I am now in my third year teaching theology at a Christian high school. In that time I’ve found that, among my students, few subjects provoke as many questions as the subject of creation/evolution: How old is the earth? Where did all the fossils come from? Did animals die before the Fall? Could God have used evolution? And plenty more. I do my best to present every side fairly and accurately, so I try to stay up-to-date on the latest resources and publications. A couple weeks ago, I watched the documentary film Is Genesis History? in theaters. It defended a Young Earth Creationist (hereafter YEC) interpretation of Genesis, as well as the theory of flood geology, which holds that most of the fossils and sedimentary formations around the world are the results of Noah’s year-long global flood. The film’s production quality was quite good, and the cinematography was beautiful. However, as many other critics have noted (see here and here), the film tended to present a false dichotomy: either you accept YEC and flood geology (which they call the “historical Genesis paradigm”), or you accept the materialistic, Darwinian account of our origins (which they call the “conventional paradigm”). But what about those Christians who accept Genesis as a true historical account, and yet also accept the current scientific estimates for the age of the earth (4.5 billion years)?
This question prompted me to read The Grand Canyon: Monument to an Ancient Earth, edited by Carol Hill et al. (Kregel, 2016). The thirteen authors are all experts in various scientific fields, and most (but not all) of them are Christian. Their goal is to counter the claims put forward by flood geologists, particularly with respect to one of the most intensely studied geologic formations in the world: the Grand Canyon. The book (hereafter GCMAE) is 240 pages long, but it reads quickly, having a fairly large font size and color illustrations on every page. Overall I found the book to be enjoyable, informative, and persuasive. In this review, I’d like to summarize the YEC position, then summarize some of its main weaknesses as presented in GCMAE, and finally conclude with some reflections about how this debate should be handled in the church and in Christian education.
Describing YEC and Flood Geology
It should first be acknowledged that, throughout the history of biblical interpretation, most Christians have understood the “days” of Genesis 1 to be ordinary 24-hour days, and therefore dated the earth’s creation to the relatively recent past. To be sure, there were a few early voices who took a more allegorical approach to the text (not least of which being St. Augustine), but YEC was the dominant view in the church until the early nineteenth century. That changed with the rise of modern geology, when scientists began studying evidence that seemed to point toward a much more distant past. Now it should also be emphasized that old-earth creationism was not originally an accommodation to Darwin’s theory of evolution. Darwin didn’t publish On the Origin of Species until 1859, by which time the earth’s antiquity was already a widely shared belief among Christian geologists.
There were a few theologians who resisted the emerging scientific consensus—notably Southern Presbyterians like Robert Lewis Dabney and James Henley Thornwell. But the majority of Christian thinkers (including Princeton theologians Charles Hodge and B.B. Warfield) were untroubled by these developments. As GCMAE points out, the earliest denomination to take a stand against old-earth creationism was the Seventh-Day Adventist church (23). One of their early leaders, the prophetess Ellen G. White (1827-1915), claimed to have visions consistent with a young earth. The later Adventist apologist George McCready Price (1870-1963) would become known as the father of flood geology. However, flood geology would not gain wider evangelical acceptance until 1961, with the publication of The Genesis Flood by Henry Morris and John Whitcomb. Since that time, YEC has flourished in evangelical circles, thanks in part to organizations like Answers in Genesis (AiG) and the Institute for Creation Research.
So what exactly are the distinctive claims put forward by flood geologists? And what do flood geologists have to say about the origins and formation of the Grand Canyon in particular? Here are some of the key YEC teachings, which can also be found on AiG’s website:
- The “days” of Genesis 1 are ordinary 24-hour days, without any sequential gaps.
- Earth is about 6,000 years old (creation is commonly dated to 4,004 BC).
- No animals died (and therefore no animal fossils existed) before the Fall of Adam and Eve.
- Most animal fossils around the world were deposited during Noah’s flood (c. 2,350 BC).
- The igneous and metamorphic “basement layers” of the Grand Canyon were formed during the creation week.
- The approximately 12,000 feet of tilted Supergroup sedimentary rocks, which lie immediately atop the basement layers, were formed during the approximately 1,650 years between creation and the flood.
- All of the higher layers of the Grand Canyon (from the Tapeats Sandstone to the Kaibab Plateau) were deposited rapidly during the first 150 days of Noah’s flood.
- Near the Grand Canyon, the higher-elevation Grand Staircase layers (such as Zion Canyon and Bryce Canyon) were deposited during the late stages of the flood and a catastrophic post-flood period.
- The continents split apart and moved at cataclysmically high speeds during the Flood, slowing to their present rates of motion shortly thereafter.
- Standard radiometric dating methods are unreliable.
