A literalistic view of Genesis causes many evangelicals to believe that the earth is less than ten thousand years old. Christian children and young people frequently grow up being told that the earth is young and that evolution is a lie. The most popular science/religion web-site by far according to Alexa ratings is “Answers in Genesis”, and its museum, dedicated to a young earth perspective has attracted over 1 million visitors since its opening two years ago. Since evangelicals, we believe, are correct about so many other all-important issues, how can we be so certain that so many are so wrong about this one? Consider sending this link to a young earth friend or pastor. Some think that the science behind this matter can’t be trusted. Nothing could be further than the truth.
The beauty of the scientific process is its inherent scepticism. (See "What Scientists Do" by Steven Benner). If there is only one way of reaching a conclusion, the scientific process requires the scientist to remain highly sceptical. The only conclusions in science which are widely accepted are those which are supported by multiple, reinforcing lines of evidence – “all roads must lead to Rome”. If there is even one scientific trajectory that seems to clearly lead off to Peoria instead of Rome (to use a recent analogy of Francisco Ayala), the scientific process demands that the scientist find out why. The scientist who does not retain an attitude of scepticism when there is only a single line of evidence, and particularly one who ignores other, conflicting lines of evidence, is on a stubborn trajectory of his own—a trajectory to failure. If the only reason for following the directions which “lead away from Rome” is a particular view of Scripture, then it is important to consider the possibility of human error. Biblical hermeneutics, after all, is a human enterprise just as science itself is. For example, John MacArthur in his current series on Genesis is human and is interpreting Genesis in his way just like the rest of us. He, wonderful pastor and shepherd that he is, interprets Scripture too. There is good reason to be quite certain that the interpretation he subscribes to is mistaken.
As Christians, we are called to follow Jesus. In so doing, Jesus said we are to love the Lord our God with all our heart, soul and mind—not just our heart and soul. Indeed if we close our mind, we are actually disobeying what Jesus said was the greatest commandment of all. So let’s not be shy about using those minds. Are there multiple independent ways of keeping track of time since the creation of the earth? If so, do each of those ways point to the same conclusion?
The best known method of calculating the age of material on earth depends on the well-established fact that certain elements in the earth’s crust are unstable and decay at a fixed rate that can be measured. (For an introduction to this topic see this BioLogos FAQ.) This instability functions sort of like a set of clocks that have been ticking through the eons of time. Indeed there are many types of unstable elements; there are many ticking clocks. Each of the various clocks tick at a different rate. The rate of each can be calibrated, and, with an amazing degree of consistency, all “clocks” point back to the same starting point: an ancient earth with rocks that are hundreds of millions and even billions of years old. This “ticking clock” technique is known as radiometric dating.1,2
There are other totally independent ways of estimating the age of material on earth. To appreciate how these work, perhaps we should start with shorter spans of time, which for human beings are much more readily comprehensible. Some of the fondest boyhood memories of one of us (DK) come from visits to the majestic California redwood forests. He especially remembers an exhibit of a section from a giant tree which showed the pattern of growth rings within it. It turns out that these rings accumulate in response to seasonal differences in rainfall and temperature, which in turn produces differences in growth rate. Fastened within this huge slab of wood was a series of tags, proceeding from the surface inward, demonstrating the dates of major historical events: the landing of the Pilgrims on Plymouth Rock; Columbus’ discovery of the New World; the Norman conquest of England, and so forth. It was possible to see in the yearly growth rings a history of what seemed then to be the very distant past!3
Growth layering processes are not restricted to trees. Many species of marine invertebrates accumulate calcium carbonate from their watery environment and incorporate it into some form of shell. Examples would be clams and corals. In fact, for these species, the variation in shell deposition occurs on a both a daily and a yearly basis, so an even finer counting of time periods is possible.4
Just as it is possible to count the rings in trees and correlate their age to known historical events in the past, it is also possible to count the banding patterns preserved in the fossils of marine organisms, and use this as a method to estimate their ages. Let’s see how it works.
Astronomical data, developed and analyzed over the past couple of centuries, has revealed that the rotation of the earth is gradually slowing down. This is due to the friction created daily by the moving tides on the earth’s surface, produced by the gravitational pull of the moon and sun. Furthermore, as the earth slows down slightly, some rotational energy is transferred to the moon, which alters its orbit slightly (its orbit is moving slowly away from the earth). The data leading to these conclusions range from analysis of ancient solar eclipses (whose dating allows the precise position of the earth, sun and moon to be determined) to bouncing laser beams off mirrors placed on the surface of the moon by the Apollo astronauts. For our purposes, what will be important is the slowing of the earth’s rotation. This predicts that the length of each day has been slowly increasing since the formation of the earth/moon system. The average increase in the day length is estimated at 2.3 milliseconds (.0023 seconds) per century.5,6 Hence as we examine events in the past, day length was shorter, by an amount that can be calculated. Ten thousand years ago, a day would have been .23 seconds shorter than it is today. If direct experimental estimates of day length can be obtained, they allow an estimate of the age of the material.
