A fundamental problem in articulating the age of the universe is that time has not always existed. Whether one subscribes to the big bang or to creationism, there is evidence that time was not constant throughout the universe’s existence.
Big Bang. Modern physics holds that after the “bang,” the three primary dimensions—height, width, and depth—came into existence almost immediately followed by an additional eight dimensions. Time was the first of these additional dimensions and thus it is generally regarded as the fourth dimension and it is why the fabric of the universe is characterized as “space-time.” Time is directly related to gravitational attraction and gravitational attraction, in turn, depends on the mass of objects (read an example using GPS satellites). Since gravitational attraction is defined as F = (G6.67 x 10-11 • m1 • m2)/d² which is to say, the gravitational constant times the masses divided by the distance. If all of the matter were gathered into a single mass then the distance is zero and the equation is undefined. Since the force of gravity is undefined, time must also be either undefined or zero because time is dependent upon gravity. As a result time could not have existed prior to the bang. Even post-bang when the masses that characterize our universe began to take shape, time did not exist as we know it because the masses were too nebulous. As a case in point, our solar system did not instantaneously begin to revolve around our sun. Instead, it would have undergone a gradual winding up process until it reached the velocity that we humans have come to experience. Therefore, to say that the universe is x years old is incorrect. Statements should instead be phrased as the universe appears to be x years old if time had always existed, if time had elapsed as we presently experience it, and if mass had always been distributed as we presently observe it.
Creation. According to the Abrahamic tradition, the cosmos was created in six “days.” However, a critical reading is in order as the sun, moon, and stars were not created until the fourth day so each “day” of creation cannot possibly indicate a solar day as we now experience solar days. What’s more, even on the fourth day, there might not have been a sunrise but there would have been a sunset which indicates a really, really protracted period of sunlight—at least for part of the earth—which would enable plant life to flourish profoundly and thereafter to spread around the globe as the earth began to rotate on its axis and revolve around the sun (which are the bases of our solar day and our solar year). So even in this account there is a sense of “winding up” of the natural world. Animal life next appears followed by human life. Also very interesting is a statement with the creation of the sun, moon, and stars gave humankind the ability to observe and mark the changing of the days and seasons. The implication is that time did not achieve regularity until more than half-way through the process of forming the earth and/or solar system. But the final interpretation of the creation story cannot be that the cosmos was created in a 144-hour period. Nor could it be said that the earth has the appearance of being created in a 144-hour period either. Clearly, the “days” of creation refer not to solar days but to intervals—and intervals of unequal duration at that. Just as light is generally unable to escape the gravity of black holes, so too it would seem that light would be unable to escape the pre-bang consolidated mass of the universe. In this light, it is therefore theoretically possible to consider the initial creation of light as a reference point for a “big bang.”
These brief analyses are not intended to merge the systems of science and religion. Rather they are meant to provoke critical thought from both the science-minded and the faith-minded to consider that the dueling cosmologies seek to exclusively explain a truth that lies somewhere between the two and apart from the two.
The problem with articulating the age of the universe remains the same regardless of the cosmological construct. The cosmos is neither 6,000 years old nor 4.5 billion years old. We might speak of it as having the appearance of either age, but we cannot assign neither an accurate nor a precise age to it. Since time did not always exist we cannot articulate the age of the cosmos in ways that we can humanly comprehend. Further still, since time did not come to exist at the same instant as the physical world, it is imprecise to say that either occurred “before” or “after” the other since no time existed to have elapsed between the two events. Paradoxically, this means that time and the physical world came into existence both sequentially and simultaneously. Still, both bang and creation cosmologies are not mutually exclusive if interpreted critically.