Dating is a delicate process. It comes with highs and lows (mostly highs), but things can change at any time. During the lows, you like to remember the highs. And the whole process tends to be shrouded in uncertainty. Oh, by the way, I’m talking about rocks!
This post is the third (and hopefully final) post in my three-part discussion on the age of the earth. The first (A Treacherous Path) was more philosophical in nature, though it also discussed the proper reading of Genesis 1-2. The goal of that post was to show the danger of changing scripture (or changing the way we commonly read scripture).
The second (A Closer Look at Some Actual Fossils) was an attempt to examine real scientific data and see what we have to work with. It presented reasons to abandon the theory of Evolution based only on the fossil record itself (let alone scripture).
There is now one other major topic of discussion remaining. Many Christians today deny Evolution but still hold to an old earth. It is now quite common to hear from Christians that, though Evolution is definitely not true, we still need to embrace the scientific fact that the earth is old. This has resulted in the belief that the Flood in Noah’s day was limited to a local area (as opposed to being global). We will see why this is the case shortly.
Up until the early 2000’s it seemed like there was little evidence a young earth creationist could point to in order to show the errors in contemporary dating methods. It seemed as if we had two incompatible truths: an extremely young earth as presented in the Bible, and science telling us the earth is in fact much, much older. This is no longer the case, as we will see in the sections below.
It is important to remember that Evolution and an old earth go hand in hand. The death of an old earth is the death of Evolution. But it might surprise you to learn that even secular science is gradually moving away from Evolution, though still maintaining an old earth belief. If we imagine for a minute that all of secular science suddenly decides to drop Evolution as a reasonable theory, we might be tempted to let the debate about the age of the earth go and forget about it. So long as Evolution is not believed in, why fight for a young earth?
There are two reasons why it is still important to argue for a young (6000-10000 year old) earth. First is simply that this is in fact what the Bible teaches. Any deviation from this belief is a deviation from the Word of God, however that deviation is achieved (changing the words or changing the way we normally interpret them). If you disagree with this, hopefully you at least agree with the second reason.
Second is that, if we intend to do good science, we need to know what framework to operate in. Belief in an old vs. a new earth affects just about everything, including the production of natural resources, our understanding of climate change, and the carving out of land features. We cannot possibly do good historical science without a proper understanding of how old the earth is and what might have altered its features in the past (e.g., the Flood). You might say that this is the point of science, to determine objectively whether the earth is old or young using science itself. But the fact of the matter is that you actually have to know in advance which it is, and also acknowledge certain things like the Flood, in order to do good science in the first place.
This is why it is so important that we take the Bible seriously. Having knowledge about a global flood from God’s word gives us a definite advantage in doing science. However, in order to get the Bible to fit with secular science, Christians have limited the flood in Noah’s day to a local area. As we will see, this is not because of hints in the text itself, but because of outside pressure.
The first reason above (defending a young earth because it is what scripture teaches) is most important to me, but for both reasons lets dive into the dating methods and see what they show us today. This post is basically a summary of John Morris’s “The Young Earth”, which covers a series of contemporary dating methods to show that the weight of evidence leans greatly in favor of a young earth. I am not suggesting that you base your faith on any of these dating methods which I am about to cover. They are subject to change, but God’s word alone stands as the solid foundation.
Morris clarifies that this dating method can only be used on igneous and metamorphic rock (rock that was previously extremely hot or molten but is now cooled and solid). This is in contrast to sedimentary rock. “Sedimentary rocks, by definition, are laid down as sediments by moving fluids.” (p. 48) It may surprise you to hear that much of the Grand Canyon is in fact sedimentary rock. (p. 55)
Radioisotope dating works by counting atoms. By measuring the products of radioactive decay, we can figure out how long certain rocks have been decaying and thus how long ago they hardened from molten rock. Uranium in rocks, for example, decays into lead at a certain rate. The time it takes for half of the uranium to decay into lead is called the half-life, and it is believed to be 4.51 billion years (this is a known fact). Morris reminds us that this does not mean the earth is billions of years old, but just that it takes that long for half of the atoms to decay. So if we started with 1,000,000 uranium atoms, for example, then after 4.51 billion years we would have 500,000 uranium atoms. After another 4.51 billion years, we would have 250,000 uranium atoms, and so on.
