Who sits around debating the age of the earth?

Most of my friends are nerds.  I am too.  Ian Fleming made another nerd, “Q,” a sort of a cult hero; but in the early James Bond movies he was always relegated to a small role as the scientist who developed all of 007’s high-tech weapons.  You know nerdism has gone main-stream when you see a lead-nerd in nearly every TV series – at least the decent ones.  In “The Middle” it’s the adolescent Brick, in “Person of Interest” it’s Harold, and in NCIS and each of its many spin-offs  there are multiple lead-nerds, like Abby and McGee.

Personally, I’m thankful for the nerds I’ve been privileged to call my friends.  They’ve each broadened my horizon and exposed me to areas of knowledge I might otherwise have never discovered on my own.  From the poly-sci major, whose idea of fun is a 150 mile drive to hear a speech by an expert on urban renewal, to the former foreign production liaison who knows Egyptian military leadership and Kuwaiti royal family members on a first name basis, and who can provide an insight into middle-Eastern politics unfamiliar to most of the U.S. press.  From the former South Dakotan farm boy who majored in engineering who has helped me diagnose numerous automotive problems, to the psych grad whose expertise now ranges from business finance to the arts, and who scrounges the internet for interesting stories and pictures to share with his friends.  These and others are the IT, mechanical and electronic gurus whose brains I’ve frequently picked to select a new computer, wide-screen TV or automobile.  I look at the crossing of our careers as a true blessing from God.

This brings me to the present time and a simple FaceBook query I read last week.  One of the associate pastors of my local church, who has a habit of trying to get people to actually think, and question and defend their beliefs, made a somewhat controversial statement (at least to most Bible believing Christians).  Pastor announced that He believes in an “old earth,” (as opposed to a “young earth” not much more than 6000 years old.)  Within an hour there were more than three dozen responses – some just “liking,” others agreeing and commenting, and many more emphatically disagreeing (occasionally out of emotion, but most with apparently some knowledge of the subject.)  And I thought, “Who sits around debating the age of the earth?  On FaceBook no less!”  Then something clicked in my brain – my local church has a number of nerds like me.  This information surprised me, but gave me a new sense of comfort.

No!  I didn’t participate in the debate.  It’s not that I didn’t have my own opinion on the subject.  I simply didn’t have a firm grasp of either the evidence or even the possible alternative positions.  But I did take Pastor’s bait and decided to do some research of my own.

Let me start out by saying the only question I’ll be addressing in this blog is the age of the earth; not whether or not there is a God; not whether the universe was created by an intelligent being or somehow poofed into existence out of nothing; not whether man was created by God or evolved from some one-celled amoeba.  No!  These questions are all distinguishable from the issue of the age of the earth – and, from my point of view as a Christian, well settled truths clearly explained in the Bible.

Of course, most atheists would argue, and some Christians might agree, that the possibility of an old earth (in the range of millions to billions of years) renders the Bible inaccurate concerning origins.  Both are needlessly in error.  As far as the washed-in-the-Blood, Spirit-indwelled, born again believer, I don’t particularly care what he believes about an old or a young earth.  The answer isn’t essential to his salvation.  For him, the age of the earth is irrelevant.  But to others it may well be an unavoidable roadblock on the path to salvation.  For the benefit of these I care about the topic.   As the Word of God says, no one has a justified excuse for denying God:
“The heavens declare the glory of God; and the firmament shows His handiwork.   Day unto day utters speech, and night unto night reveals knowledge.  There is no speech nor language where their voice is not heard.”   Psalms 19:1-3   “… what may be known of God is manifest in them, for God has shown it to them.  For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even His eternal power and Godhead, so that they are without excuse,”   Romans 1:19-20  For their benefit I believe we have an obligation to attain at least a degree of knowledge of the subject adequate to point them in the right direction; or, as a well-known Christian apologists is known to say, “put a pebble in their shoe, so they feel uncomfortable and inclined to research the subject themselves.”

 Observational versus Historical Science

Observational science is knowledge gained by observation.  It relies on the “scientific method”.

Historical science is theorizing about what happened in the past (unobservable) based on extrapolating what is presently observable.

Observational science is factual.

Historical science is simply another belief system about the past.  It’s not objective truth.  It requires assumptions (such as the absence of any supernatural force beyond the natural laws of physics, or in the case of radio metric dating, that the ratio of 14C to 12C has always been the same as it is today).