One way that such experimental estimates of day length can be obtained is through the periodic growth rings deposited in the shells of marine invertebrate organisms. Take for example a clam living in an intertidal environment. If the tide is in and the shell is open, it can readily absorb oxygen from water, use aerobic metabolism, and incorporate calcium carbonate into its shells. When the tide is out and the shells are closed, however, little oxygen can be absorbed, anaerobic metabolism is used, shell decalcification occurs, and organic rich material accumulates in the shell. This alternating pattern of shell deposition occurs on a daily basis, and is clearly visible in both shells from living and fossil clam species by microscopic examination. Furthermore, shells contain an identifiable mark resulting from the first freezing day of winter, and from the first really hot day of summer. Hence a yearly growth interval can be readily determined.7
When such data are analyzed for a number of fossil species, it is clear that the number of days these organisms experienced each year was higher than today. Given that, we have another clock - a totally independent way of measuring the age of certain fossils. So how well do clocks based upon radiometric dating agree with those based on measuring rings in certain sea shells?
As already mentioned, organisms living 10,000 years ago would have experienced shorter days, but they would only have been shorter by 0.2 seconds. Organisms living 1 million years ago would have experienced a day length that was 20 seconds shorter. If the earth really is very, very old, organisms living 465 million years ago, for example, would have experienced approximately 416 days per year, each day being about 21 hours long.7 Amazingly, shelled fossils in formations dated by radiometric clocks to be about 465 million years old show, by their banding patterns, that the days really were three hours shorter. In fact the two sets of clocks agree within 1 percent!
Another way such estimates of ancient day length can be derived is to look at the periodic patterns formed in fine silts in ancient river estuaries. The daily tides produce shifts in the mud, leaving a fine layering pattern, which is recorded in rock as these sediments transform into materials such as sandstone (such deposits are called “rhythmites”). Other shifts in the mud are produced over longer time intervals, including seasonal and yearly shifts. By counting the number of daily depositional layers per year, in a similar fashion to work with marine organism shells cited above, an estimate of ancient day length can be derived. One advantage of the rhythmite analysis method is that it can be applied to more ancient materials, in eras of the earth’s history when organisms suitable for shell analysis were scarce or non-existent. For example, radiometric analysis of certain rock formations in South Australia dated them at 620 million years of age. On this basis one would predict that the day/night cycles should have been about 20 hours long in these formations. Actual measurements of day length from the preserved mud banding patterns, although off from the expected by ten percent (estimated day length is 22 hours) is again consistent with the formation being hundreds of millions of years old just as the radiometric dating has predicted.8
In conclusion, there is data derived from three independent sources: the decay of radioisotopes, the growth patterns recorded in fossilized shells of marine organisms, and rocks containing tidal depositional material from river estuaries, which all agree on an ancient age for the earth. Furthermore, by a totally independent method it is also possible to measure the age of the universe as a whole and again it is billions, not thousands of years.
All of the roads in God’s book of Nature “lead to Rome” (i.e an ancient earth) - it is only mistaken human interpretation of Scripture that causes some of our precious brothers and sisters in Christ to end up in Peoria.
The next blog in this series can be found here.
Editor's Note: Dr. Kerk offers a further discussion of the age of the earth in the comment section of this post, beginning here. Dr. Kerk has also included the following graph:
1: Elementary principles of radiometric dating are discussed by Richard Dawkins. Dawkins, R. 2009. The Greatest Show on Earth: The Evidence for Evolution. Free Press, New York Pgs. 91-98.
2: Wiens, R.C. 2002. Radiometric Dating: A Christian Perspective. This is a more detailed but still highly readable account of radiometric dating, written by a well-qualified physicist who is also a professing Christian. It can be obtained from the web site of the American Scientific Affiliation: http://www.asa3.org/ASA/resources/Wiens.html
3: Tree ring dating (“dendrochronology”) is discussed by Dawkins, pgs. 88-91.
4: Dating using coral skeletal deposition is discussed by Jerry Coyne: Coyne, J.A. 2009. Why Evolution is True. Viking Penguin, New York. Pgs. 24-25.
5: “Tidal Acceleration”, Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tidal_acceleration
6: Stephenson, F.R. 2003. Historical Eclipses and Earth’s Rotation. Astronomy and Geophysics 44:2.22-2.27.
7: Zhenyu, Z., Yaoqi Z., Guosheng J. 2007. The periodic growth increments of biological shells and the orbital parameters of Earth-Moon system. Environmental Geology 51: 1271–1277.
8: Williams, G.E. 2000. Geological constraints on the Precambrian history of Earth's rotation and the Moon's orbit. Reviews of Geophysics 38(1):37-59.