May 26, 2016

Mike the Geologist: Science and the Bible (Lesson 6)

Surreal Landscape, Photo by KoolCats Photography

Surreal Landscape, Photo by KoolCats Photography

Science and the Bible – Lesson 6
By Michael McCann

In our last lesson we looked at some examples from geology that showed detailed, complex, coherent, and discoverable evidence that the earth is far older than a few thousand years.  I could have multiplied similar examples all day long if necessary.  Should you want to examine the geologic record in more detail I suggest this book.  If the Grand Canyon piques your interest there is a new book out that details evidence for the age of the canyon and how it could not have been formed in one flood event.

One thing I did not do in the last lesson was specify how old the earth might be or how we could know that.  It’s such an important topic that I did not want to shoehorn it into the last lesson.  Of course I’m talking about radiometric dating.  The discussion today will be taken from Radiometric Dating – A Christian Perspective by Dr. Roger C. Wiens ().  It was written for Christian laymen by a Christian.

Radiometric dating (often called radioactive dating) is a technique used to date materials such as rocks, usually based on a comparison between the observed abundance of a naturally occurring radioactive isotope and its decay products, using known decay rates.


All ordinary matter is made up of combinations of chemical elements, each with its own atomic number, indicating the number of protons in the atomic nucleus.  Additionally, elements may exist in different isotopes, with each isotope of an element differing in the number of neutrons in the nucleus. A particular isotope of a particular element is called a nuclide.  Some nuclides are inherently unstable. That is, at some point in time, an atom of such a nuclide will spontaneously transform into a different nuclide. This transformation may be accomplished in a number of different ways, including radioactive decay, either by emission of particles (usually electrons (beta decay), positrons or alpha particles) or by spontaneous fission, and electron capture.

Atoms of a radioactive nuclide decays exponentially at a rate described by a parameter known as the half-life, usually given in units of years when discussing dating techniques. After one half-life has elapsed, one half of the atoms of the nuclide in question will have decayed into a “daughter” nuclide or decay product.


The mathematical expression that relates radioactive decay to geologic time, is:

D = D0 + N(t) (eλt − 1)


t is age of the sample,

D is number of atoms of the daughter isotope in the sample,

D0 is number of atoms of the daughter isotope in the original composition,

N is number of atoms of the parent isotope in the sample at time t (the present), given by N(t) = N0e-λt, and

λ is the decay constant of the parent isotope, equal to the inverse of the radioactive half-life of the parent isotope times the natural logarithm of 2.

Now don’t worry if you don’t follow the math above.  My reason for giving it is (1) to be precise and complete and (2) to show you that the math is in fact simple algebra.  As long as a lab can analyze the amount of parent isotope and daughter isotope, the amount of original daughter isotope can be calculated and the age of the rock from when it cooled from the last time it was molten can be calculated.  It really is just simple physics and math.

Let’s give an example from Wiens.  Let’s say we are going to date a rock using the Rubidium-Strontium method.  Rubidium-87 decays to strontium-87 with a half-life of 48.8 million years; so it is a good method to date older rocks.


From Figure 4 of Weins. A rubidium-strontium three-isotope plot. When a rock cools, all its minerals have the same ratio of strontium-87 to strontium-86, though they have varying amounts of rubidium. As the rock ages, the rubidium decreases by changing to strontium-87, as shown by the dotted arrows. Minerals with more rubidium gain more strontium-87, while those with less rubidium do not change as much.

Note that in this example at least 5 different minerals that compose the one rock are checked.  The geologist doesn’t just “date” the rock.  Notice that at any given time, the minerals all line up–a check to ensure that the system has not been disturbed.  This is called an isochron.  If the minerals don’t line up then something is wrong and the particular rock is NOT used to assign a date.


