Evolution and a Universe as Young as Humanity
By Tim Challies, blogger, author, and book reviewer.
I love to read and ponder the biblical account of creation. So much makes sense and so much comes into focus only as we understand God as the creator of all that is. As I read the creation account I find myself coming to a series of conclusions about the relationship of man and the world he inhabits: God created the world; God created man; God created the world for man and man for the world. God created the world to be seen and overseen by man. He created time and space so he could insert man into time and space. He created all things so man could exercise dominion over it all and, in that way, reflect glory to the Creator. Creation makes no sense, it is incomplete, without man, without the jewel of creation.
I recently came across an extended quote from Denis Alexander’s book Creation or Evolution: Do We Have to Choose? In this excerpt he helps readers understand the incredible amount of time encompassed by an evolutionary framework. But the deeper he goes into his argument, the farther he seems to go from the centrality of man in God’s plan for creation. Here is what he says:
One useful way to envisage history as viewed through the lens of evolution is to imagine the whole 4.6 billion year history of the earth as being crammed into a single day.
If we had a bird’s-eye view of the whole day, what would we see the Creator do, starting our 24-hour clock at zero and imagining that midnight is the present moment in time? Simple forms of life would already be appearing by 2.40 a.m. with single-celled organisms (prokaryotes) flourishing by around 5.20 a.m. The great oceans of the world start to change colour as cyanobacteria (blue-green algae) spread cross the planet. At the same time the genetic code becomes established that will dominate the generation of biological diversity for the remainder of the day.
After this early-morning start, there would then be quite a long wait until single-celled organisms containing nuclei (eukaryotes) become visible around lunchtime. A further seven hours pass before multicellular organisms (living things with more than one cell) start appearing in the sea by 8.15 p.m. About half an hour later the planet changes colour as cyanobacteria and green algae invade the land.
From then on the biological pace picks up and there is a busy evening of observation ahead. The Cambrian explosion starts at 9.10 p.m. and in an amazing three minutes an immense diversity of phyla appear, each with a distinctive body plan, with many of the anatomical features introduced continuing in many of the phyla right up to midnight. Twenty minutes later plants start appearing on land for the first time, followed very soon afterwards by the earliest land animals. At 9.58 p.m. this is followed by the mass extinctions of the Devonian period.
At 10.11 p.m. reptiles start roaming the land, followed half an hour later by the mass extinctions that mark the end of the Palaeozoic period.
By 10.50 p.m. the earliest mammals and dinosaurs are appearing, but five minutes later there is further mass extinction at the start of the Jurassic period.
By 11.15 p.m. archaeopteryx are flapping around and within minutes the sky begins to fill with birds. Another mass extinction occurs at 11.39 p.m. in which the dinosaurs are wiped out.
Just two minutes before midnight hominids start to appear, and a mere three seconds before midnight anatomically modern humans make their entry onto the scene, the whole of recorded human history until now being compressed into less than one-fifth of the second before midnight, the mere blink of a human eyelid.
This is a helpful illustration for the time and scope of evolution. Alexander wishes to draw our attention to the marvel of the universe and the incredible span of time it encompasses when viewed through an evolutionary framework—even an evolutionary framework that admits the presence and power of God. The illustration is helpful and necessary because just as we have difficulty understanding the vastness of billions of dollars we have trouble understanding the vastness of billions of years. The numbers are so big that they beg explanation.
Yet what stands out to me in this illustration is what I consider a serious incompatibility between the biblical account of creation and the evolutionary account (or, for that, any account that demands an ancient universe). What I cannot reconcile with my understanding of the biblical account of creation is that man appears only at the very, very end of it all. In this twenty-four hour day, Adam or an Adam-like figure appears just one-fifth of one second before the stroke of midnight. The day has very nearly elapsed and then, at that final moment, man appears. This split second encompasses all of human history from its earliest beginnings to the lives of Moses and Jesus and you and me. This means that the majority of history is man-less; almost every bit of the world’s history is devoid of humanity. In this understanding of our origins, the history of the universe is not the history of mankind. It is the history of nothing and no one with man’s fleeting role encompassing a fraction of a moment.
Yet the biblical account seems to move crisply and purposefully to the creation of man. There is no indication in the text that the world was ever in a billion-year process of preparation, that for age after age it awaited man’s appearance. Genesis appears to move quickly and deliberately from God’s first words to the creation of man to the assigning of stewardship over all that had been created. The biblical writers seem to want us to understand that the world was created for man and that it had no purpose apart from man. A builder makes a home so a family can move into it; God makes a world so humanity have dominion over it.
If we admit and endorse an ancient universe, we see a vastly purposeless universe that for the great majority of time had no human beings to bring purpose and order to it. We see that humanity’s role in the universe is late and incidental rather than timely and purposeful. We see God’s creation existing for a million ages without the purpose and presence afforded by the one being created in God’s image. And, for me, that is one powerful argument for a universe that is only as old as humanity.