I am an old earth creationist (OEC). The question posed to me is straightforward: since I accept what science says about the age of the earth, why don’t I also accept what science seems to be saying about human evolution? In short, my answer is twofold: 1) the science concerning human origins (particularly the Darwinian version) is not nearly as settled as it is about an ancient universe; and 2) the theological stakes concerning human origins are much higher than they are about the age of the earth. My evolutionary creationist (EC) brethren disagree with my first answer and my young earth creationist (YEC) brethren disagree with my second.
It is helpful to note that the question at hand focuses specifically on human origins. As stated, one could hold that all life, except human life, came about by evolutionary means and still be considered an old earth creationist. Someone who believes that Adam and Eve were the special creation of God would be viewed as an OEC proponent rather than an EC advocate. As a matter of fact, that probably describes the position of B. B. Warfield, the great nineteenth-century defender of the inerrancy of Scripture.
Fitting with Scripture and Science
The above answer may give the impression that the OEC model is driven primarily by scientific concerns, but in fact the primary driver is the biblical text. In other words, there are good textual reasons for understanding the days of Genesis 1 as not referring to twenty-four hour sequential days. Similarly, there are good textual reasons for interpreting the narrative of Adam and Eve’s creation and subsequent fall in a straightforward manner. Hence, old earth creationism fits rather well with the Genesis record.
Old earth creationism also fits well with the scientific consensus of an ancient earth. Five scientific findings can be noted. First, current cosmology understands the universe to be old, but not eternal. Second, the cosmos exhibits remarkable fine-tuning to an extraordinary degree.OEC proponents point out that the Bible (both in Genesis 3 and in Romans 5) present Adam as introducing human death, not animal death. Third, the origin of life on earth (i.e., abiogenesis) remains a scientific mystery. Fourth, at certain times in natural history, life on earth has made dramatic and sudden (in geological terms) advances. And fifth, the presence of information (i.e., “specified complexity”) imbedded in living cells resists any naturalistic or Darwinian explanation. These five scientific phenomena are congruent with an OEC interpretation.
Concerning the second part of my answer—that the theological stakes concerning human origins are much higher than they are about the age of the earth—the disagreement between YEC advocates and OEC advocates boils down primarily to a disagreement about animal death before Adam’s fall. OEC proponents point out that the Bible (both in Genesis 3 and in Romans 5) present Adam as introducing human death, not animal death. We must be careful not to anthropomorphize other creatures. Psalm 104 provides a poetic commentary on the creation account of Genesis 1. It presents lions acting as predators, and receiving their prey as food from God. This fits well with the OEC contention that human death alone resulted from Adam’s rebellion.
An Old Earth Interpretation of Genesis 1-3
I wish we used Moses’s chapter divisions for Genesis. He signals the start of a new chapter with a formula that he repeats ten times throughout the book: “These are the generations of . . . ” (the toledot formula). Each time this expression marks the beginning of a new section. He uses this expression the first time in Genesis 2:4, and that should be where we understand chapter one really to begin. Genesis 1:1–2:3, which covers the seven days of creation, serves as a prologue or preamble to the rest of the book. Written in exalted prose,Genesis 1 presents God on mission, exerting his sovereignty by imposing order where there is a lack of order. Genesis 1:1–2:3 functions as a preliminary overview to the events that happen in Genesis 2:4–4:26 (the creation of Adam and Eve, the fall, and Cain murdering Abel). Therefore Genesis 1:1–2:3 covers an indefinite period of time while Genesis 2:4–4:26 recounts a fairly straightforward historical narrative that should be understood accordingly.
Genesis 1 presents God on mission, exerting his sovereignty by imposing order where there is a lack of order. Moses presents the account in a topical manner. The earth’s original state demonstrates an unruly lack of order: it is unformed and unfilled. God progressively establishes order through a process of six periods or episodes that the biblical text presents analogously as days. In the first three days God forms; in the second three days he fills. In so doing he establishes his kingdom and inaugurates his throne.
God considers creation to be “very good” (Gen. 1:31) because he prepared it carefully and lovingly for his vice-regents. The origin myths of the surrounding ancient Near Eastern cultures present humans either as afterthoughts or as slaves, created to serve the gods as beasts of burden. By contrast, Moses depicts humans as the pinnacle of God’s creation, and they are the focal point of God’s creative activity. Humans are made in the divine image, given the role of acting as his representatives and stewards, and enjoy a special, covenantal relationship with him.
Genesis 2 presents the Garden of Eden as a special place, unlike the rest of the earth. God instructs the original couple to “subdue” the earth (Gen. 1:28-30), indicating that conditions outside the Garden were very different from the inside, and that these conditions would not give way without a struggle.
