Science and the Seventh-day Adventist position on the age of the earth

Over the last several decades, the de facto position of the Seventh-day Adventist church regarding the age of the earth has been the Passive Gap Theory, as affirmed by the SDA Sabbath School Quarterly: “When the story begins, the planet is already here but unformed, unfilled, dark, and wet.” (Jan. 5-11, 2013). This position was reached after much scientific investigation, and the decision was not made glibly. I would like to respectfully disagree with it, however, and perhaps spur SDA scientists on to further scientific research in this area.

From what I’ve been able to gather, the primary reason the church accepted the Passive Gap Theory was the consistency of radiometric dating. To briefly explain radiometric dating, one common method uses uranium (238U), which decays to lead (206Pb). The most commonly dated mineral is zircon (fig. 1), which contains the element zirconium. Uranium is incorporated into the zircon crystals, because it is close enough in size (about 20% bigger) and has the same charge (+4) as the zirconium ions that form part of the crystal structure of zircons. Lead, on the other hand, is excluded from the zircon crystal during its formation, because lead ions are too different in size (about 50% bigger than the zirconium ions) and they often have a charge of +2, so that they won’t readily substitute for zirconium ions in zircon crystals. Because uranium is included in the original crystal and lead is generally excluded, it is assumed that any lead that we find in zircons probably comes from decayed uranium. (1)

Fig. 1: Microscope image of a thin section. The brown mineral is biotite, a form of mica. The small crystals in it are zircons, and the dark patches around the crystals were caused by radiation damage from decaying uranium.

Fig. 1: Microscope image of a thin section. The brown mineral is biotite, a form of mica. The small crystals in it are zircons, and the dark patches around the crystals were caused by radiation damage from decaying uranium.

The half-life of uranium-238 is 4.47 billion years (in 4.47 billion years, half of the uranium will have decayed to lead), so if we find a zircon crystal with equal numbers of uranium and lead atoms, we can apply certain assumptions and conclude that the crystal was formed 4.47 billion years ago (I use the above figure for simplicity—the oldest sample yet found was dated at about 4.4 billion years).

The most important of these assumptions on which this date is based are:

  1. All lead was excluded in the formation of the crystal.
  2. No uranium or lead has been added to or taken from the crystal since its formation.
  3. The decay rate of uranium has not changed since the formation of the crystal.

If any of these basic conditions are not met, then we can’t assume we know the age of the rock. The general consensus among SDA scientists, that radiometric dating shows that the earth is old, essentially accepts the reliability of these assumptions.

So how reliable are they? Many scientists have pointed out that assumption 1 is not always met. When wildly divergent dates are given for rocks taken from the same lava flow or very old dates (in the millions or billions of years) are given for rocks from eruptions that we know have happened in the last few hundred years, it is usually assumed that assumption 1 was not met. Assumption 2 may also be problematic, as the elements in minerals can move around given the right chemical conditions, causing assumption 2 to fail.

 In general, however, assumptions 1 and 2 seem to be met with sufficient reliability for radiometric dating to give consistent dates. In my latest research, for example, the various volcanic ash layers that we have sent off to dating labs have been dated with the oldest at the bottom and the youngest on top, with the intervening layers falling in between with good consistency. If either assumption 1 or 2 had not been met for any of these layers, we would not expect to see such consistency (fig. 2).

Fig. 2: A hypothetical outcrop, very similar to many I’ve studied, showing the consistency of the dates we get back from the laboratory.  

Fig. 2: A hypothetical outcrop, very similar to many I’ve studied, showing the consistency of the dates we get back from the laboratory.

 

While exceptions to assumptions 1 and 2 are frequently cited as problems with radiometric dating, assumption 3 has essentially gone unquestioned by the scientific community for over 70 years, as early experiments indicated that heat, pressure, and differing chemical conditions did not affect the decay rate. It is assumption 3, however, that must be incorrect if we are to present a convincing scientific argument that life on earth is not older than the Biblical account says it is.

Let me explain why this is so with a diagram of an idealized outcrop spanning much of the history of earth’s rocks and fossils (fig. 3).

Fig. 3: This is a very condensed, hypothetical outcrop representing a large part of the geological column. If the radiometric dates for the black beds are correct, then it is very difficult to explain the existence of so many fossils sandwiched in between the dated beds.  

Fig. 3: This is a very condensed, hypothetical outcrop representing a large part of the geological column. If the radiometric dates for the black beds are correct, then it is very difficult to explain the existence of so many fossils sandwiched in between the dated beds.

 

No convincing mechanism or explanation has been given for the presence of 100-million-year-old basalt or 20-million-year-old volcanic ash covering fossils that we believe to be about 4500 years old. Based on the best geological reasoning, the ash or basalt deposited on top of a fossil is younger than the fossil. Because of the consistency and continuity of radiometric dates, if we accept assumption 3, the most logical conclusion to draw is that life on earth is very old—at least in the hundreds of millions of years.

This, in my opinion, is the biggest problem with the Passive Gap Theory and the crux of the issue: on one hand, it lends credence to the radiometric dates, but on the other, it rejects the most obvious outcome of accepting the dates—that life on earth is hundreds of millions, if not billions of years old.

What of assumption 3, then? Do we have convincing evidence either way regarding the constancy of radioactive decay rates?

