Old-Earth Creationism: A Heretical Belief?
By Greg Moore
Ken Ham is an ardent young-earth creationist. As president of Answers in Genesis, he generates a steady stream of articles critiquing the old-earth view. Although I disagree with most of his assertions, I respect his right to express them. However, Ham’s article, “The god of an old earth,”1. crosses the line of amicable debate. By declaring “the god of an old earth cannot be the God of the Bible” and “the god of an old earth destroys the Gospel,” he is accusing old-earth creationists of heresy.
Disagreements in the body of Christ are inevitable. And history has shown debate in the church can be edifying and unifying when it is conducted properly. This requires focusing on the things that unite us and avoid passing judgment on nonessential matters (Romans 14:1). But, that is not the spirit of Ham’s paper. By claiming old-earth creationism violates orthodox Christian teachings, he seeks to denigrate and marginalize it. That only serves to divide faithful Christians and prevent them from having fellowship together.
Given the seriousness of Ham’s charges, it is important to take a critical look at this issue. It is not my purpose to defend old-earth creationism on scientific grounds. There are many excellent resources that can assist readers in that regard.2. Rather, I will examine why Ham’s accusation of heresy is both baseless and inappropriate.
Ham’s claim “the god of an old earth is not the God of the Bible” is based on the question of theodicy. This is the question of how a loving, righteous and omnipotent God can allow evil and suffering in a world He created and sustains. Ham argues a loving God would not allow millions of years of animal violence and death for no reason; hence, animal death must be a result of God’s judgment on human sin and could not have been part of the initial creation. While this may sound impressive, there are a number of problems with this argument.
First, God needs no reason for the things He does. As Creator, all things occur by His providence and for His purposes (Colossians 1:16). It is clearly a mistake, then, to think that God’s choices are determined by anything or anyone outside Himself. The Bible tells us God does what He pleases, He answers to no one, and He is under no obligation to any of His creatures (Isaiah 46:10, Job 23:13, 33:13, 41:11). It also tells us God knows in advance what He will do, what the results will be and nothing can thwart His plans (Psalm 33:11, Isaiah 46:10, Job 42:2).
Nor is God’s loving character in any way impugned by animal death. Whatever God does is by definition proper and just. As Calvin states: “…God’s will is so much the highest rule of righteousness that whatever He wills, by the very fact that He wills it, must be considered righteous.”3. Thus, in light of the biblical doctrine of God as Creator and Sustainer, it is wrong to question God’s character (Job 40:8). Instead, we should trust His goodness and care, knowing in all things, God works for the good of those who love Him (Romans 8:28).
Second, it is wrong to presume animal death is not loving. We must look at animal death from God’s perspective. Just as God’s thoughts are not our thoughts and His ways are not our ways (Isaiah 55:8), so His definition of “good” is probably different as well. Numerous verses of Scripture tell us God provides food for the carnivores of the Earth thereby condoning the death of some animals for the survival of others.4. Thus, according the Bible, animal death–at least carnivorous activity–is a blessing from the hand of a loving Creator.
Since God is the Creator, He has the prerogative of creating things for limited use. Just because something dies doesn’t mean death is a bad thing.5. The world was created for the purpose of accomplishing God’s plan for humanity and animal death plays an essential role in God’s creation. A healthy ecological system depends on a continuing cycle of life and death. Also, many things that are important to human life–coal, oil, limestone, topsoil to name but a few–all come from the death and decay of animals.6.
Third, Ham’s argument does not solve the question of theodicy. Ham focuses on God’s loving nature but ignores His omnipotence. God is the sovereign first cause of all things.7. Not only did He create all things but in Him all things hold together and everything works out in conformity with His will (Colossians 2:17, Ephesians 1:11). Thus, the why and when of animal death is superfluous. Whether animal death was part of the initial creation, or something that was imposed at later date, God is ultimately responsible for it.
