November 18, 2003

Creation: When Did It Happen?

This is the second of the two essays I promised, inspired by an e-mail exchange about Creationism vs. Evolution. The first is The Two Books.

In my first essay I talked about the relationship between the Book of Spirit, the Bible, and the Book of Nature, the universe around us. Both, I said, were created by God, and both reflect God's character. Also, both require interpretation. I explained a little about why I consider the Bible to be authoritative; but I also said that I do not neglect the Book of Nature.

In this essay I'll talk explicitly about the problem of creation--just how God created not only we human beings, but also the planet Earth and the universe in which we live.

A literal reading of Genesis has God creating the universe in seven days; a careful study of the chronology of the old Testament by Bishop Ussher dated the Creation to sometime in the year 4004 BC. Impossible, cry the scientifically minded. The Earth is millions of years old. The universe is billions of years old. And, I must admit, the scientific evidence is compelling. So how do we reconcile these two points of view?

I'm going to leave that question hanging for a bit, while I make some observations. If you go outdoors and look around, you'll see many things happening all at once. Perhaps the breeze is blowing, and the leaves are fluttering on the trees. (Yes, they're still fluttering--it might be November, but this is Los Angeles.) And as they flutter, they are converting sunlight to energy. Birds are singing, and digesting the worms they caught early this morning. A sprinkler waters a lawn; some of the water evaporates and joins the clouds gliding by over head. Everywhere you turn, and no matter how closely you look, things are in process. They are in the middle of doing something.

Now, when I see something in process--a sprinkler watering a lawn, or a cloud gliding over head--I not only see what it's doing now, but I can infer something of its history. If I step outside and see a cloud floating from east to west, I can assume that five minutes earlier it was further east than when I first saw it.

Every day, all over the planet, there's an uncountable number of these processes going on. And almost every one of them, when you examine it, has this kind of history attached. Some of them are longer lived than others, and the longer-lived, the longer the history that we can infer.

Now, suppose you're an omnipotent diety. You've got a neat idea for a universe, and you want to create it. It's going to be a fancy place, with all kinds of interlocking, inter-related processes going on at the same time. It seems to me you have two choices of how you're going to get all of those processes off of the ground. You can create your world so that it starts with literally nothing happening, and somehow arrange for the processes to get started little by little, or you can create it with everything already up and running. A creationist would expect the latter; an evolutionist the former.

Here's the kicker--if I'm a resident of this new world you've created, I can't tell which way the trick was done.

Suppose you created the world with nothing happening, and let all of the various processes get started little by little until finally all the glory of life on Earth is in motion. If I, a resident in your world, were to look around and study all of the processes I could see, I would see that some processes were of short duration and some of long duration. And if I found the longest-lived processes I could, and traced the history of each backwards to its beginning so far as I was able, I should eventually be able to identify a point in time at which everything seemed to begin--and that moment would likely be the moment of creation.

In our would we would need to take into account not only the processes in Earth's ecosystem, but in the heart of our Sun, and in the universe at large. And in fact, when we do that we do find a point in time at which everything seems to begin--the Big Bang.

On the other hand, suppose you opted to create your world with everything already going on--say, around 4004 BC. Every process in progress at the moment of creation would still (by virtue of being in progress) have an implied history attached--a false history, because it never really happened. If I, a resident in your world, were to examine all the processes I could find I would have a very difficult time identifying the moment of creation, simply because it would look just like every other moment. I would be unable to distinguish between false history and real history. More to the point, if I worked backwards, all of the false history might conceivably still point to a moment when everything started, just as it did in the previous case.

In short, if an omnipotent God created the Universe then I, as a resident of that Universe, cannot tell from what I see around me just how long ago the moment of creation was. In the long view, it might have been billions of years; in the short view, it could have been six thousand years ago--or six minutes ago.

Let me put that another way. We've found fossils of prehistoric creatures. The geological stratification suggests that they died millions of years ago, long before mankind was on the scene. I cannot tell, just looking at the evidence, whether the universe is really that old--or if God simply created the Earth complete with fossils because that was simply part of creating the necessary backstory for the moment of creation.

This is one reason why I said I didn't know, when asked whether I believed in Creationism or Evolution. I really don't know. This universe is God's creation, and he could have done it either way. If he created the universe six-thousand years ago, then all of the evidence for human evolution is part of the false history.

(As an aside, I find the notion of false history unpleasant in the extreme. God could have done that way--but it seems to me inconsistent with his truthful character.)

But wait--that's not the end of the story. Having gone to all of this trouble over just when the moment of creation was, I'm going to suggest that it's something of a meaningless question.

We so often forgot that God is not bound by time. God lives in Eternity, and Eternity is not simply "forever", not simply an endless succession of moments, one moment after another. Time is, in fact, part of creation. (Modern physics bears me out on this, incidentally; in Einsteinian terms, the three dimensions of space and one of time are inextricably bound together. It makes great sense in Einsteinian terms to speak of "spacetime"; none to speak of space without time.)

Now, when I speak of God creating the universe six thousand years ago as opposed to billions of years ago, it's as though I'm trying to spare him some effort--or, at least, some boredom. Why, after all, should God have to sit through billions of years of galactic, stellar, planetary, and finally human evolution just to get to the good part--us?

But God lives in Eternity. In our terms, that means that he doesn't need to sit through the history of the universe moment by moment--that in fact, he can see it as a whole thing, as an entire creation. In my previous essay I compared God to an author writing a novel. A novel's story might span years or even centuries, but the writing of it usually occupies but a small span of the author's life. And just as an author imagines his tale and writes it down, imperfectly, so God imagines his creation and creates it, perfectly.

Remember, again, that God is all-powerful. We live in a world that appears, after study, to have an extremely long history. Either it really has an extremely long history, or it was created in such a way that it appears to have had an extremely long history when in fact it doesn't. But either way, God must have imagined that history, and it seems to me that for God, imagination is the better part--perhaps the only part--of creation. If, in order to create the universe circa 4004 BC with everything already in progress it would be necessary to imagine the false history that would lie behind those processes--stars and galaxies forming, and dinosaurs walking the earth--how can that history be false? How can it not be part of his creation?

So, finally, that's where I stand. God is all-powerful, and I'm surely in no position to tell him how to do his work. But it seems to me far more likely that if the world appears to be billions of years old that it really is billions of years old; even if we humans are the Main Event it isn't as though it was more difficult or somehow wasteful for God to go to the extra effort.

But at the same time, that doesn't mean that the universe evolved randomly, or that human beings necessarily evolved solely by the interaction of random chance with the law of survival of the fittest. It might appear that way, looking only at the physical evidence. But I don't believe (being a Christian and a Theist--but I repeat myself) that God just set up the starting conditions and the rules of operation and let the universe go; he created the universe all at once, as a finished work of art. We, living within his creation, live in time; for us the end of time is not yet. For him, creation is done--and the Book of Nature, as with the Book of Spirit, says only what God wants it to.

Canny readers (if any of you made it this far) might now be asking how I can square this view with the notion of free will. I can--but that's another essay.

Posted by Will Duquette at November 18, 2003 08:37 PM

Phil said:

Good thoughts, Will. I disagree with a few points, and we can talk about it if you want; but right now, let me recommend Faith, Form & Time, a book by a creation scientist at my alma mater. Almost all I understand of current Young Earth Creation theory comes from this author. He's a good man.