Jesus on Seeing God in Nature: No Signs, No Justice, No Fear


Classic Bible Passages on Natural Theology

The Regularity of Nature

No Sign Except the Sign of Jonah

   The Sign of the Resurrection in the Ministry of Paul

No Justice in This Life: The Same Things Happen to Good and to Bad People

Implications of “No Signs” and “No Justice” for Creationism and for Apologetics

   No Evidence of a Young Earth or of Special Creation of Humans

   Is the Prevalence of Injustice and Suffering Evidence Against God?

   Beyond This World

Flourishing in an Unjust World

Consider the Lilies of the Field


Classic Bible Passages on Natural Theology

There are a number of Bible passages which are typically cited as giving perspective on what we might conclude about the Creator from observations of his creation.  These include Psalm 19 (“…The heavens declare the glory of God…”), Psalm 104 (“…How many are your works, Lord! In wisdom you made them all; the earth is full of your creatures…”) , Acts 17 (Paul’s sermon at Athens), and Romans 1 (“…since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities— eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made…”).

In an earlier article,   A Survey of Biblical Natural Theology , I reviewed these well-known passages. They teach that we can deduce that the Creator is very powerful (since the universe is enormous) and is very smart, as evinced by the complex functionality of the physical world. We cannot conclude much, however about the moral character of the Creator from physical observations alone:  while we can appreciate beauty and acts of kindness and the fact of existence itself, there is (as the Scriptures frankly acknowledge) also much suffering and injustice in this world.

To learn about the nuanced relational character of God himself, we turn to verbalized revelation as recorded in the Scriptures. The acceptance of this special revelation is a sort of character test for the reader, requiring a degree of reverence to push past some of the offensive aspects of the partial revelation in the Old Testament and into the clearer revelation of God in Jesus Christ.  Both the Old and the New Testaments were spoken into their particular cultural contacts, which must be taken into account as we evaluate these texts today.

One thing that struck me in examining these classic passages on natural theology is that no sayings of Jesus were included among them. This made me curious about what Jesus had to say about these matters. Therefore, I read through the Gospels and marked out some relevant sections, which will be discussed here. For the purposes of this article I will take the four canonical Gospels at face value, not speculating on authorship or dates of composition.

The Regularity of Nature

Although folks in New Testament times were more ready to believe in miracles than we are today, they still understood that the norm was for regularity in physical processes. When Joseph first learned that his fiancé Mary was pregnant, he assumed that her pregnancy was due to natural cause (sleeping with another man) and decided to divorce her.

For most of his life Jesus worked as a carpenter. He would have learned by experience in the workshop that certain actions produced certain results with physical objects. Living in a largely agricultural economy, he had opportunity to observe the cycle of sowing and reaping, and the effects of insufficient rain.

The regularity of natural processes is assumed in Jesus’s teachings. His signature teaching device was to tell some short story (“parable”) dealing with nature or with human behavior, and then to draw analogies between that story and the spiritual or ethical realm. The parables dealing with natural phenomena like crops and birds are basically realistic, displaying a worldview of reliable cause and effect rather than random chaos. This comes across, for instance, in the parable of the sower, where he described the natural results of seeds falling on different kinds of soil (which he likened to the responses of different kinds of people to the message of the gospel):

Again Jesus began to teach by the lake. The crowd that gathered around him was so large that he got into a boat and sat in it out on the lake, while all the people were along the shore at the water’s edge.   He taught them many things by parables, and in his teaching said:   “Listen! A farmer went out to sow his seed.    As he was scattering the seed, some fell along the path, and the birds came and ate it up.   Some fell on rocky places, where it did not have much soil. It sprang up quickly, because the soil was shallow.   But when the sun came up, the plants were scorched, and they withered because they had no root.   Other seed fell among thorns, which grew up and choked the plants, so that they did not bear grain.  Still other seed fell on good soil. It came up, grew and produced a crop, some multiplying thirty, some sixty, some a hundred times.”       Then Jesus said, “Whoever has ears to hear, let them hear.” (Mark 4:1-9)

God is seen as the ultimate sustainer of this regular universe; it is he who “causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous” (Mat. 5:45) and who “clothes the grass of the field” with beautiful flowers (Mat 6:30).

Jesus told the men of his day, “When evening comes, you say, ‘It will be fair weather, for the sky is red,’ and in the morning, ‘Today it will be stormy, for the sky is red and overcast.’ You know how to interpret the appearance of the sky but you cannot interpret the signs of the times” (Mat. 12:2-3).  Jesus endorsed their keen grasp on the physical regularity of weather patterns, contrasting that with their dullness in spiritual matters.

No Sign Except the Sign of Jonah

Numerous miracles at the hands of Jesus are recorded in the Gospels. At first that would seem to reflect a superstitious or magical mindset, where anything might happen. A closer look at the nature of these miracles indicates that they were exceptions to the general rule of normal cause and effect. It was precisely the background of natural regularity which allowed these miracles to stand out as “signs”.

These miracles did not occur randomly. Typically they involved a personal connection, where someone approached Jesus in faith. Jesus did not perform miracles just to prove his powers, like magic tricks. His miracles always met some human need (healing, food, etc.), and were typically understated. He sometimes deliberately healed people in private, and he often asked people, after they were healed, to refrain from going around telling everyone that he had healed them. When Jesus wanted to provide food for a crowd of five thousand people, he did not cause a giant pile of bread loaves to dramatically appear before their eyes. Instead, he had his disciples start passing out the existing stock of food, and somehow that food just did not run out. A skeptic in that crowd could have explained the whole thing away.

There were some in that crowd who were so enthused by these signs of healing and provision that they wanted to make Jesus a king by force. But Jesus did not want people to follow him because of flashy miracles or for physical benefits. When they requested more signs, he refused, and set about preaching clearly that people should seek “the food that endures to eternal life” (i.e. Jesus himself) more than physical bread (John 6:27). He managed to offend and drive away everyone except his little band of disciples who valued Jesus for himself as the Son of God, who had “words of eternal life (John 6:68).

Jesus made it absolutely clear that no visible miracle, no “sign” would be given to unbelievers in general. Skeptics will normally be allowed to see what they want to see, i.e. unbroken natural cause and effect. In various situations where his credentials were challenged, he refused to perform any miracles on demand.

Jesus explained to his disciples the meaning behind the parable of the sower, which was cited above. This explanation reads in part:

Those on the rocky ground are the ones who receive the word with joy when they hear it, but they have no root. They believe for a while, but in the time of testing they fall away. The seed that fell among thorns stands for those who hear, but as they go on their way they are choked by life’s worries, riches and pleasures, and they do not mature.  But the seed on good soil stands for those with a noble and good heart, who hear the word, retain it, and by persevering produce a crop. (Luke 8:12-15)

He indicated that the varied response of people to the word of God is primarily a function of their individual receptivity. The folks who retained the word and persevered were those who had a “noble and good heart”. There is no implication that they had been shown more compelling evidence than the others, or indeed that any miraculous signs were provided.

Such signs are not necessary, because “Anyone who chooses to do the will of God will find out whether my teaching comes from God or whether I speak on my own” (John 7:17). On the other hand, if someone does not heed the light that they have been given, “they will not be convinced even if someone rises from the dead” (Luke 16:31b).

Miraculous signs (“works”) will not bring about faith in someone who does not want to follow Jesus. Those who are his “sheep”, on the other hand, will listen to his voice:

The works I do in my Father’s name testify about me, but you do not believe because you are not my sheep. My sheep listen to my voice; I know them, and they follow me.  I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish; no one will snatch them out of my hand. (John 10:25b-28)

When Jesus threw the money-changers out of the Temple, the outraged religious authorities demanded of him, “What sign can you show us to prove your authority to do all this?” To this question Jesus replied, “Destroy this temple, and I will raise it again in three days” (John 2:18-19). The authorities spluttered and fumed, thinking he was speaking of the destruction and reconstruction of the Temple building itself, but in fact (as his disciples later realized) Jesus was referring to his own death and resurrection.

The only general sign for unbelievers was to be Jesus’s death, burial in a tomb, and subsequent resurrection. Jesus dubbed this “the sign of Jonah”, since it was analogous to the story of the prophet Jonah, where he was swallowed up by a great fish, given up for dead, and then disgorged alive:

Then some of the Pharisees and teachers of the law said to him, “Teacher, we want to see a sign from you.”

He answered, “A wicked and adulterous generation asks for a sign! But none will be given it except the sign of the prophet Jonah. For as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of a huge fish, so the Son of Man will be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth.  The men of Nineveh will stand up at the judgment with this generation and condemn it; for they repented at the preaching of Jonah, and now something greater than Jonah is here.  (Mat. 12:38-41)

The Ninevites had not actually witnessed Jonah being spit out on the beach, but had to rely on Jonah’s testimony of that event. Likewise, people in general are not confronted with the spectacle of Jesus’s resurrection with their own eyes, but instead hear of it through the testimony of his followers who had encountered the risen Christ.

The Sign of the Resurrection in the Ministry of Paul

This appeal to the witnesses of the Resurrection appears in the ministry of the apostle Paul, a few decades after the end of Jesus’s life on earth. Paul wrote to the Christians at Corinth around 55 A.D. with various exhortations. In that letter, known as First Corinthians, he reminded them of how he had first presented the gospel to them about five years earlier:

 Now, brothers and sisters, I want to remind you of the gospel I preached to you, which you received and on which you have taken your stand.  By this gospel you are saved, if you hold firmly to the word I preached to you. Otherwise, you have believed in vain.

For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas [i.e. Peter], and then to the Twelve.  After that, he appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers and sisters at the same time, most of whom are still living, though some have fallen asleep.  Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles.  (I Cor. 15:1-7)

Paul elsewhere (Galatians 1:18-2:10) described how he had travelled to Jerusalem and met with Peter, and Jesus’s brother James, and others of the original disciples of Jesus, within about ten years of the crucifixion. These had all told Paul of their encounters with the risen Christ. Paul, in turn, passed their eyewitness testimony along to the Corinthians. There is no serious dispute that Paul penned I Corinthians and Galatians, and it is not credible that Paul was making all this up. The contexts of these passages in I Corinthians and Galatians give no reason to doubt Paul’s sincerity, and there was enough travel and communication in the Mediterranean world of that time that someone would have caught Paul if he were lying about these well-known, still-living leaders in the church.

Therefore, we have a solid basis for believing that a number of Jesus’s disciples, and also his brother James (who, according to the Gospels, had been a skeptic during Jesus’s lifetime) claimed to have had diverse encounters with the risen Lord. These encounters were so compelling that these men dedicated the rest of their lives to proclaiming, at great personal cost, the message of the crucified and resurrected Christ. People are known to die for a cause they believe to be true, but generally not for something they know to be a fraud. Thus, there are reasonable grounds to believe in the resurrection, but not overwhelming, absolute proof. This leaves humans positioned to freely choose to follow Jesus or not.

It is worth noting that we all believe or follow a number of propositions or norms for which there is no proof. For instance, we typically act on the assumption that the laws of nature which have held in our experience up till today will continue to do so tomorrow. As the skeptical philosopher David Hume pointed out, there is no possible proof that the physical laws of the universe will not suddenly change in the near future. Most educated, secular people in the West believe strongly that is it morally wrong to discriminate against a man because of his race. Yet that moral judgement is merely an emotionally-based preference; while it can be argued that non-discrimination makes for a more pleasant society, there is no physical observation which can prove the rightness or wrongness of any action. Some folks hold that there is no God, but they can produce no empirical demonstration of that assertion. Thus, there is nothing unusual or inferior about core Christian beliefs which are not physically demonstrable.

Elsewhere in that letter to the Corinthians, Paul further commented on how he had proclaimed the gospel to them:

For Christ did not send me to baptize, but to preach the gospel—not with wisdom and eloquence, lest the cross of Christ be emptied of its power. For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.

For since in the wisdom of God the world through its wisdom did not know him, God was pleased through the foolishness of what was preached to save those who believe. Jews demand signs and Greeks look for wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those whom God has called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. (I Cor 1:17-18, 21-24)

When I came to you, I did not come with eloquence or human wisdom as I proclaimed to you the testimony about God. For I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified.  I came to you in weakness with great fear and trembling.  My message and my preaching were not with wise and persuasive words, but with a demonstration of the Spirit’s power, so that your faith might not rest on human wisdom, but on God’s power. (I Cor. 2:1-5)

It is clear that Paul was not trying to offer intellectually compelling proofs (“human wisdom”), or to perform miraculous signs on demand. Rather, he simply presented the message that God had acted in the person of Jesus of Nazareth, in his crucifixion and resurrection, to bring forgiveness of sins, a clean life-style, and the hope of eternal life. Some people received Paul’s message and some did not; Paul accepted that outcome, trusting that God would grant enlightenment to at least some of his hearers. Without that enlightenment, his message would seem like “foolishness”. To those who did receive Paul’s teaching, that same message was “the wisdom of God.”

A record of Paul’s encounter with the philosophers of Athens appears in Acts 17:16-34. In his speech at the Areopagus council, Paul began by noting that the Athenians were very religious, having made various objects of worship, including an altar to “An Unknown God”. Paul then proposed to teach about that God which was thus far unknown by them. The rest of his address goes like this:

24 The God who made the world and everything in it is the Lord of heaven and earth and does not live in temples built by human hands. 25 And he is not served by human hands, as if he needed anything. Rather, he himself gives everyone life and breath and everything else. 26 From one man he made all the nations, that they should inhabit the whole earth; and he marked out their appointed times in history and the boundaries of their lands. 27 God did this so that they would seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him, though he is not far from any one of us. 28 ‘For in him we live and move and have our being.’ As some of your own poets have said, ‘We are his offspring.’

29 Therefore since we are God’s offspring, we should not think that the divine being is like gold or silver or stone—an image made by human design and skill. 30 In the past God overlooked such ignorance, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent. 31 For he has set a day when he will judge the world with justice by the man he has appointed. He has given proof of this to everyone by raising him from the dead. (Acts 17:24-31)

From his starting point of a Creator God, Paul built a reasonable case as to how this God should be worshipped. As James Barr noted in his 1991 Gifford Lecture, Paul used “the enormous qualitative difference between the piece of stone or wood, and the transcendent deity, creator of the world” to discredit idolatrous worship. If “we are his offspring”, then God is in some sense our father, and so his nature must be at least as elevated as man’s; hence, we should approach God as one would approach an intelligent, personal being. This is another argument against reverencing an idol.

The transcendent God, who needs nothing from human hands and who graciously “gives everyone life and breath and everything else” is also accessible. God has arranged that people should seek Him, with the possibility of actually finding Him. Paul quoted two of the Greeks’ own philosophers or poets to establish God’s accessibility: “For in him we live and move and have our being,” and “We are his offspring.”

For the conclusion of his speech, Paul transitioned from talking about God in general, to the particulars of Christ, the Resurrection, repentance, and final judgment. In order to justify belief in these Christian particulars, Paul claimed that God “has given proof of this to everyone by raising him [Christ] from the dead.” Paul’s usage of the Resurrection here endorses it as the main “sign” given for the world at large.

Acts 1:3 describes the post-Resurrection appearances of Jesus to his disciples, referring to them as “infallible proofs” (Greek techmerion) as far as those disciples were concerned. In speaking to the Greeks in Acts 17:31, however, Paul uses a milder word (pistis) for “proof”, which is often here translated as “assurance”. This connotes reasonable ground for belief, not necessarily an airtight Euclidian deduction. Paul does not try to explain in detail to these foreigners about all the early Jewish witnesses to the Resurrection. Nonetheless, he does offer this objective historical event (not merely his own opinion) to authenticate Jesus as the standard of final judgment.

This level of evidence is consistent with the call for faith which permeates the Bible. Without getting too deep into the topics of theodicy or the hiddenness of God, it seems that humans in this life have been granted the opportunity to honor God by trusting him in the midst of the wrenching ambiguity of this world. There could be no opportunity for faith if irrefutable evidence for the supernatural and for divine order were generally visible.

God could, of course, compel some measure of cringing obedience if he appeared as a flaming pillar in every national capital, and if everyone who failed to follow his rules were instantly seized with intolerable pains. However, it seems that God values sincere love far more than outer conformity. Even within the Old Testament, especially in the Prophets, this divine pleasure in genuine goodness is evident. When he was criticized for not operating according legalistic expectations, Jesus on more than one occasion (Mat. 9:13; 12:7) responded by citing the word of God through the prophet Hosea: “I desire mercy, not sacrifice”. Actually, according to the Exodus narrative, the pillar of fire gambit was tried already, and did not work out so well. The Israelites were awed, and obeyed after a fashion, but this spectacle did not transform their hearts.

After death, we are told, we shall see God and will understand all things clearly: “For now we see only a reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known” (I Cor 13:12, cf. I John 3:2). That will be the end of ambiguity, but also the end of courageous trusting of God.

No Justice in This Life: The Same Things Happen to Good and to Bad People

In first-century Palestine, a common belief was that if a man were good, God would reward him in this life with health and wealth. A bad man would get the opposite treatment. An obvious corollary was that if a man were blind or crippled, it must be God’s judgement on him. Thus, a physically handicapped person could suffer the extra burden of being judged and shunned by smug onlookers. This crude notion of karma shows up even today, often vague and divorced from a personal God, with some misfortune being superstitiously attributed to an earlier misdeed.

The Old Testament is ambiguous on this subject. Some passages seem to proclaim that the righteous person will always be delivered, and “will lack no good thing” (Ps. 34:10).  Job’s friends assumed that his suffering was a result of his sin, and urged him to confess and repent in order to be delivered from his misery. Other Old Testament passages, however, acknowledge that things often do not actually turn out that way. For instance, Psalm 73 laments how the wicked prosper, and get away with oppression and impiety. They have a successful, healthy life and an easy death. The Psalmist is deeply troubled by this, and only finds solace by contemplating that justice will be eventually be served in some future episode, perhaps after death.

The jaded philosopher of Ecclesiastes observed, “There is something else meaningless that occurs on earth: the righteous who get what the wicked deserve, and the wicked who get what the righteous deserve” (8:14). In fact, human outcomes appear rather random: “The race is not to the swift or the battle to the strong nor does food come to the wise or wealth to the brilliant or favor to the learned; but time and chance happen to them all.   Moreover, no one knows when their hour will come” (9:11-12a).

Jesus confronted this subject head-on, in the case of a man who had been blind since birth. His disciples, operating from a karma mind-set, assumed that this condition must be payback for some sin. They were not sure, however, of exactly whose sin was involved. Thus their question to Jesus was, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” (John 9:2). Jesus cut through their superstition with his reply: “Neither this man nor his parents sinned.” Instead of speculating who was to blame for this man’s condition, Jesus took action to alleviate the man’s suffering by healing him.

Jesus dealt further with the issue of justice in this life, in the following passage:

Now there were some present at that time who told Jesus about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mixed with their sacrifices. Jesus answered, “Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans because they suffered this way?  I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish. Or those eighteen who died when the tower in Siloam fell on them—do you think they were more guilty than all the others living in Jerusalem?  I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish.” (Luke 13:1-5)

Apparently the Roman governor, Pontius Pilate, had killed some men from Galilee on the sacred grounds of the Temple. We don’t know the specific circumstances of this event, or the motivation of those who told Jesus the news. Presumably the crowd shared the common opinion that this sort of tragedy would only befall people who specially deserved it.

Jesus flatly contradicted that notion, with his response, “Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans because they suffered this way? I tell you, no!”  To make his point even more strongly, Jesus shifted from the political massacre to a plain natural accident: “…Or those eighteen who died when the tower in Siloam fell on them—do you think they were more guilty than all the others living in Jerusalem?  I tell you, no!”

Thus, Jesus made as plain as it could possibly be that in this life the same tragedies befall all types of people. There is no magical protection for the warm-hearted or the young or for care-givers. The mortality rate for everyone is 100%. This impartiality of suffering and death is a logical outcome of all people inhabiting the same world of relentless, uniform cause and effect. [1]

While all humans experience pain and loss, they also experience various gifts and pleasures without regard to their moral merit. As noted above, Jesus observed that God “causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous”, and also that the beauties of nature like the “lilies of the field” are accessible to all.

Jesus held up God’s impartiality in bestowing blessings as an example to imitate, urging his disciples to likewise love both enemies as well as friends, in order to act like “children of your Father in heaven”:

You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? And if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect. (Mat 5:43-48)

Implications of “No Signs” and “No Justice” for Creationism and for Apologetics

No Evidence of a Young Earth or of Special Creation of Humans

These observations do not bode well for those hoping to find hard evidence for God in the natural world. My earlier survey of the classic Bible verses on natural theology (which did not include any sayings of Jesus) concluded, in part:

Finally, the expectation of discernable gaps in the natural order is not supported by our survey here of biblical natural theology. Whatever aspect of nature Paul had in mind when he asserted in Romans 1 that God’s “eternal power and divine nature” are displayed in nature, it had to be something that was readily accessible to everyone everywhere, not requiring lengthy explication by Christian apologists. Presumably Paul was referring to the size and intricate functioning of the universe, which demonstrates the power and skill and care of the Creator.

Some people respond to the gift of existence with gratitude to their Creator, while others shrug it off and focus on created things. Paul writes that God’s attributes are “plain” and “clearly seen” from the natural world. Nevertheless, Romans 1 emphasizes that unbelievers can and do dismiss this natural revelation. There are reasonable grounds for Christian faith, but the evidence is not of the type to compel assent by someone who does not choose to believe.

Here we have found that Jesus’s teachings are in accord with what is taught in the rest of the Bible: no physical sign will be given to the world at large. This precludes the existence of discernable gaps in the natural order.

Theists sometimes assert that the Big Bang origin of our universe is a formational gap which requires a purposeful creative being beyond the universe. There is some merit to this argument, but atheists can counter that, maybe, our universe is just one of an infinite number of universes which happen to pop into existence as part of an eternal multiverse which just happens to exist. The otherwise awkward fact that our universe is exquisitely fine-tuned to allow the existence of ordinary matter (and thus carbon-based life-forms like us) is conveniently explained away: out of an infinite number of all possible universes, some will allow matter and have life, and we happen to live in one of those. This multiverse theory, however mathematically pleasing, is beyond hard empirical verification, and thus is every bit as faith-based as theism. So these cosmological arguments seem to end in a draw, which is what we should expect if no general physical sign of the supernatural is to be available. [2]

Young Earth (YE) creationists claim that physical observations, properly understood, point to a young earth, a worldwide Flood, and miraculous (not evolutionary) origin of humans, thus validating the Bible [3].  Intelligent Design (ID) proponents likewise aim to validate their theistic worldview by finding evidence that naturalistic evolution cannot explain the complexity observed in living things [4].

