How I Address the Age of the Earth in My Courses

My publisher has been getting several questions about how I address the age of the earth in my science courses. This probably stems from the fact that there is a lot of misinformation going through the homeschooling community regarding my position on the issue. I thought I would try to clear things up with a post.

First, my position on the age of the earth hasn’t changed in more than thirty years. I turned from atheism to Christianity in my late high school years, and at that time, I was happy to believe what my teachers told me about the age of the earth. It was more than four billion years old. I was told that we knew this because of radiometric dating methods, which involved studying the relative amounts of radioactive atoms in rocks and fossils. This “fact” of science was later reinforced when I went to university, so I was still happy to believe it.

Then I started my Ph.D. program in nuclear chemistry. I learned about radioactive decay in detail and started doing experiments with nuclear reactions. Most of my work was done at the University of Rochester Nuclear Structure Research Lab, which also had a group that did radiometric dating. I never did any of that work myself, but I watched them do their experiments, asked them questions, listened to their presentations at the lab, etc. Based on what I learned there, I decided that I couldn’t put much faith in the ages given by radiometric dating.

This caused me to question the age of the earth from a scientific perspective. Theologically, I wasn’t committed to any age for the earth. Certainly the most straightforward interpretation of Genesis is that the universe and all it contains was created in six solar days, and that leads to a young-earth view. At the same time, however, there were early church Fathers (as well as ancient Jewish theologians) who didn’t interpret the days in Genesis that way. So I attempted to investigate the subject with an open mind. I found that in my view, science makes a lot more sense if the earth is thousands of years old rather than billions of years old, so I started believing in a young earth. The more I have studied science, the more convinced I have become that the earth is only thousands of years old.

Second, while I have been a young-earth creationist for more than thirty years, I recognize that there are a lot of wonderful, devout Christians who believe otherwise. Indeed, some of my Christian role models (like Dr. Alvin Plantinga and double-Dr. Alister McGrath) believe that the earth is billions of years old. As a result, in all of my books, I try to avoid being dogmatic. When it is related to the material that is being discussed, I simply present the scientific evidence. When it is not related, I don’t discuss it at all. Here is a rundown of how that plays out in the books that I have written so far:

The first book of my elementary series is called Science in the Beginning, and it covers science using the days of creation to order what the students are studying. The first set of lessons goes with the first day of creation, so students learn about light. The second set of lessons goes with the second day, etc. When the students are done with the book, they have covered all the days of creation, so they have learned a bit about everything that was created. Throughout the course, the length of the days is not mentioned, because we really don’t know how long they were. Thus, it doesn’t make sense to discuss it in an elementary science course.

The rest of the series covers science chronologically, so students learn science in the same order it was learned in history. In these books, the age of the earth is mentioned only when the people being covered did work that addressed it. For example, in Science in the Scientific Revolution, I have a lesson on Bishop James Ussher. While many young-earth creationists rely on his conclusion about the age of the earth, most of them don’t understand how he actually reached it. As a result, I discuss the details of his work so that students know what led him to the conclusion that the earth is thousands of years old.

In the later books of the series, the issue comes up a bit more often. In Science in the Age of Reason, for example, I discuss James Hutton. He observed Hadrian’s Wall, which had been built roughly 1,500 years previously. There was hardly any evidence of erosion in the cut stones that made up the wall. He compared that to rocks that he had studied in nature, which showed evidence of massive amounts of erosion. He decided that in order to account for all that erosion, those rocks must be much older than Hadrian’s wall, so the earth must be truly ancient. In the book, I give a full account of his reasoning, but I then indicate what I think he was neglecting – the fact that large volumes of water can produce massive amounts of erosion in a short time.

In the end, then, if a person was known for work related to the age of the earth, I discuss his views as honestly as I can. If those views aren’t young-earth, I add my own “color commentary,” indicating what I think might be wrong with his reasoning. So while students clearly see that I am a young-earth creationist, they also clearly see the evidence that led others to a different conclusion.

In my junior high and high school courses, I discuss the issue when it is appropriate, but honestly, it doesn’t come up all that often, because it doesn’t relate to a lot of what junior high and high school students study. When I discuss geology in my General Science course (which is no longer being printed by the publisher but is still available here), I give students both the old-earth view of geology and the young-earth view. I then tell them the scientific problems that exist for both views. I also tell them that I am a young-earth creationist, so my discussion is probably a bit biased in favor of that view.

