Radiometric Dating and the Bible: A Historical Review
by Henry M. Morris, Ph.D.
The dating of rocks by the radioactive decay of certain minerals is undoubtedly the main argument today for the dogma of an old earth.
But the Bible clearly teaches a recent creation of both the heavens and the earth, so Christians have often tried to reinterpret this doctrine to accommodate the long ages required by radioactive dating. For those Christians who believe that Genesis (like the other historical books of the Bible) should be understood as literal history, it has therefore been necessary to show the fallacies in the so-called "scientific proofs" of an old earth.
Before the discovery of radioactivity, this usually meant arguing against the evidences from crustal cooling, sedimentation rates, or salt influx in the oceans. The development of radiometric dating during the early decades of the 20th century, however, soon displaced all these arguments, since the latter method seemed to allow much more time for evolution. As this dating method began to be developed, a Committee on the Measurement of Geologic Time was formed by the National Research Council with Professor Alfred C. Lane, geology professor at Tufts University, as chairman. The Committee first met in December 1923 and then began publishing in "Annual Reports," reviewing and discussing all the papers on radiometric dating during each successive year, continuing until 1955 or so. When I first heard of these (about 1946), I purchased all the back issues and subscribed to all future issues, trying to note all studies and comments potentially useful to creationists. They are now in our ICR Library.
During the century after Lyell and Darwin and up until about 1950, the reaction of practically all Christian leaders was to accept uniformitarianism and the radiometric ages, accommodating them by either the gap theory or the day-age theory.
There were a few exceptions. Perhaps the first was Dudley Joseph Whitney, an agricultural scientist who had graduated from Berkeley and then edited various agricultural journals. Whitney's article, 'The Age of the Earth: Comments on Some Geologic Methods Used in its Interpretation," appeared in the Bulletin of Deluge Geology in December 1941, and was the first modern defense of a recent creation that I found. In this paper, Whitney developed the evidences for a young earth based on: (1) influx of sodium and other chemicals into the ocean; (2) depletion of the land by leaching; (3) sedimentation rates; (4) build-up of helium in the atmosphere; (5) disintegration of comets; (6) influx of meteorites and their nickel-iron contents on the earth; and (7) efflux of water from earth's interior by volcanism. Most of these evidences are still relevant.
Whitney then added a brief critique of the assumptions in radioactive dating. He commented on the many discordances in results, the problem of separating "common lead" from radiogenic lead, the possibility that some of the supposed radiogenic elements could have been added either before or after deposition, the possibility of changes in disintegration rates, the possibility of selective leaching, and the many conflicts with previously assumed geologic ages. These criticisms also are still valid.
Whitney published many other papers, as well as two small books, all advocating recent creation and flood geology. He was even able to get at least one paper included in the Reports of the Committee on Geologic Time (he was on good terms with Professor Lane) and in the Pan-American Geologist.
There were a few others in the old Creation-Deluge Society (which I joined in 1943) who believed in recent creation, but the next important article—so far as I know—was one by geologist Clifford Burdick, entitled "The Radioactive Time Theory and Recent Trends in Methods of Reckoning Geologic Time." The paper had been written earlier, but was finally published in 1946, in volume 1 of The Forum, a short-lived journal established by the "old-earthers" who had taken over the Creation-Deluge Society. It covered much the same ground as Whitney had done, but in more detail and with better documentation. It was instrumental in my own decision to abandon the gap theory (I had already given up on theistic evolution and the day-age theory) in favor of the young earth.
My first book, That You Might Believe (published in 1946), had briefly questioned the reliability of radioactive dating, but also had allowed for the gap theory. But then I read Burdick's paper and was convinced that such a compromise was unnecessary scientifically. In the meantime, I had made a verse-by-verse study of the whole Bible on this subject and found that the Bible could not legitimately allow for an old earth (see my 1993 book, Biblical Creationism, which demonstrates this fact by analyzing every relevant Biblical passage). In 1946 I enrolled for graduate work at the University of Minnesota, taking a minor in geology and spending much time in the geological library there and studying carefully the Annual Reports of the Committee on Geologic Time.
During this period, I also revised my 1946 book, deleting the discussion of the gap theory and expanding its critique of radiometric dating. The new edition was published in 1951 by Moody under the title The Bible and Modem Science. At the university I also took a course on geophysics which included sections on radiometric dating.
In 1953, I presented a paper at the annual convention of the American Scientific Affiliation (where I first met John Whitcomb), entitled "Biblical Evidence for a Recent Creation and Worldwide Flood." The response to this paper finally disabused me of the idealistic notion that the leading members of the A.S.A. could be swayed by Biblical evidences. They and others like them will accept literal creationism only when they are convinced that secular scientists believe it.
However, this conference and my later correspondence with John Whitcomb did lead finally to the book, The Genesis Flood, and this in turn to the Creation Research Society and the modern revival of literal Biblical creationism. My portion of The Genesis Flood included a 48-page discussion of radiometric dating and its fallacies (as I saw them, at least) with suggested resolutions.
The Creation Research Society was formed in 1963 and its quarterly publications have included a few papers critiquing radiometric dating, but these have been relatively few, considering the critical importance of the subject. The most extensive was a paper by John Woodmorappe, "Radiometric Chronology Reappraised," published in the CRS Quarterly in September 1979 and recently reissued by ICR in an anthology of Woodmorappe articles entitled Studies in Flood Geology.
There have been others who have written on the subject, of course, but the question is still not settled. The Biblical revelation, of course, must be our constraining guide in seeking a firm answer. Whether or not we creationists can ever come to a firm consensus on the significance of the radiometric data, we must never forget that the evidence for the inspiration, integrity, and clarity of God's word is far greater than the illusory and self-serving arguments offered by evolutionists and compromising creationists for an ancient earth. We need to remind ourselves over and over that there is no hint whatever—anywhere in the Bible—that the earth is significantly older than the few thousand years of recorded history.
There are numerous Biblical statements, on the other hand, that clearly require a young earth. For example, there is no evidence in context that the word "day" in the first chapter of Genesis means anything but a literal day. The word (Hebrew, yom) is specifically defined by God as the daylight period in the diurnal succession of day and night the very first time it is used (Genesis 1:5). God Himself unequivocally confirmed in the fourth Commandment (Exodus 31:18) that He had made everything in heaven and earth in six days—days that were the same kind of days as man's days.
Furthermore, the Lord Jesus Christ clearly affirmed in Mark 10:6 that "from the beginning of the creation God made them male and female,"—not 4.6 billion years after the beginning of the creation! The very concept of billions of years of a groaning, travailing creation (Romans 8:22) with animals suffering and dying during the long geologic ages before God could get around to creating men and women in His own image, is an insult to a loving, omniscient, omnipotent God. Death is, under such a concept, not "the wages of sin" as the Bible says (Romans 6:23), but the method of "creation," as evolutionists say.
Therefore, there must be a true and satisfying answer to this troublesome radiometry problem. The earth is young, and the data must confirm this, if they are rightly understood.
God has provided the basic direction for our research on this vital issue in II Peter 3:3-6. This passage clearly informs us that the unique processes during two brief periods of history—Creation and the Flood—make the uniformitarian assumptions in the use of radio-decay rates for dating earth history quite invalid.
* Dr. Henry Morris is Founder and President Emeritus of ICR.
Cite this article: Henry M. Morris, Ph.D. 1997. Radiometric Dating and the Bible: A Historical Review. Acts & Facts. 26 (8).