I recently came across an issue that has troubled some members of the Church. It is simply that some scriptures and the words of some Church leaders seem to indicate that the Earth is only about 6000-7000 years old, and that there was no death before the Fall of Adam and Eve. This causes significant cognitive dissonance for some because it seems clear from geologic and biologic evidences that the Earth has been around for much longer than that, with birth and death throughout. Because of the conflict between these two thoughts, it has caused some to even lose their faith and leave the Church. Let’s explore these issues some more and see if there is a reasonably plausible solution or reconciliation of these views.
I should first note that what I offer here is simply my first impressions. This is certainly not exhaustive or comprehensive. I’m willing to discuss other arguments to the question, or other scriptures that bear upon the subject.
First of all, it is my opinion that the Earth has been around a lot longer than 6000 years. I think the geologic and biologic evidences bear that out abundantly. It takes a really, really, long time to create some of the geologic features that we see today, barring incredible cataclysmic events. It also seems abundantly clear that there has been death for a really long time. The bones of dinosaurs and other animal and plant life litter the globe, and there is far and away a near unanimous consensus among scientists, even LDS scientists, that the dating methods used are quite accurate.
I will note that some young Earth theorists, including some in my own family, believe that catastrophic events could have taken place to produce the features we see in a short period of time, indeed, even illustrating this by scriptures from the Book of Mormon that describe such dramatic changes to the “face of the land” such as at the time of the death of Christ. But I, personally, don’t really believe even such cataclysms that are described in scripture could account for 100% of the Earth’s surface which exhibit these extremely old geologic features. Some will also say that our dating methods are inaccurate and wrong (e.g. radiocarbon and radiometric dating, etc.), and that the fossils we see could be only a few thousand years old (or even a far shorter time), rather than millions of years old. I don’t really believe this reasoning either. A majority of scientists, including LDS scientists, agree that the dating methods used are very accurate. In addition, I think most scientists can tell the difference between a genuine fossil and a synthetic petrification.
So then how do we account for the scriptures that say the Earth is only about 6000 years old, and that there was no death before the Fall? Well, let’s take a look at them. Here are the scriptures that are widely used to indicate that the Earth is young, D&C 77:6–7:
6 Q. What are we to understand by the book which John saw, which was sealed on the back with seven seals?
A. We are to understand that it contains the revealed will, mysteries, and the works of God; the hidden things of his economy concerning this earth during the seven thousand years of its continuance, or its temporal existence.
7 Q. What are we to understand by the seven seals with which it was sealed?
A. We are to understand that the first seal contains the things of the first thousand years, and the second also of the second thousand years, and so on until the seventh. (D&C 77:6–7)
This revelation is describing the book of Revelation in the Bible, specifically chapter 5. First of all, I would note that this does not say that the Earth was “created” 6000-7000 years ago. This is a key point. It doesn’t even say that the Earth is 6000-7000 years “old.” It doesn’t use those terms. It says that the book which John saw (what “book” is that?) contains things about the Earth “during the seven thousand years of its continuance, or its temporal existence.” What does that mean? How should we understand it? On the surface, at face value, it would seem that it is saying the Earth will have an existence for precisely 7000 years. But we need not always take the scriptures at face value; in fact, most of the time we shouldn’t, and many times we don’t. Let’s look closer at it; the scriptures can reveal much deeper meanings when we try to understand the language of what each word might mean, what the original author meant when they wrote it, what God might mean by it, and the various ways in which it might be interpreted by man, i.e. exegesis.
If we look up the word continuance in the 1828 Webster’s dictionary, a dictionary contemporary with Joseph Smith, it gives the following definition:
1. A holding on or remaining in a particular state, or in a course or series. Applied to time, duration; a state of lasting; as the continuance of rain or fair weather for a day or week. Sensual pleasure is of short continuance.
2. Perseverance; as, no excuse will justify a continuance in sin.
By patient continuance in well doing. Romans 2.
3. Abode; residence; as, during our continuance in Paris.
4. Succession uninterrupted; continuation; a prolonging of existence; as, the brute regards the continuance of his species.
5. Progression of time.
In thy book all my members were written, which in continuance were fashioned. Psalm 139.
6. In law, the deferring of a suit, or the giving of a day for the parties to a suit to appear. After issue or demurrer joined, as well as in some of the previous stages of proceeding, a day is continually given, and entered upon record, for the parties to appear on from time to time. The giving of this day is called a continuance.
7. In the United States, the deferring of a trial or suit from one stated term of the court to another.
8. Continuity; resistance to a separation of parts; a holding together. [Not used.]
You can see that continuance does not mean an entire, 100%, complete, or whole existential state of something. It refers to a particular state, course, series, or duration of time. It is a progression of time, a continuation, a succession of time, even a deferral of time. It is a state of being. My marriage has a continuance of eight years now, but it is not the entire time I’ve been alive, or existed. It is a phase of my life, but only a part of it.