If there really were clear evidence (e.g. rock layers from a recent worldwide Flood) of supernatural intervention on a geologic scale, or clear evidence of the un-natural origin of the human species, that would constitute a widely-accessible miraculous “sign” for unbelievers. However, Jesus flatly declared that no such sign would be given. YE creationism and Intelligent Design are thus founded on premises which run counter to what Christ himself taught.

Is the Prevalence of Injustice and Suffering Evidence Against God?

Richard Dawkins observed in River Out of Eden, “In a universe of electrons and selfish genes, blind physical forces and genetic replication, some people are going to get hurt, other people are going to get lucky, and you won’t find any rhyme or reason in it, nor any justice. The universe that we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil, no good, nothing but pitiless indifference.” This passage is sometimes cited as a devastating critique of theism. That is nonsense.  In his physical observations Dawkins here is merely echoing Christ’s teaching two thousand years ago on the nature of the universe: no partiality, no justice in outcomes is evident in this life, and suffering is the lot of all. And of course the universe is indifferent – how could an expanse of matter and energy be anything but indifferent?

Dawkins takes the indifference of the universe to be evidence against a loving, purposeful creator. My purpose here is not to critique Dawkins’s worldview in detail, but it would appear that he is bringing in some unstated and un-demonstrable premises like “There is no eternal afterlife which could compensate for the suffering in this life” and “If I cannot conceive of satisfactory justification for the suffering in this life, there is no such justification.” If those premises could be proven true, then his atheistic conclusions would readily follow. However, these premises are unwarranted: Dawkins has no way of knowing that there is no afterlife, and it is foolish to hold that an infinite Mind which conceived and created the universe could not sustain worthy purposes which are beyond the ken of the three pounds of neurons lying between our ears.

Nearly all of us have or will experience deeply distressing griefs and losses affecting us or people we care about. Issues with unexplained suffering are a subset of the general “problem of evil”: How could a good and powerful God allow these horrifying events? I have dealt with the intellectual problem of evil elsewhere,  following Greg Bahnsen’s treatment. (This logical treatment is intended only to meet the intellectual challenge to theism posed by the existence of evil; it does not address at a pastoral level the trauma associated with suffering).

The bottom line is that it is eminently reasonable to infer that an all-good and all-powerful Creator has a morally sufficient reason for the evil that exists, whether or not He reveals to us that reason. Thus, within theism there is no actual philosophical problem of evil. The unbeliever, however, finds this explanation offensive to his sensibilities. As Bahnsen notes, the problem of evil is not a valid intellectual basis for a lack of faith in God. Rather, it is the expression or consequence of such a lack of faith:

What we find is that unbelievers who challenge the Christian faith end up reasoning in circles. Because they lack faith in God, they begin by arguing that evil is incompatible with the goodness and power of God. When they are presented with a logically adequate and Biblically supported solution to the problem of evil (viz., God has a morally sufficient but undisclosed reason for the evil that exists), they refuse to accept it, again because of their lack of faith in God. They would rather be left unable to give an account of any moral judgment whatsoever (about things being good or evil) than to submit to the ultimate and unchallengeable moral authority of God.

While it is plain that suffering and tragedy are widespread in human experience, so are pleasures and gratifying accomplishments and relationships. I have seen atheists parade distressing images such as babies with terrible birth defects to drive home how cruel the world is, as evidence against God. On the other hand, we can enjoy flowers and sunsets as evidence of an artistic Creator. And for every baby born in the U.S. with birth defects, thirty-two are born without them [5]. Healthy and unhealthy babies are both real. It is not realistic to focus on one side without appropriately acknowledging the other.

Most people, even those undergoing severe difficulties, choose to keep on living another day instead of ending their lives, indicating that they find continued existence in this imperfect world to be a net plus.   Most folks reading this article on their hi-tech tablets, phones, or computers have had opportunity for education, have enough to eat, and (hopefully) have some friends. The existence of each one of us, and of our loved ones, as distinct, unique individuals, is intertwined with the impartial physical processes of this particular universe we inhabit. We can choose to just complain about the bad, or to be grateful for all the good as well.

Beyond This World

Even with an appropriate acknowledgment of all the good in the world, some folks will still conclude that existence is a net negative. The apostle Paul would agree with that assessment, if one’s perspective is confined to this present physical universe. He described this viewpoint as being “without hope and without God in the world” (Eph 2:12). He told the Corinthians that if their only hope was for things to go well for them in this life, they were “of all people most to be pitied” (I Cor. 15:19). If the dead are not raised, then the Epicurean approach of just maximizing current pleasure would make sense: “Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die.” (I Cor 15:32).

The second half of Paul’s own life was marked by toil, suffering, and disappointments. He was constantly being beaten and imprisoned. What kept Paul going was the hope of a future resurrection. This hope allowed Paul to put pain in this life into a larger perspective: “For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all. So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen, since what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal” (II Cor. 4:17-18); and “I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us” (Rom 8:18).

In the next life, we shall see clearly and “understand fully”. At present, however, we see only “dimly” and understand only “in part” (I Cor 13:11-12). This present life, with all its uncertainties and distress, is the arena where we can exercise courage, demonstrate trust in God’s character, and perform good works whose value will endure for eternity (I Cor. 3:12-15).

In the next life, all that is unworthy, even the vivid memory of shame and pain and injustice will vanish (the imagery is that they are consumed in a refining fire), while every act of faithful goodness will be celebrated forever. The grief at losing a child will be no more; all the joy of the child’s early days or years will remain, and the child herself will be present in the company of God’s people.

Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away…God’s dwelling place is now among the people, and he will dwell with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away. [Rev. 21:1, 3-4]

A heavy emphasis on the next life could potentially lead to detached other-worldliness or to inhumane behavior such as crusades or jihadism. Not so for Paul. For him, the highest virtue was not coercion or abstract contemplation, but a positive and engaged love for God and for other people (I Cor 13:2-13).

In his long-term optimism Paul went so far as to say, “We know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him”(Rom 8:28), and “Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword? … For I am convinced that neither death nor life… nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Rom 8:35, 38a, 39b).

He held that not only God’s people, but the whole creation would someday undergo transformation. He affirms that this present world is marked by suffering: “We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time” (Rom 8:22). However, in God’s time, “The creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the freedom and glory of the children of God” (Rom. 8:21).

Besides his robust expectation of a better experience in the next life, Paul enjoyed the comfort of the Holy Spirit here and now: “Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day”. (II Cor. 4:16). This Spirit confirms to believers’ hearts that they have been adopted as beloved children, which in turn acts as a guarantee or down-payment of the future redemption (II Cor. 5:5).

Jesus appreciated aspects of daily life such as flowers and children. When he turned water into wine, it was excellent wine. However, he directed his followers to not confine their hopes to this world: “What good is it for someone to gain the whole world, and yet lose or forfeit their very self?” (Luke 9:25). After his friend Lazarus had died, he assured Lazarus’s grieving sister Martha, “I am the resurrection and the life; he who believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live” (John 11:25 RSV). He told his disciples that he would “prepare a place” for them in his Father’s house, so that someday they “may also be where I am.” (John 14:3).  Once when his disciples returned from preaching and healing, glowing and excited over their prowess, he advised them to not get their identity from success in ministry, but  instead to “Rejoice that your names are written in heaven” (Luke 10:20).

It can be discouraging when we try to do good, and then experience backlash instead of appreciation. Jesus gave spine-stiffening, future-oriented counsel for this sort of situation: “Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you” (Mat 5:11-12).

Justice will in the end be served, but it will be on God’s terms, not ours. Jesus told a number of parables illustrating the wisdom of living in the light of eternity. These stories often involved a master or landowner who set up a household or vineyard and then went away, leaving affairs under the stewardship of his servants or tenants. After some long, indeterminate time, they came face to face with the master, who evaluated whether they had been doing what they felt like doing as though they owned the place, or whether they had operated diligently with a clear sense of their responsibility to the master. To the servants who had, in the master’s absence, managed affairs in ways that brought credit to him, the master gave this commendation: “Well done, good and faithful servant! You have been faithful with a few things; I will put you in charge of many things. Come and share your master’s happiness!” (Mat 25:23). There is, of course, a parallel to today’s humans who live in a universe created by, and thus owe their very existence to, a God who for now appears to be absent.

In this parable, the master did not reward the “good and faithful” servants with a few coins and an extra night off. Rather, their faithful service qualified them to step up closer to the master and his ways: “I will put you in charge of many things. Come and share your master’s happiness!”

The reward in eternity is not sitting passively on a cloud wearing a halo, but the joy of being in the presence of God and knowing him more fully and dynamically. That prospect may hold little attraction for those whose hearts are cold towards God. But for those who know God’s love, and love him in return, simply experiencing his presence will be completely fulfilling.

I doubt most people would object to experiencing exactly one second of excruciating pain, if that were the only pain they ever had to endure in their whole life. That pain would seem bearably brief. Unfortunately, the sufferings of this life may drag out for years of disability or pain. As we currently experience time, that seems long, far too long. Logically, however, the whole of a man’s or woman’s life is like the blink of an eye in comparison with eternity.

Thus, to focus entirely on the balance of pain and pleasure in this present physical world is to miss the larger reality. If a man cuts himself off from the hope of a future transformed life and from the current comfort of God’s presence, it is not surprising if he views reality as inconsistent with a good Creator. But this is as much a statement about this man’s presuppositions as it is about the world itself.

Flourishing in an Unjust World

Although he keenly observed the evils in the world, and although he himself was often in physical danger, Jesus did not exhibit cynicism or anxiety. While he displayed appropriate anger and grief in some situations and suffered mental anguish at his hour of supreme crisis, he was basically a happy,  confident man. His teachings were laced with subtle humor. People wanted him at their parties. He lived in such joy and such peace that he offered to share it with his followers:

These things I have spoken to you, that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be full. (John 15:11 RSV)

Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid. (John 14:27)

I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world. (John 16:33)

In the last two verses above, Jesus differentiated the peace he offers from what “the world” can give. For most people, personal peace is largely synonymous with absence of external troubles. Jesus, however, offered inner peace and joy in the presence of these troubles which are part of life.

A key feature informing his thinking was the love relationship between him and God the Father. At the commencement of his public life the Father spoke to him, “You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well-pleased” (Mark 1:11; cf. Mat 17:5).  Thus, even before he had done anything notable, Jesus’s ministry was defined by this love. His teachings cannot be understood apart from this dynamic, real-time, personal relationship. All his actions and ethics flowed from this source.

Jesus’s ministry was largely about bringing humanity to share in this love. His last recorded prayer for his followers concludes, “I have made you known to them, and will continue to make you known in order that the love you have for me may be in them and that I myself may be in them.” (John 17:26).  Jesus both displayed that love (“Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end”  John 13:1) and required it of others. To share in his joy involves receiving his love and passing it along to others:

 As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you. Now remain in my love. If you keep my commands, you will remain in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commands and remain in his love. I have told you this so that my joy may be in you and that your joy may be complete. My command is this: Love each other as I have loved you.  Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. (John 15:9-13)

When asked which was the greatest commandment in the Old Testament Law, Jesus (Mat 22:37-38) cited this command from Deuteronomy: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind,” adding, “This is the first and greatest commandment.”   He immediately followed up with another command from Leviticus, “And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’  All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments” (Mat 22:39-40). While thoroughgoing love for God is foremost, love for other people is just as essential.

Jesus maintained an ongoing personal communion with the Father. Sometimes he would spend a whole night in prayer. He positioned himself to be sensitive to the moment-by-moment will of God (John 5:19-20).

Flowing from this intimacy was a deep confidence in the Father’s goodness and presence, no matter the circumstance. He matter-of-factly told his disciples that they would abandon him: “A time is coming and in fact has come when you will be scattered, each to your own home. You will leave me all alone.” But there was one who would stick with him: “Yet I am not alone, for my Father is with me” (John 16:32).

This was all put to the test at the end of his life on earth. Jesus knew that the Father always heard his prayers (John 11:41). However, as with our prayers today, not every request of his was granted. He was aware that the religious authorities were trying to arrest him, which would result in hours of mocking and beating, a devastating scourging, and finally being tortured to death through crucifixion. He prayed in anguish, “My Father, if it is possible, may this cup be taken from me. Yet not as I will, but as you will” (Mat 26:39).  Despite his plea, the cup of suffering was not taken from him. He entered thoroughly into the human experience of suffering and injustice.

This prayer expressed a normal desire to avoid this ghastly experience, but also his trust in the Father’s greater purposes (“Yet not as I will, but as you will”). Jesus endured the cross “for the joy set before him” (Heb 12:2). That again conveys Jesus’s trust in the Father’s goodness and ultimate purpose. That is what sustained him through this horrible time. And Jesus did enter into a joyful reward, following his obedient suffering.  We now follow his example: “So then, those who suffer according to God’s will should commit themselves to their faithful Creator and continue to do good” (I Pet 4:19).

God is able to bring good out of the worst situations, as articulated by the patriarch Joseph. His brothers had treated him abominably, yet their selling him into slavery resulted in his family (and millions of others) surviving a long famine. Thus, he told his brothers, “You meant evil against me; but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive“ (Gen 50:20 RSV).

For most tragedies, no good purpose is revealed in this life. There are exceptions, however, when we can see a greater good being accomplished. Jesus’s death is one of these exceptions. In the moment, it seemed like pointless misery: a promising life cut short, his enemies gloating, his family and followers in despair. However, his death and resurrection opened the way for ordinary humans to enter into the same type of love relationship with the Father which Jesus enjoyed. That love relationship is the basis on which we can have the same confidence that he did in the Father’s good purposes, which in turn is our basis for peace and joy while living in an unjust world.

Consider the Lilies of the Field

Perhaps the best-known nature-related saying of Jesus is from chapter 6 of the gospel of Matthew:

25 “Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothes? 26 Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they? 27 Can any one of you by worrying add a single hour to your life?

28 “And why do you worry about clothes? See how the flowers of the field grow. They do not labor or spin. 29 Yet I tell you that not even Solomon in all his splendor was dressed like one of these. 30 If that is how God clothes the grass of the field, which is here today and tomorrow is thrown into the fire, will he not much more clothe you—you of little faith? 31 So do not worry, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ 32 For the pagans run after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them. 33 But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. 34 Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own. (Mat 6:25-34).

In the classic King James version, verse 28b is worded, “Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they toil not, neither do they spin: And yet I say unto you, that even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these.”

These words of Jesus from the Sermon on the Mount have been a source of comfort and peace to many believers. Jesus advised his disciples to focus on living today well, and to refrain from obsessing over tomorrow’s potential problems:

Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own. (Mat 6:34)

That is basic, psychologically sound advice which most modern counselors could endorse. However, there is some risk of taking these statements as blanket promises that dedicated Christians will never lack food or clothing or other physical necessities. Christians do, however, sometimes starve to death. Also, skeptics can mock, “Yeah, God feeds the birds…until He doesn’t, and they die of starvation.”

Was Jesus being naively optimistic in this passage? Not at all. He deals explicitly with the perishing of both flowers and birds. The grass, with its pretty wildflowers, is depicted (v. 30) as living only a short time before it is cut down and burned. In a subsequent address, Jesus told his disciples:

21 Brother will betray brother to death, and a father his child; children will rebel against their parents and have them put to death. 22 You will be hated by everyone because of me, but the one who stands firm to the end will be saved…..26 So do not be afraid of them, for there is nothing concealed that will not be disclosed, or hidden that will not be made known. 27 What I tell you in the dark, speak in the daylight; what is whispered in your ear, proclaim from the roofs.

28 Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather, be afraid of the One who can destroy both soul and body in hell. 29 Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground outside your Father’s care. 30 And even the very hairs of your head are all numbered. 31 So don’t be afraid; you are worth more than many sparrows.

….. 38 Whoever does not take up their cross and follow me is not worthy of me. 39 Whoever finds their life will lose it, and whoever loses their life for my sake will find it. (Mat 10:21-22; 26-31; 38-39)

Here Jesus acknowledges that birds die. He teaches, however, that God cares about each little sparrow. Although they may not be not highly valued by humans, “not one of them will fall to the ground outside your Father’s care”. The Greek here is more literally translated as “not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father”. This implies both knowledge and consent on God’s part regarding even the smallest workings of the natural world, including death. Some theologians believe that God in some sense suffers along with each of his creatures. The parallel verse in Luke 12:6 reads, “Are not five sparrows sold for two pennies? Yet not one of them is forgotten by God.”  Jesus teaches forcefully that God cares even more about us and our deaths, stating “you are worth more than many sparrows”, and that “even the very hairs of your head are all numbered.”

Is this meant to convey that bad things will not happen to us? No, quite the opposite. This discussion about sparrows dying is part of an extended passage (Mat 10:5-42) where Jesus gives instructions to his closest twelve disciples just before sending them out for some short-term missionary work. He warns them that they will face hostility and even the possibility of being murdered because of sharing his message. Church tradition indicates that, out of the eleven faithful disciples, ten were in fact eventually killed for their witness, while the eleventh (John) spent years in exiled imprisonment.

A key object of this teaching was to help these disciples to “not be afraid” at this prospect. Death cannot be evaded indefinitely by man or beast, so cowardice is no long term solution. The wise man will live with a view toward pleasing God, who will have the final word. With his eternal future settled, the disciple can live fearlessly. He can be unimpressed by rulers and mobs who can “kill the body but cannot kill the soul.” God knows and cares intensely about him, so he can be confident that he will be called home to God only when it is the right time.

Circling back to the Sermon on the Mount passage in Matthew 6: the encouragement (v. 25) to “not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear” follows the word “Therefore”. This indicates that Jesus’s admonition to “not worry” is not just a free-floating, feel-good maxim. Rather, it is the logical conclusion of the preceding discourse:

19 Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moths and vermin destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. 20 But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moths and vermin do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal. 21 For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.

22 The eye is the lamp of the body. If your eyes are healthy, your whole body will be full of light. 23 But if your eyes are unhealthy, your whole body will be full of darkness. If then the light within you is darkness, how great is that darkness!

24 No one can serve two masters. Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and money. (Mat 6:19-24)

As with so many of his teachings, Jesus here is urging his followers to take a long-term, big-picture perspective. Everything in this life is temporary and insecure, so to place our hope in our health and possessions is foolish. Giving  money and time to ministries and to the poor, and other deeds of faith and love, will build up for us “treasures in heaven”, which are secure and eternal. The Greek words for “healthy” and “unhealthy” eyes also imply “generous” and “stingy”, respectively. This multi-layered metaphor indicates that a person who trusts God will have a generous attitude and an overall healthy outlook. Otherwise, they will be fearful of not having enough for themselves and thus will be stingy towards others and will become slaves to trying to acquire enough stuff or power or skills or friends to feel secure. Our attitude towards money and other provisions colors our entire approach to life.

In his teaching on not worrying, Jesus is not endorsing laziness or irresponsibility, or saying that nothing tragic or unpleasant will happen. His promise of provision is directed specifically at those who share his priorities. There may not be much solace here for those whose highest priority is their physical and emotional comfort. However, those who “seek first his kingdom and his righteousness” can be assured that they will be provided with whatever resources are needed to accomplish God’s will in their lives. For those who love God and who desire to follow and please him, in their lives and in their deaths, Jesus’s promise of the Father’s care provides grounds for courage and peace.


Unless otherwise noted, all Bible quotations are from the New International Version.

[1] Whatever miracles of healing which still occur today would be exceptions to the general rule of the uniformity of nature. The mortality rate is still 100%.

That said, it seems to me that “no signs” does not preclude surprising or unlikely provisions or answers to prayers, or inexplicable insights or words of knowledge, as long as they don’t involve outright and public exceptions to normal physical laws.

[2]  While it cannot be empirically verified, and is subject to other critiques, the hypothesis of an eternally-existing multiverse is an honest alternative to the supernatural creation of our universe. What is not so honest is the claim by Lawrence Krauss that whole universes can pop out of nothing, such that no Creator is needed. It turns out that Krauss gets all his mileage by equivocating on the definition of “nothing.” We have known for many decades that a vacuum which is devoid of detectable particles is not really empty. There are always fluctuating quantum fields, leading to the appearance and rapid disappearance of pairs of virtual particles. The vacuum is also permeated with “dark energy”, which drives the accelerating expansion of the universe.

Even if it were reasonable to extrapolate from the appearance of pairs of particles to the production of a whole universe from the vacuum state, the quantum vacuum is not “nothing.” True “nothing” would involve the absence of the pre-existing quantum fields. This is pretty basic, and a number of scholars have taken Krauss to task here. Krauss also tries to appeal to the Wheeler-Dewitt equation to invoke an even deeper form of “nothing”, but this also fails: this equation deals with a whole collection of spaces, which again are not “nothing.”

[3] Here are some citations to support the assertion that “Young earth creationists claim that physical observations, properly understood, point to a young earth, a worldwide Flood, and miraculous (not evolutionary) origin of humans, thus validating the Bible”.

According to Terry Mortenson of Answers in Genesis:

When the creation is carefully observed and properly interpreted it will be seen to confirm what God’s Word has revealed….. And over the past 50 years, true science has been increasingly confirming Scripture. With more research by both evolutionists and creationists in the years ahead, we can fully expect that many questions that young-earth creationists cannot presently answer will later be answered and will be shown to confirm that God created the whole universe a few thousand years ago, then cursed His whole creation a few days later because of Adam’s sin and then destroyed it with a global, catastrophic, year-long flood at the time of Noah, just as the Bible clearly teaches.

Miche Maniguet of Creation Ministries International writes:

Any CE [Creation Evangelism] strategy to reach unbelievers should take advantage of the scientific evidence mounting against evolution as Christians attempt to persuade them of ‘the things concerning Jesus’.

[4] The excerpts below from the Discovery Institute’s “Wedge Document” support our assertion that  “Intelligent Design (ID) proponents likewise aim to validate their theistic worldview by finding evidence that naturalistic evolution cannot explain the complexity observed in living things”.

This document,  titled “The Wedge” by its authors, was prepared by the Discovery Institute in 1998. It describes the strategy by which the newly-formed Center for Renewal of Science and Culture was to promote Intelligent Design. The plan was to discover and expose inadequacies in naturalistic evolution as a means to overthrow “scientific materialism” and to “replace it with a science consonant with Christian and theistic convictions”:

Debunking the traditional conceptions of both God and man, thinkers such as Charles Darwin, Karl Marx, and Sigmund Freud portrayed humans not as moral and spiritual beings, but as animals or machines who inhabited a universe ruled by purely impersonal forces and whose behavior and very thoughts were dictated by the unbending forces of biology, chemistry, and environment. This materialistic conception of reality eventually infected virtually every area of our culture, from politics and economics to literature and art. The cultural consequences of this triumph of materialism were devastating.

