How Accurate Are Scientific Dating Techniques?

A truly rational person must be willing to admit what he or she does not know.
Watch Jerusalem/Julia Goddard

“The universe is approximately 13.8 billion years old.” “Tyrannosaurus rex went extinct about 65 million years ago.” “The earliest fossils of modern humans are about 200,000 years old.” Assertions like these are in almost every science documentary and textbook, delivered in a matter-of-fact way that makes them seem uncontroversial. Often, authors and presenters do not even try to explain how they derived their numbers. Other times, they cite sophisticated-sounding data about red shift wavelengths, radioactive decay or dendrochronology.

Whether or not they show their work, scientists almost universally insist that Bible believers should replace their faith-based beliefs about the physical realm with explanations for the universe, the Earth, dinosaurs and ancient civilizations that are “scientific.”

But is this anti-faith approach actually logical? Is it even scientific? How much do scientists really know, and does real science actually conflict with the Holy Bible?

Only 24 percent of Americans believe the Bible is the literal Word of God, and a major reason for their disbelief is the idea that the Bible is, at best, an unscientific book of parables and moral recommendations. A book that, especially, outright contradicts the “proven” scientific dating of the universe, Earth, dinosaurs and man. But how sure are people of biblical “dates”? And further, just how accurate are scientific dating techniques?

Age of the Universe

Scientists once believed that the physical universe has always existed, but it is now generally recognized that this is not the case. An example of evidence for this was highlighted by the late theologian Herbert W. Armstrong in Does God Exist? (see excerpt at the bottom of the page). Uranium is a radioactive element that decays into lead at a consistent rate. Uranium and other radioactives have not yet existed long enough to have decayed into lead. So, at some point in the past, they were created. One theory is that these elements were manufactured in stars, but even stars burn out and die after a certain period of time. Therefore the physical universe had a beginning.

When, then, did matter come into existence?

Many scientists say the universe is 13.8 billion years old because they believe in a “big-bang theory.” Because cosmic radiation from stars shifts toward longer wavelengths as they move away from Earth, astronomers have postulated that the universe is expanding in all directions. If the universe is expanding, it must have been smaller in the past. Scientists backtrack this universal expansion right down into an “infinitesimally small, infinitesimally dense” pinprick. All matter, they postulate, was once packed into this “singularity.” Based on their best attempts to measure the current rate of expansion, astronomers estimate that this singularity “exploded” 13.8 billion years ago.

Actually, this specific idea does not “disprove,” nor necessarily conflict with, the Bible. In fact, when some scientists first suggested the big-bang theory in the 1920s, many of their peers rejected it as too religious.

Artist’s depiction of the “big bang” hypothetical timeline of the universe, showing expansion. NASA/WMAP Science Team
Public Domain

Genesis 1:1 states, “In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth”—revealing that matter has not always existed. It was created. Genesis 1:2 then states that after this initial creation, the Earth became “without form, and void.” The Hebrew here—tohu and bohu—highlights a destruction event. So God had to renew the face of the Earth (e.g., Psalm 104:30). The “Creation Week” of Genesis 1:3-2:3 was actually a renewal of the “face” of the Earth—following the initial creation of Genesis 1:1 (an unspecified length of time ago), and the subsequent destruction of Genesis 1:2. (See our article The Prehistoric World Vs. Genesis for more information.)

The God of the Bible could have initially created matter 13.8 billion years ago from a central point. But He also could have created it in numerous other ways. (The Bible does not say.) The currently accepted age of 13.8 billion years is simply conjecture based on the fact that galaxies visible from Earth appear to be drifting away from the Milky Way. That does not necessarily mean that the entire universe is expanding, or that all matter was once compressed into a singularity. In fact, scientists can find no center from which the universe is expanding.

So, how old is the universe? Scientists just don’t know. In Job 38:4, God reminds them of what He told the patriarch Job: They were not there when He “laid the foundations of the earth.” (In fact, God even described the “expanding” phenomenon—e.g., Isaiah 45:12—something scientists only discovered in 1929, some 2,700 years after this scripture was written. See our article The Bible Scoops the Scientists for more information.)

It is only logical to believe that, at some point, a spiritual Being created the physical universe!