Of course the term continuance is further qualified in the scripture by saying “or its temporal existence.” That seems to make it perfectly clear, doesn’t it? But there’s more to it. Here we should note that “existence” is modified by the adjective “temporal.” It doesn’t simply say “existence.” It is the Earth’s “temporal existence.” What does that mean? In what time has it existed? Our time? God’s time? Or some other time? The time according to what frame of reference? We know from Einstein’s theory of relativity that time passes very differently depending on one’s frame of reference. Other scriptures note that a thousand years to man is a day to God (2 Peter 3:8; cf. Abraham 3:4). So, if the revelation was given according to God’s time, which seems reasonable since the revelation was coming from God to Joseph Smith, and we take a literal precise meaning of the equivalence of 1000 years to a day, then doing some simple math yields that 7000 years to God might actually be something like 2.555 billion years to man, give or take a few million years. Now this seems to accord much better with science that gives a very old age of the Earth. Each of those “thousand years” would really be 365 million years each, to man. According to scientists’ current understanding, the age of the earth is about 4.54 billion years, give or take tens of millions of years. There is still a lot of speculation by scientists in this realm, and is largely based on rocks we find on the surface of the Earth, and are composites of many different rocks of different time periods, and which may have been recycled in the Earth’s crust many times. They also base it off of meteorites that they believe have been circling our solar system since its beginning. But there are few hard facts in this area. Scientists’ best guess at the age of the universe is 13.75 billion years, give or take hundreds of millions of years. But again, the frame of reference makes a big impact on time calculations, and there may be combinations of frames of reference.
But if we take another look at the D&C scripture, we can see that the time period indicated is based off of the seven seals from Revelation, which brings up perhaps the best explanation for this scripture. The book of Revelation is replete with numerical symbolism, and should not be taken at literal face value. Each of the time spans of the seven seals could represent a figurative or symbolic length of time, not precisely a thousand years of our common time. One interesting association here is that the Hebrew word used for “thousand” in the Bible is ‘eleph, or אֶלֶף, and which could mean the number one thousand, but can also mean a very large amount. We know that Joseph studied Hebrew, and could have used the word thousand in a similar sense to indicate a large span of time, and not a precise duration of years (or God may have revealed the very word “thousand” to him, using it in a similar way as it is in the Hebrew Bible). If this is true, then additionally the scriptures that say a thousand years to man is a day to God could also be entirely symbolic, meaning that time is not of import to God; instead of teaching us about a certain number of years, God could be teaching us that a large span of man’s time is nothing to Him. Indeed Moses proclaimed that “man is nothing,” something which hadn’t occurred to him before (Moses 1:10; cf Abraham 3). God may be teaching a larger lesson and principle about his qualities of being eternal and infinite, and that all things are “present” to him.
There are many associated questions pertaining to this subject that we are simply unsure of, and have not received definitive revelation (Article of Faith 9). How long was the Earth in its planning stages? How long did it take to create the Earth? Again, seven days may symbolically indicate time periods only, not literal days, or even days from man’s reckoning. The Hebrew word for “day,” yowm, or יוֹם, can indicate indeterminate lengths of time, or simply a division of time. How long were Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden? Where was the Earth located when Adam and Eve were in the Garden of Eden? Has the Earth moved since then (which would affect its accounting of time)? There are some Church leaders that have said that the Fall of Adam and Eve also caused a physical fall of the Earth as well to another time and space, created in a terrestrial state and falling to a telestial state (see my post referring to that subject). When did it move? How long did it take to move? How did the passage of time change as the Earth moved to a different space? Many such questions that we simply do not have the answers for indicate to me that we simply do not know how old the Earth is from revelation, but it is likely not 6000 years old. Such verbiage in the scriptures likely indicate periods of time, different frames of reference, or a combination of the two, and should be viewed symbolically, not literally. The scriptures are not science books, and were not prepared to teach us scientific things. They primarily teach us spiritual truths and the mysteries of godliness, not the intricacies of how God does his work mathematically or scientifically.
Again, just this past Saturday, at “The Temple on Mount Zion” Conference, I was reminded of the symbolic language often employed in the scriptures, and that numbers in scriptures do not necessarily always mean exactly that precise numeral. Andrew Ehat, in discussing the “Day of Provocation,” and the “ten” failures of Israel their first year from Egyptian captivity, said this:
What were these ‘ten’ times? The Talmud provides a list of ‘ten’ events, but not all Rabbis are agreed, including some taking the view that the term ‘ten’ in ‘ten times’ can simply mean ‘many times.’
But doesn’t the Church teach that the Earth is 6000 years old? Isn’t it doctrine? The simple answer is no, it’s not. The Encyclopedia of Mormonism states this plainly:
The scriptures do not say how old the earth is, and the Church has taken no official stand on this question.
It should also be noted that the encyclopedia adds, “Nor does the Church consider it to be a central issue for salvation.” What about what Church leaders have said? We must keep in mind that Church leaders are free to give their opinion on matters that are not official positions of the Church. Not everything that they say makes a doctrine. The First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve Apostles establish the doctrine of the Church by revelation. In regards to the present issue, President Brigham Young perhaps said it best:
In these respects we differ from the Christian world, for our religion will not clash with or contradict the facts of science in any particular…whether the Lord found the earth empty and void, whether he made it out of nothing or out of the rude elements; or whether he made it in six days or in as many millions of years, is and will remain a matter of speculation in the minds of men unless he give revelation on the subject. If we understood the process of creation there would be no mystery about it, it would be all reasonable and plain, for there is no mystery except to the ignorant. (Brigham Young, Journal of Discourses 14:166, May 14, 1871.)
In many ways, we are still ignorant in these things, and there has been no definitive revelation yet. As the Encyclopedia of Mormonism states, “the scriptures do not say.” So even our thoughts, as members of the Church, are simply speculation until God gives a revelation otherwise.
Some might say this is wishful thinking, that the scriptures plainly mean what they say. But I personally don’t take that view. I believe the scriptures are exceptionally heavy in symbolism and meaning that goes very, very deep, and we should not simply take what they say at face value and move on. There are worlds of meaning embedded in those sacred words, given by divine revelation to man, and only by studying it out in our minds and seeking the Spirit of revelation can we learn what God intends for us to learn. The same method of learning applies to the temple where there is also worlds of meaning embedded in symbolism.
Another part of this issue that comes to bear is that of birth and death before Adam. We will keep that subject for another post.