Is the Universe Only 6,000 years old? Young Earth Creationists Say Yes!
Although most mainstream scientists and most of the developed world now accept the theory of evolution and the scientifically established age of Earth and the universe, there is still a group of people that resist the status quo and insist, based on a particular literal interpretation of Genesis 1-11 in the Hebrew Bible, that the universe is only 6,000 years old and was created in six literal days. As of 2014, 42% of Americans believe that the universe was created about 10,000 years ago and that all life was created more or less in its present form at that time. This has, of course, been a common belief in Christian circles for most of the history of the faith, but the modern Young Earth Creationist movement has relatively recent origins in the Seventh Day Adventist movement. The prevalence of Young Earth Creationism in the United States is also related to the history of Christianity in the United States, from the founding of the Republic to the culture wars which have raged for the past few decades.
‘The Creation of Adam’ (c. 1511) by Michelangelo. ( Public Domain )
Guessing and Dating the Age of the Universe
For the first 1700 years of Christian history, belief in a literal six-day creation and a world that was a few thousand years old was widespread within Christendom. This is because, until the early Modern Period, there was no reason to think otherwise. The early Church Fathers and Medieval theologians did not know about radiometric dating or how rock layers formed, so a few thousand years was a reasonable guess for the age of the universe.
In 1650, the Anglican archbishop James Ussher calculated that the world was created around 4004 BC based on the genealogies recorded in the book of Genesis. In terms of what was known about human history and the history of the universe at the time, this was a perfectly reasonable date. It was compatible with the science of the day.
Portrait of James Ussher by Peter Lely. ( Public Domain )
Problems with this interpretation began to arise in the 18th century, when scientists began to study geological formations and found that they had been laid down slowly over long periods of time rather than rapidly in a great flood as described in the book of Genesis. This concept is today referred to as deep time. Deep time was further popularized by Charles Lyell. By the early 19th century, almost all geologists had embraced deep time, including geologists who were professing Christians. These Christian geologists did not originally see belief in long ages as conflicting with the Bible.
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Geological time spiral. ( Public Domain )
Denial of Deep Time Emerges
Between 1910 and 1915, a group of conservative Evangelical Christians published The Fundamentals which laid out what they believed to be the fundamentals of the Protestant Christian faith. This launched the Fundamentalist movement. One thing that might surprise many people considering the modern connotations of the term “fundamentalist” is that the leaders of the Fundamentalist movement did not have a problem with evolution or deep time. One of the original Fundamentalists, Benjamin B. Warfield, a prominent conservative theologian of the day, even talked about how evolution could be the process used by God to create life.
As evolution became widely accepted in the 1870s, caricatures of Charles Darwin with an ape or monkey body symbolized evolution. ( Public Domain )
It was not until the 1960s that denial of deep time and evolution became prevalent in Evangelical circles in the United States. If this is the case, then where did the Young Earth Creationist movement come from? Why did the position of many American Evangelicals shift so dramatically?
Modern Young Earth Creationists
Although most conservative Christians did not reject evolution or deep time in the early 20th century, there was one group that did, the Seventh Day Adventists (SDA). The Seventh Day Adventists are an unusual but nonetheless theologically orthodox sect of Christianity which was founded by the prophetess Ellen White in 1863. One of their more visible beliefs is that church services should be held on Saturday instead of Sunday. Ellen White had a series of visions which her followers took to be divinely inspired. Among these visions were visions of how the world was created. From her visions, she concluded that the universe was created only 6,000 years ago in six literal days and that all the rock layers and fossils within them were laid down in a global deluge based on the flood account recorded in Genesis 6-9.