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“Apparent age” means that God created the cosmos to look billions of years old when in fact it is only a few 1000 years old. This is seen by some* as a solution to why the earth looks so old when the Bible says it is so young.

“Apparent age” has the convenient benefit of allowing one to accept the observations of science while rejecting the interpretation of those observations by scientists. The interpretation of those observations remains securely with Scripture itself, not with scientists or others who refuse to accept the Scripture’s “clear” teaching.

In other words, one can “accept” the scientific data while also remaining a biblical literalist. Science only studies what God appeared to have done, and scientists are free to have at it. Scripture, however, tells us, without fear of contradiction, what God actually did.

This kind of thinking may appear to be a tidy solution to the problem, but in fact, it creates many more.

The overarching problem—not only here but at any point wherever science/faith issues are engaged by fundamentalists—is the assertion that Genesis is prepared to tell us how old the earth is. Little if any serious consideration is given to seeing Genesis as ancient literature, which can’t be sidestepped quite so easily.

But even if we accept “apparent age” for the sake of discussion, the theory loses traction quickly, for 3 reasons.

1.“Apparent age” is an arbitrary claim that makes the “facts fit the theory.”

It is surely obvious that the theory of “apparent age” is generated to make the observations of science fit the assertion of literalist readers of Genesis. Unless one were pre-committed to a literal reading of Genesis, one would never think of making this sort of claim.

Making facts fit a theory is an unfortunately common, yet to some still unacceptable, method of establishing one’s point. It is particularly common in theological debates, where one assumes that one’s own theological pre-commitments are the sure and unassailable point of departure.

When theology is only to be defended, and never examined, counter-evidence is either molded to fit the theory or ignored altogether. And so true discussion—an exchange of ideas—never really gets off the ground. The issues at stake are bound up with ideological self-preservation. When fear of losing one’s “all-encompassing narrative” is at stake, reasonable assessment of contrary evidence is an early casualty, which leaves us with “explanations” like “apparent age.”

Such explanations demonstrate that the theology driving them is a barrier to truth more than its guardian.

Many—might I say, most—Christian thinkers trained in these matters (science, biblical studies, theology, philosophy) are deeply invested in working through how Genesis is to be read not only in view of evolution, but of our growing understanding of how “origins stories” worked in the ancient Near Eastern world (a whole other topic). Christians are not helped by insisting we cut ourselves off from these potential conversation partners and retreat to an ad hoc explanation like “apparent age.”

2. The world shows evidence of age and evolutionary development.

The world does not just show evidence of age. It also shows evidence of millions upon millions upon millions of years of evolution, judging by the wealth of evidence at hand (e.g., fossils, geological records, human genome).

The theory of “apparent age” needs to account for why the cosmos—including the earth and life on it—looks like it evolved.

Of course, one could simply add another ad hoc explanation: God created not only with apparent age but with “apparent evolutionary process.”

But how many ad hoc theories would one need to advance in order to preserve biblical literalism? At what point do the ad hoc explanations begin to seem more like a stubborn bunker mentality rather than a true explanation of things?

It also raises some serious questions about God. Why would God do such a thing? Why would God load the cosmos with all this evidence and then expect us to stop short of drawing some conclusions from that evidence?

I think this is a very serious issue. “Apparent age” gives us a God who makes the world look one way, but then expects us to hold all that at bay in favor of a literalistic reading of Genesis that, according to biblical literalists, God requires of us.

Is God—like a touchy tyrant—testing our allegiance to see if we will hold fast to his word? I think the Christian God is better than that.

3. “Apparent age” is arbitrary about what portions of Scripture are to be read “plainly.”

Biblical literalists reject evolution and the age of the earth because their literal reading of the Bible demands it.

But they can’t stop there.

They must follow that same own logic in explaining other biblical statements about the physical world that don’t line up with modern science. After all, if the Bible must be given the last word, then it must be given the last word consistently.

The biblical writers thought the earth was a flat disk. since Scripture has the final word, must we not conclude that the world only looks round—that God created the earth with “apparent roundness?” [Side note: the “circle of the earth” in Isaiah 40:22 is not, in any conceivable way, evidence that an inspired biblical author knew that the earth was round. The “circle” in question is flat. ]

Likewise, Genesis 1 speaks of the sky overhead as a dome (Hebrew raqia). Therefore, it can only appear that we have broken free of our atmosphere and orbited the earth, landed on the moon, and are moving further to the outer limits of our solar system daily. God created the cosmos with “apparent outer space.”

The Bible speaks of the earth as the stable, motionless, center of the cosmos. Therefore, it can only appear that the earth rotates on its axis, thus giving us day and night, or that the earth revolves around the sun, along with the other planets, on its yearly course. God created the solar system with “apparently heliocentricity.”

