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The two-year-old speech “Why Does the Universe Look So Old?” by Al Mohler has been thoroughly praised and criticized point by point since it was first given at the 2010 Ligonier Conference, and I have no intention of arguing against the particulars here. But having read and listened to it for the first time today, I was struck by how much of a misnomer it is and nauseated by what this mismatch between speech title and speech content reveals about the viewpoint Mohler is espousing.

In a conference about difficult questions that Christians face, Mohler was assigned to answer the query “Why Does the Universe Look So Old?” (You can read it abridged here or listen to it here.) Astonishingly, his sixty-six minute speech spent only the final four minutes truly addressing his topic, offering the standard two woefully inadequate answers of appearance of age and catastrophism. The first sixty-two minutes addressed an entirely different issue, namely why belief in an ancient universe and evolution wrecks the doctrine of biblical authority and demolishes essential theological issues like Adam’s role in the fall of mankind. This topic has its place, and many people have disagreed strenuously with every point Mohler made, but to me, the very approach of answering the question in this way is startling. Imagine a Q & A at your church and someone asking the preacher the question given to Mohler. Now picture your pastor beginning his response with, “Well, first off, we cannot believe in an old earth because too much is at stake to essential Christian beliefs.” This is essentially Mohler’s approach.

It Messes Up Our System and Therefore Can’t Be True

At one point, he states, “[…] the exegetical cost…is just too high. […] The theological cost is actually far higher.” In other words, it cannot be true because if it were, it would wreck everything we believe to be true about God. It cannot be true because the Bible says it is not true. This answer shows a surprising disregard for objective truth. Mohler is effectively (albeit, unconsciously) saying, we cannot consider the idea of an ancient earth to be true because it would mean that what I believe is not true. It would complicate things too much. “Galileo, your theory cannot be true because it would mess up our whole system that we have labored so hard to build.” No one will be convinced by a faith that says this; no Christian struggling to reconcile faith and science will remain in a faith that says this. In order for there to be rational dialogue on the veracity of any position, there must be an understanding that it is possible for that position to be untrue. I am sure that Mohler would concede this, but the answer he gave does not.

There Are Two Books of Revelation, But One of Them Is Illegible

Mohler acknowledges that truth comes from nature as well as from scripture. However, he lowers the volume on nature’s voice so much that not much can be heard from her. “There is a book of nature. We do learn much from it. […] God has revealed nature to be intelligible.” But, as he ponts out, Paul teaches that “given the cloudiness of our vision and the corruption of our sight, we can no longer see what is clearly there.” I would need a lot more convincing before I accepted the notion that Paul really taught such a skeptical view of the comprehensibility of nature. About our knowledge of God from nature, yes, but not about our knowledge of nature from nature. Make as many qualifications as you like about the instrusion of Ptolemaic thinking into Christian dogma, the fact still remains that it was nature’s witness, not the Bible’s, that showed us clearly that the earth revolves around the sun. The fact also remains that if the descriptions of the Bible receive nary a one “Amen” from Mother Earth, that if she responds with nothing but dissent to Mohler’s understanding of Genesis 1, then the future congregations of this earth will not believe the claims of Christianity. “Disaster ensues when the book of […] general revelation is used […] to trump scripture.” Disaster also ensues when we are told to believe only the book of books and to stop up our ears to resounding calls of general revelation, as if nature were a brood of Sirens enticing us to the rocks of shipwreck.

“We would not be having this discussion today,” said Mohler, “[…] if these questions were not being posed to us by those who assume that general revelation […] is presenting to us something in terms of compelling evidence […] so forceful and credible that we are going to have to reconstruct and reenvision our understanding of the biblical text.” This is a statement of the obvious, and I am not sure what Mohler is driving at, since the fact is that people are posing these questions as well as assuming that the evidence is compelling. The operational word in this statement, I suppose, is “assume,” and I imagine that the implication is that there IS no “compelling evidence.” But to say this is to bury one’s head in the sand.

