Carbon Dating and the Bible

“For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways, and my thoughts than your thoughts.”  

Isaiah 55:9

 

How old is the Earth?  This question and related subjects have been at the heart of the Bible vs. Science controversy of the last several centuries.  Taken literally, the Genesis creation account and genealogical records provided throughout the Bible indicate a relatively young world, not older than 6,000 years or so.   Modern Science, of course, mocks this idea of an adolescent Earth, offering a dramatically different perspective in the billions of years and beyond. 

Why the discrepancy?  A number of factors have helped to create the current disparity between Christianity and Science, but the most stirring contributors often come in the form of supposed scientific proofs – proof that modern Science is on the mark, proof that biblical genealogies are fabricated, evidence that Christians are miserably mistaken.  One such purported proof of the old-Earth theory is Carbon Dating

What is Carbon Dating?

Carbon dating is a process used to determine the age of ancient organic materials by measuring the relative levels of different carbon isotopes in the substance.  Most often the procedure is applied in dating archeological artifacts such as bone, cloth, wood, plant fibers, and especially relics created by human activity.  This dating method is used for estimating the age of materials assumed to be about 60,000 years old or less (this limitation is related to the radioactive half-life of carbon, see below).   

How Does it Work?

This dating process works by measuring the ratio of normal carbon-12 atoms (C12) to radioactive carbon-14 (C14) in the remnants of once-living plants and animals.  As the level of C14 is the critical variable, understanding the origin of this isotope is especially pertinent.  Whenever and however one thinks the Earth came into existence, C12 has been here from the beginning and has always existed on Earth as the most fundamental atomic constituent of all life forms.  C14, though, is different. Unlike normal carbon isotopes, C14 is the product of a series of reactions deep in Earth’s atmosphere.

Here’s what happens.  When emissions from the sun enter our atmosphere they often collide with various kinds of atoms.  These reactions can result in secondary emissions of energetic neutrons which then collide into nitrogen atoms.  The product of these collisions is a radioactive form of carbon, C14.  This variation of carbon reacts and interacts just like C12 except that the nucleus of the atom is unstable, causing it to break down over time.1 This process of breaking down, called radioactive decay, occurs at the precise rate of one half per 5,700 years.  In other words, C14 decays such that every 5,700 years exactly one half of the initial amount has transformed back into nitrogen.  This is called its half-life.  Through this process of decay, the carbon-14 atoms releases a measurable amount of radiation used to determine the remaining amount of C14 in a substance.1

While plants, animals, and other organisms are living they use both forms of carbon in their normal metabolic processes.  Because organisms have no way of discerning between these two isotopes, C12 and C14 from the atmosphere are indiscriminately cycled through their metabolic processes.  As a result, the ratio of C12 to C14 in the atmosphere is the same in all living things.   At death, however, this ratio in organic material begins to change.  When an organism dies the amount of C12 remains constant, but the level of the unstable C14 decrease as the C14 decays into nitrogen.  The decrease in this ratio is the measurement used to calculate the age of organic materials.  The less C14, the longer the organism has been dead.

 What’s the Problem?

This issue pertains to Christians because carbon-dating methods show many ancient relics to be much older than we might expect from a biblical perspective.  To put it plainly, if carbon dating is right, the Bible is wrong.  As is often the case, the differences are simply irreconcilable.  Either the Bible means what is says and the world around 6,000 years old, or the science behind the system is right and the world is much more ancient than the Scriptures teach.

Erroneous Assumptions

Fortunately, the situation isn’t as confounding as it might appear.  The science of carbon-dating makes several specific assumptions as the basis of the entire theory.  If any one of these assumptions is shown to be faulty the whole system must become suspect.