Despite the reticence of the scientific community to question assumption 3, we do have data that casts doubt on its veracity. One of the most important lines of evidence is the existence of original organic matter in fossils that, according to the radiometric dates, are tens to hundreds of millions of years old. (2) We know from laboratory experiments how fast certain proteins decay, and even in the most generous conditions, most of these proteins only last a few thousands or tens of thousands of years.

The scientific choice in this dilemma is between trusting our understanding of chemical mechanisms (protein decay), which we do understand well, and trusting our understanding of nuclear mechanisms (radioactive decay), which are not nearly as well understood. I suspect that protein decay rates are a (roughly) correct measure of time, while radioactive decay rates have actually changed over time.

Recently, scientists have discovered that radioactive decay rates are not as constant as is usually assumed to be the case. (3) Though the change is very small, it is statistically significant, and if we ask the right questions, they will lead us to the mechanism that is responsible. This, in turn, could help us understand how decay rates could have changed more drastically in the past.

There is one important geological indicator of long ages that is independent of radiometric dating. Many of the large masses of cool granitic rock in the earth should still be hot, if we have interpreted their structure correctly. Based on observations of volcanic eruptions, I suspect that the original water content of the magma that formed these rocks was higher than standard theory suggests. This would have allowed for much more rapid cooling. This is still speculation, however, and these bodies of cool rock are still a mystery. Even in these cases, though, if the standard theory is correct, then the most obvious interpretation of the evidence is that life is very old.

The first source of historical information we should consult when attempting to reconstruct the events of earth’s past is the Bible. One of the clearest texts describing the time period over which God created the earth is Exodus 20:11: “For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that in them is, and rested the seventh day: wherefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day, and hallowed it.”

If God really did create the heavens and the earth in six days, then our scientific investigations will be greatly enhanced by assuming that this is true and conducting research according to this paradigm. It will lead us away from theories that are dead ends, and provide us with more elegant, beautiful, and intellectually appealing reconstructions of the history of the earth.

Because I’ve mentioned some of the biggest challenges presented to the Biblical account by modern scientific interpretations of events, let me round out the big picture by adding a few lines of geological evidence that don’t match standard interpretations:

  • The sediments of the earth don’t look old, generally speaking, and many features of them provide powerful evidence pointing to a short span of time and the veracity of the flood account, such as continent-wide trends in water currents and gaps in the geological record that supposedly span millions of years, but show no evidence of the passage of time (the Silurian period is missing in the Grand Canyon, for example).
  • The fossil record shows that organisms actually don’t change over time (though they tend to be replaced by other organisms), and an extremely important trend in the fossil record is that all but the most recent fossils are buried in water-borne sediments, while the most recent fossils are preserved in natural traps (such as the La Brea tar pits).
  • Ancient observations of the tilt of the earth’s axis show that the earth was shaken by a planet-wide catastrophe about 2345 BC (depending on the construction dates of some old temples), and that the earth’s axis didn’t stabilize until about 1850 AD. (4)
  • There are large, cool masses down in the earth’s hot mantle, which may be another indicator of a global catastrophe involving extreme tectonic plate movement.

 Back to the topic of this article, the point that I would really like make clear in this discussion is that the Passive Gap Theory doesn’t solve the problem of the conflict between scientific evidence for long ages and the Biblical account. If the radiometric dates given for the various layers of rock correctly represent the time that has passed since the rock was deposited, then life on planet earth must be much older than the Biblical account allows.

As a postscript, I would like to acknowledge the contributions of cosmology to this topic. Cosmological evidence is often used to “prove” the vast age of the universe. I would like to point out that the ruling paradigm, the Big Bang Model, relies on the invention of things like dark matter and dark energy to explain astronomical observations. This reliance on unobservable and unlikely phenomena is a strong indicator that the model is faulty. Plasma cosmology is a much more promising route, and does a far better job of making predictions about the universe. One of the reasons, I think, that the modern scientific community resists plasma cosmology, however, is that it does not necessarily imply that the universe is billions of years old.

Regarding the existence of Heaven and other worlds prior to the creation of earth, it is my opinion that they are outside of the universe that is visible to us, and that our entire observable universe was negatively affected by Adam’s sin.

References 

  1. I would like to point out that lead can have a charge of +4, and when it does, this lead ion’s radius is only about 5% bigger than a zirconium ion, and it should, theoretically, substitute for it in the crystal structure.
  2. Here is one interesting article on the topic: Analysis of Dinosaur Bone Cells Confirms Ancient Protein Preservation, available hereGoogle “ancient protein in fossil bone” for many more results.
  3. For a news article on the discovery, see Stanford Report, August 23, 2010, The strange case of solar flares and radioactive elements, available here: http://news.stanford.edu/news/2010/august/sun-082310.html For a peer-reviewed article, see P.A. Sturrock, et al. The Case for a Solar Influence on Certain Nuclear Decay Rates. The full text of the article is available here: http://arxiv.org/pdf/1301.3754.pdf
  4. Dodwell, George. The obliquity of the ecliptic: Ancient, mediaeval, and modern observations of the obliquity of the Ecliptic, measuring the inclination of the earth's axis, in ancient times and up to the present. The full text of the manuscript is available here: http://www.setterfield.org/Dodwell_manuscript_1.html