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The Carbon Dating Myth

Earth from above showing thunderheads above the ocean reflecting sunlight, photo credit: NASA

In American public schools, students are taught that carbon dating is an accurate time-determining method used to establish origin dates for creatures and artifacts. The implication is often given that carbon dating is proof for evolution, due to the claim that if artifacts and fossils date longer than about 6,000 years, then the Bible cannot be true.

People who do not understand how carbon dating works and the assumptions it’s based on believe that it is a valid dating method. The reason for this conviction is simple — they have been convinced of its truth by educators, who were convinced of its truth by the academics. This article is written to help Christians gain some insight into carbon dating, where it came from, how it works, and why it is unreliable.

The earth’s atmosphere is made up of

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  • 78% nitrogen,
  • 21% oxygen,
  • (approx.), 0.06% carbon dioxide,
  • and the remainder is a mixture of “random” gases.

One of these random gases is Carbon-14 (C-14).  It is found in very, very small amounts in earth’s trace gas mixture.

C-14 is a radioactive isotope.

It is produced when the sun’s radioactive energy strikes normal nitrogen gas (N-14) in the earth’s atmosphere. Slowly, this radioactive Carbon-14 breaks apart and decays back into the pre-mentioned atmospheric nitrogen portion.  The process is cyclic, and it occurs constantly in the upper atmosphere.

The time it takes for radioactive carbon material to break down to its normal state is called its half-life. Carbon-14 has a half-life of about 5,730 years on average. That means that half of the radioactivity C-14 present will decay to N-14 in that 5730 year span of time.  This is a calculate half-life value as nobody has been watching Carbon-14 for the last 5730 years.  Science does not know if this is an accurate unremitting value or just a mathematical approximation based on a few decades of observation.

Once the first half of the radioactive carbon is gone, the second half of the remaining C-14 will decay in another 5730 years. Then half of the remaining half will decay in another 5,730 years, and so on. For example, if one gram of C-14 were shelved for 22,920 years, one-eighth gram would remain.  In theory, the C-14 quantity would never go to zero, but the vast majority of the isotope will eventually turn back into Nitrogen-14.

How Carbon-14 affects Dating

Plants breathe in carbon dioxide, so they will take in small traces of C-14 in the form of CO2. Animals eat the plants and make the plant’s resources a part of their body. This means that animals take in small amounts of C-14 through plant ingestion. Since people eat plants or animals that ate plants, people also have traces of C-14 in their bodies. These traces can be detected with an instrument called a Geiger counter or with liquid scintillation counting.

The theory goes that if a scientist tests an object for C-14, and it only has about half the amount of C-14 known to be in the atmosphere (.00003825%), then that object has been dead for about 5,730 years. If he or she finds only a quarter of the expected C-14 in the object, it would have been around for 2 half-lives and would be approximately 11,460 years old.

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But this presumes that the amount of C-14 in the atmosphere never varies.

No consistent amount of C-14 has ever been calculated in the atmosphere, nor is it possible for mankind to do such a thing without having a device that spans the circumference of the earth’s atmosphere in toto. All scientists can do, and all they have ever done, is test the carbon levels in a few areas of earth’s atmosphere via random sampling. They then assume everything else in earth’s atmosphere is homogeneous.

This kind of assumption is presumptuous. It would be like pulling five red jelly beans out of a glass bowl and then assuming the whole dish contained only cherry candies without further investigation.

This creates a serious C-14 problem because all measuring tools require a constant value with which to measure anything. For example, a meter stick requires a trustworthy meter calibration with which to measure meters accurately. In the United States, the National Institute of Standards maintains the benchmark measurements use in science and industry; however, they maintain no standard for Carbon-14 measurement because none exists.

Radioactive carbon, as mentioned earlier, forms in the atmosphere from radiation striking nitrogen atoms. However, this radiation is randomly introduced into the atmosphere. There is no method by which anyone can track this fluctuation. It is impossible to know this amount exactly because the earth’s magnetic field affects how much radiation comes through the atmosphere, and the earth’s magnetic field varies widely over time.

The scientific standard for C-14 in the atmosphere used today for radioactive dating purposes is a complete assumption, not an absolutely known quantity.

Let me stress this point: there is no way to verify a constant rate of comparison for C-14 in the atmosphere. Any reported value is sheer speculation. To build on this idea further, the evolutionist must also assume that plants, animals, and people all match this assumed hypothetical C-14 concentration standard by faith.

Even if it were possible to test for a constant level of C-14 in the air, it would not be possible to test and prove that all life on a planetary scale had the exact same amount. This is why some really wild numbers have appeared in carbon-dated values:

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  • A freshly killed seal was carbon dated to be 1300 years old. ~Antarctic Journal, Vol. 6, Sept-Oct, 1971, p. 211
  • Shells from living snails were carbon dated at 27,000 years old. ~Science, Vol. 224, 1984, p. 58-61

Evolutionists will argue that these wild dates come from a phenomenon of “old carbon” in the water on the ocean floor.  The “old carbon” phenomenon, however, has never been demonstrated. Old dates from “old carbon” ocean bottom samples can result from samples contaminated during the gathering process, making these extremely unreliable. Again, all this assumes that the C-14 in the object being dated is the same as the C-14 in the atmosphere at the time of the organism’s death or the artifact’s origin — and there is no way to verify this correlation whatsoever.

So science cannot determine a constant measuring standard, and it cannot verify that standard measurement in all life on earth. Scientists also realize that if there was a standard, and if it could verify all life for that standard, then the C-14 amounts and the half-life rate of C-14 would have to be constant for thousands or even millions of years to make any calculated values reliable. To measure these things with certainty would require us to develop time travel capability to accurately determine C-14 amounts and decay rate over earth’s history.

Unlike naturalism, Christianity doesn’t need to find some scientifically measurable data to prove it with claims. Instead, the foundation of our beliefs is in the eyewitness testimony of our Creator God. This historical record from God is the main reason why the biblical origins model is far superior to any evolutionary interpretation of Carbon-14 remnants.

Steve Rosenoff with dog portrait

Written by Steve Rosenoff

What I learned by teaching Apologia and my own curriculum content for 20 years and as a research chemist for 23 years before teaching, I bring to the table in my presentations. I have two Masters degrees: One in Science Education and the second in Curriculum Design and Learning. Dr. Jay L. Wile called me, "The best teacher with which he has worked." My first love is Jesus Christ and I have been born again for 52 years; my second love is my wife and our Golden Retriever, Ginger; and my third love is science and science education. You can find my training sessions at Red Wagon Tutorials

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  1. This is wonderful and accurate information!! I have always loved the Bible accounts of creation and the flood!! I am sad that David Rives and the creation show no longer comes on TBN anymore!

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