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Is the Earth Young or Old?
By Robert E. Gentet
© 2008

This discussion of geologic time is divided into three sections. The first explores how the concept of an ancient Earth developed over centuries of thought and discovery. The second section is devoted to the various responses from Christians. And, finally, there is a section on the impact of radioactive dating methods on determining the Earth's age. Ultimately, the age of the Earth/universe can only be known by correctly understanding the Creator's revelation.

The Development of the Concept of an Ancient Earth

How did the modern-day belief in an ancient Earth develop? Without this historical overview, the contradiction between the Bible's apparent short chronology and evolutionary science's very lengthy chronology of the Earth/universe makes little sense. It's only when we come to see the various assumptions that have plagued both interpretations of the Bible and evolutionary science that we can begin to make any sense out of the controversy.

Charles Coulston Gillispie, former Princeton University Professor of History, in his classic 1951 book Genesis & Geology wrote: "…the history of geology [is] a record of discord unparalleled in scientific discussion" (p. 116).

Christians have long acknowledged that God has given us two records of Himself – His written Word (the Bible) and Creation itself (Romans 1:20). The challenge has always been how to understand both records in such a way that they compliment and not contradict each other.

From ancient times, it was widely held among those who looked to Scripture that a literal reading and understanding of Genesis 1 (six literal days of Creation) plus biblical genealogies added up to a young Earth. (The exact amount of time, according to Bible manuscripts, varies a few thousands of years. For example, the ancient LXX (a translation of the Bible into the Greek language several hundred of years before Christ and the Scriptures commonly used in the time of Christ) would place the creation shortly before 6000 BC.) The use of the Masoretic OT (a Hebrew version which originated shortly after the time of the apostles) would yield a creation date much closer to 4000 BC. In both manuscripts, there may be missing links in the genealogies that would make the age of the Earth even longer. At any rate, this minimal biblical 6-8000 year history of the Earth is far short of the estimated 4+ billion year age now given by evolutionary scientists for the Earth (and an even older age for the universe).

Over 200 years ago, in the 1700s, some early naturalists in Europe began to envision an older age for the Earth. The groundwork was laid earlier by Steno in 1669 when he published a book that made two important strides in understanding the Earth. First, he defined a fossil as a once-living organism that had died on freshly deposited sediments and was buried by later sediments and then petrified. Second, Steno made the observation that normally sediments accumulate in horizontal layers and that, unless disturbed, the bottom layers are older than the top layers. These two concepts brought the element of time into the formation of the strata, but the length of time was still very much up for grabs.

Steno's work clarified a long-held misunderstanding of fossils. Some of the ancient Greeks as early as the 5th Century BC held that fossils were remains of once-living things. Aristotle of the 4th Century BC believed fossils were produced by "vaporous exhalations" deep within the earth (inorganic) and his belief was carried over into the Middle Ages and even later.

The beginning of the Renaissance (1300s) brought forth various ideas about fossils: they were the remains of tiny seeds that grew and died in the Earth, they were "trial runs" the Creator decided not to infuse with life, they were the "works of the devil" trying to emulate God, etc.

By the time of Martin Luther (early 1500s), more and more people saw fossils for what they are: remains of once-living life turned into stone. Furthermore, it was widely held by many at that time that the Flood of Noah created the fossils.

One of the first controversies involved the Roman Catholic Church's teachings about the findings of the newly developing science of astronomy. Copernicus (1543) said the Sun – and not the Earth – was the center of the universe. The Church's teaching that the Earth is the center of the universe dated back to the times of St. Thomas Aquinas (13th Century) who got the idea from the ancient pagan Greek astronomer Ptolemy. Later, Copernicus' astronomical revelation was widely publicized by Galileo (1632). This dispute – lost by the Church -- set up an atmosphere that science – not the Bible – was the sole authority on physical truths.

The pious Isaac Newton (1642-1727) unintentionally paved the way for many future errors in science by his view of God's interaction with the Creation. Newton was a Christian and a great scientific genius, but he believed that the age of miracles was over. Newton's ideas of cause and effect led him to develop the concept of a watchmaker God. He believed God had created the universe, but had withdrawn and now operates solely through the laws established at the time of Creation. The end result of this thinking is the modern-day concept that God began all things but left "natural" laws to somehow develop life over billions of years (theistic evolution) or that "natural" laws are all there is (atheistic evolution). This overlooks the vital biblical truth that God is not only the Creator, but also the Sustainer of His Creation (Colossians 1:17).

See Update on Newton's Beliefs.

