Carbon 14--Friend or Foe?

One of the tragedies of denominational creationism is that it continues to produce a constant stream of radical creationists who turn science into the enemy and then attack it to support their denominational traditions. Because most of these denominational creationists are dispensational creationists, the age of the earth is a major issue to them. Ronald Number's exhaustive study of creationism, reported in his book The Creationists, has shown this clearly, and in much of creationist materials we see references to the "Rapture," the "Great Tribulation," and of course to the whole "Left Behind" scenario. If you believe the earth's history to consist of six identified roughly 1,000 year ages, ending in the rapture, the seven year tribulation, the 1,000 year physical reign of Jesus from Jerusalem, then you cannot accept anything that would suggest the earth could possibly be significantly over 10,000 years old. Because of the abundance of materials, many amillenialists have blindly copied these materials and promoted as biblical the notions that denominational creationism teaches. It is not our intention to promote any particular age to the earth, but simply to point out that the age of the earth has nothing to do with the Gospel of Christ and is a human enterprise with denominational connections. The earth could be trillions of years old and the Gospel of Christ would not be changed. The problem is that, in promoting their denominational traditions, millennialists have frequently promoted scientifically inaccurate materials and, when children find out the errors in these materials, the results can be very destructive.

There are literally hundreds of methods of dating used by the scientific community to determine the ages of things. One of the radiometric methods used is carbon 14, and for some reason carbon 14 seems to be a lightning rod for creationist attacks. Most of these attacks are totally erroneous. Carbon 14 is actually a great friend of the Bible and poses no threat to anyone's belief system. What we would like to attempt to do in this article is to talk about the errors that have been made by both creationists and atheists on this subject and try to explain what the facts are and why carbon 14 is totally in agreement and is compatible with the Bible.

Carbon 14 Is a Natural Process That Can Be Observed

Radiometric dating is a very simple process which is easy to understand. Suppose you are babysitting with a room full of active two-year-olds. If there is one door to the room and the door is wide open, children will escape. The rate at which they escape will start out being pretty high, because the more kids there are to watch, the less likely it is that you can control all of them. If there were 100 children in the room and one door that is open, children would gradually escape until there were only 50 children left in the room (assuming you did not go out of the room to catch the escapees.) The time it took for half the kids to escape is called the half-life. What happens is that if it took 20 minutes for 50 of the 100 kids to escape, in another 20 minutes 25 of the remaining 50 would escape. The half life is always the same, with half of the total number escaping every time. Suppose the room had two doors instead of one. The kids would escape at a much higher rate, would they not? The half life would be shorter because the escape system is more active. It might take only 10 minutes for half the 100 kids to escape.

The above example is factual when one examines radioactive material. If you have a thyroid test or treatment with radioactive iodine, when the iodine is first produced and is highly radiative, its decay rate is very high. It gradually lowers at a predictable and observable rate, because its half-life is a matter of hours. Some radioactive materials take days, some months, and some years. All of these have been studied and are used in different ways in industry and medicine. Some materials like uranium decay very slowly. Their rate is so slow that it would take more than a human lifetime for them to decay half of their mass. In the case of uranium 238 the rate is so slow it would take billions of years for half of the mass to decay. Scientists assume that uranium decays the way iodine or other short life isotopes do, and this is used to approximate the ages of things that contain uranium. In the case of carbon 14 the decay rate is in the 5000 year range, so a 10-gram mass of carbon 14 would have a mass of 5 grams after 5000 years.

Carbon 14 is useful in science because it is so available. The air has minute quantities of carbon 14 in it. As plants take in carbon dioxide, they accumulate carbon 14 in their stems and leaves. Animals that eat the plants take in the carbon 14 and it accumulates in their bones and tissues. As long as a plant or animal is alive, it is constantly taking in carbon 14 and the ratio of carbon 14 to other isotopes of carbon and other chemicals in all living things is constant. When a plant or animal dies, they no longer take in carbon 14. Since carbon 14 decays radioactively, the amount of carbon 14 in the dead plant or animal decreases, with half of its mass being lost every 5000 years. By measuring the ratio of carbon 14 to other chemicals in the plant or animal remains, a good estimate of the age can be determined. Carbon 14 has been verified as accurate in many ways. Dated documents from thousands of years ago have been dated by carbon 14, and the age turns out to be the same as the date on the document. Carbon 14 has been matched against tree rings (dendrochronology) and the results have been the same. It is a wonderful tool of archeology and physical anthropology, and has all kinds of uses.