When a scientist classifies rocks as igneous, metamorphic, or sedimentary, that is observational science. But if that same scientist then claims that rocks are millions of years old, that is historical science.

Observing an element in a laboratory changing as a result of radioactive decay would come under the heading of observational science.  But using a number of unverified assumptions and extrapolating backward in time to use radioactive decay to estimate the age of a rock is historical science.

Alternative Number 1:  The earth is only 6000 years old

(Links age of earth to age of man)

Historically, the “young-earther” claim comes from the work of James Ussher, Archbishop in the Church of Ireland, from 1625 to 1656.  Ussher took the genealogies of Genesis and calculated all the years to arrive at a date for the creation of the earth on Sunday, October 23, 4004 B.C.  There are a number of assumptions implicit in the calculation, including: (1) that all the years the patriarchs lived were exactly 365.25 days long and that they all died the day before their next birthday; (2) that the genealogies of Genesis are complete, from father to son throughout the entire course of human existence; (3) that the Genesis creation days were exactly 24 hours in length.  It turns out that all three assumptions were inaccurate.

Those who hold the earth is 6,000 years old do so because they are concerned about maintaining the integrity and authority of the Bible.  Watching as the world rejects the things of God more and more with each passing day, is it any wonder it is viewed as worldly to consider the simplest reading of the Bible may not be the correct interpretation?  I agree the world doesn’t need more watered down Christianity, but it doesn’t need a flat-earth Christianity either.  It needs Jesus.  That is why this subject is important.

Alternative Number 2:  The earth is in the tens of thousands of years old

(Links age of earth to age of man)

The longer “young-earth” claim is based on a number of alternate interpretations of scripture.  First is the length of day for the six day creation period, second is the issue whether the genealogical record of Genesis is complete, and the third suggests that God may have initiated plant life as seeds initially, rather than fully mature.

Regarding the creation period duration, proponents of a possibly much longer time, point to scriptures that say in God’s economy, … with the Lord one day is as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day. (2 Peter 3:8) and  For a thousand years in Your sight are like yesterday when it is past, and like a watch in the night.  (Psalm 90:4)  They suggest that creation could have lasted from a few to several thousand years.  Their position is reinforced by the fact that original biblical languages contained far fewer words than modern English, and hence, many additional possible interpretations.  The Hebrew word translated “day” actually has three literal translations: the daylight portion of a 24-hour day, a 24-hour day, and a long, unspecified period of time, as in “day of the dinosaurs”.  The Hebrew word translated “evening” also means sunset, night or end of the day.  The word translated “morning” also means sunrise, coming of light, beginning of the day, or dawning.  Our English expression: “The dawning of an age” illustrates the latter. The intended meaning of the word has to be determined from the context.

To support their contention, the longer day, proponents point to the “busyness” of the sixth day.  On the sixth day, God created the wild animals, cattle and creeping things.  Then God created the first man and placed him into the special garden that God had planted, “to work it and take care of it.”  We don’t know how long Adam worked the garden before God gave him the assignment to name the animals, but it wouldn’t have been much “work” if Adam was there for less than 24 hours.   Then the assignment of naming “all the beasts of the field and all the birds of the air” – potentially tens of thousands of species – would have taken considerable time.  Then Adam’s response to Eve’s creation is “at last;” not exactly the response one would have expected from a man who had waited for less than one day.   So, they conclude that the sixth day more than likely took several years, not 24 hours.

Regarding Biblical genealogies, we know for a fact that in other sections of the Bible they were often “telescoped” – that is, some names were left out for the sake of brevity.  Similarly, some key genealogical terms (such as “son” and “father”) have much broader meanings in Hebrew than their corresponding English words. The Hebrew word translated “son” can also have the meaning of grandson, great grandson, and descendant; and the Hebrew word translated “father” can also mean grandfather, great grandfather, or ancestor.  Often it’s possible to identify where telescoping occurred by cross referencing the genealogies with other events dated in the Bible.  There is some evidence that would suggest the recorded names are representative of generations found throughout human history.