It was often from professing Christians that speculations began about the age of the Earth (apart from strict Scriptural interpretations). The influence of ancient, pagan Greek philosophers paid a vital part. The French naturalist Buffon (1707-1788) accepted the Aristotelian idea of a ladder of nature and believed in a common ancestor of living things. He thought the Earth was possibily formed when a comet hit the Sun and it took 75,000 years for the Earth to cool. Thus, the Earth is much older than the creation of Adam and Eve a few thousand years ago. Buffon divided pre-human history into 6 epochs and said the various life-forms (preserved as fossils) had appeared gradually as conditions allowed. Fossils became pictured as long pre-dating man's more recent creation/appearance -- a feature still widely held in old earth creation models, as well as evolutionary ones.

Linnaeus (1707-1778) paved the way for organizing life and fossil identification by assigning a genus name followed by a species name (Homo sapiens, for example, for man). Now fossils could be classified. Early Christian scientists believed the Bible taught that species can't change. The Bible nowhere uses the term "species" (since it is obviously a term developed much later than the Bible was written). Instead, Genesis Chapter One says ten times that each life form only reproduces "after its/their kind." This statement is totally contrary to the theory of evolution which says all life has a common ancestor. But, the exact meaning scientifically of each "kind" (min in Hebrew) of life is not always evident from Scripture and must be sought out.

It was Scottish James Hutton (1726-1797) who did much to overthrow a belief in a young Earth. In Hutton's time, the ideas of the German mineralogist Werner in the 1770s were widely followed. Werner argued that a "universal ocean" had once blanketed the Earth and created (precipitated out) all the geological rock formations that now exist. This was acceptable to many Christians since the Bible speaks of the waters universally covering the Earth at both the time of Creation and later in Noah's Flood.

Hutton is famous for his declaration that: "We find no vestige of a beginning [of the earth] – no prospect of an end." Hutton believed in God and even believed the world would someday end. But, insofar as the study of the rocks and fossils are concerned, he said the world seemed to have no beginning and no end, that is, it was very ancient. His theory of the Earth involved volcanic forces in contrast to Werner's prevalent ideas. Complex movements of the Earth's surface because of this volcanic heat formed strata, he believed. Such ideas were later found to be much closer to reality than Werner's.

Hutton's idea of an ancient Earth was based upon personal observations. In the middle of the 1700s, he lived for 13 years on a farm 40 miles SE of Edinburg, England, that he had inherited from his father. There he reasoned that even though erosion on the farm was constant, it nonetheless operated quite slowly. From this basic premise, the enormously thick layers of rock he observed (containing fossils) must have been formed over eons of time. This idea was later termed uniformitarianism.

Gillispie again made a significant statement when he wrote: "…the common tendency of all these theories [is] to remove the hand of God from the course of events in the material world" (p. 222).

Today, in scientific and secular educational circles, by very definition, no supernatural agent can be brought into any scientific discussion. God has been excluded from His Creation! (Intelligent Design scientists have sought to remedy this fundamental error, but without much success in public education.)

The famous, French scientist Cuvier in the early 1800s began the science of paleontology (the study of fossils). Cuvier was not an evolutionist. Rather, he held to a catastrophic origin of the fossils when "…it seems that they belonged to creatures wiped out by some revolution of the globe, creatures that have since been replaced by those living today." He studied the rock layers around Paris. He made a geological map featuring seven different strata with their corresponding rock characteristics and different fossils. He argued that each diverse flora and fauna had come into being successively and replaced the flora and fauna that had previously lived and died out. He believed the last of these "revolutions" was Noah's Flood. However, his Earth theory had only a very loose tie-in with the Bible with man's creation being recent, but the Earth's creation much, much older.

William "Strata" Smith (1769-1839) was an English surveyor and engineer who was employed to locate the routes for new canals as the Industrial Age dawned in England. By knowing the different types of stratified rocks, he could predict the kinds and thicknesses of rock that would have to be excavated in future engineering projects. Smith was the first one who noted that specific types of fossils came from certain layers of rock. He didn't attempt to say why this is so, but merely used this information in his task of building canals.

From this developed the belief that certain fossil types correlated with certain rock layers, not only locally, but around the world. Coupled with the assumption that it took a long period of time to deposit the rock layer, the idea of faunal succession was born. From this developed the belief in an "Age of Trilobites," an "Age of Dinosaurs," etc., etc. These supposed "Ages" were first interpreted as successive creations initiated by God over long periods of time. Later, after Darwin's theory of evolution became popular, these "ages" were used as fundamental evidence that life began very simple and grew more complex over long eons of time.

