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Young Earth Creationism: An Explainer
Today’s topic is one of the most loaded, tangled, high-stakes battlegrounds Evangelicalism has staked out for itself in the last century or so. It’s a topic that, while nominally scientific (or pseudoscientific) in nature, is inextricable from the philosophical and religious concepts for which it provides the groundwork.
Explaining Young Earth Creationism
I stubbornly refuse to truly narrow in on a desired audience for this blog, which (I hope) keeps me honest with my tone and reasoning, but also means I need to slow the bus down to make sure everyone can get in. In fact, we’re not even going to make it to camp today; we’re going to settle in and make sure you’re completely up to speed on Young Earth Creationism as I was raised to understand it.
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Young Earth Creationism also isn’t something I was introduced to at camp – all of my schooling from a young age was Young-Earth based, and I grew up with a healthy skepticism of anything that even gestured at the Theory of Evolution or the concept of scientifically-measured geologic age.
Yes, that made experiences like science museums, Bill Nye the Science Guy, and reading old National Geographics pretty awkward. We used to fast-forward through the dinosaur segment of Fantasia.
Anyway, I’ve anticipated writing about this for years. There’s no way I’m going to get it right the first time, but I’m here, you’re here, and I’m going to give it my best.
Let’s talk about Young Earth Creationism.
Of a Young Earth
Here are the core concepts of Young Earth Creationism, as I was taught. I’m going to give them to you in a sort of conceptually cumulative order, because they’re interdependent and it’s really important for you to understand there’s so much more going on here than simply “earth young”.
Genesis is a 100% literal account of creation.
As I have and will continue to emphasize, Evangelicals believe the entire Bible is literal and inerrant. (You’re welcome to Google claims to inconsistencies in the Bible, but trust me, the studied Evangelical has heard them all and has apologetics at the ready.)
Genesis is one of the liveliest passages pivoting upon that claim – Young Earth Creationists believe that the Earth was “without form and void” on day 1 of all creation [Genesis 1:2], after which God engaged in a day-by-day creation of the universe, concluding with the placement of 2 sinless, perfect, naked humans in the Garden of Eden, a real, physical location located roughly in the Fertile Crescent.
The world was without sin, shame, and death.
Sin (and, very crucially, death) did not enter into Creation until Adam and Eve chose to sin, with influence from the Serpent (literally, Satan). The Serpent told Eve she could “be as gods, knowing good and evil” (Genesis 2:5), if she simply ate from the one forbidden tree: the tree of the knowledge of Good and Evil.
To be more specific, God actually told them that they would “surely die” if they ate of it (Genesis 2:3); this is interpreted by Evangelicals to mean not a literal on-the-spot death but the introduction of death into human existence, both physically and spiritually. (Yes, that this requires a literal reading of the Bible but a non-literal reading of what God is saying. Literalism is a complicated path, textually speaking.)
Anyway, Eve ate the fruit, gave some to Adam, and suddenly, ashamed of their nudity, so they sewed themselves some clothes out of fig leaves. God caught them, Adam immediately threw Eve under the bus (Genesis 3:12), and Eve blamed the serpent. God then cursed the serpent, cursed Eve with painful childbirth and patriarchy (“Your desire will be for your husband, and he will rule over you”, Genesis 3:16), and punished Adam by making agriculture difficult. All of this apparently happened before Adam even gave his wife a name (Genesis 3:20), so I have to imagine the idyllic times in Eden hadn’t been going on all that long to begin with.
Anyway, God kicked them out of Eden and put an angel with a flaming sword at the entrance to keep them from going back in (Genesis 3:24), which honestly seems a little melodramatic, but I respect the flavor. He also gave them garments of skin to wear, which Young Earth Creationists will point to as the introduction of animal death into the world, but I would argue was just God being considerate.
(All of the above is more-or-less standard Christian fare, but not all Christians will stand behind it as literally factual and not some degree of myth / parable / metaphor. This is also why I’m having a little fun with it tonally. Look, it’s hard to find levity in this blog – I’ll take it where I can find it.)