Regarding the possibility that God created seeds and allowed them to mature into plant life, the proponents often point to the Genesis 1 text for the third day.  Then God said, “Let the earth sprout vegetation, plants yielding seed, and fruit trees bearing fruit after their kind, with seed in them, on the earth”; and it was so. And the earth brought forth vegetation, plants yielding seed after their kind, and trees bearing fruit, with seed in them, after their kind; and God saw that it was good. (Genesis 1:11-12)  The interpretation that God actually created seeds and planted those comes from an understanding of the word “sprout,” which refers to God allowing the earth to produce plants through germination.  The Hebrew word infers that God used processes identical to what we see on the earth today: plants spouted, grew to maturity, and produced seeds. The text states that the land produced the vegetation and trees.  By extension, since fruit trees take several years to mature and produce fruit, the third “day” must have been at least several years long.

So, in this alternative, they estimate the age of the earth as greater than 10,000 but certainly no more than 100,000 years old.

Alternative No. 3:  The Time Gap – Old Earth

(No direct link between the date of the creation of man and the age of the earth)

Most Christians who believe in an “old-earth” base it on a presumed time gap between the first and second verses of Genesis, chapter 1:  In the beginning God created the heavens and the earthGAP of Millions to Billions of yearsThe earth was without form, and void; and darkness was on the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God was hovering over the face of the waters.

The contention is that God would not create something that was without form and void, and that there had to be a cause for the darkness on the face of the deep.  This approach pictures God creating an earth some time in eternity past and positioning some plant and animal life on it.  Then some cataclysmic event occurred which led to its partial destruction.  The Bible, they claim gives hints of what this event was.  They often point to some texts in Isaiah, Ezekiel and Revelation which address the former good standing of another created spiritual leader named Lucifer who led a rebellion against God, for which he and those millions of (now demonic) angels who supported him were cast out of heaven to earth.  But conjecture concerning the cause of the cataclysmic event is for another day’s discussion.

Old-earthers emphasize that the Bible makes no direct claims as to the age of the earth. Nowhere does it teach that the earth is 6,000 years old; nor does it say the earth is billions of years old.   We must interpret the age of the earth from science and the Bible.  Even Job, when he responded to his critics well understood that God was responsible for everything we see on and above the earth – in fact his words seem to encourage scientific research for truth.  “But now ask the beasts, and they will teach you; and the birds of the air, and they will tell you; or speak to the earth, and it will teach you; and the fish of the sea will explain to you.  Who among all these does not know that the hand of the Lord has done this.  In whose hand is the life of every living thing, and the breath of all mankind?”

The Bible doesn’t make any direct claims as to the length of the days of creation.  God doesn’t mark the passage of time.  Time only has meaning to mankind.   To God, man’s million years could be one second.  Therefore, no matter what the interpretation is of the original Hebrew for the word “day,” it doesn’t apply to an infinite God.  The early church fathers believed the days of creation were a thousand years long.  Literal days were not even considered until the fourth century, and it didn’t become a major theological issue until the 19th century.

We know God was here 5 billion years ago, so if the earth is 5 billion years old as some scientists theorize, no problem.  It certainly doesn’t detract from God or His power.  It really doesn’t matter from that perspective how long the period of creation is, for God’s power is beyond comprehension, beyond anyone else’s capabilities, and He remains omnipotent no matter how long creation lasted.

Point – Counterpoint

Old-earthers would say that the creation itself testifies to its age, and would point to all the carbon dating of fossils and other scientific discoveries.  So how do the young-earthers respond to this so-called “evidence?”

Young-earthers present their own “evidence.”

  1. a. Geological evidenceCarbon dating – Radiocarbon (carbon-14) cannot remain naturally in substances for millions of years because it decays relatively rapidly.  For this reason, it can only be used to obtain “ages” in the range of tens of thousands of years.   Scientists from the Radioisotopes and the Age of the Earth project examined diamonds that evolutionists consider to be 1 to 2 billion years old and discovered significant detectable levels of radiocarbon in these diamonds, dating them instead to around 55,000 years.

