By the early 1800s European geologists (many of them devout Christians) realized that the rock layers they observed had to be far older than the 6000 years allowed by a literal interpretation of Bible chronology. For instance, as discussed here , angular unconformities like that shown below could not been formed in the course of the one-year-long Flood of Noah.
Angular Unconformity at Siccar Point, Scotland. Siccar Point, Scotland (Photo: Wikipedia “Hutton’s Unconformity”)
Numerous other evidences for an old earth have been observed by scientists over the past two hundred years. These include fossil soils, and massive deposits of salt and of limestone in the midst of sedimentary rock layers, and tens of thousands of annual layers in lake bottom deposits (“varves”) and in glaciers (see Some Simple Evidences for an Old Earth). We can trace, in reasonable detail, the movements of the sections of earth’s crust over the past half-billion years. The common ancestry of living things (implying that humans descended from other primates) is established by many lines of evidence (see, e.g. 29+ Evidences for Macroevolution: The Scientific Case for Common Descent ).
Nevertheless, something like 20%-40% (depending on how the questions are phrased) of Americans believe that the earth and its plants and animals were formed less than 10,000 years ago. The table below is an excerpt of the results from a 2008 Harris poll. It shows a large minority rejecting the findings of modern science in favor of a recent, supernatural creation.
How is this possible? The Harris poll identified the generally weak scientific knowledge in the American public as a key contributing factor. However, that is only part of the explanation.
Creationist Organizations Spread Their Message
The major driver for the popularity of young earth (YE) creationist beliefs is the ongoing activities of organizations such as Answers in Genesis, Institute for Creation Research, Creation Research Society, and Creation Ministries International. These groups energetically publish books, journals, magazines and web articles to promote their message. Here is an example of a glossy quarterly put out by Answers in Genesis:
Answers magazine, Oct-Dec 2014 issue
Like many of the YE creationist magazines aimed at the general public, this issue has a large, colorful photo of an animal on the cover. In this case it is an Allosaurus. Various articles in this magazine tell readers that the physical facts (including dinosaur fossils) are best explained by a recent creation, and that any interpretation of the Bible other than YE creationism is untenable.
Most of these organizations also send out speakers to promote their message. I have first-hand experience of how effective these presentations can be. In the 1970’s I attended lectures by John Whitcomb. Whitcomb was a co-author of The Genesis Flood (1961), the book which launched the modern YE creationist movement. This encounter with Whitcomb converted me, for a time, to his view that the earth was created only about 6000 years ago and that most of the sedimentary rock layers were laid down in Noah’s worldwide Flood. He presented a number of evidences (e.g. failures of radiometric dating, polystrate fossils, fossils out of order, etc.) to demonstrate that the geologists were wrong to claim that the earth is many millions of years old. It was encouraging to me as a Christian to be told that the physical evidence showed the Bible was right (and the secularists were wrong) on origins. It was some years later that I learned enough about the science to realize that none of these young earth evidences are valid.
I recently noticed that young earth (YE) creationist author Jonathan Sarfati would be giving a presentation at a church within driving distance of where I was, so I decided to drop in and check it out. I have read many books and articles by young earth (YE) creationists in the past decade, but had not heard a young earth speaker in person since those lectures by Whitcomb forty years ago.
Dr. Sarfati is one of several speakers from Creation Ministries International who have been crisscrossing America on an “Exposing Evolution’s Fatal Flaws” tour. He was born in Australia and was educated in New Zealand, earning a PhD in physical chemistry. He has been active promoting YE creationism for many years. He has authored a number of books, including Refuting Evolution, which has reportedly sold 450,000 copies, making it the best-selling YE creationist book ever. He is also a chess master. He was chess champion of New Zealand, and achieved a draw against former world chess champion Boris Spasky in tournament play. He has played up to twelve opponents at once in exhibitions where he is blindfolded and faced away from the chess boards and is only told the opponents’ moves. He is obviously a bright man.
First Session: The rest of the Bible demands treating Genesis as literal history, with recent six-day creation
Dr. Sarfati seems to be a highly capable YE creationist advocate, so I was interested in what he had to say. Dr. Sarfati had a well-honed presentation, with professional-quality slides. His demeanor was pleasant but serious. The presentation was divided into three sessions. The first two sessions were lectures with slides, first on Bible interpretation and then on scientific issues. The final session was an extended question and answer time. In order to convey the experience of this presentation, I will first describe what happened in the three sessions. Afterwards, I will offer my assessment on the validity of what was said.
In this first session, he went through a number of Bible passages, arguing that Christians must take the Genesis creation account to be literally true – creation of the world about 6000 years ago and special creation of animals and of humans (no human common ancestry with other primates). All animals (this would include lions, sharks, etc.) were originally vegan, only eating “green plants” (per Gen. 1:30). There was no human or animal death until after Adam and Eve ate the forbidden fruit. Carnivory only appeared after the Fall. He branded Christians who don’t embrace this literal interpretation of Genesis as “compromisers”.
To support this contention, Dr. Sarfati cited a number of passages where the author or speaker seemed to allude to the Genesis creation story as if it had actually occurred as written. These passages included Mark 10:6-9, Exodus 20:8-11, I Cor. 15:21-22, Romans 8:19-22, Isaiah 11:6-9, Isaiah 65:25 , and John 3:12.
Second Session: An attempt to disprove evolutionary science
After the break, Dr. Sarfati presented scientific evidence related to evolution. He showed various slides and videos demonstrating the intricacy of the molecular “machines” which operate within the cell to perform, e.g. duplication of DNA and synthesis of proteins. To have functioning life requires many things working together. It does not seem reasonable that all this complexity could have assembled by itself randomly, so natural selection cannot explain first life.
He told us that substantial lengths of dinosaur DNA have been found in dinosaur bones, yet scientific studies show that DNA decomposes within some thousands of years. Therefore, these bones cannot be millions of years old. This was Dr. Sarfati’s most powerful scientific evidence for a young earth, and it seemed to impress his audience. (It is also untrue, as we will discuss below).
He noted that to go from simple bacteria to vertebrates like humans requires an increase in information content. He pointed out that the breeding of dogs for e.g. short vs. long fur does not involve new genetic information, but is merely the sorting of existing genes.
Dr. Sarfati then proceeded to mislead his audience as to the availability of evolutionary mechanisms to increase genetic information. He characterized mutations as just making things worse (“going downhill”), so they cannot be a source of new information: “A typo [copying error] only makes things worse”.
Final Session: Question and Answer Period
The final portion of the workshop was a Q&A session. Dr. Sarfati made it clear at the outset that he did not welcome depth dialog. He stated that any question was welcome, “as long as it is really a question”. With that rule of engagement, he could shut scientists like me down from giving the audience the full information on an issue by interrupting and saying, “OK, so what is your question?” He could then give a pat half-truth answer and move on. So it did not seem productive for me to ask a question.
