A few weeks ago I was a scheduled to present several lectures as part of a course offered by Veritas Theological Seminary in Santa Ana, California. The course title was Scientific Apologetics: The Age of the Earth. The course was split 50/50 between speakers from Solid Rock Lectures including myself, and two prominent employees of the young-earth creationist’ organization, Answers in Genesis (AiG). However, just hours before I was to present I was informed that the seminary president had decided I would not be allowed to speak. I had spent the previous two days listening to 11 hours of presentations by the AiG speakers and was prepared to respond to that material in addition to pulling together the strands of thought begun by my colleagues earlier in the week.
Although I was prevented from speaking—why this happened is a topic for another time—I quickly wrote out some of my reflections on the course material presented by the Answers in Genesis speakers. I was able to distribute these reflections to the students in addition to some of the other reading assignments which I had already prepared.
After returning home I examined the reflections originally written hastily in the very early hours of the morning. Subsequently I have edited those thoughts for greater clarity. Below I present this edited version as a glimpse into the world of creation apologetics.
Does the evidence point to a young earth? Some reflections on creationist’ apologetics. By Joel Duff
During the past week you have been presented with numerous evidences for and against a young earth. At one moment it may seem that the evidence points one way and another moment the evidence points in a different direction. I am sure that it must seem very confusing. So which is it and how shall we evaluate these positions?
An overwhelming majority of scientists including most Christians working in scientific fields have concluded that the science evidence conclusively points us to the great antiquity of the earth. However, Dr. Terry Mortenson and Dr. Andrew Snelling from Answers and Genesis reject this conclusion and in their talks steadfastly maintained the debate isn’t about who has supporting facts. Rather it is about how we interpret those facts.
We agree with Dr. Mortenson and Dr. Snelling in principle that how we interpret facts is key to the conclusions we derive from them. However, simply pointing out that there can be multiple interpretations of facts does not make all interpretations equally valid. Some interpretations are not supported either by the facts being interpreted or supported by additional evidence brought to bear from other sources. Furthermore, while we may all have access to the same facts if many are being ignored or we are not incorporating all the evidence into our conclusions then we ought not think that our interpretations are trustworthy.
With respect to the evidence and how it should be interpreted regarding the age of the Earth I make the following observations about the presentations made by the Answers in Genesis team:
Casting Doubt is the First Line of Defense
First, in most cases the physical evidence presented by Dr. Snelling doesn’t so much point to a young earth as it is used to show that the Earth may not be ancient. Suggesting the earth many not be ancient is not the same as building a positive case for a young earth. Ironically, Andrew demonstrated that the majority of dating methods suggest that the Earth is quite old. In many cases the dates may be older or younger than expected by conventional geologists but nonetheless much older than 6000 years. His goal was not to show that dates are young but to suggest that radiometric dating isn’t reliable for producing specific dates.
We—Solid Rock Lectures—believe that radiometric dating can and does yield reliable dates in the majority of situations and we have demonstrated that it is possible to test the criteria—or assumptions—of these methods even while recognizing their limitations. But the point here is that no non-Christian, upon examining the hundreds of thousands of radiometric dates produced, would come to the conclusion that the rocks can’t be more than 4250 years old. Radiometric dating is not a positive evidence for a young earth. Dr. Snelling himself could not provide any reasonable explanation for how radiometric dating could be used as a positive evidence for a young earth. He had to resort to ad hoc hypotheses about changes in rates during the Flood to help force the dates into some conformity with a young Earth. In other words, he has to assume the truth of a young earth and then use that assumption to re-interpret the radiometric data. We will explore his presuppositionalist approach later in this article.
In effect, the strategy of young earth practitioners is to cast doubt on the validity of old earth evidence, but in most cases this does that doubt in an absolute age of the Earth should be equated as support for a young Earth. So where is the evidence for a young Earth? A number of evidences for a global flood were presented. In most of these cases those evidences consisted of possible fulfilled predictions of flood geology theory. However, in addition to some being based on serious misconceptions about the geological record and geological processes, we would submit that at best these evidences suggest only the possibility of a global flood but do not require a global flood. For example, widespread horizontal sand deposits could be interpreted as resulting from a global flood but the fact that similar sediments are formed today on continental shelves under non-global flood conditions tells us that such deposits are not smoking gun evidence that a global flood had to have occurred. Likewise, large collections of fossil bones could have occurred in a global flood but there are equally or more likely explanations that don’t require a global flood for their origins.
The goal of the young earth approach in their use of evidences is to promote a possible alternative reading of the evidence that may make a young earth feasible. But their case is much like the defense attorneys case in the murder trial of New England Patriot’s Aaron Hernandez. The defense, having little data that supported their client, was left to draw attention to a few minor pieces of evidence that suggested the possibility that Hernandez may not have been directly involved. In additional they tried to cast doubt on the other facts that clearly didn’t point to his innocence. In the end, the weight of the combined evidence produced a cohesive and compelling case that left no reasonable doubt in the juror’s minds that he did participate in the murder of Odin Lloyd. To grab a line from another famous trial, the creationist approach is to focus all the attention on one or two points and in Popperian fashion claim that “if the glove doesn’t fit, you must acquit.” Just create doubt and hope that doubt will lead the juror to consider their alternative interpretation.