Don’t Look Too Closely, or It Might Be Compelling After All

The mountains of compelling evidence are out there, if one will only be humble enough to survey their heights. I do not think Mohler has given much more than a cursory glance in their direction, judging from the final minutes of his speech, in which he finally turns his attention to why the earth appears so old:  “In the limitations of time, it is impossible that we walk through every alternative and answer every sub-question,” but the two basic principles for understanding the illusion, he says, are that God makes things whole (i.e., they have an appearance of old age) and that creation has suffered from the consequences of sin (the flood, e.g.). These two answers can only be satisfying from a great distance, but the moment that you begin to look more closely, the moment that you do consider a sub-question or two, the more you see just how unsatsifying and inept these responses are. It’s one thing, for instance, to say that God created light to appear as if it had traveled millions of light years to get here, but quite another when you consider that those rays that were supposedly created en route tell stories of stars that exploded a billion years ago. This is just one of many “sub-questions” that have to be considered instead of being brushed aside in the concluding minutes of a speech. Most infuriating of all, Mohler says that really, the ultimate answer we have to why the universe is so old is that it is telling the story of the glory of God. “Any more elaborate answer, is known only to the Ancient of Days, and that is where we are left. And it is safe.” No, it is not safe. Mr. Mohler is effectively saying that if data pointing to an ancient earth cannot be explained by the appearance of age or the catastrophism arguments, then we should just trust that the earth is young regardless and that the answer lies with God. We should just not worry about it.

With all due respect to Mr. Mohler whom I consider a sincere Christian brother, I urge him to consider that we cannot reject the veracity of the belief in an ancient earth based on what is at stake. It does complicate our theological systems. It does cause us to reconsider how we read scripture. But what ultimately matters is whether or not it is true. It does no good to ignore the mounds of reasons why scientists believe that age to be 4.5 billion years (or why all life shares a common descent). Nor do we get off the hook by saying that our judgment is clouded by sin. We have to acknowledge the evidence and engage it. Please, Mr. Mohler, take some time to hear a scientist out on what that evidence is before you answer this question again.

I was flipping through the channels early Sunday morning, trying to let my wife sleep a few extra hours while I held our son. Let me tell ya, Sunday morning Christian shows/church services can be downright depressing. The television portrays a Christianity obsessed with a million things other than the one thing we ought to be obsessed with–the gospel. The good news of Jesus Christ has taken a back seat to more pressing or interesting issues, or maybe it is viewed as that event that gets us into Christianity and from which we move on to bigger and better things. The idea of obsessions in Christendom is an interesting one to me, and I have been thinking about a few that I wish Jesus would cleanse from his Temple. Here are a five:

1.  An obsession with the end times. I am sick of hearing preachers treat the Old and New Testament prophets as if they are a code book for the coming apocalypse (which is always, incidentally, imminent, depending on when Russia or Iran decides to attack Israel). Please, I beg you, study the original context and the type of literature that these books were written in, and be willing to hear a different view of the end times. May I suggest a little book on the Revelation called The Throne, The Lamb, and The Dragon by Paul Spilsbury? 

2.  An obsession with thickening our wallets. Please stop promising that those who are hearing you will be free of their house payment within a year. Please stop implying that those who are blessed will be driving high end cars. The Bible says nothing of the sort. In fact, there was a guy in the Bible who had a lot of faith and yet still lived in poverty–what was his name? Oh yeah, Jesus.

3.  An obsession with positive thinking and other self-help stratagies. There’s a wonderful aisle in your local bookstore that talks about the power of positive thinking. I’m pretty sure the Bible isn’t on that aisle.

4.  An obsession with being hip and sexy. Church services become concerts or stage performances. Cute video skits are played in the middle of the sermon, which the guy with the spiked hair and tatoos is preaching. What I find offensive is that these styles of worship are specifically contemporary, i.e., they are for people in their teens, twenties, and thirties. What about those who are forty, fifty, or older? Do they matter? Or do you have a separate, more traditional service for them, so that now you have a church devoid of the influence, wisdom, and leadership of the older crowd?

