By Todd Strandberg
The Reason For My Concern
Entangled in the greater debate over the origin of life is a separate debate over the age of the earth. Nearly all creationist groups believe our planet is somewhere around 6,000 years old. Most scientists see the earth's age as ranging from hundreds of millions to billions of years old.
The Bible is extremely brief in its explanation of the origin of the universe. Because we are provided with such a limited amount of information, it's unwise to try to make the Word of God say something it never really addressed.
I wouldn't tackle this topic if I weren't concerned about the credibility of the Christian faith. Untold numbers of people have already turned to evolution or a non-literal approach to Scripture based on the realization that the 6,000-year theory offers no logical explanation for an overabundance of fossil records. I want to reach out to people who are unable to accept Christianity because of the young earth view.
The attitude of the following individual perfectly represents the earth age confusion that exists in the minds of many people:
"In literal terms, we might think of this God as an unreliable narrator. It's clear to me, if not to the creationists, that if He'd fool around with thousands of feet of rock just to trick us, He might also have stuck a few fibs in the Bible."
Believers always have been dreadfully inept in the task of verifying statements made by fellow Christians. When an error is allowed to masquerade as truth, the validity of even the Bible itself is brought into question. For several years, I've used the following quote in my email signature block: "In God we trust; everyone else requires verification." This simple statement is so true.
I stand firmly with my creationist brothers against the idea that our common ancestors once swung from trees by their tails, but I am also very much troubled when they dogmatically tie the validity of the Bible to their young earth model. The only thing evolutionists need to do is prove the earth has existed for at least 100,000 years and they've won the battle.
Weighing The Evidence
In 1650 AD, the Archbishop of Armagh, James Ussher, calculated that 4004 BC was the date of the creation year. Ussher's 4004 BC date has become the most widely quoted for people who hold to a young earth. The reliability of Usher's timeline came into doubt when it was revealed that he failed to include a year zero.
The old earth view is not just the domain of evolutionists. Many leading Christians believe in an earth that is millions of years old. The legendary Bible commentator C.I. Scofield is probably the most well known champion of old earth creationism.
A large portion of the arguments being used to support a young earth view is based on evidence that ranges from blind faith to the outright bizarre. In preparation for this article, I read through several books by creationists, and it asronished me that there are
so many of them who believe dinosaurs still roam the earth.
I want to pull my hair out when I hear creationists proudly talk about how they journeyed to the jungles of Brazil, Kenya and Indonesia looking for dinosaurs. Of course, they all came back empty handed. Many of them frequently cite the Loch Ness monster as solid proof that dinosaurs exist. I'm certain that the legend of Nessy has more to do with the Scotland tourism industry than it does with factual-minded science.
It's pure silliness to think that dinosaurs are in some forest hiding from humanity. You would think that after all these centuries, someone would have bagged one of these mammoth creatures. It is about as logical for a creationist to proclaim rumors of prehistoric creatures as proof of a young earth as it would be for anthropologists to declare Big Foot as their evolutionary "missing link."
To be able to say that the earth is only a few thousand years old, we would have to greatly abbreviate the historical evidence found in the fossil records. The earth contains countless layers of sedimentary fossils that reveal a vast wealth of geological and organic activity. The evidence for an earth older than 6,000 years is quite lengthy. Here is a list of some key indicators that point to an old earth.
Mega Meteor Impacts - Researchers have found dozens of meteor-impact craters that are so large they would have profoundly affected the earth's climate. One crater in Northern Canada is around 60 miles wide. A giant meteor that struck the Mexican Yucatan Peninsula is blamed for causing one of the largest mass extinctions of dinosaurs. It's inconceivable that the biblical writers could have missed reporting an event that would have blanketed the globe with a choking blizzard of ash.
Super Volcanoes - Several of the earth's volcanoes periodically have erupted with a force so massive in scale, they would dwarf any eruption that modern man has ever witnessed. The Toba Caldera on the island of Sumatra once exploded with a force that released a volume of ash 3,000 times greater than the amount produced by the 1980 Mount St. Helen's eruption. Core samples taken 2,000 miles away from Toba have measured ash layers as deep as 36 inches. Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming is the home of one of these super volcanoes. If it were to erupt, much of North America would be devastated by the blast.