From Figure 5 of Weins. The original amount of the daughter strontium-87 can be precisely determined from the present-day composition by extending the line through the data points back to rubidium-87 = 0. This works because if there were no rubidium-87 in the sample, the strontium composition would not change. The slope of the line is used to determine the age of the sample.   As Weins puts it:

As the rock starts to age, rubidium gets converted to strontium. The amount of strontium added to each mineral is proportional to the amount of rubidium present. This change is shown by the dashed arrows, the lengths of which are proportional to the rubidium/strontium ratio. The dashed arrows are slanted because the rubidium/strontium ratio is decreasing in proportion to the increase in strontium-87/strontium-86. The solid line drawn through the samples will thus progressively rotate from the horizontal to steeper and steeper slopes.

All lines drawn through the data points at any later time will intersect the horizontal line (constant strontium-87/strontium-86 ratio) at the same point in the lower left-hand corner. This point, where rubidium-87/strontium-86 = 0 tells the original strontium-87/strontium-86 ratio. From that we can determine the original daughter strontium-87 in each mineral, which is just what we need to know to determine the correct age.

There are now well over forty different radiometric dating techniques, each based on a different radioactive isotope.  Most dating techniques involve multiple tests using different methods and on different minerals within a rock (isochrons).

For example some of the oldest rocks on earth are found in Western Greenland. Because of their great age, they have been especially well studied. The table below gives the ages, in billions of years, from twelve different studies using five different techniques on one particular rock formation in Western Greenland, the Amitsoq gneisses.

Science chart

Note that scientists give their results with a stated uncertainty. They take into account all the possible errors and give a range within which they are 95% sure that the actual value lies. The top number, 3.60±0.05, refers to the range 3.60+0.05 to 3.60-0.05. The size of this range is every bit as important as the actual number. A number with a small uncertainty range is more accurate than a number with a larger range. For the numbers given above, one can see that all of the ranges overlap and agree between 3.55 and 3.74 billion years as the age of the rock. Several studies also showed that, because of the great ages of these rocks, they have been through several mild metamorphic heating events that disturbed the ages given by potassium-bearing minerals (not listed here). As pointed out earlier, different radiometric dating methods agree with each other most of the time, over many thousands of measurements.

All of the different dating methods agree–they agree a great majority of the time over millions of years of time. Some Christians make it sound like there is a lot of disagreement, but this is not the case.  The disagreement in values needed to support the position of young-Earth proponents would require differences in age measured by orders of magnitude (e.g., factors of 10,000, 100,000, a million, or more). The differences actually found in the scientific literature are usually close to the margin of error, usually a few percent, not orders of magnitude!  3.55 to 3.74 billion is a 5% difference, but 3.5 to 0.000006 billion (6,000 years) is a 58,333,333% difference.

Vast amounts of data overwhelmingly favor an old Earth. Several hundred laboratories around the world are active in radiometric dating. Their results consistently agree with an old Earth. Over a thousand papers on radiometric dating were published in scientifically recognized journals in the last year, and hundreds of thousands of dates have been published in the last 50 years. Essentially all of these strongly favor an old Earth.

Radioactive decay rates have been measured for over sixty years now for many of the decay clocks without any observed changes. And it has been close to a hundred years since the uranium-238 decay rate was first determined.  Both long-range and short-range dating methods have been successfully verified by dating lavas of historically known ages over a range of several thousand years.

And finally radiometric dating of certain Biblical archaeological sites confirm that the biblical history is true and accurate.  For example:

Carbon-14 Dating of Copper Smelting in Edom (Jordan) Confirm Biblical Date of King Solomon’s Kingdom

The 14C dates associated with smelting debris layers from Khirbat en-Nahas demonstrate intensive 10th-9th century B.C. industrial metallurgical activities conducted by complex societies. High-precision radiocarbon dating at Khirbat en-Nahas establishes a date earlier than that suggested by previous studies utilizing pottery finds.  The accuracy of 14C dating calls into question previous studies based solely upon pottery evidence. The current dating of the site to the 10th-9th century B.C. agrees with biblical dates for Solomon’s rule of the area.

1.Levy, T. E., T. Higham, C. B. Ramsey, N. G. Smith, E. Ben-Yosef, M. Robinson, S. Münger, K. Knabb, J. P. Schulze, M. Najjar, and L. Tauxe. 2008. High-precision radiocarbon dating and historical biblical archaeology in southern Jordan. Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. USA 105:16460�16465.

