two chapters of Genesis but did not stumble over a singular interpretation of the Hebrew word “yom” (day).

Science historian Ronald L. Numbers, in his lengthy volume The Creationists, fair-mindedly chronicles events in the creationism discussion and states, near the end of Chapter 1, “Thus far our survey of post-Darwinian creationist opinion, based in large part on the views of the antievolutionists most frequently cited and quoted by their contemporaries, has failed to turn up a single scientist or cleric who rejected the antiquity of the earth, denied the progressive nature of the fossil record, or attached geological significance to the Noachian flood.” Numbers names only two lesser-known figures--Eleazar and David Lord--who had greeted the publication of Darwin’s Origin of Species with disapproval, “but for years to come…stood virtually alone among creationist writers in limiting the history of the earth to a mere six thousand years.”

Scientific discoveries affirming the age of the earth and our universe have multiplied exponentially since the life spans of Agassiz, Dawson, Dana, and Guyot. Biblical linguistic scholarship, allowing for alternate interpretations of Genesis “days,” was not as advanced at that stage of American history. Nevertheless, many important scientists of that day, looking at the record of nature through a Christian worldview, did not feel they were unfaithful to scripture by believing in an earth of great antiquity.

It is ironic, therefore, that 21st century young earth creationists are now faced with such an overwhelming volume of scientific evidence since 1950 that our universe and our earth are very old. Examples are numerous. Our expanding universe originated with the Big Bang, leaving its “embers,” the cosmic microwave background radiation, behind for us to examine. The great antiquity of earth materials can be affirmed by dozens of independent radioactive dating methods. There are many other examples far too numerous to list here.

Regardless of our views on the matter of earth’s antiquity and other issues, we must approach the dialog with respect and deference. The goal of all must be to discover and promote truth in significant areas of concern, both to those within our circle, and to all others we encounter.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Lyell and Darwin

Which two 19th century scientists most impact the contemporary creationism discussion, and what did they propose? Most would name Charles Darwin first, along with his theory of evolution: All living things have naturalistically descended from simpler, pre-existing forms over very long time frames.

Not as many would name Charles Lyell, who formalized the principle of uniformitarianism, a concept still important within the discipline of geology. It states that geological laws and processes operating today have always operated on earth; the present is the key to the past. Gradual events observable today such as erosion, sedimentation, glaciation, and plate tectonics, among many others, have been operating on our earth for millions of years, slowly and steadily shaping our planet. Uniformitarianism demands passage of immense time.

An important caveat must be mentioned. A common misconception of recent creationists is that old earth creationists are uniformitarianists who explain the shaping of the earth only by the geologically slow, gentle processes generally prevailing today. This, they claim, automatically leads to belief in evolution. In reality, old earth creationists accept the reality of many significant earth-changing catastrophic events over the vast span of earth history. These include huge meteorite impacts, massive global glaciation, large scale regional flooding, and extensive, prolonged volcanism. Old earth adherents believe in the constancy of natural laws governing geological processes. But they do not believe all these processes proceeded slowly or at a constant rate.

Evolution also demands immense time frames. Uniformitarianism provides that time. Both concepts are anathema to young earth creationists, who comprise perhaps 40% of America’s population, most of whom are found in evangelical churches. Old earth and evolution are perceived to be conjoined in the same belief system by this large group of 40%. Lyell and Darwin, therefore, are often mentioned as partners in originating a belief structure which undermines the Bible and destroys a biblically-based belief system.

The picture is not so simple. Many thoughtful Christians who honor God’s word subscribe to the doctrine of geological uniformitarianism, a bedrock principle for interpreting the history of our planet. But their belief in a very old earth does not bind them to belief in evolution. The sometimes heated disagreement and suspicion young and old earth creation adherents feel is a palpable reality.

Charles Lyell’s February 25, 1875 obituary in The New York Times stated, “He lived and died a Christian believer.” Other sources describe him as “a devout Christian.”

A study of the history of this discussion holds many surprises. Christians have embraced many different positions on the creationist belief spectrum. There are abundant reasons for this divergence of belief. Lyell and Darwin passed from the scene over a century ago, but the fallout from their proposals has lingered. In several upcoming posts I will discuss the twists and turns of beliefs held within the church community for the past dozen decades.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Blame Game

When someone in our society suffers because of circumstances beyond their control or the misdeeds of someone else, an investigation is often launched to fix the blame. We feel satisfaction when the guilty party is identified. In particular, the suffering party feels relief and the pain is easier to bear.