Soon after Cuvier's death, Charles Lyell (1797-1875) succeeded in gaining a huge following in his ancient Earth history model which agreed with the ideas of Hutton. Lyell (a lawyer) reasoned that geologic processes were very slow and therefore the strata represented millions of years of time. At first, Lyell believed in divine creation. Charles Darwin (1809-1882) took Lyell's geology book with him on his famous voyage on the Beagle, and became convinced the Earth was very old. Darwin's theory of evolution, of course, requires long ages. Later, after Darwin's Origin of Species was published (1859), Lyell became an evolutionist. Darwin had been taught the Bible dictated that species can't change. When he saw contrary evidence, he lost faith in the Bible. It should be noted that Darwin's theory of "survival of the fittest" does not answer the question of the arrival of the fittest. The mechanism for the arrival of new genetic information has always been the biggest unsolved problem for the Theory of Evolution.

Thus, with the publication of Darwin's book, and the already widely-held belief that the Earth was far older than 6,000 years, a full-blown worldview totally contrary to a literal understanding of Genesis 1 (and other sections of the Bible) came into being and acceptance.

The Various Responses of Christians to an Ancient Earth

What was the response of the Christian world to these beliefs? As we have seen, some notable Christians 200 years ago had already discarded a young earth belief. Their view accepted the assumed slow geologic processes that was said to form the immense rock and fossil records. By so doing, this automatically contradicted a literal 24-hour understanding of Genesis 1 "days." Furthermore, various indications found within the rock record showed events and processes that required a number of events to have occurred – not just a single, world-wide Flood in the days of Noah.

The result was that some creationists reinterpreted Scripture to fit the newly devised geologic time scale and evolutionary theory. Here are brief summaries of some prevalent interpretations.

Day/Age Interpretation:
The six days are six indefinite time periods (obviously very long!) This interpretation is still very popular.
Framework Interpretation:
Genesis 1 is poetic and set within a 6-day work week, not chronologically, but topically. Moses used a metaphor of a week to narrate God's acts of creation. God's supernatural creative words or fiats are real (non-evolutionary), but the exact timing is left unspecified (could be billions of years).
Analogical Days Interpretation:
The "days" are God's work-days analogous to our work days, successive periods of unspecified length. Genesis 1:1-2 is background with unspecified length before Day 1 began. Length of time is irrelevant to communicate the purpose of the account.
"Intermittent Day" Interpretation:
The days are normal days, but are separated by periods of unspecified length.
Gap/Ruin and Reconstitution Interpretation:
Genesis 1:2 should be interpreted: "the earth BECAME without form and void." An earlier creation has taken place in verse 1 and verse 2 was a re-creation event. The original creation event could have been millions/billions of years earlier. (Its chief weakness is the grammar of the verb tense and absence of the normal idiom for translating it as "became" instead of a straightforward "was.")
"Days of Revelation" Interpretation:
The "days" are 6 consecutive 24-hour days in which God reveal the Creation to Moses (but He took much longer to do it!)
"Days of Divine Fiat" Interpretation:
The 6 days are consecutive 24-hour days in which God gave His instructions, while the fulfillment took place over unspecified periods of time.
"Focus on Palestine" Interpretation:
Creation is restricted to Genesis 1:1. All details of Creation that follow only describe the preparation of the Promised Land for Israel.
Expanding Time Interpretation:
Expounded by Gerald Schroeder in his book The Science of God. Schroeder uses Einstein's Theory of Relatively under the assumption that the six days are days from the frame of reference of the initial Big Bang in contrast to our frame of reference on the Earth. From our frame of reference the universe is 15 billion years old and from the frame of reference of the Big Bang, it is only 6 days old.

The doctrine of creation is a fundamental building block of a Christian worldview. God has given us both the revelation of the Bible and the revelation of the Creation. However, the revelation of the Bible is greater regarding origins since origins (life, matter, etc.) can't be tested by repetition.

Any idea about origins is ultimately based upon a "faith" system for the simple reason that these are past events that we can't duplicate today. We can't know all the circumstances surrounding them. The difference in our Christian belief system is that we have an eye witness! God was there and He has left us a written record of some of the details of Creation. The real question is: "Will we believe Him?" To try to read something else into the Genesis record as to the length of days smacks of "Has God truly said…?"

Why do we accept the 6 days as literal and not symbolic? For 3 basic reasons:

  1. They are written in a straight, historical fashion.
  2. "Day" is specifically defined as an "evening and morning."
  3. Exodus 20:11 uses the literal week as a basis for the Creation Week.