The Earth was created in seven literal days.
This is an essential, essential concept. Plenty of Christians, even Evangelicals, believe that the Genesis account is at least partially metaphorical, and as such, allow for some wiggle room around the concept of “days” as a sort of metaphorical portrayal of the eons of evolution.
This is a very big sticking point for Young Earth Creationists. Because they believe in a literal Genesis account, death could not exist until the Fall of Man. Because death couldn’t exist before then, it’s morally impossible for creatures to have lived and died – much less evolved over eons.
Put simply: Young Earth Creationists reject Evolution not on the basis of science, but because it is incompatible with the entire concept of Original Sin. And without the threat of Original Sin, the Heaven / Hell binary that forms the glowing core of Evangelicalism is powerless.
(Once you believe in seven literal days, a lot of other things require equally literal explanation. I was taught that any animals that are currently carnivores were actually created by God with teeth & claws simply so they could tear through tough plants. Later, I was also taught the possibility that they might have developed meat-eating implements post-Fall through microevolution, similarly to how all dog breeds originated from wild dogs. Take your pick.)
The Earth is approximately 5000-15,000 years old.
This is the “Young Earth” part of the name. Because the Bible is literal, the age of the Earth is calculated via approximation, using the lineages listed in the Bible (of David, Abraham, and so forth) and the wildly long ages listed in Genesis (Methusalah, famously, was listed at 969 years old; Adam himself lived until he was 930). An older Earth, then, is both logistically and morally impossible.
The exact age is the subject of some debate, as I understand it; what’s important is that it’s young, and Adam to David to Jesus to You is an absolutely measurable span. Wikipedia tells me 4004 B.C. is the general consensus date of Creation these days.
Humans were created exactly in their present form.
This one almost goes without saying, but just to make it clear: God created humans fully-developed, with only minor tweaks (childbirth, for example, is painful because of sin (Genesis 3:16); tragically, Eve never got to experience uncursed birth). Neanderthals, Homo Erectus, and so forth are rejected on this basis, either as hoaxes, humans, or misclassified animals. I always felt weird about reading The Far Side because of this.
It also almost goes without saying that a Young Earth Creationist calls into question the veracity of carbon-dating or any other method that displays evidence of geological age prior to the given date range of Creation to the present day.
The Flood was catastrophic and worldwide.
The Flood is believed to have literally covered the entire earth, and knocked the gene pool down to Noah and whomever else joined him on the Ark. Young Earth Creationists will use the term “catastrophic” a lot here – the Flood was short, severe, and global. I was raised to smirk at the idea that the Grand Canyon formed over millions of years.
I also remember Pangea being a kind of “new-agey” concept, but a quick Google just now has shown me that continental drift is also considered to have taken place during the 190 days of the Flood, and Answers in Genesis, which I’m not going to link but you’re welcome to Google, actually says Pangaea was a temporary underwater supercontinent that only existed during the Flood.
The Ark itself is taken very literally by Young Earth Creationists, down to mapping out its dimensions (which, to be fair, are listed in the Bible) and theorizing as to its modern location. (My grandparents owned a book you’re welcome to Google called Noah’s Ark: I Touched It.)
I don’t remember ever really inquiring into the fate of fish or insects; again, while this is all 100% literal, its foundation is moral first and scientific second, so the details sort of come and go as Creationists try out and discard various theories. One example of this ebb and flow of theorizing is what I was taught as the Canopy Theory, something and actually dates back to 1912 (thanks, Wikipedia).
This theory posits that the pre-flood world was actually surrounded by an insulating layer of water in the upper atmosphere, helping keep the entire planet at an equalized, fertile, greenhouse-esque temperature. (This concept originates from Genesis 1:7: “So God made the vault and separated the water under the vault from the water above it.”)