The first question from the audience was: How do evolutionists explain the DNA found in dinosaurs? Dr. Sarfati replied that they don’t seem to have any explanation; they just point to “unknown mechanisms”. He then flashed a slide showing some rates of decomposition of DNA at various temperatures, explaining that scientists have measured these rates and obtained chemical kinetics for them. This gave the impression that there is a single, standard, well-established rate of DNA decomposition, which precludes the survival of any DNA after millions of years.
Dr. Sarfati had stock answers for other questions. For instance, an obvious problem for young earth creationism is all the light that we can see coming from stars and galaxies and stellar explosion events which are millions of light-years away. When someone asked him about this, he did not directly answer it. Rather, he parried the question by replying that the Big Bang has its own problem with starlight – the “horizon problem”.
Another big problem for a young earth are all the radioactive dating measurements, the vast majority of which give self-consistent dates for a given rock. These dates are often millions or billions of years old. His response to a question about this was to claim that the YE creationist RATE program had found evidence of faster radioactive decay in the past.
Dr. Sarfati claimed that the fossil record does not support Darwinian evolution but rather special creation, and claimed specifically that australopithecine fossils are more different from both humans and apes than humans and apes are from each other, and thus are not valid representatives of ape/human intermediate species. To support that claim, he cited a quote from scientist Charles Oxnard to the effect that australopithecines are “further from both chimpanzees and humans than chimpanzees and humans are from each other”.
Brief Assessment of the Presentation
Dr. Sarfati’s scriptural case and his scientific case for a young earth are both deeply flawed. To dig through all this in full detail would require an entire book. In the two lengthy Appendices below I will point out the most basic mistake in his Bible treatment, and will note most of the errors in his science.
I did not talk directly with the folks who attended this presentation, but I would guess that they came away feeling more confirmed in their young earth views. Unless the audience had some science background and took the trouble to seriously assess the back-and-forth arguments on young/old earth issues like radioactive dating and fossils, his presentation would leave them with the impression that the physical evidence shows that the earth actually is young. And if one does not grasp the scientific picture, there is little motivation to think past simplistic literalism in Bible interpretation.
As noted earlier, the physical evidence for an old earth and for macroevolution is consistent and pervasive. However, it takes some careful thought to evaluate it properly. For instance, the occurrence of thousands of viral insertions at the same spots in human and chimp genomes is extremely powerful evidence for common ancestry (see here), but it is not something that is easily conveyed in a 30-second sound bite.
Unfortunately, Christians who have imbibed the young earth viewpoint will likely not have the motivation, energy, and capacity to really sift through the physical evidence that challenges their comfortable paradigm. There is a vicious cycle involved here – – believers who fear that an old earth threatens their faith will find it nearly impossible to give real science a fair hearing, and so they stay locked into the YE view. For me, a PhD research scientist, it was a multi-year, emotionally-fraught process to realize that neither the YE creationists nor the Intelligent Design proponents were telling the truth (see Evolution and Faith: My Story, Part 1 ).
Dr. Sarfati and his colleagues are sincerely working to try to support the faith of Christians in the face of modern science, and in many cases they accomplish their goal. YE creationist web sites display glowing testimonials by believers who were greatly comforted to be told that the physical evidence supports their simple, traditional understanding of Genesis, and that all the messy suffering and evil in nature and present human relations can be neatly explained away as the consequences of Adam’s sin. I myself remember the warm glow of certainty and coherence I felt in my former days as a YE creationist.
However, when Christians who have been told that a young earth view is an essential part of the faith realize that that view is based squarely on falsehood, the impact on their faith can be devastating. As Christian students in secular colleges engage in depth with genuine geology or biology, thousands of them find that all the physical evidence shows that the earth is actually old, and that humans actually physically evolved from other primates. Since speakers like Dr. Sarfati have taught them that “If an old earth or evolution is true, the Bible is false”, many of these students logically conclude that, since the earth is old and evolution is true, therefore the Bible must be false. Christian geology and biology professors routinely report disillusioned YE creationist students coming to their office in tears.
Also, most scientifically educated people will be unable to give the gospel a fair hearing, if they are told that a recent, sudden creation is an essential part of Christianity. A missionary to the former Soviet Union has lamented:
The worst aspect of YECS [Young Earth Creation Science] teaching is that it creates a nearly insurmountable barrier between the educated world and the church… How many have chosen to give up their faith altogether rather than to accept scientific nonsense or a major reinterpretation of Scripture? How much have we dishonored our Lord by slandering scientists and their reputation? How much have we sinned against Christian brothers holding another opinion by naming them “dangerous” and “compromisers”?
The scientific literacy of the mass of Americans remains at a relatively low level, which leaves them vulnerable to the advocacy of the YE creationist organizations. These groups show no sign of slowing down, so YE creationism will likely remain influential for many years to come.
It is very difficult to get an adult to change his or her opinion on a core value, such as politics or religion. However, younger people may be more open to considering a range of views before locking into one position. It is possible for a high school or college science teacher to become more effective in confuting the young earth/anti-evolution teachings that students may be exposed to at home. As time permits, the teacher should be aware of the specific claims made by YE creationists (e.g. “radioactive dating is unreliable” or “mutations only make things worse” or “the fossil record does not show intermediate species”) and present material in class which specifically refutes these claims.
Various resources are available for this task. The National Center for Science Education has a page with many links to resources for classroom teachers. That page includes, for instance, a link to a Berkeley article which lists and corrects many common misconceptions regarding evolution.
There are articles on this blog deal with related topics such as transitional fossils, the Cambrian explosion, junk DNA, beneficial mutations and increases in genetic information, “out-of-order” fossils, fossils of pre-humans, genetic evidence for chimp/human common ancestry, geology of the Grand Canyon, soft tissue in dinosaur fossil bones, straightforward evidences for an old earth, and proposed evidences for a young earth.
Although it hasn’t been updated much in the past decade, the most comprehensive list of YE creationist claims, with rebuttals, is at TalkOrigins. Old Earth Ministries has a shorter list which is more focused on geological issues.
In 2010 Dr. Sarfati published another anti-evolution book, titled The Greatest Hoax on Earth? Refuting Dawkins on Evolution. This book makes many of the usual YE creationist claims. The book is critically reviewed, chapter by chapter, in a series of 2013-2014 posts at “greatesthoaxonearth.blogspot.com”. These posts contain a great deal of general information refuting young earth assertions.
APPENDIX A. Assessment of the Science Claims in the Presentation
I will remark here on most of the scientific claims made by Dr. Sarfati in his presentation. There is an intrinsic asymmetry problem with addressing the alleged evidences for a young earth — it may take the YE creationist only a few seconds to make some claim (e.g. “the Big Bang has its own problem with starlight” or “the fossil record does not support Darwinian evolution”), but it often requires many minutes to refute the claim, since a good deal of background science must be brought in. This makes it difficult to counter the glib, well-honed claims of YE advocates.