Presuppositional Apologetics Drive Creationism
This brings me to my second observation. We have witnessed from Dr. Mortenson and Dr. Snelling a clear presuppositional apologetic. They have both made it clear that the starting point for “interpreting” the facts is first knowing the result. They already know the truth and most only find a way to interpret the evidence to support that truth. In my analogy above it is as if they have inside knowledge that Hernandez was absolutely innocent. While a straightforward examination of the data point strongly toward his guilt since they know the truth they can, in good conscience, argue on even the slimmest of evidence that he must be found innocent. They know the truth and so interpretation requires only finding a possible way to connect the dots.
For young earth creationists, the interpretation of Scripture leads them to conclude that the Earth must be young. This foundational interpretation of biblical evidence is combined with the additional inference that all death, fuzzily defined as applying to most animals (see: Plants and the Biblical Definition of Life), must post-date Adam. With those assumptions providing the absolute foundational truth they must stand upon, the only place that they can find to put all that evidence of the death of critters is in a global flood. The Bible says nothing about the origin of rock layers directly nor does it require that a global flood even have significantly altered the entire Earth’s surface. But the flood geology of young earth creationists is asserted to be a necessary belief if one wants to claim to take the Bible literally.
With this set of presuppositions in hand they then turn to the physical evidence. Because God’s creation must be consistent with his Word, a view with which we heartily agree, young earth creationists can boldly claim that all the evidence must point to a young Earth since it is in fact young. We must reiterate that it is crucial for you to recognize that when the young earth creationists approaches the data to interpret these data they already know the answer, as Terry Mortenson emphatically stated, because they have the infallible Word of God backing them up.
Ken Ham clearly stated the same principle in the debate with Bill Nye when asked if there was any evidence that could be produced that would make him rethink the age of the Earth. He answered simply: No. Ham was being very honest, there is NO evidence that could possibly point him to anything but what he already knows which is the Earth is young. Hence, no data can say otherwise! I think there is a huge assumption here about infallible assumptions but let us leave that aside for a discussion on another day.
Young earth creationists claim to “do science” and “love science” but as Andrew Snelling tests his ideas about radionuclides in asteroids what if the results don’t come out as he predicted they would? Will he admit that the evidence can more easily be interpreted as supporting an old Earth? No, and I don’t expect him to. He will by necessity, and without a second thought, reinterpret the data to fit a young earth by looking for any other explanation that fits his presuppositions no matter how much it may seem to be putting a square peg in a round hole. With this reinterpretation complete, creationists can claim that there is no, and will never be, any evidence that supports an old earth. There are times they may admit the data appear to support an old earth but they believe this is only because the data have not been looked at with the right “worldview glasses.” A last resort is to admit the data are hard to interpret as supportive of a young earth but then say we simply don’t know enough to understand how it supports a young earth but we will someday.
Please don’t miss the importance of this point. The evidence is interpreted with the worldview glasses of a young earth on and therefore the evidence is fit into that worldview. In many ways we have witnessed this form of interpretation happening right here in this class and have witnessed how difficult it can be for the young earth creationists to draw up an comprehensive explanation for the physical features of the Earth that fits the data well. The radiometric dating is exceptionally difficult to fit and so we are left with “Well I wish I knew” or “God could have created various starting conditions” or “we were not there” as exasperated responses. We are provided with attempts to cast doubt and suspicion about radiometric dating but no plausible explanation for why most dating methods do provide consistent results.
In addition, floating forests, hydrological sorting, animals running around during the Flood laying eggs and then getting washed away are all attempts to explain the accepted “facts” of the fossil record within a young earth presupposition. In some cases the explanations are only barely plausible and in many cases we believe they are not even that! In many cases their explanations, while possible, are not explanations that are most obvious or likely. In the young earth mind they simply must be the explanation even if they are not likely.
To reiterate, at the end of the day, the young earth approach is more about creating doubt about the Old Earth view than it is producing a strong positive view of a young earth. But lets move on to an even more critical aspect of the YEC apologetic.
Circular Use of Evidence to Support an Evidentialist Approach of Doing Apologetics
The third observation I have builds on the second. All of the discussion of worldview and having the “right” beginning point to interpreting the data is a tacit admission that a straightforward examination of the data doesn’t immediately point to a young earth. YOU HAVE TO BELIEVE IN A YOUNG EARTH BEFORE THE EVIDENCE WILL POINT YOU IN THAT DIRECTION. Philosophically I don’t have a huge problem with this. After all, I identify as more of a Vantillian presuppositionalist myself when it comes to apologetics. But here is what I find disturbing about the approach of Answers in Genesis to the age question. Andrew Snelling and Terry Mortenson have taken a clear presuppositional view to filtering the data of general revelation. But Ken Ham’s enterprise is built on an evidentialist apologetic approach to promoting the gospel message. What is the stated purpose of the Creation Museum and future Ark? To witness to the world that the claims of the Bible are true by showing the world that a global flood and a young earth are “feasible” or “possible.” The evidence of a young earth is presented to convince the unbeliever that the Bible may be right after all, in all its teachings. It is hoped that once the unbeliever is struck by the truth that the Bible speaks on the topic of the age of the earth they will then come to see the truth of the salvific message of the Bible.
