“God Science” and the Age of the Earth
Published: 10 May 2011(GMT+10)
God Science is a DVD where, according to its jacket, “great minds explore Christianity in an age of science”. It presents interviews with scientists, philosophers and historians on the issue of science and the Bible, creation, evolution and the age of the earth.
Many of its 16 interviews are with internationally-known academics such as Prof John Lennox from the University of Oxford, Prof Simon Conway-Morris of Burgess Shale fame and Prof Michael Ruse, philosopher of biology at Florida State University.
The interviews are presented by John Dickson, senior minister at St Andrew’s Church, Roseville (Sydney Anglican Diocese), Greg Clarke, CEO of the Bible Society Australia and Simon Smart, head of research and communications at the Centre for Public Christianity, Australia.
With this impressive pedigree it is not surprising that, since its release in 2010, it has been well received in academic evangelical circles.
The age of the earth is fundamental to the issue of science and the Bible, so it makes sense that this was addressed early in the DVD. In the second interview, presenter John Dickson asked David Cohen, “How old is the earth?”
Cohen, who is Head of the School of Biological, Earth and Environmental Sciences at the University of New South Wales replied, “The earth is about 6 billion years old and in Australia we’ve got some of the oldest rocks, just over 4 billion years.”
I replayed that section several times to make sure that I heard it correctly. Yes, he definitely said “6 billion”. Perhaps Cohen had a slip of the tongue and intended to say 4.6 billion years, which is the ‘age’ that secular scientists have been saying now for over 50 years. I was just as surprised when Cowen later quoted the same number again, speaking of “an earth that is 6 billion rather than 6,000 years old”. Presumably he used six for alliteration with 6,000, because I can’t believe that he didn’t know that the accepted secular age is 4.6 billion. But nowhere on that interview was the standard secular age given.
[Update: Following publication of this article David Cohen advised that the 6 billion year figure in his interview is an error and that the earth is ~4.6 billion years old.]
Why the age of the earth is important
The contrast “4.6 billion rather than 6,000 year old” encapsulates this issue in a nutshell (or should we say in a zircon crystal). There is a battle raging in our culture between two worldviews for the hearts, minds, allegiance and submission of men and women. There is the secular atheistic worldview, which is gradually eradicating all competition and dominating the public arena. This has been supplanting the biblical Christian worldview in which all men everywhere are called to repent and follow Christ, the Creator of this world, its Saviour and coming King.
An earth billions-of-years old is a die-on-the-hill issue for the secularist and the atheist. Their problem is to explain how the world and everything in it came about by natural processes. God is not allowed. The Bible is disqualified. It’s not an open inquiry but dogmatically biased from the outset.
The only way they can plausibly propose a naturalistic origin for everything is to have a universe that is billions of years old with oodles of time to play with. Time becomes the hero (or so it is erroneously portrayed). A young earth kills the secular worldview dead, so they will fight tooth-and-nail for billions of years.
Even millions of years are not enough for the secularist, they need billions. Charles Darwin was vexed by Lord Kelvin’s 40-million-year age for the earth, and said, “I am greatly troubled at the short duration of the world according to Sir W. Thomson [Lord Kelvin] for I require for my theoretical views a very long period before the Cambrian formation.”1
The age of the earth is also vital to the biblical worldview. Yes, a supernatural god could have taken billions of years to create the universe. But this is not the God of the Bible. The Bible tells us that God created the world and all that is in it in six days about 6,000 years ago. To accept an earth that is billions of years old is to undermine virtually every major Christian doctrine.
To start with, it undermines the authority of the Bible. The 6,000 years (repeatedly quoted on the DVD) come from a plain reading of the Bible.2 If the Bible can’t be trusted on this issue why should it be trusted in other places?
It undermines the authority of the Bible
Billions of years destroy the connection between sin and death. The Bible says that death came into the world as a consequence of man’s sin, which is why Jesus Christ physically died on our behalf. But in a world billions of years old we have fossils, disease and death stretching millions of years before Adam and Eve’s sin.
