Mankind determining the age of the earth is a bit like the proverbial blind men inspecting an elephant in order to derive the development of its internal organs. In science, facts about the natural world are best discovered using the scientific method, wherein a hypothesis is tested until it can be proven or disproven. Events that are too small, too far away, or too long ago can only be surmised by analyzing the data at hand. A theory gains credibility when another clue is discovered which agrees, or when the theory predicts a consequential discovery which is later confirmed.
How old is the Earth?
The age of the earth is a matter that is, of course, too long past for experimentation. If its development is related to the formation of other planets, stars, etc., distance is added to the mix, making analysis all but impossible.
But there is one more factor which completely derails any objective discovery—the character and social environment of those doing the discovering. It is nearly impossible to procure the resources and support required to study the issue unless the researcher agrees to begin with the assumption that the earth is billions and billions of years old. For one, the presumption is so deeply ingrained in the scientific community that it has reached the level of a moral imperative. In addition, the evidence available is too incomplete to lead to a concrete answer on its own. Data cannot be interpreted in a way that will lead to any kind of conclusion unless an underlying assumption is made first. If this sounds like circular reasoning, it's because it is.
There is a small group of scientists, largely marginalized or even mocked, who begin with the assumption that the biblical account of creation in Genesis 1 and 2 is literal, and the earth is quite young. Because of the nature of scientific resource allocation, the bulk of their time is spent refuting the conclusions old-earth scientists make from the data at hand. Inasmuch as we can scientifically deduce long ago events, their findings are worth considering.
The three main fields regarding the age of the earth are astronomy, geology, and theology.
Astronomy may be one of the most difficult branches of science to study. The subjects are too far away to monitor directly, and much of the interest in the subject deals with events in the far past. Scientists have deduced that the universe began billions of years ago after a super explosion—the Big Bang. The gases coalesced into stars and then galaxies sometime later.
Besides the great amount of improvable conjecture involved in such a claim, there are two glaring problems. The first is in regards to the speed at which our galaxy rotates. At such a speed, had it been in existence for the billions of years claimed, the highly definable arms would have smeared into a disk. In fact, the stars would have spread out after only a few hundred million years. The shapes of the galaxies do not support billions of years of existence.
The second issue is the lack of supernovae. A supernova is a star that has exploded, leaving behind a cloud of particles. At the current rate of supernova explosions, a billion-year universe should be filled with the remains of dead stars. Instead, we can see only about 200—the amount expected to form in about 7000 years.
The discussion regarding the geological evidence of the age of the earth is broader and more puzzling. In an environment where improvable assumptions are essential for professional assistance and advancement, half-understood theories are touted as fact, obscuring a purer, objective analysis.
Many scientists believe they can accurately determine the age of rocks using a process called radiometric dating. Heavy elements, such as uranium, gradually degrade over time, losing protons, neutrons, and electrons until the atoms literally transform into a different element. By comparing how much of the heavier "mother" element a rock contains compared to the lighter "daughter" element, it's thought that the time since the rock has cooled from magma can be determined. Unfortunately, this process makes some erroneous assumptions. One is that the original magma contained absolutely no daughter elements. Another is that the rate of decay has stayed the same in the billions of years since the rock cooled. Both of these assumptions have been proven problematic. Samples from the same area in the Grand Canyon have given wildly different ages. And rock formed from lava which hardened mere decades ago in New Zealand and the crater of Mt. St. Helens have given results consistent with rocks that are supposed to be millions of years old.