Solving the question of theodicy is a matter of adopting the correct starting point. Standing on the Bible we have the answer. Evil and suffering exist for good reasons: God, who is altogether good and can do no wrong, sovereignly decrees they take place for His good purposes (Isaiah 45:7).8. Therefore, the old-earth view of millions of years of animal death before Adam and Eve is not a problem. Animal death is part of God’s eternal plan, it works for His good and the good of His people, and just because God has decreed it, it is righteous.
Death Before Sin
Ham’s claim “the god of an old earth destroys the Gospel” is based on the contention that death before human sin is not theologically supportable. Ham reasons if there was death before Adam and Eve sinned (known as the Fall), death cannot be the penalty for sin–and, if death is not the penalty for sin, then Christ’s death was unnecessary and meaningless.9.
Before examining this issue, it is important to clarify the young-earth and old-earth positions on death. Both young-earth and old-earth creationists believe there was no human death before Adam and Eve sinned. Where they disagree is on the origination of animal death. Young-earth creationists insist all death–both human and animal–began at the Fall. Old-earth creationists maintain there was animal death inside, outside and before the Garden of Eden.
Young-earth creationists have developed a number of arguments to support their position. Several of these arguments deal with the issue of whether animal death is good and consistent with God’s loving nature, which was discussed in the previous section. Here I will address what I consider to be their other major assertions.
The Initial Creation Did Not Include Death and Decay10.
This argument focuses on three statements of Scripture: Romans 8:20–the creation was subjected to frustration, Romans 8:21–the creation will be liberated from its bondage to decay, and Romans 8:22–the creation has been groaning. Young-earth creationists claim these statements indicate the initial creation was perfect, literally heaven on earth–but, at the Fall, the creation was changed to an earthly place that included death and decay. This they say is the “frustration” and “bondage to decay” Paul speaks of in Romans 8.
However, while Romans 8 tells us when the “bondage to decay” will end (when the children of God are glorified), it does not tell us when it began or what the nature of that bondage is.11. Thus, it cannot be proven that Romans 8 refers to a changed creation and the introduction of animal death. Also, the Bible gives no indication the physical laws governing the pre-Fall world were different than today. Rather, the Bible tells us the creation was earthly and not heavenly (1 Corinthians 15:47) and that it was transitory from the beginning (Psalm 102:25-26).12.
In addition, not all Bible scholars believe Romans 8 speaks of the physical creation. Some believe the “bondage to decay” is the earth’s present service as a graveyard of the dead. They suggest Paul’s metaphor of the creation’s groaning is drawn from Isaiah 24-26–an apocalyptic picture of the earth as a graveyard awaiting the resurrection of the dead. Isaiah states “the earth mourns” because it has been made to “cover her slain.”13. This does seem to fit the context of Romans 8 that speaks of the earth being set free from bondage when the children of God are glorified.
Death Before Sin Violates the Biblical Doctrine of Death14.
This argument also focuses on three statements of Scripture: Romans 5:12–death entered the world through sin, Romans 6:23–the wages of sin is death, and 1 Corinthians 15:26–the last enemy to be destroyed is death. Young-earth creationists maintain these passages indicate all death–both human and animal–is the result of Adam and Eve’s sin.
However, the issue being dealt with in these passages is clearly human death. Romans 5:12 states death came to “all men” as a result of sin, and both Romans 6:23 and 1 Corinthians 15:21-26 speak of spiritual redemption which limits the meaning to human death. If these passages are interpreted more widely, Christ’s redemptive purpose would need to extend to the animal kingdom, which is implausible.15. Therefore, while these passages support the view that human death is the result of sin, they do not support the view that all death is the result of sin.
In reality, animal death before the Fall is not a theological problem. Adam and Eve were not immortal by nature. Eternal life was only available to them through the supernatural “tree of life” in the Garden of Eden. And, if they were not immortal, then it must follow that the animals were not immortal either. However, unlike Adam and Eve, the animals did not have access to the “tree of life.” Hence, because animals had no way to achieve immortality, they would have had no possible way to avoid death.16.