Genesis 2 recounts the creation of a particular man, Adam. Perhaps it’s possible to interpret (as some have done) the statement that God “formed man of the dust of the ground” (2:7) as a metaphor for evolutionary processes. However, interpreting the creation of Eve out of the side of Adam is much more difficult to do in evolutionary terms. The Bible presents Adam and Eve as the special creation of God.
Remarkably, the original image bearers (apparently rather quickly) defect, choosing to rebel rather than obey. Instead of expanding Eden’s borders to fill all the earth, they caused Eden’s gates to be closed. They were supposed to be creation’s “saviors.” Instead Adam was the original Judas, the first Benedict Arnold.
Like Genesis 2, the events of Genesis 3 are presented in a straightforward narrative. Genesis 2 establishes human uniqueness and Genesis 3 establishes human sinfulness. Taken together, the two chapters provide the historical framework for understanding the human condition. Humans are simultaneously glorious and tragic. We are tortured wonders, twisted reflectors of God who are at war with him. One cannot dehistoricize the events of Genesis 2:4–4:26 without severely impacting the authority of Scripture, the doctrine of original sin, and the goodness of God.
The Greatest Challenge Facing Old Earth Creationism
Probably the greatest challenge presently facing old earth creationists is the question of where to place Adam and Eve in the flow of history. Currently there appears to be two options: the genetic Adam model and the genealogical Adam model.Probably the greatest challenge presently facing old earth creationists is the question of where to place Adam and Eve in the flow of history. The genetic model posits an original couple, created de novo, Adam and Eve, who serve as the headwaters of the human race. In this model they are humanity’s original, sole progenitors. The scientific evidences for this model are the discoveries of the famous “mitochondrial Eve” and “Y-chromosomal Adam” in our genetic history.
However, the genetic Adam model has at least two problems. First, the genetic evidence indicates that M-Eve and Y-Adam lived at least 100,000 years ago. Some studies indicate the date may be even more ancient. Second, all indicators are that M-Eve and Y-Adam were in Africa, not in Mesopotamia. This is difficult to reconcile with the biblical account. Genesis 2 squarely puts the Garden in “the east of Eden,” in the vicinity of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. These challenges are not insurmountable, but they are serious difficulties.
The other option is the genealogical Adam model. Proponents of this model argue that the attention given to genetics is misguided. Scripture places the emphasis on genealogy, and contrary to our intuitions, genetics and genealogy are not synonymous. The genealogical Adam model argues that anyone and everyone who had offspring 6000 years ago are the universal genealogical ancestors of all.
The genealogical Adam model makes much of two numerical facts: the exponential nature of genealogical ancestry and the shrinking total available population the further we look back in time. Consider how direct ancestry grows exponentially. A person has two parents, four grandparents, eight great-grandparents, 16 of the next generation, then 32, 64, 128, and so on. Trace back 1000 years and each of us has one million direct ancestors. Go back to the time of Christ and the number grows to one billion.
But the total world population at 1 AD was only about 250 million, about a quarter of the number of the supposed direct ancestors. Go back four thousand years earlier (to approximately 6000 BC) the number drops even more dramatically to approximately 5 million. Therefore proponents of this position argue that anyone who lived during the Neolithic periodBoth models demonstrate that affirming a historical Adam and Eve as the special creation of God is congruent with the current scientific consensus. (and had offspring) can be safely assumed to be the direct, common ancestor of all. So there were many “Adams and Eves” (i.e., universal genealogical ancestors).
Advocates of the genealogical Adam model point out that there is no scientific evidence against the possibility that God created a couple de novo in Mesopotamia around 6000 years ago. He could have then placed them in a special Garden, allowed them to be tested, and there they failed. Exiled, their offspring then interbred with the human population that existed already outside the Garden.
Like the genetic Adam model, the genealogical Adam model faces at least two real challenges. The first question is a scientific one, and concerns isolated populations. It is fairly easy to grasp how a Neolithic Mesopotamian man or woman possibly could become a universal ancestor to all who lived in the known ancient world. But understanding how they became the ancestors to people groups in the Americas and Australia is more difficult. Proponents of this position will need to demonstrate that isolated groups were not as isolated as we thought.
The second objection is not scientific, but theological. The genealogical Adam model accepts that humans already existed by the time God miraculously created Adam and Eve. These humans supposedly arrived via the evolutionary mechanisms. If there were already humans outside the Garden, then what was their spiritual status? Did they possess the divine image? And if so, how were they affected by Adam’s fall? What was the impact of original sin on them? As with the genetic Adam model, these problems are not defeaters but they are serious and must be addressed.
At this point I’m not ready to commit myself to either model. However, both models demonstrate that affirming a historical Adam and Eve as the special creation of God is congruent with the current scientific consensus.
So why do I accept an old earth but not the evolution of Adam and Eve? Because I think this is where the biblical and scientific evidence leads.