Historically, the debate has not been between creation and evolution, but creation and eternalism. During the apostolic and patristic eras, the pagans did not argue simply for an ancient earth, they contended that the universe was eternal. Even though Aristotle believed that the world was caused by God, he did not believe that God created the world, in time, in the usual understanding of the word “create.” God, as the perfect, unchangeable being, did not act in time. Since he is the eternal source of the world, Aristotle reasoned, the cosmos and its elements must also be eternal. Such a view is called eternalism. During the first centuries of the church, neo-Platonic philosophers would use Aristotle’s arguments to attack the Christian doctrine of creation. For example, in his book, On the Eternity of the World, Proclus gives 18 arguments against creation in favor of an everlasting universe. From biblical times up through the medieval era, the greatest challenge to the doctrine of creation was eternalism.
Eternalism, by its very nature, is fatalistic. The ancient pagans believed that the world operated within an eternal framework of oscillating and recurring cycles. The early cultures—Sumerian, Indian, and Chinese—universally held to the notion of never-ending, repeating, cyclic time. The Babylonians, Persians, and Greeks all held to 36,000 year cycles while the Hindus believed that the cycles were as long as 4.3 million years. The Mayans taught that the world had been created, destroyed, and re-created at least four times, with the last re-creation occurring on February 5, 3112 BC. The pagans understood time as a circle rather than an arrow.
Early Christian writers such as Tertullian and Augustine responded to the threat of eternalism by demonstrating that the Bible taught that God created in time, and that He created the world ex nihilo (i.e., out of nothing). John Philoponus, a 6th century Christian philosopher, exposed the internal inconsistencies of Aristotle’s arguments, and demonstrated that the notion of a world created in time is more logically tenable than belief in an eternal universe. By the end of the patristic period the doctrine of creation had won the day. However, the scientific revolution and the Enlightenment of the 17th and 18th centuries will be accompanied by the resurgence of eternalism. This needs to be kept in mind as we survey the attempts to ascertain the universe’s age. (Adapted from 40 Questions about Creation and Evolution)
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