…. Discovery Institute’s Center for the Renewal of Science and Culture seeks nothing less than the overthrow of materialism and its cultural legacies. Bringing together leading scholars from the natural sciences and those from the humanities and social sciences, the Center explores how new developments in biology, physics and cognitive science raise serious doubts about scientific materialism and have re-opened the case for a broadly theistic understanding of nature.

… If we view the predominant materialistic science as a giant tree, our strategy is intended to function as a “wedge” that, while relatively small, can split the trunk when applied at its weakest points. The very beginning of this strategy, the “thin edge of the wedge,” was Phillip ]ohnson’s critique of Darwinism begun in 1991 in Darwinism on Trial, and continued in Reason in the Balance and Defeating Darwinism by Opening Minds. Michael Behe’s highly successful Darwin’s Black Box followed Johnson’s work. We are building on this momentum, broadening the wedge with a positive scientific alternative to materialistic scientific theories, which has come to be called the theory of intelligent design (ID). Design theory promises to reverse the stifling dominance of the materialist worldview, and to replace it with a science consonant with Christian and theistic convictions.

…[Proposed activities for the Institute include] Front line research funding at the “pressure points” (e.g., Paul Chien’s Chengjiang Cambrian Fossil Find in paleontology, and Doug Axe’s research laboratory in molecular biology).

[5] From the Centers for Disease Control: “Birth defects affect one in every 33 babies (about 3% of all babies) born in the United States each year”

Posted in Bible Interpretation, Intelligent Design, Natural Theology, Suffering | Tagged , , , , | 7 Comments

“Big Daddy” Chick Tract: The Most Widely-Distributed Anti-Evolution Publication


The Best-Seller

Fossil Evidence for Intermediate Human-Primate Species

The Chick Tract Treatment of Anthropoid Fossils

“Big Daddy”: Fruits, Roots, and Responses

* *   *   *   *    *   *   *   *    *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *

The Best-Seller

There are two living authors whose works have sold over half a billion copies. One is American novelist Danielle Steel. The other is Christian pamphleteer Jack Chick. Now 91 years old, the reclusive Chick has reportedly sold a staggering 750 million copies of his illustrated tracts and comic books since 1960. His works have been translated into over 100 languages and are widely distributed by missionaries and other Christian workers.  Many of his publications are consistent with mainstream evangelicalism, stressing man’s accountability to God and the necessity of personal integrity and of following Christ. Some of his tracts, however, vehemently attack modern secularism and also religious views (especially Roman Catholicism) that Chick disagrees with.

I recall being handed a copy of his anti-evolution cartoon tract, “Big Daddy”, many years ago. This pamphlet, which first appeared in 1972, is reportedly “the most widely distributed anti-evolution booklet in history“.   A recent article by Paul Braterman on the Primates Progress blog ,” How to lie about radiometric dating, evolution, and even nuclear physics “,  brought this Chick tract back to my attention. This pamphlet continues to be sold in bulk at 16 cents apiece, and stands as an example of the arguments brought against evolution by some Christians. The complete tract is shown on the Chick Publications web site. I will display some representative panels here, and comment on the accuracy of their scientific claims.

Big Daddy cover

The cartoons start off with a professor, flanked by a portrait of a banana-eating ape titled “Our Father”, asking:

Prof who believes

The whole class calls out “We do, sir!” One courageous Christian student dissents, and battle is joined:

I will shred

In the cartoons, the student shoots down all the pro-evolution evidences put forth by the increasingly-desperate professor. By the end the professor becomes convinced that evolution is wrong. He decides he can no longer teach it, and naively hopes that the university administration will tolerate his change of view:

Prof quits

It would be tedious to analyze the whole tract, panel by panel. The Primate’s Progress article  does an excellent job critiquing many of these items, and discusses the psychology that lies behind such authorship. A briefer rebuttal of each panel in “Big Daddy” is given by Robert Stovold.

Fossil Evidence for Intermediate Human-Primate Species

A core concern of “Big Daddy” is the plausibility of potential human ancestors. I’ll start by recapping the current state of fossil evidence, then discuss how the tract treats the subject.

A large number of fossils have been found which represent species with mixed ape and human characteristics. The earliest of these species are more ape-like, but with time, more-human features appear. The “Prominent Hominid Fossils” page on the TalkOrigins site provides an accessible treatment of this subject. Over 60 fossil finds are briefly discussed, usually with photos provided, representing about a dozen species of hominids. Also, the Wikipedia “List of human evolution fossils“ article has a table with dozens of entries, listed in order of age. Most of these entries have photos of an actual skull and links to further articles.

I’ll comment on some of the more significant of these ancient species:

Australopithecus afarensis – – This hominid lived between 3.9 and 2.9 million years ago. Its brain size was about 380–430 cm3, roughly the same as modern chimpanzees. The Wikipedia article lists at least eight major fossil specimens of this species, so it is well-established. The most famous specimen is “Lucy”, a female partial skeleton found in 1974. It had a mixture of ape-like and human-like features: while features of Lucy’s arms and hands resemble those of apes, “in overall anatomy, the pelvis is far more human-like than ape-like. The iliac blades are short and wide, the sacrum is wide and positioned directly behind the hip joint, and evidence of a strong attachment for the knee extensors is clear.”

Young earth creationists sometimes try to dismiss the significance of Australopithecus afarensis fossils like Lucy by saying these were merely chimpanzees. This assertion is so straightforward to disprove that one professor developed a classroom exercise for biology teachers, which shows students the fossil evidence and let them draw their own conclusions. In the main figure of that exercise, chimpanzee bones and teeth are shown on the left, human bones are on the right, and “Lucy” remains are shown in the middle. Anatomical traits numbered, and numbers that represent humanlike states are underlined. Below is a portion of that figure dealing with just the lower jaw and teeth. It is obvious that some Lucy features are more closely resemble chimps, and some more closely resemble humans, just as expected for a species which is intermediate between humans and other primates.

Lucy jaw bones

Skeletons of chimpanzee (left), the australopithecine specimen AL 288-1 (“Lucy”) (middle), and a modern human (right), with anatomical traits numbered according to Table 1. Numbers that represent humanlike states are underlined. Source: Were Australopithecines Ape–Human Intermediates or Just Apes? A Test of Both Hypotheses Using the “Lucy” Skeleton, by Prof. Phil Senter (Fayetteville State University, NC)

Homo habilis – – At least five major fossil specimens are known. This species lived 1.5 to 2.8 million years ago. Its brain size of 550 cm3 to 687 cm3 was about 50% larger than that of the australopithecines, but still much less than modern humans (typically 1350 to 1450 cm³). This is one of the earliest species that used flaked stone tools.

Homo erectus  – –  The fossil evidence for Homo erectus (“Upright man”) extends from 1.9 million years ago to 70,000 years ago. Dozens of fossils have been found, on three continents. H. erectus starts to look fairly human, but with some significant differences. Large brow ridges and large teeth remain, and the brain size (750-1250 cm3) was generally smaller than modern man. Several groupings of fossils are subsumed under this species classification. There was a trend toward larger brain size and overall more resemblance to modern humans for some of the more recent Homo erectus fossils, indicating evolution within this species. These folks made fairly sophisticated stone hand-axes, and might have mastered the use of fire. Both Neanderthals and modern humans are thought to have evolved from some branch of Homo erectus. Here is a Homo erectus skull dated about 1.6 million years ago, with a brain size of 850 cm3:

KNM-ER 3733, Homo erectus (or Homo ergaster). Discovered at Koobi Fora in Kenya and thought to be female. The whole skull is similar to some of the Peking Man fossils.  Source: TalkOrigins

KNM-ER 3733, Homo erectus (or Homo ergaster). Discovered at Koobi Fora in Kenya and thought to be female. The whole skull is similar to some of the Peking Man fossils.                      Source: TalkOrigins

Homo heidelbergensis – – Because it shares features with both Homo erectus and modern humans, this species is sometimes viewed as a late, advanced Homo erectus or an archaic Homo sapiens. At any rate, it is the sort of intermediate fossil that evolutionary theory predicts. Individuals lived in Africa, Europe and western Asia between 600 and 200 thousand years ago.

Homo neanderthalensis –  –  The bones of about 400 individuals have been found ranging from about 30,000 to 300,000 years old. Despite many similarities, Neanderthals had stouter limbs, a wider, barrel-shaped rib cage, a reduced chin and a much larger nose than modern humans. Their typical brain volume (1600 cm3) was slightly higher than modern humans, and their skulls were more elongated, with a “bun” at the back (see figure below). Although they were very similar to Homo sapiens, DNA evidence shows they were a separate species which split off from the lineage of Homo sapiens around 400,000 years ago.  There are indications that some interbreeding with modern humans took place much later in Europe or Asia.

Anatomical comparison of skulls of Homo sapiens (left) and Homo neanderthalensis (right)   , in Cleveland Museum of Natural History.   Features compared are the braincase shape, forehead, browridge, nasal bone, projection, cheek bone angulation, chin, and occipital contour.   Source: Wikipedia article “Anatomically modern human”.

Anatomical comparison of skulls of Homo sapiens (left) and Homo neanderthalensis (right) , in Cleveland Museum of Natural History. Features compared are the braincase shape, forehead, browridge, nasal bone, projection, cheek bone angulation, chin, and occipital contour. Source: Wikipedia article “Anatomically modern human”.

Homo sapiens – – Anatomically modern humans appeared in Africa about 200,000 years ago. Evidence indicates that about 70,000 years ago some of them left Africa and eventually spread all over the world. There has been some evolution within this species over the millennia. Some of earliest Homo sapiens fossils such as Skhul/Qafzeh people displayed brow ridges. Somewhat later Homo sapiens, such as the Cro-Magnon people living in Europe 30,000-40,000 years ago, had more robust skeletons and larger brains on average than today’s humans.

Nick Matzke has plotted the brain size and age of many individual fossil representatives of the species discussed above. It can be seen that there are many fossils of increasingly human-like species over the past 3 million years, which is consistent with modern humans evolving from earlier primates.

Ages and cranial capacity data: C. De Miguel and M. Henneberg (2001). "Variation in hominid brain size: How much is due to method?" Homo 52(1), pp. 3-58. Cranial capacity of modern humans: McHenry et al. (1994). "Tempo and mode in human evolution." Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 91:6780-6. Graphic by Nick Matzke, National Center for Science Education.    Source:   “Transitional Fossils Are Not Rare”, NCSE on line. September 25th, 2008.

Ages and cranial capacity data: C. De Miguel and M. Henneberg (2001). “Variation in hominid brain size: How much is due to method?” Homo 52(1), pp. 3-58. Cranial capacity of modern humans: McHenry et al. (1994). “Tempo and mode in human evolution.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 91:6780-6. Graphic by Nick Matzke, National Center for Science Education. Source: “Transitional Fossils Are Not Rare”, NCSE on line. September 25th, 2008.

Although not every little transition is filled in here, this is an impressive array of fossils which supports the notion that today’s humans evolved from earlier species. Some general principles for assessing fossil intermediates are given in Realistic Expectations for Transitional Fossils . (It is worth noting that even more powerful than the fossil evidence is the modern genetic evidence for common ancestry between humans and other primates, as discussed in Endogenous Retroviruses in Your Genome Show Common Ancestry with Primates. )

The Chick Tract Treatment of Anthropoid Fossils

The relevant cartoons in “Big Daddy” are shown below:

Main cartoons from Big Daddy

Cartoon of ape-men

I’ll discuss nine claims made in these cartoons:

(1) “Richard Leakey found a normal human skull under a layer of rock dated at 212 million years”

This statement is false. TalkOrigins explains:

What Richard Leakey actually found was an early, primitive skull in a layer of rock that dates a little more recently than 2 million years. The physical characteristics and date of the skull are quite consistent with human evolution.

  • The skull in question, KNM-ER 1470, is not that of a normal human. Among other things, the skull capacity (750cc) is far below that of an average modern human and the face is much more robust. Nearly all anthropologists agree that this skull is either a very early member of the homo genus (Homo rudolfensis) or a member of another hominin genus entirely (e.g., Australopithecus or Kenyanthropus).
  • The original dating of the rock at over 200 Ma was false due to contamination of the sample with older volcanic rock. Subsequent dating methods converged on a range of dates between about 2.9 and 1.8 Ma, and in the early 80s, the discrepancy was finally resolved at 1.8 Ma.

(2) “Lucy was only an unusual chimpanzee”, and “Nearly all experts agree that Lucy was just a 3 foot tall chimpanzee.” This is blatantly false. See discussion of Lucy above, under “Australopithecus afarensis”, showing many features closer to humans than to chimps.

(3) “HEIDELBERG MAN Built from a jaw bone that was conceded by many to be quite human”.

This statement implies that “Heidelberg Man” is a shaky concept (based only on a single jawbone), and that this was essentially a modern human. This is false.

While the first fossil of Homo heidelbergensis   (“Heidelberg Man”) was indeed a jaw bone, found in 1907 near Heidelberg, Germany, other fossils of this species have been recovered in Ethiopia, Namibia and South Africa.  Many high-quality fossils have been found in caves in Spain.  These fossils are not of modern humans. Below is shown a skull from one of those caves. It is closer to modern humans than to apes, but clearly has the brow ridges and low forehead of a pre-modern species. It is thus an example of the type of intermediate species predicted by evolution.

"Homo heidelbergensis Cranium 5" was discovered in the Sima de los Huesos, Atapuerca (Spain).        Source:

“Homo heidelbergensis Cranium 5” was discovered in the Sima de los Huesos, Atapuerca (Spain). Source:

(4) “NEBRASKA MAN   Scientifically built up from one tooth, later found to be the tooth of an extinct pig”.

An examiner of this tooth, Henry Osborn, believed it to be the tooth of an anthropoid ape, and published this conclusion in Science in 1922.  Further work at the field site uncovered more bones, which showed that the original tooth came from an extinct peccary, not an ape. Science published a retraction in 1927.

Here we have an honest mistake in the 1920’s, which was caught and corrected within five years. This is an example of the self-correcting nature of real science: after a hypothesis is proposed, it must sustain testing by colleagues in open debate.

Chick’s description here is largely correct (except that the “build-up” was mainly journalist, not “scientific”), but it is misleading to reach way back to a mistake (which was quickly corrected) nearly a hundred years ago as though that is representative of the anthropoid fossil record as a whole.

(5) “PILTDOWN MAN  The jawbone turned out to belong to a modern ape”.

Robert Stovold comments:

Piltdown Man was a hoax exposed in the 1950’s. The modern ape’s jaw had been filed down to make it look more human-like, making the fraud harder to spot than it would otherwise have been… The hoax was exposed by scientists, showing how science can correct its errors.

One hoax cannot indicate the inferiority of conventional archaeology, because creationists have several hoaxes of their own, including Paluxy footprints [supposedly human and dinosaur tracks in the same rock layer], the Calaveras skull, Moab and Malachite Man, and others. More telling is how people deal with these hoaxes. When Piltdown was exposed, it stopped being used as evidence. The creationist hoaxes, however, can still be found cited as if they were real.

( 6) “PEKING MAN    Supposedly 500,000 years old, but all the evidence has disappeared”.

This statement gives the impression that the notion of “Peking Man” is unsubstantiated. This, again, is a falsehood. The Wikipedia article notes that some 15 skulls and 11 jaws were found near Beijing (“Peking”) between 1929 and 1937 and were carefully studied. While the original fossils were lost as a result of the Japanese invasion of China during World War II, we have detailed descriptions and casts which were made of these fossils, and we also still have some teeth which can be dated. So it is not true that “all evidence has disappeared.”  Also, these fossils were representatives of Homo erectus, for which dozens of other fossils have been found, as noted above.

( 7) “NEANDERTHAL MAN     At the Int’l Congress of Zoology (1958) Dr. A.J.E. Cave said his examination showed this famous skeleton found in France over 50 years ago is that of an old man who suffered from arthritis.”

The wording here (“this famous skeleton found in France”) implies that that particular skeleton is the key evidence for Neanderthals, and also implies that a scholar opined that this was the skeleton of a regular (modern) man who happened to be elderly and arthritic. These points are both false.

As noted above, fossils of some 400 Neanderthals have been found at sites across Europe, the Middle East and central Asia which establish them as a separate species from Homo sapiens, with distinctive physical features. None of that is negated if one of these skeletons showed signs of arthritis. Also, the scholar here (Dr. Cave)  called attention to features like robust bones and musculature that differentiated it from today’s Homo sapiens.

(8) “NEW GUINEA MAN   Dates way back to 1970. This species has been found in the region just north of Australia”.

This is just a deceitful distractor. No textbook or other scientific publication refers to “New Guinea Man” (whatever that is supposed to be) as a link in human evolution. It seems that some young earth creationist just made this up.

(9) “CRO-MAGNON MAN    One of the earliest and best established fossils is at best equal in physique and brain capacity to modern man … so what’s the difference?”

This is yet another misleading distractor. This statement implies that scientists consider Cro-Magnons as a link in the evolution of modern humans, but scientists do no such thing. Since Cro-Magnons were fully modern humans, they cannot be considered as ancestors of modern humans. That Cro-Magnons had “physique and brain capacity” equal to modern man has no bearing on the evolutionary origins of Homo sapiens.

The tract put this statement in the mouth of the professor:

Cartoon list fossils

The tract attempted to discredit this declaration, but ironically it is the probably most valid science-related statement in the whole pamphlet. The fossils (which are far, far more than just a few fragments) do indeed display a progression from mixed ape/human features in Australopithecus afarensis, to gradually more human-like characteristics in Homo habilis and then Homo erectus (and other intermediate species as well), in full support of evolutionary expectations.

 “Big Daddy”:  Fruits, Roots, and Responses

The claims in the Chick tract regarding fossil evidence of human evolution were found to be deceitful, and are often outright falsehoods. It is not clear that Chick himself is educated enough to appreciate how wrong his pamphlet is. Young earth creationist popularizer Ken Hovind was involved in revising the tract in 1992. Hovind has read enough scientific literature that he should know better, but apparently he gleans from his reading only that which fits his worldview. Hovind’s creationist views are so extreme and irresponsible that other young earth creationist groups like Answers in Genesis have publically criticized him for continuing to use creationist arguments which have been discredited.

Whatever the inner thoughts of Jack Chick, his anti-evolution tract continues to be distributed by young earth creationists, and is considered by many to provide accurate information on human evolution. As an example, the Missing Links page of the Discovery News website directly or indirectly quotes a number of the statements in the Chick tract, such as the nonsense about “New Guinea Man”:

On the basis of such findings, that website assures its readers:

The fact is, the fossil record has not produced one piece of evidence that man has evolved from another species. Millions and millions of fossils have been unearthed, and not one of them substantiates the philosophy that man evolved from apes, monkeys, or any other animal.            If the theory of evolution were true, surely by now at least one credible piece of fossil evidence would have been unearthed.

Responsible citizens, and especially science educators, are rightly dismayed by this sort of teaching which motivates students from religious backgrounds to reject large realms of modern science. (It’s fine to question evolution, but it is not fine to mindlessly reject the reasonable answers which scientists provide to questions about evolution).

As a Christian, I am further dismayed by the bad witness entailed here. Long ago, Augustine warned against this sort of thing. He noted that if Christians claim that the Bible teaches something about the physical world which unbelievers know to be incorrect, they will be disinclined to give the more crucial teachings of the Bible a fair hearing:

Usually, even a non-Christian knows something about the Earth, the Heavens, and the other elements of this world, about the motion and orbit of the stars and even their size and relative positions, about the predictable eclipses of the sun and moon, the cycles of the years and the seasons, about the kinds of animals, shrubs, stones, and so forth, and this knowledge he holds to as being certain from reason and experience. Now, it is a disgraceful and dangerous thing for an infidel to hear a Christian, presumably giving the meaning of Holy Scripture, talking nonsense on these topics… If they find a Christian mistaken in a field which they themselves know well and hear him maintaining his foolish opinions about our books, how are they going to believe those books in matters concerning the resurrection of the dead, the hope of eternal life, and the kingdom of heaven, when they think their pages are full of falsehoods on facts which they themselves have learnt from experience and the light of reason?  – St. Augustine, The Literal Meaning of Genesis (408 A.D) Book 1, ch.19.

Many of my friends are young earth creationists, and I was in that camp myself at one time (see here for my story) , so I am acquainted with their motives. They are on the whole trying to do the right thing. The core problem is their conviction that the Genesis creation story (six-day creation, a few thousand years ago) must be taken as literally true. That conviction acts to filter out all the pro-evolution facts and reasoning presented by secular teachers. This willful blindness seems deplorable, but this sort of confirmation bias is common human behavior. Passionate political conservatives and liberals, for instance, can summarily dismiss any allegation that their side is in the wrong.

An ongoing stream of books, on-line articles, and videos published by young earth creationist organizations (and also by Intelligent Design proponents) serves to refute, in the minds of the faithful, the evidence presented by the “Darwinists”. The staff of those young earth organizations, such Answers in Genesis, the Institute for Creation Research, and the Creation Research Society bear the primary responsibility for the ongoing popularity of young earth creationism. Doing a Google search on a controversial evolutionary topic can uncover a breathtaking number of conservative Christian sites actively retailing the anti-evolution teachings from these organizations.

The secular sites and organizations which refute the misinformation of the anti-evolutionists are helpful in combatting this problem. I believe it is also important to address the theological error (i.e. the necessity of a literal interpretation of Genesis) that is at the root of young earth creationism. Believers should know that there are alternative, old-earth interpretations which are held by committed Christians, and which take into account the world-view of the people to whom the Scriptures were first given. Many of today’s Christians are not aware that the mainstream conservative Christian view on creation from about 1860 to 1960 was of an old earth. As discussed here,  it was only after John Whitcomb and Henry Morris took over the view of a discredited Seventh Day Adventist promoter of Flood geology and repackaged it in their 1961 volume, The Genesis Flood, that young earth creationism became fashionable in conservative Protestantism.

My approach to biblical interpretation which allows for honest interaction with modern science is described here.  The New Testament treatment of the Fall  is a controversial topic, which is discussed in Adam, the Fall, and Evolution.  Another, more structured resource is this Biologos article, “Why should Christians consider evolutionary creation?”, which includes a number of links to further testimonies and articles.

