As I have mentioned in a couple posts in the past (here and here), it is important that apologists investigate theological questions and details of the Christian worldview. Without such investigation, inconsistency in the worldview that is being defended will easily creep in. Because consistency is a feature of reality, unbelievers will seize the inconsistency as evidence against Christianity as the true worldview. This can have detrimental effects in public places where honest seekers may be listening to and watching conversations. One of the detailed areas of the Christian worldview that must be consistent is God's character (one area of theology). If God's character is found to be inconsistent with what we are defending, then it serves as evidence that we have something wrong (in part or in whole- see the post Is Your View Falsifiable for more on this). Today, I want to focus on God's moral character, specifically His perfect honesty (Numbers 23:19; Titus 1:2; and Hebrews 6:18).
One of the most contentious debates in the Church today focuses on the age of the universe and the length of the days of creation in Genesis 1. One of the most influential arguments against the young-earth creationist position (YEC) is that if nature reveals an ancient age (~13.7 billion years, as the evidence powerfully [and some would say "only"] supports) yet the universe is actually young (6,000-10,000 years) then God has given us a false revelation in His creation; this means that God is ultimately deceiving us and the truth is not found in Him. If a view of God necessitates that He is lying to us, then the god necessitated by that view is NOT the God of the Bible. And if we defend such a view, we are found to be false witnesses of God and the truth is not found in us. This challenge is not one to be taken lightly and it must be addressed.
Ken Ham (a popular YEC leader) has offered an epistemic distinction between observational science and historical science as a way to avoid the necessary implication of God being deceptive. I have already addressed this distinction here and here, but for the purposes of this post I will summarize the distinction as understood by Ken Ham as simply this: the past cannot be known by scientific means (historical science) yet the present can be (observational science). If this distinction is valid, then the past was never meant by God to be discoverable by scientific means, and the past was only meant to be discoverable via the revelation of God's Word. According to the YEC who accepts this distinction, Scientific means cannot reveal anything about the past, but God DID tell us how old the universe is in the Bible, thus the apparent deception is the result of man misusing scientific means to reveal something it can not- there is no deception on God's part; any interpretation of deception is the result of man's defiant refusal to accept the Bible as the source of truth and instead exalt the creation over the Creator (Romans 1:22).
The above distinction between observational and historical science removes the past from being knowable via scientific means. The young-earth creationist who accepts this distinction claims that God is not deceiving us because God DID tell us how old the universe is in the Bible (this interpretation is usually based on the work of Bishop James Ussher). It seems that the young-earth creationist has avoided the accusation of deception, and they have, but only on the surface. Investigating the details of the implications of the distinction between observational and historical science (as misunderstood by Ken Ham) will reveal that there is a much deeper and more subtle deception that is taking place on God's part, if this distinction is, in fact, true.
A few months ago I examined the logical implications of accepting Ken Ham's understanding of and epistemic distinction between observational science and historical science. In that piece I argued that such a distinction removes the past from being known at all; the most damaging implication, of which, is that the reliability of the transmission of the Bible cannot be known because such a claim relies upon the idea that the past CAN be known via scientific means. Unfortunately, this applies to all of scripture, including the genealogies upon which Bishop James Ussher's conclusion of a young age is based. Since we rely upon knowledge of the transmission of scripture to conclude that what we have today is what was written when God "breathed" it (2 Timothy 3:16 and Matthew 5:8), the idea that scientific means cannot reveal truth of history removes any knowledge or confidence that we can possibly have that the texts we possess today are what God inspired the human authors to record. So, the assertion that we can know that God DID tell us how old the universe is in the Bible, is actually false, because it cannot be known.
If God intended that people use scripture as a source of knowledge about the past, and if He is omniscient, then He has intentionally given us a source of "knowledge" that He knows cannot be a source of knowledge. God is still ultimately a deceiver. The deception is not found in the conflict between the two revelations (nature and scripture) as many old-earth creationists (OECs) argue; the deception is rather located in the foundational claim of the reliability of either one of the revelations (nature or scripture).
The First Possible Escape
Now, of course, no young-earth creationist believes that God has been deceptive (that is why they are compelled to address the original challenge, and now, this one), so it must be possible to escape my conclusion once again...and it is, but this alternative is not biblical either: fideism.
One way to avoid God's being deceptive is to say that God does not really expect us to KNOW anything via scripture or nature, but rather blindly believe it (without evidence of its historicity, since history, which must be examined via scientific means, is outside the realm of knowledge) based on nothing more than a subjective feeling that exists only within ourselves. This is NOT biblical faith.