Age of the Earth

Scientists use radioactive decay equations to assert that Earth is 4.5 billion years old. In Australia, for example, zirconium silicate crystals have been discovered with pockets of uranium and lead trapped inside them. They are thought to be the oldest known minerals on Earth. Geologists assume that the lead trapped in these crystals used to be uranium that decayed into lead over millions of years. Since the rate at which uranium decays into lead is known, geologists have calculated that it took 4.3 billion years for the lead trapped in these crystals to form. If this is true, then the Earth must be at least 4.3 billion years old.

Click here to read Mystery of the Ages

Again, this age is not necessarily unbiblical—Genesis 1:1 records that God “created the heaven and the earth,” indicating that the universe and Earth came into existence together. In his seminal work Mystery of the Ages, Mr. Armstrong noted that this verse implies “that the whole material universe was created simultaneously with the Earth.” Therefore, if Earth really is around 4.5 billion years old, the entire physical universe must be around the same age.

Again, the following “Creation Week” described from Genesis 1:3 onwards is referring to a renewing of the Earth. Piecing together biblical genealogies from Adam highlights that this event took place around 6,000 years ago (e.g., Genesis 5).

It is also important to realize that these radioactive decay calculations are based on many significant assumptions.

Various dating methods, such as carbon, uranium, and samarium dating, are not reliable over vast spans of time. That’s not to say they just give wild data (although that can sometimes be the case). But they are chiefly unreliable because they are calibrated based on assumptions. They are based on the theory of “uniformitarianism”—the belief that the Earth was formed and shaped by very slow, gradual changes—as opposed to “catastrophism,” the belief that the world was shaped by dramatic and sudden events (this is the biblical view). Modern scientific dating is based on the assumption that the Earth is, and always has been, operating under a “fixed system”—essentially, that it is now as it always has been. Including that, over millions of years, radioactive elements have been decaying at precisely the same rate.

Radiometric dating works by analyzing the prevalence of certain radioactive isotopes. It relies on the assumption that the amount of these isotopes on the Earth has remained roughly constant. That’s a supremely risky assumption to make.

Actually, scientific research has been proving that this assumption is not just slightly, but utterly, wrong. Regular-occurring solar flares, as well as fluctuations in the Earth’s magnetic field, have been show to directly and significantly affect the prevalence of these isotopes. Even simple changes in the seasons have been shown to affect them. And the testing of nuclear weapons over the past 80 years has caused serious issues with properly reading radiocarbon dates due to even minuscule amounts of radiation particles spreading all over the Earth’s atmosphere.

The fight between Earth’s shifting, protective magnetic field and ejections from the sun can significantly affect rates of radioactive decay.
NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center

It is inherently faulty logic to assume a constant, stable system. Especially considering “catastrophism” events are known by scientists to have pockmarked Earth’s past—the K-Pg extinction event a case in point (an extraordinary destruction event that actually matches well with the one mentioned in Genesis 1:2—see here for more detail.)

But the “scientific” assumptions continue. Since lead is usually excluded when zirconia crystals form in Earth’s magma, geologists assume that all the lead in these crystals is simply a product of radioactive decay. But this is an unprovable assumption. The universe is too young for all the uranium to have decayed into lead. But that does not mean that God did not create any lead in the original creation. If these crystals contained lead when God originally formed them, they are younger than supposed.

So, how old is Earth? Again, scientists simply don’t know! God told Job that He was the one who laid the “stones” in the foundations of the Earth. Only He knows what atoms were in these stones “in the day that they were created” (Job 38:6). Scientists can only guess.

Age of the Dinosaurs

Scientists call the “Dinosaur Age” the Mesozoic Era, claiming that this era occurred from 250 million years ago to 65 million years ago. But dinosaur fossils contain no radioactive elements for paleontologists to date. They estimate the age of a fossil by trying to discern the age of the rock layer in which it was found.

Tyrannosaurus rex, Paris
© David Monniaux

Fossils form when sediments cover a plant or animal and harden into rock. But scientists admit that there is no good way to determine the age of sedimentary rock. The best that geologists can do is estimate the age of any neighboring igneous rocks by measuring radioactive elements, then use that age to approximate the age of the sedimentary rock.