Further, it reflects badly on the nature of God. In a world where disease, suffering and death have been around for millions of years these evils become the fault of the Maker. Skeptics like to mock that death, extinction and disease mean that God is incompetent or weak or malevolent.3 Not so, the God of the Bible.
An old earth undermines the uniqueness of man. Evolution over millions of years has man emerging from a population of ape-like ancestors a million (or so) years ago. We are just modified animals without any intrinsic reason to protect the weak and vulnerable. But the Bible says we have no genetic connection with the animals; we are a separate creation made in the image of God.
Without Genesis we cannot say what marriage is. In the beginning God made a man and a woman, not a man and a man, or a man and a harem. If there is no factual basis for “a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife” then marriage is just a subjective opinion.
We could go on. Genesis explains the nature of sin, our need for salvation, the origin of the seven-day week, man’s relationship with the environment, the relationship between people all over the world, the holiness of God, the reason for death, who should be evangelized,4 the warning of judgment, etc. Those who relegate Genesis to the rank of metaphor or human invention have effectively undermined the whole of the Christian faith.
John Shelby Spong describes how the Christian view is undermined:
“Charles Darwin … destroyed the primary myth by which we had told the Jesus story for centuries … That myth suggested that there was a finished creation from which we human beings had fallen into sin, and therefore needed a rescuing divine presence to lift us back to what God had originally created us to be. But Charles Darwin says that there was no perfect creation because it is not yet finished. … there was rather a single cell that emerged slowly over 4½ to 5 billion years, into increasing complexity, into increasing consciousness. And so the story of Jesus who comes to rescue us from the Fall becomes a nonsensical story. So how can we tell the Jesus story with integrity and with power, against the background of a humanity that is not fallen but is simply unfinished?”5
My fellow evangelicals sometimes act offended when I use that Spong quote, “How dare you put us in the same category as Bishop Spong.” I’m not saying they don’t have a love for the Gospel or Scripture. I’m simply showing the logical consequences of accepting evolution and billions of years. No matter how my friends may try to uphold the Gospel they cannot avoid Spong’s conclusion. Once we accept the earth is billions of years old, “the story of Jesus who comes to rescue us from the Fall becomes a nonsensical story”.
The age of the earth cannot be scientifically measured
Mass spectrometers used for radio-isotope dating do not measure age. They measure isotope concentrations in the present. An ‘age’ can only be calculated after making a host of unprovable assumptions.
If the young age for the earth is so a vital for the Christian worldview, what evidence did David Cohen give for accepting billions of years? John Dickson asked him that, “How do we know that it is that old?”
Cohen replied that the age of the earth is not a matter of opinion. “What we rely on are objective age dating methods mostly using radioactive isotopes for which there are a series of independent radioactive clocks which are sitting there ticking away in the rocks that we date.”
But the dating methods are not objective. Sure the measurements are objective but they are not measuring age. They are measuring the present composition of rock samples. David Cohen describes the equipment as “fairly-expensive bits of scientific devices”, which is true. With this equipment we are able to make highly precise measurements of isotopic abundances. But that is not an age. Before an age can be calculated the scientist must make a number of assumptions about the past—assumptions that cannot be checked.
John Dickson and David Cohen discussed one of these and dismissed it—the assumption that the radioactive decay rate has remained constant. Yet, there is evidence that the decay rate may have been different in the past.6
However, there are lots of other assumptions that need to be made before a date can be calculated, and these have proven to be far more problematical. We have to assume further 1) the condition when the sample became a closed system, 2) the concentration of isotopes in the sample at that time, and 3) the sample has not gained or lost any daughter or parent isotope in all that time. How, for example, can we know the isotopic composition of a rock sample in the past?
No one can ever know if all those assumptions are valid
So, dating a rock is not straightforward as David Cohen implies. He says, “We go and collect a sample and we measure the amount of parent and daughter material” and “with a series of fairly simple calculations determine the age date of the rock.” The only problem is that no one can ever know if all those assumptions are valid for that sample.
