Concise Lexicon of Christianity

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How old is the universe?

Some people have carefully calculated the elapsed time in the biblical genealogies and have concluded that the universe cannot be as old as 10,000 years. Yet scientific evidence is that the universe is about 13.7 billion years old. So how do we reconcile our understanding of the Bible with dinosaur fossils and the latest findings from the COBE satellite and the Hubble telescope?

It seems to be a relatively late hobby, peculiar to western Christianity, to contrive a sort of unified field theory of the Bible that can include all facts and explain all things. That, of course, would require us to comprehend God. However, a mind can only comprehend something less complex than itself—so if we could comprehend God, He would not be God. For this reason, the historic Church teaches that we can know God, but we cannot comprehend Him, much as a husband might jokingly complain that he knows his wife quite well, but he can’t begin to understand her.

St. Cyril of Jerusalem, who died in 386, explained this teaching in his Catechetical Lectures: Is it really true that because I cannot drink the whole river I will not take water from it in moderation for my benefit? If, when going into some great garden, I cannot eat all the fruits, would you wish that I go away from it completely hungry? St. Augustine, Bishop of Hippo, who died in 430, was contemplating this same topic while walking along the seashore. He saw a small boy scooping water from the sea with a seashell and pouring it into a pit in the sand. He noticed that it is impossible for the boy to scoop up all the sea, but it is possible for him to know the sea by scooping it.

Why do we ignore the plain teachings of scripture and attempt to know all things? Scripture plainly teaches that our knowledge is not complete, and if our knowledge is not complete, it means we will always have puzzles:

For we know in part and we prophesy in part, but when perfection comes, the imperfect disappears. When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put childish ways behind me. Now we see but a poor reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known.
—1 Corinthians 13:9-12, NIV

Anyone who has lived with a teenager knows that youth knows all the answers, but older people are wise enough to know the limits of their knowledge. Let us put aside the childish, prideful arrogance that desires to know all things and to have an answer for every question, and realize in humility that our knowledge is incomplete and that we must walk by faith and not by sight. In fact, the Bible itself tells us that it contains all things necessary for our salvation, but not all things that are necessary to satisfy our curiosity:

Jesus did many other things as well. If every one of them were written down, I suppose that even the whole world would not have room for the books that would be written.
—John 21:25, NIV

As for the days of creation, the historic Church has taught for two thousand years that the days in Genesis were not 24 hours long, for three reasons:

As for tabulating genealogies, I notice that if you compare the genealogies of Jesus Christ in the gospels with the parallel genealogies in the Old Testament, you find that the genealogies in the gospels are abridged. If we say, in a biblical genealogical setting, that Stan was the son of Fred, it means that Stan was the direct descendant of Fred. Stan may have been Fred’s great-great-great grandson by our reckoning. That is because we think in terms of nuclear family units, but the Bible thinks in terms of clans and tribes. The term father, as used in the Bible, can refer to the head of a clan or a tribe. That is why we read in the gospels that the Jews called Abraham their father. It could very well be that the genealogies in the Old Testament are also abridged in places and that many generations are omitted, so that we would never be able to reconstruct exactly how much time they cover.

The idea that the days of Genesis were actually long epochs is not a modern accommodation to science, it is an ancient teaching of the Church. Likewise, the idea that the genealogies of the Old Testament may cover more ground than we think they do is also not a modern idea. What is modern is the resurgence of the heretical gnostic teaching that we can comprehend God, that we can know all things, and that God’s creation does not truthfully testify to His glory.

Do not dismiss the testimony of the dinosaur fossils too quickly, for Scripture says:

Through [Jesus] all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made
—John 1:3, NIV

Do not dismiss the findings of astronomers and cosmologists out of hand, for Scripture says:

The heavens declare the glory of God;
     the skies proclaim the work of his hands.
Day after day they pour forth speech;
     night after night they display knowledge.
There is no speech or language
     where their voice is not heard.
Their voice goes out into all the earth,
     their words to the ends of the world.
—Psalm 19:1-4, NIV

God made the dinosaurs and the stars, because there is no source of creation other than God, and the evidence they give us does not lie, because there is no lie in God.

Our pretty theological theories are cast into shards when we contemplate the actual grandeur of the universe that God created; God turns out to be much greater than the theology we have built to contain Him. What shall we choose, the miniature world of our theology, or the grand greatness of the Living God? Why are we distressed when God turns out to be grander, more glorious, more wonderful, more mysterious, more provident, more creative, more loving, more artistic, more powerful than we ever imagined?

Oh, how provincial is our modern thinking! The early church fathers contemplated God on a larger scale than we do, yet they had neither telescopes in orbit nor robots on Mars to show them the glories of creation that we see on television every day.

Clearly, God has not told us all His secrets, only the secrets we need to know. Today we know in part, when the perfect comes, we will know in full. So let us keep our minds open. Let us learn humility. Let us stand, hushed and on tiptoes, as the mysteries of our God are slowly revealed. The heavens are opening, and we behold a greater glory every day—you can see it with your own eyes on NASA’s cable television channel. If the dinosaurs of Wyoming and the black holes of our galaxy and and the volcanoes on Io and the ice floes of Europa and the mountains of Mars and the quarks in each atom are just the appetizers, imagine how great is the wedding feast of the Lamb!

Could it be that everyone is right?

One additional thing: I recently heard about an Israeli physicist named Gerald Schroeder who worked out equations, taking Einstein’s theory into account. According to Einstein’s theories, which have been validated over and over, time is relative to the observer. He worked out that for an observer today looking back, the universe is 13.7 billion years old, but for an observer (that is, God) standing at the Big Bang (that is, creation), the universe is just a little over six 24-hour days long! I am unable to follow his equations, but it is interesting that it may turn out that on this debate, everyone is right.

Sorry, I gave the book away so I cannot give you bibliographic information, except to say that it was written by Dr. Gerald Schroeder.