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Endogenous Retroviruses in Your Genome Show Common Ancestry with Primates

Introduction to Endogenous Retroviruses

Advances in biochemical technology since 2000 have allowed us to determine the full DNA sequences for humans and other animals. This new information has illuminated our evolutionary history. A number of patterns in our DNA are consistent with a common ancestry of humans and other primates.

One such genetic feature is the distribution of endogenous retroviruses (ERVs) in our genomes. As most readers know, viruses work by introducing their RNA or DNA into a host cell, and hijacking the host cell’s genetic machinery to start making more copies of the virus. Some viruses, called “retroviruses”, do this by having their RNA transcribed into DNA, which then gets inserted into the cell’s DNA genome. (This is considered “retro”, because normally in a cell DNA is transcribed into RNA, not the other way around). The HIV virus that causes AIDS is an example of a retrovirus. Once the virus’s DNA has been integrated into the host’s DNA, the viral genome is known as a prototype retrovirus, or provirus.

A virus may end up killing its host, or it may cause little damage. Various types of cells in an animal’s body can become infected with viruses. Most of us have experienced the common cold, where the virus thrives in the cells lining the respiratory tract. In some cases, a virus can infect a cell in the “germ line”. Germ line cells include the egg and sperm, as well as cells that produce the egg and sperm. If a retrovirus inserts its genetic load into a germ line cell of an animal, this viral DNA will then be passed down to all descendants of that animal, appearing as an “endogenous” retrovirus (ERV) in their genomes.

If that animal happened to be a common ancestor to two or more future species, all of these species would show this ERV at the same place in their genome, i.e. in orthologous (homologous) locations. Genomes mutate over time, and sometimes whole chunks of DNA get moved around, but there is generally enough genetic context to determine whether a location is homologous among the various primates. The ERVs themselves accumulate mutations that make them non-infectious and further degrade their sequences with time. Nevertheless, thousands of ERVs retain enough genetic identity to be clearly identified in the human genome.

The genetic signature of a retrovirus in the genome is very distinctive. ERVs have common features such as the genes that code for the viral coat protein and for the reverse transcriptase that copies the viral RNA genome into DNA. The ERV DNA codes for three groups of proteins, known as “gag” (matrix, capsid, nucleoproteins), “pol“ (protease, reverse transcriptase, RNaseH, dUTPase, integrase) and “env” (subunit and transmembrane). This genetic core is flanked by long terminal repeats (LTR) sections. Finally, when the retrovirus tears open the host genome for insertion, some of the torn original host DNA is recopied on either side of the viral insert.

Here is what all this looks like for the insertion of a particular retrovirus from the CERV 30 family into the chimpanzee genome:

Insertion of a member of the CERV 30 (HERVK10) family in chimps. The insertion occurred in the LINE element present in chromosome 10 of the chimpanzee genome. The orthologous LINE element is present in chromosome 12 in humans. In chimpanzees target site duplications (ATTAT) are identified. A single copy of TSD (ATTAT, the pre-integration site) is found inside the LINE element in humans. The LTRs of the element are 99.4% identical. Source: Nalini Polavarapu, Nathan J Bowen, and John F McDonald, Identification, characterization and comparative genomics of chimpanzee endogenous retroviruses, Genome Biol. 2006; 7(6): R51

Insertion of a member of the CERV 30 (HERVK10) family in chimps. The insertion occurred in the LINE element present in chromosome 10 of the chimpanzee genome. The orthologous LINE element is present in chromosome 12 in humans. In chimpanzees target site duplications (ATTAT) are identified. A single copy of TSD (ATTAT, the pre-integration site) is found inside the LINE element in humans. The LTRs of the element are 99.4% identical.
Source: Nalini Polavarapu, Nathan J Bowen, and John F McDonald, Identification, characterization and comparative genomics of chimpanzee endogenous retroviruses, Genome Biol. 2006; 7(6): R51

This happens to be an ERV that is in chimps, not in the human genome at that location. In the corresponding spot in the human genome, there is a sequence of DNA bases of: A T T A T. In the chimp genome, this sequence at the point of insertion has become duplicated on either side of the ERV, as discussed above. The ERV shows the usual features of the gag, pol, and env genes, with the LTRs on the ends.  More details about retroviral insertion are found here .

These distinctive features make it relatively straightforward to search through the human genome sequence and identify ERVs. At least 275 full-length ERV’s can be observed. These ERVs are relatively recent (e.g. last ten million years) arrivals to the primate genomes. Older ERVs tend to get chopped up by the usual shuffling of genomes over time. About 200,000 entities in human DNA, constituting a full 8% of the genome, have been identified as being ERVs or chunks of ERV’s. Most of these chunks are solitary LTRs. [cf. Lander, et al. (2001)  and Seifarth, et al.  (2005) ].

All human ERV’s except for one are found in all humans, indicating that they entered the ancestral human genome before Homo sapiens became a distinct species. The exception is in the HERV-K(HML2) family. By examining the DNA from a diverse set of people, Belshaw, et al. identified 113 elements of the HERV-K(HML2) family in the human genome. Most of these elements occur in all people. However, at least 8, and perhaps 11, of these elements are insertionally polymorphic – – some human individuals have the insertion while other individuals have the empty, preinsertion site. This shows that this virus family has been transcriptionally active within the age span of the human race.

Where in the Genome Do Retroviruses Insert?

The human genome contains some three billion base pairs, but not every one of these sites is equally likely to be the place where a retrovirus inserts. For instance, Mitchell, et al. (2004) identified insertion sites in the human genome for three different retroviruses: human immunodeficiency virus (HIV), avian sarcoma-leukosis virus (ASLV), and murine leukemia virus (MLV). They looked at a total of analysis of 3,127 integration sites. Some preferred types of locations were observed.   HIV tended to insert in gene-rich regions, MLV favored integration near transcription starts, while ASLV showed only a weak preference for active genes.

It should be noted that these preferences for types of regions does not mean that a specific virus favors insertion into any one particular spot in the genome. For each virus, there are many thousands of sites at which it could insert. The figure below shows where these three viruses inserted on the first three out of 23 human chromosomes. The blue “lollipops” are the HIV, the purple are MLV, and the green are ASLV. These insertions are spread broadly across the chromosomes (including the other 20 chromosomes), rather than being focused in just one spot or a few regions.

Relationship between Integration Sites and Transcriptional Intensity in the Human Genome For Three Retroviruses on Three chromosomes. The three human chromosomes are shown numbered 1, 2, and 3. HIV integration sites from all datasets in Table 1 are shown as blue “lollipops”; MLV integration sites are shown in lavender; and ASLV integration sites are shown in green. Transcriptional activity is shown by the red shading on each of the chromosomes ...Centromeres, which are mostly unsequenced, are shown as grey rectangles. Source: Adapted from Mitchell RS, Beitzel BF, Schroder ARW, Shinn P, Chen H, Berry CC, et al. (2004) Retroviral DNA Integration: ASLV, HIV, and MLV Show Distinct Target Site Preferences. PLoS Biol 2(8): e234.

Relationship between Integration Sites and Transcriptional Intensity in the Human Genome For Three Retroviruses on Three chromosomes.
The three human chromosomes are shown numbered 1, 2, and 3. HIV integration sites from all datasets in Table 1 are shown as blue “lollipops”; MLV integration sites are shown in lavender; and ASLV integration sites are shown in green. Transcriptional activity is shown by the red shading on each of the chromosomes …Centromeres, which are mostly unsequenced, are shown as grey rectangles.
Source: Adapted from Mitchell RS, Beitzel BF, Schroder ARW, Shinn P, Chen H, Berry CC, et al. (2004) Retroviral DNA Integration: ASLV, HIV, and MLV Show Distinct Target Site Preferences. PLoS Biol 2(8): e234.

These are not the only possible insertion sites for these virus, but just the spots that showed up in this limited study. A more detailed study by Wang, et al.  mapped 40,569 unique sites of HIV integration in the human genome. Thus, while the insertions of ERVs are not equally likely across all three billion sites of the genome, they may be characterized as quasi-random, since a given retrovirus will insert essentially randomly in one of many thousands of potential integration locations.

Effects of Retroviral DNA Insertions on Human Genetic Function

The DNA associated with retroviruses started out as functional genetic material, including the protein-coding gag, pol, and env genes, and the LTRs, which are rich in promoters. As these chunks of DNA get inserted at various spots in the human genome, they can have various effects on the human metabolism. Some of these effects are bad, and some are good.

The human genome is moderately tolerant towards mutations. At each generation, we inherit about 50 new mutations compared to our parents’ DNA, distinct from the usual allele rearrangement. If a generation is about 30 years, compared to people 3000 years ago each one of us has about 5000 mutations in our DNA. Often, these mutations are fatal. About 40% of fertilized eggs end up being spontaneously aborted as miscarriages, due in part to genetic defects. Of the babies who survive through birth, about 3% have genetic disorders such as congenital heart disease. However, the rest of us get along fairly well, and all the genetic shuffling occasionally produces a genius like Einstein, or a modified gene which gives resistance to cardiovascular disease.

If the insertion of a retrovirus in a particular spot in some human’s genome gave a very bad effect, that human would die without reproducing, and that particular genome would not be promulgated. However, sometimes the effects of the ERV are just moderately bad, producing disorders which are not immediately fatal. For instance, ERVs in humans have been tied to a number of cancers, including Hodgkin’s lymphoma, melanoma, and bladder and breast cancer. ERVs are also implicated in a number of autoimmune disorders, such as rheumatoid arthritis and lupus. (For more information see Katoh and Kurata, “Association of Endogenous Retroviruses and Long Terminal Repeats with Human Disorders“, 2013 ).

On the good side, the proteins expressed from the env genes of several retroviruses embedded in the human genome help with the development of the placenta. Barry Desborough discusses  how the function of these genes in the human genome are similar to the function of these genes in the native retrovirus.

Also, many LTRs have retained regulatory activity, and have landed close to genes where they can influence the expression of proteins from those genes. Over 100 LTRs have been demonstrated to help control transcription of human genes, and several thousand other LTRs could potentially have that function as well.

The original viral replication functions of the ERVs found in humans have been disabled by mutations. The functionalities which now observed for human ERVs are in general what would be expected for some 200,000 quasi-random insertions of chunks of DNA into the genome over tens of millions of years: most ERVs have no known effort, some cause genetic disorders, and some have useful interactions with the rest of the genome.

Young Earth (YE) creationists point to these instances of functionality as evidence that ERVs were purposefully placed in the genome by God when He created the first humans a few thousand years ago. However, ERVs bear all the marks of having come from functioning viruses. For many ERVs, we can recognize all or nearly all of the components of a retrovirus (viral gag, pol, and env genes, LTR sections, etc.), which would have the capacity to integrate into the genome if they had not been disabled by additional mutations. Even the plain LTRs are distinctive.

Another sign that ERVs were actual insertions is the duplication of some original DNA on either side of the ERV, as discussed above:

The hallmark of an insertion is a displacement of chromosomal DNA, and the hallmark of insertion by integrase is the presence of target site duplication, due to the way it attacks the 5′ and 3′ phosphodiester bonds with an offset of a few base pairs. Since full-length ERVs are accompanied by target site duplications and DNA displacement, they are necessarily endogenized/fixed proviral insertions. So any functional components are necessarily post-insertion exaptations, and the fact that they are necessarily insertion means that they cannot be part of any ‘original design.’ The issue of functionality is simply a red herring.

Moreover, if endogenous retroviruses were divinely-created portions of Adam’s DNA, all humans would possess the same set of ERVs. But HERV-K shows that this is not the case: for several instances of this ERV family, some people have them in their genomes, and some have the empty pre-insertion site. This shows that retroviruses are in fact inserted into human genomes to form ERVs.

Comparison of Human and Chimp ERV Locations

The first drafts of the complete human genome were published in 2001. This achievement was followed by sequencing the DNA of other animals, including chimpanzees. Humans and chimpanzees are thought to have diverged from a common ancestor around 6 million years ago.

As discussed in Three Layers of Endogenous Retroviral Evidence for the Evolutionary Model, there are two broad approaches to comparing the genomes of two different species. One is to examine variations in insertions and deletions (“indels”), while the other is to analyze the whole genome. The “Three Layers” article describes these analyses in moderate detail. The conclusions from both approaches is the same: “Less than 100 ERVs are human-specific and less than 300 ERVs are chimpanzee-specific.” Thus, out of some 200,000 ERVs in the human genome, “The percentage of ERVs in identical loci is greater than 99.9%.” In other words, nearly all of the many thousands of ERVs in the human genome occur in the same locations in the chimpanzee genome.

To assess the implications of this, let’s start by considering a very simple case, where only one ERV insertion was found in both humans and chimpanzees. Suppose further that this particular retrovirus which we will call retrovirus A could randomly insert in any one of 10,000 locations in the human genome, and also in the same 10,000 locations in the matching chromosomes of chimpanzees. If retrovirus A integrated into an the genome of an ancestral chimp, and in a separate infection event also endogenized into the DNA of an ancestral human, there would be a 0.01% ( 1 /10,000) chance that the resulting ERV A would be found in the same location in both species.

Now, let’s extend this thought experiment to having two shared ERVs. If both species were independently infected with retrovirus B as well as with retrovirus A, the probability is only 1/100,000,000 that virus B, as well as virus A, would happen to end up in matching sites in humans and in chimps. This would constitute very strong evidence that these ERVs did not arrive at their locations through random, independent infection events in humans and in chimps. A more reasonable explanation is that humans and chimps both descend from a common ancestor, whose genome suffered the insertion of these two viruses in these two locations.

Moving now to the actual situation, there are at least 100,000 ERV insertions found in the same locations in humans and in chimps. There is essentially no chance that all these identical insertion points could have occurred by independent insertion events in the two lineages. Again, this shows that these insertions occurred in ancestors which are common to both humans and chimpanzees.

There are a few exceptions to this co-location of human and chimp ERVs, i.e. there are a few ERV families that appear in one species but not the other. For instance, out of 42 families of ERVs in chimps, 40 appear in the orthologous positions in the human genome and 2 do not. [Polavarapu, et al., 2006].  This is to be expected, since human and chimp lineages diverged some 6 million years ago. That is plenty of time for a few new ERV families to be introduced independently to humans and to chimps, or for some previously-shared ERVs to be lost from humans or from chimps due to well-known genetic processes such as genetic drift and incomplete lineage sorting. Anyone interested in understanding  cases such as CERV 1/PTERV1  can google the subject to find valid scientific explanations of these issues.

Young earth creationists, of course, try to mount objections to the science described here. This article has answered some of the most common objections. Barry Desborough has answered additional questions.

Nested hierarchies of ERVs: More evidence for common ancestry

If all of today’s mammals evolved via a branching family tree from some common ancestral population, we would expect to find that species that are more closely related would share more genetic features of all kinds. This requirement of nested hierarchies is a mathematically rigorous test for evolution. I won’t go into it here, but these patterns show up with ERV’s, as discussed at Three Layers of Endogenous Retroviral Evidence for the Evolutionary Model, and also at VWXYNot .

Theological Implications of Endogenous Retroviruses

The distribution of ERVs in human and chimpanzee genomes is powerful evidence of common ancestry and macroevolution. As described in The Pope Speaks on Creation and Evolution,  the Roman Catholic Church has largely made its peace with evolution, as have liberal Protestants. The more conservative evangelical Protestants hold a high view of the Bible as trustworthy, divinely-inspired revelation. I happen to share that view of Scripture. However, it is one thing to affirm the Bible as infallible, and it is a quite different thing to claim that any particular interpretation of that Bible is infallible.

A little reflection will show that even within the world of Bible-believing Protestants, there are many points of doctrine which are the subject of intense disagreement. As one example, Pentecostal Christians affirm that spiritual gifts like prophecy and praying in “tongues” are meant to continue in the church today, while cessationalists like John MacArthur denounce these practices as blaspheming the Holy Spirit. Both sides claim that Scripture is on their side. These disagreements show that it is possible for devout believers with the highest possible regard for the Bible to have fundamental disagreements in their interpretations of that Bible.

Unfortunately, many evangelicals in North America confuse their interpretation of God’s revelation with the revelation itself. Such is the case with Young Earth (YE) creationism. These folks hold that the only viable treatment of the Genesis creation narrative is a wooden literalism. Thus, the world was created in six 24-hour days about six thousand years ago, and Adam and Eve were specially created, not evolved from other primates. This view is promulgated by organizations such as Answers in Genesis.

Two Key Errors in Young Earth Creationism

YE creationism errs in several ways. First, it fails to take into account the pervasive use of figurative revelation throughout the Bible. In the Old Testament and in the book of Revelation, divine communication was often given in some indirect form, some picture or narrative which both concealed and revealed the underlying truth. The prophet in I Kings 20 confronting King Ahab and the prophet Nathan confronting King David both started off by telling a story which didn’t literally occur as though it were true. If one took a literalistic approach to interpretation like today’s YE creationists so, both of these prophets should have been reprimanded for speaking “error”. But to do so would be to completely miss the point of those narratives.

Likewise, telling stories that were not literally true was the primary teaching device of Jesus Christ: “He did not say anything to them without using a parable.” For most of Jesus’ parables, the hearer is expected to figure out that the story is not really about some son who ran away and fed pigs or about some unfortunate traveler who got mugged on the way to Jericho. The hearer needs to enter into the story and see that he or she is represented by one or more of the characters in it; that was the point of the parable, not whether the story itself ever actually happened. But all this is lost on YE creationists, who hold doggedly to simple literalism in Genesis as being somehow intrinsically more pious.

A second major theological error in YE creationism is its refusal to take seriously the evidence in God’s creation. Modern YE creationism stems from the publication of The Genesis Flood by Whitcomb and Morris in 1961. In the preface to the sixth printing, Whitcomb and Morris candidly reveal the basis of their thinking:

We believe that the Bible, as the verbally inspired and completely inerrant Word of God, gives us a true framework of historical and scientific interpretation, as well as of so-called religious truth. This framework is one of special creation of all things, complete and perfect in the beginning, followed by the introduction of a universal principle of decay and death into the world after man’s sin, culminating in a worldwide cataclysmic destruction of the “world that then was” by the Genesis Flood. We take this revealed framework of history as our basic datum, and then try to see how all the pertinent data can be understood in this context…the real issue is not the correctness of the interpretation of various details of the geological data, but simply what God has revealed in His Word concerning these matters.

On this telling, the authors KNOW that the earth was recently created, that decay and death only entered the world following Adam’s apple, and all terrestrial life was drowned apart from the humans and animals on Noah’s ark. Knowing this to be the case, they feel justified in distorting or ignoring whatever physical evidence points to an old earth – they know that old-earth evidence MUST be invalid, so they try to squash it into their young-earth model, and when that fails, simply ignore it: “We take this revealed framework of history as our basic datum, and then try to see how all the pertinent data can be understood in this context.”

As discussed in Exposing the Roots of Young Earth Creationism, this sort of solipsism runs counter to historic Protestant thought, which acknowledged the value of God’s revelation in His works as well as His word. Francis Bacon, who defined the modern scientific method, described this two-books approach: “There are two books laid before us to study, to prevent our falling into error; first, the volume of the Scriptures, which reveal the will of God; then the volume of the Creatures, which express His power.” In The Advancement of Learning (1605) Bacon wrote:

Let no man … think or maintain that a man can search too far, or be too well studied in the book of God’s word, or the book of God’s works, divinity or philosophy; but rather let men endeavor an endless progress or proficience in both; only let men beware that they apply both to charity, and not to swelling; to use, and not to ostentation; and again, that they do not unwisely mingle or confound these learnings together.

The Christian thinkers of the early 1800s followed Bacon’s advice to “not unwisely mingle or confound these learnings together”. Thus, when the physical evidence of the age of the earth contradicted their literal interpretation of Scripture, they did not try to suppress or distort those findings. Rather, they realized that their interpretation of Genesis was likely incorrect. As Davis Young notes, “Because the Christian naturalists of the era were unafraid of God-given evidence, they recognized that extrabiblical information provided a splendid opportunity for closer investigation of the biblical text in order to clear up earlier mistakes in interpretation.”

The reformer John Calvin wrote that in the Genesis creation narrative God accommodated the story to the limited understanding of common people, rather than giving a scientifically precise account. “He who would learn astronomy, and other recondite arts, let him go elsewhere” – – meaning, the Bible was not written for the purpose of telling us about the physical universe. In Calvin’s view, the way to understand the stars and the planets in a God-honoring manner was to go scientifically study them, not to rely on inferences from Biblical statements.

In their mistaken commitment to literalism, YE creationists overlook and minimize what the Bible does claim for itself. The clearest teaching of the Bible on the Bible is found in II Timothy 3:15-17:

from infancy you have known the Holy Scriptures, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the servant of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work. (NIV)

The wording here is instructive: “wise for salvation”, “faith in Jesus Christ”, “for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness.” This is all about doctrine and morals; nothing about geology or biology. Those who try to extend the range of the Bible’s authority to geology and biology think they are being faithful, but in fact are merely imposing their own fallible opinions on the infallible Word.

Various examples can be adduced which demonstrate that Scriptural statements about the physical world, which were appropriate and meaningful for the original audience, can be incorrect according to modern knowledge. To take a simple example, Jesus taught:

“What shall we say the kingdom of God is like, or what parable shall we use to describe it? It is like a mustard seed, which is the smallest of all seeds on earth. Yet when planted, it grows and becomes the largest of all garden plants, with such big branches that the birds can perch in its shade.” [Mark 4:30-32 NIV].

The literal statement here is that the mustard seed is the “smallest of all seeds on earth”. Jesus was speaking here proverbially, and the mustard seed is used elsewhere (e.g. Matt. 17:20) as an example of smallness. The context is sowing and growing. The mustard seed was the smallest seed that first-century Jewish farmers would sow in the earth, so this was an appropriate word picture for that audience to illustrate the growth of the kingdom from tiny beginnings. However, even in ancient Galilee folks were likely familiar with seeds from non-agricultural plants which were smaller than mustard seeds, and modern naturalists have found other seeds which are smaller yet.

If a Bible literalist were truly consistent, he should respond, “I don’t care what those godless scientists say, Jesus said that the mustard seed was the smallest seed, and that’s that. This is the infallible Word of God, so every statement regarding the natural world must be correct.” This would be to make the same mistake, of course, that Bible literalists make with Genesis 1. Most Christians understand that this parable was not really intended to teach horticultural facts; to obsess over whether Jesus taught “error” here would be to entirely miss the point of the passage.

