Mormonism and science/Age of the Earth

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Questions

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  • The Bible dictionary says the Earth is 7,000 years old. Doctrine & Covenants say the 7 seals of the Earth represent 1,000 years. Yet scientific dating places the appearance of modern humans well before 4,000 BC. Can you explain the contradiction, if there is one?
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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. The best answer to questions about the date of Adam or the age of the earth is simply that we have no revealed knowledge on the topic. It is also important to bear in mind that having or not having such information is not crucial for our salvation.

Detailed Analysis

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

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.[1]

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.[2]

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.[3]

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.[4]
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Notes

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  1. [note] Robert J. Matthews, "Using the New Bible Dictionary in the LDS Edition," Ensign (June 1982), 48. off-site
  2. [note] 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. [note] 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. [note] The passage is referring to the book seen in Revelation 5:1.


Further reading and additional sources responding to these claims

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