The idea is thus that we can count the product lead atoms and determine how longer the uranium has been decaying, and therefore determine how old the rocks are. Note that the “clock” is supposedly reset when the rock is heated or in molten form, and begins counting once it solidifies. (pp. 48, 49, 52)
Many rocks dated using this method have given numbers in the several hundred million and even several billion years of age, so it is important that we study this method closely to determine what is going on. This is in fact what the RATE science team did, which Morris was involved in personally. (p. 49) This team conducted an in-depth study of radioisotope dating methods. In fact, Morris claims that “It may be that Institute for Creation Research scientists have done more radioisotope dating on Grand Canyon rocks than anyone else.” (p. 58)
There are four assumptions required when using this dating method:
The first assumption is that we have a closed system. This is vital to accurately using radioisotope dating. If any atoms are lost or gained over the course of time, we can no longer simply count the atoms. Morris does not at all imply that scientists are sloppy in their gathering of specimens. Rather, it is their care that demonstrates that the system is definitely not closed:
…One would hope that the results obtained on good specimens would be reasonable and consistent, since all questionable specimens were already screened out.
Nothing could be further from the truth. Many, many times, when specimens are dated, the resulting answers do not agree with each other or with any other estimate gained from the fossils or from stratigraphic position. If the results come back wrong, the results from the tests are thrown out, and a charge of contamination may be levied. But these are the results of tests run on specimens that have already been culled for any evidence of contamination or loss or gain of its constituents. (p. 50, emphasis mine)
Morris also goes on to note that it is a well known fact that both uranium and lead “can be leached by ground water”. (p. 50) The bottom line is that if we have a closed system and the process is known to work, then dating several specimens of the same rock should yield similar results. The fact is that quite often it does not.
What might have caused worldwide leaching to occur such that we cannot guarantee a closed system over much of the globe? Perhaps a catastrophic global flood. (p. 53) When you understand that the flood waters covered the globe, you might be wise to use this dating method only on unexposed, deeply buried rock.
Second, we have to assume we know how many atoms were already present in the rock at the time of formation. Without knowing this, we cannot accurately count the atoms because we do not know how much we started with, thereby rendering it impossible to determine the age. We might be able to determine a maximum age, but not the actual age.
You would hope that this method would be accurate on “fresh” rocks, rocks which had just recently solidified, but this crucial assumption (how many atoms were present at the beginning) comes back to bite us even with new rocks. You might have heard of that one rock from that one recently active volcano which was incorrectly dated to be millions or billions of years old by radioisotope dating. The fact of the matter is that most of the time, new rocks with known recent ages come up with old ages using this dating method. Morris states, “It does not work whenever it can be checked, for essentially all recently formed rocks date old.” (p. 54)
In his book “Bones of Contention” (summarized in my last post), Lubenow covers the work of the RATE science team. The team took 13 samples from a recent volcanic eruption in New Zealand, known to have occurred in 1975. They sent these samples to Geochron Laboratories for potassium-argon radiometric dating (a method which measures decay from potassium into argon atoms). Potassium-argon has a half-life of 1.25 billion years, so it decays 3-4 times faster than uranium-lead does. This laboratory is “one of the most respected commercial dating laboratories in the world.” (Lubenow, kindle location 5128).
The dates that were determined for the 13 rock specimens ranged from as recent as 270,000 years ago to 3.5 million years ago. Most interesting is that “All were said to have a margin of error of about 20 percent in either direction.” (Lubenow, kindle location 5152). This is humorous considering the rocks were definitely known to be only a little over 25 years old, but it illustrates the problem well: even with fresh rocks we do not seem to be able to accurately determine the age of formation.