The plain, literal meanings of a number of verses depict an unmoving earth and a moving sun (e.g. “He set the earth on its foundations; it can never be moved” Ps. 104:5; “…The world is firmly established; it cannot be moved” I Chron. 16:30; cf. Isa. 66:1, Eccl.1:5, and Josh. 10:13). In the time of Galileo, Catholic theologians held that the only faithful way to interpret these verses was that the earth was in fact stationary. According to Cardinal Roberto Bellarmine (1615), “…to affirm that the sun is really fixed in the center of the heavens and the earth revolves swiftly around the sun is a dangerous thing, not only irritating the theologians and philosophers, but injuring our holy faith and making the sacred scripture false.”

Astronomical observations eventually led Christians to conclude that the verses that speak of a stationary earth and a moving sun were not intended to be teaching science. Today some fundamentalists try to claim that these verses were not really teaching a stationary earth. But that is how nearly all Christians understood these verses, until science forced a reinterpretation.

These examples where the plain, literal meaning of Bible passages must be set aside due to modern science demonstrate that Whitcomb and Morris are utterly mistaken in their assertion that the Bible gives us a “true framework of … scientific interpretation.” The Bible does not do that, never claimed to do that, and could not possibly do that if it were to be an effective means of communication to an ancient people with a pre-scientific world view.

YE creationists hold to this failed mind-set, and thus are forced to ignore, deny, or misrepresent the physical facts. I have documented some of these maneuvers in Evidences for a Young Earth.

When it comes to ERVs, a look at the discussions of this topic on the internet shows a ongoing effort by YE creationists to deny the obvious. They claim that ERVs are not really viral insertions, or that each ERV could only insert in one site in the genome, and so on. It is tedious to pick through all the misrepresentations, so I won’t do that here.

It seems impossible to get a YE creationist to really engage with the evidence, as long as he fears that acknowledging common ancestry entails abandoning all that he holds dear. The most fruitful way forward is for him to re-examine his assumptions on Bible interpretation. I have sketched out my reconciliation of evolution with Scripture in Evolution and Faith: My Story, Part 2 .   The Biologos article, “Why should Christians consider evolutionary creation?” includes a number of good links to further testimonies and articles on this subject.

Made in God’s Image

A key concern about common ancestry is that it might threaten our status as being created by God and being bearers of God’s image. This calls for careful thought, not defensive pronouncements. Traditionalists are offended at the thought that we came from monkeys, but the reality is even more humiliating. We come not from monkeys, but from single-celled eggs. Every human alive today came into existence as a fertilized egg, like a fertilized chimpanzee egg but with slight differences in the sequences of nucleotides along the strands of DNA. This raises a host of questions:

Is the unfertilized egg (a single, microscopic cell with only the mother’s DNA) the image of God? Does it become the image of God the instant that a sperm cell delivers the other half of the DNA to this single cell? After the fertilized cell has divided a number of times to form a hollow sphere? When the heart first beats, but there is no real consciousness? At birth? How is Adam’s nature passed down? Which genes in our DNA were mutated to make us into sinners? If an egg from a donor mother is fertilized in vitro and implanted in a second woman, is original sin transmitted through the donor mother or the birth mother? It cannot be the case that God simply assigns a soul to an egg as soon as it is fertilized: identical twins result from the division of an egg after it is fertilized, yet presumably they each have their own soul.

Until the answers to these questions are clarified, there is no place for dogmatic pronouncements on evolution being incompatible with a Biblical view of man. We, today, are all made from chemicals (starting from the complexly organized egg and sperm), under the superintending providence of God. This is true of all humans now living, and their parents and grandparents. Therefore, exactly how God made the first humans (from dust or from other primates) is completely irrelevant to the status of us today – – our humanity or value or image of God.

Posted in Evolution, Genome | Tagged , , , , | 31 Comments

“Science Meets Religion”: Well-Organized Information on Evolution and Creation

There are many excellent resources available on the interest which address controversial issues in the creation/evolution dialogue. One I just ran across is the “Science Meets Religion” site, which is the creation of David H. Bailey of Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory (recently retired) and the University of California, Davis. The site is very well-organized and accessible. Bailey sees no grounds for disagreement between science and religion.

The  Science Meets Religion  home page has links to an active blog, lists of essays and further resources, and also to “Q&A” pages that deal with questions in specific areas, such as “Theology”, “Physics and Cosmology”, and “Evolution, Creationism and Intelligent “.

The Q&A: Evolution, Creationism and Intelligent Design  page lists 26 questions that are germane to current discussions in this area. I will show a snapshot of the first 18 of these questions, to give their flavor:

DBailey Sci Meets Relig QA

Each question has a link to the short essay answering that question. Bailey is familiar with young earth creationist literature, and provides clear, relevant responses. Because Bailey has worked in probability and computational biology, he is able to expertly treat issues of information and evolution.

In his answer to the question, “ Can evolution generate truly novel biological features?” he lists 13 clear examples of new features or capabilities which evolved within a few thousand years (e.g. human adaptations), a few decades, or in just a few years (e.g. Trinidad guppies), showing that the pace of evolution is not impossibly slow.

Posted in Age of Earth, Evolution | Tagged , , , | 7 Comments

Some Highlights of American Scientific Affiliation 2015 Meeting

A group of American scientists who were evangelical Christians founded the American Scientific Affiliation (ASA) in 1941. Their interest was in the whole faith-science arena, not just in creation, and they did not specify any particular position on interpreting the Genesis narrative.  The intent is to provide a forum where Christians can discuss the various issues where science interacts with faith, and to produce and share accurate information in this area. Members are required to possess at least a bachelor’s degree in a scientific field, and to subscribe to the following statement of faith:

We accept the divine inspiration, trustworthiness and authority of the Bible in matters of faith and conduct.

 We confess the Triune God affirmed in the Nicene and Apostles’ creeds, which we accept as brief, faithful statements of Christian doctrine based upon Scripture.

 We believe that in creating and preserving the universe God has endowed it with contingent order and intelligibility, the basis of scientific investigation.

 We recognize our responsibility, as stewards of God’s creation, to use science and technology for the good of humanity and the whole world.

This statement of faith affirms the authority of the Bible in matters of faith and conduct, which is a position supported by scriptures such as II Tim 3:15-17, but it does not transgress these scriptural bounds by claiming that the Bible was also intended to speak authoritatively in matters of astronomy or geology. By affirming the integrity and intelligibility of the physical world, it allows for an honest investigation of the world as it is, instead of filtering out evidence which does not fit a particular interpretation of scripture.

Recently I attended the 2015 Annual Meeting of the ASA, which was held in Tulsa, Oklahoma on July 24-27 using the campus of Oral Roberts University. The overall theme was “Hearing God’s Voice in Nature”. Here I will share my takeaways from some of the sessions I attended. I will mainly report what was said with minimal commentary, using my notes, the slides from the talks if they are available, and occasionally drawing on other internet resources to supplement or clarify. The levels of detail here reflects my personal level of interest and comprehension. I trust the speakers will excuse any mistakes or major omissions on my part.

Here is a link to the meeting brochure, which describes the meeting in general and has bio’s and photos of the plenary speakers and the Friday workshop leaders. Here is a link to the schedule of all the sessions.

There was typically one plenary lecture per day (Friday, Saturday, Sunday, Monday), along with hours of three parallel sessions. The themes of these parallel sessions ranged from the fairly abstract (e.g. Revelation; Philosophy; Theology) to the applied (e.g. Ethics; Sustainable Development; Creation Care), and lots in between. A snip of the meeting schedule, for just Saturday morning, is reproduced below to show the rhythm of things.

Part of schedule for 2015 ASA Annual Meeting

Part of schedule for 2015 ASA Annual Meeting

Copernicus, Columbus, and Quantum Action: Friday Workshop

The Friday workshop was “Christianity and Science: An Introduction to the Contemporary Conversation”. Edward B. (Ted) Davis, author of many helpful articles on the history of science from a Christian point of view, led the morning session. He spoke first about the notion of a pervasive conflict between science and Christianity. This motif was popularized by John Draper and Andrew Dickson White in the late Victorian era. White’s A History of the Warfare of Science with Theology in Christendom (1896) was widely read and believed by the American intelligentsia in the early 1900s.

Ted pointed out that White’s thesis is simply incorrect. White scoured the ancient literature for any traces of conflict between church teachers and natural philosophers and deceitfully presented these exceptions as though they were the norm. This deception is now recognized by academic historians, but the warfare motif remains embedded in popular opinion. (The Wikipedia Conflict Thesis article provides a number of quotes from modern historians that support Ted’s contention that Draper and White have been discredited among scholars ). Modern science was born and flourished within a thoroughly Christian culture in the Europe of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.

Several specific instances of White’s inaccuracy were noted, including a supposed passage by John Calvin attacking Copernicus which Calvin did not in fact write (the word “Copernicus” appears nowhere in Calvin’s writings), and the bogus notion that Christopher Columbus was opposed by Bible-quoting flat-earthers. The Greek knowledge that the earth is a large sphere with a circumference of about 25,000 miles (40,000 km) was never wholly lost in even in the “Dark Ages”, and in 1492 essentially every educated European knew that the earth was round. The notion of a heroic Columbus setting sail in defiance of those who claimed he would fall off the edge of the world is without foundation, yet it has persisted in the popular imagination and even in public school textbooks into this century.

It is true that the experts (who were, of course, Catholic) consulted by the sovereigns of Portugal and of Spain opined that Columbus’s voyage to Asia was not feasible. They noted that with a 25,000 mile circumference of the earth, the trip from Europe to Japan would be about 12,000 miles, which was far longer than ships of that day could travel without re-provisioning. Columbus maintained that the earth’s circumference was 18,000 miles, and he thought that Asia was about twice as wide as it actually is, so he estimated that he could reach the eastern edge of Asia with a voyage of only 3000 miles. In this case Columbus was wrong and the Catholic scholars were right about the distances. If the New World did not intervene between Europe and Asia, Columbus would never have been heard from again.

Ted went on to offer a brief historical overview of some other faith/science issues, such as creation, contingency, methodological naturalism, divine action, and design. At the start of the nineteenth century, the gaps in human understanding of natural history were so large that William Paley successfully used them to argue for the necessity of a divine Designer. If we found a watch with all its gears lying in a field, Paley wrote, it would be silly to think such a thing could have been assembled by blind natural forces, apart from an intelligent agent.

By the end of the nineteenth century, these knowledge gaps were disappearing at an accelerating pace. Geologists could largely explain the development of surface features of the earth in terms of known physical processes, and biologists were starting to understand how today’s complex animals might have evolved from simple cells. This led thoughtful Christians like the Scottish evangelist Henry Drummond to caution

If God is only to be left to the gaps in our knowledge, where shall we be when these gaps are filled up? And if they are never to be filled up, is God only to be found in the dis-orders of the world? Those who yield to the temptation to reserve a point here and there for special divine interposition are apt to forget that this virtually excludes God from the rest of the process. [The Ascent of Man, 1894]

One of today’s most influential authors on faith and science is John Polkinghorne. A physicist and a Fellow of the Royal Society, Polkinghorne researched elementary particles, playing a role in the discovery of the quark. At age 47, feeling his best mathematical work was probably behind him, he resigned his Cambridge chair to study for the Anglican priesthood. He argues that, while theism cannot be proved from nature, theism makes better sense of nature than atheism can.

Robert J. Russell is a former physics professor, now Director of the Center for Theology and the Natural Sciences  at the Graduate Theological Union (GTU), Berkeley, CA.   In the Friday afternoon session, Bob covered a number of contemporary issues. Out of all possible universes, ours has many physical constants tuned to narrow values which permit matter and human life to exist. This “Anthropic Principle” is sometimes urged as evidence of a divine Creator. A non-theistic response is the “many worlds” hypothesis, where many (perhaps an infinite number) of universes exist, such that we should expect to find at least one universe like ours. A multiverse is consistent with string theory and cosmic inflation. However, there is no empirical evidence for such a multiverse, so its existence remains an article of faith. There is controversy over whether the existence of the multiverse requires that every possible world is actualized, even inherently bad worlds.

Bob suggested that God could impact affairs in this world while remaining hidden, by influencing events in nondeterministic processes. Quantum mechanics is inherently statistical or indeterminate, so (for instance) if a specific bond were occasionally caused to break, creating a particular mutation at a particular time, that would not be detectable as an aberration from normal physical laws.

All sorts of unpleasant events occur in the natural world, such as Darwin’s example of the wasp larvae which eat their way through living caterpillars. Thinkers do not agree on whether such “natural evils” are an inevitable part of any complex world where physical beings can evolve to embody agency. Creatures with meaningful freedom, rationality, and moral capacity seem to fit best in a universe characterized by some contingency and indeterminism. Some specifically Christian, not just theistic, notions are that God (as exemplified in Christ’s death) enters into the suffering of the creation, and that the universe (as foreshadowed by Christ’s resurrection) will ultimately be transformed into an unambiguously good new creation without pain or grief. This would imply that the long-term freeze-or-fry prediction of Big Bang cosmology will not in fact be the end state of the universe.


Bethany Sollereder: “Blood, Fire, and Fang: Listening for God in the Violence of Creation”

Bethany Sollereder, currently a Research Coordinator at Oxford, spoke on the subject of natural evils. She noted that in historic Christian theology, the creation was thought to be initially free of death and suffering, with these aspects being later introduced as a consequence of human sin (“The Fall”). Modern geology and biology demonstrate, however, that death and suffering are part of the natural order, long antedating the appearance of humans. Animal suffering and death was generally not considered as a problem before about the 1500s. Prior to that, people just accepted that animals ate other animals. Now it looms as a major issue of theodicy.

All is not vile in the animal kingdom: cooperation and symbiosis exist as well as competition and parasitism. The death of one creature often gives life to another. Evolution can create all kinds of desires in humans and other animals, but only humans are capable of and accountable for transcending natural desires. If God has certain desires for how some creatures are to behave, but those creatures have the capability to resist his will, then God has chosen to give the world some power to affect him. The Christ-event reveals God’s nature as radically self-giving; God is not detached, untouched by the trials of his creatures.

Short, painful lives seem to call out for eschatological redemption of the whole creation, which is suggested in the New Testament, e.g.

For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross.[Colossians 1:19-20, NIV]


I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us. For the creation waits in eager expectation for the children of God to be revealed. For the creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the freedom and glory of the children of God .[Romans 8:18-21, NIV]

Alister McGrath, “Natural Theology: Seeing God’s Fingerprints in Creation”

Alister McGrath is a Professor of Science and Religion at Oxford University. In this plenary address he noted that earlier natural theology (e.g. 1700-1800) was often concerned with trying to prove God from nature, culminating in William Paley’s arguments from design and from knowledge gaps as we discussed above. McGrath cited quotes from various later Christian thinkers rejecting the god-of-the-gaps approach. John Henry Newman stated that Paley’s approach would produce a dry, dull, unworshipable God. Charles Coulson, noted theoretical chemist and a Methodist lay preacher, wrote that either God is in the whole of nature, or he is not there at all.

Christian faith does, however, provide an intellectual framework conducive to doing science, in particular supporting the belief that reality is regular and intelligible, and the belief that human thoughts signify more than just the firing of neurons in our brains. The intelligibility of the universe may seem self-evident, but it is not. Why is it that many of the pleasing abstract mathematical relations which the mind of man devises also describe specific physical phenomena? Coulson noted that the fact that we can explain anything, itself requires explanation. Albert Einstein put it, “The eternal mystery of the world is its comprehensibility.” C.S. Lewis wrote, “I believe in Christianity as I believe that the sun has risen: not only because I see it, but because by it I see everything else.”

For an honest materialist like physicist Steven Weinberg, “The more the universe seems comprehensible, the more it also seems pointless.” In the Biblical worldview, no matter how small humans seem in comparison with the universe, we matter to God and we belong as part of his creation (cf. Psalm 8). We also know whom to thank for its beauties.

In the Q&A session, the question was brought up as to whether we must have 100% absolute cognitive certainty before we can trust or believe something. No, that is simply not how life works. Natural theology (as defined by McGrath) does not aim at producing that sort of proof. Rather, it often provides a retrospective affirmation of the rationality of faith: after someone (for other reasons than natural proofs) trusts in Christ and the associated Biblical revelation, one finds that it makes more sense of the natural world as well.

Esther Meek, “Covenant Realism: How Love Is at the Core of All Things”

The medium was part of the message here: Esther’s joy in her material was evident, and rubbed off, I think, on her audience. Love underlies all of reality, since it is the creation of a loving God. Reality is the fecund overflow of the exuberant generative conversation among the Trinity. God’s employment of long processes over time to shape the physical and biological world is consistent with his slow unfolding of revelation in Biblical times (Torah, prophets, Jesus, Pentecost, etc.).

Her thinking builds on that of Michael Polanyi, who taught that all knowing, no matter how formalized, relies upon personal commitments. We believe more than we can prove, and know more than we can say (cf. Wikipedia).

This is perhaps most evident in scientific discoveries, where the scientist follows hunches and is excited by the prospect of deeper integration of knowledge, often before he knows exactly what form this integration will take. The personal involvement of the scientist, motivated by some measure of joy and of faith, is a crucial part of the process of discovery. Merely grinding along with a mechanical application of the scientific method rarely produces great discoveries. Exuberance is typically a core component of the process of discovery, not just an add-on.

Esther, following Polanyi and other authors such as David Bentley, Wendell Barry, and Paul Davies, contends that human knowing in general (not just scientific discovery) involves such personal engagement with reality. A familiar example is learning to ride a bicycle.

We in the West have inherited a stunted epistemology, which values only that which can be objectively proven, and foments a sense of isolation between the knower and the physical world. She argues that our epistemology should make sense of discovery as well as of that which is already known. A hallmark of reality is that it surprises us, showering us with hints of things we’d like to further explore. This perspective can change our anxious quest for certainty into a delightful adventure of continuous learning. Absolute certainty for anything is not attainable, but we can have a reasonable degree of confidence in what we know. Loving aids us in knowing.

For those interested in learning more about Esther’s insights, the text of an earlier (2013) talk of hers is here.

Amos Yong, “The Breadth of God and the Life of Nature: Toward a Pneumatology-Science Dialogue”

I missed this plenary lecture, since I had to skip the final day of the conference.

Regular Talks

I attended many fine talks beside the plenaries. These regular talks ran for about 20 minutes, with 10 minutes for questions and discussion. I’ll describe six of these talks below.

Keith Miller, “The Present Impact of Global Climate Change: Creation’s Call to Action”

Many lines of evidence were presented which show that the earth’s climate has been warming for at least the last few centuries. These include direct and indirect measures of temperature itself, the decline in Arctic sea ice, the retreat of alpine glaciers, and rise in sea level. While there can be decades-long pauses in temperature rise or ice loss, the longer-term trends are of warming. As continued warming releases methane which has been trapped in Arctic permafrost, warming could greatly accelerate.

Some negative consequences of warming include displacing humans living in low-lying areas such as some Pacific islands and Bangladesh, more-severe weather, bleaching of coral reefs, and the poleward spread of insect disease vectors and other pests. For instance, the pine beetle which is devastating forests in the American west has been there all the time, but is no longer being killed off by cold winters. Christians have a moral duty to respond.

Edward (Ted) Davis, “Is Christian Belief Conducive to Doing Good Science?”

The program abstract for this talk summarized its main theme: “The Christian doctrine of creation helps us to understand more of reality than science alone can study—including the very possibility of science itself as a form of knowledge about nature.”

Natural science is limited to discovering regularities among the succession of physical phenomena, answering a plenitude of little questions, but unable to address the big questions. In the words of Nobel laureate Peter Medawar (not a believer in God):

The existence of a limit to science is made clear by its inability to answer childlike questions having to do with first and last things, questions such as, ‘How did everything begin?’ ‘What are we all here for?’ ‘What is the point of living?’… It is not to science, therefore, but to metaphysics, imaginative literature, or religion that we must turn for answers to questions having to do with first and last things.

Eugene Wigner wrote of “The Unreasonable Effectiveness of Mathematics in the Natural Sciences”, noting, “The first point is that the enormous usefulness of mathematics in the natural sciences is something bordering on the mysterious and that there is no rational explanation for it.” As Einstein put it, “The most incomprehensible thing about the world is that it is comprehensible.” He is implicitly referring to the regularity of nature, and the fact that our minds can delve deeply into it.

The Christian doctrine of creation provides a basis for expecting the universe to be uniform and comprehensible. The phrase “Laws of nature” has been commonplace among Christian thinkers since at least the time of Ambrose (4th century). Astrophysicist/theologian Christopher Kaiser writes:

The basic idea of creation in Scripture is that the entire universe is subject to a code of law which was established at the beginning of time. This idea has two major implications for our view of the world: (1) nature functions with a high degree of autonomy (meaning literally, “having its own laws”); and (2) the natural world is comprehended by God and therefore comprehensible to human beings created in the divine image.

Cornell historian L. Pearce Williams describes how Michael Faraday’s faith influenced his scientific investigations:

Faraday drew more than strength from his religion. It gave him both a sense of the necessary unity of the universe derived from the unity and benevolence of its Creator and a profound sense of the fallibility of man. Both are worth stressing…

The origins of field theory are to be found in Faraday’s detailed experimental researches on electricity, but the speculations and imaginings which led him to publish physical heresies owe something to his unquestioning belief in the unity and interconnections of all phenomena. This belief, in turn, derived from his faith in God as both creator and sustainer of the universe.

Ted discussed the dispute between the rationalists like Descartes, Leibnitz, and Spinoza who thought it was more efficient and more certain to sit in one’s armchair and make deductions from first principles, and the empiricists like Bacon, Boyle, and Newton. The latter insisted that, instead of speculating on what God could do, we should humbly and diligently investigate what he actually did do in setting up the universe.

Thus, being a Christian can help one to do good science. Conversely, doing science can enrich one’s life as a Christian. In the words of pioneering astronomer Johannes Kepler, “For it is precisely the universe which is that Book of Nature in which God the Creator has revealed and depicted His essence and what He wills with man, in a wordless script”, and, “Since we astronomers are Priests of the Most High God with respect to the Book of Nature, it behooves us that we do not aim at the glory of our own spirit, but above everything else at the glory of God.”

