Does Science Contradict the Bible’s Creation Account? Part 1
If you’ve studied subjects such as astronomy, geology, or biology, I’m sure you’ve discovered abundant evidence that life is old, the Earth is old, and the universe is old. We’re talking really old: millions to billions of years old.
This has been a source of difficulty for me in the past, and I know I’m not alone.
As you learn these things, you likely think back to Genesis 1, and you wonder, “this text doesn’t make anything sound that old. And what’s with the strange order of the Bible’s creation account.” If you’re like I was, it creates a crisis in your heart. You feel like you have to choose between the Bible that gave you the gospel you need so much and, well, reality. That’s not a pleasant ultimatum.
This topic will take up the next three blog posts. For this post, I just want to cover scientific evidence that things are really, really old. In the next post, we’ll look at today’s prominent paths to reconcile scripture and scientific evidence. In the last post, we’ll discuss things more at the heart level.
As you read through this, please know that I believe the Bible is inerrant and authoritative. If we end up disagreeing about the creation account and scientific observations, we still have unity in the gospel.
So, does science contradict the Bible’s creation account? Let’s dig in!
The Earth’s age
The scientific evidence that the Earth is roughly four billion years old is strong. The most accurate means of dating is called “radiometric dating,” which gives age based on the constant rate at which certain isotopes decay into other isotopes (an isotope being an element with a certain number of neutrons in the nucleus, sometimes radioactive). It requires that we know how much of each isotope a thing starts with, and we have ways to accurately estimate that in many circumstances.
Carbon-14 isotopes are generated in the atmosphere but very rarely underground, giving us ways to estimate the age of underground organic matter back to tens of millions of years. Different uranium isotopes decaying into different lead isotopes give us multiple dating techniques that will match if the date is to be trusted. There are also lead-repelling rock formations that give high confidence that a rock sample is not contaminated by pre-existing lead isotopes. These give dating accuracy to billions of years.
Also, ice core samples show visible annual cycles in embedded gasses as you go further down in the ice, and they give us samples back to hundreds of thousands of years.
Carbon-14 and uranium-lead dating give strong evidence that life is at least millions of years old and that the Earth is about 4 billion years old.
The universe’s age
There is strong evidence the universe is expanding. When an object is moving away, its light changes toward longer wavelengths. This is similar to how the sound of an emergency vehicle’s siren gets higher as it approaches you and lower as it moves away, except with light instead of sound. It’s called the Doppler effect.
When we look up, we see that almost everything in the night sky is moving away from us. The farther away it is, the faster it’s moving away. This fits a model called “metric expansion.” It’s as though space itself is an elastic ruler, and that ruler is being stretched out constantly. We know this because when we look at known absorption and emission patterns from light in distant stars and galaxies, it is always “redshifted” (its light has longer wavelengths than expected, meaning it’s moving away from us).
You might wonder why we aren’t stretching out with the universe, but this stretching only happens to the space between “gravitationally unbound” objects. We (thankfully) are gravitationally bound and therefore don’t spread apart into nothing.
There is also an ever-present radiation called the Cosmic Microwave Background (CMB). It was predicted by the big bang theory before it was actually discovered. We believe it was created roughly 400,000 years after a big bang, and it cooled as it spread out with the universe’s metric expansion. The spatial scale of differences in the CMB gives us a way to estimate the expansion rate of the universe.
If we rewind this expansion rate in time, we get to a point in the past when the distance between objects basically becomes zero, and we arrive at the moment of the “big bang”. No matter how we estimate the universe’s expansion rate or what we assume about the universe’s geometry and make-up, we always arrive at an estimated age of 10+ billion years for the universe.
The age of life and evolution
Evidence for some form of evolution, in my view, is strongest when considering the fact that the fossil record is stratified at all. The fossil record does contain challenges to traditional Darwinian evolutionary theories of random genetic mutations, continuous transitional forms, and pure natural selection. The Cambrian “explosion” and scarcity of transitional forms do not demonstrate a strictly Darwinian evolution. However, the fossil record is still highly stratified.
While young-Earth creationists often cite some inconsistencies and gaps in the fossil record, the fact still exists that rock strata are highly correlated worldwide with both fossil types and rock properties. For instance, there is a thin worldwide layer of abnormally high iridium at the boundary between Cretaceous and Paleogene rock layers, believed by most to be a result of an asteroid impact and by some to be the result of volcanic activity.
Young Earth proponents believe short-lived catastrophic tectonic activity and floods resulted in the observed fossil record. I respect those who believe this, but I just don’t understand how such regular and correlated rock strata and fossils can form from a single turbulent chaotic event. Stratification by long ages and sedimentary layers seems far more sensible to explain what we observe in the strata.
Regarding evolution, I personally don’t believe pure randomness and natural selection makes complete sense, but I do see evidence that life did evolve in some fashion over millions of years. I believe it was a guided evolution rather than randomness.
Life, cells, DNA, and sexual reproduction are too interconnected and irreducibly complex for me to believe that random mutations alone bridged those large gaps in any amount of time, much less in a mere few billion years. To me, it seems more reasonable there is something more at work than pure randomness.
Don’t take uncertainty too far
Young-Earth creationists often point to uncertainties and inconsistencies in scientific theories as evidence that those theories are completely wrong. The problem with this is that it ignores the significant portions of those theories that fit the world we observe very well.
Claiming a few unexplained exceptions makes all theory and knowledge useless is like claiming a few uncertainties in scripture makes all of it invalid. Nobody follows that line of thought consistently. It’s not as though all scientists are aggressive atheists. Most of us are much more benign toward religions of any kind, and many of us are believers in Jesus.
Carbon-14 and uranium-lead dating have some inconsistencies, known and published. The fossil record has some inconsistencies. Evolutionary theory has holes in it. What this means is that the theories need to be further refined. What it does not mean is that we should throw out all of the theories entirely as if we’d never observed anything in the first place.
Uncertainty is an inherent part of life (science and scripture included). A relatively small amount of uncertainty in a theory does not give us reason to ignore all of the other observations that give that theory confidence.
How do we reconcile this with the Bible?
In the next post, we take a look at the prominent ways of reconciling science and the Bible’s creation account.