5.  An obsession with literal creationism. If you think that the Bible teaches that the earth was made 6000-10,000 years ago in six literal days, then that’s fine. However, if you think that anyone who believes in an old earth is a compromiser, an apostate, a heretic, or an ineffective Christian, then you’d better be careful. You have entered the realm of judging your neighbor, in my opinion. Does creation science dominate your religion? Maybe it’s become an obsession.

There you have it. What do you think about these obsessions? Do you have any to add?

Sometimes I wonder if writing about theistic evolution will cause some to doubt their faith, and that is certainly not what I want. For some people, if evolution is true, then Christianity is false. That is not what I believe, but if any of you possible readers do believe this, then I would not want you to read what I am writing and be troubled.

My quest to reconcile science and Christianity is far from over. Most of the books I have been reading (see the “Books” page of this blog) have dealt with the issues of evolution and an ancient universe primarily from the scientific perspective. They have been concerned primarily with explaining the evidence from the geological record, the fossil record, the stars’ light, DNA, carbon dating, etc. What I am hoping to do now is start reading books that address these issues from a Biblical and theological perspective. I recently checked out one promising read from my church’s library called The Christian View of Science and Scripture by Bernard Ramm, and I hope to write about it in future posts. Another book that I am interested in reading is Beyond the Firmament by Gordon J. Glover. If any of you have suggestions, please let me know in the comments section.

At this point in my journey, there are many difficulties that I see for theistic evolution. No doubt these are not new to any of you, but here they are, in no particular order:

1.  My understanding of the Bible is that physical death and suffering are not the way things are supposed to be. My own nature bears witness to this:  I dread death; I think that my own father’s death in a car accident was an undignified way to go; I think it’s cruel that animals prey on one another; it is depressing that we become old and weak. The list goes on and on. How can God use a process that is often cruel and always dependent on death?

2.  How do we account for the geneologies in Genesis that seem to indicate the earth is young?

3.  How do we account for the rationale for the Sabbath, i.e., that God created all things in six days and rested on the seventh?

4.  Doesn’t the apostle Paul teach that the earth has been subjected to futility? Doesn’t this suggest that the earth at one time was free from that futility?

5.  Doesn’t Paul teach that Adam was a real person? How can his explanation that all have fallen in Adam be reconciled to a non-literal interpretation of him?

6.  Doesn’t Genesis clearly teach that the Flood was universal? How can we account for the detail that the waters rose above the mountains or that God promised never to destroy the earth again?

7.  At what point did God breathe a spirit into humanity?

8.  Were Adam and Eve real or symbolic?

I am sure that there are other questions, but these are the main ones I hope to be thinking through. From my experience as a Christian who has taken a literal view of Genesis 1 and 2 for many years, these are the main objections from literalists. Questions like these are used to justify a false choice that is often laid before Christians, namely,  it’s either God or evolution, but never both.

While these objections to theistic evolution are a significant obstacle, I do not think that a literal six day interpretation fairs much better for a Christian. Here are difficulties that I see:

1.  As I understand it (as a layman with little scientific background), the scientific evidence from geology, astronomy, chemistry, and biology is against a young earth.

2.  Again, as I see it, the case from DNA, the fossil record, and the present variety of animals is pretty strong for evolution.

3.  The arrangement of Genesis 1 is highly structured and even poetic, suggesting a non-literal reading.

4.  The creation of the firmament and the placement of the stars in the firmament under the waters above suggests an ancient cosmology. This would indicate that God spoke to the Israelites in a way that they could understand and further suggests a need to read Genesis 1 in a non-literal way.

5.  The creation account of Genesis 2 can be read in such a way as to tell a different story of creation order. True, the NIV’s version can be harmonized with Genesis 1, but I am not convinced that the insertion of the word “had” in “Now God had created” is warranted.

6.  The Genesis 2 story has elements to it that are strongly mythological, e.g., the creation of Eve from a rib, the trees that impart eternal life and the knowledge of good and evil, and the explanations for pain in childbirth, etc.

Of course, there are others. The point is that there are problems with both views that are not easy. A spirit of humility ought to be present in all believers looking into this issue.

So that’s where I am in my spiritual quest. Your prayers are most welcome.

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