Death Before Sin Negates Christ’s Atonement17.
This argument focuses on Christ’s death and resurrection. Young-earth creationists argue if death–all death–is not the penalty for sin, death could not be used to atone for human sin; thus animal death before the Fall destroys the reason Christ died and the meaning of His resurrection.
However, there are several problems with the young-earth view of sin, death and the atonement. First, while human death is linked to human sin, it moves beyond the teaching of the Bible to claim all death is the result of human sin. Second, since animals are incapable of sinning, they are not in need of a restoration of relationship with God and it is wrong to extend the consequences of human sin to them. And third, while it is true there is no remission of sin without the shedding of blood, Christ’s blood, it does not follow that there could have been no bloodshed before sin.18.
It is very important to emphasize the crucial importance of Christ’s death. Without it, we would have no hope of eternal life. However, animal death before the Fall does not diminish the significance of Christ’s death because there was no need of atonement before there was sin.19. Only human beings are capable of sin, only human beings are subject to judgment and only human beings are offered the salvation Christ earned on the cross. One can only wonder how animal death could interfere with God’s plan for humanity, a plan that included the Fall.
The Restored Creation is a Picture of the Original Creation20.*
This argument focuses on prophetic scripture, usually Isaiah 11:6-9, that speaks of a future time when “the wolf will dwell with the lamb.” Young-earth creationists claim this passage speaks of a “restored creation” and, because this restored creation contains no animal death, the pre-Fall creation must not have included animal death.
However, Scripture is silent about an Edenic restoration. The restoration promised in Acts 3:21 is not of Eden but of Christ’s “restoring the kingdom to Israel” (Acts 1:6). This will not be a return to the pristine condition of Edenic innocence prior to the Fall, but a fulfillment of God’s covenant with Abraham–a rebirth of the nation he was promised.21. The Bible also states the promise we are looking forward to is not a return to Eden but “a new heavens and a new earth” (2 Peter 3:13). In fact, the former things will be destroyed and will not even be remembered (Isaiah 65:17).
In addition, some Bible scholars believe Isaiah 11:6-9 speaks figuratively of future time when hostile nations will live peacefully with Israel. Calvin believed it speaks allegorically of bloody and violent men, whose cruel and savage nature shall be subdued.22. The Wycliffe Bible Commentary explains the picture of animals living together peacefully symbolizes the removal of all natural hostility and fear between men.23. However, regardless of whether Isaiah is taken literally or figuratively, it does not prove there was no animal death in Eden.24.
Orthodoxy and Heresy
Ham claims Christians who hold the old-earth view are “worshipping a different God” and he encourages them “to return to the loving, holy, righteous God of the Bible.” While he doesn’t explicitly accuse old-earth creationists of heresy, that is the practical effect of these statements. Are these charges warranted? To answer this, it is important to understand the basis for determining whether a teaching is orthodox or heretical.
Orthodox can be defined as whatever teachings are sufficiently faithful to Christian principles that those who adhere to them should be accepted as fellow-Christians. Heresy can be defined as teachings that compel true Christians to divide themselves from those that hold them.25. It might seem these definitions provide an effective way for determining whether a teaching is aberrational, but they don’t. The problem is not all teachings carry the same weight–some warrant division, while others can and should be tolerated in the church (Romans 14).
The Bible reveals the doctrines that are essential to the Christian faith. These include the deity of Christ (and the doctrine of the Trinity), Christ’s bodily resurrection from the dead, salvation by grace through faith alone, and the Gospel.26. While there are many other important doctrines, these are the only ones that are declared by Scripture to be necessary for salvation. Other doctrines may be Biblical and should be believed by those who want to be faithful to Scripture–nevertheless, those who deny, or who are confused about them, can be born-again and saved.27.
The Bible also tells us it is the job of the whole church to stand together in unity and judge what is heretical (Ephesians 4:12-13).28. Therefore, since the whole church–all Christian denominations whether Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, or Protestant–agree on the essential doctrines of the Christian faith, this is first litmus test of whether a teaching is heretical. A second test is whether the Bible explicitly condemns the teaching or states it is not to be tolerated in the church.29.