Also, when God created the mountains and other rocks, what kind of rock should he make them out of? Should he make them out of “new” rock (as we would call rock just released from a volcano), or would it be rock like that of an apparently aged mountain? Remember that God created Adam as a man. In reality, Adam would technically be one minute old, but would appear to be 20, 30 or maybe 40 years old. This was not to be deceptive, but was because God had other intentions. In Adam’s case, he intended to make a fully mature man from the start. Perhaps he had intentions to create fully mature mountains too. We have no ability to discern the number of atoms present in the rocks when God created them, so can we really use this dating method? It doesn’t even work on rocks with known ages!
The Third Assumption is that the decay rate from one atom into another (for a given atom type) has always been the same. This goes along with typical uniformitarianism, the belief that the processes which we observe today have always been the same. Granted, we can observe the decay of atoms today and see a particular rate, but should we assume it has always been this way?
One of the products of uranium decay is also helium. This is created inside the rocks and makes its way up to the surface (more on helium dating methods later). Now, the RATE science team did find that what looked like 1.5 billion years of radioactive decay that had occurred in rock retrieved in New Mexico. However, a large amount of helium buildup was also found in the rock, an amount that should not be present if the decay rate has been constant. Helium will slowly be released from rock over time because it is “slippery”. It basically cannot be contained by rock for a long time. (Morris, p. 53)
The Rate team analyzed the amounts of helium and concluded the following:
RATE experimentally measured the helium diffusion rate for these crystals and found it pointed to a helium diffusion age of only 6,000 +-[plus or minus] 2,000 years. Thus, within just the last few thousands years, 1.5 billion years’ worth of decay (at today’s rate of decay) took place. These data seem to demand such a burst of grossly exaggerated decay, not very long ago. Evidently the assumption of constant decay rates is in error. (p. 53)
There is much speculation as to what might have caused this increased rate of decay. The cause isn’t really what matters. If we cannot have certainty that the decay rate has always been the same, we cannot trust this dating method.
The fourth assumption is that we know how old the earth is. “What?” you say. Why would we need to know how old the earth is before dating it with the radioisotope method? Isn’t that the point of using a dating method? It is because half of uranium decays into lead every 4.51 billion years. In a young earth there is simply not enough time for significant, measurable decay to have occurred. We require the earth to be old so we can use this method! Perhaps this is in part why the young rocks come out as being so old using radioisotope dating. (p. 54) What is 6,000 – 10,000 years compared to 4,510,000,000 years? It’s nothing.
It’s time to acknowledge our assumptions about the past instead of simply believing that historical science is a purely objective process. Your assumptions will definitely determine your end results. I’ve spent a lot of space on radioisotope dating because it is one of the most important to understand in my opinion. Let’s turn to some other dating methods.
Carbon-14 dating only works on carbon-based material like bones and plants, things that were once part of living matter. Carbon-14 has a half life of 5,730 years. This means that elements dated with this method cannot be dated if they are older than approximately 57,300 years, due to the limited amount of carbon remaining which would be difficult to detect. (p. 63) Morris states:
Even the most devoted advocate would not claim that C-14 has any relevance beyond 100,000 years before the present time, and its inaccuracies are well-known. It decays so rapidly that even if the entire mass of the observable universe were packed with carbon-14 atoms, after just 1.5 million years there would not be a single C-14 atom left. If any C-14 is present in a specimen it must be younger than that. (p. 63)
Once again, the age of the earth that we assume from the start greatly affects our ability to use this dating method. Carbon-14 is actually produced by the interaction of cosmic rays with the atmosphere. The C-14 then becomes absorbed into animals and plants as it settles to the earth, where it decays at the given half-life. Therefore a tree, for example, takes in C-14 at a particular rate (until it dies), and the C-14 inside the tree decays with a half-life of 5,730 years. But in order to have a stable rate of input and output, this requires an earth that is at least 30,000 years old so that we can have “carbon-14 equilibrium, with equal amounts of C-14 being formed and decaying”. (pp. 63-64) But is the earth that old? Based on the genealogies we have in the Old Testament, the earth can only be a maximum of about 10,000 years old. So the young earth creationist, by default, should be skeptical about using this method.
