Thousands...Not Billions is a publication of the Institute for Creation Research (ICR), a prominent Young-Earth Creationist (YEC) organization that commissioned a group of scientists known as the RATE team (RATE - Radioisotopes and the Age of the Earth) to re-evaluate the radiometric dating results for various rock samples in an effort to produce hard evidence for its belief that the Earth is only around 6,000 years old. ICR bases this belief on its interpretation of the book of Genesis, which it believes teaches that the universe and the Earth were created over a period of six 24-hour days, as well as biblical genealogies that appear to place the creation of humanity on the sixth day of creation, sometime in the vicinity of 4000 BC. This, of course, contradicts mainstream scientific data showing that the universe and the Earth are billions of years old.
Oddly enough, and quite obviously contrary to ICR’s intent, Thousands...Not Billions helped to finally cement my conversion from Young-Earth to Old-Earth Creationism (OEC). By the time I read the book, I was already convinced that the biblical text did not require a YEC interpretation, but I was still hung up on a few questions. So when a representative from Answers in Genesis (AiG - another YEC organization) stopped by our church one Sunday, I picked this book up from his table and quickly got into it.
RATE collected and tested various rock samples from sites that had been dated previously using conventional radiometric dating methods, and while the samples sometimes returned dates that were different than those of previously published studies (even markedly different), I was impressed by the fact that they still consistently added up to many millions of years. The authors of the book admit that many eons worth of radioactive decay appear to have actually taken place, although they attempt to mitigate this with the claim that there is evidence for periods of accelerated nuclear decay in the past (insufficient helium diffusion from minerals known as zircons being their primary focus). Here are a few quotes from the book (note: ‘fission tracks’ are a type of damage caused to solid material by the decay of radioactive substances):
The RATE fission track ages determined for the Late Jurassic and Early Miocene reveal no surprises. All are in close agreement with the previously published ages. This is not to say that the RATE team agrees with the conventional assumptions from which these large ages are derived. Instead, we note that the amount of spontaneous uranium-238 fissions is in close agreement with the amount of uranium alpha decay as determined by other methods, at least for the Jurassic and Miocene samples. We conclude that the accelerated decay implied by helium diffusion and polonium radiohalos is consistent with a similar amount of accelerated fission decay in these rocks. (p. 106)
While we believe the earth is young based on clear biblical data, many rocks contain an abundance of daughter atoms which give the appearance of being the product of nuclear decay. Is there strong evidence that these atoms indeed are the result of decay? The answer is yes, and for several reasons...If the earth’s age truly is only thousands of years instead of multi-billions, then nuclear decay was greatly increased, in some cases a billion-fold or more. This proposal is a significant challenge to the physics and geology communities, which assume unchanging constants in nature. (pp 142-143)
The history of radioactive decay is amply demonstrated by accumulated daughter decay products in close association with their parent isotopes in many earth materials. There are also vast numbers of defects caused by nuclear decay in crystalline rocks, including radiohalos and fission tracks. We assume that the earth was not created with an appearance of age at this microscopic level of detail. Alongside this principle, however, there is not the usual constraint that radioisotope decay has always been governed by today’s measured nuclear half-life values. (p. 175)
In the conventional timescale, the Paleozoic and Mesozoic eras alone span more than four hundred million years. The RATE research concludes that accelerated nuclear decay on this scale occurred during the single year of the Flood. There is the obvious issue of protecting the precious animal and human life on board the ark. The water barrier between the ark and the earth’s rock layers could have played a major role along with divine intervention. (p. 151)
Even at present rates, considerable heat is produced by radioactive nuclear decay. An acceleration of the process will multiply the heat output greatly. This heat, which is produced within rocks, must be removed, or it could melt or even vaporize the earth. This clearly did not happen to the earth. In fact, the existence of zircons within helium, radiohalos, and fission tracks shows that the host rocks and minerals have not experienced excessive heating...Possible mechanisms have been explored that could safeguard the earth from severe overheating during accelerated decay events. One of these involves cosmological or volume cooling, the rapid result of an expansion of space. (p. 180)
Radioisotope studies of lunar rocks and meteorites also yield ancient radioisotope ages...To explain these additional observations, the concept of accelerated nuclear decay needs to be extended to include the solar system and space beyond. Indeed, half-life alteration appears to be a cosmic or universe-wide phenomenon. (p. 180)
Among these and other such quotes, I believe it was this one that hit me the hardest when I first read the book: “Even at present rates, considerable heat is produced by radioactive nuclear decay. An acceleration of the process will multiply the heat output greatly. This heat, which is produced within rocks, must be removed, or it could melt or even vaporize the earth. This clearly did not happen to the earth. In fact, the existence of zircons within helium, radiohalos, and fission tracks shows that the host rocks and minerals have not experienced excessive heating.”
As you can see from these quotes, the RATE team was forced to admit that the physical evidence (including the testing of materials recovered from the Moon and meteorites) is solidly on the side of an ancient universe, right down to the microscopic level, a fact which they admit strains the standard YEC “appearance of age” argument. This must have been a difficult admission for them to make given the expectations associated with their project, their mistrust of mainstream scientific methods, and their confidence in the accuracy of their biblical interpretations.
And then we have this statement:
Why was nuclear decay accelerated in the first place, and what purpose or function did it serve? A temporary alteration of nuclear constraints obviously lies within the Creator’s realm of activity. It is clear that the One who created all things can alter physical constraints and laws at His will. In fact, most biblical miracles require a temporary suspension of basic natural laws. (p. 152)
This is a subtle but amazing admission. While they were convinced that God must have brought about accelerated nuclear decay on at least three occasions in the distant past (during the creation “week,” during the Flood, and immediately after the Flood), RATE could offer no suggestions as to why he might have done so or by what mechanism (they refer to these matters as “basic unanswered questions” on page 180). As I was reading, I couldn’t think of a reason why God might have accelerated nuclear decay either, or for that matter even a reason to ask the question that didn’t boil down to maintaining a particular interpretation of scripture, which I had already realized wasn’t necessary by the time I read the book.
In my opinion, Thousands...Not Billions was a disaster for the YEC community. The best young-earth minds they could assemble ended up not only failing to produce evidence in their favor but actually lending more credibility to the OEC position. Further, they reacted to the problem by proposing a solution that resembles nothing so much as a cosmic magic act: exponentially accelerated nuclear decay that would have dramatically affected the earth and all lifeforms on it but somehow managed to take place on three occasions without leaving any evidence whatsoever.
Could God potentially do such a thing? Yes, of course. But why would he do it? The RATE team does not offer even a suggestion here; yet they affirm that he must have done so because their interpretation of scripture (and I stress interpretation) leaves them with no choice but to conclude this. They have a theory to offer, but they can offer no reason for its necessity, no mechanism for its implementation, and no unimpeachable evidence of its occurrence. They do argue that they feel there is too much helium in zircons for the minerals to have existed for any more than 6,000 years +/- 2,000 years given known, consistent nuclear decay rates, but I am not aware of even a single non-YEC scientist who either concurs with their methodology and findings in this matter or even considers the issue doubtful.
As it happens, there is no reason to believe that mainstream scientific findings with regard to the age of the universe and the earth are incompatible with what the Bible has to say about creation, and it is unfortunate to see Christians effectively at war with one another over this issue. For more responses to YEC claims and general information on how an old creation is perfectly compatible with scripture, see these resources:
A Matter of Days, by Dr. Hugh Ross
Improbable Planet, by Dr. Hugh Ross
A Biblical Case for an Old Earth, by Richard Snoke