Last night I went through the latest archaeological findings reported on the news in South Africa (see a BBC summary here and the formal research written up here) regarding another finding of skeletons of very human-like creatures in South Africa in 2013.
I don't know about you, but as a Christian believer growing up in an increasingly science-affected culture and world-view, I guess I have become increasingly agnostic about questions of the age of the universe. Apparently time machines are and will remain impossible, so how on Earth will we ever be able to know about this issue for sure? Why do Christians get so wound up about this anyway?
Well, I suppose it is (once again) because of the insecurity created by asserting (in a believer's words), that God could assert anything powerful in a non-literal way. Creationists have a hard time with that, not because they are limited or less intelligent or bigoted, but because they want to hold to the literal truth of the Bible. And they have some interesting ammunition (and they need it).
Firstly, as already noted, we cannot scientifically observe an ancient Earth/universe. No time machines.
Secondly, if as a believer you go down a not-everything-in-the-Bible-is-literal track, then how on EARTH (excuse the pun) can you make a judgement call on what is and what is not literal? Pure liberalism would assert, of course, that it all may be non-literal.
Thirdly, there are prominent scientific researchers who, although a minority, remain convinced that the Biblical dating method is consistent with the evidence we can gather.
Fourthly, they may think they can counter claims that they are theologically-motivated because their opponents (maybe atheistic evolutionists) could also be shown to be motivated by personal convictions, not necessarily arising from the data.
They may have other good arguments too, but these are the ones in my mind at the moment.
Before we get into those, let me just share something quite awkward I never knew about for biblical dating of the universe, and it brings us back once again to that world of textual criticism that so many would prefer simply did not exist. But it does and it affects what Christians could believe to be foundational, even the 100% literal guys. UNDERLYING THE LITERAL TRUTH INTERPRETATION IS THE ASSUMPTION OF ONE, SOLID ORIGINAL BIBLICAL TEXT THAT WE HAVE ACCESS TO TODAY. Sorry, was I shouting? Here I go again:
The Masoretic (Hebrew) texts and the Septuagint (Greek) provide very different figures, if trying to add up the years literally via the genealogies (the literal "days" of creation in Genesis not really adding anything extra to this total). If you are a creationist, then you need to be able to say that you take ONE of these texts as authoritative, but which one? If you go with the Septuagint, then you have a universe dating back 7500 years; if you go with the Masoretic version, then it's 6000 years.
That is 1500 years of existence that may or may not have been. For a creationist, that is a huge expanse of time, but I have never heard it mentioned.
I say "they" in referring to creationist because I am not in the "they" camp. I am not a creationist; I do not believe in a 6-day creation, either at around 5500 BC ago or 4000 BC.
Part of the reason for this is that I believe that it is impossible for any Christian to truly treat the texts as some kind of mono-genre factual-knowledge book, as this textual problem should be making obvious. If it is a book of facts then why can't we know for sure if the Septuagint was an inaccurate translation of Hebrew source texts of those genealogies and that the Masoretic text was the accurate copy? Copyists and translators made mistakes and changes: accept it or shove it under the carpet.
So creationists are not "playing it safe" with the Bible. The opposite is true. By hiding textual realities and important exegetical concerns like genre, they can contribute to devaluing the credibility of the book they think they defend.