Harmony of Bible and Science Presented in a Series of Articles
09 Creation of the Earth
Bible and Science – The of the Earth
Hast thou perceived the breadth of the earth? (Job 38:18)
Having spent eight chapters writing about the first verse in Genesis we will now turn our attention to other aspects of the creation story. We are introduced to planet earth by the words: And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep (Gen. 1:2). It is obvious that the earth was already in existence prior to the first recorded day of the Adamic creation. That it was without form and void follows precisely what we now know about the earth’s geological history, although the scriptures do not express it in scientific language. Naturally this is hardly surprising since the Bible was not meant to be a geophysics textbook. In this chapter we will look at when, how, and in what condition the earth was originally created.
Ideas about how the earth was formed
When was the earth created? Evidence from radioactive decay studies appears to give a dating of about 4.5 billion years. Such a long time period troubles many Bible students because they feel it gives credence to the arguments of evolutionists. Fear not; we hope to prove otherwise when we deal with the theory of evolution in later stages of these essays. We will briefly review how the earth formed in the first place and explore the reasons for such dating without getting (hopefully) too technical (professional geologists please forgive me!). Finally, we will look at many of the physical features of planet earth, which make it uniquely suited for life, as we know it.
How the earth originated is still an unsolved mystery among scientists. There was a time, not too long ago, when scientists thought the earth, and all the planets in our solar system sprang from the effect of gravitation working upon the eddy currents that could have occurred in the huge gaseous cloud of stellar matter that led to the formation of our Sun. Geological evidence leads to the conclusion that the earth, and probably our whole solar system, is much younger than the universe.
Gaseous condensation isn’t the only theory. Another is that a more dramatic local event was the means that nucleated all the planets. This theory envisages the planets were torn from the Sun by tidal forces excited by an encounter with another star that passed through this portion of the Milky Way galaxy some 4.5 billion years ago.
The idea of the creation of the universe and that of our own planet as happening at two different times is not at all in conflict with the scriptures; the exact means that the LORD used are simply unspecified in the text.1 The Bible indicates that the creation of the earth was long ago (Gen. 1:1) and that it was originally lifeless, and in fact did not have the ability to sustain life (Gen. 1:2) when the angelic (elohim) host proceeded with the creation of the present dispensation. Now let’s address the question of the age of planet earth in more detail.
Dating with rock layers
How do scientists deduce the age of the earth? It is not as straightforward as using the information from light gathered from distant galaxies that gave us an estimate for the age of the universe. The two major methods are from the study of rock formations and the other from observations of radioactive nuclear decay.
The first involves looking at the layering of rocks due to sedimentation. This is akin to measuring the rings in the trunk of a tree to determine its age. Rock formations along deep river beds, or even in the realm of long dormant river valleys, can be shown to cause alternate layering of soil from annual flooding. The soil eventually compacts as the weight of material above increases and, in the course of time, pressure and heat will create rock. The nature of the rock will naturally vary depending on the local chemical structure of the soil. One can get anything ranging from the white limestone cliffs of Dover to the granite of Vermont.
Examining rock layers was the original geological dating method developed in the 18th and 19th centuries, which led to a maximum age for the earth of several hundred million years. However, this method is not without its problems as it assumes uniformity in deposition which would exclude earthquakes, volcanic action, massive flooding and the possibility of dramatically different climate conditions in the distant past. Of course we now know that the earth has indeed had dramatically different climate conditions (even without Noah’s flood). There have been ice ages (when of course no sedimentation could occur) and the continents themselves have not always been in their present positions, which implies enormously different climatic conditions.
Dating by decay of isotopes
The second, more modern, method of deducing age is from the radioactive decay of uranium isotopes into the element lead.
The rate at which a radioactive isotope decays is measured by its half-life–that is, the time required for half the atoms in the isotope to decay into another isotope. Lead isotope 206 is formed from uranium isotope 238, which has a half-life of about 4.5 billion years. Lead-207 is formed from uranium-235, which has a half-life of 700 million years. Scientists can measure the amounts of these isotopes in a rock sample and then calculate the rock’s age from the ratio of lead-206 to uranium-238, the ratio of lead-207 to uranium-235, and the ratio of lead-206 to lead-207. Similar calculations can be made using other radioactive isotopes.2
As an example, let us assume that there was initially 100 milligrams of uranium 238 in a particular rock sample. In 4.5 billion years half of that 100 milligrams will have decayed to lead 206. Hence, if today we were to take a sample of uranium out of the ground and measure 50 milligrams of uranium 238 isotope, and 50 milligrams of lead 206, it had to take 4.5 billion years for this 50/50 mix to occur. Assuming that uranium was on the earth from its foundation, and that absolutely none of the uranium had decayed prior to earth’s formation, then an age of 4.5 billion years is appropriate. Finally, the amounts of these isotopes are very small so the accuracy of observation leads to a significant spread in the data. Nevertheless, measurements of other types of radioactive decay come to more or less the same conclusion; hence most scientists feel comfortable with an age of 4.5 billion years. There is no need for Bible students to think otherwise nor should seemingly immense age concern us (Psa. 68:33).