What really happens is that when a geologist collects the sample of rock, he is very careful to record the exact place he collected it from. He maps the location of all the other rocks in the area as well as details such as faults, intrusions, folding, metamorphism, etc. He does this so he can place his sample in context, that is, so he can understand the geological history of the area and where his sample fits into that history.
He is also careful to collect a sample that is fresh, without sign of alteration or disturbance at some later time. He also checks the condition of his sample later under the microscope to try to ensure that his sample has not been affected by later geological events. If all is OK he has the sample analyzed.
Then, after he receives the analysis from the radio-isotope laboratory he will calculate the age with the “series of fairly simple calculations” (although these are not so simple for many methods).
But there is one problem that won’t go away. How can he be sure that the assumptions he used for his calculations are correct? So the process does not stop there. He moves onto what is called the interpretation phase. He must interpret his result, which means changing his assumptions about the past to make his result consistent with other information.
In the interpretation phase he compares the age he calculated with the ages of the other rocks in the area. There are a number of standard explanations that he can use to explain his result. So, no matter what the calculated age turns out to be, he can invent a story that explains it within the big picture worldview of evolution over billions of years. (See How dating methods work and The way it really is: little-known facts about radiometric dating.) In other words, radioactive dating is not objective but subjective—subject to the secular long-age worldview. Radioactive dates always fit into what is already believed.
It turns out that discrepancies are common and dating methods are not self checking. Geologists often disagree on which dates are ‘good’. Advancements in the technology used for measuring radio-isotopes have not improved the accuracy of the dates but expanded the list of rationalizations for unwelcome dates. See The Mythology of Modern Dating Methods for an incisive critique of the dating enterprise, or Once upon a time … for a review.
The only way that we can reliably know the age of anything is by the historical method. I know my age to the nearest day by this method. My birth certificate has my date of birth as recorded by eyewitnesses. We know when Napoleon lived by the same method. And the Bible uses the historical method too. The genealogies, such as in Genesis 5 and 11 and believed by New Testament writers, record the ages of people in history such as Abraham, Terah, Noah, Seth and Adam. From these we can derive the true age of the earth.
A billion-year earth comes from non-biblical assumptions
The idea of an old earth was not a discovery of radioactive dating. An old earth was popular in the early 1800s, long before the phenomenon of radioactivity was even known. The need for billions of years is a consequence of assuming that past geological processes were always similar to what is happening today—the assumption of uniformitarianism. It’s an assumption that denies the global Flood recorded in the Bible. With this assumption we need an earth billions-of-years old, one that has no vestige of a beginning, no sign of an end. In other words, a non biblical assumption leads to a non-biblical conclusion. All the radio-isotope dates have been interpreted such that they are consistent with this philosophy.
It is worth clarifying that the secular age for the earth of 4.6 billion years was not determined by radioactive dating earth rocks, as viewers may have imagined from watching the interview. The age of 4.55 billion years was first published by Clair Patterson in the mid 1950s after analyzing the isotopes in certain meteorites. Meteorites! What have meteorites to do with the age of the earth?
Patterson assumed that the meteorites he selected were left-over fragments from the solar nebula that condensed to form the sun, the earth and the planets. How did he know that? He didn’t. That is the standard secular creation story and he just assumed it to be true. So the age he published was not an objective measurement but required a host of assumptions, none of which can be independently verified, including the nebula hypothesis for the formation of the solar system which has insurmountable problems (see Another puzzle in the evolutionary story for the origin of the solar system).
