There is some disagreement among Christians regarding the age of the universe. The two dominate positions are called “Old Earth” (OEC) and “Young Earth Creationists” (YEC). OEC hold that the universe was created some 14+ billion years ago as they see this position as most consistent with both the Bible and what we know of the natural world. The YEC hold that the earth was created relatively recently (a few thousand years) and believe their position to be most consistent with scripture.
In discussing this debate it is most important to understand that this is an in-house issue and that both positions are Christian positions. One can be a faithful Christian and hold either position. Since whatever one may decide about the age of the earth it would do nothing to prove or disprove the resurrection of Jesus Christ, this issue should not be seen as a primary concern. Perhaps the best way to respond critiques of Christianity from this position is to point out that Christianity does not hang on how Genesis is interpreted and move on to the existence of God and the resurrection.
That being said, the science certainly seems to come down on the side of OEC. Our world certainly has the appearance of age. The cosmic background radiation, for example, is at a level of deterioration that implies a very old universe. It is beyond the scope of this post to explain additional reasons that observable data implies an older universe, but suffice it to say that empirical observations imply an older universe.
The YEC position has two recourses to this. One is to argue that God created a fully mature universe, rather than a new one. After all, Adam and Eve were certainly created as mature adults. Since God did not create mankind as a newborn, why must he have created the universe at birth rather than at maturity? Second the YEC position can argue that the universe is expanding out of a “white hole”. In this interpretation the time dilation predicted by general relativity explains the apparent age of the universe. The reader can refer to Gerald Rau’s book, Mapping the Origins Debate, for more information about this interpretation. Rau does admit that even this second interpretation must appeal to some things having been created “at maturity” rather than at birth.
The biblical evidence seems inconclusive. YEC would appeal to the ordinal numbers (1st day, 2nd day, 3rd day, etc) to identify 24-hour days as intended. They would also say that the repeated phrase, “and there was evening and there was morning,” to refer to literal days. It is strange to refer to an extended period of time as having “morning and evening” as there would be thousands or millions of “mornings and evenings” if one is to take the “days” to refer to extended ages rather than literal 24-hour periods.
The OEC would point to this same phrase as evidence of poetry rather than history. One does not typically repeat the same refrain over and over again as the author of Genesis does unless one intends to write poetry. There is also a poetic framework in which each of the days correspond:
1st day – light, 4th day – sun, moon, and stars
2nd day – air and sea, 5th day – birds and sea creatures
3rd day – land and vegetation, 6th day – land animals and humans
7th day – rest
We see that the 1st, 2nd, and 3rd day contain creation accounts for the domains within which each of the 4th, 5th, and 6th day creations dwell. We can also see that the 7th day, at least, does not refer to a 24 hour period as we are still in the 7th day now. If the 7th day is not a 24 hour period, then why consider the other days to be so small?
William Dembski wrote a great article for the Christian Apologetics Journal that I think is applicable here. Dembski suggested that science may be an interpretive tool to understand the Bible. That is to say that if one encounters two equally valid interpretations of the scriptures, that science may lead us to favor one over the other. Applied to the age of the earth, one may choose the OEC position for now since it seems to be faithful to scripture as well as in accord with our observable world. This means that things like the dinosaurs, the ice age, and various other seemingly ancient phenomena were just part of how God brought about our world today and Genesis is a poetic summarization.
William A. Dembski, Does The Bible Conflict With Science? (Christian Apologetics Journal, Fall 2012), 3-30.
Gerald Rau, Mapping the Origins Debate: Six Models of the Beginning of Everything (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2012).