Book Review: The Bible, Rocks and Time: Geological Evidence for the Age of the Earth

The Bible, Rocks and Time: Geological Evidence for the Age of the Earth by Davis A. Young & Ralph F. Stearley. InterVarsity Press. pp. 510. 2008. $22.50

On a trip to visit the family homestead in Nebraska with my cousin (she had recently retired from denominational employment) we came upon an unusual fossil site developed by the University of Nebraska State Museum, called Ashfall Fossil Beds State Historical Park. The site is active and used to train geology students from the university. Not all of the fossils have been removed—many remain intact for permanent, in situ public viewing just as they perished from volcanic ash. A 17,500 square feet shed covers the exposed skeletons and provides access to visitors viewing the fossil beds.

While walking among the barrel-bodied rhinoceroses a university paleontologist in khaki pants with a gaggle of students approached carrying a bucket and trowel. I stopped him and said: “These buried fossils are a marvelous example in showing the death of prehistoric animals from Noah’s Flood.” Actually I knew better because these fossils were obviously not buried in mud or entombed in flood sediments, but I wanted to see his geologic take and observe how my fundamentalist cousin would react to his explanations. He stopped, put down his bucket and looked me over soundly—like a crow that just found a Carl’s Jr. paper bag by the side of the road. He had a kindly face and his students clustered around listening to what he was about to say.

“You know,” he began, “we get this question quite often around here, but let me tell you why these fossil beds are not flood deposits and why what you see has nothing to do with any so-called global flood.” He went on to explain that the fossils were remarkably preserved because of suffocation from pure volcanic ash blown in from a volcano about a thousand miles west of this site. They were buried in a six-foot thick bed of ash. Scientists have followed the ash back to a specific volcano in southeastern Idaho with its unique signature of ash. When discovered in 1971 the skeletons were still intact, preserved in three-dimensions, some with food in their mouths and stomachs. One mother rhinoceros was found with an unborn fetus. These fossils were not compressed as typically seen in sedimentary rocks. There were over 200 species including mammals, birds and turtles in this former watering hole. None of the prehistoric animals were modern species to North America. No dinosaurs or marine creatures were found in the deposits. An erosion-resistant sandstone was deposited on top as a caprock to preserve the strata below. Then the paleontologist outlined how the age of the fossils was determined using several different radiometric dating methods. He said that the ancient animals died suddenly from the ash and were preserved during the late Miocene about 12 million years ago.

After the professor moved on I said to my cousin: “Now can you see some of the issues that biology teachers in Adventist colleges and universities face when teaching the supposed flood theory. There is more to earth history and fossils than simple deposition of sedimentary rocks from a single flood over the span of a single year from a worldwide catastrophe.” My cousin’s immediate response was that she didn’t care “what the professor had said about the rapid burial of these rhinos in volcanic ash—this was the result of Noah’s Flood! Our college biology professors have to teach biblical creation and flood, not 12 million year evolution if they want to keep their jobs.” Well, so much for any effort to advance my older cousin’s examination of evidence pertinent to Earth’s antiquity.

So what are Adventists to make of such discrepancies and the considered threat to Christian faith from mainstream geology? After returning home, one of my friends recommended a book I might enjoy reading that addresses these issues. He knew that I have more than just a casual interest in the history of the earth and the conflicts created by the sometimes-turbulent conversations between geology and religion.

The book he recommended was written by two geologists and Reformed Christians: Davis Young and Ralph Stearley from Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan. These authors tackle many conflicts and misrepresentations that are familiar to Adventist geologists and scientists. The Bible, Rocks and Time thoroughly examines the historical, biblical, geological perspectives and the deepening accumulation of evidence that favors the vast antiquity of life on the Earth. The authors take a comprehensive and authoritative look at the key issues related to the widespread popularity of young-Earth creationism embedded in evangelical and fundamentalist circles and why the actual geologic evidence does not cohere with these views.

One of the interesting features of the book is the authors' discussion of the role that Adventists have played in the current anti-geological movement and early developments in eccentric “scientific creationism.” (See Ronald L. Numbers. The Creationists. Harvard Press.) This includes contributions by George McCready Price and the disciples that followed him. The authors mention that some trained scholars in the flood geology movement (e.g. Leonard Brand and Ariel Roth) have served to check some of the egregious geologic errors made by ill-informed earlier creationists.