2.Copper ruins in Jordan bolster biblical record of King Solomon, Los Angeles Times, October 28, 2008.

You can’t have it both ways, dear evangelical reader.  The carbon-14 dating works when it confirms the Bible but doesn’t work when it says things are older than 6,000 years?

The earth appears to be old?  The earth is old…

• • •

Photo by KoolCats Photography at Flickr. Creative Commons License

Wednesdays with James: Lesson One


Wednesdays with James
Lesson One: Background and Big Picture

Ordinary Time provides an opportunity for those who follow the liturgical year to take a different direction in their approach to the Scriptures.

From Advent to Pentecost, the Church follows the Gospels as they depict the earthly career of Jesus the Messiah, the story of salvation. In the days after Pentecost we seek to live in the new life Jesus brought us through his Incarnation, Epiphany, death, resurrection, ascension, and pouring out of the Holy Spirit. Ordinary Time, by contrast, goes week by week, examining how we might live the life we share together in Christ.

I think, therefore, that Ordinary Time is a good season for the Church to study books of the Bible, in particular, the epistles, which were written to various congregations and individuals to guide them in the Christ-life. So, since we haven’t had a Bible study here in awhile, how about we take one up for the summer?

To start, I’d like to go where many Lutherans have feared to tread: the Epistle of James.

As I study this NT letter with you this summer, I will be consulting one of my favorite commentaries:

• • •

I have never been a big fan of spending a lot of time hashing out introductory matters of books of the Bible. At some level, studying the background of who wrote the books, when they were written and to whom is important, but as a pastor I tried to keep my focus on these issues as brief and simple as possible. And as a blog author, I can’t imagine that people would want to come here and read an extended discussion about who the “James” might have been that purportedly penned this epistle (1:1).

What is important to me, given centuries of debate about these introductory questions, is to come to a reasonable conclusion about the possible author, setting, and audience, and proceed on that basis. Most of what matters about these things can be gleaned from the internal evidence of the epistle itself.

Peter Davids comes to the following working hypothesis:

This brief discussion has certainly not settled the complex problem of the date and provenance of the Epistle of James. The evidence examined does point toward a supportable conclusion. G. Kittel appears to be correct in arguing for an early date for the book, in that the source material probably was early, and this means that this material is probably by James the Just. In the light of the Greek idiom used in the work, it is likely that either James received assistance in the editing of the work or that his teaching was edited at a later date (perhaps after his death) as the church spread beyond Jerusalem and began to use Greek more extensively….

The preceding section has argued that James is a two-stage work, an initial series of sermons and sayings, which ostensibly come from James the Just…, and a later redaction of these units into an epistle by either James or a member of the church.

The Epistle of James, if we accept David’s suggestion, is made up of early Christian preaching and proverbs, sermons and sayings written down and edited into a kind of tract or document providing guidance for Christian congregations. James is one example of how, when we read the Bible, we are reading the Word proclaimed. If we who are preachers and teachers would recognize this, perhaps we wouldn’t feel the need so much to analyze and expound, as to seek to find ways to let the scriptures themselves speak.

Next, I have always loved getting a “big picture” of biblical books. The process of learning to read and understand scripture involves getting a good overview of the material, then diving into the details. In studying the details, we then revise our understanding of the book as a whole and how its themes and arguments develop. This is an ongoing process. We move from macro to micro levels and then back again over and over in a continuing circle of reading and interpretation.

As for the big picture of James, Peter Davids contributes wonderful insights that have been of great help to me. I’ll conclude today’s post by giving you my own edited version of his outline, which I think holds up as a good overview of the epistle’s contents.

I encourage you to read through the book of James several times and compare what you read with this outline.

