Friday, February 20, 2015

Young Earth Creationism: Wrong Analysis, Wrong Battle

As I continue the journey to better harmonize God's Word and God's world, I have taken interest in the fascinating research of a Christian biologist, Dr. Richard Colling. I discovered that Christian Networks Journal interviewed Colling and YEC advocate Ken Ham in 2005 for a debate about the age of the earth. Frankly, Ham proved to be the better debater. He quickly took the offensive by devoting much of his presentation to a rebuttal of Colling's (presumably anticipated) old earth arguments. Moreover, Ham’s arguments also appealed to the strong emotions surrounding the subject of biblical authority. Underlying his words was an ever-present question: "Why would a believing Christian trust the word of materialist scientists over a message from God?" This can be quite an effective argument among evangelicals, who tend to see themselves as continually battling destructive, worldly influences.

Being the more effective debater does not squarely put you in the right, however. Since Colling did not really address the majority of Ham's arguments, I undertake in this blog post to weigh Ham's assertions carefully.1 And a lot is at stake in this debate. Christian scientists, especially in the fields of geology, astrophysics, and biology, need to be encouraged in their work done in faith, rather than being rejected, despised, or misunderstood by their fellow believers. Enquirers of Christianity need to see our representatives speaking accurately with regard to Scripture and science; otherwise, they may not trust what we say at all. Finally, as many Christian youth are figuring out how to engage the world they may feel (unnecessarily) compelled to jettison their faith if their spiritual mentors have erected a false dichotomy between faith and science.2 That was certainly my experience

Genesis Creation Account

According to Ham, "The Bible does give us enough information to compute the approximate age of the Earth. We read in Exodus 20:11 that God made the heaven and earth and all that is in them in six days. It is clear from context that these days were literal, ordinary, approximately 24-hour days."

On the other hand... Eminent and godly scholars have carefully examined the context of the Genesis creation account and concluded precisely the opposite.
  • Augustine of Hippo, perhaps the greatest scholar in church history and whose teaching later inspired the Protestant Reformation, taught that the Genesis account does not speak of 24-hour days.
  • Pastor Tim Keller of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York, author of The Reason for God and The Prodigal God, lays out a strong case that the creation account is an exalted prose narrative that does not support a literalistic exegesis.
If you want to explore the historical and linguistic background of the Genesis creation account more deeply, I highly recommend "Genesis Through Ancient Eyes," a video featuring John Walton, professor of Old Testament at Wheaton College. Walton digs into Israelite culture to show that they viewed the first chapters of Genesis as an account of how God brought order out of chaos. Moreover, God's purpose in ordering the world was to make His abode with us. So the message of Genesis is not a modern scientific analysis of how the house got constructed, but rather the purposes for which God arranged the home. And if we're paying attention to its message, we won't be thinking as much about scientific theories as about whether we are living in tune with our Creator's purposes.

The Science

While Ham was careful to assert that his primary case for the age of the earth rests on Biblical authority, he also asserted that much scientific evidence buttresses the young earth theory. Let’s examine Ham's scientific arguments, one by one.

Philosophy of Science

Ham distinguishes between origins science and observational science, and disputes the validity of the former. According to Ham, "There is no scientific way to prove the age of the earth. Observational science operates in the present, and deals with observable, repeatable processes."

But consider this... This division between origins science and observational science is artificial and ultimately unviable. Scientific research assumes that the laws of nature are equally applicable throughout all of time and space in our universe, both past and future, without exception. Thus quantum mechanics and relativity were operating a second after God created the universe, just as they are today. Moreover, we can use science not only to project future events, whether in a lab or in the universe itself,3 but also to infer previous states.

An example from astronomy illustrates how science can help us understand what happened in the past. In 1928, astronomer Edwin Hubble--yes, that Hubble, whose name adorns the amazing orbiting telescope--observed that the Crab Nebula was expanding outward. Based on the rate of expansion, he calculated that the Crab Nebula was in fact the remnants of a stellar explosion approximately 900 years earlier. Since Chinese astronomers had observed a supernova in the same region of the sky in 1054 AD, Hubble further concluded that the Chinese had observed the birth of the Crab Nebula.

Please note: if the observations of the Chinese astronomers had somehow been lost, Hubble would still have concluded that the Crab Nebula was the remnants of an eleventh-century supernova. If a tree falls in the forest and no one is in earshot, it still makes a sound.

You don't have any problems with Hubble's method of inferring what happened in the 11th century, do you? Well, now we get to the point of the story: in the same way Hubble calculated backwards from observations of the Crab Nebula, astronomers make observations today on a much larger scale and conclude that the universe itself is the result of an explosion of sorts--a Big Bang--approximately 13.8 billion years ago.

