Sunday, March 29, 2009

Science and the Flood

In our mini-series on the flood of Noah's day, we have so far discussed the context of the flood narrative, establishing two important things that are often misunderstood by modern Christians. One is that the account is not a geological treatise--that attempting to use it to explain away scientific evidence that one doesn't like is an illegitimate approach to interpreting the passage. (Instead, the purpose of the passage is theological; it reminds us--by recounting an actual, historical example--that God can and will punish sin and rebellion in the humanity that He created.)

We also established that the geographical scope of the flood narrative should not be assumed to be the entire planet. And once we removed this global preconception, we found (by appealing to other portions of the narrative itself and to other Old Testament passages) that the much better understanding of this text is that a flood covering the Mesopotamian plain was sufficient for accomplishing God's purposes.

In other words, we began with the text itself, and by using the most basic hermeneutic principles, reasoned our way to a localized--yet universal--flood and not one covering the entire planet. In another post, I might share some of the (logically and exegetically) bizarre lengths to which modern defenders of a global flood are forced. But it is probably best at this point to make explicit a fact that was hinted at in the discussion of the history of flood geology--that a global flood a few thousand years ago is completely incompatible with all of modern geological (and paleontological) knowledge.

The difficulty here is in knowing where to start. In The Genesis Flood, which made the case for a global flood that could explain the Earth's geology and fossil record, Whitcomb and Morris were forced to ignore or deny a host of evidence. And yet today, the same arguments are being made despite exponential growth of our knowledge about earth's history. Some creation science organizations continue to believe that the issue in geology is catastrophism versus uniformitarianism. That is, they accuse geologists of dogmatically asserting that only gradual, uniform processes have shaped the earth. But in the intervening years, geologists have come to grips with overwhelming evidence for catastrophic events.

Plate tectonic theory came after Whitcomb and Morris, and though that paradigm shift did not come without angst, today's geologists unanimously acknowledge that the Earth's crust is a series of moving plates, and that it is this movement that is raising the Himalayas, building Hawaii, and causing volcanoes and earthquakes worldwide. Moreover (and more recently), geologists and paleontologists alike have come to recognize the role of meteoritic collisions in shaping the planet and in causing mass extinction events. Central to this paradigm shift was the discovery of the Chicxulub crater (beneath the Yucatan and Carib) that caused the worldwide iridium layer that marks the end of the third and final (Cretaceous) dinosaur era.

No, modern geologists are not uniformitarians. They have come to understand not only those processes that work slowly over millions of years but also some of the many sudden, cataclysmic events that have left their mark on Earth. But they continue to deny the claim (and now with more reason than ever) that a single worldwide flood a few thousand years ago can account for all that we see on Earth.

Whereas the events connected with Noah's flood are quite simple, the geological record is quite complex. The flood involved a steady increase in water levels followed, eventually, by a steady decrease in water levels. This would cause very little in the way of geological change, and simply cannot expain Earth's depositional, structural, chemical, and thermal complexity.

The Green River of Utah shows annual depositional layers that alternate between calcium carbonate (laid down in summers) and organic matter (winters). These can be counted just like tree rings, and attest to 4 million years of such deposition.

At the Prudhoe oil fields in Alaska, ice cores demonstrate that the permafrost has remained frozen for the last 100,000 years. The top 2000 feet of this permafrost column were frozen before, during, and after the Genesis flood, which had no effect on the permafrost. In Antarctica, ice cores span 420,000 years.

Contrary to the claims of global flood proponents, a single, year-long flood cannot account for Earth's wealth of biodeposits. Oil, coal, natural gas, and limestone deposits all take vast ages to form, and require different thermal and pressure scenarios. Moreover, deposits of each are found at vastly different levels (and therefore ages) in the geological record, and with a variety of complex histories.

And the evidences go on and on.