This is why it is pointless to try to engage in an oral debate with YE creationists. They can rattle off false talking points far faster than a genuine scientist can possibly correct them. My lengthy treatment here of some of the scientific points raised by Dr. Sarfati will illustrate this asymmetry – – it takes many paragraphs to explain why some of his one-liners are erroneous.
( a ) DNA in Dinosaur Bones
The key researcher in this area is Professor Mary Schweitzer. Dr. Sarfati’s claim that substantial amounts of dinosaur DNA have been found is based on her 2013 paper in the journal Bone. Her team found that some chemical staining agents, which bind to DNA, stained certain regions in the cells in a T. Rex bone. This result is consistent with the presence of some dinosaur DNA, but it is by no means certain that this is actually dinosaurian DNA. Again and again over the past twenty years scientists have claimed to have discovered dino DNA, only to be proven wrong. The only way to be sure this is actually dino DNA is to get it sequenced (i.e. determine the sequence of the “letters” of the DNA code along the strand).
However (and this is something that Dr. Sarfati did not tell us), the amount of DNA in the dino cells was so meager that nothing could be recovered for sequencing, and so we do not know if this is actual dinosaur DNA. In fact, only about 15-20% of the dinosaur cells showed any response to staining, and for those that did respond, the staining was very faint. These stains did not require very long sequences of DNA (only 10-20 base pairs) for binding. For reference, the human genome has about 3 billion base pairs.
Schweitzer herself has made it clear that it is premature to claim that authentic dinosaur DNA has been found [March 2016 interview, http://phys.org/news/2016-03-dino-dna.html ]:
The challenge isn’t necessarily in finding DNA [in the bones], it’s in making a strong case that the DNA is dinosaurian in origin by ruling out other sources. Is it possible that we may someday recover authentic DNA from dinosaur bone? The scientific answer is “yes”…..all things are possible until disproven. Have we disproven this possibility? No. Have we recovered “authentic” dinosaur DNA? No.
Dr. Sarfati presented a slide with some numbers for the rate of decomposition of DNA at various temperatures. These numbers showed that DNA would completely decompose in a matter of thousands of years. Therefore, if any fragments of dino DNA remained in the dino bones, these bones could not possibly be tens of millions of years old. He presented these rates of DNA decomposition as “chemical kinetics”, implying these were appropriately measured, reliable rates which defined the rate of DNA loss in dino bones.
However, this is completely false. All we can say with certainty about the rate of decomposition of DNA in bones in the ground is “They vary wildly”. This is true in general for the decay of biological substances. For instance, as discussed here all the flesh can decay from the face of a human corpse in a month under warm, humid conditions. On the other hand, a 2200-year-old corpse was discovered in a peat bog in Denmark with the face in largely perfect condition. This means that bog-man’s flesh decayed more than 25,000 times slower (one month vs 2200 years) than observed for other corpses. This illustrates the extreme differences that are possible for biological decomposition.
Tomas Lindahl [T. Lindahl, “Instability and Decay of the Primary Structure of DNA.” Nature 362(6422):709-715. 1993] reviewed the literature for DNA decomposition in water, concluding, “Fully hydrated DNA is spontaneously degraded to short fragments over a time period of several thousand years at moderate temperature.” However, even for these laboratory studies, the rate of decomposition could vary by a factor of 5-10, depending on the ionic strength (salts concentration). Also, factors such as dehydration, adsorption on bone pore surfaces, and exclusion of air make it impossible to directly apply these test-tube results to the survival of DNA in actual dinosaur fossils. So again, there is no one single authentic DNA decomposition rate.
Probably the most comprehensive study to date on the decay of DNA in fossil bones was made on leg bones of extinct giant moa birds in New Zealand [ “The half-life of DNA in bone: measuring decay kinetics in 158 dated fossils“, Morten E. Allentoft, et al. Proc. R. Soc. B (2012) 279, 4724–4733]. The 158 leg-bones, which were between 600 and 8,000 years old, were recovered from three sites within 3 miles of each other. Here are the data:
Residual DNA in fossil moa leg bones [ “The half-life of DNA in bone: measuring decay kinetics in 158 dated fossils”, Morten E. Allentoft, et al. Proc. R. Soc. B (2012) 279, 4724–4733].
There is a downhill slope to the data, showing a general decline in residual DNA with age of the fossils. When the authors fit the straight line through the data as shown, this fit gave a half-life of 521 years for the DNA. At a temperature of, say, 5 C, the author’s model predicts that all the DNA would decompose within 900,000 years.
If this model were rigorous and if it applied to dinosaur bones, this would preclude the possibility of finding any DNA in dino bones. However, the data here are enormously scattered; an R-squared value of 0.386 indicates a very poor fit to the straight line. One could fit a slightly curved, instead of straight, line through the data and derive much different model predictions.
I circled in red a set of results all from about 2700 years ago. The DNA amounts vary from about 0.002 to 100. That is a factor of 500,000 difference from least to most, showing the enormous variability of results just within this relatively small, homogeneous data set. The authors of this moa study admitted that it could not be directly applied to dinosaurs. The fact is that we simply do not know what the decay rates of the last little traces of DNA should be inside a particular giant T. rex thighbone, buried under its own unique conditions.
To summarize all this: Dr. Sarfati claimed that (1) substantial amounts of dinosaurian DNA have definitely been found in a T. rex thighbone, and (2) the rate of DNA decomposition is clearly known, and is so fast that no DNA could survive for millions of years. He thus misled his audience, since both of these assertions are false.
It is worth noting that if the dinosaur fossils really were buried in a worldwide flood only 4500 years ago, we should easily be able to extract loads of DNA from these fossils. It is routine to extract long sequences of DNA from fossils of humans and other fossils that date back over 100,000 years, and even the in-vitro studies of DNA decomposition show that plenty of DNA should still be available in 4500-year-old dinosaur bones. The fact that no one has recovered verified dinosaur DNA, and we have to work to try to detect the faintest traces of DNA in a dino bone, indicates that dino fossils date back way older than 4500 or even 100,000 years. Thus, the actual state of DNA in dinosaur bones is strong evidence against, not for, a young earth.
( b ) Increase of Information in Genomes
Dr. Sarfati indicated that there was no plausible way for size or the information content of a genome to increase from generation to generation via mutations. I am sure that that is what his hearers took away from his presentation.
Here is what he did not tell his hearers:
( 1 ) It is well-known that during cell reproduction, segments of DNA genes (including whole genes) can become duplicated. That is, in place of one gene there are now two genes. If a gene is duplicated, this obviously increases the size of the genome. To a first approximation, a gene can be considered a segment of DNA which codes for the synthesis of one or more specific proteins. So a given gene is (roughly) like a specific instruction in a recipe.
( 2 ) Mutation of genes to alter their function is also well-known. If one of the copies of a duplicated gene acquires an altered function, now there are two differing instructions instead of just one. By any reasonable definition, this constitutes an increase in the information in the genome.