Young earth creationists claim the physical death of man and “nephesh” creatures (birds and mammals) is due to sin. It is true that death may be hastened and illness may be intensified by living dangerously and sinfully. Even animal life may suffer from man’s unwise stewardship of nature. Conversely, animals may benefit when man practices wise stewardship. More simply, harmful effects may have specific mundane physical causes, not merely Adam’s original sin. If we define sin as an action contrary to the law of God, man is the only created being able to sin, suffer the results of sin, and have a capacity for God-awareness and a relationship with Him.

Our post of 1/14/10 entitled Death’s Cause and Effect referenced the enormous advantage of bacterial death in forming today’s beneficial mineral deposits starting 3.8 bya. But we did not mention death by predation of the many creatures which explosively appeared during the Cambrian explosion 570 mya or in later eras. While some people might actually feel sorrow for deaths of the victims of ravenous trilobites in Cambrian oceans, or deer and bison preyed upon by Pleistocene saber-tooth tigers, predation was life-sustaining for thousands of those long-extinct earth species. Such animals were created uniquely adapted--with sharp teeth, for example--for intense predatory activity.

Many church leaders have made it a critical issue that death and natural disasters have their root cause in the fall of Adam in Eden. Neither scripture nor the record of historical geology justifies such belief. Frequently cited are two passages. Romans 5:12 (NIV) states, “Therefore, just as sin entered the world through one man, and death through sin, and in this way death came to all men, because all sinned…” Mankind sinned; mankind, in turn, suffers sin’s effects. The apostle Paul refers to spiritual death. In I Corinthians 15:21-22 we read, “For since death came through a man, the resurrection of the dead also comes through a man. For as in Adam all die, so in Christ all will be made alive.” The man-caused spiritual death is paired with the glorious solution that “in Christ all will be made alive.” Spiritual death is the outcome for man only. The remedy for spiritual death, the gift of eternal spiritual life in Christ, is, in turn, a spiritual remedy for man.

Those who believe physical death originated at the moment of Adam’s fall must also deny the historical evidence for a very old earth where death was evident ever since life appeared on the planet. Moreover, belief in a very old earth does not compromise belief in Scripture or any orthodox Christian doctrine, including the doctrine of the atonement. We have confidence that we may trust the overwhelming witness of carefully interpreted scientific evidence as a means to gain knowledge--true belief.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Death's Cause and Effect

Human experience is currently locked into a time frame in which we are bound by the laws of science now in effect. We credit God for creating not only the time, space, matter, and energy of our universe, but also for establishing the physical constants by which our universe operates--rules of the game--to use a familiar sports analogue. When we observe physical effects, we are usually able to pinpoint their causes according to the Creator’s established rules of cosmic operation. One important exception is human behavior, for which we cannot always pinpoint a previously existing cause; mankind is gifted with free will.

The issue of man’s original sin in Eden as the cause for death, disorder, and disaster in this present world is the subject of much lively debate among creationist believers. The debate results from confusion in understanding cause and effect relationships in two different created realms: physical and spiritual. Only man possesses both physical and spiritual life. Our spiritual life enables us to have a relationship with God.

Scripture tells of the disruption of man’s relationship with God and outlines the cause of his spiritual death. Genesis 2:8-25 describes the garden sojourn of Adam and the creation of Eve. That passage describes specific assigned tasks to Adam, including animal naming and caring for the garden. These assignments and their fulfillment occurred before Adam and Eve’s fall into sin, according to the event chronology of chapter 2. We are not told the duration of events in the garden prior to the temptation, fall, and expulsion from the garden (Genesis 3:23).

The Bible does not present Eden as a perfect paradise. God did, however, pronounce the created cosmos, the many land and sea creatures, and the rich vegetation “very good.” There is little doubt the garden was supernaturally insulated from the normal events taking place in the expansive world outside its confines. God had placed Adam into the special garden after creating him. Perhaps there was not the usual degree of natural violence such as weather disasters or aggressive animal behavior. But scripture does not specifically address these issues.

The creation of man was the summit of God’s work. The fossil record reveals that millions of species existed on this earth long before the arrival of man. Our earth was transformed gradually from a cloud-shrouded water world to the mature and beautiful earth we experience today. There were several sudden appearances of new animal phyla over a huge expanse of time as conditions on earth changed.

Uncounted trillions of creatures lived and died, beginning with the sudden appearance of bio-chemically complex sulfate-reducing and cyanobacteria on the water world at least 3.8 billion years ago. These bacteria salted the earth with the beginnings of mineral resources which now sustain our technologically advanced society. The certainty of physical death in our universe is an unavoidable outcome of the Law of Entropy, also known as the Second Law of Thermodynamics. Entropy was an ever-present overlay of our universe ever since the initial creation event.