This process is error-prone—here are two particular reasons. First: You cannot conclusively determine the age of igneous rocks without knowing the exact chemical makeup of these rocks when they originally formed. Second: Rock layers are not always chronological, and scientists know it.

Mr. Armstrong noted that the error-prone ways geologists date rock strata are actually the foundation of the evolutionary hypothesis. In his autobiography (see the excerpt at the bottom of the page), he recounted his in-depth study of evolution, including the research of Prof. Thomas Chamberlin, which showed that sometimes the most recent rock strata are actually below the most ancient strata. Thus, a rock’s age cannot necessarily be determined by its location!

How, then, do geologists determine the age of rock strata? Well, since they assume the theory of evolution is true, they estimate how many millions of years ago a particular fossil specimen lived and then use the age of the fossil to determine the age of the rock strata. In other words, geologists determine the age of sedimentary rock by citing the age of the fossils inside the rock. And paleontologists determine the age of fossils by citing the age of the sedimentary rock layer.

This is irrational, circular reasoning!

So, how old are the dinosaurs? Again, scientists don’t know. No evidence of dinosaurs and humans coexisting has ever been found. Evidently, dinosaurs became extinct before God placed mankind in the Garden of Eden around 6,000 years ago (Genesis 2:8)—fitting them instead to the initial creation of the Earth, as described in Genesis 1:1—a world that was subsequently struck by a “mass extinction event,” matching the account in verse 2. But again, scientists don’t know how long ago dinosaurs roamed the Earth.

Age of Mankind

The oldest human remains are dated the same way that dinosaur fossils are dated: by attempting to date rock layers. But more “recent” human remains can be dated using a particular type of measuring radioactivity: carbon dating.

Scientists say the oldest human remains that have been radiocarbon dated are about 40,000 years old. Yet, when you understand the science behind radiocarbon dating, you find the technique is not verifiable prior to perhaps 3,500 years ago.

Accelerator mass spectrometer at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, used for measuring 14C.
Public Domain

Radioactive carbon atoms decay into ordinary carbon atoms like uranium decays into lead. Most carbon atoms have a nucleus containing six protons and six neutrons. Scientists call these atoms carbon-12. But solar radiation causes some carbon atoms to pick up two extra neutrons. Scientists call these atoms carbon-14.

About one out of every trillion carbon atoms is a carbon-14 atom. Plants, animals and people incorporate carbon dioxide, including carbon-14, from the atmosphere into their bodies. As long as an organism is alive, the carbon-14 ratio in it equates roughly to the carbon-14 ratio in the atmosphere. Once it dies, the carbon-14 ratio decays back into carbon-12.

Since this radioactive decay process happens at a set rate, scientists can calculate how long an organism has been dead if they can determine two things: 1) how much carbon-14 is in the dead organism, and 2) how much carbon-14 was in the organism when it was alive. The first can be measured with a mass spectrometer. The second is a best guess.

Carbon-14 levels in the atmosphere change over time. Scientists were not present to measure the organisms when they died. So they cannot be confident how much carbon-14 was in the organism at that point. The best they can do is try and determine the age of a dead organism by other means, such as historical records or pottery analysis. They can then measure the carbon-14 in the organism and calculate how much carbon-14 must have been in it when it died. (Of course, this does not readily apply for “prehistoric” man beyond several millennia old, in which historical records are not available, and material remains are scant.) Using such samples, scientists have established rough calibration curves for the amounts of carbon-14 in the atmosphere during a given year.

The catch is that there are few specimens of confirmed age before the well-documented eruption of the Santorini volcano around 1600 b.c.e. Dating older organisms using carbon-14 is a shot in the dark, because there is nothing to reliably establish how much carbon-14 was in the atmosphere.

The inventor of radiocarbon dating, Willard Libby, admitted this in his 1960 Nobel Prize acceptance speech. “You read statements in books that such and such a society or archaeological site is 20,000 years old,” he said. “We learned rather abruptly that these numbers, these ancient ages, are not known accurately; in fact, it is at about the time of the First Dynasty in Egypt [c. 3,000 b.c.e.] that the first historical date of any real certainty has been established.”

People debate precisely how far back you have to go before carbon dating techniques become useless, but practically all scientists agree to the fundamental premise that: the further you go back in time, the less reliable carbon dating techniques become.