Mount Everest - Ages ago, the Eurasian and Indian continents collided spectacularly to form the Himalayan mountain range. Geological movement continues to take place today as India is gradually pushed beneath China and Nepal at a rate of about 3 inches per year. Going by the current rate of upwelling, it has taken Mount Everest at least 100,000 years to rise to its 29,035-foot elevation. Before the great collision, the bedrock that makes up the Himalayan range was once at the bottom of the Indian Ocean. The top 1,500 feet of Mount Everest is comprised of limestone. This type of rock is slowly formed by the deposition and consolidation of the skeletons of marine invertebrates. Because these creatures are minuscule, it would take a very long time to accumulate these limestone layers.
Coral Reefs -Coral is made up of the skeletons and calcium deposits of tiny animals that live in warm, shallow seas. It takes an estimated 100 years to produce a few centimeters of coral growth. One coral atoll has been measured at 3,900 feet in depth.
Light and Cosmic Events - The sun is one of countless numbers of stars in the Milky Way. Our little galaxy is over 100,000 light years across. This means that light from some stars in our galaxy has taken many tens of thousands of years to reach earth. A common explanation for our ability to see stars that are millions of light years away is that God created the light from these distant stars already in transit. The problem with the light-in-motion claim is that as light travels through the universe, forces it encounters alter its properties, giving us a travel log of its journey. Many of the cosmic events we see in the universe take millions of years to occur. It doesn't seem logical for God to have constructed such a multifaceted, elaborate hoax.
Bristlecone Pine Trees - The annual growth rings of trees are among the most reliable measures of time. Some Bristlecone pine trees in the White-Inyo mountain range of California date back beyond 6000 BC.
Algae Growth Cycle - During the springtime, tiny, one-celled algae bloom in Lake Suigetsu, Japan. They die and sink to the bottom of the lake, where they create a thin, white layer. During the rest of the year, dark clay sediments settle to the bottom. The results are alternating dark and light annual layers -- much like the annual growth rings on a tree. Scientists have counted about 45,000 layers.
Moon Dust - Measurements by sensors attached to satellites show that space dust accumulates on the moon at the rate of about 2 nanograms per square centimeter each year. (A nanogram is one thousandth of a millionth of a gram.) This rate would require 4.5 billion years to reach a depth of 1.5 inches, which is approximately the depth experienced by the astronauts who walked on the moon.
Cosmic Rays - The Los Alamos National Laboratory has developed a method of measuring the length of time that surface rocks have been exposed to cosmic rays. Cosmic rays stream into the atmosphere from all directions in outer space and break neutrons free when they collide with air molecules. When these neutrons hit rocks on the ground, they sometimes react with a tiny number of mineral atoms that create radioactive isotopes. At sea level, a few hundred modified atoms are created each year in a gram of quartz near the surface of the ground. New measuring techniques can detect very small numbers of these atoms and thus estimate the number of years that the rocks have been exposed. Scientists have found ages of about 8,500 years for "recent" glacial moraines in Newfoundland and 830,000 years for extinct volcanoes in Nevada.
Radioactive Decay -The "nuclide" argument is one of the best proofs of an old earth. Nuclides are forms of matter that are radioactive. Each nuclide decays into another form of matter at a certain rate. After an interval of time equal to its half-life, only half of the original material is left. Scientists have found that every nuclide with a half-life of over 80 million years can be found naturally occurring on earth. All nuclides with a half-life under 80 million years do not exist naturally at detectable levels.
Ice Ages - In North America, more than 20 glacial advances and retreats have occurred during the last 2 million years. It takes a foot of snowfall to produce an inch of glacial ice. Since some of the ice is thousands of feet thick, it takes centuries of snow to produce each ice age event. These glaciers would have had to move across the land like freight trains to fit into the 6,000-year model.
Hawaiian Island Chain - If we could remove all of the water in the Pacific Ocean, we would find that the Hawaiian Islands are peaks on a 10,000-foot-high ridge that extends 3,000 miles to the northwest. The Hawaiian chain gets progressively older and becomes more eroded farther beyond the volcanically active region of the "Big Island" of Hawaii. All three factors - the movement of the ocean crust, the building of volcanic islands, and the erosion - are time-consuming geological processes.