Kenneth Wolgemuth, “God’s Voice in Geology: Earth Engineered for Discovery”

Ken is a speaker with Solid Rock Lectures , an organization of professional geologists who give talks at Christian colleges and seminaries to share what the physical evidence shows about the age of the earth. This talk started with an animation of the Indian crustal plate bashing into the southern edge of Asia and thrusting up the Himalayan Mountains. This thrusting continues today, as the Himalayas rise several inches per year. Prior to this collision, there had been an ocean between India and the rest of Asia. Limestone and other sedimentary rocks were deposited on the floor of that ocean. This tectonic collision over ten million years ago shoved these oceanic rocks atop the Asian plate. Thus, we know when and how Mount Everest came to be formed of sedimentary rocks. These rocks were deposited millions of years ago, then thrust up by well-understood and clearly-dated crustal movements. They were not deposited six thousand years ago by a world-wide flood which covered all the highest mountains.

The 6,000 kilometers (3,600 miles) plus journey of the India landmass (Indian Plate) before its collision with Asia (Eurasian Plate), from Wikipedia.

The 6,000 kilometers (3,600 miles) plus journey of the India landmass (Indian Plate) before its collision with Asia (Eurasian Plate), from Wikipedia.

The cosmos was designed for discovery, and God built into it many “data recorders” which retain information about sequences of events which occurred over thousands or millions of years. These data recorders include tree rings, ice cores, varves (annual deposits in lake floor sediments), and banding in coral reefs. These data recorders tend to agree with one another about key events in geological history. For instance, cores drilled from the ice of glaciers in Greenland and glaciers in South America all show the same date for the end of the last ice age about 11,000 years ago. Tree rings match with carbon-14 dating. (See Some Simple Evidences for an Old Earth  for more on these evidences.)

There are also radioactive “clocks in rocks”, where the timer starts when the rock solidifies from molten magma or lava. For instance, the radioactive dates of rocks from the various islands and underwater seamounts in the Hawaiian island chain get older and older as one moves westward along the chain. This is consistent with these islands having been formed as the mid-Pacific plate slowly slides westward (we can currently observe this motion) over a narrow hot spot in the mantle which spews up lava to form a new volcanic island every few million years.

In the Q&A after this talk, someone cited a study by Steven Austin of Answers in Genesis (a young earth creationist organization) regarding rocks formed by a 1986 lava flow at Mt. St. Helens in Washington State. In 1992 Austin sampled some of these rocks and sent them to a laboratory for dating analysis by the radiogenic K-Ar method. The dates returned by the laboratory on these samples ranged from 0.34 million years to 2.8 million years. This, of course, is much older than the actual age (less than ten years) of these rocks. These discrepant results have been widely touted by young earth creationists as demonstrating the general unreliability of radioactive dating of rocks.

Ken pointed out some basic errors made by Austin in his study of Mt. St. Helens rocks. First, it is well-known to geologists that the lava that comes to the surface can contain grains of much older still-solid rock, carried along with the liquid melt. Austin did not take proper measures to separate out these older grains. Also, because of the long half-life of the K-Ar system, it is impossible to do meaningful dating on rocks that are very young without specialized apparatus. The laboratory to which Austin sent his samples stated at the time that their equipment could not accurately measure samples less than two million years old. Thus, Austin was guaranteed to get erroneous results on the samples he sent in. His results, therefore, have no bearing on radioactive dating routinely done by geologists with normal methodology.

(A more detailed discussion of the Mt. St. Helens lava dating by geologist Kevin Henke is here.  Old Earth Ministries lists many articles here, mainly by Christian geologists, which rebut the attacks by young earth creationists on the reliability of radioactive dating of rocks.)

Randy Isaac, “The Uniqueness of DNA Information”

Randy is a retired VP of Science and Technology at IBM’s Thomas J Watson Research Center, and currently executive director of ASA. In this talk he examined the differences between DNA information and other information systems, showing why DNA information does not require a conscious mind like other information systems do.

The meaning of information in human-designed information systems is abstract, independent of its physical embodiment. This abstract meaning, which can be comprehended by other conscious beings, is a hallmark of the intelligent design of these information systems. [I don’t recall if Randy used this sort of example, but among humans the meaning of the English word “red” can be expressed as “rot” in German or “rojo” in Spanish or some very different symbols in Hebrew or Chinese, or as “electromagnetic radiation with a wavelength of about 700–635 nm”. This shows that the meaning of “red” is a concept which does not depend on the letters “r”, “e”, “d” being present in that sequence. ]

In contrast, in its native state the meaning of DNA information is its biochemical function, which is utterly dependent on its physical embodiment and environment. Specific sequences (triplets) of nucleotides, known as codons, physically bond to matching sites on specific transfer RNA molecules which cause specific amino acids to be placed into protein chains. Thus, there is no evidence that DNA information requires an intelligent agent for source or function.

[Randy was addressing a limited issue here, namely, whether the information-bearing function of DNA would require an intelligent agent to input that information. The talk did not directly address the question of how the first cells arose which utilized this physical genetic translation system. We have discussed elsewhere how new information can arise in the genome by plain physical mutations in the genome.]

Jennifer Gruenke, “Christian Faith, Biological Reductionism, and Consciousness”

To convey the first part of this talk, I’ll quote from the abstract in the printed program:

Biology is hierarchical, in the sense that organisms are made of organs, which are made of cells, which are made up of molecules, which are made up of atoms. Because of this biology might be sent to reduce to chemistry, and chemistry to physics.

This reductive approach works well for explaining the function of many biological systems, for example a kidney. Once you understand the kidney at the cellular and molecular level, how it produces urine becomes clear.

 But one aspect of human biology, the relationship between the brain and consciousness, is difficult to explain from the point of view of biological reductionism. It is clear that certain parts of the brain are necessary for consciousness, but it is less clear that these parts of the brain are sufficient for consciousness, or even what sort of mechanism would allow physical neurons to create consciousness.

 This creates what cognitive scientist and philosopher David Chalmers calls the “hard problem” of consciousness. How do qualia, experiences such as seeing the color blue or hearing a melody, come about given that light and sound waves seem like such different things from experiences themselves?

Jennifer displayed this cartoon relating to conceptual hierarchies, which I thought was too good not to reproduce:

Neuroscience keeps progressing in showing how mental events like perception and decision-making are correlated to specific physical events in the brain. There is a range of opinions on how the mind and the brain are related. Eliminative materialists solve the mind-brain problem by denying the existence of mind. There is nothing but matter, and there is nothing to mental functioning besides electrochemistry. From the fact that your brain can trick you they conclude that consciousness itself is an illusion. Your beliefs that you have beliefs, desires, and sensations (e.g. of pain) are incoherent and mistaken.

There are less-extreme positions, including those held by Christians, which would still be classed as materialist or physicalist. For instance, Calvin College philosopher Kevin Corcoran is a constitutional physicalist: “I’m a physicalist when it comes to human persons. I believe, in other words, that we are wholly physical objects. I don’t believe there are non-physical souls in the natural world. So I don’t believe that we are or have such non-physical souls as parts… A non-physical soul doesn’t explain anything about consciousness that cannot be explained without it, and it is furthermore a wholly unnecessary hypothesis for many religious doctrines…I believe that I am constituted by my body without being identical with my body. I stand in the same relation to my body as a statue stands in to the piece of bronze (say) of which it is composed.” [ quotes taken from Corcoran’s Biologos articles here and here ; emphases in the original.]

Thomas Nagel posed the question, “What is it like to be a bat?”, claiming that if you did not have the subjective experience of echo location, you would not know all there is to know about a bat, even if you knew all the external data about the atoms in the bat’s body. This is an argument against reductive materialism.

Dualism is the position that mental phenomena are, in some respects, non-physical, or that the mind and body are not identical. Mental sensations (qualia) and intellectual concepts seem to have a reality which is not reducible to neurons. This position, again, comes in many varieties. There are differing opinions on whether the mind can have causal influence on the brain.

Panpsychism claims that everything is conscious to some degree. A number of secular thinkers have come to the conclusion that the “hard problem” of consciousness is so hard that it cannot be resolved by humans. This position is called mysterianism. Colin McGinn claims that we are just not built to solve the problem: it is cognitively closed to us. Humans trying to understand consciousness are like squirrels trying to understand quantum physics.

Jennifer seemed to find value in the views of medieval Catholic scholar Thomas Aquinas and modern Eastern Orthodox theologian David Bentley Hart regarding mind and brain. These thinkers, following Aristotle, do not separate the physical and spiritual aspects of humans. To let Hart speak for himself on the subject, here is an excerpt of an article of his which approvingly describes Pope John Paul II’s Thomistic views on the nature of man:

…at the heart of its anthropology is a complete rejection — or, one might almost say, ignorance — of any dualism between flesh and spirit.

It is something of a modern habit of thought (strange to say) to conceive of the soul — whether we believe in the soul or not — as a kind of magical essence or ethereal intelligence indwelling a body like a ghost in a machine. … But the “living soul” of whom scripture speaks, as John Paul makes clear in his treatment of the creation account in Genesis, is a single corporeal and spiritual whole, a person whom the breath of God has awakened from nothingness. The soul is life itself, of the flesh and of the mind; it is what Thomas Aquinas called the “form of the body”: a vital power that animates, pervades, and shapes each of us from the moment of conception, holding all our native energies in a living unity, gathering all the multiplicity of our experience into a single, continuous, developing identity. It encompasses every dimension of human existence, from animal instinct to abstract reason: sensation and intellect, passion and reflection, imagination and curiosity, sorrow and delight, natural aptitude and supernatural longing, flesh and spirit. John Paul is quite insistent that the body must be regarded not as the vessel or vehicle of the soul, but simply as its material manifestation, expression, and occasion.

George Murphy, “Clarity About Divine Action: Prayer, Causal Joints, and Kenosis”

With a PhD in physics plus theological training and pastoral experience, George was well-equipped to treat his subject matter, which has both intellectual and practical aspects. The abstract in the program book summarizes this talk:

How to speak of God acting in a world whose processes are described by scientific laws is a basic question for theology-science dialogue. Many answers have been suggested but are not entirely satisfactory. Beginning from the theology of the cross with its implications of the hidden inside God, I make three points here.

1. We do not need to God as an element of scientific explanations for what happens in the world. But Christians are told to pray for “daily bread.” The old adage that “the law of praying is the law of believing” that implies that theology must speak of God acting in the world to provide food and other needs.

2. Such theology must, however, not try to specify a precise “causal joint” between God’s action and that of creatures. Theology is not physics. We must be content with analogy. The traditional concept of God’s cooperation with creatures in their actions, like a human working with some instrument, provides an analogy that can also account for the preservation of creatures.

  1. Scientific explanations of natural phenomena in terms of rational laws indicate that God does not work with creatures in arbitrary ways. This is best seen as an aspect of divine kenosis (Philippians 2:7): God limits action in the world as Christ limited himself to the human condition in the incarnation. Kenosis is often misinterpreted. It should not be understood to mean that God is sometimes absent or inactive.

“Kenosis” is from the Greek word meaning “to empty out.” It is used in Philippians 2:7, where it is said that Christ “emptied himself.” In the incarnation Jesus limited himself to the human condition. This illustrates how God may choose to limit his cooperation with his creatures according to their capacities, i.e. according to “natural laws.” Kenosis is about what God does not do.

According to Luther, created things are masks of God, in which He hides Himself, as God was concealed in Christ at Golgotha. Pascal wrote that what meets our eyes is not a total absence or presence of the divine, but a God who conceals Himself.

On mode of (hidden) divine interaction with the physical world might be for God to influence some individual events at the quantum level (e.g. a DNA mutation), as long as the larger ensemble of quantum events is not perturbed.

I’ll close here with a quote from George’s scholarly essay at Biologos which may convey his thought better than my notes do:

The approach that I have taken to relationships between Christian faith and scientific knowledge of the world is to view them in the context of a theology of the cross. God’s fundamental revelation is in the event of the cross, the crucifixion of Jesus of Nazareth and the resurrection of the crucified one. (These two aspects must be kept together.) This was not only the means God used to solve a problem but the most profound revelation of the true God’s identity. It is a paradoxical revelation in hiddenness, for nothing is less like our expectations of God than a man dying the humiliating and God‐forsaken death of a criminal.

 If the event of the cross is God’s self‐revelation, we may expect it to be a clue to God’s general modus operandi in the world. The incarnation and passion of Christ are marked by the “emptying” (kenosis), or self‐limitation, of Philippians 2:7. In creation, where (to use an old image) God works with and through creatures as “instruments,” God limits that action and works within the capacities of creatures, in accord with what we call the laws of physics. God could display absolute power and “violate” those laws, but our experience shows us that if such events happen at all, they are extremely rare.

 Because what we observe scientifically is the behavior of God’s instruments and not the one who uses them, they are also “masks” of God. Just as God is concealed from direct observation in his supreme work of salvation, he is hidden in his ongoing work in creation: “Truly, you are a God who hides himself, O God of Israel, the Savior” (Isaiah 45:15). The regularity of natural processes that results from this is a gift that makes it possible for us to understand our world on its own terms.

Some Reflections on Hearing God’s Voice in Nature

I was glad I attended this meeting. I enjoyed meeting fine people, and heard a lot of interesting talks. And the food was good.

I’ll add one small observation: it seemed to me that there was relatively little actual natural theology discussed, at least in the lectures I attended. That was a bit surprising, considering the overall theme of the conference was “Hearing God’s Voice in Nature.”

There were a number of presentations which dealt with the theology of nature: given our understanding of God, how should we understand and treat the natural world?  But classic natural theology is the other way around: given our observations of nature, how does that enrich our understanding of God? This was definitely discussed by some speakers, but it seemed on the sparse side.

For instance, Romans 1: 18-25 (…For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that people are without excuse…, etc.) is probably the most weighty passage in the New Testament on this subject. (I have treated this passage, including its implications regarding the ingratitude of unbelievers, in A Survey of Biblical Natural Theology ). However, I do not recall any mention of these verses from the podium.

This is not a complaint or criticism, just an observation. This trend may just reflect the concern of the good speakers here to distance themselves from the efforts of modern Intelligent Design proponents who try to identify gaps in our understanding of natural history into which they can insert some Intelligent Agent capable of tweaking genomes over the past billion years. I respect the scholarly standards of our speakers, who were careful not to claim any naturalistic proofs of God. On the contrary, the hiddenness of God was repeatedly emphasized.

Taking a strict reading of Romans 1, and Psalms 19 and 104, perhaps that all we can firmly conclude about a Creator from observing the creation is that he is very powerful and long-lasting (the universe is big and old) and very smart (love the way all those quantum fields add up to complex functioning physical systems). It’s not clear from Scripture that other characteristics of God, such as his justice, are unambiguously displayed in creation. Regarding interactions among animals, for instance, conference speakers spent much more time on the defensive (answering attacks on God’s goodness) than on the offensive (demonstrating God’s goodness). It may be that there is not much more to be said in the way of natural theology, so that the podium should properly belong to theologians of nature. But maybe not. I will keep tuned in to the ongoing conversation within ASA among scientists and theologians who deal with these issues.

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Exposing the Roots of Young Earth Creationism


The Protestant consensus since the time of the Reformation has been that the physical universe and its history are real, not illusory. As God’s creation, the physical world conveys genuine information about the Creator and can serve to inform our interpretations of the Bible. Therefore, when geologists (many of them devout Christians) in the early 1800’s found that the rock layers showed the earth to be far older than the 6000 years derived from a literal reading of Genesis, Bible-believing Christians did not ignore, suppress, or lie about these findings. Rather, they adjusted their interpretation of the relevant Bible passages away from a simplistic literal reading, just as they had done 200 years earlier with the verses that depicted a stationary earth. Through about 1960, nearly all Christians, including conservative Old Testament scholars and most fundamentalists, were comfortable with interpretations of Genesis which accommodated an earth that was many millions of years old.

Today’s young earth creationism is based on “Flood geology”.  Flood geology, which teaches that most sedimentary rock layers were deposited in a single global Flood about 2500 B.C., was developed in its modern form in the early twentieth century by Seventh-day Adventist George M. Price to conform to visions of a six-day creation reported by Adventist prophetess Ellen White. Despite being advised by geologists that it was incorrect, John Whitcomb and Henry Morris took over Price’s Flood geology and repackaged it in The Genesis Flood (1961), which rapidly became dogma among conservative Protestants. Like White, Whitcomb and Morris assumed their interpretation of the Bible was infallible, which justified ignoring and distorting any scientific findings which did not agree with their Flood geology.

Thus, modern young earth creationism did not develop from improved Bible exegesis or new geological findings. Rather, it derives from extra-biblical revelation or assumptions, and scientific claims known at the time to be false. This approach is at odds with the historic Christian understanding of God’s works and God’s Word.



Varieties of Creationism

Advice from a Former Young Earth Creationist

Christian Views on Genesis and Creation Through 1800

       Sources on the Recent History of Creationism

       The Church Fathers on the Days of Creation

Geologists Discover an Old Earth

       Consistent Fossil Order Worldwide Indicates Evolution

       Thrust Faulting and “Out of Order” Rock Layers

Is Earth’s History an Illusion?

       The “Appearance of Age” Hypothesis

       God’s Self-Revelation in Nature

The Scholarly Fundamentalists, 1880-1920

Populist Fundamentalism and the Age of the Earth

From Failed Prophecy to Failed Science: Adventist Prophetess Drives the Revival of Diluvian Geology

       William Miller and the Great Disappointment

       Seventh-Day Adventism and Visionary Ellen White

       Ellen White’s Teachings on Creation

       George McCready Price, Flood Geology, and Thrust Faults

Ferment in the Fifties: The American Scientific Affiliation and Bernard Ramm

       The Evolution of the American Scientific Affiliation

       Bernard Ramm’s Manifesto

The Genesis of The Genesis Flood

       John Whitcomb Responds to Ramm’s Challenge

       Henry Morris Provides Scientific Horsepower

The Genesis Flood: The Book That Changed Everything

       Whitcomb and Morris Conceal the George McCready Price Connection

Bad Science and Bad Theology in The Genesis Flood

       The Lewis Overthrust According to Whitcomb and Morris

       Evaluating the Case Against Overthrusts

       More Bad Science by Henry Morris

       The Fundamental Error in The Genesis Flood: Bible Interpretation

       What Is the Bible About?



Varieties of Creationism

Creationism is the belief that the universe, and maybe life and individual life-forms, originated from specific acts of divine creation. The three main creationist views within modern Christianity are young earth creationism, old earth creationism, and evolutionary creationism. These approaches vary in how much they accept the results of modern science.

Young earth (YE) creationism is perhaps the most controversial position. In its modern Flood Geology form, YE creationism teaches that the earth and its life-forms were created about 6000 years ago, and that most sedimentary rock layers were deposited in a single, year-long global Flood.  It holds that the scientific community is broadly mistaken in its understanding of geology, astronomy and biology.

Science educators in the U.S. and U.K. are alarmed at attempts by young earth proponents to have their views taught in schools, especially schools funded with public money. Evangelical Christians are dismayed at how YE creationism is a barrier keeping educated people from considering the gospel. Blogger Rebecca Trotter wrote:

I have been upset for years over “biblical creationism” because of the bad fruit it produces…It keeps people from knowing God.  Creationism breeds lies and liars.  It trashes the church’s testimony.  No one sees Christians denying the reality of creation and is inspired to follow God.  It keeps people hanging onto a simplistic, immature view of God as a genie who goes “poof” and makes things happen.  It puts God on our timeline and not His own.  Having to wait on God makes much more sense when you consider that God normally works over the course of billions of years and not minutes and hours.  Creationism discredits holy scripture by trying to make it into a history book rather than the record of the revelation of God to his people.  When we insist that scripture says something that is obviously untrue, people will no longer see any reason to take it seriously.

Advice from a Former Young Earth Creationist

Despite denunciations by scientists, theologians, and laymen, YE creationism maintains a firm hold in the U.S., and has spread widely elsewhere.  Promotional organizations like Answers in Genesis convince their followers that YE creationism is consistent with the physical evidence as well with scripture. In a series of articles last year on the Panda’s Thumb web site, former YE creationist David MacMillan explained the thought patterns which “allow creationists to maintain their beliefs even in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary “. In his final article,  MacMillan addressed the question, “How do you reach creationists?” Here is his response:

Be patient. I do not think I would have ever made the switch if not for all the people who painstakingly pointed out my errors over and over, and forced me to look at the evidence for myself. It might seem futile, but you can make a difference.

Know your enemy. And your enemy is not the person you’re talking to. Your enemy is the fundamentalist worldview telling the person how they are allowed to think. Understand how it works; understand where the beliefs and rhetoric are coming from. Ask questions…

Know your role. You’re the teacher. Understand the evidence and the arguments… Real science displaces pseudoscience: tell a man about science and he might trust your authority, but teach a man how science works and he won’t need your authority at all. Do your best to instill confidence in the scientific process apart from the question of origins.

Stick to the facts…As I stated before, creationism botches literary and biblical criticism just as badly as it botches science. Don’t ever make the mistake of attacking a creationist’s faith; if you do so, you’re simply reinforcing their misconception that evolution is synonymous with atheism. Read the explanations given by theistic evolutionists. Ask questions like, “How do you know your interpretation of the Bible is correct? How do you know that Genesis should be treated as chronological narrative? How would the original audience have understood it? Why wasn’t your interpretation a majority view throughout Christian history?” Be prepared to explain the history of creationism.

His recommendations all seem reasonable. His final admonition here is: “Be prepared to explain the history of creationism.” In MacMillan’s own journey, this issue was pivotal:

Then I started learning about the history of creationism, and that’s where things started to crack. I learned that the age of the earth had never been a dividing issue in Christianity, not until Morris and Whitcomb plagiarized flood geology from the Seventh Day Adventists in the 1960s.

This observation got me interested in following up on the development of young earth creationism, to see what was suspect in the history of Flood geology.

Christian Views on Genesis and Creation Through 1800

Sources on the Recent History of Creationism

YE creationist Henry Morris published A History of Modern Creationism in 1984. The definitive study of the recent history of creationism is The Creationists, a heavily foot-noted tome by Ronald Numbers. The original edition was published in 1992, and is now available on Google Books.  This is the edition of The Creationists which will be cited here. An expanded version, including material on the “Intelligent Design” movement, was published in 2006.

A short, accessible treatment of the development of creationism was published in 2012 by David Montgomery in GSA Today. Historian of science Ted Davis has published a number of articles on Biologos dealing with different approaches to science and the Bible. His essay “Science Falsely So Called: Fundamentalism and Science” is particularly pertinent to understanding the recent history of creationism.