Life and death also exist in the spiritual realm. Man, created in God’s image, is distinguished from all other living things by his possession of spiritual life and death. In the spiritual realm, death is the outcome of man’s free will choice to rebel against God and His authority. Man is the victim of spiritual death because of sin, but God restores spiritual life through Jesus Christ.

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Universe Baby Pictures

Most people are curious and fascinated about their birth and details of their early life. We want to know how we came to be, the circumstances of our birth, and when the birth occurred. Perhaps most important, we want to see our baby pictures.

In the last few days, hundreds of news reports and images of our universe’s early appearance have flooded the media. Mosaics taken with the new Wide Field Camera 3 (WFC3) last fall have been combined with previous Hubble shots from 2004 to show images of our universe’s appearance after only 5% of the time elapsed since the creation event. This means we are looking back in time 13 billion years.

The core theological truth that “In the beginning God created…” has come into visual focus for our inspection. These cosmic events precede the appearance of our planet and its life forms. The recent revelations are analogous to a 40-year-old man viewing a panoramic time exposure of himself, a progressive image of events of his life for the past 38 years. The image, according to a writer for Science Daily, “shows a rich tapestry of 7500 galaxies stretching back through most of cosmic history… The farthest galaxies, a few of the very faint red specks, are seen as they appeared more than 13 billion years ago.” The light has been in transit for 13 billion years.

Our universe, cooling and expanding since the creation event, stretches out the light from ancient galaxies as the light approaches us. Short wavelengths are thereby stretched to longer wavelengths. With light, traveling at 300,000 km/sec, this is called “redshift” and is one of the evidences for an expanding universe. Red light waves are longer than any other color; the term refers to the lengthening of any electromagnetic wave. It is related to a phenomenon called the Doppler Effect, which applies to any type of wave including sound waves in air. For example, we have all observed a vehicle’s horn sound a lower pitch after it passes us and lengthens the distance between us. After the vehicle passes, the sound waves reaching us are stretched out, causing lower frequency, lower energy, and a sound we perceive as a lower pitch.

Even earlier “baby pictures” of our universe were discovered by Arno Penzias in 1965. The cosmic microwave background radiation (CMBR) coming from every location in the sky, can only be explained as relic radiation from the time photons of light first started streaming away from the hot plasma cloud after it cooled sufficiently. Scientists calculate this was about 400,000 years after the Big Bang. Since then, the expansion of the universe has also stretched out the radiation generated by the event. The radiation has now been “redshifted” to microwaves 1.9 mm long.

This bath of leftover energy enables scientists to calculate the temperature of the background of the universe as 2.725 degrees Kelvin, just barely above absolute zero. It’s as though yesterday’s campfire retains a tiny bit of heat from its initial red hot condition, but after a protracted time has only a relic of its initial heat and gives off no more light. As I study the evidences for a very ancient universe, I am thankful the Creator has given us the means to discover truths about how He accomplished the task of developing the picture of reality we observe in the 21st century.

Monday, January 4, 2010

Mirrors on the Past

A rear-view mirror on an automobile enables the driver to view objects which are behind him in terms of physical location. In another sense the mirror reminds him of past events--events which he experienced up close a few minutes before. Now those events are distant in both space and time. The rear view mirror helps the driver recapture information about the past.

One rear-view mirror is the Law of Entropy, or the 2nd Law of Thermodynamics--the observation that the universe is winding down from a high energy to a lower energy state. Another is the observed expansion of our cosmos. These mirrors do not measure time with great accuracy, but they do establish a forward-moving Arrow of Time proceeding from a very distant past. Many other scientific tests measure elapsed time with great accuracy.

The high-energy past was incredibly hot; we now observe a cooler and still cooling universe. Likewise, the incredibly high density of the past universe is indicated by our observation that the present expanded universe is still expanding, becoming progressively less dense. This helps describe the characteristics of the creation event.

Increasing entropy (disorder) is a characteristic of our physical existence and is described in scripture. Several Bible authors made observations about the grip of increasing entropy. For example, Romans 8:22 may be an observation of universal entropy: “We know that the whole creation has been groaning in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time.” The writer, Paul, anticipates an eventual rescue, or redemption, from an adverse to a more desirable condition in the coming New Creation. II Corinthians 5 also uses the groaning imagery in connection with deteriorating physical bodies destined to be clothed with immortality.

It is doubtful the Apostle Paul was thinking in formal scientific terms about the Law of Entropy. His observations about the deteriorating creation and illness-prone physical bodies, however, were full of insight. The many Old Testament passages referencing the “stretching out of the heavens” were also prescient, having been written long before the advent of deep-sky observation technology.

God has given us a creation which allows man to discover many significant details of past cosmic history. By ancient light we are able to see events in the early universe, helping us to calculate its dimensions and age.