Seating capacity - A lot of creationists try to defend the narrow timeline of the young earth view by arguing that Noah brought all the animals that ever existed onto the ark with him. They fail to realize that many of these prehistoric creatures were huge; some beasts weighed as much as 100 tons. However, getting all those bulky dinosaurs onto the ark would have been the least of Noah's problems. Scientists estimate that a total of 10 million species have existed on the earth. Because Noah never could have crammed that many animals into the ark, when the rains came, it would appear that most of them were left standing at the dock. It is interesting to note that scientists have calculated that Noah could have fit all of the 16,000 species of land animals currently living on the earth into the ark.
Coal - The Great Flood is frequently cited as the instantaneous creator of many fossil records. Geologists tell us that coal took millions of years to build up, and creationists point to the Flood as the source. The claim is made that when the Flood transpired, it buried all the earth's vegetation, creating the coal we mine today. The problem with this theory is that the available amount of plant material could not account for coal layers that are hundreds of feet thick. It would have taken several feet of organic material like ferns, grasses, and a few bugs just to produce a few inches of coal.
Salt Deposits - In the state of Utah, there is a huge, underground deposit of salt created by the continual evaporation of a shallow sea that once covered the land. The dome is nearly 5,000 feet deep and it was pushed to the surface by volcanic forces. Noah's flood cannot account for such a vast quantity of salt being deposited in a compact location and in such short stretch of time. A steady stream of water over millions of years is the only plausible solution.
Grand Canyon I - Young earth proponents like to disprove popular belief that the Grand Canyon is the result of millions of years of erosion by saying the Great Flood carved out the steep canyon walls in a few days. There are several problems with this simple explanation for the formation of the Grand Canyon. The Canyon is not the product of flooding. It was formed by the uplifting of a plateau by mountain-building events. The narrow inner gorge of the Grand Canyon and its many tributaries are the antithesis of the erosion that would be found as part of a broad floodplain.
Grand Canyon II - The Grand Canyon example is a two-parter in order to also account for all those thousands of layers of sedimentary rock that give the Grand Canyon its beauty. Creationists often say the Great Flood laid down the layers and in its aftermath, the receding waters dug out the gorge. One of the more prominent formations in the Grand Canyon is the Coconino Sandstone. This layer is found only a few hundred feet below the rim. Geologists have described this sandstone as originating from an ancient desert. Remnants of sand dunes can be seen in many outcrops of the formation in a phenomenon called cross bedding. Many footprints in this sandstone have been recognized as those of lizards scurrying across the desert. It's ridiculous to think there could be a sandy desert formation wedged between a series of layers that were all formed by the same flood event.
Long-Term Projections Based On Faulty Short-Term Data
Many young earth proofs are based on long-term projections made from flawed short-term observations. It is bad science to simply conclude all trends move in a continuous straight line. A Porsche GT2 can go from zero to 60 mph in 3.6 seconds, but it can't go from zero to 20,000 mph in 2 minutes. Even though the long-term projection for acceleration matches the initial short-term data, at higher speeds, other factors take over that hinder the car's ability to achieve higher speeds.
It would be foolhardy to assume the ocean tides coming in indicate another global flood is about to take place. We have the rainbow as God's promise that there will be no second Great Flood. In the next three examples, I take creationists to task for misapplying short-term trends to fit their young earth view.
The Earth's Magnetic Field - Over the past 150 years, there has been a measured decrease in the earth's magnetic field. The decrease is hailed as positive proof that the planet was created around 6,000 years ago. The argument is made that if we went back in time a million years, the earth's magnetic field would be too strong for life to exist. It's baffling that some folks can assume the decline in the magnetic field has been a continuous event. It is common knowledge that our planet's magnetic field has frequently shifted between the North Pole and the South Pole. When volcanic lava erupts onto the surface and cools, the iron molecules embedded in the rock retain a record of the earth's magnetic field. A detailed examination of core drillings retrieved from the ocean floor has found the magnetic polarity of the poles has changed several times.
The Gulf of Mexico - Several creationist books argue that the earth must be relatively young because the Gulf of Mexico would have filled up with sediment from the Mississippi River had the process been going on for millions of years. True, a large amount of the sediment--some 500 million tons annually--is carried to the Gulf each year. However, it is incorrect to assume that the Gulf Coast region has always been as we see it today. Many moons ago, a shallow sea once reached all the way up to the central Midwest. At one time, the mouth of the Mississippi River would have been located in southern Iowa.