Even though this is the case, it may no longer matter, because it is now widely known that C-14 is actually increasing and is not in equilibrium (p. 64). It is also not as trusted as people think. Morris tells some interesting stories:
I remember talking with a famous archaeologist from the University of Pennsylvania doing an excavation in the country of Turkey. He had discovered an ancient tomb with wooden timbers. I asked if he had sent timber samples off for dating through the carbon-14 method. His reply and candid admission shocked me. He had, of course, sent samples off for dating, but claimed he would never believe anything that came back from a carbon-14 lab. Nor was he aware of any archaeologist in the world who would accept such dates. If the date agreed with what he knew it should be historically, then the data would be published; if not, it would be ignored. He was obliged to carbon-date artifacts to keep his grant money coming, he always did so; but he did not trust the method or its results.
On another occasion, I was debating an evolutionist at the national convention of the American Archaeological Society when dating processes came up. I chided the archaeologists present by insisting that they should be honest and admit they never trust carbon-14 dates. There was nervous laughter throughout the audience, but no one even attempted to contradict me. (p. 64)
I don’t think the reasons for avoiding C-14 dating in the examples above are only because it has come into question. It’s also that it tends to favor a young earth. Hopefully Christians soon realize that C-14 dating is actually strongly in support of a young earth. The greatest example is C-14 found in diamonds and coal. Diamond and coal are particularly interesting to study because they are believed to take such an incredibly long time to form that there’s no hope of there being any C-14 left in them once they are formed. And yet, C-14 has been found in coal all over the United States, and the RATE team found C-14 in diamonds from several African countries as well. Because of how hard diamond is, the possibility of contamination is next to nothing. (pp. 65-66) We simply have to conclude that these diamonds formed recently. An old earth scientist would merely attempt to find the source of supposed contamination and miss the point.
Lets not forget that there was a global, catastrophic event that upset any progress toward C-14 equilibrium across the globe:
…the Flood would have drastically altered the carbon inventory in the world as it laid down the vast limestone deposits (calcium carbonate), coal deposits, and oil shales. At the time of the Flood, great amounts of carbon were removed from the atmosphere and oceans and were no longer available for ingestion or absorption into animals or plants, thus destroying any semblance of uniformity in nature and also any hope of a calibration curve going back before the Flood. Nor would such a calibration be possible for the first few centuries following the Flood, during which time things re-stabilized. As mentioned, the carbon-14 built up in the atmosphere has not yet even reached equilibrium with its decay. (p. 65)
It appears that the global Flood affects this dating method as well.
Salt? Yes, salt. This is another way to date the earth. It also has a key benefit: there is essentially no possibility of contamination, because we can use the entire world for our tests, and the world is considered to be a closed system. (p. 78)
This experiment works by measuring the amount of salt in the oceans. Oceans are gradually getting saltier over time. We can actually approximate both the intake of salt and also how much salt is being removed from the oceans (onto land or in other ways). In doing so, we can approximate how salty the ocean will be in X number of years, and also how salty it was X number of years ago. Morris gives examples of input and output, including Coastal Erosion and Hydrothermal Vents (input), as well as Sea Spray and Ion Exchange (output). These are very interesting to read about, and also make you thirsty. There is a margin of error for each of these factors, and so scientists can give minimums and maximums for each one so we can see the total range of possibilities. (pp. 89-90)
Based on the amount of salt we have in our oceans, it would take approximately 32 million years to accumulate, with a maximum possible time span of 62 million years (if we use the slowest possible rate of accumulation). Obviously, Morris is not saying it took the oceans 32-62 million years to get the way they are. He is simply saying that the 4.5 billion years of age for the earth we are given by scientists doesn’t work. (p. 90) In fact, Morris states: “If the ocean was old and had been receiving sodium at any rate comparable to today’s rate, it would be so choked with salt, life would be impossible. The evidence supports a young earth, not an old-earth.” (p. 91)
And it need not be a 30-60 million year old earth either. It might have been salty at creation, but beyond that, can you think of a factor that would cause massive amounts of erosion across the globe, thus accelerating sodium input exponentially?