A.A. Holmes, one of the pioneers of radio-isotope dating methods, was not enthusiastic about Patterson’s method:
“ … to use the isotopic composition of lead from iron meteorites as part of the basic data for calculating the age of the earth or its crust, is unsound in principle … the correct procedure is to use terrestrial materials.”7
The problem that Holmes had with the method was obvious, as spelled out by a biographer:
“If there was no genetic relationship and the Earth and meteorites had not formed at the same time from the same material, then the primeval lead of meteorites would not be that of the Earth; thus there would be no point of trying to determine the age of Earth from meteorites, and everyone would be back to square one.”8
So, although the 4.6-billion-year age for the earth is widely quoted it is not an objective measurement. Furthermore, there is no unequivocal support for the age as John Woodmorappe shows in The Mythology of Modern Dating Methods, pp. 24–26.
Another evidence David Cohen gave for the age of the earth was the movement of the continents—plate tectonics. He said that the rate at which continents are moving can be measured precisely today. That may be so, but have the continents always moved at these rates? What did Noah’s Flood, as described in the Bible (Genesis 6–9), do to the movement of the earth’s crust? The strength properties of the rock comprising the earth’s mantle have characteristics that could, under certain conditions, lead to a runaway subduction of the oceanic crust.9 This means the earth’s plates would have moved very quickly. The rates measured today are the left-over movement from the much faster event in the past.
Many scientists believe the earth is young
Before Christians accept that the earth is billions of years old instead of the biblical 6,000 they would need to be confident the scientists are correct. That might have been why John Dickson asked David Cohen whether there was any dispute in the peer-reviewed literature. Dickson asked, “Are people still arguing that the earth is about 6,000 to 10,000 years old?”
David Cohen’s replied, “I would say there are no professional scientists now for whom that is an issue which is being debated. Many of the people I speak to, Christian, non-Christian, atheist, agnostic or don’t-care-anyway. There is 100% agreement on things like the plate tectonic model, rates of movement, and the use of these age dating techniques indicative of an earth that is 6 billion [sic] rather than 6,000 years old.”
This statement is wrong. There are many scientists who do not agree with the billion-year age of the earth. Perhaps Cohen has not spoken to any or read any of their work. It could be that his experience has been confined to the secular-university environment and the mainstream scientific journals, and that he is not aware of them.
However, many professional scientists reject evolution over millions of years. The book In Six Days features fifty Ph.D. scientists who each wrote a chapter, without collaboration, telling why they hold to literal creation.10 Every issue of Creation magazine (four every year) features an interview with a professional Ph.D. scientist who believes the earth is young.11 Many creationist scientists are researching the biblical worldview and publishing in creationist peer-reviewed literature such as Journal of Creation (published since 1984), the Creation Research Society Quarterly (published since 1964) and the International Conference on Creationism (meeting every 4 years since 1986).
Some may object that these do not count because they are creationist publications. So, do any scientists who believe in a young earth ever publish in the mainstream scientific literature? Yes, lots. But they are not free to discuss their findings from a biblical perspective or make mention of the fact that they are creationist. This is because of strident censorship and discrimination within secular circles. The DVD Expelled reveals something of this alarming situation in the west where the theistic worldview has been forcibly shut down. Slaughter of the Dissidents by Jerry Bergman presents case histories of scientists whose careers were terminated because of their belief in creation. These are just the tip of the iceberg.
The theological cost of accepting long ages is too great
Albert Mohler, President of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, the flagship school of the Southern Baptist Convention and one of the largest seminaries in the world, states the issue plainly in a blog entry of 1 February 2011.
“The debate over Darwinism rages on, with almost every week bringing a new salvo in the Great Controversy. The reason for this is simple and straightforward—naturalistic evolution is the great intellectual rival to Christianity in the Western world. It is the creation myth of the secular elites and their intellectual weapon of choice in public debate.”
What is most lacking in the evangelical movement today is a consideration of the theological cost of holding to an old-earth position.
Rather than seeing evolution over millions of years as a scientific fact that the church needs to embrace, Mohler sees it for what it is: a philosophy opposed to the biblical creator God and the Gospel (2 Corinthians 10:5). And he sees that the church is yet to mount an adequate response to the challenge, saying that what is most lacking in the evangelical movement today is a consideration of the theological cost of holding to an old-earth position. He rightly recognizes that position is on an insoluble collision with the redemptive historical narrative of the Gospel.
