Dinosaur Ridge runs along an interstate highway just outside of Denver, Colorado. The convenient location provided both exercise and education on a recent morning before a scheduled evening flight.

As is often the case, my colleague and hiking partner Bruce Gourley was along for the adventure. For many years, we have explored miles and miles of ancient natural wonders — from steep mountain formations to deep glacier-carved valleys.

When doing so, we often work in a joking line about how impressive something is to be “just 6,000 years old.”

That comment, of course, is tied to the continuing efforts of many fundamentalist Christians — despite growing evidence from radiocarbon dating to other reliable sources — to claim and defend the idea of a young earth.

These devoted believers choose to count the creative process in thousands rather than billions of years as is widely accepted in the scientific community.

A large rock with therapod track fossils visible next to a sign explaining what is visible in the rock.

(Photo: John D. Pierce)

Of the many creative wonders that Bruce and I have explored — often in very remote parts of our marvelous national landscape — nothing seemed more obviously ancient than the clear and multiple footprints of dinosaurs on a ridge side overlooking a busy, suburban roadway.

From my own nonscientific perspective, it seems the weight of science overwhelmingly supports the conclusion that places the earth’s origins somewhere around four and half billion years old.

And from my theological perspective, it takes imposing a lot of distracting and unnecessary literalism on the Bible to provide an alternative.

Much of the current defense of a very young earth is rooted in the strong reactions of conservative Christians to the rise of evolutionary biology — particularly the 1859 book, On the Origin of the Species, by Charles Darwin.

The so-called Scopes Monkey Trial of 1925 in Dayton, Tennessee — related to teaching evolution against state law — fueled the defensiveness of young earth creationists who saw their efforts as no less than a defense of God and the Bible as they understood it.

Those same defenders today root their beliefs in a defining commitment to a literal interpretation of the poetic creation account (though there are two accounts that vary) in the biblical book of Genesis. While the idea of science did not develop until long after these ancient stories, efforts are made to use the biblical text as scientific evidence.

Some of their “evidence,” however, comes not from the biblical stories that present God as creator without specificity of method, but from notes added to some versions of the Bible.

Bishop James Ussher of Ireland, in the early 17th century, deduced that the first day of the earth’s creation was October 23, 4004 B.C. The respected scholar did so by deciphering biblical chronology and genealogy — although the Bible is not particularly a book of history either.

While not the only one to advance this idea, his conclusion that the earth was formed in 4004 B.C. got inserted in the marginal notes of the King James Version of the Bible beginning in 1701.

My engagement with the natural world often puts me into moments of wonderment. Not everything, however, has to be fully explained or understood.

In fact, simply marveling at the mystery of creation evokes wonderment and worship.

Rather than theorizing creation, I’d rather offer a theory about young earth creationism. I believe it is a defensive measure to protect two things.

The first is a stubborn unwillingness to admit one might be wrong about any point of biblical interpretation. It is a fragile faith that fears just one crack in a long-held system of belief will bring down the whole house of faith.

Sadly, such an inflexible, unreflective defense of a narrow understanding of the Bible can be used to justify both ignorance and evil.

The second aspect of my theory is that one gains a greater sense of significance by restricting the universe’s existence to such a brief time in which one’s own fourscore experience fills a larger percentage.

Oddly, however, discovering creation to be older and bigger than ever imagined doesn’t have to bring insignificance. Often, I find that the overwhelming scale of nature makes me feel small but not disconnected or insignificant. But quite the opposite.

Rather than casting God as deceptive — one who seeks to confuse us by making things like dinosaur prints look really old — it seems wiser and more faithful to acknowledge a creator whose mysteries are well beyond the finite minds of humanity.

Defensiveness has nothing over pure wonder. One can marvel at the footprints of ancient dinosaurs while seeking to walk in the ways of Jesus.

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