Reconfiguration of the planet
Now the earth was not always in its present form. If one looks carefully at a map of the world and ponders (with a little imagination) it is readily conceivable that the continents in the Western Hemisphere could possibly (with a little trimming here and there) be cradled into the European and African landmasses. In fact, the continents are all adrift floating on the liquid-like rock of the earth’s mantle. This idea is called plate tectonics and has only relatively recently been accepted by scientists.
The tectonic plates do not correspond exactly with the continents, but comprise some sections that are offshore in the oceans at certain points. It is the motion of these tectonic plates that causes dramatic earthquakes. It is now thought that at sometime in the distant past all the land plates forming the present continents were joined together in one gigantic land mass. And God said, “Let there be an expanse between the waters to separate water from water” (Gen. 1:6).
In the past, Bible critics who thought the landmasses and oceans were always in their present position scoffed at this verse. We now know differently. The dividing of the continents is absolutely essential for life, as we know it, to be possible on this planet. If all the continents were crunched together and the remainder of the planet oceans; weather patterns would be completely different. Scientists have speculated that certain regions would be swamped with precipitation and vast areas of this mega continent’s interior would be barren desert. Naturally, the social consequences would have also been vastly different if all mankind lived on the same continuous land mass.
Location in the Milky Way is critical
There are many other aspects of our planet’s existence that should cause us to wonder. The location of the solar system is on the far fringe of the Milky Way galaxy. If our planetary system were nearer the galactic core, the density of nearby stars would be so great that there would be little difference in the sky’s illumination between night and day. The constant light would be annoying and agricultural growth cycles markedly different, but we might be able to adjust to it. However, the intense high-energy cosmic radiation that would happen, if we were nearer the center of the galaxy, surely would make our type of life impossible. The severe radiation nearer the core of the galaxy would guarantee that birth defects and cancer would afflict virtually every one of us.
Even here, on the periphery of the Milky Way, ionizing radiation from our own sun would destroy us if it weren’t for the earth’s magnetic field deflecting most of this threat and parking it in space in what is called the Van Allen belts.3 Thus, galactic location and the earth’s magnetic field are critical factors permitting life on this planet.
Venus and Mars illustrate Earth’s critical balance
The balance in these physical conditions is not the only “fine-tuned” aspect of our planet that makes life not only possible, but also abundant (there are more than a million4 different species on earth). In recent years, the study of the other planets in the solar system has been greatly expanded by the use of space probes combined with much improved methods of assessing local chemistry.
The earth’s gravity is just sufficient to retain oxygen and neutral nitrogen gases in proportions that perfectly balance to sustain both plant and animal life. Just a small increase or decrease in oxygen level and we would soon find life unsustainable. Even the level of dilute gases in our atmosphere is critical. For example, carbon dioxide which comprises less than one percent is absolutely essential for plant life. Yet minutely small increases in the carbon dioxide concentration in the atmosphere could eventually change the cloud cover to virtually a 100% continuous canopy. Such a cloud cover would absorb solar energy and ultimately increase the surface temperature of the earth hundreds of degrees (the so-called greenhouse effect).
The two closest planets to Earth are Mars and Venus. Some comparisons with these neighbors make us keenly aware of what a fine line there is between a place of sustainable life and a planet of death. Venus is somewhat closer to the Sun than Earth and is just slightly smaller in planetary diameter. Thus its gravity is slightly less than that of Earth, yet it has held onto a wider mixture of atmospheric gases than our planet and pure oxygen gas seems conspicuously absent. The prime components of the atmosphere of Venus are carbon dioxide, nitrogen, water vapor, argon, carbon monoxide, neon, and sulfur dioxide. Such a mixture of gases would not be breathable for most animal species on Earth. Moreover, the Venus atmospheric cloud cover is complete and impenetrable; sunlight never reaches the surface. The average surface temperature is 8600F (4600C), which makes for a very hot day at the beach. But we wouldn’t want to swim in the oceans of Venus to cool off because they are composed of liquid methane instead of water!