Let’s start with the second test. Does the Bible explicitly condemn the old-earth view of long creation “days” or animal death before the Fall? No. In fact, as we examine the writings of the church fathers, we see these issues were openly debated and never considered a test of orthodoxy.30. Therefore, there is no justification for labeling old-earth creationism a heretical teaching on the basis of Scripture or the teachings of the historic Christian church.
With regard to the first test, whether old-earth creationism contradicts the essential doctrines of Christianity, I cannot speak for all Christians who hold an old-earth view. Admittedly, some old-earth proponents are theistic evolutionists or Darwinists and I cannot state with certainty what they believe. However, because Ham’s article identifies Dr. Hugh Ross as the main spokesman of the progressive creationist movement (the day/age view of Genesis), I will respond based on the beliefs of the Reasons To Believe (RTB) Ministry31.:
1) Does RTB deny or distort the doctrine of the Trinity? No. The RTB statement of faith states: “We believe in one infinitely perfect, eternal and personal God, the transcendent Creator and sovereign Sustainer of the universe. This one God is Triune, existing eternally and simultaneously as three distinct persons: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. All three persons in the Godhead share equally and completely the one divine nature, and are therefore the same God, coequal in power, nature, and glory.”
2) Does RTB deny or distort the deity of Christ? No. The RTB statement of faith states: “We believe that Jesus Christ is both true God … and true man … We also believe in the great events surrounding Jesus Christ’s life and ministry, including His eternal preexistence, His virgin birth, His attesting miracles, His sinless life, His sacrificial death on the cross, His glorious bodily resurrection from the dead, His ascension into heaven, and His present work in heaven as High Priest and Advocate. …”
3) Does RTB deny Christ’s bodily resurrection? No. The RTB statement of faith states: “We believe Jesus Christ rose bodily from the dead, conquering sin, death, and all the powers of Satan. The resurrection is God’s historical affirmation and vindication of Jesus Christ’s unique identity, mission, and message. … Jesus Christ now resides at the right hand of the Father, and lives to indwell all who recognize their sinfulness, who repent, and who turn their lives over to His authority.”
4) Does RTB deny salvation is by grace through faith alone? No. The RTB statement of faith states: “… Jesus Christ suffered and died in the place of sinners, thus satisfying the Father’s just wrath against human sin, and effecting true reconciliation between God and mankind for those who believe. … Redemption is solely a work of God’s grace, received exclusively through faith in Jesus Christ, and never by works of human merit.”
5) Does RTB deny or distort the Gospel? No. The Gospel message is that Jesus is God in the flesh, who died for sins, rose from the dead, and freely gives the gift of eternal life to those who believe (Gal. 1:8-9). Therefore, the gospel message is automatically included in the other essential doctrine of Christianity, which, as it has been demonstrated, are neither denied nor distorted by RTB.
The charge that a group’s beliefs are heretical is a serious one that should not be made lightly. Some Christians “cry wolf” whenever a teaching seems to conflict with their beliefs. Such a practice merely divides Christians and ignores the biblical guidelines for determining what is heretical. In uncertain or borderline cases, we should always give the benefit of the doubt to the group in question. Ultimately, only God can judge human hearts; thus, the principle of “innocent until proven guilty” should always be the first rule we follow.32.
Has Ham met the burden of proof for leveling a charge of heresy against old-earth creationists? No. We can state with certainty that mankind lost fellowship with God at the Fall, and human death–both physical and spiritual–entered the creation. This is stated in the Bible. However, there is no basis for claiming Christians must hold a young-earth view or that old-earth creationism is damaging to Christianity. In fact, one can argue old-earth creationism is a positive force in the church because it removes roadblocks that open the way for an aggressive advance of the Gospel.