To use an illustrative analogy: suppose the original recipe for baking a cake included the following line: “.…Add one cup flour….”. Now let that line be duplicated, to read: “….Add one cup flour. Add one cup flour….” This alters the composition of the cake a bit. Now let a word in the second line be changed from “flour” to “pudding”, to give: “….Add one cup flour. Add one cup pudding….”. Now we have two different actions in place of one. Again, it is clear that the information content here has increased, as a result of duplicating and then modifying part of the instruction set.
Both gene duplication and beneficial mutations can be observed in laboratory experiments. Thus, gene duplication plus mutation is a plausible pathway for increasing the information content of the genome. Young earth creationists, of course, don’t like this conclusion, and try to mount all kinds of objections. These objections fail, but it would be tedious to trace all the back and forth arguments here.
Dr. Sarfati claimed that mutations can only make things worse for an organism. That claim is well known to be false. Numerous studies show that, while most mutations are either neutral or harmful, a certain percentage of mutations are helpful. While only a small fraction of mutations are beneficial, these beneficial mutations are selectively passed down to the next generation, while organisms with harmful mutations are less likely to have viable offspring. The figure below depicts the fitness distribution for a set of mutations in a viral organism.
Source: “Mutations” Wikipedia article.
See here for many other examples of beneficial mutations.
A laboratory example which ties all this together was a study by Brown et al. [Celeste J. Brown, Kristy M. Todd, and R. Frank Rosenzweig, “Multiple Duplications of Yeast Hexose Transport Genes in Response to Selection in a Glucose-Limited Environment,” Molecular Biology and Evolution, Vol 15, 931-942 (1998)]. They let baker’s yeast (Saccharomyces cerevisiae) evolve for 450 generations under glucose-limited conditions.
An improved strain arose, with multiple duplications of sugar transport genes. The mutated yeast species remained competitive at the original conditions. So this was an increase in the number of functioning genes, which was beneficial to the organism, showing that Dr. Sarfati’s claim that mutations “just make things worse” is incorrect. Moreover, the duplicated genes are chimeric: they combine the coding sequence of one parent gene with the promoter sequence of a different gene. Hence, the new genes are not completely identical to either of the parent genes. As discussed above, this gives some novelty and provides additional opportunity for modification of these genes. By any reasonable definition, the addition of these new, differentiated genes constitutes an increase in genomic information.
( c ) Origin of Life
I agree with Dr. Sarfati that it has not been shown how plain chemicals first assembled into the intricate molecular machinery needed to sustain the first living cells. That remains a gap in our knowledge.
However, strictly speaking, the origin of life is the subject of “abiogenesis”. “Evolution” usually refers to biological evolution, meaning the development of today’s biota from the first living cells. Once these cells were established, various mechanisms (mutation, including gene duplication, natural selection, epigenetic inheritance, etc.) can account for changes in populations over time to make new species. So the fact that there is complex machinery inside cells is irrelevant to the question of whether humans physically descended from other vertebrates.
( d ) Distant Starlight
The velocity of light in vacuum (186,000 miles or 300,000 km per second) is a fundamental physical constant. A light-year is the distance that light travels in a year. Many visible astronomical objects (stars, galaxies, nebulae, etc.) are located tens of thousands (or even millions or billions) of light-years away. If the universe is only 6000 years old, there would not be time enough for their light to reach us now. This is an obvious major problem for the young earth position.
When someone in the audience brought this question up in the Q&A, Dr. Sarfati dismissed it by replying that the Big Bang has its own problem with starlight – the “horizon problem”. That response seemed to placate his friendly and non-scientific audience. But it that really a suitable answer?
One could posit that God created all the intervening starlight along with the stars at the time of creation. Thus, the universe would look billions of years old, even though it isn’t. This “appearance of age” approach creates its own sets of problems, and most YE creationist organizations reject it.
The most popular YE approaches to the starlight problem are the “time dilation” proposals made by Russell Humphreys and others. Humphreys has followed up his initial “Starlight and Time” thesis with more recent variations (e.g. “New Vistas”) on time dilation. These proposals have been examined by the (old earth) Christian physicists associated with Reasons to Believe, and were found to be utterly unrealistic. The Reasons to Believe article concludes:
Starlight and Time/New Vistas is, from our perspective, one of the most obvious recent examples of manifestly erroneous “science” offered by the young-earth movement as a defense of the Bible. The errors are elementary and are almost entirely in the arena of comparatively simple mathematics. That these glaring errors have been widely accepted within the young-earth movement and widely propagated in the Church casts doubt on the credibility, reliability and trustworthiness of the leadership of the young-earth movement and, by association, the entire church…
The young-earth movement’s failure to recognize and repudiate the false science of Starlight and Time/New Vistas is a stumbling block to informed non-believing scientists and may become a stumbling block to many other unbelievers if the young-earth movement persists in affirming this manifestly untrue theory.
A more recent young earth proposal is the Anisotropic Synchrony Convention (ASC) of Jason Lisle. As with the time dilation proposals, the details are too intricate to discuss here. In a series of articles starting here, astrophysicist Casper Hesp explains why this proposal fails both in theory and in practice. So (despite YE creationist claims) there is no viable physical model that can account for distant starlight within a young earth framework.
And what of the “horizon problem” that surfaces within Big Bang cosmology? It stems from the observation that all the widely separated regions of space have the same background temperature. In the simplest version of Big Bang cosmology, these regions would have not have been in sufficient contact to thermally equilibrate. The theory of “cosmic inflation” resolves this problem. In this view, shortly after the Big Bang, there was a brief epoch of very fast expansion of the universe, after which the rate of the expansion of space declined to something like the value measured today. The rate of expansion has been measured to be increasing slightly over the past several billion years.
The figure below depicts the generally-accepted view of the expansion of the universe.
Cosmic history. Credit: NASA/WMAP science team
Not only does cosmic inflation resolve the issues of thermal homogeneity, it also accounts for the observed flatness of the universe and for the absence of magnetic monopoles. Its predictions have been repeatedly confirmed by observations.
Thus, cosmic inflation theory is robust and broadly useful and is endorsed by the majority of physicists. A minority of physicists are less enthusiastic, but their objections to inflation are largely on aesthetic (e.g. inflation theory seeming ad hoc or requiring special initial conditions), not substantive grounds. No underlying mechanism for cosmic inflation is known, but that is not a reason to reject it; no definitive mechanism is known, either, for the current gradual acceleration of the expansion of the universe which can be clearly deduced from observations.
Therefore, it is unrealistic for Dr. Sarfati to liken the easily-resolved horizon problem of standard cosmology to the devastating distant starlight problem of young earth models.
As Casper Hesp notes:
Does Big Bang cosmology have a big problem, comparable to the distant starlight problem of young-universe models? Definitely not. It is misguided to place the horizon problem and the distant starlight problem in the same box, despite their conceptual connection. Our limited understanding of the very early universe does not make or break the Big Bang model. The horizon problem results from minor theoretical concerns. Contrastingly, distant starlight is a devastating problem because it directly contradicts the central claim of young-universe models (i.e., that the universe is less than 10,000 years old). On top of that, we have seen in this series that the universe is filled with evidence of event histories stretching across millions and billions of years.