With regard to the flood of Genesis 6-8, the clear conclusions from geology are at least three. First, that flood left no mark behind. That is, the geological record of the Earth is entirely independent of the events associated with the flood of Noah's day. Second, the flood played no role in forming Earth's abundant biodeposits. These deposits, upon which modern technology depends, are the result of billions of years of plant and animal death, of God's creating and recreating life as He prepared this planet for human beings. Third, the flood therefore cannot be invoked as proof for a young-earth interpretation of the Genesis creation account. Although a young-earth view requires a global flood, the geological record provides no support for such a scenario.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Perry's Posts

My blogging apologist buddy Bob Perry is in the middle of a great series on the sanctity of human life. Go here for some must-read, thoughtful blog posts.

Saturday, March 21, 2009

Flood Geology

In the last post, I discussed the flood of Noah's day (described in Genesis 6-8) and showed that good, consistent exegesis leads to understanding the flood as covering only the portion of the earth that was occupied by humans, the Mesopotamian plain. This is, of course, in contrast to the understanding of many modern American Christians, who have been taught to see the flood as global. We began by acknowledging that correctly identifying the context of a Scripture passage is of first importance.

But in that discussion, we focused on only one part of context--the geographical scope. There is a more fundamental issue regarding the context of the flood, and it, too, plays into the modern Christian misunderstanding. The main context of the flood account--as all Christians ought to agree if they stop to think about it--is God's judgment on sinful humanity. Where global flood proponents err is in seeking to make the flood account a geological treatise. I know it sounds kinda silly when I write it out like that, but I'm serious. The reason many modern Christians defend a global (rather than localized, universal) flood is their belief that such a flood can somehow explain away a whole lot of geological and paleontological evidence that doesn't fit well either in their interpretion of Genesis or their view of God.

From a historical perspective, this view--flood geology--only goes back a short while. By the early 1800's, geological understanding of sedimentary stratification and the uncovering of fossils of extinct creatures led to the general recognition that the Earth was much older than Lightfoot and Ussher's interpretation of Scripture would make it. Nonetheless, this did not prove a problem for geologists and paleontologists who were Christians. But when Darwin's Origin of Species (1859) offered a naturalistic explanation for the diversity of life, many Christians came to see science as fundamentally opposed to Scripture.

The first publication attempting to defend the view that a global flood accounted for the fossil record and Earth's geology was Outlines of Modern Christianity and Modern Science (1902) by George McCready Price. Price, who had less than a full year of science training, was a disciple of Ellen G. White, the prophetess of Seventh-Day Adventism. She claimed to have been shown by God in a vision that all creation occurred in a normal Earth week and that the flood covered the entire planet and was responsible for all that modern geologists and paleontologists study.

This unusual view did not, however, become a significant part of the conservative Christian understanding until it was refurbished in The Genesis Flood, authored by hydrology engineer Henry Morris and theologian John Whitcomb in 1961. Despite the fact that Whitcomb could find not one geologist (Christian or otherwise) to help him defend this view, the book had--for the Christian layman--enough of the appearance of a scientific tome to lend to young-earth creationism and flood geology the scientific credibility that those views so desperately needed.

By that time, there were overwhelming scientific problems for the global flood view, as well as logical (common sense) objections. Moreover, though the strength of Whitcomb and Morris' view was that it resulted from a straightforward reading of (the English translation of) Scripture, the arguments they were forced to offer in defense of their theory involved anything but a straightforward reading of the Bible.

Today, modern defenders of the global flood view use the same stale arguments (or worse) even though geology has grown exponentially in the ensuing 50 years. Claiming that the Bible clearly teaches this view, "creation science" organizations are more numerous and stronger than ever, despite their view having absolutely no credibility within the scientific community, and despite the flawed exegetical process upon which it is based. For science-minded folks in our day, consideration of the claims of Christ upon their life is prevented by the incorrect view--so successfully promoted by these well-meaning but misguided groups--that the Bible teaches that the Earth is thousands of years old and that the fossil record and geological formations were laid down in a global flood. I can only echo the words of creationist Dudley Joseph Whitney, upon reading Whitcomb's views and by way of declining Whitcomb's request for collaboration...
Why, why, why should the saints be so prone to take positions which discredit the Bible?

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Why See the Flood as Global?

If you've grown up in a good, Bible-teaching church in America, chances are excellent that you have been taught to believe that the Bible describes a global flood in Genesis 6-8. Illustrations of Noah's ark carrying kangaroos and penguins are etched in your memory, and you have never seen any reason to question the understanding given to you by your loving and well-meaning Sunday school teachers.

