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Why Young People are Leaving the Church

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Ken Ham, who believes in a literal six-day creation that happened around 6,000 years ago, says the church opened a door for the exodus of youth, beginning in the 19th century, when it began teaching that “the age of the Earth is not an issue as long as you trust in Jesus and believe in the resurrection and the Gospel accounts.” Ham concedes that “salvation is not conditioned on what you believe about the age of the Earth and the six days of creation.” He admits that there “are many who believe in millions of years and are Christians.” Even so, the Genesis issue does matter, he argues, “because salvation does rise or fall on the authority of Scripture. The message of the Gospel comes from these words of Scripture.” But Christian old-earth advocates believe in the authority and integrity of the Bible as much as young-earth advocates do. By their own admission, young-earthers note that a number of well respected theologians and scholars did not and do not believe in a young earth. Charles Spurgeon (1834–1892) had this to say about the age of the earth.

“Can any man tell me when the beginning was? Years ago we thought the beginning of this world was when Adam came upon it; but we have discovered that thousands of years before that God was preparing chaotic matter to make it a fit abode for man, putting races of creatures upon it, who might die and leave behind the marks of his handiwork and marvelous skill, before he tried his hand on man.”[1]

I don’t know anyone who would accuse Spurgeon of not holding up the authority and integrity of the Bible. In the book edited by Terry Mortenson and Thane Ury, Coming to Grips with Genesis, the following is found: “The Baptist ‘Prince of Preachers,’ Charles Spurgeon (1834–1892), uncritically accepted the old-earth geological theory (though he apparently did not realize that the geologists were thinking in terms of millions of years.)”[2] Further digging will show that Spurgeon did believe in an old earth, “many millions of years” old:

In the 2nd verse of the first chapter of Genesis, we read, “And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters.” We know not how remote the period of the creation of this globe may be—certainly many millions of years before the time of Adam. Our planet has passed through various stages of existence, and different kinds of creatures have lived on its surface, all of which have been fashioned by God. But before that era came, wherein man should be its principal tenant and monarch, the Creator gave up the world to confusion. He allowed the inward fires to burst up from beneath, and melt all the solid matter, so that all kinds of substances were commingled in one vast mass of disorder.[3]

Take note of the fact that this sermon was preached before Darwin’s publication of On the Origin of Species in 1859.

There are many modern-day evangelical, Bible-believing scholars who hold to an old-earth position on the age of the earth. Gleason L. Archer (1916–2004), who was a staunch defender of the inspiration and authority of the Bible, held the old-earth position[4] as did Arthur Custance (1910–1985) in his book Without Form and Void.[5] His detailed analysis of the position can be found here. Without Form and Void “has been described by John C. Whitcomb, one of its chief opponents, a Hebrew scholar himself, as the definitive work on the Gap Theory, also known as the Restitution Theory. By the way, The Scofield Reference Bible also taught the gap theory, which necessitates an old earth:

  1. “Jer. 4.23–26, Isa. 24.1 and 45.18 clearly indicate that the earth had undergone a cataclysmic change as the result of a divine judgment. The face of the earth bears everywhere the marks of such a catastrophe.”[6]
  2. “Relegate fossils to the primitive creation, and no conflict of science with the Genesis cosmogony remains.”[7]

Clarence Larkin,[8] another dispensationalist, held the old earth position, as did Finis Dake (1902–1987). Since The Scofield Reference Bible was first published in 1909, and it is the most widely distributed study Bible in the world, why is it only in the past few decades that we are seeing young people leaving the church? By 1943, 1,925,000 copies of the Reference Bible [had] been published.”[9]

I could just as easily take the other end of the dog and claim that it’s the last book of the Bible that’s causing young people to abandon Christianity. Creation’s not the problem; it’s eschatology. For more than 100 years, Christianity has been dominated by a prophetic belief system that discounts the future by repeatedly claiming that “Jesus is coming back in your generation!” People can only take so much of this after the passage of more than 100 years of assurances! There are many potentially good books that are spoiled by a preoccupation with the end times. Numerous failed predictions have led many Christians to question the reliability of the Bible. Young people notice these things. They put 2 and 2 together and begin to realize that Christianity is irrelevant this side of the grave because “Jesus is coming back soon!”

So why does Ken Ham pick only old-earth creationism and not the entire dispensational system that is footnoted and codified in Scofield, Larkin, and Dake? I realize that Answers in Genesis is a creation organization, so creation is its emphasis, but if creation affects other areas, an eschatology is also a big part of the Bible (bigger in content than creation), why not mention it as well?

Bart Ehrman, the author of numerous books critical of the New Testament, abandoned Christianity, not because of creation but because of eschatology. His best-selling book Misquoting Jesus describes how he struggled to reconcile what he believed to be errors in the Bible.[10] His pilgrimage from Moody Bible Institute to Princeton changed him forever. His trek down the road to skepticism begins with what he describes as “one of the most popular books on campus” at the time, Hal “Lindsay’s [sic] apocalyptic blueprint for our future, The Late Great Planet Earth.” Ehrman writes that he “was particularly struck by the ‘when’” of Lindsey’s prophetic outline of Matthew 24. “When” is the issue in the young-earth/old-earth debate, so why isn’t eschatology an issue among young-earth advocates since, as I will show, the interpretive principles are the same.

Ehrman’s story is not unusual. Michael Ruse, Professor of Philosophy at Florida State University and self-professed “ex-Christian,”[11] devotes a chapter to the subject of eschatology in his book The Evolution-Creation Struggle.[12] He believes that the interpretive methodology of dispensational premillennialism is inexorably linked to the way its advocates defend their position on creation. This is unfortunate since dispensationalists have been wrong about both ends of the Bible.

Creationists claim that they interpret the Bible literally, but when they come to a prophetic passage like Matthew 24:34, they throw their literal hermeneutic to the wind. (See my detailed response to the Left Behind series: Left Behind: Separating Fact from Fiction.) Don’t you think young people notice this type of interpretive sleight of hand? Consider the following comments on Matthew 24:34 from Henry M. Morris, a dispensationalist and a founding father of the modern-day, six-day creationist movement. The comments on “this generation” come from his creationist themed Defender’s Study Bible which was first published in 1995:

“The word ‘this’ is the demonstrative adjective and could better be translated ‘that generation.’ That is, the generation which sees all these signs (probably starting with World War I) shall not have completely passed away until all these things have taken place” (1045).

Morris describes the use of “this” as a “demonstrative adjective,” but it is better designated as a “near demonstrative” adjective identifying the proximate generation that will see the signs, the generation to whom Jesus was speaking. In Greek and English, the near demonstrative (this) is contrasted with the distant demonstrative (that). Greek language specialists make this very point:

Greek grammars and lexicons recognize two demonstratives: near and distant. The near demonstrative, as the name denotes, points to someone or something “near,” in close proximity. They appear as the singular word “this” and its plural “these.” The distant demonstratives, as their name suggests, appear as “that” (singular), or “those” (plural).[13]

The near demonstrative “this” always refers to something contemporary, as the Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature makes clear: “[T]his, referring to something comparatively near at hand, just as ekeinos [that] refers to something comparatively farther away.”[14] Prior to his comments in his Defender’s Study Bible, Morris wrote the following extended comments on Matthew 24:34 in his book Creation and the Second Coming:

In this striking prophecy, the words “this generation” has the emphasis of “that generation.”[15] That is, that generation—the one that sees the specific signs of His coming—will not completely pass away until He has returned to reign as King.[16] Now if the first sign was, as we have surmised, the first World War, then followed by all His other signs, His coming must indeed by very near[17] — even at the doors! There are only a few people still living from that[18] generation. I myself was born just a month before the Armistice was signed on November 11, 1918. Those who were old enough really to know about that first World War—“the beginning of sorrows”—would be at least in their eighties now. Thus, we cannot be dogmatic, we could very well now be living in the very last days before the return of the Lord.”[19]

Consider the last sentence: “we could very well now be living in the very last days before the return of the Lord.” When young people continually hear such things, they get discouraged and find solace elsewhere. Who wants to be part of a religion that is continually preaching inevitable gloom and doom? “A philosophy calling for an escape from time is not likely to involve itself in the battles of time.”[20] Pretribulational dispensational David Schnittger pointed out the problem more than 20 years ago:

Many in our camp have an all-pervasive negativism regarding the course of society and the impotence of God’s people to do anything about it. They will heartily affirm that Satan is Alive and Well on Planet Earth, and that this must indeed by The Terminal Generation; therefore, any attempt to influence society is ultimately hopeless. They adopt the pietistic platitude: “You don’t polish brass on a sinking ship.” [Coined by dispensationalist J. Vernon McGee]. Many pessimistic pretribbers cling to the humanists’ version of religious freedom; namely Christian social action and political impotence, self-imposed, as drowning men cling to a life preserver.[21]

Furthermore, how can young people believe in the authority and integrity of the Bible when there has been a long history of repeated and failed attempts at date setting? (See my book Why the End of the World is Not in Your Future).

Matthew 24:33 tells us what audience Jesus had in view: “so, YOU too, when YOU see all THESE things, recognize that He is near, right at the door.” It is obvious, and without any need for debate, that the first “you” refers to those who asked the questions that led to Jesus’ extended remarks (Matt. 24:2–4). Jesus identifies those who will “see all these things” by once again using “you.” If Jesus had a future generation in mind, He could have eliminated all confusion by saying, “even so THEY too, when THEY see all these things, recognize that He is near, right at the door. Truly I say to you, THAT generation will not pass away until all these things take place.” Instead, Henry Morris and others have to massage the text to support a future tribulation period.[22]

Then there is the problem with the way Morris understands the meaning of “last days” in the notes of his Defender’s Study Bible. He states, “this ‘last days’ prophecy of Joel was fulfilled at Pentecost only in a precursive sense” (1179). Even though Peter says that the events at Pentecost are a fulfillment of what Joel predicted (Joel 2:28–32)—“this is that which was spoken by the prophet Joel” (Acts 2:17)—Morris argues that “its complete fulfillment must await the time of the end. . . . Thus Peter’s statement: ‘This is that’ (Acts 2:16) should be understood in the sense of ‘This is like that’” (1179).[23]

What implications does this have for the issue of the authority and integrity of the Bible that Ken Ham rightly raises in his book Already Gone: Why Your Kids Will Quit Church and How You Can Stop It? How will we ever convince skeptics of the truthfulness of the Bible when it is distorted to defend interpretations where “this” means “that” and “this is that” actually means “this is like that”? Don’t even get me started on words like “near,” “shortly,” “quickly,” and “at hand” (see here and here). I wonder how young-earth creationists would respond to an old-earth creationist who applied Morris’ interpretive methods to Genesis.

So then, it’s not the age of the earth that is driving young people away, it’s the fact that the Bible is not taught in a comprehensive way that has meaning for the here and now.

1 Charles H. Spurgeon, “Election,” The New Park Street Pulpit, 6 vols. (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan [1856] 1963), 1:311–322. No. 41–42 preached on September 2, 1855 on 2 Thessalonians 2:13, 14. The online version »
2 Terry Mortenson and Thane Ury, Coming to Grips with Genesis: Biblical Authority and the Age of the Earth (Green Forest, AR: New Leaf Publishing, 2008), 96.
3 Charles Spurgeon, “The Power of the Holy Ghost,” The New Park Street Pulpit, 1:230. No. 30 preached on June 17, 1855 on Romans 5:13. The online version can be found at
4 Gleason L. Archer, The New International Encyclopedia of Bible Difficulties (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2001).
5 »
6 Comments on Genesis 1:2 in the 1945 edition of The Scofield Reference Bible.
7 Comments on Genesis 1:11 in the 1945 edition of The Scofield Reference Bible. 
8 Clarence Larkin, Dispensational truth or God’s Plan and Purpose in the Ages (Philadelphia: Rev. Clarence Larkin Estate, 1918), 21–24.
9 Arno C. Gaebelein, The History of the Scofield Reference Bible (New York: Our Hope Publicans/Loizeaux Brothers), 1941), 11.
10 Bart D. Ehrman, Misquoting Jesus: The Story Behind Who Changed the Bible and Why (New York: HarperCollins, 2005).
11 Michael Ruse, “Saving Darwinism from the Darwinians,” National Post (May 13, 2000), B3.
12 Michael Ruse, The Evolution-Creation Struggle (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2005).
13 Cullen I K Story and J. Lyle Story, Greek To Me: Learning New Testament Greek Through Memory Visualization (New York: Harper, 1979), 74. “Sometimes it is desired to call attention with special emphasis to a designated object, whether in the physical vicinity or the speaker or the literary context of the writer. For this purpose the demonstrative construction is used. . . . For that which is relatively near in actuality or thought the immediate demonstrative [houtos] is used. . . . For that which is relatively distant in actuality or thought the remote demonstrative [ekeinos] is used.” (H. E. Dana and Julius R. Mantey, A Manual Grammar of the Greek New Testament [New York; Macmillan, 1957], 127–128, sec. 136).
14 William F. Arndt and F. Wilbur Gingrich, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature, 4th ed. (Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago Press, 1952), 600.
15 I received the following in an email: “I will admit that the word ‘this’ has ALWAYS presented an obstacle to a full understanding of the Discourse. Have you ever considered this word COULD HAVE BEEN ‘that’ in the original [Manuscript]???? I believe from my reading that could have been possible” (November 12, 2007). Almost anything is possible, but there is no indication that the Greek word ekeinos was ever used. It’s pure conjecture. The emailer’s comments show the extremes people will adopt to hold on to an interpretive system that has no biblical support.
16 There is nothing in Matthew 24 that says Jesus is going to return to reign as king on the earth.
17 Why does “near” mean “even at the doors” for Morris in his day, but it did not mean “near” in the first century?
18 Notice how Morris uses the far demonstrative “that” to refer to a generation in the past. How would he have described the generation in which he was living? Obviously with the near demonstrative “this” to distinguish it from “that” past generation.
19 Henry Morris, Creation and the Second Coming (Green Forest, AR: Master Books, 1991), 183. Morris died on February 25, 2006 at the age of 87.
20 R. J. Rushdoony, The One and the Many: Studies in the Philosophy of Order and Ultimacy (Nutley, NJ: The Craig Press, 1971), 129.
21 David Schnittger, Christian Reconstruction from a Pretribulational Perspective Oklahoma City, OK: Southwest Radio Church, 1986), 7.
22 The latest example is found in Tim Demy and Gary Stewart, 101 Most Puzzling Bible Verses: Insight into Frequently Misunderstood Scriptures (Eugene, OR: Harvest House, 2007), 105–106. They argue that there is no mention of an audience reference in Matthew 24:33, just that “The phrases ‘this generation’ and ‘these things’ are linked together by context and grammar in such a way that Jesus must be speaking of a future generation.” This is the height of obfuscation. Jesus clearly identifies the audience: “when YOU see all these things.” The “you” are those in Jesus’ audience.
23 Thomas Ice argues in a similar way: “But this is [like] that which was spoken by the prophet Joel.” He tries to explain the addition of “like” by claiming that “The unique statement of Peter (‘this is that’) is in the language of comparison and similarity, not fulfillment.” (Thomas Ice, “Acts,” in Tim LaHaye, ed. Prophecy Study Bible [Chattanooga, TN: AMG Publishers, 2000], 1187).

Article posted June 17, 2009

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