Geological Deep Time as Evidence of God’s Providence

The discovery of geological deep time in the late eighteenth and early 19th centuries by the geologists Hutton and Lyell undoubtedly caused problems for the traditional view of the age of the Earth. Previous generations of western scientists had followed the account of the Creation in Genesis, and so followed Bishop Ussher in believing that the Earth was about 6,000 years old. The 19th century geologist, William Buckland, believed that the great catastrophes in the Earth’s history that geologists were increasingly discovering was evidence of the continued presence of an active God carefully intervening in the history of His creation. This God had also created the great primeval forests to provide for humanity’s technological needs much later in Earth’s history, thus providing further proof of God’s providence.

In his inaugural lecture as reader in geology at Oxford University, Buckland argued that the destruction of the primeval forests had been done to provide modern, technological humanity with the coal it needed for its machines. he then went further and stated

‘In all these and a thousand other examples that might be specified of design and benevolent contrivance, we trace the finger of an Omnipotent Architect providing for the daily wants of its rational inhabitants, not only at the moment in which he laid the first foundations of the earth, but also through the long series of shocks and destructive convulsions which he has caused subsequently to pass over it.’

Buckland was specifically attacking the view that God’s creative activity in the universe had ceased with the creation of the Earth and its creatures, as described in Genesis. This was the view of the Deists, who certainly believed that God had created the Earth, but no longer acted within creation. Buckland further stated

‘Many sciences exhibit the most admirable proofs of design and intelligence originally exerted at the Creation; but many who admit these proofs still doubt the continued superintendence of that intelligence, maintaining that the system of the Universe is carried on by the force of the laws originally impressed on matter, without the necessity of fresh interference or contiuned supervision on the part of the Creator’.

This attitude towards geological deep time as showing the continued presence of the Almighty in Earth’s prehistory prefigures later Christian theologians who welcomed Darwin’s theory of evolution. Some of them even praised the Origin of Species as the greatest aid to Christian apologetics. They did so because they considered that Darwinian evolution showed that not only had God been active in the primordial past, but He was also active throughout the history of the Earth shaping and creating its creatures.

Sources

Alister E. McGrath, Darwinism and the Divine: Evolutionary Thought and Natural Theology (Chichester: Wiley-Blackwell 2011).

Owen Chadwick, ‘Evolution and the Churches’, in C.A. Russell, ed. Science and Religious Belief: A Selection of Recent Historical Studies (London: University of London/Open University 1973) 282-293.

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