Mohler issued a warning: “The cost to the Christian church, in terms of ignoring this question or abandoning the discussion, is just too high. The cost of confronting this question is also costly … because it can create intensity and conflict and controversy, but I would suggest that the avoidance of this will be at the cost of our own credibility.”
The producers of God Science have made an impressive DVD with an array of world-class interviews. But why tell Christians that we must surrender to evolution and millions of years? Why tell people that when the Bible speaks of six-days 6,000 years ago it does not really mean what it plainly says? To accept the words of scientists when they so plainly contradict Scripture is an approach that will bring disaster upon the church. Where do you suggest we should stand when we depart from our biblical foundation? It is time to question the ‘science’. Let’s talk about this issue.
Transcript from ‘God Science’
Interview with Dr David Cohen: The Age of the Earth
[John Dickson] Dr David Cohen is the Head of the School of Biological, Earth and Environmental Sciences at the University of New South Wales in Sydney. He’s a geochemist with years of experience working in Australia, Asia and North America. He knows a lot about rocks and soil and the makeup of the planet generally, so I began by asking him, “How old is the earth?”
[David Cohen] The earth is about 6 [sic] billion years old and in Australia we’ve got some of the oldest rocks, just over 4 billion years.
[John Dickson] These are big numbers now. How do we know that it is that old?
[David Cohen] Let’s just say, looking at it, it is hard to get a feel but we don’t have to rely on that. What we rely on are objective age dating methods mostly using radioactive isotopes for which there are a series of independent radioactive clocks which are sitting there ticking away in the rocks that we date.
[John Dickson] Can you explain that for me?
[David Cohen] Yes.
[John Dickson] Are there actually little clocks that I can find if I look close enough?
[David Cohen] If you’ve got certain fairly-expensive bits of scientific device to make the measurements. There are some elements which are radioactive. Some of the more famous ones, uranium, which we know from the rise of the nuclear issues in the middle part of the last century. Every now and then these atoms undergo a spontaneous decay and the rate at which they decay as a group follows a very predictable mathematical form. So the parent radioactive isotope is decaying and producing stable daughters. So we go and collect a sample and we measure the amount of parent and daughter material. We can go back with a series of fairly simple calculations and determine the age date of the rock.
[John Dickson] Yes, but some of my friends who would insist on a much younger earth would say, “That assumes that the rate of decay is the same and we don’t know that because we have only been here for a little blip of that time.” How does a scientist respond to that?
[David Cohen] Yes, I agree that this is one of the assumptions that we make with observations in the modern era that things like radioactive decay have not changed significantly over time. And that goes for a number of other physical constants, things like the speed of light. So we use that assumption and there is no evidence that there has been any change in decay rates. So we might look at packages of rocks going from the bottom to the top. You get a fairly constant change in age date which would indicate that the rates have not changed significantly.
[John Dickson] Does the movement of the continents help us to understand the age of the earth as well, the rate at which they are moving?
[David Cohen] Oh, very much so. And if we look at some of that data such as the rate at which Australia has been moving away from Antarctica, the rate at which India has been moving north, the rate at which South America and Africa have been pulling apart from each other. If we look at those rates, and they can be determined very accurately with things like imagery from space or surveying places where the continents are coming together, pulling apart or sliding past each other. Of course at places like San Andreas they are quite interested to know the rate at which bits of crust are going past each other because of the danger which that poses for people living there. If we look at those rates; we compare the modern era of measurement; it would indicate that we are moving away from the Antarctic at the rate of about 7cm per year. If we then go and join Australia back up with the Antarctic it would indicate that the breakup occurred about 56 million years ago. If you look at the age of the oceanic crust which is created using the various age dating techniques you get roughly the same number so you’ve got two independent bits of information which agree on roughly the same date within the normal bounds of scientific estimation and uncertainty.
