How old is the earth? Was it created 6,000 years ago or is it billions of years old? If the earth is billions of years old, does that conflict with Genesis?
Did God create the universe in six days?
The Bible reveals that the universe existed before the six days of creation. Genesis 1:1 (“In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth”) describes the beginning of the story of humans, but the Bible also relates earlier events.
Even before God gave His command on the first day, Genesis 1:2 says that the “spirit of God was hovering over the face of the waters.” This verse shows that the earth had existed before the first day of the creation week, though it does not tell us for how long. In fact, there may be billions of years between the original creation of the earth and universe in Genesis 1:1 and Genesis 1:2.
Many people interpret the creation week in Genesis 1 as a creation of the universe and the earth from nothing just 6,000 years ago. But this interpretation seems to create contradictions with geology and astronomy, which indicate a much older age for both the earth and the universe.
Of course, those who have proved the existence of the great Creator God know that God could have created the entire universe with the appearance of age, as He created Adam and Eve as adults, instead of babies.
This is the basis of “young earth” creationism, a popular theory that includes much more detailed explanations to address everything from the dinosaurs to radiocarbon dating.
However, many others believe this interpretation does not adequately explain all the scientific evidence or the biblical record of prehistory.
Though the “young earth” idea is popular, it is not the only biblical explanation for the creation. There are two other explanations that have been proposed that allow for a much older earth.
One explanation attempts to reconcile the Bible with geology and astronomy by interpreting the days of creation week as “ages” that can be millions or billions of years in length. But this “day-age creationism” has its own set of difficulties.
How long were the “days” in the creation week?
What is the meaning of the word “day” that is used in describing the creation week? The Hebrew word for “day” is yom; and it is often interpreted as “time,” as in the “day of vengeance” and the “day of adversity.” Sometimes it is used symbolically to represent a “year” (Ezekiel 4:6).
Another meaning of the word “day” is a 12-hour daylight period. The rain that caused the Flood of Noah’s time lasted 40 days and 40 nights (Genesis 7:12). Jonah was in the great fish’s belly for three days and three nights (Jonah 1:17). Similarly, Christ was in the tomb for a literal three days and three nights.
But those who believe that the days of creation lasted for an age would have a problem with the following passage: “Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is the Sabbath of the LORD your God. … For in six days the LORD made the heavens and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, and rested the seventh day. Therefore the LORD blessed the Sabbath day and hallowed it” (Exodus 20:9-11).
The Hebrew word for day (yom) occurs five times in this passage, and it primarily refers to a 24-hour period, not an age. If each of these seven days was intended to refer to an age, the Hebrew word dor (age) would more likely have been used instead of yom.
Let’s look at the order of this creation week and see if interpreting these days as ages makes sense in light of what God created.
First, it’s interesting to note that even before God gave His first command of creation week, Genesis 1:2 says that the “spirit of God was hovering over the face of the waters.” That means that the earth and the water on the earth had already been created before the first day of the creation week.
The earth and waters must have been in darkness, since God says in Genesis 1:3, “Let there be light.” This could mean that light could not reach the earth’s surface until God made the light appear.
Plants were created on the third day (Genesis 1:11-13). The moon, sun and stars appear on the fourth day (Genesis 1:14-19). How could plants survive for millions of years without sunshine? Birds and insects were created on the fifth day (Genesis 1:20-23). Many plants could not have existed without insects and birds to pollinate them.
And it is recorded that “the evening and the morning were the first day” (Genesis 1:5). This phrase is repeated for each of the succeeding days of the creation week, and it clearly refers to a 24-hour period of time.
So, based upon the context of the word usage and the order of what was made in Genesis 1, the meaning of the word “day” (yom) here would have been literal 24-hour days—not thousand-, million- or billion-year-long ages.
Thankfully, there’s another explanation that fits what the Bible says much better.
The gap theory
If we examine Genesis 1:1 and Genesis 1:2, we find some clues that might explain a gap in time between these two verses. Genesis 1:1 says, “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.” This is when God created both the stars and the earth that we live on. The angels existed before the earth was created and shouted for joy when they beheld it (Job 38:4, 6-7).
Genesis 1:2 states, “The earth was without form [Hebrew tohu], and void [Hebrew bohu].”
Let’s look at other scriptures in the Bible to gain more understanding on this verse. “For thus says the LORD, who created the heavens, who is God, who formed the earth and made it, who has established it, who did not create it in vain [Hebrew tohu], who formed it to be inhabited: ‘I am the LORD, and there is no other’” (Isaiah 45:18, emphasis added throughout).
God says that He did not create the earth in vain. So what happened between Genesis 1:1 and Genesis 1:2?
The word “was” in verse 2 is translated from the Hebrew word hayah. The word hayah is used elsewhere in the book of Genesis, but it’s not always translated “was.” Consider the following passages:
- “And the LORD God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became [hayah] a living being” (Genesis 2:7).
- “In the process of time it came to pass [hayah] that Cain brought an offering of the fruit of the ground to the LORD” (Genesis 4:3).
- “His wife looked back behind him, and she became [hayah] a pillar of salt” (Genesis 19:26).
