Mormonism and science/Age of the Earth

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    Doctrine & Covenants 77:6 refers to "this earth during the seven thousand years of its continuance."

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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, (May 14, 1871) Journal of Discourses 14:116.

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Questions


Doctrine & Covenants 77:6 refers to the "seven thousand years" of the Earths temporal existence:

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.

  • How do we reconcile this statement with the fact that the earth is billions of years old?

To see citations to the critical sources for these claims, click here

Answer


The language in our scriptures from which such dating of the "age of the earth" is drawn is not intended to provide the kinds of scientific information that some people insist on having. Brigham Young stated that we have no revealed knowledge on the topic:

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, (May 14, 1871) Journal of Discourses 14:116. (emphasis added)

Detailed Analysis

Status of the Bible Dictionary

Regarding the LDS Bible Dictionary, the Church has been explicit that it is not to be taken as a statement of revealed Church doctrine. The introduction to the Bible Dictionary includes the following statement:

[The Bible Dictionary] is not intended as an official or revealed endorsement by the Church of the doctrinal, historical, cultural, and other matters set forth.

Robert J. Matthews, who was part of the committee in the late 1970s to create the LDS editions of the scriptures, including the study aids, said:

The new Bible dictionary is not intended as a revealed treatment or official version of doctrinal, historical, cultural, chronological, and other matters found in the Bible. [1]

Elder Bruce R. McConkie had this to say regarding "the Joseph Smith Translation items, the chapter headings, Topical Guide, Bible Dictionary, footnotes, the Gazetteer, and the maps":

None of these are perfect; they do not of themselves determine doctrine; there have been and undoubtedly now are mistakes in them. Cross-references, for instance, do not establish and never were intended to prove that parallel passages so much as pertain to the same subject. They are aids and helps only. [2]

To summarize, the entry in the Bible Dictionary is not part of the canon of scripture and is not binding upon anyone.

The scriptures do not specify the age of the Earth

The placement of Adam at 4,000 BC has a rather long history. Perhaps the most famous attempt was made by the Irish Anglican Bishop of Ussher, who calculated the date as 4,004 (and even calculated it down to the month and day!). Such a dating, however, is not in our scriptures, even if a version of it has been included into our Bible Dictionary.

The Encyclopedia of Mormonism article "Earth," states unequivocally:

The scriptures do not say how old the earth is, and the Church has taken no official stand on this question. Nor does the Church consider it to be a central issue for salvation. [3]

There are varying opinions among Latter-day Saints on the age of the earth. Some believe in a "young earth." Many Saints accept an old earth in the billions of years. Many probably have no strong opinions or thoughts one way or the other.

D&C 77

Doctrine and Covenants 77:6–7 contains the only canonized statement specifically identifying the age of the earth:

6 Q[uestion]. What are we to understand by the book which John saw,[4] which was sealed on the back with seven seals?
A[nswer]. 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.

Like many passages in scripture, this one is open to some interpretation. A literal reading has led some to conclude that the Earth is 7,000 years old. But other take a more symbolic or figurative interpretation that the 1,000-year dispensations are figurative in the sense of "large spans of time." This follows the Hebrew use of "thousand" ('elef), which sometimes meant a literal one thousand, and other times was more generically used to indicate "a large amount."

Furthermore, the phrase "temporal existence" allows for, if not implies, an existence prior to that. The chronological extent of the earth's creative period is not detailed specifically in scripture. There could quite possibly be a transition from the creative process to temporal existence thus allowing for a new period in the earth's history and thus the 7000 years.

It should be noted that these verses refer to the Book of Revelation, which is well-known for its dense numerical symbolism. It may, then, be premature to regard such numbers as literal and precise.

The Church does not take an official position on this issue

This is one of many issues about which the Church has no official position. As President J. Reuben Clark taught under assignment from the First Presidency:

Here we must have in mind—must know—that only the President of the Church, the Presiding High Priest, is sustained as Prophet, Seer, and Revelator for the Church, and he alone has the right to receive revelations for the Church, either new or amendatory, or to give authoritative interpretations of scriptures that shall be binding on the Church....
When any man, except the President of the Church, undertakes to proclaim one unsettled doctrine, as among two or more doctrines in dispute, as the settled doctrine of the Church, we may know that he is not "moved upon by the Holy Ghost," unless he is acting under the direction and by the authority of the President.
Of these things we may have a confident assurance without chance for doubt or quibbling.[5]

Harold B. Lee was emphatic that only one person can speak for the Church:

All over the Church you're being asked this: "What does the Church think about this or that?" Have you ever heard anybody ask that question? "What does the Church think about the civil rights legislation?" "What do they think about the war?" "What do they think about drinking Coca-Cola or Sanka coffee?" Did you ever hear that? "What do they think about the Democratic Party or ticket or the Republican ticket?" Did you ever hear that? "How should we vote in this forthcoming election?" Now, with most all of those questions, if you answer them, you're going to be in trouble. Most all of them. Now, it's the smart man that will say, "There's only one man in this church that speaks for the Church, and I'm not that one man."
I think nothing could get you into deep water quicker than to answer people on these things, when they say, "What does the Church think?" and you want to be smart, so you try to answer what the Church's policy is. Well, you're not the one to make the policies for the Church. You just remember what the Apostle Paul wrote to the Corinthians. He said, "For I determined not to know any thing among you, save Jesus Christ, and him crucified" (1 Corinthians 2:2). Well now, as teachers of our youth, you're not supposed to know anything except Jesus Christ and Him crucified. On that subject you're expected to be an expert. You're expected to know your subject. You're expected to have a testimony. And in that you'll have great strength. If the President of the Church has not declared the position of the Church, then you shouldn't go shopping for the answer.[6]

