Archbishop James Ussher was a 17th century Irish clergyman most famous for publishing a chronology which dated the origin of the world back to the nightfall preceding October 23rd, 4004 BC. Although the date is not always so precisely rendered by modern Young Earth Creationists, Ussher's work still holds some influence in minority Christian sects found almost exclusively in the USA. But what beliefs must one hold before Ussher's date can be instantiated as the origin of the world? And does it still hold any relevance for modern Christians?
Before beginning, it is vital for me to reiterate my position regarding people's beliefs: that we all have the freedom to believe whatever we wish, and that there is no mechanism for revealing Truth that does not depend upon the prior assumptions and beliefs of the individual. I am not arguing in this piece against Creationism, per se - I occasionally find the criticisms of Creation Scientists draw attention to interesting problems in evolutionary theory which any scientist might do well to consider in order to improve their own thinking about the topic, and specifically that any scientist still considering evolution solely in terms of mutation and natural selection has commited greater logical errors than a Creation Scientist (whose position, after all, is far more explicitely connected to their faith, and is therefore logically simpler).
Ussher's work was an exceptional piece of scholarship for the century in which it was written, as it required the Bible to be carefully rooted in actual historical events. Ussher must have studied the history of Rome, Greece, Egypt and Persia in considerably greater depth than his contemporaries to arrive at his chronology. However, even this was insufficient to deliver a specific date. One cannot, for instance, use the geneology in Genesis 5 et al to track down a specific day of the year since the information provided only tracks years, not days. Ussher had to resort to numerology and astrology to complete his calculation - something which most Creationists would be exceptionally unlikely to tolerate.
It follows, therefore, that for Ussher's specific date to be instantiated by any individual, they must believe that God was specifically trying to communicate via Usser - that he was in effect another prophet. This view is rather inconsistent with all but the most esoteric of Christian theologies. In particular: why would God have any reason to want to communicate a specific date for creation?
This indeed highlights the specific problem with all forms of Young Earth Creationism. Although there is little harm in an individual deciding for themselves that God created the world 6,000 to 10,000 years ago (provided they do not attempt to force this belief upon others), this viewpoint is rather inconsistent with what Christians believe about God. Firstly, this position requires the individual to believe that, amongst other things, fossil evidence was planted by God as a test of faith. Now while it is true that the book of Genesis does have an account of Abraham's faith being tested by God, nothing in the Bible nor in Christian theology in general corresponds to a general test of faith designed to target all people. This belief seems rather close to what Bill Hicks called "the prankster God", and is not enormously helpful.
More specifically, the central message of the Old Testament in respect of modern Christians can be crudely summarised as: behave equitably and honourably towards your family and community. The central message of Jesus' ministry is summarised in the only commandment he gave: love one another as I have loved you (John 13:34). Given that these themes are the key messages that (from a solely Christian perspective, at least) God has delivered to man, the question must be asked: why would God care what year we believe the Earth was created? If Jesus were to return to corporeal form today, do we really believe he would consider the age of the Earth to be an important issue? This is surely inconsistent with everything what we know about Jesus' life and teachings.
I feel it is a sad thing indeed when issues such as the age of the Earth are held in greater esteem by Christians than the central message of Jesus' ministry. I suspect that the reason it has become such a hot button issue for the minority sects that believe in Young Earth Creationism is that they feel that evolutionary theory contradicts the Bible and is therefore false. But evolutionary theory only contradicts the Bible if one believes (1) that the Bible is the precise word of God, rather than inspired by God (2) that all translations of the Bible are the precise word of God despite their relative inconsistencies (or that only one specific translation is the 'True' translation) and (3) that the interpretation of the Bible does not depend upon cultural factors. Obviously given my philosophical investigations and following Wittgenstein, I don't believe language has this quality of exactitude, and if language lacks this quality then all religious texts must lack it too. This does not and cannot preclude religious texts being inspired by God, of course.
It is time, perhaps, to "put away childish things" as Paul wrote to the Corinthians (1 Corinthians 13:11). And for those willing to accept the idea that the current Bible is a product of a selection process driven by an early Christian sect with its own agenda for excluding certain books, and therefore that the "Christian Apocrypha" might contain some of Jesus' teachings with continuing relevance, I draw attention to the line where Jesus says: "Anyone with a mind should use it to think!" (Gospel According to Mary, 3:9). And as a brief aside, I was delighted to see the idea of an “unexpurgated
Bible” raised in this charming online discussion of the Christian perspective of homosexuality and not causing any kind of stir at all.
Evolutionary theory is not, and never can be, a challenge to God. Clumsy anti-religious bigots may antagonise certain Christian sects on this principle, but we should laugh at their foolishness, not take their nonsense seriously. Modern Christians increasingly accept that believing that God was the ultimate cause of creation says nothing about the mechanisms by which God's will was implemented. I do not wish to suggest that one must accept evolutionary theory (it is a highly subjective science at best, and most modern theories of it are riddled with strange assumptions, logical errors and gaping holes), but I do wish to suggest that for a Christian, the scientific process reveals the wonders of God's creation. Evolutionary theory is astonishing. The idea that we are here at all is almost beyond belief. For these reasons and many others, evolutionary theory should increase the glory of God to a Christian perspective.
Let us, if you will excuse the pun, usher in a new era of Christian enlightenment where science and religion are recognised as belonging in utterly different spheres. That frees Christians to focus on finding ways to mirror God's love for them in their love for other people, instead of getting mired down in arguments over such trivial nonsense as the age of the Earth.