What about Carbon-14 Dating?

What about Carbon-14 Dating?

Over the past few years, many people have asked us about the various dating methods, and normally the first one to be mentioned is carbon-14. This dating method supposedly proves that the earth is millions of years old, but does it really? Scientists use carbon-14 dating all the time to calculate the age of fossils, but does this method really work and does it really verify the evolutionists’ millions of years? Let’s take a closer look at what carbon-14 is and how it works and maybe then we will have a better understanding of what is does and does not prove.

Carbon-14 is a radioactive substance that is made in the upper atmosphere. When cosmic rays hit the nitrogen-14 atoms, it produces radioactive carbon-14. This carbon-14 is then combined with carbon-12 and is part of the air around us. Unlike carbon-12 which is stable, carbon-14 decays over time and must constantly be replaced. Living organisms are continually taking in carbon-14 and so the ratio between C-14 and C-12 stays the same, but after the organism dies and is no longer taking in C-14, the C-14 level begins to decline. Scientists have theorized that, by measuring the amount of carbon-14 left in the now-dead organism, they can date the time when it died. The less carbon-14 they find, the older the fossil.

Certain presuppositions have to be made by those who use the carbon-14 dating method. J.L. Kulp (not a creationist) writes, “There are two basic assumptions in the radiocarbon method. One is that the carbon 14 concentration in the carbon dioxide cycle [C-14/C-12 ratio] is constant. The other is that the cosmic ray flux has been essentially constant – at least on a scale of centuries” (1). Without these “constants” the whole carbon-14 dating method is unable to function. Both assumptions made by evolutionists about C-14 are questionable. We know, for a fact, that the C-14/C-12 ratio has indeed fluctuated in the past. For example, during the industrial revolution it was altered when large amounts of carbon-12 were added to the atmosphere. No one knows whether or not this confusion of the C-14/C-12 ratio, which happened at the time of the industrial era, has occurred in the past and so this “constant” can not be certain. Also, the rate at which carbon-14 is made in the atmosphere could easily have varied over time. There is a great possibility that before the Flood of Noah’s day, the vapor canopy could have filtered out some of the cosmic radiation that creates carbon-14 (2). This would mean that, before the Flood, there would have been a lot less carbon-14 in the air. The fossils dated from this time period would, therefore, contain less carbon-14 and appear much older than they actually are.

Take the analogy of a candle lit in a near-by room. As you walk into the room, you notice the candle and how it is burning. You wonder how long the candle has been lit and so you decide to study it. There is some wax around the base of the candle and so you measure it. Next you look around the room for a candle snuffer, but you do not see one and so you assume that no one has snuffed out the candle and relit it since the first time it was lit. After sitting in the room for several more minutes and watching the rate at which the wax melts and the wick burns, you decide to calculate the math and determine the time at which the candle was lit. Once your studies are complete, you arrive at the conclusion that this candle was lit six to seven hours ago. Now this story may seem a bit farfetched, but it is very similar to the way in which scientists date fossils with the use of carbon-14. When a scientist begins this process of dating a fossil, he has to rely on certain constants, just as you did when you tried to date the candle in the room. You actually cannot be sure of any of the assumptions you made about your candle, and so it is with carbon-14 dating. You do not know if the wax around the bottom of the candle is all of the wax that the candle had to begin with; for all you know, some wax could have been removed from the base of the candle before you entered the room. The assumption was also made that, because there was no candle snuffer to be seen, that therefore the candle had never been snuffed out, but you do not know this for sure. Your next assumption was that, because the candle was burning at a fixed rate as you watched it, that it must have been burning at that same fixed rate before you entered the room. All of your assumptions, whether relating to the candle or to carbon-14, must be correct for your date to be accurate.

Another area that is often over-looked in regards to carbon-14 dating is that of half-lives. As I previously stated, carbon-14 is radioactive and is in the process of decaying. The rate at which carbon-14 decays is measured in half-lives. Every 5,730 years, half the carbon-14 in fossils is lost. That is called its “half-life”. So, after 11,460 years, the fossil should contain one quarter of its original carbon-14. After about 50,000 years, the amount of carbon-14 in a fossil should no longer be detectable. It is too small a measurement for scientists to calculate. This means that radioactive dating physically cannot give dates of millions of years, because there would be no carbon-14 left after that long a period of time (3). In fact, if a sample contains carbon-14, it is good evidence that it is not millions of year old!

Of course, in all of this, the most important question is: what do the Scriptures say about the age of the earth? Exodus 20:11 says, “For in six days the Lord made the heavens and the earth, the sea, and all that is in them, and rested the seventh day.” The Word is clear that God did not use millions of years, but rather all of Creation took place in six literal days. Carbon-14 dating still has a lot of unanswered questions and assumptions, but the Word of God is always accurate. Even the evolutionists will admit that “The troubles of the radiocarbon dating method are undeniably deep and serious… It should be no surprise, then, that fully half of the dates are rejected. The wonder is, surely, that the remaining half come to be accepted” (4). It is sad how many people merely accept carbon-14 dates as fact, when they are actually founded on evolutionary assumptions. Our foundation, as followers of Christ, must be the Scriptures. May we be ready always to give an answer to every man (1 Peter 3:15).

1. J. L. Kulp, The Carbon 14 Method of Age Determination, Scientific Monthly, November 1952, p. 261.

2. Ken Ham, Andrew Snelling and Carl Wieland, The Answers Book, Master Books, 1990, p. 71.

3. Jonathan Sarfati, Refuting Compromise, Master Books, June 2004, p. 386.

4. R. E. Lee, Radiocarbon, Ages in Error, Anthropological Journal of Canada, March 3, 1981, p. 9.