But did you know that this understanding is a very modern one, confined really to the globally-minded cultures of the 20th and 21st centuries? The original readers of this account (the people to whom it was first communicated) would certainly not have applied it to the entire planet, nor did people throughout the ensuing millennia. Indeed, the view that the flood of Noah's day covered the whole planet, and that it can be used to explain the fossil record and Earth's geology only arose in the late 19th century and only became popular among Christians beginning in the 1960's.

Of course, imposing our modern way of thinking upon Scripture written thousands of years ago is one of the big no-nos of hermeneutics (of rightly interpreting the Bible). For example, when moderns accuse one or more of the gospel writers of misquoting Jesus (because, say, Matthew and Luke do not agree word-for-word when recording the same teaching incident), it is wrongly imposing our standards for quoting someone (which involves word-for-word accuracy) upon a culture with a different standard (for Jews of Jesus' day what mattered was that one accurately record someone's thought or intent). In the same way, imposing our 21st-century, global perspective on the flood account of Genesis ensures that our conclusions will be wrong.

In coming posts, I want to reexamine the flood account theologically, logically, and scientifically, and will seek to show that a global understanding fares poorly with each of these assessment methods. But for today, let's examine together the words themselves to see whether they require believing that the flood encompassed the whole planet.

Superficially--and in English--the flood account seems to encompass everything. We read, for example, that God said "I will bring a flood of waters upon the earth to destroy all flesh in which is the breath of life under heaven" (Gen. 6:17). We find that "the waters prevailed so mightily on the earth that all the high mountains under the whole heaven were covered" (7:19), and that "all flesh died that moved on the earth, birds, livestock, beasts, all swarming creatures that swarm on the earth, and all mankind" (7:21).

Surely, say proponents of a global understanding of the flood, such all-encompassing language must mean that the context is the entire planet. But this shallow (albeit widespread) interpretation does not really do justice to the text itself or to a serious attempt at good hermeneutics. And the first clue that this is the case comes immediately following the flood, and in the same account. In Genesis 8:13 and 14, we read that after the flood "the waters were dried from off the earth," "the face of the ground was dry," and "the earth had dried out." If we take "the earth" that was flooded as referring to the entire planet, then we must also take these latter verses as indicating that the entire planet was subsequently dry.

So the context and scope of the flood is the real issue here. And indeed, accurately determining the context is arguably the first and most important step to rightly interpreting any Scripture passage. I expect to show--by examining other Old Testament passages that use similar language--that the context of Genesis 6-8 is more local than the entire planet, referring only to the rather limited portion of the earth that was inhabited by humans (the large Mesopotamian plain).

But first, a word about translation issues. Hebrew is a very small language, and nouns (especially) are required to serve much broader purposes than do the nouns of English. The Hebrew phrase kol erets, translated "whole earth" or "entire earth," is used 205 times in the Old Testament. The vast majority of these usages (some of which we will examine more closely) refer to a local region, and not the whole planet. In the same way, kol shamayim ("entire heavens") most often serves as reference to a limited region. The Hebrew phrase translated "high mountains" actually can refer to any elevated landscape. Conversely, the various Hebrew words translated "every creeping thing" and "all flesh" are much more specific than the English translations, referring to particular groups of terrestrial mammals and birds. These translational problems have certainly contributed to the modern misunderstanding of the flood account.

But in order to demonstrate the the "whole earth" of Genesis 6-8 does not require a global context, let's look at this same phrase in other Old Testament contexts. In I Kings 10:24, we are told that
The whole world sought audience with Solomon to hear the wisdom that God had put in his heart.
No one (ancient or modern) interprets this verse as saying that representatives from South America came to see Solomon. Instead, we rightly understand the context as the nations surrounding Solomon's Israel. Perhaps more relevant--since a part of the same book of the Bible as the flood account--is Genesis 41:56. It talks about the time when Joseph was second-in-command in Egypt, and people from surrounding lands were coming to buy food that he had stored up:
The famine was over all the face of the earth.
Again, no one understands this passage as teaching that there was a famine that extended all the way to New Zealand, Alaska, and South America. We naturally--and rightly--recognize the context of this famine passage as the Middle East, not the entire planet. And yet the phrase at issue, kol erets, is exactly the same one that in the flood account causes many to leap to the conclusion that the whole planet is in view. Now this next one comes only three chapters after the conclusion of the flood account. In the account about the tower of Babel, the text reads
the whole world [kol erets] had one language and one common speech.
In this case, we have no doubt that the context is a limited region; the point of the story is that humanity still occupied a very small geographic area, and God didn't like this.