How else could God have inspired Moses to make it any plainer that these are literal, normal days?

Rule of Biblical Interpretation: A word is taken in its everyday meaning unless there is compelling evidence that it must be taken in a different sense. Nothing in Genesis 1 indicates long periods of time.

Other Scriptures also show 6 days or rapid creation: Exodus 31:17, Psalm 33:9 and 148:5. (II Peter 3:8 does not say one day equals 1,000 years, but AS a thousand years. Context is how time doesn't affect God, rather man is affected by passing of time (can begin to doubt God), but passing of time doesn't affect God's promises.)

See also Matthew 19:4/Mark 10:6, Luke 11:45-52 and Romans 1:20 for indications that the time of man's creation and the Creation in general are viewed in the Bible as being closely linked. II Peter 3-4 also prophecies that in the last days men will want to forget that God intervenes in Earth's history: "…in the last days scoffers will come, scoffing and following their own evil desires [if there is no Judge, I can live as I please]. They will say, ‘Where is this coming he promised? Ever since our fathers died, everything goes on as it has since the beginning of creation [uniformitarianism]." The verses continue with how people want to forget Creation and events such as the Flood and the future destruction by fire. Ultimately, man's fallen nature seeks to find ways to justify ungodly behavior. What better justification then "We evolved, we do not have to answer to any God!"

The Impact of Radioactive Dating Methods on Gauging the Age of the Earth

Early attempts to date the age of the Earth by measuring the thicknesses of rock layers and guessing how fast they were deposited proved very unreliable. In the words of John S. Shelton:

"But observed rates of sedimentation range from almost unmeasurably small fractions of an inch per century to many feet per hour and make it almost impossible to estimate the average for any large deposit.... Unfortunately most sediments do not contain reliable clues to how fast they were deposited – or the duration of the intervals between layers" (Geology Illustrated, p. 304).

Around 1900, an event revolutionized Earth dating assumptions. Radioactivity was discovered. Radioactive elements like uranium were found mainly in igneous rocks. Over time these elements change into other elements (to lead in the case of uranium). The rate at which this change presently occurs is exceedingly slow. Radioactive elements indicated an immense age for the Earth. These radioactive minerals are mainly found in igneous rocks.

Why did the discovery of radioactivity become so important to the concept of an ancient Earth? "Radioactivity has provided geology with its first and only means of measuring the duration of long periods of geologic time in years" (Shelton, p. 305). Notice – "…first and only means…."

Radioactive dating methods are subject to many assumptions that must be true if the dates are to have any real meaning. There are three fundamental assumptions behind radioisotopic dating measurements:

  1. The amounts of parent and daughter isotopes have not been altered by anything except radioactive decay processes.
  2. When the rock was formed, it contained a known amount of the daughter isotopes – in many cases, believed to be zero.
  3. The decay rate has been constant throughout all of geologic history.

Again, Shelton is useful to explain:

"The importance of precautions of this kind stems from the failure of most natural specimens [igneous rock samples] to meet all the prerequisites for a simple and direct age determination. These prerequisites, the ideal conditions, are: (1) The mineral must have contained none of the disintegration products of uranium or thorium, especially lead, when it originally crystallized. (2) There must have been no gain or loss of any member of the series from or to the surrounding rock during the life of the mineral. (3) The decay rate must have been constant throughout the life of the mineral, regardless not only of its chemical state, but also of all extremes of temperature and pressure to which it has been subjected in the earth's crust. (4) The decay rate, or half-life, of the parent uranium or thorium must be accurately known. (5) Our measurements of the amounts of the different elements and isotopes in the mineral today must be accurate."

"The first two of these conditions are probably never fully met. The third is probably always true, and the uncertainties arising from the fourth and fifth are determinable and relatively small. The ages we obtain are therefore only as good as our ability to make corrections." (ibid., pp. 307-308)

Scientists, by carefully noting the rates of decay of radioactive elements, and by studying ancient rock samples, have come to the conclusion the Earth is around 4.3 billion years old. The beginning of the Cambrian Period (where fossils first begin to be found in abundance) is dated around 600 million years ago. Assumed later geological Periods are dated progressively younger and younger until the Present is reached.

The Bible, on the other hand, by its genealogical tables, tells us that Adam and Eve were created at least 6-8,000 years ago. However, regardless of the exact time of Adam and Eve's creation, (and hence the creation of all things during Creation Week), it is far short of the dates scientists tell us about the age of ancient things. How can this discrepancy be understood?