( e ) Radioactive Dating Measurements
The age of igneous rocks can be determined from the decay of radioactive elements in the minerals of these rocks. These decay rates have been measured in many laboratories in many ways for many years, and they are essentially invariant. They establish the earth to be over four billion years old.
There are some particular circumstances where radioactive decay rates can be accelerated, but these are well-understood within the framework of physics. For instance, in a nuclear reactor or bomb, an artificially high density of uranium means that the neutrons from one splitting nucleus have a high probability of striking another nucleus and causing it to split. Also, the “s” shell electrons interact with the nucleus, so perturbing these electrons can affect the nuclear decay rate, sometimes dramatically. However, these effects are understood and predictable. See Wikipedia article “Radioactive Decay” for more on this; this article also notes that many independent observations indicate that nuclear decay rates have been constant for millions of years: “Comparison of laboratory experiments over the last century, studies of the Oklo natural nuclear reactor (which exemplified the effects of thermal neutrons on nuclear decay), and astrophysical observations of the luminosity decays of distant supernovae (which occurred far away so the light has taken a great deal of time to reach us), for example, strongly indicate that unperturbed decay rates have been constant (at least to within the limitations of small experimental errors) as a function of time.”
Since radioactive dating militates for an old earth, of course young earth creationists will not concede to its validity. They advance various objections, but these objections have been refuted over and over again by practicing scientists. For instance, see these resources:
Radiometric Dating A Christian Perspective – – This is a classic, in-depth discussion of radioactive dating of rocks, by an evangelical scientist.
What evidence is there for the earth being billions of years old? Brief discussion of radioactive dating of rocks, answering objections raised by YE creationists.
Radiometric Dating Does Work! – – By geologist and National Medal of Science winner Brent Dalrymple.
When the question of radioactive dating was raised in the Q&A session, Dr. Sarfati deflected it by saying that the YE creationist RATE program had found evidence of faster radioactive decay in the past, which would explain away the mainstream scientists’ radioactive dating results.
Once again, Dr. Sarfati was incorrect. The RATE scientists did not find any evidence of faster radioactive decay; they simply asserted that there MUST have been accelerated radioactive decay, in order to meet their existing young earth model. They presented no valid physical support for this. They rehashed four arguments against conventional old-earth dating, but these arguments have been thoroughly debunked by practicing scientists. See the discussion by Randy Isaacs here and here for the details.
Furthermore, the high rates of radioactive decay proposed by the RATE would have generated so much heat that the earth would have melted, and all the occupants of Noah’s ark would have been killed from radiation. So this whole “faster radioactivity rates in the past” proposal is a nonstarter.
( f ) General Fossil Record
A species typically appears suddenly in the fossil record without a clear, graduated set of intermediate forms between it and some previous species. Young earth creationists like Dr. Sarfati claim that this represents a failing of evolutionary science, but they are incorrect. This pattern is precisely what we expect from the following two facts:
(1) Very, very few of all the organisms that have died in past eons become fossilized. As we can observe today, nearly all carcasses rot or are eaten by scavengers rather than being buried intact in rock layers. Of the remains that do get fossilized, many are later eroded away, or smeared beyond recognition in metamorphic transformations deep in the earth. Also, of all the potential fossil-bearing rocks, only a small fraction of them are available near the surface for paleontologists to examine. Thus, it is unreasonable to expect that most or all of the species (including all the transitional species) that ever lived will show up in a fossil collection.
(2) Basic population genetics shows that it is difficult for new genetic mutations to become established in very large populations. Thus, it is far more likely that a new species would develop within a small, isolated population, especially if that population is under some environmental stress that would favor genetic changes. But these small, transient populations are unlikely to leave a fossil trace. If the new species becomes more fit than the old species, the new species will expand, and only then is likely to appear in the fossil record. But once a species is widespread and successful in its ecological niche, there will be diminished selection pressure for changes, so fossils of this now well-adapted, stable species may appear for millions of years showing little change.
Evolutionary lineages tend to be “branchy”. From points (1) and (2) above, the expectation from evolutionary science is that we will generally not find fossils of the species of the direct ancestral transitional organisms along the main “trunk” of the family tree. Rather, we should find some fossils of successful, stable organisms on the side “branches” of the tree.
Thus, we should not normally find the transitional forms going from one individual species to another. However, we should find, in many cases, fossils with intermediate features between, say, one family or order and the next. (“Family” and “order” are higher-level groupings than species). And that is what we do find.
For instance, here are two graphics depicting some of the fossils which span the gap between common fishes, and 5-toed amphibians. The first graphic is specifically drawn to show that these intermediate species (which are all off on their own little “branches”) are not claimed to be direct ancestors, but are simply related to the direct transitional forms which would lie along the long diagonal arrow. Nevertheless, a progression in features is evident.
Source: P. E. Ahlberg and J. A. Clack, Nature 440, 747-749 (2006)
Source: K. Padian, Integra Comp Biol 2008; 48: 175-88, reproduced in A. Thanukos, Evolution: Education and Outreach 2009; 2: 84-89.
This richness of intermediate forms is evident in many portions of the vertebrate fossil record. The rock layers show a general trend of one celled life forms, then multi-celled eukaryotes, then things crawling on the ocean floor, then fishes, then amphibians, then reptiles, then early mammals, and then mammals more and more like today. This TalkOrigins article has more examples of transitional fossils, such as the reptile-mammal transition.
Likewise, for ape-human intermediate species we expect to find various fossils of side-branches on the evolutionary tree, having ape-like and then more human-like features, although not fossils of the direct transitional species. And that is what we do find when the fossils of human ancestors are examined.
There will always be some transitions where the fossil evidence remains scanty. However, the general pattern of the fossils matches expectations for evolution, and gaps in the fossil record continue to be filled in with ongoing discoveries. “So many intermediate forms have been discovered between fish and amphibians, between amphibians and reptiles, between reptiles and mammals, and along the primate lines of descent that it often is difficult to identify categorically when the transition occurs from one to another particular species.” [Science, Evolution, and Creationism by the National Academy of Sciences]. See Realistic Expectations for Transitional Fossils for further discussion of the nature of transitional fossils.
Young earth creationists, of course, try to dispute all this. They frequently do this by reproducing some quotation from a bona-fide scientist which seems to admit that the fossil record does not support evolution. But when you look closely into the source of the quotation, you often find that it has been deceptively taken out of context, and the author did not mean what the young earth creationists are claiming.
To sum up here, Dr. Sarfati’s claim that the fossil record does not support Darwinian evolution is easily refuted by the facts.
( g ) The intermediate features of the Australopithecine “Lucy”
Australopithecine fossils display features that fall between apes and humans. As such, they provide supporting evidence for the evolution of humans from earlier primates. Let’s first look at the facts, then at Dr. Sarfati’s treatment.