Anyway, in the canopy theory, that water came crashing down and flooded the whole Earth, leading to both a worldwide catastrophe and our modern weather / climate zones and so forth. Young Earth Creationists have since discarded this model as unscientific. But the Flood itself is an invaluable concept, because essentially all geological concerns – layers of sediment, fossils, even continents – are attributed to it.
Essential, but Not Universal
Young Earth Creationism was a core part of my upbringing. As a grade schooler, I saw Kent Hovind speak a number of times. Hovind was a highly visible figure in the Creationist circuit throughout the 90’s, and ran a “museum” in Pensacola, Florida, as well as a thriving print & media distribution service. He was a household name, as far as I was concerned.
But Kent Hovind isn’t, and never was, a scientist – he had a degree in music from Pensacola Christian College, styles himself as a doctor despite having a postgrad from a diploma mill called “Patriot University”, has since spent a decade in prison for tax evasion, and was recently convicted of domestic abuse. Even Answers in Genesis has shunned him at this point. His Wikipedia page, as you might imagine, is pretty engaging.
But I didn’t know until I was married that many Christians aren’t Young Earth Creationists. My wife grew up just as Evangelical – maybe more “big-church” Evangelical than I did, actually – but didn’t really ever spend time with these concepts in depth – they were in her vicinity, but weren’t presented as necessary for someone to be a “real Christian” in the way they were for me.
Plenty of Evangelicals simply don’t engage at the Young Earth Creationist’s level of literalism – many Evangelicals, were you to question them, would simply say the Bible isn’t a science textbook, and shouldn’t be read as such. They do believe in original sin, and often reject evolutionism, but not from as concrete a position as Young Earth creationism provides. (This is the allure of fundamentalism, of course – that there’s a firm foundation to be had for all of your beliefs and concepts.)
Young Earth creationists, however, generally hold less fundamentalist creation concepts in active disdain. One of the colleges I attended required (and I imagine, still requires) that all faculty be Young Earth creationists; other creationist concepts such as Theistic Evolution (God created the world via evolution) and Intelligent Design (a blanket concept for the idea that God created things without getting into specifics) were introduced to me specifically as dangerous compromises, much like Interventionism in last week’s post about socialism & capitalism.
The Young Earth is Dangerous to Unravel
Because it forms a fairly satisfying unified system of the origin of sin and death, Young-Earth Creationism is very hard to walk away from, and is one of the biggest concepts the deconstructing Evangelical has to face and unpack for themselves.
Personally, I had trouble picturing the validity of even “regular” old-earth creationism, much less anything beyond that scope like evolution or other religions’ origin myths. To me, Christians that believed in evolution held views that lacked internal consistency. If Adam and Eve took place after millions or billions of years of evolution, the introduction of death via sin made no sense.
Plus, if one believes in an all-powerful, infinite, all-knowing God, why not simply have them create the earth in an instant? Why would such a God need to create via evolution? Also, God created man in his own image – why would we descend from apes? Beyond the literal age of the earth, plenty of evolutionary concepts are hard to impossible for the Evangelical to swallow, as evidenced by the Scopes trial onward.
Ultimately, YEC is an attractive system both for its moral underpinnings and its skeleton-key approach to any scientific unknowns or intimidating concepts. For example, how can the earth be so young if we see light from stars millions of light years away? God simply created that light in-transit, already having reached earth, along with the rest of the galaxy.
In this way, Young-Earth Creationism is an incredibly important cornerstone for the Evangelical that believes it. It answers so many questions with such internal consistency that you can’t move it even an inch or it falls apart and takes a lot of other concepts down with it.
Next time we’ll take the concepts you’re now familiar with and talk through how they were presented by the next camp speaker, an actual (non-Hovind) scientist who to this day is the speaker I hold the most affection for.
I recently came upon a present-year Answers in Genesis column about this that actually put forth the idea that the speed of light simply goes far faster in deep space, or did at the time, or some such, which feels to me like a reach when you’re already able to answer “God did it.”