In my Physical Science course, I discuss radioactivity, so I discuss radiometric dating. The students learn the assumptions that have to be made in the process of radiometric dating and the problems that exist with those assumptions. The students also learn about the many inconsistencies that occur when radiometric dates are compared to dates obtained by other methods. The students cover this again in more detail if they take my Advanced Chemistry course.

In my biology course, the issue comes up a couple of times. When I discuss the fossil record, I have to discuss the geological column, and I therefore must discuss the assumptions that are made when interpreting the geological column. I give the old-earth view and the young-earth view, stressing that neither can be confirmed, because there is evidence on both sides. The issue comes up again when dinosaurs are discussed. I indicate that most scientists use the old-earth view of the geological column to conclude that dinosaurs and people did not coexist. I then give the students the scientific reasons that I think they did coexist.

The only other course that addresses the age of the earth is my chemistry course. When I discuss the concept of an absolute temperature scale, I discuss the process of extrapolation. While this is a valuable tool in the scientist’s toolbox, it needs to be used cautiously. I discuss instances where extrapolation is justified, and instances where it is not. I use radiometric dating as an example of the latter.

If you are looking for a science curriculum that dogmatically tells students that the earth is about 6,000 years old or that it is about 4.5 billion years old, you shouldn’t use my curriculum. I want the students who use my curriculum to learn good science, and good science is not dogmatic.

15 Comments

  1. Heather says:

    Brilliant explanation!!!! We just started your science course for my three sons ages 10 and twin 8s and your view here makes me even more excited for the discussions we will have!

  2. David H says:

    Thank you for your honesty and candor in describing your views. We need more people like you who will admit their biases and give reasons for what they believe. Because of that, I had no problem teaching children using your textbooks even though I am not a “young earth” creationist. I wanted them to see an example of a scientist showing courage and integrity instead of unscientific blind conformity. Also, I am not afraid of the truth. I think putting multiple hypothesis up side by side for comparison is the right way to seek the truth.

  3. Mel Foster says:

    Well said! And at any rate students should have some acquaintance with old and young earth positions. We enjoyed using your books.

  4. Heath Brown says:

    Dear DR. Wile, My wife and I have thoroughly enjoyed your curriculum for our first through third graders. Keep up the good work. However, I would encourage you to approach this topic from a different angle. I agree that we cannot be dogmatic on Science, but I would like to say we can be dogmatic on the plain teachings of the Scriptures. Even if we cannot explain something in Science, God’s Word still remains true. I’m including an excerpt from my blog post at http://through-the-word.blogspot.com/2018/01/genesis-1-in-beginning.html in which I discussed this topic: “The Hebrew word for day used in Genesis 1 is yome, and out of the 1,480 times it is used, 1,181 of them mean a literal day.  When it is used with a number “And the evening and the morning were the first day,” it always means a literal day.  Furthermore, when the Lord wrote the 10 Commandments in stone with His own finger he wrote, “For in six days the LORD made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that in them is, and rested the seventh day: wherefore the LORD blessed the Sabbath day, and hallowed it.” (Exodus 20:11) If the Lord took the time to write it in stone with His own finger, I think we can take Him at face value that He means what He says.”

    1. Jay Wile says:

      Thanks for your kind words regarding my curriculum, Heath. I will have to disagree with you, however. A young earth is not the plain teaching of Scripture. If it were, then all the early church fathers would have interpreted the days of Genesis as solar days. However, many early church fathers (Clement of Alexandria, Origen Adamantius, Athanasius of Alexandria, Hilary of Poitiers, and Cyprian of Carthage) interpreted the days of Genesis to be something other than solar days. Indeed, Philo Judaeus (a Jewish theologian writing roughly at the time of Christ) discusses a common ancient Jewish teaching that the days in the Creation account don’t mark the passing of time at all. This was long before science was discussing an old earth, yet these early church fathers did not think that “yom” means a solar day. If it were such a plain teaching, why did so many early church fathers (and ancient Jewish theologians) get it wrong?

