The Dead Sea Scrolls are considered by many to be the most important archaeological discovery ever made. One of the many tools used to verify their authenticity was carbon-14 dating.1 This technique has helped verify the timing of key biblical artifacts, including Hezekiah’s tunnel.2
Young-earth creationists generally affirm the reliability of carbon-14 methods for biblical artifacts dating back to the time of Noah’s flood. At that point, however, they suggest the physical world dramatically changed, thereby rendering the results of carbon-14 and related radiometric methods as unreliable.3 This belief necessitates a reinterpretation of a vast amount of data into a highly compressed timeframe.
The operations of carbon-14 dating rest on the same basic assumptions about the natural world as the scientific method; namely, that reality is objective and consistent, that humans have the ability to perceive reality correctly, and that information about the world can be studied and known. This method also assumes that experiments should be repeatable regardless of one’s worldview. A Jew and a Hindu will get the same results.
However, the young-earth approach undermines many of these assumptions. In their view, data concerning the origins of the natural world (anything that happened prior to Noah’s flood 5,000 years ago) is only discoverable insofar as the scientist has access to a particular interpretation of special revelation (namely, young-earth creationism) and then uses that lens to interpret his data.
This recasting of the scientific method throws suspicion on entire disciplines of science, including the work of radiometric dating.
On the other hand, the classical Christian view of the natural world is more consistent with the general assumptions of the scientific method.4 The creation proclaims the glory and righteousness of God (Ps. 19:1; 50:6; Rom. 1:18–20), but one need not be a believer in the God of the Bible in order to accurately study it. In fact, Paul uses creation as a means to point the nonbeliever to the Creator. Doing so doesn’t make sense if the Christian’s first job is to rewrite the nonbeliever’s understanding of major components of the natural world and its history. In my view, the primary problem of the non-Christian is not his ability to interpret his sense experience; it’s that he doesn’t worship the Creator. Instead, he merely glories in the creation and consequently creates his own god (Rom. 1:21–32).
Carbon-14 dating can be a valuable asset for the Christian. When responsibly used––by Christian and non-Christian alike––it can help us explore the origin and rise of human civilization. And sometimes its results provide compelling evidence for the historical reliability of the Bible.