The Dangers of Young Earth Creationism (and how to engage with our YEC brothers and sisters)

The Young Earth Creationist mis-reading of Genesis 1 causes some Christians to lose their faith. It also turns many open-minded unbelievers away from accepting Christianity in the first place. So how should we, who believe in an old earth, engage with the young earth subculture?

Quick programming note: you can view the video of this essay here:

Young earth creationists are Christians who believe that the earth was created in a span of six days, about 6,000 years ago, or at most 10,000 years ago. They believe that about 4,000 years ago there was a flood that covered the entire earth in water a mile deep and killed every human alive except for 8. In essence, they take early Genesis very literally, and are not convinced by the vast amount of evidence showing that the earth is old and there was no global flood in recent history.

A revival of this line of thought in the American church began with a vision experienced by Seventh Day Adventist prophetess Ellen White in the late 1800s, and accelerated after a book by John Whitcomb and Henry Morris in 1961. Today, a lot of Christians are Young Earth Creationists. Polls are a bit all over the place, but it seems clear that, for example, a sizable majority of conservative white protestants believe in a young earth.

From my own personal experience, the Young Earth Creationists I know generally have amazing faith, are intelligent, and really know their Scripture. They are passionate followers of Jesus. And it is this passion, and zeal for defending Scripture, I think, which leads many of them to hold fast to their belief in a young earth. This is admirable. However, Young Earth views…and especially the teaching that the only way to responsibly read the Bible is as affirming a young earth…is not responsible Christianity. It is problematic for the church. In three ways.

The first way is that it is not good for evangelism. YEC is a big turn off for many potential Christians, especially those who are scientifically minded. Many unbelievers feel they have certainty that the earth is old. And they don’t want to join a religion that teaches things they know are false. YEC really breaks trust and credibility. As Augustine said, when an unbeliever hears a Christian saying that the Bible teaches things the unbeliever knows to be false, the unbeliever will be less likely to believe the Christian on matters such as the resurrection and the kingdom of God.

And logically, who could blame them? You see, Young Earth advocates teach that the only way to understand Genesis 1 is as a literal, historical account. Then they assert—correctly—that the Bible tells a complete, internally consistent story, such that if one part is false then it calls into question the truth of the other parts. So if Genesis 1 is false, the foundation for the New Testament is weakened. Sometimes—and this is really dangerous—Young Earth advocates even teach that if you don’t believe in a young earth you shouldn’t believe in the resurrection.

To put it simply, if we tell unbelievers that in order to be Christians they have to deny almost the entirety of modern science, many are not going to come onboard. They’re gone.

The second reason that Young Earth Creationism is problematic is that it causes Christians, especially young Christians, to lose their faith. In the course of my research on this topic, I have come across many testimonials of people who were raised as Christians and had considered themselves to be Christian, but who left the church over conflicts with science. Typically, they had grown up in a YEC home, attended a YEC church, and internalized YEC teaching. Then, when they were inevitably prompted for one reason or another—perhaps a college geology course—to critically consider their Young Earth views, they realized that they had to give them up. Since young earth creationism was imbedded so deeply into their Christian worldview, they left the church altogether. Some later returned. Some did not. Look, young folks are leaving the church in droves. Science is one of the reasons. We should be doing all we can to address perceived science and faith conflicts.

The third reason that Young Earth Creationism teaching is problematic is that even among those who never leave the church, this issue has real import. Christians have legitimate struggles with science and faith issues. Some, perhaps many, Christians believe that their faith conflicts with science. For as long as that cognitive dissonance persists—even if it is suppressed or ignored—it may be hindering those believers’ spiritual growth. When Christians who cannot intellectually accept a young earth are persuaded that Genesis 1 may only be read literally, they may respond by doubting God’s Word. They may conclude that the first chapter of the Bible is not truth. Once the truth of Genesis 1 is discounted, it is tempting to discount the truth of other difficult parts of the Bible as well.

This happened to me, by the way. A few years ago I had a faith crisis over early Genesis, including Genesis 1. I was, and am, convinced that the earth is old, but I read the text as saying it was young. I was deeply bothered by this perceived contradiction. When I went to my church and saw what they were teaching, and went to my trusted Study Bible, and even, for good measure, went and saw what my kids’ school taught, it all came back the same—they all taught that the earth is young. I thought, well, if my entire faith community thinks this way, is that because the Bible actually teaches that! And if the Bible actually teaches that, how can I trust early Genesis? And if I can’t trust early Genesis, can I trust the New Testament? My church led me further into a faith crisis, which took a lot of time and work to emerge from. We should instead be assuring our Christian brethren that they may believe the earth is old without disbelieving the Bible.