For ease of viewing, I’ve adapted material from GCMAE and created the following table to show how the claims of flood geologists match up with the claims of conventional geology:
Critiquing YEC and Flood Geology
One notices that each geologic layer in this table corresponds to the presence of particular fossil types. This ordering of fossils is the same everywhere around the world—for example, you’ll never find a Paleozoic trilobite buried above a Cenozoic woolly mammoth. This is why flood geologists generally accept the conventional terminology for the geologic layers, though not the conventional dating. However, the ordering of fossils presents one of several difficulties for the YEC model, which are described in detail in GCMAE. I’ll try to summarize some of these difficulties here:
- Why are the fossils (as well as the various rock types of each layer, such as sandstone, shale, limestone, etc.) sorted at all? Wouldn’t we expect all of the rocks and fossils to be a single jumbled mess, if they were all deposited during the same catastrophic event? (p. 65)
- Why are there no dinosaur, bird, mammal, or flowering plant fossils in the Grand Canyon? (p. 143)
- Limestone is made from the shells of marine animals and takes a very long time to form. So how is it that we can find thick layers of limestone in the middle of the Grand Canyon? (p. 61)
- Caves form when acidic rainwater dissolves holes into limestone; they don’t form in seawater. So if the Grand Canyon was formed in a flood of seawater, why does it have caves (and especially paleokarsts—that is, ancient caves that were subsequently buried and then filled in with loose fragments from the upper layers, which then cemented into breccia)? (p. 107)
- If the Grand Canyon was formed entirely underwater, why do we find fossilized raindrop impressions, mud cracks, animal tracks, and undisturbed burrows/nests—all of which point to formation on dry ground? (p. 159)
- If radiometric dating is so unreliable, then why is it that different dating methods (such as measuring the radioactive decay of unrelated elements like uranium, rubidium, samarium, etc., or measuring the rate of seafloor spreading) almost always produce the same dates? (pp. 94-96)
- If rates of radioactive decay were much higher in the past (say, a million times higher, which is what would be needed to account for such radically skewed results), then why didn’t the tremendous heat produced by such radiation melt the surface of the earth? (p. 97)
All that to say, defending YEC from a scientific standpoint is very difficult. There are just too many independent lines of evidence that converge on the same conclusion: the earth appears to be much, much older than 6,000 years. Many YEC proponents have conceded this fact, but have argued that God could have created the earth with the appearance of age—with distant starlight already en route to earth, for example. After all, we could reasonably imagine that God had created the Garden of Eden with mature trees bearing fruit, and Adam and Eve with adult bodies.
The problem is, the appearance-of-age argument (also known as the Omphalos hypothesis) can only take us so far. It’s one thing to suppose that God created Adam with the body of a 30-year-old man. But it’s quite another thing to suppose that God created Adam with 30 years of memories of a past life that never actually happened (David Snoke makes this argument in his book A Biblical Case for an Old Earth, p. 32). This is the same reason why YEC proponents don’t generally argue that God simply created the entire fossil record during creation week: if that’s how God had done things, it would begin to look like arbitrary deception (see this AiG post). I could accept the idea of creation with the appearance of age if it couldn’t have reasonably been created otherwise. But when so much evidence points to great age—particularly when there’s no discernible reason why it should look so old—then one might be forgiven for concluding that the appearance reflects the reality.
Respecting YEC and Flood Geology
At this point, I hope it’s clear why this debate is so important. I have plenty of students who ask me, “Does it even matter how old the earth is?” And my response is an emphatic—yes! We should care about this debate because it touches upon the very character and truthfulness of God. It also touches upon the reliability and clarity of God’s Word, and the reliability of science (which is nothing other than the testimony of God’s works of creation and providence). These are all issues that should matter profoundly to the Christian. HOWEVER, I care less about what position my students take on this issue; I care more about them believing that taking a position on this issue matters. That is, I think that having the discussion and learning how to respectfully disagree with one another is more important than reaching a consensus (and let’s be honest, we probably won’t be reaching a consensus on this issue anytime soon). My hope is that my students—whether they ultimately take a young-earth or old-earth view—will be able to look at the other side and say, “I can see how you’d arrive at that conclusion, and I respect your viewpoint.”
I think the authors of GCMAE succeed in presenting their opponents accurately and charitably. All too often I have seen one side or the other in this debate engage in straw man arguments and ad hominem character attacks (regrettably, I’ve done a bit of this myself), but the authors are careful to avoid such sloppy argumentation. On the other hand, the book isn’t quite as strong when it comes to grappling with the biblical and theological aspects of the debate. Although I believe that there are good reasons for thinking that Genesis allows for an old earth, that point needs to be demonstrated. Further, we should acknowledge the problem of animal death and pain before the Fall—especially death and pain on such a massive and seemingly gratuitous scale. Again, there may be reasonable ways of accounting for this—whether we attribute it to an angelic fall, or backward causation, or whatever—but I think we need to admit that the problem is rather difficult (Gavin Ortlund has written about this on his blog).
These shortcomings notwithstanding, GCMAE is probably the best defense of an old earth that I’ve read in quite a long time. It’s accessible enough for a high school student, but not at the cost of thoroughness or depth of argumentation. I would be curious to hear how flood geologists respond to the challenges presented in this book. Some challenges might be more easily answered than others, but it seems to me that the cumulative weight of the case tips the scales heavily in favor of an old earth.