This was recently reiterated by the First Presidency (who now approves all statements published on the Church's official website):

Not every statement made by a Church leader, past or present, necessarily constitutes doctrine. A single statement made by a single leader on a single occasion often represents a personal, though well-considered, opinion, but is not meant to be officially binding for the whole Church. With divine inspiration, the First Presidency...and the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles...counsel together to establish doctrine that is consistently proclaimed in official Church publications. This doctrine resides in the four “standard works” of scripture (the Holy Bible, the Book of Mormon, the Doctrine and Covenants and the Pearl of Great Price), official declarations and proclamations, and the Articles of Faith. Isolated statements are often taken out of context, leaving their original meaning distorted.[7]

In response to a letter "received at the office of the First Presidency of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints" in 1912, Charles W. Penrose of the First Presidency wrote:

Question 14: Do you believe that the President of the Church, when speaking to the Church in his official capacity is infallible?
Answer: We do not believe in the infallibility of man. When God reveals anything it is truth, and truth is infallible. No President of the Church has claimed infallibility.[8]

For further information related to this topic


The Interpreter Foundation responds to these questions

John S. Lewis,"The Scale of Creation in Space and Time", Interpreter: A Journal of Mormon Scripture, 8:71-80 (December 27, 2013)


The antiquity of Earth was a subject of active debate in the early nineteenth century. Some adherents of a conservative interpretation of scripture ignored or sought to explain away the overwhelming evidence from geology. The more liberal scientific interpretations of geological history suggested an age of 100,000 to millions of years for Earth. Almost alone, W. W. Phelps, Joseph Smith’s Book of Abraham scribe, offered a vastly larger perspective. In the Times and Seasons, a letter from Phelps to the Prophet’s brother William states:

That eternity, agreeable to the records found in the catacombs of Egypt, has been going on in this system [Page 76](not the world)3 almost 2555 millions of years; and to know that deists, geologists and others are trying to prove that matter must have existed hundreds of thousands of years:—it almost tempts the flesh to fly to God, or muster faith like Enoch to be translated and see and know as we are seen and known!


...

Considering that Doctrine and Covenants 77:6 refers to “…this earth during the seven thousand years of its continuance, or its temporal existence,” what led Phelps to speak of Earth as 2,555 million years old? The answer appears to be straightforward. Though 7000 Earth years is in conflict with all physical, chemical, genetic, archaeological, and linguistic evidence, 7000 years of God is not ruled out. The arithmetic is easy. One day of God is 1000 years of man, and therefore in Joseph Smith’s reckoning, a day of God is 365 × 1000 days of man. The 2.555 billion years in question therefore corresponds to 2,555,000,000/365,000 years of God, which is 7000 years of God for each day of Earth’s existence. A more careful calculation, using the true average length of the year including leap years (365.257 days) gives 2,556,799,000 Earth years. Clearly Joseph Smith did not intend the “7000 years” of Earth’s age to refer to Earth years.
(Click here for full article)


  • Brigham as Young Earth Creationist
    Brief Summary: Some try to portray Brigham Young as a "young earth creationist" (YEC). This is someone who believes the earth was created in the recent past, usually 6-7,000 years ago, based upon a literal and fundamentalist reading of Genesis. They hope that by making Brigham appear uninformed about scientific matters, they can challenge his status as a prophet. (Click here for full article)
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Notes


  1. Robert J. Matthews, "Using the New Bible Dictionary in the LDS Edition," Ensign (June 1982), 48. [{{{url}}} off-site]
  2. Mark McConkie (editor), Doctrines of the Restoration: Sermons and Writings of Bruce R. McConkie (Salt Lake City, Utah: Bookcraft, 1989), 290. ISBN 978-0884946441. GL direct link
  3. Morris S. Petersen, "Earth," in Encyclopedia of Mormonism, 4 vols., edited by Daniel H. Ludlow, (New York, Macmillan Publishing, 1992), 2:431. off-site
  4. The passage is referring to the book seen in Revelation 5:1.
  5. J. Reuben Clark, Jr., "Church Leaders and the Scriptures," [original title "When Are the Writings or Sermons of Church Leaders Entitled to the Claim of Scripture?"] Immortality and Eternal Life: Reflections from the Writings and Messages of President J. Reuben Clark, Jr., Vol, 2, (1969-70): 221; address to Seminary and Institute Teachers, BYU (7 July 1954); reproduced in Church News (31 July 1954); also reprinted in Dialogue 12/2 (Summer 1979): 68–81.
  6. Harold B. Lee, Teachings of Harold B. Lee (Salt Lake City, Utah: Bookcraft, 1996), 445. GospeLink (requires subscrip.)
  7. LDS Newsroom, "Approaching Mormon Doctrine," lds.org (4 May 2007)
  8. Charles W. Penrose, "Peculiar Questions Briefly Answered," Improvement Era 15 no. 11 (September 1912).



Further reading and additional sources responding to these claims

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