If God Made the World, Why is it So Old?


According to standard geological timeframes, we human beings are a thing of yesterday. I remember reading somewhere (I cannot remember where) that if earth’s history were compressed into a 24-hour day, then all of human history would comprise roughly the last two seconds of that day (not two minutes). Amazing. From the perspective of sheer time, Planet Earth has had much more to do with sponges swaying in the ocean or spiders scurrying along the forest floor than human beings engaging in relationship and art and worship.

As a Christian theologian, I have really wrestled with this. Sure, our relatively recent arrival doesn’t prove an a-teleological view of history. But for a Christian, or any broadly anthropocentric worldview, it feels counter-intuitive. If we are the image of God and capstone of creation (Psalm 8), why did God take so long to bring us about? Most musicians don’t wait until the final crescendo to bring in the important instruments, and most coaches don’t wait until the final seconds of the fourth quarter to send in their best players. What has God been waiting for?

In the last few years, however, two things have helped reduce this tension for me. In fact, I’ve come to see the grinding stretch of eons and dinosaurs and volcanoes that precedes us as, far from evidence of God’s absence, actually an instrument by which He intends to communicate His power and glory and eternity to us.

Widening my Conception of “Creation”

First, it’s helped me to consider that many particular objects within creation show this same pattern of slow emergence through natural processes. This in no way implies any imperfection in God’s design, but on the contrary only magnifies his power and wisdom all the more.

For example, the tree in my front yard. On the one hand, God could have produced this tree de novo in an instant. One might intuitively feel that bringing the tree about in this way would be a great demonstration of God’s power and glory. But when it comes down to it, does it really take any less power, or showcase any less glory, to bring the tree about very slowly through intermediate means like a seed, water, sunshine, and soil? The fact that the tree is there at all is already 99% of the wonder, and has 100% of the same current relevance.

Second example: human beings. For all of us, there are innumerable moments before we are even aware that we exist. One can ask: if God wants to make a conscious moral agent who could worship him, why go to the trouble of conception, embryonic development, infancy, and early childhood? If the end goal is all that matters, that is a lot of “dead time.”

Evidently the end goal is not all that matters. Evidently God is not always in a rush, and his main interest seems to be something other than sheer efficiency. And if this is true of creation at the “local” level, why can’t it be true at the “global” level? If God can communicate his glory by bringing trees and human beings (and countless other things) into existence through slow, progressive, interdependent processes, why not also with the world in which trees and human beings exist?

To be clear: I’m not advocating full-scale evolution. Personally, I believe that God does his creative work through a complex variety of both “natural” and “supernatural” means, and the distinction between the two gets a bit fuzzy when you press into it. What I’m saying is that we should have a doctrine of creation that is wide enough to appreciate both kinds of creation, and that when God creates through natural and/or slow processes, it is no less a demonstration of his wisdom, power, and goodness.

I like the instincts of G.K. Chesterton on this point:

“If evolution simply means that a positive thing called an ape turned very slowly into a positive thing called a man, then it is stingless for the most orthodox; for a personal God might just as well do things slowly as quickly, especially if, like the Christian God, he were outside time. But if it means anything more, it means that there is no such thing as an ape to change, and no such thing as a man for him to change into. It means that there is no such thing as a thing. At best, there is only one thing, and that is a flux of everything and anything.”

Why might God create through the world so slowly? Why might fish and lizards inhabit the world for hundreds of millions of years, and we for a mere blink of an eye in comparison? I don’t know. But there can sometimes be a strategy to putting in a good player in the fourth quarter, and there is a certain kind of beauty in the grand finale of a musical score. And childhood adds something important to our experience as human beings. There is a kind of beauty and fittingness in patience, in seeming “dead time,” in the slow, seasonal nature of things. I trust that God may have reasons for his timing that we cannot fully fathom.

Rejecting Geocentrism was Similarly Counter-Intuitive

I’ve also been helped by considering the size of the universe. Once again, the fact that we are a tiny dot in an endless ocean of stars doesn’t prove an empty view of space, but it can sure feel counter-intuitive to an anthropocentric worldview. Accepting our tiny place on the outskirts of the universe was, in fact, so counter-intuitive that it took the Christian church a long time to accept. Again, most artists don’t put the most important object on their painting in a tiny infinitesimal dot in the corner, and most architects don’t purchase several million acres in order to build a tiny house on the edge of it.

But, when I think about it, if God is infinite, why not make the universe huge? What better way to give a tiny inkling of His own immensity?

The more important thing is not how large the world is, or how long God took in bringing it about, but that a finite, space-time universe like ours exists at all. This is the great miracle–and whether it happened in 13 billion years or 13 thousand years, or whether it contains ten stars or ten trillion, should not disguise to us the fact that it is a miracle.

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  1. Gavin, I appreciate what you say here about God’s use of time, development into maturity as a process, and use of intermediate means. I think this a key to understanding why God would have created humans so late in earth history (not until Day six – evidently over four billion years after he brought forth the formless, empty, and dark planet on Day one). God, of course, has the end in mind from the beginning—indeed, he declares the end from the beginning—and the creation of the human species in his own image and for his own glory was always the predetermined crescendo of the creation week. Creation science ministry Reasons to Believe has helped me understand this by pointing out the preconditions needed for a flourishing human race. The elements required for human beings to be able to launch and maintain civilization are precise, and their concurrent existence with our own points strongly toward divine orchestration. Let’s take biodeposits as an example. Dr. Hugh Ross points out that “Through death and decay, God gave humanity enormous biodeposits of sand, limestone, marble, topsoil, coal, oil, and natural gas [….] Humans are the beneficiaries of the remains of millions of generations of plants and animals that preceded us.” It turns out that God created mankind at the end of a long creation week not only because he was not in a hurry, but because he knew exactly what he was doing and how he wanted to do it and brought it about perfectly, describing it all as very good. This is why God created in stages, as Genesis teaches, and not all at once.

  2. I used to think similarly. I have been studying the science again with a fresh perspective and now see the hidden assumptions in the common teachings that lead to false conclusions. It has been a fascinating journey. The billions of years bothers you because they are false. To lose that burden is wonderful. If you are interested in more details, please let me know.

  3. Dr. Ortlund,
    I would like your thoughts on a couple verses:
    I. 2 Peter 3 speaks of God making the earth from water; how shall we interpret this if we are Old-Earth Creationists?
    II. I believe it is Mark 6 that speaks about God making human beings male and female from the beginning of creation. I read an article of yours which seemed to state that the Christ is speaking figuratively – exaggeration; must this be true for Old-Earth Creationism to be possible (it was your response article to Doug Wilson)? You claimed no one interprets this verse absolutely literally, as the actual beginning of creation would be Gen. 1:1 (not Day Six of Creation). However, I’m not sure if this argument is entirely convincing, as six literal days into time, according to Young-Earth Creationists, can be considered part of ‘the beginning’, and Day Six is part of the act of creation.


    1. Hi, Brayden. Let me just offer a thought. God made mankind at the end of creation, not the beginning of creation, if we’re talking about when in the creating process God did it. Mankind was the *last* thing God created. Jesus’s point in Mark 10:6 surely is that from the beginning of the creation *of the human race* God made them male and female. In other words, humans were male and female from the very start (even when Adam was alone for a time, he was male, not a drone, and God wasn’t done until there was a female), and this has been the experience of the human race the whole time–by God’s perfect design. Jesus is teaching about divorce and marriage here, not about creationism (old or young); it’s always a bad practice to hang too much of a particular theory on a statement that is teaching about something else altogether.