Sediments in the Ocean
This is slightly different than measuring salt. Here we are measuring sediment in the bottom of the ocean.
Now, we know that the rate of erosion today is 27.5 billion tons of sediment per year, which is being eroded off of continents into the oceans. But we also know how much sediment is in the oceans right now, approximately 410 million billion tons. This is actually more than there is material on land, which is about 383 million billion tons. (pp. 92-93) Note what follows:
Simple division arrives at an age of 15 million years. We could properly conclude that this is the age of our present ocean basins, given the assumption of constant sedimentation rate and no sediments there to start with. If the oceans are as old as commonly believed, they ought to be completely full of sediments. (p. 93)
Now of course, I am not implying by quoting this that the earth is 15 million years old. Just as before, the flood easily explains the extra sediment that we have and once again reduces the maximum possible age. (pp. 93-94)
I briefly talked about helium earlier when going over radioisotope dating. As mentioned, it is a product of radioactive decay occurring underground. Helium is being added to the atmosphere at a rate of 13 million atoms per square inch per second, and it is being lost into outer space at a rate of only 0.3 million atoms per square inch per second. Based on the amount of helium we have in the atmosphere today, this gives a maximum possible age of 2 million years. (p. 87)
It is clear that 2 million years is no where near the 4.5 billion proposed age of the earth. Remember our discussion earlier, that the rate of radioactive decay was very likely much higher at a previous time in history, which produced the large amount of helium we see in some rocks today. Morris notes:
These uniformitarian assumptions include the notion that the rate of accumulation has never been any different throughout the past. But during Noah’s flood, the rate may have been much more rapid, because the earth’s crust was in such turmoil that the helium would have been able to escape crustal rocks more easily. Accelerated nuclear decay would further increase the rate. Both these factors would reduce the maximum age. (p. 87)
The Grand Canyon
I specifically wanted to quote a section from Morris’s book about the Grand Canyon because it is so remarkable. The many, cleanly sandwiched layers in the Grand Canyon peak our curiosity and demand our scrutiny. Perhaps there was a time when I would be writing this post that I would try to present the evidence for rapid deposition of these layers by the Flood (which is indeed what happened). This is no longer necessary, because many scientists today acknowledge that the layers were formed by catastrophic events and not by slow deposition over long ages (as was previously believed) (pp. 96-97):
Please grasp clearly what these scientists are advocating. They would say that nearly all of the rock material was laid down rapidly, as sediments, by catastrophic events. These events were separated by great lengths of time. But while the real evidence points toward rapid catastrophic deposition which took very little time, great amounts of time supposedly passed between the layers where no evidence is found! The evidence for time is the lack [emphasized] of physical evidence. (p. 97, bold emphasis mine)
There should be erosion, and there should be alteration between the layers that would keep them from looking so uniform. Do an image search for “Grand Canyon layers” and see for yourself. They are so clean, flat and even that this is simply not possible. Only a massive flood that deposited the layers over a short period of time could produce the Grand Canyon as we see it today.
A Flood of Evidence
You probably noticed by now that all of the dating methods discussed above are affected by the flood event in Noah’s day (if it indeed was a global flood). This shows why belief in an old earth requires a local flood, just as belief in Evolution requires an old earth. Once you allow for the global flood, you can no longer do historical science in the same way. Because of how the Flood is tied to dating methods, I thought it would be beneficial to include a short section on why we should believe a global flood did in fact occur.
First, note this sobering prophecy in 2 Peter:
3 Above all, you must understand that in the last days scoffers will come, scoffing and following their own evil desires. 4 They will say, “Where is this ‘coming’ he promised? Ever since our ancestors died, everything goes on as it has since the beginning of creation.” 5 But they deliberately forget that long ago by God’s word the heavens came into being and the earth was formed out of water and by water. 6 By these waters also the world of that time was deluged and destroyed. 7 By the same word the present heavens and earth are reserved for fire, being kept for the day of judgment and destruction of the ungodly. (NIV)
Now, I do not think Christians who argue for an old earth and a local flood are denying that Christ will return, nor are they denying a general creation event. I just find it chilling that the creation and the flood are mentioned together as things which will be denied in the last day. The reading of Genesis 1 has been wrongly adjusted to fit secular science, as I discussed in my first post. Let’s now look at the Genesis 7 flood.
