First, I think there are much better debates to watch if you're curious about the issue of atheism vs the existence of God (Daniel Lane Craig vs Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens vs Doug Wilson). Basically just watch any debate that Hitchens or Daniel Lane Craig have had and you’ll be better squared up on the main issues. I think that discussion is more foundational before considering the debate between Bill Nye and Ken Ham.
Nobody Really Knows What Happened
Yes, I know, how wonderfully agnostic and unhelpful. But let me elaborate.
In the 1960’s Arno Penzias and Robert Wilson detected strange radiation with their instruments at Bell Labs in Holmdel, New Jersey (Bill Nye outlined this story in the debate). What they discovered was cosmic background radiation which lead to the undeniable conclusion that the universe had a precise and explosive beginning. This discovery has been championed by both sides of the debate as proof for their position. Now, since we weren’t there we can only make predictions about how it happened. Maybe God sped up time? Maybe he didn’t, and it took a long time, because a day is like a 1,000 years to him. More on how we should read Genesis below.
This is why I said the existence of God debate must happen first. If you grant for a moment that God might exist, and has the power to create all things, then isn’t it possible that the expansion and explosion of the universe happened at a rate incalculable by science because it was done supernaturally? And that animal life and plant life look to be from a single source because God shaped and molded all things as he went, leaving traces of what looks like species transforming into other species? Scientists have no instruments or methods for studying and measuring the supernatural, so maybe both sides are closer to the truth of how it all happened then either wants to admit. Even Creationists must grant that the biblical narrative simply doesn’t say in any detail how it all happened, just that it did. I know many will say, “Yes, but it says how long it took, 6 days!” Alright, well…
Young Earth Creationists Should Keep an Open Mind
Oh brother, now I sound like a Universalist! R.C. Sproul made a good point in a video about the age of the universe. He basically said, “We saw we had wrong interpretations that the sun rotated around the earth because of scientific discovery.” What if, now hang with me here… What if part of our understanding of the first two chapters of Genesis is flawed? I encourage everyone to read, “The Lost World of Genesis One” by John H. Walton. He makes a compelling case that our understanding of the creation account is not informed by ancient cosmology and the context of the original audience. I've not read anything, save Walton's book, that considers language and context of the time. Walton slowly walks through much of the ancient literature surrounding the time of the writing of Genesis, and I think he makes a compelling case that the Israelites would have understood “create” much differently than we do, which should inform our interpretation.
What I am Not Saying
To be clear, I am not saying that Christians should waffle and waver on Biblical authority, the existence of God, or the claims of/about Jesus simply because scientists say otherwise. What I am saying is that perhaps we’ve been ardently defending a literal 6 day creation and a young earth when we don’t have to. Sure, Ken Ham and others will say, “Then you’ve got the problem of death before the fall.” But again, what if part of our understanding of Genesis 1-2 is flawed? Where does it say no animals died prior to the fall? It says man will surely die in the day he eats the fruit (then Adam doesn’t die in the day he eats the fruit), and later says that the tree of life would have granted them eternal life (Gen 3:22). So which is it? Adam was going to live forever and sinned, bringing physical death into the world? Or sin broke covenant and revoked access to the tree of life and by default brought death into the world? What if the death was spiritual in nature and the curses were the result of being separated from God and his tree of life? Paul can still say “By one man…” because Adam brought this on us, separated us from God, and Christ has to restore that broken order. So, there is certainly multiple ways to read/interpret this, and if large amounts of data show us death happening long before man shows up, then maybe we need to stop burning modern Galileos and adjust our interpretation.
Bill Nye’s Two Points to Consider
The two points Bill Nye made that I found the most interesting were about age of the earth, not evolution.
First, he points to trees that are older than the flood. How would this be possible? Many typically reply to age of the earth questions by saying, “Adam was created with age and so was the earth.” Okay, but what about after the flood? That’s a precise point in the historical biblical narrative, and we have trees that somehow survived and are older than the flood? So even if the trees were created with age, how did they survive the flood? (Another discussion: global vs local flood) This leads to his other point, which is a solid counter to the “created with age” response.
Second, he points to the many fossils found in various layers of the earth that represent different ages of the earth. If God created the earth with age, which is why mountains and layers in the Grand Canyon look really old… Why would there be dead animals inside them? This poses the same problem Ken Ham laid at the feet of theistic evolutionists: death before the fall. If you make the claim that the earth was simply created with age, then the fossils and their locations mean that death happened during creation or God simply created the mountains and rock layers with fake fossils.
I think it is far more likely that part of our understanding of Genesis 1-2 is flawed, and that the basic big picture teachings from it are true and easily verified in our existence today. Man is told to subdue the earth and fill it. Humans have clearly and undeniably done that in a very short amount of time. Sin put enmity between man and God, and man and man. This is clearly seen in the disgust and hate people express for God, even though they claim he doesn’t exist, and the constant turmoil, fighting, and war amongst men. The foundational claims made in Genesis 1-2 lead us directly to the Gospel of Jesus Christ, which is far more important than the age of the earth. Man is the prominent species almost everywhere on earth, pining, fighting, and searching for identity. It can’t be found in a fossil record or a sea bed nor can it be found in the precise age of the earth; it can only be found in the one who conquered death.