As with God's judgment at Babel, His judgment in the flood was aimed at human disobedience, and in both cases part of that disobedience was man's failure to multiply and "fill the earth." The Creator gave this command to Adam and Eve (Gen. 1:28), then again to Noah (Gen. 9:7), and then again at Babel; in the latter case He also acted to ensure that people finally dispersed from the Mesopotamian plain.

In short, there is no scriptural, historical, or scientific evidence for humanity's spreading out from the Middle East until a time better understood as after the flood judgment described in Genesis 6-8. The belief that the context of that account is global is a modern and inacurrate one, and one which provides (to modern skeptics of Christianity) an artificial barrier to seriously considering the claims of the Bible, including its central claim of salvation in Christ.

Friday, March 13, 2009

Five Sacred Crossings

It's a small book, and a real easy read. I'd have read it in one sitting, except that I started it at a restaurant, and had miles to go before I slept. Funny, I had owned a copy for months, ever since the author, Craig Hazen, was one of the featured speakers at last November's Apologetics Conference here in Central Oregon.

I don't know why it took me so long to get around to reading it. I knew Dr. Hazen from my graduate studies at BIOLA; the program I was in, an M.A. in Christian Apologetics, was his brain child and he is still the Director. I knew him to be a gifted apologist, an expert in world religions, and a high-powered philosopher. If anything, I suppose I was worried I might be disappointed because this was his first venture into fiction.

I had nothing to worry about. Five Sacred Crossings delivers the goods, thoughtfully addressing some of the most important issues of our times (or any time) in a gripping narrative. I highly recommend it, and hope all my readers will procure a copy and find a couple of hours in which to enjoy this fascinating and relevant book.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009


Tonight, in the Science and the Bible class I'm teaching this semester at Kilns College, I'll be sharing 14 different ways of understanding Genesis 1. I'll be assessing them exegetically (Do they do justice to the original Hebrew and to other relevant Scripture passages?), scientifically (Do they accord with well-understood evidence from nature?), theologically (Are they free of theologically-problematic implications?), and logically (Are the arguments offered in support of them sound?).

It should be fun and interesting.

Friday, March 6, 2009

First Owl Nest

I found my first owl nest of the year today. As expected, it was a Great-horned Owl (Bubo virginianus), the species that nests earliest in these parts. The first week of March is late, in fact, for me to be finding my first one. But I've been that busy lately that I haven't had a chance to check some of the likely spots near home, places where GHOWs have nested in years past. The one I found today is at above 6,000 feet of elevation, in an area where winter is still very much in control. The female was sitting tightly on her eggs while snow accumulated on her back.

Owls do not construct their own nests. So when an owl is found to be incubating on a nest of sticks, then that nest was originally constructed by another bird--raven, hawk, or magpie, perhaps--or by a pack rat. The early nesting by these owls often allows them to take over a previous year's Red-tailed Hawk nest (as in this case) before the hawks have returned from wherever they wintered. In my experience, if a pair of Red-tailed Hawks remains on their territory year-round, they generally are able to protect their favorite nest from use by a pair of Great-horned Owls.

At this point in the breeding attempt, I didn't dare approach the nest closely enough to photograph this particular female displaying the faithfulness of a postal employee ("Neither snow nor sleet..."). So instead I've shared below a photo of a different Great-horned Owl fom the same Oregon county and several years ago.

Sunday, March 1, 2009

Sage Grouse Tracks

Since some of my readers don't get to see this in real life, here's a photo of the imprint made in snow of the spread tail of a Greater Sage-Grouse as it lands. Just doin' my job, bird-watching in remote and scenic places. Someone's got to do it.