If you accept that a forensic pathologist can use his observations to infer how long a victim was dead before being discovered, why can’t you accept the background microwave radiation observations that an astronomer uses to calculate how long ago the universe was formed?

If you accept the DNA evidence that a forensic scientist uses to identify who handled the weapon that killed a victim, why can’t you accept the radiometric dating that a geologist uses to identify how old rock formations are? Is it really the case that science cannot help us understand what happened in the past?

Motivations for Believing the Earth is Old

According to Ham, "Evolutionists reject such estimations [of a young earth] because they first believe evolution, which requires many billions of years."

Sadly... This is an ad hominem argument--i.e., it suggests that we should judge arguments based on the motives of the speaker. In this case, Ham asserts that arguments for an old earth are predominantly based on a desire to remain consistent with the theory of evolution. But Ham's line of reasoning is wrong in many ways.
  1. True, it's common sense to exercise caution about a statement because of the speaker's motives. But rejecting statements outright based on the speakers' motives descends quickly into chaos, because you can always find a way to question someone's motives. The ad hominem argument could even be turned back on Ham; perhaps he is rejecting a large body of good science because he first believes the earth is a few thousand years old. If two people try to change each other's opinion on a subject but both decry the other's motives, how will they ever make progress?
  2. Some proponents of Intelligent Design believe in an old earth, but dispute evolution. In so doing, they show that you can trust the geological and physical evidence for an old earth without the requirement of believing in evolution.4
Radiometric Dating

No, we are not talking about the successor to! According to Ham, "Rocks from very recent volcanoes have been tested using this method [radiometric dating]; their radiometric 'ages' show up as being hundreds of thousands to millions of years old – even though we know the rocks are only a few years old! So radiometric dating certainly does not prove that the Earth is billions of years old."

On the other hand.... Ham does not take measurement error into account. Depending on what geologic formation is being measured, radiometric dating has a standard error of up to 100 million years. This means it's no more useful for measuring the age of rocks from a recent volcanic eruption than a bathroom scale would be for measuring the weight of a postage stamp, or a radar gun would be for measuring the velocity of a snail. But it's more than accurate enough for measuring the age of rocks suspected of being billions of years old, in the same way that the Summerville Police Department's radar was more than accurate enough to justify my speeding ticket,5 and my bathroom scale was not lying when it said I gained a few pounds over the Christmas holidays.

Carbon-14 Dating

According to Ham, "Carbon dating gives estimations of ages that are recent – a few thousand years old at most."

However... Radiocarbon dating is actually reliable to approximately 50,000 years ago. That's not enough to prove that the earth is billions of years old, but it's enough to call the result of Ham's dating methodology into question.

Ocean Sediments

According to Ham, "Sediment accumulates on the ocean floor at a rate of 25 billion tons per year. If the oceans were really billions of years old (as evolutionists teach), then there would be many times more sediment than we have. But the amount of sediment is perfectly consistent with a few thousand of years."

But there's more to it... Ham assumes that sediment deposits can only rest on the ocean floor, but this is not the case. Geologists have identified several factors that explain Ham's sediment mystery:
  1. The subduction of tectonic plates as they slowly collide transforms much sediment into mantle. Taking account of this single factor would stretch the age of the earth to 12 million years.
  2. Sediment can also become part of the continental crust as tectonic movements push ocean floor up on to land, or as the sea level falls.
  3. As ocean basins periodically close up in the Wilson cycle, sediment "is piled up on the edges of continents or returned to the mantle."
Combined, these three factors explain how billions of years of sediment are not just accumulating on the ocean floor, but are continuously being transformed into crust or mantle.

Earth's Magnetic Field

According to Ham, "[The earth's magnetic] field is decaying; it gets weaker every year. That means it was much stronger in the past. If the Earth were older than a few thousand years, the magnetic field would have been much too strong for life in the past. This isn’t a problem for the biblical age of 6,000 years, but it is inconsistent with billions of years."

It would seem that Ham is relying on the work of Thomas Barnes, in particular the book Origin and Destiny of the Earth's Magnetic Field. Unfortunately for Ham's argument, Barnes' work has been thoroughly discredited by geophysicists. The data Barnes cites are better explained by a "dynamo" model of the magnetic field, which predicts polar reversals and field fluctuations that explain not only Barnes' data but also many eons worth of data he ignores.