The Church Fathers on the Days of Creation

If the lifetimes of Bible characters are projected backwards in time from known historical events, one arrives at a date around 4000 B.C. for the creation of the world. From antiquity through the dawn of the modern era there was no particular impetus for objecting to that general timeframe for creation. Thus, the early church fathers generally accepted a young earth. There was, however, diversity of views on how literally to take the creation story.

Many early Christian writers saw the creation Days as regular 24-hour days, but there were a number of significant exceptions. Clement of Alexandria (c. 200 AD) and Augustine (c. 400) believed the world was created in a single instant, not in six literal days. Ted Davis notes:

For Clement, everything was “created together in thought,” and since “all things [were] originated together from one essence by one power,” the six days could not be taken literally. (Stromata, Book 6, Chapter 16)

The instantaneous view was advanced especially by the most important Western theologian of the first millennium, Augustine of Hippo (354-430), who wrote a work (in multiple versions) called On the Literal Meaning of Genesis (ca. 391). Influenced by Ecclesiasticus 18:1, he taught that in the beginning God made matter and all material things simultaneously. “Those who cannot understand the meaning of the text, He created all things together, cannot arrive at the meaning of Scripture unless the narrative proceeds slowly step by step.” Some things were created to unfold in time, growing from “seeds” placed in the creation by God, but they were all part of the original conception that was brought into material existence in a single creative event. However, to aid our poor understanding, God told us about it in the pattern of six days. Augustine called the creation days “dies ineffables” (unknowable days), so majestic and profound that we cannot think of them in merely human terms as ordinary days. They indicate logical order, not temporal order, and must be interpreted subtly.

Drawing on Psalm 90:4 (“The day of the Lord is a thousand years”), Cyprian saw each creation Day as a 1000 year, not 24-hour period ( “The first seven days in the divine arrangement contain seven thousand years”  –   Treatises 11:11, c. 250 A.D.) For Origen Genesis 1 was entirely figurative, not literal: “For who that has understanding will suppose that the first and second and third day existed without a sun and moon and stars and that the first day was, as it were, also without a sky? . . . I do not suppose that anyone doubts that these things figuratively indicate certain mysteries, the history having taken place in appearance and not literally” [The Fundamental Doctrines 4:1:16. c.  225 A.D].

Geologists Discover an Old Earth

European thinkers in the late 1700s attempted to understand the surface geological features in terms of a global flood. However, this diluvianism was abandoned in the face of new geological discoveries. Systematic studies of rock formations in Europe made it plain to practically every honest observer that the earth was far older than a few thousand years, and that there was no trace of a recent world-wide flood. One such formation was the angular unconformity in Scotland which is exposed at Siccar Point:

Angular Unconformity at Siccar Point, Scotland. Siccar Point, Scotland (Photo: Wikipedia “Hutton’s Unconformity”)

Angular Unconformity at Siccar Point, Scotland. Siccar Point, Scotland (Photo: Wikipedia “Hutton’s Unconformity”)

We have explained elsewhere why this set of rock layers cannot be explained by deposition in a single recent Flood (“Unconformities” Showed Geologists By 1800 That The Earth Was Very Old).

Deborah and Loren Haarsma described eight other lines of observational evidence that led “virtually all practicing geologists, including Christian geologists” by 1840 to believe “that the earth must be at least millions of years old.”

Davis Young noted that by 1840, on the basis of observations like these, geologists had realized that the features of the earth were incompatible with Noah’s global Flood:

As long ago as 1834 the great Christian geologist and ordained minister Adam Sedgwick charged the authors of the “Mosaic Geology” of this day with having committed “the folly and the sin of dogmatizing on matters they have not personally examined, and, at the utmost, know only second-hand – of pretending to teach mankind on points where they themselves are uninstructed.”   And a year later, Christian geologist and theologian Edward Hitchcock wrote that diluvianism “has been abandoned by all practical geologists.”  [from “The Discovery of Terrestrial History”, in Portraits of Creation (1990)]

This was not a matter of godless scientists imposing their conclusions on devout Christians – it was often devout Christians who were gathering and assessing the geological data and finding themselves forced to conclude that it all pointed to an old earth. As a result of these findings, between 1860 and 1960 almost no Protestant Christians (conservative or liberal) believed in a young earth. Davis notes, “Strict literalism of this sort, in which a long pre-human natural history is flatly rejected on biblical grounds, mostly disappeared in America before the Civil War, surviving mainly among the Seventh-day Adventists and a few other groups on the fringes of Protestantism, only to be revived a century later with the rapid rise of scientific creationism.”

Consistent Fossil Order Worldwide Indicates Evolution

Early canal-builders and geologists made systematic observations of the fossils embedded in various rock layers. They discovered that there was a consistent order in which some of these fossils appeared. This order is indicative of the relative age of these fossil species, since younger sediments are always deposited atop older, existing sediments.

Fossil order in rocks

For instance, for the order of fossils shown above, we might find specific sets of layers exemplified in the three rock formations below. Not all fossils appear in every layer, but the sequence is consistent. Often the same sequence can be observed in widely separated locales, indicating that this “faunal succession” was not the result of some local hydrological sorting or ecological zones, but held true all over the world.

Examples of Fossil order

Sometimes the fossils appear in the usual order, but some middle layers, representing perhaps millions of years, are missing:

Unconformity with fossil layers

Although all the layers may appear flat, with smooth interfaces, closer inspection usually reveals evidence of an erosional surface at the missing layers (e.g. here, between layers B and F). This indicates that, after the lower layers were deposited, they were lifted out of the waters, such that net erosion rather than deposition took place, and then many years later this region again subsided below water level to receive a new round of sediment. See “Unconformities Showed Geologists By 1800 That The Earth Was Very Old” for more discussion of missing rock layers.

Fossils which have a wide geographic distribution but a relatively short time of appearance in the rocks are called “index fossils”, since they are useful in determining the relative ages of the rocks in which they occur:

These index fossils were all sea creatures, so there is no question of the more fleet-footed clams getting buried in higher rock layers because they ran to higher ground as the Flood-waters rose. At all levels there are fossils of animals that are big and small, skinny and fat, so this sequence is not a result of hydrodynamic sorting during one big Flood. Rather, the order of their world-wide appearance in the rock layers reflects their temporal appearance, then disappearance, across the times of deposition in the sedimentary rocks in which they are found. As noted earlier in this section, geologists had many reasons to believe that these deposition times extended over millions of years.

Perhaps as the ages rolled by God miraculously created species after species, maybe one species every ten years for the past half-billion years, as previous species died off.  Scientific thought, however, seeks to understand natural phenomena in terms of regular physical laws, instead of positing a constant stream of miracles. If one species could develop (evolve) into a different species through natural means, this would explain the appearance of so many new species over the ages without endless special interventions.

Darwin’s theory of evolution, published in 1859, offered a mechanism to explain the already-observed faunal succession in the rocks. He proposed that heritable variations, which were associated with improved survival and reproductive success, could promote changes in a population over time, enough to eventually develop a new species.

The case for evolution was strengthened by the fact that a given species in the fossil record is often quite similar to the species that come before it and after it. As Darwin acknowledged, the known fossil record does not supply a complete picture of every transition between species. For small evolutionary steps, such as from one species to the next, typically no transitional forms are found. However, there are often a number of known intermediate forms which bridge between large phylogenetic groupings such as orders and classes. For instance, a number of fossil fish with amphibian-like features, and amphibians with fish-like features have been found dating to about the time of the fish-to-amphibian transition. An excellent series of intermediate fossils also exist for the reptile-to-mammal transition. See Realistic Expectations for Transitional Fossils for more on transitional fossils. The “Cambrian explosion”, where many animal phyla appear for the first time, is discussed in Darwin’s_Doubt.

Thrust Faulting and “Out of Order” Rock Layers

Some sections of the earth’s crust undergo massive stretching, which can result in the rupture of a crustal plate and the formation of a new ocean (e.g. the Atlantic) in the gap. Other sections of the crust undergo immense compression. This typically results in a combination of folding of rock layers, and of thrusting one set of rocks over atop a different set of rocks. This combination of folding and thrusting is what pushes mountain ranges miles into the air.

A fault is a planar fracture in a volume of rock where relative motion has taken place. Fault systems are known to run for hundreds of miles (e.g. the San Andreas Fault in California). The type of fault associated with thrusting is called a thrust fault. In the middle of a fault there is usually some ground-up rock, called gouge, which can act as a lubricant to facilitate the fault motion. This gouge layer is often surprisingly thin.  The Earth Story  notes, “The thickness of gouge, that is, the thickness within the moving part of a fault, has little meaning for the importance of the fault itself. Some very thin fault zones are capable of moving rocks over an immense distance: thrust faults with tens of kilometer of displacement sometimes have centimeter-scale zones of gouge; an entire tectonic plate can be moved about on a zone sometimes less than a meter thick.” Much faulting that today is exposed at the surface originally took place deep beneath the earth’s surface, where high pressure water can be present in the fault and can further lubricate its motion.

Thrust faults are widely found in mountain ranges, including the Appalachians and the Alps, and there are many currently active (moving, measurable) thrust faults worldwide.    For instance, the Indian crustal plate has shoved hundreds of miles in a 1500-mile-long arc under what is now the Tibetan plateau of the Eurasian plate, and continues to move northward at a rate of several inches per year. As these two plates mash together, the Himalayas grow measurably higher by about 2 inches (5 cm) every year through folding and thrusting. The recent tragic earthquake in Nepal is a result of this crustal compression and thrust faulting. The figure below shows that the scale of the thrust faulting (“MBT”, MCT”) in the Himalayas runs to hundreds of miles of displacement (50 km=36 mi):

Simplified cross-section of the north-western Himalaya showing the main tectonic units and structural elements by Dèzes (1999). Labeling is in French. 50 km=36 mi.

Simplified cross-section of the north-western Himalaya showing the main tectonic units and structural elements by Dèzes (1999). Labeling is in French. 50 km=36 mi.

In terms of our cartoons of fossil layers A through H, a thrust fault might result in this arrangement:

Thrust Fault Layers

Here, the older layers A-B have been shoved atop layers F-G. The thrust fault is at the interface of layers A and G. Note that these layers are not in a completely random order. The usual A-through-H order is preserved, except for the plane of the thrust fault, where one set of layers was shoved atop another set of layers in an understandable movement. There is nothing here that would cast doubt on the integrity of the A-through-H fossil ordering.

There is a belt of thrusting that extends all along the Rocky Mountains, from Canada to Mexico. As noted below, this geology has played a key role in the history of creationism. The on-line documentation for a university lecture by Harmon D. Maher on thrust faulting includes informative graphics such as this, which shows the complex nature of the Montana thrust fault system:

Cross section through the Montana fold-thrust belt showing its thin-skinned character with the basal Black Canyon detachment, a foreland dipping duplex and the structural window created by the Moors Mountain Thrust Fault. From USGS, reproduced by Harmon D. Maher in lecture on thrust faulting . This is a snip of the left half of the drawing in Maher’s lecture.

Cross section through the Montana fold-thrust belt showing its thin-skinned character with the basal Black Canyon detachment, a foreland dipping duplex and the structural window created by the Moors Mountain Thrust Fault. From USGS, reproduced by Harmon D. Maher in lecture on thrust faulting . This is a snip of the left half of the drawing in Maher’s lecture.

Is Earth’s History an Illusion?

The “Appearance of Age” Hypothesis

An attempt to maintain the literal Genesis story while acknowledging the evidence of age in the rocks was made by Philip Henry Gosse in his 1857 book Omphalos. There he argued that for God to create a functional world, the elements in that world must look as if they had existed for some time. Adam and Eve would have hair, fingernails, and navels (omphalos is the Greek word for “navel”), and the earth’s surface would have mountains and valleys. Today’s YE creationists invoke this appearance of age concept to explain the fact that we can see stars that are millions of light-years away: God instantly created both the distant stars and all the intervening starlight on Genesis Day Four, 6000 years ago.

This appearance-of-age concept seems at first like a tidy way to sidestep all the seeming conflict between Genesis and science. However, this approach was never widely embraced. One problem is that the that observations of rocks and stars show not just old-looking objects, but a whole detailed, interlocking history of events dating back billions of years to the Big Bang. The folded, metamorphosed Appalachian geology looks as if a huge mountain range of solid rock was thrust up and slowly eroded down over the course of millions of years;  the fossil record shows a succession of species over the past half-billion years, as if they developed via evolution. The human genome contains many chunks of DNA that look as if they were injected by viruses millions of years in the past; chimpanzees share some of these same retrovirus sequences with us, making it look as if humans and chimps had a common ancestor. It would be as though Adam was created, not only with a belly-button, but with memories of a boyhood filled with activities, and with the scars and artifacts to match those false memories.

Also, the deception here would have to extend well past the initial “week” of creation. God would also have to erase all marks of a world-engulfing Flood which killed all but eight humans and most terrestrial species and scoured the crust of the earth. This global cover-up would entail reworking all the surface rock layers to remove traces of the Flood, rejiggering the human genome to make it look as if the human race did not go through such a severe population bottleneck; transporting a bunch of marsupial mammals to Australia to make it look as if they evolved in place on that isolated continent, etc., etc. It makes God the author of deception on such a cosmic scale that we are left not knowing what is real. Maybe the whole universe, including our underlined Bibles, and us with our scars and our memories of things that never really happened, was created just last Thursday – with the apparent age viewpoint, you cannot tell. Rabbi Natan Slifkin commented in his Challenge of Creation that with this approach:

God essentially created two conflicting accounts of Creation: one in nature, and one in the Torah. [But then] how can it be determined which is the real story, and which is the fake designed to mislead us? One could equally propose that it is nature which presents the real story, and that the Torah was devised by God to test us with a fake history!      One has to be able to rely on God’s truthfulness if religion is to function.

God’s Self-Revelation in Nature

Another drawback of the apparent age hypothesis, in which the rock layers are a gigantic hoax, is that it runs counter to the thought that undergirded the rise of science in Christian Europe. Most of the earliest modern scientists were devout theists, who believed that they were learning of God’s ways as they studied His creation.  They believed that God revealed Himself through the Book of his works as well as through the Book of His words (i.e. the Bible). Thus, pioneering astronomer Johannes Kepler wrote that God “wants to be recognized from the book of Nature”, and that in examining the physical world “we observe to some extent the goodness and wisdom of the Creator.”

This understanding of God’s self-revelation in nature was drawn from both Old and New Testaments, as discussed in A Survey of Biblical Natural Theology. The power and skill of the Creator are evident from the size and complexity of the universe; other divine aspects such as justice are not necessarily displayed in nature. The Psalmist declares:

The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands.

Day after day they pour forth speech; night after night they reveal knowledge.

They have no speech, they use no words; no sound is heard from them.

Yet their voice goes out into all the earth, their words to the ends of the world. [Psalm 19:1-6 NIV]  - - The image is from the European Space Agency, using the Hubble Space Telescope. It is listed as the LH 95 star forming region of the Large Magellanic Cloud – – The image is from the European Space Agency, using the Hubble Space Telescope. It is listed as the LH 95 star forming region of the Large Magellanic Cloud

The apostle Paul claims that characteristics of the invisible God can be inferred from the visible creation:  “What may be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them.  For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made.” [Rom. 1:19-20 NIV] In appealing to eye-witness testimony to the resurrected Christ (I Cor. 15:5-7), Paul implies that past events as understood by humans are a genuine record of God’s activities on earth; history is not an illusion.

Francis Bacon, who defined the modern scientific method, described this two-books  approach: “There are two books laid before us to study, to prevent our falling into error; first, the volume of the Scriptures, which reveal the will of God; then the volume of the Creatures, which express His power.” In The Advancement of Learning (1605) Bacon wrote:

Let no man … think or maintain that a man can search too far, or be too well studied in the book of God’s word, or the book of God’s works, divinity or philosophy; but rather let men endeavor an endless progress or proficience in both; only let men beware that they apply both to charity, and not to swelling; to use, and not to ostentation; and again, that they do not unwisely mingle or confound these learnings together.

The Christian thinkers of the early 1800s followed Bacon’s advice to “not unwisely mingle or confound these learnings together”. Thus, when the physical evidence of the age of the earth contradicted their literal interpretation of Scripture, they did not try to suppress or distort those findings. Rather, they realized that their interpretation of Genesis was likely incorrect. As Davis Young notes, “Because the Christian naturalists of the era were unafraid of God-given evidence, they recognized that extrabiblical information provided a splendid opportunity for closer investigation of the biblical text in order to clear up earlier mistakes in interpretation.”

Two Christian architects of modern science. Left: Sir Francis Bacon, c. 1618       Right: Portrait of Galileo Galilei by Giusto Sustermans

Two Christian architects of modern science. Left: Sir Francis Bacon, c. 1618 Right: Portrait of Galileo Galilei by Giusto Sustermans

Presumably they had learned something from the Galileo fiasco. It had only been 200 years since the Roman Catholic church banned Galileo’s teachings that the earth moved around the sun. Galileo’s findings contradicted the literal, obvious meaning of Biblical passages such as Psalm 104:5 (“He set the earth on its foundations; it can never be moved”),  as well as I Chron. 16:30, Isa. 66:1, Eccl.1:5, and Josh. 10:13. According to Cardinal Roberto Bellarmine (1615),   “…to affirm that the sun is really fixed in the center of the heavens and the earth revolves swiftly around the sun is a dangerous thing, not only irritating the theologians and philosophers, but injuring our holy faith and making the sacred scripture false.”  Galileo did not dispute that the literal teaching of the Bible was of a stationary earth; he just argued that we need to take a non-literal interpretation, in order to remove the apparent conflict with science. As he put it, “The Bible shows the way to go to heaven, not the way the heavens go.”

The Protestants of that era appeared to be less prone than Catholics to suppress scientific findings on the basis of dogma. The reformer John Calvin wrote that in the Genesis creation narrative God accommodated the story to the limited understanding of common people, rather than giving a scientifically precise account. “He who would learn astronomy, and other recondite arts, let him go elsewhere” – – meaning, the Bible was not written for the purpose of telling us about the physical universe. In Calvin’s view, the way to understand the stars and the planets in a God-honoring manner was to go scientifically study them, not to rely on inferences from Biblical statements:

Astronomers investigate with great labor whatever the sagacity of the human mind can comprehend… For astronomy is not only pleasant, but also very useful to be known: it cannot be denied that this art unfolds the admirable wisdom of God. Wherefore, as ingenious men are to be honored who have expended useful labor on this subject, so they who have leisure and capacity ought not to neglect this kind of exercise. [Commentary on Gen. 1:6].

In the past century the Catholic magisterium has been far ahead of conservative Protestants in coming to grips with the advances of science (“The Pope Speaks on Creation and Evolution”).   Even in Galileo’s time, however, the Roman church used natural observations to aid in Bible interpretation. Cardinal Bellermine wrote that he would be willing to consider a non-literal interpretation of the passages on the fixed earth if the physical evidence for a moving earth was strong enough. His objection to Galileo’s model was not merely that it imperiled the traditional understanding of the Bible, but that it had not been conclusively proven:

I say that if there were a true demonstration that the sun is in the center of the universe and that the sun does not go around the earth but the earth goes around the sun, then it would be necessary to be careful in explaining the Scriptures that seemed contrary. We should rather have to say that we do not understand them than to say that something is false. But I do not think there is any such demonstration, since none has been shown me.

At that time, the quality of evidence for a moving earth was something like the evidence today for evolution: the theory explained the vast majority of observations, but there were some serious questions that remained unanswered. For instance, if the earth really swings millions of miles around the sun every twelve months, we should find a different viewing angle towards a given star in July than in January. Astronomers in the 1600s looked for this parallax effect but did not detect it. Most scientists of the day were content to leave this effect unexplained, since Galileo’s model made sense out of so many other observations. (Because the stars are very far away from earth, the seasonal shift in viewing angle is so small that astronomers were unable to measure it until the 1800s, using improved instruments.)

The Scholarly Fundamentalists, 1880-1920

Bible-believing Protestants at the end of the nineteenth century became alarmed over widespread denial of historic Christian doctrines by liberal clergymen and theology professors. Also, the German “higher criticism”, which portrayed the Bible as an erroneous collection of merely human documents, began spilling over into the English-speaking world. A number of conservative scholars addressed these issues, providing rationales for trusting in the Bible and holding to orthodox doctrines. California businessman Lyman Stewart and his brother Milton provided funds for collecting and publishing a set of essays defending conservative Protestant beliefs.

The Fundamentals: A Testimony To the Truth, a set of 90 essays in twelve volumes, was published from 1910 to 1915 and distributed without charge to thousands of clergymen, professors of theology, missionaries, and other Christian workers. The authors included professors such as B. B. Warfield of Princeton Seminary and James Orr of the University of Glasgow, G. Campbell Morgan (president of Cheshunt College in Cambridge and pastor of Westminster Chapel in London), R. A. Torrey (graduate of Yale University and Yale Divinity School, with further studies at Leipzig and Erlangen Universities), prominent jurist Philip Mauro, and other Christian intellectuals of the day. Adherents to The Fundamentals later became known as “fundamentalists”.

Populist Fundamentalism and the Age of the Earth

The early 1920’s saw several shifts within fundamentalism. The early scholarly emphasis was replaced by a more populist tone, and ultimately an anti-intellectual attitude. Before 1920, there was little interest in attacking evolution. In fact, several of the authors of The Fundamentals were comfortable with (God-directed) macro-evolution of the lower animals. From 1920 onward, combatting the teaching of evolution in the public schools became a crusade, culminating in the 1925 Scopes “monkey trial” in Dayton, Tennessee. Evolutionary thinking was blamed for a whole range of ungodly trends in society.

In the 1920’s, fundamentalists attempted to gain control of the major Protestant denominations. These attempts failed, leaving the mainline churches in the hands of the modernists and moderates. With the mainstream Christian and secular cultures seemingly hostile and impregnable, the fundamentalists after 1930 to some extent withdrew and formed their own network of colleges and Bible institutes. While the early leadership had been provided largely by scholars from the northeast U.S., the fundamentalist center of gravity by the 1930’s shifted definitively to the southern Bible belt.

What did these stalwart defenders of the Bible believe about creation? Almost to a man, they rejected the young earth perspective. They did not find a recent creation in six 24-hour days to be a necessary interpretation of Genesis. W.B. Riley, editor of The Christian Fundamentalist and president of the Anti-Evolution League of America, stated that there was not “an intelligent fundamentalist who claims that the earth was made six thousand years ago; and the Bible never taught any such thing” [The Creationists, p. 45]. Riley, William Jennings Bryan, and many of the more educated fundamentalists held to the “progressive creation” form of old earth creationism. In this view, the creative acts of God were spread out over millions of years. Noah’s Flood is seen as localized to somewhere in the Middle East.  In some variants, the six creation Days of Genesis 1 are correlated with specific epochs of geological history. This “day-age” approach is espoused today by Hugh Ross’s Reasons to Believe ministry.