I don’t mean to be unfair. I am sure that biblical literalists believe in none of these things. But my point is that they should—if they mean what they say about the Bible’s role in adjudicating matters of science.

Why place Genesis 1 on the “must-read literally” side of the line and not on the “this is an ancient idiom” side (as literalists routinely do with a flat, stationary, domed earth)?

Decisions about what should and should not be read literally seem arbitrary, indeed—which is the very accusation literalists like to make of others.

Some speak of “apparent age” with calm assurance, as if nothing could be more obvious and logical. But it is an explanation that creates many more problems than it tries to solve. Those problems are rooted in an unexamined precommitment that Christians have no choice but to read Genesis literally.

But they do have a choice. Just ask around.

[I explore the relationship between science and faith in The Evolution of Adam (Baker 2012) and the nature of the Bible in Inspiration and Incarnation (Baker 2nd ed. 2015) and The Bible Tells Me So (HarperOne, 2014)]

*Today’s post has gone through a couple of iterations, most recently July 2016. The origins of the posts go back to my old blog in October 2011, where my focus was on Al Mohler, who seemed quite animated about all this, but the problem is much bigger. It remains an attractive option among those who insist that the Bible must be read “literally” and are oblivious to the problems literalism causes.

Pete Enns, Ph.D.

Peter Enns (Ph.D., Harvard University) is Abram S. Clemens professor of biblical studies at Eastern University in St. Davids, Pennsylvania. He has written numerous books, including The Bible Tells Me So, The Sin of Certainty, and How the Bible Actually Works. Tweets at @peteenns.

22 Comments

  • Fred says:

    A few thoughts:

    1) Not sure that the ancients used the “dome” concept as an idiom – at least not the way I understand the word “idiom.” When you’re standing on the earth, it kind of looks like it’s flat and there is a big curved “dome” over top of you. And the dome is really big and goes way far out, such that when you walk around you always feel like you’re pretty far from its edges. That’s probably what you mean by the word “idiom” here, but I think it’s important to recognize that the ancients were likely describing what they thought was reality in some measure. Probably the older folks in the community taught their “dome theory” to their kids, because adults like to act like they have the answers, and having the answers provides security to kids. We also know that information passed orally, and through generations, has a way of moving from fiction to fact — especially before we got a hold of the scientific method. I am still shocked at just how often in life something that we’ve always taken for granted turns out to not actually be true.

    2) In addition to everything you’ve said about “apparent age,” it’s worth noting that if God created things with apparent “history” it’s worth a discussion about what “history” really is, anyway. I mean, I could have been created 5 minutes ago for all I know. I have all these memories that tell me I was conceived around 1979, but my age could just be “apparent age” (This concept makes me happy. I could in fact still be a strapping 23 year old.) Also, I like the concept of “apparent weight” better than actual weight. It may look like I am pushing 280 lbs, but it really just looks that way to myself and everyone else. In fact I’m a sleek and muscular 205. Occasionally when I step on the scale I blame an apparent change in the gravitational field of the earth for the extra pounds I’ve put on. Quite clearly, the earth has gotten much, much bigger over the last few years.

    3) Finally, and more seriously, I think the biggest challenge to Christianity as a whole is that even the parts of scripture that “really matter” (the gospels) don’t exactly line up 100%. There are various stories that sound, well, a little fantastic. It’s one thing for Jesus to be raised from the dead. That kind of makes sense. But what about all those other saints that emerged from their graves and walked around Jerusalem? (I’ve got that on the mind since I’ve been reading the Easter story.) It’s such a passing reference in Matthew you almost want to be like “WHAAAT?” You’re just going to lay out there that “many” righteous dead people came out of their graves and they appeared to “many” people and not like, give us some real details on this one? I mean – that’s a pretty big claim. I chuckled to myself because it’s the type of phrase our current Pres. likes to use… “Many, many people have said…” So what do you make of that, Pete?

  • Thad Crews says:

    Both Literal interpretation and Fundamentalism collapse under their own weight when consistent thinking is involved. Church leaders know this and are are being dishonest by allowing it to persist.

  • Eric S Weiss says:

    Did my earlier comment get sent to the phantom zone?

  • Eric S Weiss says:

    I’ll try it again, though I’m rewording it (sorry if it ends up being posted twice):

    IMO it’s turtles all the way down. Once you invoke the “appearance of age” explanation, there is no way to disprove that even now everything one or everyone else sees, thinks, thinks one does, etc., all just has the “appearance” of age. God could be now, picosecond by picosecond, making everything have the “appearance of age” and be giving you and everyone else “memories” which correspond to what and where and when you and they think you and they saw, did, went, etc. The “appearance of age” explanation renders all attempts at objective truth invalid.