Outline of James

Civil Religion Series: The Other NRA

Tidings, Photo by Daniel Oines

Tidings, Photo by Daniel Oines

Civil Religion, part eight
The Other NRA

Presidential election years in the U.S. provide American Christians an opportunity to reflect upon our faith and how it applies to our lives as citizens and to the public issues that affect us all. We are taking many Tuesdays throughout 2016 to discuss matters like these.

At this point we are looking at the second book for this series: Was America Founded As a Christian Nation?: A Historical Introduction, by John Fea. Fea is Associate Professor of American History and Chair of the History Department at Messiah College in Grantham, Pennsylvania. He blogs at The Way of Improvement Leads Home.

• • •

A 2000 poll of a thousand Americans about their views of religion and government asked this as one of the questions:

Would you favor or oppose a Constitutional amendment which would make Christianity the official religion of the United States?

32%, nearly a third of the respondents, either “strongly favored” or “favored” that statement.

When I first read that, it surprised me. It shouldn’t have. I don’t recall having learned about such efforts before, but historian John Fea informs us that there was a time during the Civil War when amending the Constitution to make Christianity our official religion was a live public question in the United States.

In our last post, we noted that the Confederacy made an explicit point of including God in their Constitution in direct opposition to what they saw as the “godless” U.S. Constitution. This bothered many ministers and Christian leaders in the North. One called the omission of God in the U.S. Constitution “a national sin” and others explained Union military defeats as God’s punishment on the U.S. for neglecting to pay homage to him in its national charter. A group got together and did something about this in 1863.

In 1863 several ministers decided to do something to change this godless Constitution. They met in Xenia, Ohio, and proposed the following amendment to the U.S. Constitution:

WE, THE PEOPLE OF THE UNITED STATES, [recognizing the being and attributes of Almighty God, the Divine Authority of the Holy Scriptures, the law of God as the paramount rule, and Jesus, the Messiah, the Saviour and Lord of all] in order to form a more perfect union, establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and to our posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.

This group of ministers eventually became known as the National Reform Association (NRA). (p. 23)

Fea lists several reasons why the NRA felt such an extraordinary measure to be necessary.

  • Their religious viewpoint held that “the decision to leave references to Christianity out of the Constitution was an ‘error and an evil’ that ‘dishonors God.’”
  • Some proposed that the Civil War itself was God’s punishment for having a “godless Constitution.”
  • Others argued that since the “great majority” of Americans were [Protestant] Christians, the Constitution should reflect this.
  • They pointed to the Constitutions of the states, most of which explicitly invoked God, and some of which still required a religious test for officeholders.
  • They argued that a Christian amendment would be true to the history of our people and government, as this statement from the 1874 NRA national convention affirmed: “This country was settled and its institutions founded by those who believed in God and accepted His Word as the law of their lives.”
  • Many argued that this was an essential step to keep public education “Christian” in the U.S. Some states were considering laws at that time to prohibit Bible reading in public schools. An amendment was necessary, they argued, to fight the forces of secularism that were seeking to “obliterate every Christian feature from existing institutions.”
  • Another danger they saw was immigration, which flourished after the Civil War. This amendment sought to protect the U.S. from what the NRA saw as an invasion of dangerous European ideas such as Catholicism, Marxism, and socialism.

In another article in which he recalls the NRA and their recommendation to amend the Constitution to guarantee America’s status as a “Christian nation,” John Fea reminds us that this debate is nothing new, but has always been part of the fabric of our national conversation.

The movement to add a Christian amendment to the Constitution failed, but this did not derail continued attempts get such an amendment passed. The NRA renewed its platform again in 1894 and 1910 and continued to meet through World War I. In 1947 and 1954 the National Association of Evangelicals promoted an effort to add the following words to the Constitution: “This nation divinely recognizes the authority and law of Jesus Christ, Savior and Ruler of Nations through whom are bestowed the blessings of God Almighty.”

Attempts to make the U.S. Constitution more Christian or to make Christianity the official state religion have been around for a long time.

By the way, John Fea wrote that article in the context of a 2013 effort by North Carolina legislators to make Christianity the official state religion. The impulse to declare America “a Christian nation” has not died out.

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