Australopithecus afarensis was a hominid which lived between 3.9 and 2.9 million years ago. Its brain size was about 380–430 cm3, roughly the same as modern chimpanzees. The Wikipedia article lists at least eight major fossil specimens of this species, so it is well-established. The most famous specimen is “Lucy”, a female partial skeleton found in 1974. It had a mixture of ape-like and human-like features: while features of Lucy’s arms and hands resemble those of apes, “in overall anatomy, the pelvis is far more human-like than ape-like. The iliac blades are short and wide, the sacrum is wide and positioned directly behind the hip joint, and evidence of a strong attachment for the knee extensors is clear.”
Young earth creationists sometimes try to dismiss the significance of Australopithecus afarensis fossils like Lucy by saying these were merely chimpanzees. This assertion is so straightforward to disprove that one professor developed a classroom exercise for biology teachers, which shows students the fossil evidence and lets them draw their own conclusions. In the main figure of that exercise, chimpanzee bones and teeth are shown on the left, human bones are on the right, and “Lucy” remains are shown in the middle. Anatomical traits are numbered, and numbers that represent humanlike states are underlined. Below is a portion of that figure dealing with just the lower jaw and teeth. It is obvious that some Lucy features more closely resemble chimps, and some more closely resemble humans, just as expected for a species which is intermediate between humans and other primates. Over a dozen studies have appeared which analyzed the features and come to the same conclusion.
Skeletons of chimpanzee (left), the australopithecine specimen AL 288-1 (“Lucy”) (middle), and
a modern human (right), with anatomical traits numbered according to Table 1. Numbers that represent humanlike states are underlined.
Source: Were Australopithecines Ape–Human Intermediates or Just Apes?
A Test of Both Hypotheses Using the “Lucy” Skeleton, by Prof. Phil Senter (Fayetteville State University, NC)http://www.nabt.org/websites/institution/File/pdfs/american_biology_teacher/2010/February%202010/FebABTonline.pdf
The link to this classroom exercise is:
That site shows arm and hip features as well as the jaw features shown above.
Young earth creationists resort to various tactics to try to downplay the evolutionary importance of australopithecines and other transitional fossils. They commonly cite long-outdated or out-of-context quotes from researchers in the field which seem to contradict the intermediate status of these fossils. This tactic is known as “quote-mining”, and there is a whole section of the TalkOrigins site dedicated to exposing the misuse by YE creationists of various quotes from scientists.
That quote-mining is what Dr. Sarfati did in his presentation. He cited scientist Charles Oxnard to the effect that australopithecines are “further from both chimpanzees and humans than chimpanzees and humans are from each other”. This implies that australopithecines could not be considered any sort of intermediate between apes and humans.
The information provided above shows that that is not correct. The features of Lucy fall very much in between chimps and humans. For the quote he cited, Dr. Sarfati reached back more than 40 years, to a 1975 article by Oxnard which analyzed an early, very incomplete data set (just a few bones of a different type of australopithecine, before the Lucy findings were available), and which was soon acknowledged by other paleontologists to be erroneous. So Dr. Sarfati selected a quote which is known to be incorrect, but which would seem convincing to his nonscientific audience.
Dr. Sarfati has been citing this Oxnard quote in his publications for more than 15 years, and scientists have repeatedly called him out on this. See, for instance, the comment by Brown University biology professor Christine Janis on Sarfati’s treatment of australopithecines:
Sarfati is the master of the “opposition soundbite”…he cherry picks some data from the science literature that appears to combat the claim in one way or another (usually he has set up a strawman marginally relevant to the issue to be attacked), and ends up appearing to the naïve reader as if he (Sarfati) is the one with the specialized scientific knowledge while Dawkins comes off as speaking nonsense. Nobody can deny that Sarfati is a clever man…. Oxnard never concluded from any of his work that australopithecines were unrelated to humans, as Sarfati claims insinuates.
APPENDIX B. COMMENTS ON BIBLICAL INTERPRETATION
Learning (or Not) from the Galileo Affair
It is true that the simplest, most literal reading of Genesis 1-3, and of the other passages listed above, points to a recent creation and to the special creation of humans. For an audience predisposed towards this viewpoint, Dr. Sarfati’s case for a young earth interpretation of Scripture was probably persuasive.
However, it is also true that the simple, literal meaning of many Biblical passages shows that the earth is stationary, and the sun and other celestial objects revolve around the earth. These verses include Psalm 104:5 (“He set the earth on its foundations; it can never be moved”), Ps. 93:1 (“Surely the world is established, so that it cannot be moved”), I Chron. 16:30 (“The world also is firmly established, It shall not be moved”), the philosophical discourse of Eccl.1:5 (“The sun also rises, and the sun goes down, and hastens to the place where it arose”), and also the historical chronicle of Josh. 10:13:
So the sun stood still, and the moon stopped, till the people had revenge upon their enemies.
Is this not written in the Book of Jasher? So the sun stood still in the midst of heaven, and did not hasten to go down for about a whole day.
Isa. 66:1 has God saying, “Heaven is my throne, and the earth is my footstool”; but surely God’s “footstool” could not be spinning and flying through space.
In the 1500s and 1600s, the literal interpretation of these passages was seen as an essential element of Christian belief. Here is what John Calvin in his sermon on 1 Corinthians 10-11 had to say about those monstrous, malicious, devil-possessed people who claim that the earth “shifts and turns”:
We will see some who are so deranged, not only in religion but who in all things reveal their monstrous nature, that they will say that the sun does not move, and that it is the earth which shifts and turns. When we see such minds we must indeed confess that the devil possesses them, and that God sets them before us as mirrors, in order to keep us in his fear. So it is with all who argue out of pure malice, and who happily make a show of their imprudence.
This is the sort of accusation that today’s YE creationists make against those who teach that evolution is compatible with biblical Christianity.
Cardinal Roberto Bellarmine, a prosecutor of Galileo, stated in 1615: “…to affirm that the sun is really fixed in the center of the heavens and the earth revolves swiftly around the sun is a dangerous thing, not only irritating the theologians and philosophers, but injuring our holy faith and making the sacred scripture false.” Note well: “…injuring our holy faith and making the sacred scripture false.” That is what today’s YE creationists say about an old earth and evolution, i.e. that these concepts injure our faith and make the sacred scripture false.
Practically every Bible commentary since 1800 offers explanations of why these passages which depict a stationary earth need not be taken literally. Is this because our exegetical skills or our command of the Hebrew language are superior to everyone living before 1700? No, it is because by 1800 nearly everyone accepted what the scientists had been telling them about these aspects of the physical world. (Although Copernicus proposed heliocentricity in the early 1500’s, it took well into the 1700’s to overcome all the skeptics). It was not because anyone in 1800 could travel out into space and directly observe a rotating earth. Rather, folks mulled the accumulated observations and arguments of the scientists and realized that the data clearly indicated a moving earth. Once this physical picture was accepted, the theologians took a fresh look at the issue and found that, lo and behold, a literal acceptance of a stationary earth was not essential to the Christian faith after all.