[John Dickson] Is there any dispute about this in the literature, in the peer-reviewed literature? I mean some people are still arguing that the earth is about 6,000 to 10,000 years old.
[David Cohen] I would say there are no professional scientists now for whom that is an issue which is being debated. Many of the people I speak to, Christian, non-Christian, atheist, agnostic or don’t-care-anyway. There is 100% agreement on things like the plate tectonic model, rates of movement, and the use of these age dating techniques indicative of an earth that is 6 billion [sic] rather than 6,000 years old.
[John Dickson] So do you see any connection between the rigorous science and your Christian faith at all?
[David Cohen] Yes. In the development of scientific models and you can look at the evolutionary models based on observations that Darwin kicked off and have now been progressed with modern DNA techniques, genomics and the like, or in geology the plate tectonic model which underpins just about all our understanding of the evolution of the earth. These models are complicated but they are beautifully interlinked. The mass of evidence from both of these models is overwhelming. There are some linkages in these models that are not so well developed or on which we are not happy with the explanation.
[John Dickson] There are gaps in the theory then?
[David Cohen] There are gaps as well. And as a scientist that is good otherwise we would be unemployed. I look at Christianity and by similar argument I see a way of thinking a series of events interpretation closely interlinked with a very coherent structure for which there are still gaps in the model. We are still trying to understand aspects of what the Bible is trying to say to us or how we should respond to it. There are certain gaps in our understanding that we are still trying to fill. Trying to understand the nature of the Trinity is a very complicated thing for Christians. However these models hang together. It would be very difficult at this stage to say, “Oh, by removing one little link in the theory of evolution or in our understanding of the Christian gospels that the entire model of the Gospel collapses.” That is not the case.
[John Dickson] Thank you very much.
- Letter to James Croll, 31 January 1869, The correspondence of Charles Darwin, volume 17: 1869, edited by Frederick Burkhardt, James A. Secord, Sheila Ann Dean, Samantha Evans, Shelley Innes, Alison M. Pearn, Paul White, Cambridge University Press, 2009, http://www.darwinproject.ac.uk/correspondence-volume-17. Return to text.
- The Bible does not state the age of the earth in a single verse but it is a simple matter to calculate it from the genealogies detailed in places like Genesis 5 and 11. There is general agreement that this approach leads to creation taking place about 6,000 years ago (see Appendix B-The Forgotten Archbishop). Return to text.
- Carl Sagan, Contact, Pocket Books (Simon & Schuster, Inc.), New York, 1985. Return to text.
- Rev Charles Kingsley, Anglican clergyman and supporter of Darwin wrote: ‘The Black People of Australia, exactly the same race as the African Negro, cannot take in the Gospel … All attempts to bring them to a knowledge of the true God have as yet failed utterly … Poor brutes in human shape … they must perish off the face of the earth like brute beasts.’ (Darwin’s quisling (Charles Kingsley)). Return to text.
- ABC TV Compass interview with Bishop John Shelby Spong, by Geraldine Doogue, in front of a live audience at the Eugene Groosen Hall, ABC Studios, Ultimo, Sydney, Australia, 8 July 2000. Copied from transcript at <www.abc.net.au/compass/intervs/spong2001.htm>, 6 August 2001. Return to text.
- Snelling, A.A.(ed), Radioactivity and the Age of the Earth, Volume 2, ICR and CRS, 2009. Return to text.
- Lewis, C., The Dating Game: One Man’s Search for the Age of the Earth, Cambridge University Press, p. 227, 2000. Return to text.
- Lewis, ref. 5, p. 225. Return to text.
- Baumgardner, J., Runaway subduction, ICC, 1994. See also: Probing Earth’s deep places. Return to text.
- Ashton, J.F., In Six Days: Why 50 Scientists Choose to Believe in Creation, Master Books, Green Forest, AZ, 2001. (Available on-line: In Six Days) Return to text.
- 22 of these interviews have been reproduced in, Wieland, C., The Genesis Files, Master Books, Green Forest, AZ, 2004. Return to text.