There is an interesting article at Science News about ancient footprints found in petrified mud in England. According to the explanations presented in the article, some ancient ancestors of humans walked through the mud at least 780,000 years ago, and the footprints stayed in that mud and were protected from erosion for many years until the moisture was slowly extracted out of the mud and it solidified into rock. Footprints even older than this have been discovered in Tanzania (3.6 million years old) and Kenya (1.5 million years old). I find such discoveries fascinating.
There has been much conversation lately about certain celebrity debates on questions of creation and evolution. As an aside, I would suggest that we could have much better debates, conversations, and discussions if we found two philosophers, or two scientists, or two theologians with different perspectives on the issues and listened to a respectful conversation on the topic. But, we live in an age of celebrity where we would rather hear from television celebrities than hear from the best minds on any given subject.
When we read articles like this in Science News, what should those of us who seek to understand the universe from a theistic perspective do with this information? There are a few ways that we can explain this. Some, who hold to a young earth creationist perspective, will suggest that the world-wide flood described in Genesis 6-8 of the Jewish and Christian Bible disrupted the layers of sediment, rock, mud, and all land on the earth such that footprints like these actually represent people who walked the earth much later in history; say 6000 years ago. The problem with this argument is that, as we look at the geological structures of the earth, we see that typically the evidence of the most primitive cultures with primitive tools and primitive social structures is found in the lowest levels of geology, right where science predicts the evidence to be. Can we seriously say that footprints like this were moved around by a world-wide flood and others were not? On what logical basis would we make these sorts of pronouncements?
Another line of reasoning for the young earth creationist is represented by Albert Mohler. He says that
The universe looks old because the creator made it whole. When he made Adam, Adam was not a fetus; Adam was a man; he had the appearance of a man.1
The reasoning here is that our universe is not truly old, it only looks old. God created it such that it looks old. Beams of light from stars a million light years away were presumably created already en route. I find this more compelling than other young earth arguments; yet, it is not quite satisfying. It requires that God put footprints, bones, and archaeological artifacts in the ground from beings that never truly existed. It is not impossible. It is also possible that God created the universe yesterday and all of the memories we have from years before were created intact in our brains. Philosophers speak of such theories. Albert Mohler is a great spokesman for an intelligent young earth theory and I respect him even as I disagree with him.
A third solution for those of us who wish to understand both science and a creator God is to allow that God used an evolutionary process to create the universe, planet earth, plants, animals, and human beings. From this perspective, God caused the Big Bang 13.7 billion years ago and he has been creating ever since. He created the sun about 5 billion years ago; planet earth about 4.5 billion years ago; he caused the first cellular life to appear on earth about 3.6 billion years ago; dinosaurs, 300 million years ago; mammals, 200 million years ago; early hominid ancestors of humans show up 2.5 million years ago; and Homo Sapiens, only about 200,000 years ago.2 It is a plausible and logical way of looking at things. It does require that we see the first few chapters of Genesis as a poetic description of creation rather than a scientific textbook; but then, most of us treated those chapters that way anyway.
So, when I read of 800,000 year old footprints in the mud I can rejoice in a God who has been guiding a process for many millennia. I do not fear or argue with scientific discoveries for they do not threaten my understanding of an amazing creator God.
1 Biologos Forum. Biologos: Science and Faith in Dialogue. 2011. http://biologos.org/resources/albert-mohler-why-does-the-universe-look-so-old (accessed September 26, 2011). Video of his speech is available at http://www.ligonier.org/learn/conferences/tough-questions-christians-face-2010-national/why-does-the-universe-look-so-old/ The transcript is also available here: http://www.icr.org/article/5669/
2 Wikipedia has a nice timeline of these estimations at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Timeline_of_evolutionary_history_of_life.