In my previous blog entry (on religious calendars), I mentioned that according to the Jewish or Hebrew calendar, we are currently living in the year 5772. I further mentioned that the Jewish calendar begins counting or numbering its years from what rabbinic tradition reckons to be the time of creation, as described in the first two chapters of the book of Genesis (the first book of the Bible).
Strictly speaking, of course, this would suggest that Judaism as a whole believes that creation occurred about 5,772 years ago — and the heavens and the earth are both just under six thousand years old. While some religiously very conservative Jews affirm this traditional dating of the time of creation as historically and scientifically accurate, many other Jews no longer necessarily take it as literal fact.
A similar situation prevails within Christianity. A 17th-century Irish archbishop named James Ussher likewise famously calculated (based upon clues he carefully gleaned from the biblical texts) that God began his six-day work of divine creation on Sunday, October 23, 4004 BC. If his calculations were correct, then humanity, life in general, the earth, and even the universe itself are all now just a little over six thousand years old.
Of course, since the good archbishop’s day, science has come a long way. The current scientific consensus is that the universe is approximately 13.7 billion years old, with the Earth itself being about 4.5 billion years old; the origin of life on earth occurred around 3.5 billion years ago, with specifically human origins dating back to around 2.3 million years ago (depending upon where one wishes to draw the line between humans proper and their not-quite-human ancestors; the primate genus Homo first appeared on the scene 2.3 million years ago, but modern humans didn’t appear until only about 200,000 years ago).
This widely accepted contemporary scientific consensus regarding the origin of the universe and the origin of life (based upon vast amounts of data from astronomy, cosmology, geology, biology, and a host of other disciplines) clearly stands in stark contrast to the older traditional Judeo-Christian religious views regarding such origins (which are instead based upon literal readings of Genesis).
13,700,000,000 years ago = origin of the universe
4,500,000,000 years ago = origin of the earth
3,500,000,000 years ago = origin of life on earth
2,300,000 years ago = origin of human life (genus Homo appears)
200,000 years ago = origin of human life (modern Homo sapiens)
6,000 years ago = six-day divine creation of everything
Many theologically liberal, progressive, and moderate Jews and Christians actually have no problem whatsoever squaring these two very different perspectives. For them, the Genesis creation stories are spiritual poetry rather than literal history, religious metaphor rather than scientific fact. These biblical “creation myths” are therefore primarily suggestive of how all of creation arose from, and ultimately depends upon, a divine Creator, rather than being a literal step-by-step (or day by day) chronicling of how the creation of the universe actually unfolded.
For such Jews and Christians, the scientific consensus that the universe is billions of years (rather than mere thousands of years) is in no way problematic. Nor does the scientific consensus that life on earth evolved over billions of years constitute any sort of challenge or stumbling-block, since their faith is not dependent upon a strictly literal reading of Genesis. For them, the real significance and meaning of divine creation is less about the precise details of “how” or “when” things came into existence, and much more about the vastly deeper “why” of existence per se.
Many Jews and Christians in fact affirm “theistic evolution,” fully accepting the scientific evidence in favor of evolution but seeing it as simply the means or method by which God chose to create “life, the universe, and everything.” The six “days” of creation, it has often been suggested in such circles, need not necessarily refer to six literal 24-hour days; such “days” might instead refer to so many geologic epochs, or to other, immensely longer spans of cosmic time.
Other, much more theologically conservative Jews and Christians instead remain fully committed to a steadfastly “literalist” and a firmly “inerrantist” view of the Bible, a perspective which regards scripture as historically and scientifically without error (because they believe the Bible to be the actual, literal Word of God, and God does not make mistakes), and according to which all of its pronouncements and teachings are to be interpreted literally, rather than poetically — as absolute fact, rather than as mere metaphor.
Such theologically conservative Jews and Christians generally affirm that if the Bible says that the universe and everything in it (including us) were created in six days, then you can take it to the bank that it really happened in just that way — and that “six days” even in this particular case really does mean six literal, 24-hours days.
In particular, those who identify with “young Earth creationism” (known as YEC for short) flatly reject the scientific consensus regarding the age of the universe, of the earth, and of human origins as being measurable in millions or billions of years. Based upon their faith in the inerrancy and literal meaning of the Bible, such “young Earth creationists” (or YECs) instead maintain that God created everything a mere six thousand (6,000) — or, at most, perhaps ten thousand (10,000) – years ago.
A 2012 Gallup poll indicated that 46% of the U.S. population believe in young Earth creationism (agreeing with the statement “God created human beings pretty much in their present form at one time within the last 10,000 years or so”), while another 32% affirm theistic evolution (“Human beings have developed over millions of years from less advanced forms of life, but God guided this process”). Only 15% accept purely naturalistic evolution (“Human beings have developed over millions of years from less advanced forms of life, but God had no part in this process”).
So, how old is “Creation” (the cosmos, and everything in it, including humans)?
According to many theologically conservative Jews and Christians (including “young Earth creationists” or YECs), the universe, the earth, life in general, and human life in particular were all created by God during a single brief (six-day) span of time which occurred a mere six to ten thousand years ago.
According to many theologically liberal, progressive, and moderate Jews and Christians (including adherents of “theistic evolution,” or other variants of “old Earth creationism”), God still created everything, but did so pretty much at the times (and in the order) that the scientific consensus maintains that they occurred — over an immensely broad span of time encompassing billions of years for the universe, the earth, and life in general, and over the course of millions of years for human life in particular. Most such Judeo-Christian theists accept the body of scientific evidence which indicates that the universe (or the creation) is nearly 14 billion years old.
Of course, these Western theological perspectives on the age of the cosmos are not the only game in town. For example, a Hindu tradition maintains that the universe will exist for 4.3 billion years (a so-called “Day of Brahma”); it will then be destroyed, inaugurating a period of non-existence which will last another 4.3 billion years (a “Night of Brahma”), at the conclusion of which a new universe will “incarnate” for yet another 4.3 billion years. Each Day and Night of Brahma (one complete cycle of existence and non-existence) thus spans some 8.6 billion years. And it doesn’t all end there; the entire process then repeats itself, again and again.
This unending Hindu cosmic cycle of creation, destruction, and re-creation repeats itself forever. Its beginningless and unending series of cosmic births, deaths, and rebirths both parallels the Hindu belief in reincarnation (according to which humans and other living beings are born, die, and reborn in an unending cycle), and is also rather reminiscent of certain scientific hypotheses which suggest the possibility that we may in fact live in an “oscillating universe” of endlessly cycling Big Bangs (the Big Bang which gave birth to our present universe is but the latest in an infinite series of such Big Bangs, each of which is followed by followed by a Big Crunch [or Big Collapse], which in turn is then followed by yet another Big Bang… ad infinitum).
In such a view, universes come and universes go, in an infinite series of cosmic cycles which itself is everlasting.