Nowadays any evangelical Christian will say obviously these verses were not supposed to be taken literally. Obviously, these passages reflect the thinking and language of ancient times, and obviously were not intended to be making authoritative statements about the physical world. But it is only “obvious” AFTER one has accepted the physical evidence that the earth moves, and has recognized that it is proper to use the information we get from God’s creation to help interpret the meaning of the scriptural texts. Since YE creationists refuse to acknowledge the evidence that the earth is billions of years old, they are repeating the mistakes of the Christians of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries who insisted that the passages regarding the fixed earth and moving sun must be regarded as literally true.
You might think that the Copernican controversy is all behind us now, but that is not quite true. There are still fundamentalist groups, both Roman Catholic (e.g. ” GalileoWasWrong “) and Protestant, who maintain that true believers must retain the plain, literal sense of the biblical passages on the earth and the sun, and that the physical facts support a stationary earth; Christians who go along with the moving earth are denounced as compromisers.
For instance, at fixedearth.com we are told that:
The Earth is not rotating…nor is it going around the sun. Today’s cosmology fulfills an anti-Bible religious plan disguised as “science”. The whole scheme from Copernicanism to Big Bangism is a factless lie. Those lies have planted the Truth-killing virus of evolutionism in every aspect of man’s “knowledge” about the Universe, the Earth, and Himself.
The site lists “Sixty-Seven Scriptural References Which Tell Us That It Is the Sun And Not the Earth That Moves” , and tells us that “GRAMMATICALLY AND SEMANTICALLY THE BIBLE DENIES COPERNICANISM (AND THUS DENIES THE “THEISTIC COPERNICAN” POSITION AS WELL…) ” .
Thus, it is inexcusable for Christians to fail to stand up for the “numerous and abundantly plain non-moving Earth scriptures”:
The excuses Christian Churches have used to avoid standing up for numerous and abundantly plain non-moving Earth scriptures–and the true science that supports those Scriptures!–are no longer valid excuses. The fact that the Pharisee’s evolutionary 15 billion year Big Bang Model has come out of the closet with its anti-Bible ‘creation scenario’ leaves no more wiggle room for Christian Churches.
This language is practically identical to how YE creationists decry “anti-Bible” mainstream geology and biology, and the “compromising” Christians who accept this modern science. All this further illustrates the folly of assuming that the Bible was intended to teach us physical science.
The Core Error of Young Earth Creationism
The core error of YE creationism is not honoring what the Bible states is the purpose of the Bible. This purpose is spelled out most clearly in II Tim. 3:15-17, and it has nothing to do with the age of the earth:
…from childhood you have known the Holy Scriptures, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith which is in Christ Jesus. All Scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, thoroughly equipped for every good work.
Likewise, Jesus said that the function of the Old Testament was to testify about him and his saving work (John 5:40; Luke 24:44). Peter (I Pet 1: 10-12) wrote that prophets spoke of the sufferings and glory of Christ. This is all theology and morals. There is nothing here about authoritatively teaching geology or biology.
YE creationists go beyond what the Bible says when they insist that the Genesis narrative must be taken literally. That is merely their own opinion, which they then elevate to divine status. They think they are defending the infallible Bible, when in reality they are defending their fallible interpretation of the Bible.
Because they are so enamored with their interpretative scheme, they feel logically justified in distorting or ignoring whatever physical evidence points to an old earth – they KNOW that old-earth evidence must be invalid, so they need give it no credence.
In the preface to the sixth printing of The Genesis Flood, YE creationist authors John Whitcomb and Henry Morris frankly acknowledge that this is their approach:
We take this revealed framework of history as our basic datum, and then try to see how all the pertinent data can be understood in this context.
Their “basic datum”, which they presume to be God’s revelation but which actually is just their literalistic opinion, is that the earth and all life was created in six 24-hour days about 6000 years ago. They then shoehorn all physical observations into “this context”. Any evidence that doesn’t fit their young earth model is automatically rejected, because it must be wrong.
Plenty of conservative Christians have come to different conclusions than YE creationists as to the interpretation of Genesis. A century ago, nearly all fundamentalists held that the world was millions of years old: W.B. Riley, editor of The Christian Fundamentalist and president of the Anti-Evolution League of America, stated in the 1920s that there was not “an intelligent fundamentalist who claims that the earth was made six thousand years ago; and the Bible never taught any such thing” [R. Numbers, The Creationists, p. 45].
Hundreds of millions of dedicated Christians today accept the physical evidence for an old earth and for evolution, and find no conflict between those truths and the Bible. Reasons to Believe lists about 40 well-known conservative Christian leaders and writers that endorse or are at least open to an old-earth perspective. These include names like Gleason Archer, Michael Behe, Chuck Colson, Willian Lane Craig, Norman Geisler, Hank Hannegraff, Jack Hayford, C. S. Lewis, J. P. Moreland, Francis Schaeffer, C. I. Scofield, Lee Stroble, and B. B. Warfield.
Throughout the Bible, stories are told by God or His agents which are which are not literally true. Rather, these narratives are intended to convey spiritual truths. The many parables told by Jesus is just one class of such stories. So it is entirely consistent with the pattern of divine revelation for God to provide key teachings to the ancient Israelites about His sovereignty over nature and His purposeful creativity in the form of a figurative story.
In the same way that the Christians of the eighteenth century realized that the seemingly clear descriptions of a stationary earth were not really intended for teaching astronomy, today’s Christians who understand modern science realize that the inspired creation narrative was given to the Israelites for purposes other than teaching natural history. The Genesis creation account effectively accomplished what II Tim 3:15-17 says is the purpose of the Scriptures. It vividly conveyed to an ancient people a high doctrine of God’s goodness and power, and His authority to give moral direction to humankind. It was thus “profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness.”
It is crucial to take into account the original audience. Retaining ancient physical concepts such as fixity of species (instead of trying to correct these concepts) was essential in accomplishing this divine purpose for the ancient people to whom this revelation was given.
But What About…..
All that said, how exactly do scientifically-informed believers handle the New Testament passages which seem to endorse a recent creation and a literal Adam? There is more than one hermeneutic approach among old earth and evolutionary creationists, and it is too large a topic to cover here. I have sketched out my own thoughts on Bible interpretation here, but I do not claim it is the only valid approach. I might address the specific scriptural issues raised by Dr. Sarfati in more detail in a future post.
YE creationists try to panic evangelicals into embracing a six-day recent creation by claiming that apart from a literal Fall by one man in the Garden of Eden, there would be no point for Jesus’ mission. For instance, a publicity pamphlet for the creationist film Is Genesis History states, “No Adam, no sin; no sin, no death and corruption; no death and corruption, no point for Jesus. Jesus came to save us because Genesis is history. The entire gospel is based on it.” This same claim is made over and over again by YE creationists, and it is completely bogus.