Fighting the Right Battle

If you are a Christian reader, perhaps you feel unsettled. You may feel that for decades an important part of your mission has been the struggle against the perceived evils of science that would deny key truths of the Bible. Consequently this blog post, which doesn’t join the fight against geology and astrophysics and doesn’t affirm a literalistic exegesis of the first chapters of Genesis, may seem to undermine that struggle and even your identity.

I can sympathize; I have been in your shoes and felt those feelings. But the key insight I want to share with you is this: when we Christians argue that scientists in the disciplines of geology, biology, and astrophysics must be wrong, we fight on the wrong terrain and unwittingly concede enormous gains to the secular worldview. When a scientist claims that evolution proves that life has no purpose, or that astrophysics proves that God did not create the heavens and the earth, and Christians respond with the knee-jerk tactic of disputing their scientific claims, we tacitly and unnecessarily agree with the secular view that science is the archenemy of faith.

Instead we should argue that scientism--the notion that science can explain everything--is just as much a faith assertion as any religious system of thought. So the real enemy of faith is not science, but scientism. Instead of fighting against biology, geology, and astrophysics, we Christians can proclaim that science, while having many notable successes, does not have answers for the ultimate meaning and purpose of our existence. Our good news is that our Creator has provided these answers in the Word that was made flesh, Jesus Christ.

But what of Ham’s assertion that Biblical authority, and with it our faith, is inextricably linked to young earth creationism? While the Scripture is sacred, our interpretation of it is not. Already the study of history, linguistics, and archeology has informed and changed our understanding of the Bible, and so must the study of science. As Augustine observed over 1600 years ago in his commentary on Genesis:

Usually, even a non-Christian knows something about the earth, the heavens, and the other elements of this world, about the motion and orbit of the stars and even their size and relative positions, about the predictable eclipses of the sun and moon, the cycles of the years and the seasons, about the kinds of animals, shrubs, stones, and so forth, and this knowledge he holds to as being certain from reason and experience. Now, it is a disgraceful and dangerous thing for an infidel to hear a Christian, presumably giving the meaning of Holy Scripture, talking nonsense on these topics; and we should take all means to prevent such an embarrassing situation, in which people show up [perceive] vast ignorance in a Christian and laugh it to scorn.

While I admire Ham's zeal, I think I'll stand with Augustine on how a Christian should approach the Genesis creation account. It isn't a science textbook. Instead, it is a textbook for the character of God and His relationship to Man. It shows us that God created the whole universe for His divine purposes. He created humanity in His image, to be like Him. He loves us, and He has made us stewards of His creation. We have rejected His Presence and His call on our lives, but He has nevertheless shown us mercy and offers us redemption. These are the Biblical truths I will defend to my dying breath. If you have come to this blog post with the perspective that science is the only path to truth, I hope you will now consider the viewpoint that science and Scripture are in fact complementary. If so, perhaps you will also give the spiritual truths of Genesis a fresh look. 

(I want to thank my beautiful wife, Linda, for her incisive feedback and mad editorial skills that have shaped this blog post. Any errors are my own, of course.)

EDIT 02/26/2015: Used superscript numbers instead of asterisks for footnotes.
(1) Before I analyze Ham’s ideas, I want to speak positively of Ham's obvious zeal for God and for the Scriptures. We should all possess such passion! It's important to direct such passion with wisdom and knowledge, though. As 2 Peter 1:5 teaches, knowledge is a partner to faith and goodness. 
(2) While I have been aware of these three impacts for some time, I owe a debt to John Walton for discussing them so cogently at the conclusion of his "Genesis Through Ancient Eyes" video.
(3) Yes, the universe will keep expanding
(4) I am not an Intelligent Design proponent, but I tremendously respect the movement's desire to incorporate insights both from God's work (science) and from God's word (Scripture).
(5) The officer was off by about 2 miles per hour when he clocked me. But I still got the ticket. And if I had said to the judge, "It's ridiculous to use radar, it would say I'm going 2 MPH when I'm in fact standing still," I don't think I would have won the case. Do you?

1 comment:

David Grimaud said...

Good article, Chris. I love the discussion of cosmology related to intelligent design. I must have read a dozen books on the subject. One of these was Lee Strobel's, "The Case for a Creator." I used the book to teach a Sunday School class on the subject.

Not even accounting for my own faith, and speaking strictly as a thinking engineer, The Theory of Evolution is weak at best. There are too many gaps in it. I am certain Darwin was no more correct than Newton was when he explained the whole theory of gravity. Unfortunately, evolution works as a convenient black box for many scientific arguments.

I thought you were right on the mark in your final, two, concluding paragraphs. Well done, my friend!