Do you see what is happening here? The unbeliever is told they don’t have the right glasses to interpret the data but the Creation Museum is claiming the evidence from the world shows the Earth is young. But as we have seen the evidence only points to a young earth if you already know that the Earth is young. These are mixed messages. Ken Ham gives talks and states that there are “hundreds of evidences” that point to a young earth. This is factually incorrect. Most of those evidences do not point to a 6000 year old earth but at best only suggest the possibility that the Earth that is not billions of years old even when you have your young earth glasses on.
I find it troubling that Christians are being told, or at least strongly given the impression, that all the evidence points to a young earth and that this is something they can lean upon to strengthen their faith or even find faith. In fact, if AiG is correct in their original presupposition that the earth is young I will grant that all the evidence really should point to a young earth because it must. But, as an apologetic for why one should believe the Bible you can’t use data that have been massaged to fit the Bible message to prove the Bible is correct. This is a circular apologetic that AiG in particular is especially prone to follow. Again, I would stress that I am not adverse to the use of presuppositional apologetics but it should not be used inappropriately.
So Does the Evidence Really Point to a Young Earth?
So again, we ask; does the evidence point to a young earth? I think that it does so ONLY if you first assume the Earth is young and even then it only points that way very very dimly, and only if you cherry pick your starting data. But as Christians, should we not expect more? Shouldn’t we expect that if the Earth were young that it would be obvious? Shouldn’t it be obvious even to the unbeliever even if they may want to believe the world is vastly older? Why have most people, including a large majority of Christians involved with the collection of the data being discussed, over the past several hundred years concluded that the Earth is more than 6000 years old? Because they are atheist? Because they hate God and want to deny Him as creator? No, because the most obvious interpretation of the vast majority of the evidence is that it points to an ancient earth. Many, and here I disagree with Dr. Mortenson’s assessment of the history of deep time discovery, devout Christians over the past 300 years have struggled with the data that was in front of their eyes. They have worked with worldview glasses on that should have led them to believe the Earth is young but they have not been able to deny the evidence that so clearly pointed in a different direction. They discovered the evidence and they were not being bullied by others to change their minds. They lived in environments that promoted a young earth and thus had nothing to gain by expressing doubt but doubt they did because of how obvious the evidence was that the Earth was indeed ancient.
The simplest explanation for layers of rock or vast distances of light, or millions of craters on the moon and Mars is that these must have taken a long time to have formed. No one is going to look at these things and immediately jump to the conclusion that they are young. Now, after they conclude they are very old they may find that this belief fits their secular worldview but their secular worldview isn’t necessarily such an overriding force that the obvious nature of thing doesn’t show forth itself. Creation should speak of God and does point to God and the fact that creation is most simply interpreted as being ancient should mean something. Common grace allows the non-Christian to discover many truths of God’s creation. The average person with little background in science can see volcanoes and extrapolate in their minds how long it must have taken for them to form and thus come to the simple solution that they are old. Now, it could be true that the past was different from today but observations and testing of that hypothesis has shown that this is not likely and would not help to explain the observed evidence around us anyway. We should not be surprised that the world doesn’t look out and see evidence of a young Earth.
Our concern for seminary students and those that will stand and speak for God is that they must be bold where they should be bold but cautious where they need to be cautious. They may believe, as Dr. Mortenson does, that the Earth MUST be young and therefore this data MUST be constrained to fit that worldview. But we must be careful to realize that the average person is going to be exposed to thousands of evidences in their lifetime that on the face of it or by simple common sense will lead them to conclude that the Earth may be older than 6000 years. By simply asserting that the “all the evidence points to a young Earth” and therefore you must believe, the new believer or non-Christian is placed in the position of seeing a disconnect between God’s general revelation and this command to believe. Ironically, young earth creationists portray their view as the simple interpretation of Scripture but then turn around and deny the simple message of general revelation requiring instead a highly contorted set of assumptions and complicated theories to understand how the Earth could be young.
We need not make light of the obvious characteristics of the world which speak of great age as if we can just wave the magic wand of putting on the right Biblical glasses it will all be made clear. The fact is that it isn’t at all made clear. Hundreds of years of history makes it very “clear” that the evidence for a young earth is far from obvious even when you start with the belief that the evidence must support a young earth. Why have so many great Christians “fallen away” from this truth as Dr. Mortenson pointed out? Maybe it wasn’t that this was their one area of great weakness but rather it was because over and over again a close inspection of the physical and biblical evidence by Christians has revealed that neither absolutely demands that the Earth be young and thus the age of the Earth is left to exploration and testing.