Soil is the largest terrestrial carbon reservoir and may influence the sign and magnitude of carbon cycle-climate feedbacks. Many Earth system models (ESMs) estimate a significant soil carbon sink by 2100, yet the underlying carbon dynamics determining this response have not been systematically tested against observations. We used 14C data from 157 globally distributed soil profiles sampled to 1 m depth to show that ESMs underestimated the mean age of soil carbon by more than six-fold (430±50 years vs. 3100±1800 years). Consequently, ESMs overestimated the carbon sequestration potential of soils by nearly two-fold (40±27%). These biases suggest that ESMs must better represent carbon stabilization processes and the turnover time of slow and passive reservoirs when simulating future atmospheric CO2 dynamics.