      I do agree that the majority of times the word “yom” is used in Scripture, it means a solar day. However, as you indicate, roughly 30% of the time, it means something else. Add to this the fact that Creation was an entirely unique event, and there is at least some reason to think that it means something else in the Creation account.

      I would do a bit more study on Hebrew, because while it is a common young-earth argument that yom plus a number always means a solar day, it is not true. Zechariah 14:7-9, 2 Chronicles 21:19, Hosea 6:2, and Deuteronomy 10:19 use yom with a number, and it is not at all clear that it means a solar day in those passages.

      I agree that Exodus 20:11 parallels the Creation account and it refers to the days of the week. However, there is no reason to believe that because God is talking to the people about solar days, He is saying that He created in six solar days. He is establishing a pattern: six units of work for one unit of rest. Indeed, that pattern reappears in Leviticus 25, and it does not refer to days. It refers to years.

      As I said in the post, the most straightforward interpretation of Genesis is that the days of the Creation account are solar days. However, we don’t always use the most straightforward reading of Scripture.

      1. Heath Brown says:

        Dear Dr. Wile,

        Thank you for responding to my comments. I examined the Scriptures you referred to, and the only ones I saw referring to a numbered day were in Zechariah 14:7-9 and Hosea 6:2. Both of these are prophetic books in which it is quite common to find figurative language, and days could be referred to as something other than a literal 24-hour day. However, it does seem as though the Zechariah passage is referring to the literal day when Jesus returns to Earth, and there will be changes in daylight and geology. In contrast, Genesis 1, Exodus 20, and Hebrews 4 are plain and straight forward teachings of the Bible. Jesus himself also taught a young Earth view in stating that man and woman were created in the beginning (Mark 10:6). Not taking the plain teachings of the Scriptures literally is particularly risky, since if we are allowed to do this, then we can do it with any other passage in the bible we choose. You and I both know this is happening a lot today as people are trying to justify all sorts of things. What early Church fathers thought on a particular issue can be helpful, but when it goes against the plain teachings of the Scriptures we must disregard it. As the apostle Paul wrote in Romans “let God be true, but every man a liar.” Some of these Church fathers were also anti-semitic, which is another position that cannot be justified by the Scriptures. As a parent I expect my children to follow through on the plain teaching and direction I give them. If they were to say “I don’t think he really meant it,” I would repeat the same thing more firmly, and may even administer some sort of discipline. In a similar manner, I do not think the Lord is pleased when we explain away passages to fit our own conceptions or world view. If God did want to communicate a young Earth view, I’m not sure how He could have stated it any more clearly.
        I don’t say these things to be contentious, but because I believe it is critical how we interpret the Bible. You and I may be able to question Genesis with little effect on our faith, but what will our children do with this example when they begin interpreting and applying the Bible to their lives? Thanks again for reading and considering what I have written.

        Blessings in Christ,
        Heath Brown

        1. Jay Wile says:

          Thanks for your reply, Heath, but I would encourage you to study this issue more, because you are dead wrong. You said that 2 Chronicles 21:19 and Deuteronomy 10:10 do not contain numbered yoms, but they do. 2 Chronicles 21:19 says, “Now it came about in the course of time, at the end of two years…” The word translated “year” is yom (check Strong’s concordance). Thus, this is a case where we know yom does not mean day, and it it has a number. Deuteronomy 10:10 says, “I, moreover, stayed on the mountain forty days and forty nights like the first time…” The word “time” is, once again, yom, and it has a number (first). Yet, it refers to a period of 40 days and 40 nights, as is clear from the beginning of the verse. In both cases, then, yom has a number but does not mean a solar day.

          But let’s suppose those Scriptures didn’t exist. You admit that Hosea 6:2 doesn’t follow the rule you stated (When it is used with a number “And the evening and the morning were the first day,” it always means a literal day.). However, you say that Hosea 6:2 is prophecy, so it’s a special case. That’s fine. The Creation narrative is also a special case. It is describing a one-time, spectacularly miraculous event that is probably beyond description. If prophecy doesn’t have to follow the “rule,” I don’t see why the creation narrative does.

          No, Jesus did not teach a young earth in Mark 10:6. He said, “But from the beginning of creation, God made them male and female.” He clearly isn’t talking about the beginning of the creation narrative, because Adam and Eve were not created at the beginning of creation. Genesis 1:3 says light was created at the beginning. Adam and Eve weren’t created until day 6, and that’s definitely not the beginning. So either Jesus was being sloppy with his wording (which I cannot accept), or He simply meant from humanity’s beginning, they have always been made and female. That, of course, is obvious from the context provided in Mark 10:2-5.