Carbon 14 Is a Great Friend of the Bible

When skeptics of the Bible have attempted to prove that the Bible is a faked document of recent age, carbon 14 has always proved them wrong. One of the favorite themes of Bible critics was that the Bible was written thousands of years later than was claimed by those who supported the Bible, and that most of it was written to fit what had already happened. As more and more documents were found and dated by carbon 14, it became obvious that the claims of skeptics were not valid. The Dead Sea Scrolls which contained the entire messianic prophesy of Isaiah 53 was proven to have been written some 500 years before Christ's birth, so skeptic claims that it was written after the death of Christ were put to rest. Various events and places of the New Testament and Old Testament have been validated by carbon 14. Carbon 14 has universally supported the Bible, and is a great friend of scripture.

Carbon 14 Is Only Used for Young Things and Is Never Used on Dinosaur Remains

The amount of carbon 14 in a body or a plant is microscopic. When the material goes through one half life, the amount of material that is left is half of what you started with. In another 5000 years, you have half of that amount, and for almost anything you measure that mass is too small for instruments to detect. When scientists measure dinosaur bones, they find no carbon 14 at all. The amount of carbon 14 that was there when the animal was alive has decayed to such an extent that it is all gone. If we go back to our analogy of the two-year-olds in the room, eventually they will all escape--one way or another. When a creationist criticizes carbon 14's measurement of the age of a dinosaur, most young people know they do not understand what carbon 14 is about. Carbon 14 is wonderful for things a few thousand years old, and may even be useful for ages approaching 10,000 years, but it is never used for things believed to be millions of years old. The very fact that most fossils contain no carbon 14 raises questions about the earth being 6000 years old, but the main point is that carbon 14 is not a part of that discussion, because its half-life is too short to be used for such measurements.

Carbon 14 Is Based on Assumptions, Some of Which are Wrong

Let us go back to our starting analogy again. Suppose you have the room with some kids escaping out the door, and some devious person slips 10 extra two-year-olds in the room that you did not know about. What would that do to your half-life? Suppose someone came by, and without you knowing it they took 20 kids out of the room. What would that do? Suppose someone provided an elevator that took kids out without you being aware of it. Would your half life figure be accurate? All radiometric methods of measurement assume that nothing has changed the decay rate of the isotope. All radiometric methods assume that no material was added to the sample or taken away from the sample during the decay.

In the case of carbon 14, we know that is not true. Measurements of the carbon 14 in bristle cone pines have shown that the amount of carbon 14 in the atmosphere has not been constant, and that about 2000 years ago there were some natural processes that changed that concentration. The amount of change would not produce huge differences in measurements, but the effect is there. There have been some studies that suggest that an electrical field of high concentration can alter decay rates. These findings probably have a greater impact on longer-lived isotopes like uranium or potassium-argon, but they are an issue that has to be considered in calculations. The older the sample is, the less likely it is that our estimate of age is going to be accurate. Any method of dating has assumptions associated with it, but in the case of carbon 14 because of the many ways of checking and compensating for environmental factors, the effects that the assumptions would have on the final result are probably minimal.

Science and Faith Are Friends

The bottom line of this discussion is that there will never be and cannot be a contradiction between scientific fact and what the Bible says. Radiometric decay is a fact, and we can use it to verify many things the word of God says. If we think we have a contradiction between what the Bible says and fact, we need to do some investigating. Either we do not understand the Bible correctly, or we have misunderstood the fact. Both are authored by God and they cannot conflict. In the case of carbon 14, we have a human religious tradition that is not valid biblical understanding, and we have a scientific method which has some assumptions that have not been fully understood. Young people need to understand that both science and faith are growing, complementary, symbiotic, supportive entities that can challenge, encourage, and enlighten us all. The Bible has a little to say about "science, falsely so called" (1 Timothy 6:20) and a lot to say about man-made creeds and false teachers who do their teachings because they have a selfish agenda (see 2 Peter 2, Acts 20). We need to get by all of that and show our children that they can intelligently believe in God and in everything the Bible says.

--John N. Clayton

Back to Contents Does God Exist?, NovDec05.