I have dealt with the theological implications of the Fall here: Adam, the Fall, and Evolution. That essay also deals with the “slippery slope” argument, by noting the fundamental differences between the Genesis story and the more or less eyewitness accounts of the New Testament events. Thus, the fear-mongers are incorrect to claim that rejecting a literal interpretation of Genesis 1-3 leads inevitably to denying a literal Resurrection.
I won’t rehash all those arguments here. The bottom line is that a literal Adam and a literal Fall are not essential to the gospel. Paul develops the universality of sin in Romans 1-3 with no mention of original sin. He moves from, “The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of people, who suppress the truth by their wickedness… although they knew God, they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him” (1:18-21) to “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (3:23) quite apart from Adam.
In all the gospel proclamations to both Jews and Gentiles recorded in the Book of Acts, there is not a single reference to Adam’s sin. The Fall is never mentioned in any of the sayings of Jesus in the four Gospels. On the contrary, Jesus directed people away from religious speculations or blaming others, and towards a consciousness of their own shortcomings and their personal need for mercy. If our Bibles lacked the passages in Romans 5 and I Cor. 15 where Paul compares and contrasts Christ and the Adam of Genesis, Christians would not be wandering around bewildered as to why Jesus came.
Some Christians are particularly puzzled at how Jesus could refer to aspects of early Genesis (e.g. “the beginning of creation” in Mark 10 and Noah’s global Flood in Matthew 24) as if they occurred, when in fact they didn’t. The resolution comes by recognizing that Jesus routinely conveyed his spiritual and moral points by figurative language and by telling stories that did not actually happen.
It is key to note that Jesus did not always make it clear whether he was speaking figuratively or not. His disciples were frequently puzzled by his utterances, (e.g. Mat 16:7, regarding the “yeast of the Pharisees and Sadducees) and were relieved when he occasionally spoke “plainly, and using no figure of speech.” (John 16:29). Thus, if we take the witness of the gospels seriously, we should expect that Jesus is normally speaking in figurative, illustrative, analogical terms when he tells or refers to a story, not that he intends the story to taken as literally true. YE creationists do not respect the way that Jesus chose to communicate. Instead, they impose their own modern, Western thought categories onto his words.
When Jesus cleared the courts of the great Temple in Jerusalem, saying “Stop turning my Father’s house into a market”, the Jewish leaders demanded a sign to prove his authority to do this. Jesus replied, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up” (John 2:19). Note that their question had to do with his actions regarding the physical Temple, and they were presumably standing there looking at that specific Temple, located in time and space right there. Obviously, he must be referring to that literal Temple. That is what the Jews thought, and that is where the YE creationist hermeneutic leads. But, as usual, he was speaking in figurative terms: “But He was speaking of the temple of His body” (2:21).
Since Jesus spoke so often in figurative terms, he expected his hearers to look for the underlying message in his words, rather than to fixate on the literal, physical aspect. For example, on a boat trip Jesus told his disciples to “Be on your guard against the yeast of the Pharisees and Sadducees.” (Matt. 16:6) The disciples made the mistake of thinking that Jesus was concerned with literal yeast and literal bread, and concluded that Jesus said this because they had no brought any bread with them for the journey. Jesus rebuked them for this literalistic mindset, saying, “How is it you don’t understand that I was not talking to you about bread?” (v.11). Eventually they realized he was not really talking about literal yeast, but about the teachings of the Pharisees and Sadducees (v. 12).
An encounter between Jesus and a devout, learned Jew named Nicodemus is described in the third chapter of the Gospel of John. Jesus told Nicodemus that he must be “born again”. Nicodemus made the mistake of thinking what was important was the literal, physical meaning of Jesus’s words, and it distracted him from their real import. Nicodemus objected, “How can someone be born when they are old? Surely they cannot enter a second time into their mother’s womb to be born!” (v.4). Jesus chided him for focusing on the literal aspect of his teaching, and not understanding that this physical picture of being “born again” was an analogy for spiritual transformation of humans on earth: “I have spoken to you of earthly things and you do not believe; how then will you believe if I speak of heavenly things?” (v. 12).
In his presentation, Dr. Sarfati argued from this verse (“I have spoken to you of earthly things and you do not believe; how then will you believe if I speak of heavenly things?” ) that Jesus’s remarks to his Jewish hearers about creation imply that the Genesis narrative must be taken literally. That is ironic, since in this passage Jesus actually teaches against the sort of literal, physical focus practiced by YE creationists.
In the course of telling the parable of the mustard seed, Jesus makes a blanket, apparently factual statement that the mustard seed is “smaller than all the seeds on earth.” (Mk 4:31). By YE creationist logic, we should be defending that statement as literally true, no matter the physical facts. However, the point of this parable was not to make a statement about botany, but to illustrate the growth of the kingdom of God from small beginnings. Thus, I can make use of the God-given extrabiblical evidence to assess whether Jesus’s statement about seed sizes is literally true or not (it is not). And that is what I and millions of Christians do with the other statements of Jesus which seem to bear on the physical world, including Noah, the Flood, and human origins.
The fact that Jesus referred to Noah in Matthew 24 as a specific person with specific details on the Flood has no bearing on whether the Noah story is literally true. Jesus gave a specific name (Lazarus) to the poor man in the story of the rich man and Abraham’s bosom in Luke 16:19-31. In the story of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:30-35) Jesus provides a specific location (the road from Jerusalem to Jericho). In both that story and the story of the prodigal son (Luke 15:11-32) there are far more details given than in the Noah passage in Matt. 24. So we cannot use the presence of specific names, locations, and many details to claim that a certain story is literally true, whether or not we would classify it as a parable.
Jesus, as the Word and God the Son, was presumably involved in some measure with the divine initiative to give the ancient Israelites a creation story (including Noah’s Flood) which met their spiritual needs by accommodating within their physical worldview (fixity of species, relatively recent creation, etc.). Since Jesus was speaking to Jews with that same ancient worldview and who thus had a literal interpretation of Genesis, it was the wise and loving thing for him to do to continue to work within that ancient physical framework, rather than trying to correct their notions of natural history.
Jesus’s point in the passage in Matthew 24 was not to teach that Noah’s Flood actually happened. His point was to urge his hearers to “Watch therefore, for you do not know what hour your Lord is coming” (Mat 24:42). Jesus wisely and effectively drew on a dramatic story (Noah’s Flood) which all his hearers were familiar with, as an illustration of unexpected and catastrophic judgement.
If there really were clear evidence (e.g. rock layers from a recent worldwide Flood) of supernatural intervention on a geologic scale, or clear evidence of the un-natural origin of the human species, that would constitute a widely-accessible miraculous “sign” for unbelievers. However, Jesus flatly declared (Matt. 12:39-40) that no such sign would be given. His resurrection, as reported by his followers who encountered him after he came back to life, is the only general “sign” to be given to the world. YE creationism is thus founded on premises which run counter to what Christ himself taught.