Carbon-14 is an isotope of carbon that is used to measure the age of previously organic material in fossils up to 60,000 years old. Carbon-14 is made when cosmic radiation strikes a nitrogen atom, turning one of its protons into a neutron, and turning the nitrogen atom into carbon. This carbon atom latches onto oxygen atoms making carbon dioxide which is absorbed by plants and eaten by animals. Once the animal dies, thereby ending its procurement of any type of carbon, the C-14 atom decays. Carbon-14 has two extra neutrons in its nucleus, creating a chemically unstable situation. One of the neutrons will convert to a proton, changing the element back to nitrogen. It takes 5730 years for half of the C-14 to revert back to nitrogen. Thus, if the original amount of C-14 is known, the time the source died can be determined. This initial amount is deduced by the fairly stable ration of C-12 and C-14 currently present in our atmosphere, using the assumption that the planet is billions of years old and has had time to come to a C-12/C-14 equilibrium. If, however, the magnetic field around the earth has changed over the millennia, and if the Genesis Flood is true, today's C-12/C-14 ration cannot be considered a standard. The distinction is critical because at 40 million years old, fossils should have no C-14 left. And at 100,000 years old, coal beds shouldn't either. But they do. As do diamonds which are supposed to be millions or billions of years old.
The optimistic assumption that radioactive elements were pure, or at least knowable, in the formation of the parent rock is a noble thought, but presumptuous. A simpler answer is the earth has not maintained the steady state old-earth scientists believe. And the global Flood had a much larger impact than imagined. Both of these would indicate the age of the earth is much younger than previously thought.
Theological issues don't concern those old-earth proponents who choose to be atheists, but scientists who believe the earth is quite old—yet still the work of a Creator—find themselves up against a wall. In their attempt to maintain credibility with the secular society while keeping their standing in the church, they get a little creative with the text and the work of God in human history.
Language comes into play in two different ways in this argument. The first is the translation of the word "day" in the creation account of Genesis 1. Old-earth creationists claim the Hebrew word can mean an undefined span of time. Theologians who believe Genesis 1 is to be taken literally point out that the usage of a number with the Hebrew word (such as "second day") always means a literal day. In addition, in verses 5, 8, 13, 19, 23, and 31, the writer uses the phrase "there was evening and there was morning…" No amount of semantical gymnastics could force this phrase to infer the earth is billions of years old.
Old earth creationists also use language to claim that Genesis 1-11—the creation and the Flood stories—are not historical accounts. They are poetry, meant to provide a lyrical summary of God's work to a scientifically unsophisticated people. Steven W. Boyd, Ph.D., completed a study to determine if this was the case. His statistical study of verb usage in Hebrew literature determined that the chance that Genesis 1:1-2:3 is historical narrative and not poetry is %99.9942. Meaning to say, the author of Genesis, inspired by the Holy Spirit (2 Timothy 3:16-17; 2 Peter 1:20-21), meant to write a historically accurate account, not a symbolic metaphor.
The second theological issue regarding the age of the earth deals with the relationship between sin and death. God told Adam that if he ate from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, he would die. Adam ate, and God not only promised him death in Genesis 3:19, He ensured Adam would die by guarding the Tree of Life (Genesis 3:22-24). Romans 5:12 clearly says, "… sin came into the world through one man, and death through sin …" If this is the case, if death entered because of Adam's sin, if the world before Adam's sin was "very good," how can old-earth proponents justify billions of years of animal violence? Or cancer in the bones of dinosaurs? Or the story of sin in relation to the evolution of mankind? How could Adam have been descended from apes and Neanderthals long dead if he, himself, brought sin and death to mankind?
If the Bible is God's inspired Word, and not the recordings of a primitive people telling each other stories, then the age of the earth is present in its text, waiting for science to catch up. The genealogies say the earth is about 6000 years old. The Flood account gives more than ample explanation for many of the geological anomalies we find. And Genesis 1–3 clearly explain the theological relationship between first man's sin and all mankind's death. We choose what to believe. We can choose to follow a manmade theory (Romans 1:25) in order to gain man-given praise (Romans 2:29), or we can choose to believe the Bible is the inspired Word of God, that God is intimately involved in creation, and that manmade science just hasn't caught up yet (1 Corinthians 4:5). The age of the earth is not a salvation issue. There are many godly Christians who believe the earth is billions of years old. And yet the motivation for believing in an old earth may be a salvation issue if we crave the approval of men more than God (John 12:37-43).
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What is the missing link, and has it been found?
What is the Big Bang theory?
Creation vs. evolution - What does the Bible say?
Truth about Creation