So, how old is humanity? Again, scientists who are honest like Libby will admit that they just don’t know.

Age of Trees

Since there are few historical specimens much older than the kingdom of ancient Egypt, scientists have attempted to radiocarbon date tree rings. The oldest known tree is a bristlecone pine in California’s White Mountains named Methuselah (after the oldest man in the Bible). This tree has about 4,850 tree rings. Trees usually grow one ring every growing season, so some say this tree is 4,850 years old. But trees may also grow two rings in one year due to drought or other stresses, so it could be younger. Still, the Methuselah tree probably did begin growing not long after the death of biblical Methuselah (in the fifth millennium b.c.e.).

But dendrochronologists have attempted to extend the age of trees far beyond the germination of the Methuselah tree. To do so, they have lined up the tree rings of living bristlecone pines with tree rings of dead bristlecone pines to construct a sort-of “tree ring chronology,” going back 12,500 years or more. Yet, cross-matching tree rings is a lot more complicated than it sounds. Dendrochronologists visually compare the appearance of growth rings to one another, trying to match living and dead trees. But every tree grows a little differently, so visually cross-matching tree rings is actually quite subjective guesswork.

The “Methuselah Grove.” The Methuselah Tree is seen to the right (without leaves).

If dendrochronologists cannot determine how the trees match up, they radiocarbon date the growth rings to determine their approximate age. But what are radiocarbon dating results verified against? Growth rings! This is the same circular reasoning that Mr. Armstrong pointed out among geologists. Geologists verify fossils against rock strata, which is verified against fossils, and dendrochronologists verify tree rings against radiocarbon dating, which is verified against tree ring chronologies, which is used to calibrate radiocarbon dating techniques further.

Neither tree-ring counting nor radiocarbon dating is a conclusive way of establishing world history.

So, how old are trees? When Adam and Eve rejected God’s instruction and ate from one of the very first trees (Genesis 3), God gave them their choice of “going it alone” in the quest for knowledge, and let them and their descendants continue their study of trees on their own, according to their own faulty human reason. After rejecting divine revelation from their Creator, there is a lot about the world that scientists just cannot figure out.

Age of Reason

Truly rational science is based on the undeniable fact that the universe was created—that it didn’t just “abracadabra” out of nothing, but that it was designed and built by a Creator. When human beings reject this irrefutable fact, they limit themselves to searching for information using only their five senses and the human mind. This limits them to a fraction of the total available data, and much of that information is conflicting and corrupted.

Rejecting the Creator is rejecting rationality itself.

The natural world provides no evidence to refute the Bible’s account, and those who claim it does suppress the truth and are forced embrace foolish ideas.

The Bible decries the state of modern “science” and education as “Ever learning, and never able to come to the knowledge of the truth.” If only mankind would observe the living world truthfully, they could see plenty of evidence of a creator. Job wrote, “But ask now the beasts, and they shall teach thee; and the fowls of the air, and they shall tell thee; or speak to the earth, and it shall teach thee; and the fishes of the sea shall declare unto thee; who knoweth not among all these, that the hand of the LORD hath wrought this? In whose hand is the soul of every living thing, and the breath of all mankind” (Job 12:7-12).

A truly rational person must be able to admit what he or she does not know. When scientists use extremely limited techniques to make enormous claims and sweeping extrapolations, they actually become irrational and illogical. In many cases, the logic is valid, but the premise is false. If you don’t have anything close to a full data set, yet consistently, commandingly act as though you do, you are not practicing pure science.

The only way to avoid endless speculation, guesswork and hopelessly incomplete information is to reason with God (Isaiah 1:18). Base your reasoning on revelation from the Holy Bible, a book inspired by the original Scientist who Himself “laid the foundations of the earth.”

“Come now, and let us reason together, saith the Lord.”

This article was first published in the September 2020 Philadelphia Trumpet magazine—the sister magazine to Watch Jerusalem. The Philadelphia Trumpet is a news-focused website and magazine aimed at a worldwide audience, while Watch Jerusalem covers news and archaeology relating specifically to Israel and the Middle East.

Excerpt: Researching the Bible and Darwin

Excerpted from the Autobiography of Herbert W. Armstrong

Of necessity, the very presence of human intellect necessitates a superior and greater intellect to have designed, devised and produced the human mind! It could not have been produced by natural causes and resident forces, as evolution presupposes. Unintelligence could not produce intelligence superior to itself! Rational common sense demanded a Creator of superior mind!

