The “fossil record” is what paleontologists call the total number of fossils that have been discovered, as well as the information derived from them. A somewhat unfair and unsupportable error is often made when relating the fossil record to issues such as the age of the earth or evolution. Most paleontologists subscribe to an atheistic version of the theory of evolution. As such, they interpret the fossil record through that worldview, inspect the interpretation, and note that it confirms the theory. This is more than a little circular. That same approach is also used to imply that anything proving an older earth also proves evolution, which is not the case. The two issues are separate, both scientifically and biblically.
The question, then, is how do creationists interpret the fossil record? It is impossible for the Bible to contradict true science, as God is the author of all truth and knowledge. Scripture may be misinterpreted, but it will never be wrong. When fallible science does not correspond with fallible theology, we cannot blame the Bible. The scientific assumptions may be wrong, or the biblical interpretations may be wrong, or both—but the Scriptures never are. Another unfortunate tendency in modern atheism is to compare science to a single interpretation of the Bible, then declare science has “proved” the Bible incorrect. This, of course, is illogical. At the most, all that might be disproved is that particular interpretation of Scripture.
God’s written Word is the final authority in all matters that it addresses. Yet the Bible is not always specific on all points. The exact age of the earth and the minute details of how God created are among those issues left vague in Scripture.
All that being said, those who hold to Young Earth Creationism (YEC) feel there are reasons to doubt prevailing views of the fossil record. The fields of paleontology and fossilology are highly prone to error. In the last century, we have witnessed countless examples of “groundbreaking” discoveries that have ultimately been proved misleading.
One famous example is the coelacanth. Declared to have been extinct for about 70 million years, this fish was thought by scientists to have been among the first to walk out of the ocean on its way to becoming the ascendant of modern man. There was great excitement and surprise in the scientific community when a fisherman caught a living coelacanth off the island of Madagascar in 1938. Many evolutionists believed the reason this fish disappeared from the fossil record is that it had evolved into land-dwelling tetrapods.
The reason this is important is that many fossils have been dated to be roughly 70 million years old mostly because their remains were found in the same stratum as remains of a coelacanth. And yet there are coelacanths alive today that look exactly like those fossils—so use of coelacanth fossils to date other fossils, as it turns out, isn’t all that accurate.
Fossils represent death, and the fossil record is a catalog of death. Theologically, we know that sin and death came about as a result of Adam’s disobedience, “Just as sin entered the world through one man, and death through sin” (Romans 5:12). Now, there is some discussion as to whether the “death” mentioned in Romans 5 includes plant and animal death or is limited to human death. In contrast, young earth creationists contend the vast fossil record is compatible with the global flood, which God used to send judgment on the earth. The flood was a violent geologic upheaval with enormous destructive power that not only destroyed all land-dwelling, air-breathing life (Genesis 7:21–23) but also changed the global landscape.
In the YEC view, the genealogical lines given to us in Genesis 5 and 11 reveal the earth to be roughly 6,000 years old. Accordingly, YEC interprets the evidence to mean the vast and abundant fossil record we have today was laid down within the last 6,000 years. Indeed, every fossil ever found, then, must have begun the fossilization process after Adam’s sin introduced death and decay into our world. Many scientists, including some who uphold the Bible as inspired and inerrant, will disagree with this. The key difference lies in the different assumptions being made throughout the interpretation process.