Ever since the publication of the great naturalist Philip Gosse’s treatise Omphalos in 1857 Christians have proposed to reconcile the apparent great age of the earth with a commitment to young earth creationism by proposing that God created the universe six to ten thousand years ago with apparent age. And for just about as long their critics, with many Christias among them, have rejected this hypothesis on theological grounds by arguing that this effectively makes God into a liar.
I share no sympathy with the apparent age hypothesis. But at the same time the “liar God” theological objection to it strikes me as a bit premature. In order to see why, let’s consider how the earth appears in other respects.
To begin with, consider the shape of the earth. For thousands of years the earth appeared to Homo sapiens to be flat. You could say that God created the earth with apparent flatness for it turns out that the earth is an oblate spheroid. Does that mean that God was lying? After all, he created a spherical planet that he knew people would interpret for untold millennia as flat.
Next, consider the nature of matter. For thousands of years matter appeared to Homo sapiens to be solid. It turns out that “solid” matter is largely empty space and vibrating energy. You could say that God created the world with apparent solidity. Does that mean that God was lying? After all, he created matter knowing that people would interpret it for untold millennia as solid.
Now let’s switch to the age of the earth. For a couple hundred years the universe has appeared to Homo sapiens to be of great age. If it should turn out that the universe really is of a comparatively young age after all, this would mean that God created the world with apparent age. Does that mean that God was lying?
Is God really under some sort of obligation to ensure that Homo sapiens will not fail to understand the shape of the earth or the nature of matter or the age of the universe at any point in the development of science? If we don’t think God would be culpable for lying in the case of the shape of the earth or the nature of matter why should we think he was lying should the earth turn out to be young after all?
The theological objection to the “apparent age” hypothesis gains credibility because it has been claimed that God created the world with apparent age to “test our faith”. That would indeed seem to be problematic. But what if saying that God created the universe with apparent age simply meant that God created the universe in such a way that from approximately the years 1800 to 2100 human beings would errantly believe the earth is old as science continued to develop? In that case there would be no reason to think God was culpable of lying.
Thus, so long as the “apparent age” hypothesis is developed and defended as a conjecture about the current state of human ignorance rather than as a claim about a divine faith-testing, it does not implicate God in lying or any other less-than-divine activity.