The theory is built on one critical assumption, that the C12 to C14 ratio has been in equilibrium for several thousand years (60,000 or more).  In other words, the theory assumes that the C12 to C14 ratio existing today is the same as it was during the lifetime of the organisms being aged or dated.  Because carbon dating works by measuring changes in this ratio over time in dead organic material, the ratio must be assumed to have been the same or the whole system collapses.  Here’s why.  Consider this example: If the current C12 to C14 ratio in the atmosphere is 100 C12 atoms to 1 C14 atom, this same 100:1 ratio would exist in all living organisms.  After the organisms die, this ratio would change at a precise rate according to the half-life of C14.  After 5,700 years the ratio would change to 200:1.  After another 5, 700 years, 400:1.  So if we know the initial ratio and the ratio at the time of dating we could theoretically determine the age of the organism.  In the above example where the original ratio is 100:1 and the ratio at the time of dating 400:1 we would surmise that the organism has been dead for 11,400 years (5,700 plus 5,700).  The problem comes if the initial ratio is different than that assumed.  For example, in this scenario if the original ratio was incorrectly assumed to be 100:1 when it was actually 200:1 it would appears as though the substance was 11,400 years old when in reality it had only undergone one half-life cycle making it 5,700 years old.  

The whole system depends on the assumption that the C12 to C14 ratio is the same now as it was thousands of years ago.  This supposition in itself is the most crucial error in the theory.  In order for this assumption to be true theorists make several other highly unreasonable assumptions.  Not only must the level of C14 be stable and unchanged, everything that affects the creation and metabolizing of C14 levels must also be stable and unchanged.  Everything.  Every factor that contributes to this ratio must be proven to affect the system in the same way, with same intensity now just as it did thousands of years ago.  Starting to sound a little unreasonable?  Consider how volatile some of these assumptions really are.  Two assumptions inside of the carbon dating theory stand out as especially unlikely – cosmic radiation and nitrogen levels.

Cosmic Radiation

Cosmic rays entering our atmosphere are a major variable in the C14 equation.  The interactions initiated by these energetic rays are the first step in the processes that lead to C14 production.  Several factors effect Earth’s exposure to cosmic rays, but one solar physicist explains well what’s happening. “The average pressure of the solar wind has dropped more than 20% since the mid-1990s… the weakest it’s been [in] almost 50 years ago.”4 What do solar winds have to do with cosmic radiation?  He goes on, “Flagging solar wind has repercussions across the entire solar system—beginning with the heliosphere. The heliosphere is a bubble of magnetism springing from the sun and inflated to colossal proportions by the solar wind. Every planet from Mercury to Pluto and beyond is inside it. The heliosphere is our solar system’s first line of defense against galactic cosmic rays… The solar wind isn’t inflating the heliosphere as much as it used to.  That means less shielding against cosmic rays.”4 Additionally, he says, “the sun’s underlying magnetic field has weakened by more than 30% since the mid-1990s, this reduces natural shielding even more.” 4

What’s the implication in all this?  The fundamental factors determining Earth’s exposure to cosmic radiation aren’t stable at all.  Even in the last decade changes in solar winds and variations in the heliosphere are dramatically changing one of the basic variables of the carbon dating system.  What’s more is that it’s impossible to determine how our current situation compares to the past.  The same physicist explains, “We’ve only been monitoring solar wind since the early years of the Space Age—from the early 60s to the present… How the event stands out over centuries or millennia, however, is anybody’s guess.”4 How is this affecting the accuracy of carbon dating?  Like he says, it’s anybody’s guess.