To be honest, it saddens me that we even have to debate this. The words used are so abundantly clear. The best way to argue for it is to simply quote it (with my own emphasis added, which Morris helped point out on page 70 in his book):
18 The waters rose and increased greatly on the earth, and the ark floated on the surface of the water. 19 They rose greatly on the earth, and all the high mountains under the entire heavens were covered. 20 The waters rose and covered the mountains to a depth of more than fifteen cubits [about 23 ft]. 21 Every living thing that moved on land perished—birds, livestock, wild animals, all the creatures that swarm over the earth, and all mankind. 22 Everything on dry land that had the breath of life in its nostrils died. 23 Every living thing on the face of the earth was wiped out; people and animals and the creatures that move along the ground and the birds were wiped from the earth. Only Noah was left, and those with him in the ark. (NIV, Gen 7:18-20, emphasis mine)
Notice what God specifically clarifies for us. He clarifies the height of the waters (covering the mountains), and he clarifies (several times!) just what was wiped out (namely, everything). It feels like, since he knew how much this would be debated, the Lord stated it redundantly to make sure it was absolutely clear to us, and yet here we are still talking about it. Morris notes that Mt. Ararat is 17,000 ft high, and states, “A year-long mountain-covering Flood is not a local Flood.” (p. 70)
Earlier on, God predicted this event by saying (and I may as well bold it all):
17 I am going to bring floodwaters on the earth to destroy all life under the heavens, every creature that has the breath of life in it. Everything on earth will perish. (NIV, Gen 6:17, emphasis mine)
It starts to become silly to use the argument that it was the “known earth”. If that is the case, try to imagine what God would have said to imply the whole earth…It’s kind of hard to say it any other way, isn’t it? You can’t even say “the four corners of the earth”, because someone will just say “it was the four corners of the known earth”. What is going on here is the refusal to take these words as they are clearly stated, just as Christians refuse to take Genesis 1’s literal day as is clearly stated. And the reason is also the same: trying to align with secular science.
A wise friend of mine shared this with me: if it was only a local flood, why not simply have Noah and his family leave the area? It’s like telling Lot and his family to build a bomb shelter instead of leave Sodom and Gomorrah. Likewise, “two of every kind of bird” (NIV, 6:20) is taken onto the ark. Why do birds need to be kept on an ark for a local flood? Some birds can travel astonishing distances in a single day. Conversely, fish and sea creatures had no need to be rescued because they were the only creatures that could survive a global flood, though some certainly died in it too. Hence, Gen 7:23 says, “and the birds were wiped from the earth”. (NIV)
When will we simply take with the faith of a child the things that God gave us in Scripture? Science is on the young earth Christian’s side, but that hardly matters. You cannot prove that the earth is old or young using science. It requires faith (either in the Bible or in naturalism and uniformitarianism) for either view. As Morris wisely says, “Rocks, fossils, isotope arrays, and physical systems do not speak with the same clarity as Scripture.” (p. 120)
I myself am guilty of opening the door to an old earth a few years ago when I started to feel like science demanded it. How much better if I simply stood on God’s word? I had to repent of that sin, for sin is what it was. I should have trusted that eventually the data would align with scripture. Now I am at a point where I am convinced that in the end the Bible will always prove to be true, and every day good Christian scientists are showing that to be the case in ever greater examples.
Historically, it was the issue of the age of the earth that was the first doctrine of Scripture to be abandoned by compromisers, then the Flood, then the creation. Today, the cycle has reversed. With evolution now exposed as not credible, many Christians are re-adopting creation, but still hold on to the old-earth and local Flood. How much better it would be to come all the way back to a biblical world view (one which employs better science, by the way). (p.125)
If you still think this doesn’t matter, consider Jesus’ words:
12 I have spoken to you of earthly things and you do not believe; how then will you believe if I speak of heavenly things? (NIV, John 3:12)