  • Vic Branson says:

    Absolutely spot on as we say in Australia

  • John Draper says:

    Great post, Pete. I’ve gotten to the point where I think the Bible does more harm than good. I don’t think the Old Testament was written as scripture. I think it was written as propaganda for the monarchy. The prophets don’t speak for God. They’re just “calling it as they see it.” Every third proverb contradicts the one that came before it.

    It’s mess, no argument.

    More and more, it just seems silly to me that we expect ancient documents written by men with faulty worldviews — and dubious agendas — to tell us how to live in the modern world.

    That’s what are brains are for, I think. I guess I would say use the Bible when it’s helpful, but dismiss most of it as backwards.

  • Ross says:

    Over here in the UK, this is a much smaller issue, as only a small minority will challenge the “scientific view” of the ancient Earth and universe. However, similar to the opposing view, this is due to a non-critical view of the information generally broadcast.

    Most people are not very well grounded in either “science” or “theology” or “biblical scholarship”. So when confronted with what at least appear to be conflicting theories on origins or morality, there is a great tendency to give equivalence to all the theories and feel it is reasonable to select the one which best suits the individual or group. This is a very difficult paradigm to question, as the information to make a more critical evaluation would require fairly extensive education in all the matters involved.

    The number of times I have regularly been told that “that is your view/opinion on these matters, but there are other (equally valid) views” are as numerous as they are frustrating.

    It is truly frustrating to be both right and ignored!!

  • Paul says:

    Brilliant. Of course, point number one could be used to explain pretty much every piece of Christian theology, including the Easter story.

  • Ken Cooper says:

    Although questions about the literal interpretation of the Genesis creation account have haunted me for years, I only really started addressing those questions a little over 4 years ago. (Other literal interpretations have bothered me too.) That started, for me, a voracious reading spree which started with “The Bible and the Believer”, by Brettler, Enns and Harrington. On an earlier B4NP podcast, Richard Rohr mentioned that he describes people as falling into one of three boxes when it comes to their understanding of scripture: the ‘Order’ box, the ‘Disorder’ box, and the ‘Reorder’ box. I find myself now pretty much entirely in the ‘Reorder’ box. While the process has been somewhat unsettling, for the most part it has been stimulating, and I have taken great comfort in knowing 1) that God is at the helm of this process, and 2) I’m not alone…others are on the same journey. Even in my Pentecostal church home. And bless them, my pastors have been VERY supportive and understanding, even, to some extent, sharing some of my questions. At the end of the day, the net result isn’t a drastically different faith, but one that I own for myself, vis-a-vis ‘The Sin of Certainty’. I don’t want to make it sound like things are a bed of roses…I still have some struggles – largely, I suspect, due to my mental health issues – but I DO believe engaging God and trusting Him to take us through these seasons is worth it.

  • Mark says:

    The simplicity and clarity of this post is stunning. Thanks.

  • Martin Vermeer says:

    > God created the solar system with “apparently heliocentricity.”
    Actually this is not entirely silly. According to General Relativity, the laws of motion of the Solar system can be written on _any_ curvilinear co-ordinate grid on space-time, and one could choose one in which the geocentre is and remains at the origin.
    The practical computations become unnecessarily complicated this way, which is why nobody does it — but it is _not wrong_.
    As a historical note, it is interesting that when Copernicus’ De Revolutionibus was published after his death, a foreword was added pretty much along these lines 😉
    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/De_revolutionibus_orbium_coelestium#Ad_lectorem

  • Hill Roberts says:

    “Appearance of ….” arguments have vexed me forever. Personally, I had to bread my relationship with Ross’s RTB when I realized how insane it was for Ross et al. to clearly reject Appearance of Age, yet turn right around and espouse Appearance of Evolution. Me thinks has something to do with the fact that as an astronomer, Ross clearly understands that AoA simply doesn’t square with the facts he knows. Yet, since he is not any more knowledgeable of biology or genomics than the average populace, AoE seems perfectly acceptable position. Still, seems like he should be overwhelmed by the flood of genomic data since the HGP. I was. Faced with the data, the only option got mr would be to fall back onto some form of AoE, which I knew was a place I could not go. Not wrt age, and not wrt evolution. And yes, it did cause some mighty disruptive changes in my belief system about the Bible. For which your books Pete, along with Longman, Wright and McKnight have helped me immeasurably. Your timing for TSOC was exquisite!

    (In the for what it’s worth department, I’ve heard the equivalent “appearance of ” arguments all my life when it comes to explaining away difficult Bible passages. “Well, yes killing babies is generally bad, except when God does it.” That is essentially the same mindset: Killing babies appears evil, but it isn’t really because it’s okay when God does it.” To my heritage, sorry, never bought it. Especially, when along comes Jesus preaching enemy love as the better way. I’m really glad Jesus fulfilled the Law and the Prophets cause otherwise we’d be on a baby killing spree ever since. (And of course have, in some centuries.)