          I think you misunderstand my point about the early church fathers. I am not saying that because they taught something, you have to believe it. I am saying the very fact that they interpreted Genesis differently from you and I indicates that our interpretation is not the plain meaning of Scripture. If something is the plain meaning of Scripture, it should be obvious. If so, then the early church fathers should have been nearly unanimous in the interpretation. They were not, which indicates the interpretation is not the plain meaning of Scripture.

          I absolutely agree that the Lord is not pleased when we explain away passages to fit our own conceptions or world view. However, I would gently say that you are the one who is doing that. You are explaining away the obvious fact that the days in Genesis do not have to be solar days so as to support your own world view. I, on the other hand, am accepting the obvious fact that the Genesis days could be interpreted to be something else, despite the fact that my own world view says that they are solar days.

          You state, “If God did want to communicate a young Earth view, I’m not sure how He could have stated it any more clearly.” It’s rather obvious how He could have. He could have told Moses that Genesis 1:1 was to read, “2,390 years ago God created the heavens and the earth.” That would make the young-earth position the only possible interpretation of Scripture. Deuteronomy 34:5 could have read, “So Moses the servant of the Lord died there in the land of Moab, 2,430 years after creation began.” Once again, that would make the young-earth position the clear meaning of Scripture. Luke 2:1 could have read, “4004 years after the creation of the world, a decree went out from Caesar Augustus, that a census be taken of all the inhabited earth.” There are probably thousands of ways God could have made the young-earth position the clear meaning of Scripture. The fact is that He did not.

          You ask how our interpretation of the Bible will affect the children. If we tell them that something is the plain meaning of Scripture when it is not, we are telling them that our opinions on Scripture are more important than what Scripture actually says. That’s not a good message, and it is certainly not one I am willing to teach.

  5. Kenneth Conklin says:

    It’s interesting to read the comments of those who are dogmatic…and those who aren’t. Dr. Wile, you’re approaching this topic wisely and biblically. It’s one that can frighten those whose God is too small, and the Bible too unexplored.
    I’ve always thought it interesting and amusing that folks use what’s basically a family tree to try to determine how old the world is, when the two are logically not connected. Genealogies aren’t there to establish the age of anything, but to determine things like connections to priestly lines, genetic purity (who’s actually able to do priestly ministry in the temple/tabernacle), etc. People are assuming that the numbers aren’t hyperbole (which Scripture uses as a literary form) but are instead completely literal… not a wise move.
    When folks ask me my thoughts on ages, I remind them that God never describes in Scripture exactly when or how long things took. The Bible says little to nothing on this, and God, despite having many opportunities to say things plain and simply…doesn’t. It says much about our fears in the age of “scientism” that we look to the Bible to be what it isn’t…a science textbook. It’s like being upset with a dog that it isn’t a cat. You could do that…but it’d be awfully foolish.
    Let the Bible be what it is. It doesn’t describe “modern science” because it’s a product of an Ancient Near Eastern worldview. That’s how God chose to make it and write it, using messy humans from a space of thousands of years, to tell us the story of Creation, Fall, and Redemption through Christ.
    Anything else is your own addition, and tells us more about your own insecurities, than about Jesus.
    Again, Dr. Wile, thanks for your wise words.