1.   b. A second problem with dating is that radiometric methods for dating the earth’s rocks are based upon the decay sequences of certain elements.  For example, uranium-238 (called a parent element) will, through a series of decomposition processes, ultimately produce lead-206 (called a daughter element).  Scientists believe they know the present decay rate. Thus, if a rock contains both uranium-238 and lead-206, the ratio of the two elements will be used to estimate the age of the sample.  It is conceded, however, that in order for this method to be valid, certain assumptions must be granted.  It must be assumed that no lead-206 was in the rock at the time of its formation. But what if lead-206 was a part of the original creation? That would invalidate the accuracy of the age-estimate.  It also must be assumed that neither the parent nor the daughter element has been altered in mass since the beginning.  However, there is an increasing body of evidence which indicates that both parent and daughter elements, under the proper conditions, can migrate in the rocks, thus radically affecting any result that might be obtained.  The assumption is made that decay rates have remained constant. Again, though, recent research has shown that while these decay rates appear to remain constant within narrow limits, under special circumstances they may be altered considerably.

1.  c.  Examples of false projections: Studies on submarine basaltic rocks from Hawaii, known to have formed less than two hundred years ago, when dated by the potassium-argon method, yielded ages from 160 million to almost three billion years (Funkhouser and Naughton, 1968).  The shells of living mollusks have been dated at up to 2,300 years old (Keith and Anderson, 1963).  Freshly-killed seals have been dated at up to 1,300 years, and mummified seals, dead only about thirty years, have yielded dates as high as 4,600 years (Dort, 1971).   And there’s even a case where muscle tissue from a mummified musk ox was dated at 24,000 years, while hair from the same carcass dated only 7,200 years! (Jackson, 1989).

1.  d. Tightly Folded Rock Strata – When solid rock is bent, it normally cracks and breaks. Rock can only bend without fracturing when it is softened by extreme heating (which causes re-crystalization) or when the sediments have not yet fully hardened.  There are numerous locations around the world where we observe massive sections of strata that have been tightly folded, without evidence of the sediments being heated.  This is a major problem for old-earthers who believe these rock layers were laid down gradually over vast eons of time, forming the geologic record.  However, it makes perfect sense to people who believe these layers were formed rapidly in a global, catastrophic Flood.

1.  e. Like other planets, the earth has a magnetic field that is decaying quite rapidly. We are now able to measure the rate at which the magnetic energy is being depleted and develop models to explain the data.  Secular scientists invented a “dynamo model” of the earth’s core to explain how the field could have lasted over such a long period of time, but this model fails to adequately explain the data for the rapid decay and the rapid reversals that it has undergone in the past.  Dr. Thomas Barnes, professor emeritus of physics at the University of Texas, has done extensive research in the decay of the earth’s magnetic field. His findings indicate that the magnetic field was created only a few thousand years ago, and is decaying toward extinction (1981).

1.  f.  Also, deep under the surface of the earth are huge reservoirs of oil and water. Many of these reservoirs are characterized by extremely high fluid pressures. These pressures are gradually diminishing (much like air seeping from the tire of an automobile).  It is acknowledged that the rock above these pockets is porous enough to allow the pressure to escape in a matter of several thousand years. Yet the pressure is still there. Dr. Melvin Cook, former professor at the University of Utah and president of IRECO Chemicals (1968 winner of the Nitro Nobel Award), argues that this suggests that these pressure pools were formed only a few thousand years ago.  He contends it is evidence for a young earth.

2.   Astronomical evidence –The gravitational pull of the moon creates a “tidal bulge” on earth that causes the moon to spiral outwards very slowly.  Because of this effect, the moon would have been closer to the earth in the past. Based on gravitational forces and the current rate of recession, we can calculate how much the moon has moved away over time.  If the earth is only a few thousand years old, there’s no problem, because in that time the moon would have only moved about 800 feet.  But about 1.5 billion years ago the moon would have been touching the earth!

3.   Biological evidence – In recent years, there have been many findings of preserved biological materials in supposedly ancient rock layers and fossils.  Laboratory studies have shown that there is no known way for biological material to last more than thousands of years, instead of the millions of years old claimed for some.

4.   Anthropological evidencemathematics – We can calculate the years of human existence with the population doubling every 150 years (a very conservative figure) to get an estimate of what the world’s population should be after any given period of time.  A biblical age of the earth (about 6,000 years) is consistent with the numbers yielded by such a calculation. In contrast, even a conservative evolutionary age of 50,000 years comes out to a staggering, impossibly high figure of 10 to the 99th power.