The Ninth Commandment
The ninth commandment, “You shall not give false testimony against your neighbor,” has much to say about how we are to conduct ourselves in these matters. The duties required by this commandment include preserving and promoting the good name of our neighbors, defending their innocence, speaking the truth in matters of judgment and discouraging slander.33. The sins forbidden by this commandment include prejudicing the truth and the good name of our neighbors, passing unjust sentence and raising false rumors.34.
Simply put, we are to follow Jesus’ command to love our neighbor as ourself (Mark 12:29-31). We are bound to meet other Christians with whom we disagree on matters of faith and practice. We do not have to agree with them but we do have an obligation to love them, treat them courteously and deal with them as we ourselves would like to be treated (Matthew 7:12). We may strongly disagree with their ideas and vigorously contend against them in the public square, but we must still show respect for these people in spite of our differences.35.
The Bible lays out several principles in Romans 14 we should follow in dealing with Christians whom we disagree with. Obviously, this does not apply to the essential doctrines of the Christian faith. However, apart from the teachings the Bible instructs we cannot deviate from, there are numerous areas where we can disagree. The specific examples the Apostle Paul uses to articulate the principles involve the eating of meat sacrificed to idols, but the principles apply to other situations as well.36.
First, we are not to have a judgmental attitude toward one another on non-essential matters. Paul says in Romans 14:3, “the man who eats everything must not look down on him who does not.” In other words, we are to be respectful of those whose views differ from ours on matters where the Bible does not provide clear principles or guidelines. In verse 4, Paul goes on to say, “Who are you to judge someone else’s servant?” This is a reminder that we answer to God and only He knows our hearts and can properly judge our motives.
Second, we are to decide for ourselves what is right and wrong when it comes to the non-essentials of the faith. Paul says in Romans 14:14, “I am fully convinced that no food is unclean in itself. But if anyone regards something as unclean, then for him it is unclean. Each one should be fully convinced in his own mind.” In other words, a particular belief or practice is wrong for those who believe it is wrong, but others are free to disagree. Paul reminds us in verses 5-6 that the key test is whether the belief or practice is for the Lord.
Third, we are not to engage in divisive behaviors regarding non-essential matters that can affect other believers’ walk with the Lord. Paul says in Romans 14:13, “make up your mind not to put any stumbling block or obstacle in your brother’s way.” While we may object to their beliefs or practices, we should respect them for their sake knowing they are fellow partakers in the faith and God is working in their lives.
Whether Ham’s behavior violates the ninth commandment and the principles outlined in Romans 14 is between him and God. However, it is fair to say that his article makes divisive statements about old-earth creationists and those efforts need to be evaluated in terms of the impact they have on the body of Christ. Christians debating non-essential matters should not act like boxers whose goal is to demolish one another. Rather, we should “make every effort to do what leads to peace and to mutual edification” (Romans 14:19).
As brothers and sisters in Christ, we need to conduct ourselves honorably in all things (Hebrews 13:18). Where we disagree on the non-essentials of the faith, our overriding goal should be to work for unity in the church. When we are unwilling to acknowledge our fallibility, we reveal we are more interested in winning a discussion than in the discovery and triumph of truth. Our reputation is much better served if we show ourselves ready to be corrected when in error, rather than if we keep obstinately to our viewpoint when the evidence shows it to be wrong.37.
The charges Ham makes against old-earth creationists in “The god of an old earth” are clearly unwarranted. While he is a passionate champion of young-earth creationism and would like all Christians to hold that view, the ends do not justify the means. There is no basis for claiming the old-earth view violates Scripture, contradicts the essential doctrines or does damage to the Christian faith. Equally important, it is the job of the whole church, not individuals or groups within the church, to judge these matters.
Of course, there are Christians on both sides of age-of-the-earth debate who are guilty of poor behavior. To this end, we must always be mindful that it is love that builds up (1 Corinthians 8:1) and our conversations should always full of grace (Colossians 4:6).
1. Ken Ham, “The god of an old earth: Does the Bible teach that disease, bloodshed, violence and pain have always been ‘part of life’?”, Answers in Genesis,