    • Paul says:

      Hill, the ironic thing about the killing babies comment is that Christians accuse everyone else of being moral relativists, but what could be more morally relative than saying it’s OK to kill babies under certain circumstances? Paul

  • Craig P says:

    I think we need to value science and learn to appreciate what it can teach us about our big God. But at the same time we need to understand that science can’t explain everything, and many scientists will go to great lengths to remove God from the equations – the human genome is a great example, and science has no sound theory the presence of computer code in the cells of our bodies. Let’s be amazed at God’s design skills without completely flipping the other way and buying evolution as the only clear understanding of.the universe. However, completely agree with Pete, having tried to read the Bible literally and failed, just would like to see more balance in this post for those struggling to make sense of their faith.

  • John says:

    Is God a deceiver?

    I think Christians find security in our modern notions of truth, value and significance. After all, we live in a Darwinian and Hegelian world. The Bible needs to be trustworthy on our terms, because it would, you know, be too problematic if we accept Genesis, for example, as ancient literature.

    You’re demoting the Bible in the eyes of believers. I studied the Classics on the side because it was enjoyable, and perhaps that’s why I have no issues acceptable the Bible both valuable and vulnerable.

    I go to a non-denonmination evangelical church—I think evolution is an inescapable fact.

    There are Christians that think their framework is an “unassailable point of departure.” It’s frustrating to deal with people, especially when they are passive-aggressive and such. But I suspect most Evangelicals have doubts and objections, and there’s a need for Biblical commentators (popular and academic) to be open and honest about these issues.

    The people most equipped to address the issues aren’t prepared to risk their career/social life. I can’t blame them.

    There is tremendous value to the Bible even if it’s not “inerrant.” It’s a message that needs to be told more often.

  • Harry Tick says:

    If Genesis were inspired cosmology, it could have stated something like “God created the sphere of the Earth, set it to spin upon its axis, and orbit the Sun.” As oversimplified as that is, that would have been a divinely inspired idea at the time when the Genesis account was being formed.

    Copernicus worked out his heliocentric theory (and it’s what got Galileo in hot water with church leaders), but not until the 16th century. A millennium before, even without such knowledge, St. Augustine warned against Christians making themselves look foolish in using Genesis as a basis for science:

    https://geochristian.com/2009/03/17/augustine-the-literal-meaning-of-genesis/

    Billy Graham allowed for evolution: “I believe that God created man, and whether it came by an evolutionary process and at a certain point He took this person or being and made him a living soul or not, does not change the fact that God did create man.”

    Gravity continues to be a mysterious effect. Its effects are fairly well-behaved, at least good enough to get men to the Moon and back, and send probes throughout the solar system. At a galactic scale, scientists are resorting to theories around dark matter and dark energy to fill some gaps in understanding. I think Genesis may have been nibbling at gravity in its reference to a “vault” to separate things. It mentions birds flying up into the vault. Ancient people would have also pondered why arrows and rocks launched toward the sky always come back down. It would seem they were repulsed by the vault, while birds were given divine permission to fly there.

  • AHH says:

    #2 is an important point that most of those who propose this miss. It is not just that the creation appears mature, but it appears to have gone through a long history. This is attested to by numerous independent lines of evidence, from annual layers in ice caps to dust and craters on the Moon.

    The comparison is made with God supposedly creating Adam fully mature. But the natural world is more like God creating Adam with scars from old wounds that never happened, fillings and cavities in his teeth, and pictures of his nonexistent parents in his wallet.

  • Anthony says:

    For the literalist /fundamentalist there really are no other options. Privately many hold onto this belief outwardly because of peer pressure. To not do so can be very costly for them , socially and even monetarily.

  • Patrick says:

    “The overarching problem—not only here but at any point wherever science/faith issues are engaged by fundamentalists—is the assertion that Genesis is prepared to tell us how old the earth is. Little if any serious consideration is given to seeing Genesis as ancient literature, which can’t be sidestepped quite so easily.”

    One thing I find exciting about what you’re writing here is the idea that, once we stop seeing ancient literature as we want to see it, we might be able to see even more of it for what it is: who knows what additional or as-yet-obscured truths can emerge as those fogs lift? I don’t mean “scientific” or “historical” truths, just truths: truths about our lives, about what it means to be human, about how to help and care for each other.
    Thanks for your writing!

  • wildgoose82667 says:

    You should look at some resources that Answers in Genesis has. Also the Institute for Creation Research. They explain it all really good.

    (^^^^ sarcasm)

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