- “But indeed she is truly my sister. She is the daughter of my father, but not the daughter of my mother; and she became [hayah] my wife” (Genesis 20:12).
As shown in the above examples in the book of Genesis, translating the word hayah as “became” is not only possible, sometimes it is the better choice. Gleason Archer, a professor of biblical languages, comments:
“It should be noted in this connection that the verb was in Genesis 1:2 may quite possibly be rendered ‘became’ and be construed to mean: ‘And the earth became formless and void.’ Only a cosmic catastrophe could account for the introduction of chaotic confusion into the original perfection of God’s creation. This interpretation certainly seems to be exegetically tenable” (A Survey of Old Testament Introduction, 1974, p. 184).
In a footnote on page 184, Professor Archer adds, “Properly speaking, this verb hayah never has the meaning of static being like the copular verb ‘to be.’ Its basic notion is that of becoming or emerging as such and such, or of coming into being. …
“Sometimes a distinction is attempted along the following lines: hayah means ‘become’ only when it is followed by the preposition le; otherwise there is no explicit idea of becoming. But this distinction will not stand up under analysis. In Gen 3:20 the proper rendering is: ‘And Adam called the name of his wife Eve, because she became the mother of all living.’ No le follows the verb in this case. So also in Gen 4:20: ‘Jabal became the father of tent dwellers.’ Therefore there can be no grammatical objection raised to translating Gen 1:2: ‘And the earth became a wasteness and desolation’” (ibid.).
So if we translate the word hayah as “became” instead of “was,” it then would indicate the earth was created perfect in Genesis 1:1 and then became waste and empty. This break in time that would have occurred between Genesis 1:1 and 1:2 is how the explanation that’s known as the gap theory got its name.
What caused the earth to become waste and empty?
As we saw earlier, Isaiah gives us a very clear indication that the earth was not made to be tohu by God. He informs us that “God, who formed the earth and made it, who has established it, who did not create it in vain [tohu] … formed it to be inhabited” (Isaiah 45:18). If God didn’t create the earth tohu or “in vain,” how did it become that way?
The angels were already in existence before the earth was created Job 38:4, 6-7). Then a catastrophic event occurred. Lucifer decided to try to take over God’s throne (Isaiah 14:12-14). One third of the angels were drawn away in this revolt (Revelation 12:4). They were thrown back to the earth with their leader, who became known as Satan. Jesus Christ said: “I saw Satan fall like lightning from heaven” (Luke 10:18). It appears that the earth was badly damaged as a result of that rebellion.
Satan was not created evil. He became evil through pride and sinned against God by his rebellion (Ezekiel 28:14-17). By the time he tempted Eve in the Garden of Eden, he was already evil.
A history of the gap theory
Many who do not believe the gap theory say it was only developed as an attempt to answer Charles Darwin’s famous book The Origin of Species, which was published in 1859. However, the idea of the gap theory has been written about for more than a thousand years. For example, the Targum of Onkelos, translated into Aramaic by scholars in the second century after Christ, renders Genesis 1:2, “And the earth was laid waste.”
The more recent popularization of the gap theory seems to have originated with Professor Baron Cuvier from the University of Paris. Professor Cuvier believed that the earth has undergone not one but many universal revolutions or cataclysms by water since its creation. The last of these was the Noachian deluge. Professor Cuvier summed up his ideas in two essays: “An Essay on the Theory of the Earth” (1817) and “Discourses on the Revolutions of the Surface of the Globe” (1825).
Thomas Chalmers, who lived from 1780-1847, is also said to have popularized gap theory creationism before Darwin. “He first lectured on it in 1814 and attributed it to Episcopius” (Tom McIver, Formless and Void: Gap Theory Creationism). Simon Episcopius himself lived from 1583-1643, long before there were scientific reasons to explore this explanation.
A re-creation week
How does the gap theory explain the creation week? The account in Genesis 1:2 to Genesis 2:3 is written from the standpoint of an observer on the earth. The creation week is not a record of God creating the earth from nothing (which is described in Genesis 1:1), but of God repairing the great damage done to the earth.
Genesis 1:2 states that “the Spirit of God was hovering over the face of the waters.” Psalm 104 is a creation psalm and also mentions God’s Spirit in light of creation: “You send forth Your Spirit, they are created; and You renew the face of the earth” (Psalm 104:30). The word “renew” comes from the Hebrew word chadash, which can also mean to “repair” (The New Brown, Driver, Briggs Hebrew and English Lexicon of the Old Testament). Order was restored to this earth during this literal seven-day week.
Genesis 1:3-5 and 14-19 use the words evening and morning, night and day, and darkness and light. All these terms relate to literal 24-hour days, just as they do today.
So, it appears from all the scriptures in the Bible and the physical evidence of the earth and the universe, that there was a gap of millions or billions of years between Genesis 1:1 and Genesis 1:2. What is described in Genesis 1:1 is the original creation of the earth and universe. What is described beginning in Genesis 1:2 is a re-creation week, not the original creation of this earth and the universe.
Read more about the Creator God in the other articles in this section on “Is There a God?”