5.   Young-earthers of course present theological arguments as well – such as the statements of the Bible that death entered the earth when Adam sinned.  They see physical death as one of the penalties of sin – first demonstrated by the death of the sacrificial animals, beginning with those killed by God to clothe Adam and Eve.  “Therefore, just as through one man [the first Adam] sin entered into the world, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men, because all sinned– …death reigned from Adam… by the transgression of the one the many died…” (Romans 5:12,14-15)   Whereas old-earthers would teach that death and bloodshed existed long before man’s existence.  Adam was, in effect, created on top of a graveyard of decaying or fossilized animals.

6.   One of the most ironic arguments though is the young-earthers’ quoting of evolutionists who admit to problems in proving an old earth.  Such is Dr. Stephen Moorbath, from the University of Oxford, who wrote: “No terrestrial rocks closely approaching an age of 4.6 billion years have yet been discovered.  The evidence for the age of the earth is circumstantial, being based upon . . . indirect reasoning.”  (1977)  And Dr. John Eddy, an astronomer who, stated: “There is no evidence based solely on solar observations that the Sun is 4.5 to 5 billion years old…. I suspect that the Sun is 4.5 billion years old. However, given some new and unexpected results to the contrary, and some time for frantic recalculation and theoretical readjustment, I suspect that we could live with Bishop Ussher’s value for the age of the Earth and Sun [4004 B.C.].  I don’t think we have much in the way of observational evidence in astronomy to conflict with that.” (1978)   And Evolutionist Frederic B. Jueneman declares: “The age of our globe is presently thought to be some 4.5 billion years, based on radiodecay rates of uranium and thorium.  Such confirmation may be short-lived, as nature is not to be discovered quite so easily.  There has been in recent years the horrible realization that radiodecay rates are not as constant as previously thought, nor are they immune to environmental influences.  And this could mean that the atomic clocks are reset during some global disaster, and events which brought the Mesozoic [age] to a close may not be 65 million years ago, but rather, within the age and memory of man.” (1982)

Of course Christian old-earthers counter each of these arguments.  For example, regarding the carbon dating issues, they generally acknowledge that examples can be found of erroneous results, but say that “a few discrepancies” don’t disprove the science behind the approach.

Regarding death, they clearly acknowledge that the Bible teaches that death is the penalty for sin.  “Wherefore, as by one man sin entered into the world, and death by sin; and so death passed upon all men, for that all have sinned.”   But they emphasize that spiritual death is much more important than physical death.  Physical death can never separate a person from Christ, like spiritual does.  Nevertheless, the young earth proponent believes that the Bible teaches there was no physical death before sin.  There’s no question that sin introduced spiritual death, and indirectly introduced physical death to the human race.  But it did not introduce physical death to the world.   The old-earther asks us to consider the following facts.

  1. God said the plant and animal kingdom He created was “very good,” even before He created Adam.  It must have been a thriving, renewing ecosystem to be “very good.”  Death and regeneration are crucial to the working of God’s creation.  It was specifically designed this way. If it were not self-renewing, it would not last very long, and then God’s creation would indeed not be “very good.”
  2. The Bible says that God gave the green plants to all animals to eat. Young earth proponents claim that since the animals ate grass in the garden, there was no death due to carnivorous activity.  However, the Bible does not say that animals “cannot” eat meat – it only says they were given grass to eat.  God created many animals to eat meat and without meat, they would die.  Perhaps all the meat eaters were outside the Garden – that’s something we just don’t know.
  3. Then consider the spider – it was created with only one diet in mind – a dead insect.  Also, some snakes were created with venom? Venom only has one purpose – to kill or incapacitate, then consume.
  4. And what about disease? Did the microorganisms (viruses, bacteria) that cause disease exist before the fall of man?  After Adam sinned God is already in His seventh day of rest, and the creation is already 100% complete.  Didn’t they have to be created some time during the six days of creation?  We know that bacteria existed before the fall, because Adam and Eve were normal human beings, who required the aid of bacteria for the breakdown of foods in the human digestive tract.  Perhaps the young earth proponents will argue that the bacteria and viruses we have today mutated from this original bacteria source.  That would be an interesting discussion.
  5. The rock record, through its fossils, indicates that death existed for millions of years.  By young earth models, all fossil-bearing rock layers must be laid down after the fall of man. The mechanism they point to is the Flood of Noah.

  So what conclusions do we draw from all this?

 The real issue is not the age of the earth.  Rather, the real issue is authority.  God’s infallible Word must be our ultimate authority, not the unstable foundation of human reasoning – whether you are a young-earther or an old-earther.

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