The Movement of Celestial Bodies - Young earth creationists frequently cite the movements and gyrations of heavenly bodies to support their views. They point to data showing that the sun is shrinking as solid evidence that the earth can only be a few thousand years old. They claim that if time were to be reversed by millions of years, the sun would become too large and hot for life to exist on earth. They also cite reports that show that the moon is pulling away from the earth at a rate of 2 inches per year, adding that this, too, could not be a process millions of years old. People who use these types of proofs clearly lack the most basic understanding of the movements of the sun and moon. All celestial bodies wobble and oscillate as they travel through space. Gaseous bodies like our sun have the added feature of being able to pulsate. Years down the road, we might find the sun expanding and the moon slowly orbiting closer to the earth.
Timelines Fail To Match
The strongest evidence for an old earth view has to be the inability of Ussher's timeline to account for or accommodate all the major cataclysmic events that we find recorded in the fossil records. When we add up all the meteor impacts, super volcanoes, earthquakes, mammoth tidal waves, and ice ages, we end up with thousands of events that could never fit into a 6,000-year timeline.
If time started in 4004 BC, we would have experienced a major global disaster every couple of years. The fact that mankind has never witnessed any of these large-scale calamities would seem to be enough evidence that their occurrence had to have been spread out over many millions of years.
Many leading creationists claim that most meteor impacts transpired during the Great Flood. The heat generated by such a short-term bombardment would have vaporized the world's oceans. It would have taken divine intervention to prevent Noah and his poor animals from being boiled alive.
Another point to consider is that these major events are not stacked on top of each other in the fossil record. In between the layers of volcanic ash and dust from meteor impacts are sedimentary bands containing the remains of forests, meadows, lakes, seas, deserts, and many other environments. It would only take a couple of unique fossil records to create a problem for the time-pressed young earth view, but in most cases, dozens of layers are deposited between these cataclysmic events.
There Is No Necessity For A Young Earth
Fitting the age of our world into the 6,000-year time frame would require disrupting our understanding of the speed of light, annual growth cycles, the erosion process, historical records of tectonic movement, rates of decay for radioactive atoms, climate patterns, the historical content of oxygen and carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, the freezing point of water, and a host of other processes.
It would be foolish to modify everything we know about how the physical world operates just to accommodate one single theory. I find the chasm between reality and the young earth theory too vast for any explanation to span. Even if one is kind enough to assume that the growth of coral was once 10 times faster than it is today, some reefs would still be more than 13,000 years old.
God is not going to vanish if it turns out that the world is a million, a billion, or a trillion years old. There is the general idea in the Bible that God created Adam and Eve a certain number of generations ago, but the Good Book gives no exact reference for the age of the earth itself.
The scriptural references to historical events are extremely brief. It would only take one unknown factor to explain that there may have been scores of millennial ages between the time of Adam and the present.
Far too many Christians have fallen into a group-think mentality that holds the Bible hostage to a young earth way of thinking. Regardless of what view is true, the Word of God is not facing any danger.
Filling In The Gap
I personally subscribe to "the gap theory" as the most likely explanation for the earth being so old. This theory sees an undetermined span of time existing between Genesis 1:1 and Genesis 1:2. Genesis 1:1 says, "In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth." This is when the Almighty created everything, including the earth and the dinosaurs. In the second verse, the earth is described being in a state of disorder: "And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep."
Some Bible scholars speculate that Satan may have been in charge of a world that predated Adam and Eve, and when he rebelled against God, everything on earth was destroyed. This assumption is based on the belief that God would not bring ruination to His own creation.
Because there are so many unanswered questions related to the dawn of time, I hold to the gap theory very loosely. We are given such limited factual information about the creation of the universe, I think a "twiddling of the thumbs" theory would work just as well as any other. Many times, the Bible says that God's existence is eternal. If God has been around for a very long time, it doesn't seem logical for Him to be twiddling His thumbs for millions of years before He came up with the idea of creating the universe.
The Bible is not a book of science. It's obvious from Scripture that God seems totally disinterested in explaining how He performs supernatural feats. The Great Creator occasionally provides us with a few minor insights into His handiwork that predate modern scientific discoveries. For example, in the Book of Job, the Bible tells us, "He stretches out the north over empty space, and hangs the earth upon nothing" (Job 26.7).
Because so many unknowns are associated with early earth history, we're limited in the amount of knowledge we can gain from studying this period of time. When we get to Heaven, an untold number of mysteries will be divulged to us. Until that day arrives, it's best to concentrate on the more important salvation issues.