Can science test the veracity of biblical creation events such as whether Earth's early atmosphere was opaque? I have always maintained that the answer is yes. In fact, the Bible invites such testing. In this way, science can affirm or negate the Bible's statements about creation.
One such test (or prediction) involves the conditions of the primordial Earth. Reasons to Believe's interpretation of Genesis 1 and Job 38 holds that Earth's atmosphere initially was opaque, then transformed to become translucent, and later transformed again to become, at least occasionally, transparent as it is today.
After Earth's initial formation its surface was a hot molten magma ocean. Recently, six geochemists led by Paolo Sossi demonstrated that outgassing from this magma ocean produced an atmosphere identical to Venus's and Mars's in relative chemical composition of gases.1
Throughout the entire histories of Venus and Mars the relative chemical gas composition of their atmospheres has not changed. It is and has been 97% carbon dioxide, 3% nitrogen, and 0% oxygen. Through an analysis of the oxygen fugacity and the iron redox state in the silicate melts of Earth's primordial magma ocean, Sossi's team determined that degassing from these silicate melts produced an atmosphere that likewise was 97% carbon dioxide, 3% nitrogen, and 0% oxygen. The only significant difference between Earth's and Venus's primordial atmosphere was that Earth's atmosphere was thicker.2
Earth's Post-Accretion Atmospheric Transformation
Earth's present atmosphere is radically different from its primordial atmosphere. It is about 200 times thinner and is 79% nitrogen, 21% oxygen, and 0.4% carbon dioxide. How did it change? Earth's present atmospheric difference arose predominantly from two fine-tuned post-accretion events.
The first event was the collision between Theia, a planet 11–15% Earth's present mass, and the primordial Earth (see figure 1). I devoted most of chapter 5 in Improbable Planet to describing this event. In summation, the collision occurred about 95 million years after Earth's initial accretion. It formed the Moon, increased Earth's mass, and stripped away virtually all Earth's atmosphere and hydrosphere.
The thin layer of liquid water on Earth's surface that remained after the collision between Theia and the primordial Earth and an event called the late veneer3 that quickly followed proved to be permanent. That permanence is due to Earth's distance from the Sun, its surface gravity and magnetic field, and the Moon.
If Earth were just a fraction of a percent closer to the Sun all, or nearly all, its liquid water would be permanently transformed into water vapor. If Earth were just 1–2% closer to the Sun, its atmospheric electric field would rise above 2 volts, leading to the rapid loss of all its water. If Earth were just 1% more distant from the Sun, all its liquid water would become permanently frozen. If Earth's surface gravity were a few percent less, all its surface water would escape to interplanetary space. These reasons alone explain why Earth retained surface liquid water and Venus and Mars did not.
Without Earth's strong and enduring magnetosphere the Sun's wind and radiation would have sputtered away both Earth's atmosphere and hydrosphere. During Earth's first billion years, it took the coupling of both Earth's and the Moon's magnetospheres to prevent the much stronger solar wind at that time from eradicating Earth's atmosphere and hydrosphere.
Fine-Tuned Geochemical Cycles
After the collision between Theia and the primordial Earth and the late veneer Earth still had an atmospheric composition similar to that on Venus and Mars. However, the presence of surface oceans and surface continents plus strong plate tectonic activity throughout Earth's past 4 billion years set in motion four geochemical cycles that transformed the composition of the planet's atmosphere.
The deep water cycle removed a small amount of water and large amounts of carbon dioxide and methane (produced by methanogens) from Earth's atmosphere and hydrosphere. The shallow carbon cycle and the deep carbon cycle both removed large amounts of carbon dioxide and methane from Earth's atmosphere. The deep oxygen cycle removed a large amount of carbon dioxide and added a huge amount of oxygen to Earth's atmosphere.
These four geochemical cycles steadily removed carbon dioxide, methane, and water vapor—all powerful greenhouse gases—from the atmosphere. Their gradual removal over the past 4 billion years perfectly compensated for the Sun's ongoing brightening so that the temperature on Earth's surface remained optimal for life.
Affirmations of the Genesis 1 Creation Chronology
The analysis achieved by Sossi's team affirmed in two significant ways the chronology of creation events described on the Bible's first page. First, it affirmed that Earth's primordial atmosphere was opaque to visible light.
Sossi's team provided more evidence that before the collision between Theia and Earth, Earth's atmosphere was about 200 times thicker than it is today and made up of 97% carbon dioxide and no oxygen. Such an atmosphere would block out all light in the visible part of the electromagnetic spectrum. These conditions seem consistent with Genesis 1:2, which refers to Earth's initial conditions: "Darkness was over the surface of the deep [Earth's surface water]." A parallel text, Job 38:9, declares, "I [God] made the clouds its [Earth's seas] garment and wrapped it in thick darkness."
The second Genesis 1 affirmation concerns the oxygen level of Earth's atmosphere. Thinning out Earth's atmosphere by a factor of about 200 times did permit visible light to reach Earth's surface. However, the lack of oxygen in Earth's atmosphere made it so hazy that creatures on the planet would have been unable to discern any of the objects in the heavens that were responsible for the light.
As I wrote in 2018, a team of physicists demonstrated in laboratory experiments that increasing the oxygen content in Earth's atmosphere from less than 1% to 8% or more made the atmosphere sufficiently transparent that animals would be able to discern the positions of the Sun, Moon, and stars in the sky. Genesis 1:14 (NASB) proclaims, "Let there be lights in the expanse of the heavens. . . . they shall serve as signs and for seasons, and for days and years." As Genesis 1:20 implies, the signs are for the benefit of the animals that God created after Earth's atmosphere became transparent.
This discovery demonstrates that the more we learn about the history of Earth and Earth's life, the more evidence we accumulate for the accuracy and predictive power of the Bible's creation texts. Today, this evidence powerfully establishes that the Bible must be inspired by the One who performed all the creation deeds humans observe.
- Paolo A. Sossi et al., "Redox State of Earth's Magma Ocean and Its Venus-Like Early Atmosphere," Science Advances 6, no. 48 (November 25, 2020): id. eabd1387, doi:10.1126/sciadv.abd1387.
- Kevin Zahnle, Laura Schaefer, and Bruce Fegley, "Earth's Earliest Atmospheres," Cold Spring Harbor Perspectives in Biology 2, no. 10 (October 2010): id. a004895, doi:10.1101/cshperspect.004895; Kevin Zahnle et al., "Emergence of a Habitable Planet," Space Science Reviews 129 (August 2007): 35–78, doi:10.1007/s11214-007-9225-z.
- Hilke E. Schlitchting, Paul H. Warren, and Qing-Zhu Yin, "The Last Stages of Terrestrial Planet Formation: Dynamical Friction and the Late Veneer," Astrophysical Journal 752, no. 8 (June 10, 2012): id. 8, doi:10.1088/0004-637X/752/1/8; R. Brasser et al., "Late Veneer and Late Accretion to the Terrestrial Planets," Earth and Planetary Science Letters 455 (December 1, 2016): 85–93, doi:10.1016/j.epsl.2016.09.013.