I came to see that there was only one possible proof of evolution as a fact. That was the assumption that, in the study of paleontology, the most simple fossils were always in the oldest strata, laid down first; while, as we progress into strata of later deposition, the fossils found in them become gradually more complex, tending toward advancing intelligence.

That one claim, I finally determined, was the trunk of the tree of evolution. If the trunk stood, the theory appeared proved. If I could chop down the trunk, the entire tree would fall with it.

I began a search to learn how these scientists determined the age of strata. I was months finding it. None of the texts I searched seemed to explain anything about it. This trunk of the tree was carelessly assumed—without proof.

Were the oldest strata always on the bottom—the next oldest next to the bottom, the most recent on the top? Finally I found it in a recognized text on geology authored by Professor Chamberlin. No, sometimes the most recent were actually below the most ancient strata. The age of strata was not determined by stages of depth. The depth of strata varied in different parts of the world.

How, then, was the age of strata determined? Why, I finally discovered in this very reputable authority, their age was determined by the fossils found in them. Since the geologists “knew” their evolutionary theory was true, and since they had estimated how many millions of years ago a certain fossil specimen might have lived, that age determined the age of the strata!

Click here to read the Autobiography of Herbert W. Armstrong

In other words, they assumed the age of the strata by the supposition that their theory of evolution was true. And they “proved” their theory was true by the supposition of the progressive ages of the strata in which fossil remains had been found! This was arguing in a circle!

The trunk of the evolutionary tree was chopped down. There was no proof!

Excerpt: Amazing Knowledge of Science

Excerpted from Does God Exist? by Herbert W. Armstrong

Now suppose we confine ourselves to facts!

What, then, has science actually determined? Discovery and study of radioactivity has proved that there has been no past eternity of matter! Radioactivity is described as a process of disintegration. The atomic age is opening up new fields to explore. Soon after Madame Curie discovered the element radium, in 1898, it was discovered that radium, and the other radioactive elements as we know now, are continually giving off radiations.

So notice carefully what this fact of science means:

Uranium is a radioactive element heavier than radium. It has an atomic weight of 238.5. In decomposing, it gives off a helium atom, weight 4, repeated three times, and then the substance left is radium, atomic weight about 226.4. Radium, then, is sim- ply the end product of uranium after it has lost three helium atoms. Then the disintegration continues in radium. And the final product of this process of radioactive disintegration is the element lead! Now of course this process requires great periods of time. The calculated half-life of radium is 1,590 years—uranium much longer.

I have seen it myself, in the darkroom of an X-ray laboratory. A tiny portion of radium was placed on a mirror at the far end of a hollow tube, and I looked into this tube through a magnify- ing glass at the other end. Under this magnification what I saw appeared as a large, vast, dark sky, with thousands of shooting stars falling toward me from all directions. Actually what I saw were the emanations of tiny particles being emitted by the radium, greatly magnified.

We know, therefore, that there has been no past eternity of matter!

The radioactive elements in existence today have not yet been in existence long enough to have run their course, and disintegrated into lead. To have always existed, without any definite time of starting in the past, this “life” period of radioactive elements long ago would have run its course. All radio- active elements would have long ago disintegrated into lead. Since these elements exist only for a definite span of years, and all the uranium, radium, thorium and other radioactive elements in the world today have not yet existed that many years, there was a time, prior to the duration of this span in the past, when these elements did not exist!

Here we have definite scientific proof that matter has not always existed. Here we have definite specific elements that once, in the long ago, did not yet exist. Then there came a time, later, when these elements came into existence.

Evolution usually postulates that things come about gradually, through the slow-moving natural processes of the present. Try to imagine, if you can, something coming into existence out of nothing, gradually! Can your mind entertain the idea?

Click here to read Does God Exist?

I think not. No, I think if you are rational, you will have to accept the fact of a special and necessarily instantaneous creation. And some power or some one had of necessity to do the creating. There is a cause for every effect. And in accepting that inevitable fact, proved by the findings of science, of the existence of that great first cause, you have accepted the fact of the existence and preexistence of the Creator—God!