Biblical faith is a trust that it placed in a source that has established itself to be trustworthy in the past. We see God establishing His trustworthiness to the nation of Israel all through the Old Testament. Through His prophets to the nation (north and south), He constantly refers them back to the events that establish His trustworthiness (their deliverance from bondage in Egypt). Jesus also provided many miracles and made several predictions (including His own death and resurrection) to establish that what He taught was true (John 10:38). Jesus even offered evidence to the empiricist among his disciples: Thomas (John 20:24-29).
I like how John N. Oswalt describes biblical faith in his book "The Bible Among The Myths":
"For the Bible, faith is not a Kierkegaardian leap into the dark. Rather, it is a considered step into space on the basis of sufficient evidence outside of one's own belief."1
"Faith" in the Bible is not a blind step off the edge of a cliff, but rather trust placed confidently based on real past events, that can be known, that establish the trustworthiness of the object of the trust. This is the kind of faith that God demands (Hebrews 11:6). This kind of faith is not a fideistic faith, which is the faith of the attempted escape. If a YEC is to attempt to escape the accusation of deception by appealing to fideism, they will need to explain away the entire record of prophecy to the nation of Israel and the miracle-ministry of Jesus Christ.
Another Possible Escape
Another possible escape does exist. Some Christians believe that their interpretation of scripture has been verified as true by the witness of the Holy Spirit. I've addressed this attempt in depth in another post, but to summarize it: if there is no way to test (via nature or scripture) the accuracy of the witness of whatever spirit is witnessing to us, then we have no reason to believe that it is actually the Holy Spirit who is telling us that our interpretation as true. It could just as easily be a nefarious spirit attempting to lead us away from the Truth or compromise our evangelical efforts, minute piece by minute piece. Without a way to test the spirit (1 John 4:1, which requires knowledge of the reliable transmission of the scriptures, ironically), we have no way to know if it is the Holy Spirit, thus we are thrown back to fideism. Again, Oswalt states this quite succinctly:
"If I only know something within myself, and it is not susceptible to demonstration in some way outside of my own psyche, what is that knowledge but subjective delusion?"2
A Final Attempt at Escape
Of course, even despite all this, a Christian, who is bent on maintaining both the distinction observational science and historical science and God's complete honesty, could always appeal to mystery: a gap in our knowledge that we either have not yet discovered the content or a gap that can never be filled because of our limited human understanding of God. This, however, could only be a valid appeal if I was presenting a paradox, but I'm not. I'm presenting a direct contradiction between God's morally perfect character (i.e. the inability to lie) and the distinction between observational science and historical science. The two are completely incompatible with one another, and the possible ways to avoid this only cause more contradictions between God's character and His revelation of His character. An appeal to mystery, in this case, demands a complete denial of the evidence of the contradictions presented. Though I know that we will never be omniscient, thus sometimes an appeal to mystery may be necessary, it is not necessary in this particular case. Dr. William Lane Craig stresses the importance of avoiding this appeal when it is possible:
"I have found that the more I reflect philosophically on the attributes of God the more overwhelmed I become at his greatness and the more excited I become about Bible doctrine. Whereas easy appeals to mystery prematurely shut off reflection about God, rigorous and earnest effort to understand him is richly rewarded with deeper appreciation of who he is, more confidence in his reality and care, and a more intelligent and profound worship of his person."3
As I mentioned in the introduction, it is important that Christians defend not only the worldview that is true in general ("mere" Christianity) but the one that is also true in its details. The age of the universe is one of those details that is very important to investigate carefully because of how it affects God's character and how often it is used as evidence against the truth of the Christian worldview. I've demonstrated that any view of creation that relies upon the distinction between observational science and historical science necessarily undermines God's perfectly moral character via the unreliability of the transmission of the Scripture through the centuries. For the apologist, this has dire implications because it makes the God, that we say exists, a liar. If God tells us to use either nature or scripture as a source of truth, knowing that neither can be used as sources of truth, then He is deliberately deceiving us, and the only way to avoid that implication is to appeal to blind faith. Because both of these necessary implications are contradicted by scripture (thus they are false), I invite Christians to deny the distinction between historical and observational science (and its implications of either God's deception or our acceptance of fideism). Though the age of the universe is a secondary issue and the Resurrection of Jesus Christ is primary (1 Corinthians 15), the lack of these contradictions in the worldview that we defend will remove yet another stumbling block in the way for those who are honestly seeking to know Christ.
For more on this, I highly recommend that Christians read the book "Origin Science" by Norman Geisler. It explains the proper distinctions between historical and observational science, which do not fall prey to my critiques. If YECs and Ken Ham are to continue to support a distinction, they need to support the proper distinction not one of their own making.
1. Oswalt, J. (2009). The Bible Among The Myths: Unique Revelation or Just Ancient Literature? (p. 162). Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan.
2. ibid, (p. 12)
3. Craig, W. (2000). The Only Wise God: The Compatibility of Divine Foreknowledge and Human Freedom (p. 154). Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock.