Paul Nelson and Omphalos

In the YEC section of Three Views on Creation and Evolution (Zondervan, 1999, pp. 52-53), Paul Nelson and John Mark Reynolds spend some time defending the Omphalos view, namely that there could be good reasons why God created the universe looking old even though it isn’t. First, they argue that it’s possible an old-looking universe is critical to sustain life. Second, and old-looking universe and an actually old universe might not make any difference before the creation of humans anyway. God is sort of like skipping forward to the important part of the movie.

If Nelson is theologically OK with an Omphalos view, then what’s the point of criticizing evolution or any mainstream science? Why not just say that everything looks evolved but really isn’t due to Scripture?


I never understood how some say you might not be able to trust what God says in nature (apparent age) but you can trust what God says in a certain interpretation of the Bible.


And if God is eternal and timeless as classic theology would hold, real age and apparent age are all of the same duration to Him. So why not just go with the real deal?

Henry Gosse became something of a whipping boy, but his main point, that one cannot have adulthood and maturity without genuine attributes of age, is sound. Without Omphalos, you do not even have top soil in the garden of Eden.

There is very large difference between maturity and appearance of age.

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I think there’s a big difference between a localized, limited instance of an appearance of age (such as Jesus turning water into wine, the Garden of Eden, or a miraculously created Adam) and large-scale Omphalos. The latter makes it impossible to study the real past using the tools of science while the former doesn’t. It is essentially a form of Last Thursdayism, which is philosophically on par with solipsism, general skepticism, or brain-in-a-vat scenarios.


While I think it’s likely creation is as old as it looks, I also don’t really understand these objections to appearance of age. There are plenty of things in the Bible, where it is hard for us to understand why God did something. Generally as Christians, in these cases we understand that God’s ways are not our ways…, and accept that he will always be just and loving in what he does even if it may seem unfair, or not make sense to us.

I don’t see why this can’t apply to an earth created 6000 years ago with apparent age.

The concepts are different but I think Gosse would posit that they were not independent insofar as creation was concerned. Was Adam created as a platonic ideal? Did Adam have not only a navel, but also shortened telomeres? If Adam were subjected to a medical, is there anything which would have been an anomaly for an adult male of his age. Gosse would have argued no, the appearance of maturity would be indistinguishable from genuine maturity down to blood pressure, and in his mind this was inherent. He also extended the idea from organisms to entire ecologies.

I do not hold to anything like the Omphalos hypothesis, but Paul Nelson and John Reynolds are probably correct in that contextual age - an old looking [ or genuinely old ] universe - is required to sustain life in the present. The issues raised by Gosse are germane to de novo creation; the line between maturity and age would seem to get very fuzzy to me.

Well the usual objection is that God creating the appearance of age is deceptive and violates the character of God. This is true for the essentials of maturity, but the real problem are the observations superfluous to the basic necessities of our existence. Given a recently created earth, why do we need trilobites and dinosaurs, light from supernovas, colliding galaxies, events which by definition have never happened? As has been pointed out, the concept leads to matrix films like skepticism about reality. Gosse lost the familiarity of his close friend over such objections. These are reasons I think it true that God gave us time so that everything would not happen at once. But if you are going to hold with de novo, young earth creation, I think that the considerations raised by Gosse have to some degree be reckoned with.


These are all related to questions about the perspicuity and authority of Scripture and the role of general revelation. After the Fall, which is traditionally understood as warping our moral and spiritual sense, can we still trust our senses and minds to discover truths about nature? You are right in pointing out that in the case of salvation, most Christians would say that without special revelation (Scripture), we wouldn’t know how to obtain salvation. We also need special revelation to correct our morals - we can’t just trust our conscience all the time. But does this skepticism apply to empirical science as well?

It’s been my impression that the Protestant Reformers were much more wary of trusting the human intellect compared to their immediate theological forebears. The result is more emphasis on the need for special revelation - in line with sola scriptura. Some people would take it further, like Van Til and his presuppositional apologetics, who try to argue that it’s impossible to reason coherently without assuming that Christianity is true. They are generally very skeptical of arguments from natural theology, including design arguments.

Similarly, some YECs will simply state that we can’t do science without being guided by Scripture, because our brains just can’t function properly. What I find unsatisfying about this stance is that most YECs would still trust the findings of medical science, engineering, etc. In addition, we also use the general tools of logic and observation to understand Scripture. Thus, I don’t think this general skepticism about our intellect can be lived out consistently. The scientific reasoning by which one deduces that the Earth is old is not different in principle compared to the reasoning by which we figure out someone has COVID, for example.

This also explains why YECs try to posit a historical versus operational science distinction and argue that the former is inferior to the latter. But I do not think their arguments on this are convincing either.

A second argument against this is that science has been immensely successful in constructing theories about the past, something which would be difficult to explain if our brains are completely fallen and twisted. For example, virtually all cosmologists (Christian or not) agree today that the universe is about 13.5 billion years old. Compare that to the state of the field of biblical studies, for example, which has a lot of disagreement even among Christian scholars who subscribe to the same fundamental beliefs and assumptions.


This seems to imply that appearance of age is deceptive. Perhaps the God didn’t really think when the world was created was that important, but his focus was giving us a world we could discover and use. To conclude it’s deceptive implies we understand why he did it.

I agree with you in that I see no reason to believe we can’t do science without the Bible (and as an engineer, much of what I allows me to work, is that there are rules about the universe, we have discovered, that we can rely on.

However, were I to conclude that Biblically the world was created 6000 year ago, I think it’s quite possible theologically and logically to conclude that it was created with the appearance of age. (Perhaps to allow us to discover the many things science has discovered that make our lives better today).

I think that it is not impossible to create a coherent theology based on this idea. It would be awkward and unnecessary, but not impossible. In this version, one would affirm that the world looks very old, but perhaps God made it deliberately that way so that humans can study and puzzle over it. God created mature fossils and starlight as a sort of intellectual exercise for humans to fulfill their calling as bearers of the Image, an exercise that would be considered successful if they deduced that the earth is old instead of young.

In this picture, alternatives to mainstream science (like creation “science”) would still be illegitimate, because it would be violating the parameters of the intellectual exercise by manipulating the evidence to be other than what God meant it to look like. We would still do regular science both for the benefit of humankind and also for curiosity’s sake, which would conclude that the universe is clearly old.

The only issue I see with this scenario is, what difference does this scenario make to my daily life compared to what I am already doing now? Nobody has irrefutable assurance that they’re not a brain in a vat or that the universe was not created last Thursday. I think this just points to the need to not let your view of evolution (whatever it is) dominate your identity as a Christian.


As a non-YEC, there is no value in this scenario. However I do think it’s possible to conclude from the Bible that world was created 6000ish years ago. If that is your conclusion, you are left with 2 options. Either science and scientists are entirely wrong (biased or deceived) or the world was created with appearance of age. I think the second alternative is more logical than the first.

The other reason I bring this up, is that I fairly regularly see statements along the lines of “science demonstrates an old earth, and therefore the world cannot have been created 6000 years ago, as it would make God a deceiver”. I don’t think that argument holds together.

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The reason it wouldn’t hold up would be an appeal to divine inscrutability, right? We can’t interpret anything as bearing on God’s nature or intentions. If it looks like X, it could really be something completely different for some reason we can’t comprehend. Is that it?

If so, doesn’t that invalidate all knowledge whatsoever, including the bible? It could all be a lie he wants us to believe for perfectly good but ineffable reasons. Anything goes, including Last Thursdayism

Then again, if we’re capable of interpretation, then yes, appearance of age (unrelated to necessity) would clearly be deceptive.

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A reason it wouldn’t hold up, is as I said, some theologians emphasize the utter unreliability of human reason after the Fall. It’s not that God is deceiving us, but that we’re too incompetent, no matter what we do, to properly deduce that the universe is 6000 years old instead of 13 billion years. And thus we need the Bible to tell us that the universe is 6000 years old. They would also say that God has given us reasoning ability to interpret the Bible correctly, but not general scientific data, because the Bible is special - co-authored by God himself.

I’ve already explained one rebuttal to the above argument, which is that most people cannot hold this view consistently because they trust their general reasoning in many other situations, even apart from when they interpret Scripture.

Another rebuttal is that if Scripture can provide the needed corrective, then we should see YEC interpretations be regularly vindicated by scientific investigation. Scientists would then naturally see the Bible as a guide to arriving at the right science. But we don’t see that at all. In fact, it tends to be the opposite: YECs tend to have to insert in many additional miracles to explain away discrepancies between their Bible interpretation and the empirical data, while regular science is able to progress successfully in calculating the age of the Earth and other matters.


Not if our ability to interpret scientific observations is compromised. Under that scenario, we couldn’t believe anything we saw except the bible. I see two problems. First, it’s back to making everything we know, other than the text of the bible, unknowable. That’s epistemic nihilism with a single very narrow back door. Second, how can we know that God gave us the ability to understand the bible? We shouldn’t trust reason, and how do we know we can trust faith?

OK, three problems. That’s an ad hoc, jury-rigged solution. Or maybe it just looks that way to my flawed brain. Maybe oranges are really tomatoes and tomatoes are really hedgehogs. There’s no way to tell.


My understanding is Omphalos implies a deceptive God, and this calls into question the truth of scripture and the reality (for Christians) of the Resurrection. When in debate and someone makes the Omphalos argument, I generally leave them with “God might even have done that last Thursday.” and withdraw letting them think they have won.

If Nelson wants to claim that God is selectively deceptive about some things and not others, and there is no way to know the difference, that is effectively the same as Omphalos for all things. If he wants to spend his time this way, then “OK Paul, you win. See you again last Thursday.”


I think the situation is more nuanced than this.

What is the situation, then?

But yet all of our greatest achievements have taken place in the last 100 years. Way after the fall.