The situation is somewhat different on Mars, which has a diameter about half that of earth’s and thus its gravity is considerably weaker. Naturally, we would weigh a lot less on Mars than on Earth and certain sports could be played with enormous energy. However, this low gravity also means that Mars is almost devoid of breathable atmosphere. Long ago, almost all the atmospheric gases that may have once existed on this planet probably evaporated into outer space.5 The lack of an atmosphere also makes it difficult to ameliorate temperature variations between night and day and from equator to polar regions. The low gravity also seems to be responsible for the apparent lack of any bodies of water on Mars (or liquid bodies of any chemical composition). Temperatures on Mars vary between -230 to 600F (-140 to 200C), which could make for very chilly winters indeed.
Whether any form of life (including microbes) exists on Mars or Venus is still being explored by unmanned space craft probes,6 but what is abundantly clear is that both planets hold no inducement for leisurely vacation or retirement development! That planets so close by, within the range of orbital diameters around the sun that should allow for sufficient solar energy, and with comparable gravity, should be so inhospitable to animal life is surely a disappointment to many scientists. Nonetheless, by comparing conditions on Earth to these neighboring planets we can clearly see that either we are again incredibly lucky or something else was at work to make Earth fit for the countless number of living species that occupy this habitat.
Bible does not give scientific detail
The exact mechanisms whereby the Lord God, through the agency of the elohim, formed the earth and made it suitable for life are not spelled out in detail in Genesis, neither should we expect them to be. I cannot emphasize too strongly that the scriptures were not meant to be a scientific textbook, as what was written had to be understood by mankind for many thousands of years before our time. The level of sophistication used by the Bible in discussing creation might not please modern scientific thought, but neither is it based on preposterous rhetoric that we could clearly ignore. While pagans believed that a god, the famed Atlas of Greek mythology, or the divine elephant of Hindu legend, was holding up the earth and sky, the scriptures presented a very different scenario.
It is he that sitteth upon the circle of the earth, and the inhabitants thereof are as grasshoppers; that stretcheth out the heavens as a curtain, and spreadeth them out as a tent to dwell in (Isa. 40:22).
The Hebrew word here translated as “circle” is used only this one time in the scriptures and the image it projects (inhabitants …as grasshoppers) is perfectly in line with a view of the earth one could only achieve from space. How could Isaiah possibly have written such words about planet earth without divine inspiration?
Naturally, scientists would prefer to have direct observational evidence of the means whereby the earth was created, but mankind wasn’t there to record the events (Job 38:4) and what we know about the formation of the earth is either gleaned from extrapolating current physical evidence or by accepting on faith the Word of God. We shouldn’t discount physical evidence a priori, but neither should we dismiss faith. Faith in the Word of God is not a blind faith, but one based on abundant scriptural evidence (as with the Isaiah 40:22 passage) that should convince us of the divine hand. The Bible unequivocally states that this planet was created by the Lord (Jer.10:12 and Psa. 102:25 among others) and incorporated into that design was a delicate balance of nature fit for life (Job 38:5-41; Psa. 135:6, 7). We will explore these issues further, God willing, as we examine the Genesis 1 creation story in more detail in future chapters of our essays.
By John C. Bilello, Ann Arbor, Michigan
1 In the beginning simply implies – prior to the work of the seven days of creation revealed in Genesis Chapter 1. There is nothing said in Gen. 1:1 that forces us to assume that the heavens and specifically our planet earth had both to be created at the same exact instant.
2 World Book Encyclopedia © Electronic Edition
3 This protective magnetosphere deflects particles towards the magnetic poles of the earth and away from almost all the inhabited regions. This effect was discovered in 1958 by James Van Allen on data analyzed from the Explorer I satellite, hence the appellation.
4 Actually more like 10 million species would be appropriate; there are 250,000 species of beetles alone.
5 Mars has a dilute atmosphere of carbon dioxide, nitrogen, argon, oxygen, carbon monoxide, neon, krypton, xenon, and water vapor.
6 As of this writing (January 27, 2004) the European Space Agency probe to Mars (ironically named the Beagle after the sailing ship that took Darwin on his famous voyage) has apparently failed to perform. The NASA Spirit and Opportunity Rovers have sent spectacular pictures of the Mars surface and are scheduled to hunt for past or present signs of life in the form of microbes or fossils. Both probes were deliberately programmed for landings in regions of relatively smooth topology suggesting the presence of a past body of liquid (water?), the supposed best place to find evidence for living entities.