One way is to use the following illustration. On Wednesday, January 16, 2008, you observe a truck back up to a huge pile of dirt and drop its load. You observe that only one truck comes all day. On Thursday January 17, 2008, you again observe that only one truck comes and drops a load of dirt onto the huge pile of dirt. Finally, on Friday, January 18, 2008, you observe it come again and drop its load of dirt. Once again, only one truck arrives all day.

Then, you get an idea. You wonder how long it took to make the huge pile of dirt. You carefully measure and calculate the volume of the huge pile of dirt. Then, you find the volume of just one load of dirt that you have observed the truck dump each day. You discover that the huge pile of dirt is 29,568 times the volume of one dump truck!

Assuming the dirt has been dumped at one load per day, you simply divide 29,568 by 365.25 (the average number of days in a year) and you are astounded to find that it took almost 81 years for the pile of dirt to form!

Please note:

  1. You carefully watched for 3 days the rate of dumping.
  2. You carefully measured the huge pile of dirt and found its volume.
  3. You carefully found out the carrying capacity of the truck.
  4. You used mathematics to determine how many days it would take to make a volume as big as the pile of dirt by dividing the volume of the truck bed load into the volume of the observed pile of dirt (29,568 days was the result).
  5. Therefore, mathematically you have determined that for 29,568 days (assuming one load each day of the year) the pile of dirt has been building up bigger and bigger!

However, you come to rather quickly see that 29,568 days (around 81 years!!!) doesn't make sense! Even though it seems true, based upon your observations and careful measurements, you decide to talk to the truck driver.

And, it's good you did. For when you talk with him, he tells you that there is this BIG project where a lot of dirt has to be hauled away. In fact, it was only 10 days ago that it started!

Most of the dirt was hauled in the first day by very large trucks working around the clock. They hauled 25,200 units of dirt that day (one unit = what his small truck holds). The second day, 3,600 units were hauled to the pile. The third day, 600 units. The fourth day, 120 units. The fifth day, 30 units. The sixth day, 10 units. The seventh day, 5 units. And, then, on the three days you personally saw what was happening, just one unit per day!

What went wrong? How could you be so far off in estimating how long it took to make the huge pile of dirt? You carefully observed for 3 days what was happening. You carefully measured the volumes of the huge pile of dirt and the volume of the truck that dropped its load each day. Your math was without error. Yet, your conclusion was far, far from reality!

In the same way, scientists today have carefully measured the "half-life" (that's the way they put it) of radioactive elements. The rates of decay appear to be constant. In fact, it's assumed that they have been constant since Creation!

But, there is evidence the radioactive decay rates may not have been constant at all! One factor is the speed of light. The rate of decay of radioactive elements is related to the speed of light. Most scientists assume that the speed of light hasn't varied (except at the brief instant of the start of the "Big Bang")! If the speed of light were faster in times past, radioactive elements would decay faster, depending upon how much faster the speed of light was at that time in the past. (See Setterfield.org for detailed information on how the speed of light may have changed since Creation. While his exact methodology may be controversial, many scientists recognize the speed of light was faster at the moment of creation.)

Furthermore, if the speed of light in the past (and hence, the rate of radioactive decay) has declined quickly (like the number of trucks hauling dirt became less and less as time went by), then the dates in the strata would also show very false, ancient "ages" as one goes deeper and deeper into the rock layers.

MORAL OF THE STORY: Maybe it's a good idea to ask the "truck driver" (GOD) how old the Earth is! After all, He's the One in charge of the building project!

Recent research has shown how an excess of helium gas is found in small zircon crystals that contain uranium. The amount of helium gas (a by-product of the decay process) had never before been measured in reference to the age of the rock. If the rock were really millions (or billions) of years old, much more of the helium would have escaped (leaked) out of the zircon crystals in the rock housing the uranium. It was discovered that a very large amount of helium is still trapped within the zircon crystals. This indicates the radioactive decay rates have been extremely rapid in the recent past. This would invalidate ancient dates for the rocks containing the uranium. More information about this research can be obtained from the video entitled Thousands…Not Billions produced by The Institute for Creation Research (www.ICR.org).

Ultimately, all physical dating methods are based upon many assumptions that cannot absolutely be verified. Only a correct interpretation of God's revelation (the Bible) can give us the surest indication of the Earth's age. And the most straightforward biblical interpretation indicates a young Earth.

Further Reading

To read about a biblical, geologic earth history model, see:

External Links

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