Nitrogen Levels

After cosmic rays penetrate the atmosphere a series of reactions transform normal nitrogen atoms into radioactive C14 atoms.  Logically, it follows that if the concentration of available nitrogen in the atmosphere is changing the amount of C14 being produced would also be changing.  So what do our current nitrogen levels look like?  One report puts it plainly, “We are accumulating reactive nitrogen in the environment at alarming rates.” 2 Another report on changing nitrogen levels gives one reason for what’s happening: “Within the last century, humans have become as important a source of fixed nitrogen (nitrogen bonded to other atoms) as all natural sources combined. Burning fossil fuels, using synthetic nitrogen fertilizers, and cultivation of legumes all fix nitrogen. Through these activities, humans have more than doubled the amount of fixed nitrogen [that] is pumped into the biosphere every year.”3 But human activity isn’t the only thing that changes nitrogen levels.  Several natural processes also affect how much nitrogen is available in the atmosphere for C14 formation, all of which are dependant on changing microbial activity.  One author explains it like this: “Microorganisms, particularly bacteria, play major roles in all of the principal nitrogen transformations… [Transformation] rates are affected by environmental factors that influence microbial activity, such as temperature, moisture, and resource availability.”3 Even outside of the major influence of human activity, nitrogen levels ebb and flow with normal changes in microbial activity.  What changes microbial activity?  Everything from climate changes to the availability of resources.

There are certainly more reasons to believe that nitrogen concentrations are changing, but these two examples should be enough to put down any notion that the levels are always the same.  If the nitrogen levels are changing we can be sure C14 levels have followed the same tides.

What Do the Numbers Mean?

If the dates we get back from carbon dating analysis aren’t right, what should we make of them?  Theoretically, the science behind carbon dating would work if the current C12 to C14 was comparable to that of thousands of years ago.  Base on simple observations about cosmic radiation and nitrogen levels we know this couldn’t possibly be true, but why are the C14 levels sometimes so low, making some artifacts appear to be so old?

Part of the problem could be with the cosmic radiation and nitrogen issues.  Both have highly dynamic cycles, changing often, having no real pattern or predictable frequency.  As such it’s hard to say what could have been happening in bygone millennia.  If nitrogen levels and cosmic radiation were both much lower in the past (which may well be the case), C14 production would also be much lower. 

Even without these considerations, the strangely low C14 pose no real threat to a Christian’s understanding of Bible genealogies and the Genesis account of creation.  Remember that C14 is produced only by reactions initiated through cosmic rays from the sun.  So whether Earth is 6,000 years old or 6 billion years old, the C14 level in Earth’s first year was 0.  This is because the sun’s energy would have had little time to transform very many nitrogen atoms into C14 atoms.  Why does this matter?  Consider this example.  Suppose the Bible is right and Earth really is only 6,000 years old.  If an organism lived and died within the first few years of Earth’s existence its remains today would have extremely low levels of C14.  Using today’s C14 ratio and current carbon dating methods a scientist may surmise the remains to be very old, much older than 6,000 years.  This is the inherent problem with carbon dating – it first assumes the Earth to be very old and then processes the figures to match the assumptions.  As Christians, we should expect remains from Earth’s early years to yield little to no C14 readings!  It’s merely a matter of interpretation.  When a relic yields a low C12 to C14 ratio it could be interpreted to mean that it’s 60,000 years old or more, but could just as easily mean the organism lived and died some time shortly after the genesis of the universe.   Sometimes the question is not in the science, but in whether or not one believes in God and the Bible.  Is such a subjective situation really science at all?

Like often happens with modern Science, carbon dating leaves an open mind with more questions than answers.  So the Lord says, “For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways, and my thoughts than your thoughts.”  (Isaiah 55:9)  What would God say to those that reject his Word on the grounds of such uncertain information?  Perhaps the same thing he said to Job: “Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth? Tell Me, if you have understanding. 5 Who determined its measurements? Surely you know!” (Job 38:4-5)

References

  1. From <http://science.howstuffworks.com/carbon-142.htm> Retrieved February 1, 2010
  2. From < http://www.foxnews.com/story/0,2933,356321,00.html> Retrieved February 1, 2010
  3. From < http://www.visionlearning.com/library/module_viewer.php?mid=98> Retrieved February 1, 2010
  4. From < http://science.nasa.gov/headlines/y2008/23sep_solarwind.htm> Retrieved February 1, 2010