    1. Heath Brown says:

      Kenneth,

      The Bible is not a Science book, but when it speaks to Science it is always correct. The Bible does use figurative language (most commonly in the prophetic books), but when it does it is usually quite obvious. When “yom” is used with ordinal numbers it almost always means a literal 24-hour period. Dr. Wile gave a couple of examples in which it did not, so context is crucial in determining when yom is a literal day and when it is not. Again, the clincher here is, “And the evening and the morning were the first day.” The evening and morning in connection with the day solidifies that it was a literal day, and even to the present the Jewish calendar has their day starting at evening.
      You stated that he was wise and biblical in not being dogmatic, but I want you to consider the following Scriptures:
      “The words of the Lord are pure words, Like silver tried in a furnace of earth, Purified seven times.” (Psalms 12:6) “I will worship toward Your holy temple, And praise Your name For Your lovingkindness and Your truth; For You have magnified Your word above all Your name.” (Psalm 138:2) And, “Every word of God is pure; He is a shield to those who put their trust in Him. Do not add to His words, Lest He rebuke you, and you be found a liar.” (Proverbs 30:5-6)
      I have been accused of adding to the Scriptures, but it is you and others who want to allow for the insertion of vast amounts of time into the creation week who are adding to what is being said. I am merely taking God’s Word at face value. I am not insecure, but am confident in the God I serve. He is a God who says what He means and means what He says. He is big enough that He could have created everything in six days or millions of years, but did it in six days and has told us so straight-forwardly. A god that honors His Word above His own name is not going to tell us something plainly as He has done in Genesis 1, Exodus 20, and other passages, but mean something else. To be honest, the ones who diminish God are the ones who choose to not take Him seriously because they do not believe they can align the Genesis account with what modern Science teaches. The question comes down to; are we going to believe what God tells us in His Word or are we going to accept what man says on the subject? To not be dogmatic on the plain teachings of Scripture is foolish rather than wise, and the Lord is not going to honor those who do this. Is it a matter of sound vs heretical teaching? No, but I firmly believe if the devil can convince people to doubt the first several chapters of Genesis, then he has a much easier job getting them to doubt other parts of the Scriptures. Dr. Wile has a good Science curriculum that we have used with our own children, but the two of you are wrong when it comes to interpreting the Scriptures in this area.

      1. Jay Wile says:

        Heath, it’s interesting that you think the phrase “And the evening and the morning were the first day” solidifies that the Creation days were literal days. Origen (AD c. 184 – c. 253) used that very phrase to tell him that the days could not be literal days. He says that without a sun, moon, and stars, there could be no evenings and mornings for days 1, 2, and 3. Thus, he thought the days could not be literal. Now he wasn’t trying to insert “vast amounts of time into the creation week.” He had no motivation to do that. He was simply interpreting the Scriptures. Nevertheless, he came up with a completely different interpretation than you, Kenneth, or I. Now you might use modern science to say that a day is based solely on the rotation of the earth. That’s true, but now you are using man’s word (science) to understand what God’s Word is saying. I don’t have a problem with that, but you seem to be saying it’s not a good thing. However, the only way I can understand that days 1-3 were solar days is to use science.

        In addition, one of the hallmarks of Hebrew poetry is the repetition of phrases. The repetition of “And the evening and the morning were the first day” leads some to believe that the Creation account is not written as historical narrative. Instead, it is poetry, which would mean it contains figurative language. So as I made clear in my previous reply, God did not tell us “plainly” that He created the universe is six solar days. That is certainly a valid interpretation of the Creation account, but it is not the only valid one. As you now admit, using Scripture to interpret Scripture, the word “yom” does not necessarily mean a solar day, not even when it is accompanied by a number.

        Please note as well that those who interpret the Creation account as lasting for a long time are not doubting the first several Chapters of Genesis. They believe those Chapters just as much as you do. However, like many early church fathers and many other theologians throughout the history of Christendom, they have used Scripture to interpret Scripture and have come up with a different understanding of the Creation account. It has nothing to do with doubt.

        You are most certainly wrong in your assertion that a young-earth interpretation of Scripture is the plain meaning of Scripture. It is not, as the work of theologians throughout the ages has shown.

  6. David H says:

    I’m sad to see my fellow Christians arguing at length about this. I hope you all can assume the best intentions of one another and not become angry with one another.

    1. Jay Wile says:

      I don’t understand, David. I don’t see a problem with Christians arguing with one another. It’s one way that iron sharpens iron.

      1. David H says:

        Iron sharpening iron, eh? Well if you’re going to quote Proverbs 27:17 then I guess I had better not argue that your arguments were getting too heated, because that would be … ironic!

    2. Heath Brown says:

      I am obviously concerned or I would not have said anything, but I am not angry. As Christians we are not to be contentious in nature, but the truth is worth contending for. Jay and I obviously don’t agree here, and I am content to let it go at this point. At least we know where each other stands. Speaking the truth about what we believe is better than flattering each other to make one another feel good, and Proverbs has a lot to say about this as well.

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