The book is divided into four parts. The first section deals with the history of earlier views on the age of the Earth—from ancient Greece to modern times. Natural historians and scriptural geologists generally accepted that the Earth was only a few thousand years old from a literal interpretation of Scripture. By the 18th century geologic studies began to hint of the evidence against this biblical position. There are interesting anecdotes discussed in this section. For example, some large vertebrae discovered in the 19th century were thought to be the remains of one of the “sinners” who died in the flood, but after more careful analysis it was determined that the bones belonged to an aquatic reptile now known as Ichthyosaurus, rather than a human being. By the time that the 19th century passed into history “no professional geologist with years of field experience would ever dream of thinking that the planet was only a few thousand years old” (p. 132).

The second part of the book deals with biblical perspectives and the interpretation of the early chapters of Genesis. As the authors state, “No appeal to scientific evidence will ever convince many young-Earth creationists of the great antiquity of the Earth” (p. 167). The same can be said about abandoning the literality and inerrancy of the Bible. In summary, the author of Genesis was basically not concerned with interacting with the scientific questions of our day.

By the time you get to the third section, covering geological perspectives, you are nearly halfway through the book. This is the largest section, spanning over 200 pages. The geologic evidence is amply illustrated and documented, dealing with the nature of the stratigraphic record, fossils, coal, igneous rocks, and drillings through the crust during oil exploration, and radiometric dating. The fourth part, philosophical perspectives, deals with two topics: Uniformitarianism, Catastrophism and Empiricism, and the last chapter, Creationism, Evangelism and Apologetics.

If the time ever comes when Adventist ministerial leaders decide to advance conceptually beyond a young-Earth and harmonize the geological chronology and scripture, (as was achieved by evangelicals in the 19th century) this book could be used as a handbook on how to support this objective. Of course, this means abandoning a literal reading of Genesis. Then the church would come to accept or appreciate the force of the divinely established geologic evidence for an extremely ancient Earth. For over a century many believers, including some scientists at the Geoscience Research Institute, have accepted that the inorganic materials of the Earth, such as rocks and sand, are probably billions of years old. The next step is to welcome ancient biotic life and accept the extensive sedimentological evidence that supports this view. But this is not likely to happen in my lifetime; or perhaps yours.

If you are looking for a volume that supports the purported “scientific” claims advanced by young-Earth creationists this is not your book to read, unless, like me, you want to know the quality and extent of the evidence for ancient Earth. I suspect my cousin would be annoyed by the overwhelming evidence presented by the two Christian geologists. The authors demonstrate that young-Earth claims and flood theories are generally based on incomplete information, ignorance of real geological phenomenon, and in some cases wishful thinking. They treat the young-Earth and flood geologists with patience, digging deeper into their evidence and questioning the generalization found in creationism. They provided an excellent account while replacing the young-Earth viewpoint with rock-hard evidence from the field. It is also clear that the authors are hoping that science and orthodox Christianity properly understood can forge new understanding of earth history.

The last chapter discusses a few of the most sensitive considerations that science and theology professors in Adventist higher education might think about while reflecting on changing the anti-geology stance that has long permeated the church. What are the serious consequences that teaching of flood geology does to the cause of Christ and the spiritual health of Christian youth? They argue that if you have ever wondered why this subject continues to draw a crowd it is because the incredible history written in the stones and fossils will never go away as long as a person continues to believe this took place over a very short time or that modern geologists are constructing intellectual schemes to deceive you. Such ideas have been known for a long time. William Whewell (1794-1866) philosophy professor at Cambridge University, reasoned that “great changes of a kind and intensity quite different from common course of events. . . have taken place upon the earth’s surface.” And this opinion, he said, “appeared to be forced upon men by obvious facts.” (p. 455.)

About the Authors

Davis A. Young (Ph.D., Brown University) is Professor of Geology Emeritus of Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan. His books include John Calvin and the Natural World, The Biblical Flood: A Case Study of the Church's Response to Extra-biblical Evidence, Portraits of Creation: Biblical and Scientific Perspectives on the World's Formation and Science Held Hostage: What's Wrong with Creation Science and Evolutionism.

Ralph F. Stearley (Ph.D., University of Michigan) is professor of geology and chairman of the department of geology, geography and environmental studies at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan. His current research interests include the history of paleontology and stratigraphy and Christian reactions to evolutionary thought.

T. Joe Willey received his PhD in neuroscience from the University of California, Berkeley and taught at Loma Linda Medical School, Walla Walla College and La Sierra University.  He was a fellow with Sir John Eccles (Nobel Prize winner) at the University of New York, Buffalo, and research fellow at the Brain Research Institute at UCLA, Los Angeles. He has contributed a number of articles to the Spectrum blog.

Image: Barrel-bodied rhinos fossilized by volcanic ash in three dimensions in northeast Nebraska at Ashfall State Park.

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