So. All right. We have many brothers and sisters in Christ, whom we love, but with whom we disagree. And this is an important topic, and so we feel we need to engage with them on this issue. But how do we engage with the Young Earth subculture? There are four things to keep in mind.

Number 1. The first thing, and I think this is the most important thing, is to maintain unity. The age of the earth is not a salvation issue. Young Earth advocates and ourselves are both in the Christian family.

Maintaining a spirit of unity can be difficult at times. For me, I struggled with this for a while after my faith crisis. I had anger toward the churches and leaders who had taught me false things with regards to the Bible. I had to work through those issues and get my heart right.

And it was important that I did so. In John 17 Jesus prays that we may all be one, so that the world may see the love we have for one another and that will lead the world to believe in Jesus. Disunity would cause more harm to the church than faulty YEC theology.

So, practice Christian unity, and focus on all the really important things which we do agree on. Pray and worship with your Young Earth brothers and sisters. Also keep discourse respectful. Debate, do not argue. And despite frustration that they don’t accept an old earth, focus on how it is often coming from a place of deep reverence for Scripture. Also if you do get mistreated, called a heretic, or told you are not a Christian, or whatever, be quick to forgive. Living in Christian community provides plenty of great opportunities to practice forgiveness.

Number 2. Remember there are two issues we have to prevail on. We have the science, and we also have the interpretation of Scripture. The science proves an old earth. And the best way to interpret Genesis 1 is in a figurative sense, not a literal sense. Genesis 1 is in conversation with the creation myths of the surrounding cultures. It is about theology, not science.

Some of us are only able to speak to one of the two sides. That’s fine. But as a community, we need to engage on both sides. If we present a good case for the science, but not for interpretation, we won’t win many minds. Why will we not win many minds? On the science front, Young Earthers will keep coming up with new objections that they will say reveal a young earth. These can always be rebutted but the game can go on for a long time. It can become an endless game of whack-a-mole. In the end, even if we “win” on the science, by convincing them the science reveals an old earth, Young Earthers will just retreat to unfalsifiable positions, like that the earth was created to look old. And this could be true. After all, God could even have created the universe last Tuesday, and populated our minds with memories. I could have never actually created this video. But this turns God into a deceiver, and so it is not a healthy position for Christians to take. We don’t want Young Earthers retreating there, and many already do.

So we must also engage on interpretation. Making a good case for the genre of Genesis 1 not being literal history could go a long way toward getting Young Earthers to let their barricades down on the science front. Showing how the science used in the Bible is ancient science, not modern science, could help a lot too. There are many scholars, people like John Walton and Denis Lamoureux and many others, who have done great work here.

Number 3. We should have realistic goals. We can’t reach everyone. Many of our brothers and sisters are just not open to having their minds changed. Most people, of all stripes and persuasions, have difficulty changing their minds on important things. We just need to accept this. We may not be able to change their minds. The reasons for their stance are often psychological, not intellectual, and there may be nothing we can do.

But for some Young Earthers, while we can’t change their minds we can still convince them that a young earth is not the only biblically faithful interpretation of Genesis 1. That would go a long way to limiting the damage of YEC. That would be a victory. Also if we can just let Young Earthers who are already doubting their YEC conviction, but are stuck in the YEC bubble, know that there is a respite for them, an oasis, a safe harbor, a place they can go and give up their YEC beliefs but still be a faithful follower of Christ, that would be a victory too. We can save some who give up YEC from additionally giving up Christianity. That is an attainable and extremely worthwhile goal. This will involve going over the top of their pastors and faith leaders to speak directly to the church members in the pews. As well, if we can better educate the non-Christian community that they can become believers without accepting YEC views, that would be a great success.

Number 4. Lastly, we should be sensitive.

If we have friends who are firmly committed to Young Earth views, to the point that if they gave them up they may lose their faith, and if they are not going around preaching to people that if you are not YEC you are not a Christian, it may be best to let sleeping dogs lie. There is little to be gained by converting them and much to be potentially lost in the process. Basically, pick your battles wisely.