The form of old earth creationism which became more popular among fundamentalists was the “gap” theory. This approach proposes a very long time period between Genesis 1:1 (“In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth”), which marked the initial creation of the earth, and 1:2 (“Now the earth was formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters.”). After the initial creation (Gen 1:1), a long time passed, which may have involved the creation and extinction of different kinds of beings; this age was brought to an end by some primeval rebellion, resulting in the destruction and desolation of the earth’s surface, leaving it “formless and empty” (Gen 1:2). Genesis 1:3 and onward tells of the rehabilitation of the earth and the creation of today’s species, including humans, in a relatively recent literal six-day re-creation.

Gap creationism was popularized by Thomas Chalmers at the University of Edinburgh and was held by early nineteenth century Christian geologists such as William Buckland and Edward Hitchcock. It became enormously influential in early and mid-twentieth century American conservative Protestantism after being promoted in the notes of the Schofield Reference Bible. Adherents included Charles Spurgeon, R. A. Torrey, Oral Roberts, Harry Rimmer, Jimmy Swaggart, Donald Grey Barnhouse, and Finis Dake (who also published an annotated Bible). In 1954, Bernard Ramm (The Christian View of Science and Scripture) noted that the gap approach was taken at that time by many fundamentalists to be the only possible faithful interpretation of Genesis:

The gap theory has become the standard interpretation throughout hyper-orthodoxy, appearing in an endless stream of books, booklets, Bible studies, and periodical articles. In fact, it has become so sacrosanct with some that to question it is equivalent to tampering with Sacred Scripture or to manifest modernistic leanings.

From Failed Prophecy to Failed Science: Adventist Prophetess Drives the Revival of Diluvian Geology

William Miller and the Great Disappointment

The old-earth (day-age or gap theory) consensus among conservative Protestants was abruptly shattered by the 1961 publication of The Genesis Flood. Its authors, John Whitcomb and Henry Morris, taught a “Flood geology”, in which most of the sedimentary rock layers were laid down in a single world-wide Noahic Flood about 2500 B.C., some 1500 years after the creation of the universe c. 4000 B.C. Their version of young earth creationism was heavily promoted by the authors and by related organizations, and within a decade became the standard worldview among fundamentalists.

Where did this Flood geology come from? The story begins in upstate New York with a farmer named William Miller. In the early nineteenth century, this area was a hotbed of reform movements, utopian communities, and religious enthusiasm and innovation. This is where Mormonism (Joseph Smith) and American Spiritualism (the Fox sisters) arose. And this is where Miller, a Baptist layman living near the Vermont border, pored over his Bible and calculated the time of Christ’s return.

William Miller (1782-1849), whose 1844 estimate of the Second Coming spawned many branches of Adventism.

William Miller (1782-1849), whose 1844 estimate of the Second Coming spawned many branches of Adventism.

Miller based his calculation on Daniel 8:14, “Unto two thousand and three hundred days; then shall the sanctuary be cleansed.” Starting with a royal decree in 457 B.C. to rebuild Jerusalem, and reckoning each prophetic day to be a year, he estimated that, “that Jesus Christ will come again to this earth, cleanse, purify, and take possession of the same, with all the saints, sometime between March 21, 1843, and March 21, 1844.” Apparently it did not strike him odd that with a simple calculation from an Old Testament verse he was able determine the date of the Second Coming, even though Jesus had declared this date was not known by any man, any angel, or even by Jesus himself (cf. Mark 13:32).

After Miller started publicizing his conclusions in 1831, they generated increasing attention. If indeed the world was about to end in a few short years, hardly anything else mattered. Something like 100,000 people, mainly in northeast U.S. but with adherents worldwide, were swept up in the excitement.

March 21, 1844 came and went uneventfully. Because Miller had acknowledged some imprecision in starting dates and calendar changes, the faithful were not unduly discouraged. The “Millerites” eventually decided that October 22, 1844 must be the actual date of Christ’s Second Advent. Thousands gathered to keep vigil that day and that night, many dressed in white robes. The chagrin they felt when October 23 dawned like any other day is known as the “Great Disappointment.”

After this fizzle, most of Miller’s followers apparently went back to their old churches and rebuilt their lives. Many others, however, had become so invested in the Adventist movement that they could not give it up. Various Millerite groups made divergent attempts to rationalize the non-apocalypse of October 22. This led to the formation of many different sects. Here is a diagram of some of the churches and movements in the nineteenth century spawned by Millerism:

The development of branches of Adventism in the 19th century

The development of branches of Adventism in the 19th century

The reach of Miller’s Adventism extends even further than depicted here. It helped shift American Christian eschatological expectations from post-millennialism (which is optimistic about the spread of Christian faith and culture in the world before Christ’s return) to a more pessimistic pre-millennialism, which is fixated on a coming war in the Middle East. The Jehovah’s Witnesses (current worldwide membership 15-20 million) emerged from Charles Taze Russell’s Bible Student movement. The Branch Davidians, who came to a fiery end in the government siege of their Waco compound in 1993, were an offshoot of an offshoot of the Seventh-day Adventists.

Seventh-Day Adventism and Visionary Ellen White

The group that became the Seventh-day Adventists explained the absence of visible manifestations on October 22 by stating that Christ did indeed come and cleanse a sanctuary (per Daniel 8:14) on that day, but this sanctuary was in heaven, not on earth. This group continued to maintain an expectation of Christ’s return to earth, and embraced the keeping of the Sabbath on Saturday (the seventh day of the week).

This movement was held together in part by James White’s publication of the periodicals The Present Truth, and later the Second Advent Review and Sabbath Herald. The Seventh-day Adventist church was formally organized in 1863.

James White’s wife, Ellen G. White (1827-1915), became accepted as a prophetic voice in the Seventh-day Adventist movement. She went into trances for extended periods, where she reported seeing visions of God and of future events, and receiving direct communications from Jesus and angels. Later medical investigations note that her symptoms were consistent with fits of temporal lobe epilepsy, possibly linked to a childhood blow to the head that left her in a coma for three weeks.

Ellen White was a prolific writer, authoring more than 40 books and 5000 articles. Critics poke fun at her Victorian dire warnings on self-abuse, and her statements on creation and geology are wildly inaccurate. That said, most of her teachings seem reasonable and consistent with Scripture, and were offered out of pure motives. She played a role in steering Adventism back to orthodoxy on the Trinity.  She honored the Bible, stood against racism, promoted sound education, and was far ahead of her time in advocating healthy eating habits and other proactive health care.

In recent decades, most Seventh-day Adventists have backed away from absolute fealty to White’s every statement, while continuing to draw from the best of the traditions she promoted.  The Adventist church maintains an emphasis on wholeness and health, operates a large network of schools and hospitals, and is accepted as a regular Protestant denomination.

In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, however, her writings were considered by most Seventh-day Adventists to be authoritative revelation from God, on a par with the Bible. White did not claim that everything she wrote was inspired, but she vigorously defended the authenticity of her prophetic visions and revelations, with statements such as these:

“I speak that which I have seen, and which I know to be true.”

“”I do not write one article in the paper expressing merely my own ideas. They are what God has opened before me in vision–the precious rays of light shining from the throne.”

“God is either teaching His church, reproving their wrongs and strengthening their faith, or He is not. This work is of God, or it is not. God does nothing in partnership with Satan. My work… bears the stamp of God or the stamp of the enemy. There is no halfway work in the matter. The Testimonies are of the Spirit of God, or of the devil.”

“I testify the things which I have seen, the things which I have heard, the things which my hands have handled of the Word of life. And this testimony I know to be of the Father and the Son. We have seen and do testify that the power of the Holy Ghost has accompanied the presentation of the truth, warning with pen and voice, and giving the messages in their order. To deny this work would be to deny the Holy Ghost, and would place us in that company who have departed from the faith, giving heed to seducing spirits.”

Ellen White’s Teachings on Creation

White’s Adventist beliefs on the Sabbath were tied to a literal six-day creation. In her mind, this absolutely ruled out vast ages for the creation. To teach long ages for creation is “infidelity in its most insidious and hence most dangerous form”:

 But the assumption that the events of the first week required thousands upon thousands of years, strikes directly at the foundation of the fourth commandment. It represents the Creator as commanding men to observe the week of literal days in commemoration of vast, indefinite periods. This is unlike His method of dealing with His creatures. It makes indefinite and obscure that which He has made very plain. It is infidelity in its most insidious and hence most dangerous form; its real character is so disguised that it is held and taught by many who profess to believe the Bible.    [E. White, The Story of Patriarchs and Prophets, p. 112]

Given her convictions, it is perhaps not surprising that she reported a divine vision in which she was “carried back to the creation and was shown that the first week, in which God performed the work of creation in six days and rested on the seventh day, was just like every other week.”  [Spiritual Gifts, vol. 3, Page 90 ]

White reported further direct divine revelation on what transpired after Noah’s Flood. The ground was littered with carcasses of all the drowned humans and animals. Because God did not them to decompose there and pollute the atmosphere, He wanted them buried. He accomplished this by sending a mighty wind that sloshed the waters around so violently that the dirt and stones were displaced enough to bury the dead bodies. In the process, the surface of the earth was greatly reshaped:

He caused a powerful wind to pass over the earth for the purpose of drying up the waters, which moved them with great force—in some instances carrying away the tops of mountains like mighty avalanches, forming huge hills and high mountains where there were none to be seen before, and burying the dead bodies with trees, stones, and earth. These mountains and hills increased in size and became more irregular in shape by collection of stones, ledges, trees, and earth which were driven upon and around them.   [Spiritual Gifts, vol. 3, Page 78]

Before the Flood there were immense forests of trees many times larger than today’s trees. These trees were torn up and buried during the Flood, and turned into coal, some of which turned into oil; God causes the subterranean coal and oil to ignite, which makes for “earthquakes, volcanoes and fiery issues”:

At the time of the flood these forests were torn up or broken down and buried in the earth. In some places large quantities of these immense trees were thrown together and covered with stones and earth by the commotions of the flood. They have since petrified and become coal, which accounts for the large coal beds which are now found. This coal has produced oil. God causes large quantities of coal and oil to ignite and burn. Rocks are intensely heated, limestone is burned, and iron ore melted. Water and fire under the surface of the earth meet. The action of water upon the limestone adds fury to the intense heat, and causes earthquakes, volcanoes and fiery issues. [Spiritual Gifts, vol. 3, Page 78]

The likely origin of coal from buried vegetation was already known in White’s day; the rest of this is fanciful fiction. Oil comes from marine sediments, not from trees or coal. Volcanoes are eruptions of molten rock from hot zones in the lower crust of the earth, with normally no connection to underground fires of coal or oil. White seems to have stirred into her vision the common observation that calcined limestone (i.e. lime, an ingredient in mortar or cement) gets hot when water is added to it.

White stated that all the corpses buried in the earth should serve as evidence of the biblical Flood, to “establish the faith of men in inspired history”. [Spiritual Gifts, vol. 3, Page 95-96 ] When scientists did actually examine the fossils in the rocks, their conclusions were the opposite of what she proposed. Geologists looked very hard, and could find no evidence of a universal Flood, or of a recent creation. What they did find was a clear history of a series of inundations and erosions over millions of years, with a progression of differing fossil types over that time period supporting evolution.

In response to these “infidel” conclusions, White claimed that God revealed to her that the geological history of the earth is “incomprehensible” to human investigators (i.e. scientists) who seek to understand it in terms of natural principles:

I have been shown that without Bible history, geology can prove nothing. Relics found in the earth do give evidence of a state of things differing in many respects from the present. But the time of their existence, and how long a period these things have been in the earth, are only to be understood by Bible history. It may be innocent to conjecture beyond Bible history, if our suppositions do not contradict the facts found in the sacred Scriptures. But when men leave the word of God in regard to the history of creation, and seek to account for God’s creative works upon natural principles, they are upon a boundless ocean of uncertainty. Just how God accomplished the work of creation in six literal days he has never revealed to mortals. His creative works are just as incomprehensible as his existence. [Spiritual Gifts, vol. 3, Page 93]

White’s posturing here (“God spoke to me; to question me is to defy God”) is a typical cult leader power-play. Furthermore, her claim that natural history is opaque to human investigation is in direct opposition to the historic Protestant view that geological history is real because God is not a deceiver, and that He purposed to reveal Himself in the Book of His works as well as in the Book of His Word.

George McCready Price, Flood Geology, and Thrust Faults

Although many of Ellen White’s statements about the creation and the Flood are at odds with physical reality, her prophetic status forced other Seventh-day Adventists to a literal application of the Genesis story. It was certainly White’s writings that drove Canadian-born Adventist George McCready Price to seek a way to rationalize the rock layers in a manner that was consistent with a recent six-day creation. Price acknowledged that he was guided by White’s “revealing word pictures of the Edenic beginning of the world, of the fall and the world apostasy, and of the flood”, with Flood-burial of animals and plants producing the fossils.

Starting about 1900, Price formally proposed that the fossil-bearing sedimentary rocks were laid down in Noah’s flood. He recognized that he had to come to terms with the observations by geologists that a regular sequence of fossilized plant and animal species could be observed in the rock layers around the world. Evolutionists readily explained this faunal succession in the rocks as reflecting the actual temporal appearance and extinction of these species over the millions of years of geologic history. Price’s initial proposal was that the observed sequence of fossils resulted, not from temporal succession, but from various aspects of the Flood event that sorted out different types of corpses, including differential mortality and hydrological sorting. The “smaller and more helpless animals” would be drowned first, with their burial locations being determined by the densities of their bodies, while the faster-running “larger animals and man would flee to the hill-tops” and be buried later.

Later, Price simply denied the existence of a regular order of fossils in the rocks. He ended up staking his whole system of thought on the observation of “out-of-order” rock layers in certain locations, especially the Lewis Overthrust in Montana and Alberta. This is part of great thrust belt system runs nearly the whole length of the Rocky Mountains. In the Lewis Overthrust, hundreds of square miles of rocks dated by their fossils as “old” (Precambrian, about 1 billion years old) rest atop rocks whose fossils are supposedly younger (400 million years and younger). Normally, of course, one finds older fossils below, not above, younger fossils. Geologists interpreted the Lewis formation as a case where the older layers had been pushed up and over onto the younger layers by compressive forces.

Price, however, had no formal geology training or experience. He read on the subject extensively, not to actually understand reality, but rather to conjure up some explanation that was consistent with a recent creation and a global Flood. Not understanding fault systems in general, Price simply could not believe that many square miles of thick rock could have ever slid across other rocks.  He was probably misled by reading some descriptions of the Lewis fault zone which minimized the deformations there.  Also, the zone of fracturing and folding at a fault is sometimes narrow, and easily overlooked by the untrained eye.

The diagram below illustrates why practicing scientists could tell that the Lewis formation involved a massive thrusting movement. This is a section in Montana, south of Glacier National Park. The formations appearing on this diagram are listed at the bottom, in order from highest (most recent) to lowest (oldest). Devonian rocks (Du) are about 400 million years old, and Cambrian rocks (Cu) are about 500 million years old. These rocks are classified as “Devonian” or “Cambrian” on the basis of the index fossils found in them; the ages of Devonian and Cambrian sedimentary rocks in general have been determined by radioactive dating of igneous rocks that have been found in association with these sedimentary layers in various parts of the world. The formations whose abbreviations start with “Y” (e.g. Ygr, Ym) are Precambrian, on the order of a billion years old.

Section of the Lewis and Eldorado Thrust Faults. Green circle marks surface exposure of Lewis fault. Red and blue arrows mark surface exposures and subsurface orientation of a consistent set of rock layers on both sides of the Lewis fault. From “The Lewis Thrust Fault and Related Structures in the Disturbed Belt, Northwestern Montana”, by Melville R. Mudge and Robert L. Earhart (1980). .     Arrows and circle added.

Section of the Lewis and Eldorado Thrust Faults. Green circle marks surface exposure of Lewis fault. Red and blue arrows mark surface exposures and subsurface orientation of a consistent set of rock layers on both sides of the Lewis fault.
From “The Lewis Thrust Fault and Related Structures in the Disturbed Belt, Northwestern Montana”, by Melville R. Mudge and Robert L. Earhart (1980). . Arrows and circle added.

In the immediate zone of the fault exposure (green circle on the diagram), one of the Precambrian formations (here, the Mount Shields Formation, Yms) is found resting atop some Devonian rocks (approximately 400 million years old).This is an example of “out-of-order” layering, with nominally older rocks sitting above younger rocks. Price claimed that the Precambrian rocks were directly deposited as ocean sediments, during Noah’s Flood, on top of the post-Cambrian rocks.

Consideration of the whole picture, however, makes it obvious that this is a case of thrusting. There is a huge, identical super-set of tilted rock layers that occur on both sides of the Lewis fault. These layers run from the from Precambrian or Proterozoic formations (e.g. Yh Helena Formation, Ysn Snowslip Formation, etc.) up to Cambrian and Devonian formations at the surface. These formations on the left side of the Lewis fault are marked with red arrows, and on the right side of the fault with blue arrows. The geometry of these layers makes it clear that the reason why the Yms Mount Shields rocks are sitting on top of the Du Devonian rocks within the green circle is that a huge section of these layers (where the red arrows are) got shoved from the left atop another section (marked by blue arrows) of this same super-set.

The Flood geology interpretation of all this would be that the detailed sequence of layers on the right (blue arrows) were deposited from the Flood waters from specific sediments (clays, sands, limy animal skeletons, etc.). Note that each of the many formations shown (Yh, Ysn, Ysh,…,Cu, Du) contains a number of distinct sub-levels, so there are actually hundreds of identifiable rock layers involved. Then, an erosional surface was formed at the plane of what geologists call the Lewis Thrust. Then, as the Flood raged on, hundreds of more sedimentary layers were deposited (red arrows) which exactly mimic in type and sequence all the layers which compose the ten or so formations laid down earlier.

This is not credible. One feature which makes it completely impossible is that a number of these formations (e.g. Garnet Range, McNamara, Bonner) are composed largely of quartzite. Quartzite forms when sandstone is deeply buried and subjected to intense heat and compression long enough to cement the sand grains together. It is a very hard and non-porous stone, preferred over granite in kitchen countertops because it does not absorb stains. The 4500 years since Noah’s Flood is not enough time to bury these sediments, fold them as shown, cook them to quartzite and other hard rocks, then erode thousands of feet of solid rock down the to present surface contour.

Another strike against Flood geology is the existence of hundreds of feet (meters) of limestones (e.g. here with the Helena formation) in the middle of other sedimentary strata. Thick layers of limestones form as the skeletons of mainly microscopic marine creatures slowly rain to the ocean bottom over many years in relatively calm waters; they could not form suddenly in the midst of Noahic torrents that were scouring the continents and rapidly depositing thousands of feet of mud and sand.

On the other hand, thrust faulting readily accounts for the existing rock layers in Montana. The large-scale fold in the left hand layers is evidence of the massive compressive forces in the crust here, and the Lewis fault shows the signs (local folding and breakage) that movement has taken place along it.

Professional geologists tried to educate Price, noting that thrust faults could be observed even in Precambrian rocks which had essentially no fossils, but he didn’t want to hear it. No matter the evidence, he just chose to disbelieve that massive thrusting could ever occur. He dismissed all claims of large-scale thrust faulting anywhere as ad hoc attempts to cover up instances of out-of-order fossils.

Having ruled out thrusting, Price insisted that the upper “Precambrian” layers in Montana had been deposited (as ocean sediments) conformably on the lower layers. In Price’s mind, therefore, the Lewis formation disproved the existence of ANY regular succession of fossils in the rock layers. He wrote (The Fundamentals of Geology, 1913), “I don’t know what would convince the world, in this evidence here in Alberta and Montana is insufficient.”

In a breathtaking extrapolation from his (mis)understanding of the Lewis Overthrust, Price proclaimed a new law of geology: “ANY KIND OF FOSSILIFEROUS ROCK MAY OCCUR CONFORMABLY ON ANY KIND OF FOSSILIFEROUS ROCK, OLD OR YOUNG”. Since the arguments for evolution at the time were largely based on the faunal succession in the fossils, Price believed that he had, with this law, swept away nearly all the evidence for evolution.

Price and a few supporters tried for decades to promote his views through various organizations, but despite repeated recruiting efforts they could not find a single professionally-trained geologist to support them. Fundamentalists lauded Price’s efforts and valued him as an ally against evolution, but until about 1960 his Flood geology made only modest headway against the dominant gap theory and progressive creationism.

Ferment in the Fifties: The American Scientific Affiliation and Bernard Ramm

The Evolution of the American Scientific Affiliation

A group of American scientists who were evangelical Christians founded the American Scientific Affiliation (ASA) in 1941. The intent was to provide a forum where Christians could discuss the various issues where science interacted with faith, and to produce and share accurate information in this area. Members were required to possess a degree in a scientific field, and to subscribe to a general statement which stated that the Bible is inspired by God, and is an unerring guide to faith and conduct. Their interest was in the whole faith-science arena, not just in creation, and they did not specify any particular position on interpreting the Genesis narrative.

As men of science, the leading ASA members could see that Price’s Flood geology was unrealistic, and it was denounced as such from 1948 onward. The “gap” theory was also seen to provide a poor match to the physical evidence. The ASA leaders were mainly old earth creationists of the progressive creation (e.g. day-age) variety.

In the 1940’s nearly all ASA members opposed evolution, and the ASA planned to produce a book which would refute Darwinism in time for the 1959 centennial of Darwin’s Origin of Species. In the 1950’s, however, key ASA members became better acquainted with evidence that convinced them that some significant amount of macro-evolution had in fact taken place over the geologic ages. When the ASA published its long-awaited volume on evolution in 1959, the tone of the book was distinctly accepting towards theistic evolution, to the dismay of the more conservative members.

Bernard Ramm’s Manifesto

Bernard Ramm, a professor of philosophy at Bethel College and Seminary in St. Paul, Minnesota, published The Christian View of Science and Scripture in 1954. This became the most talked-about creationist book of the decade. As a young man, Ramm had subscribed to the gap theory of creation, like millions of other readers of the Schofield Bible. Eventually he realized the shortcomings of the gap theory and also of Flood geology, but he maintained a firm belief in the inspiration of the Bible. Ramm thought deeply about faith and science issues, earning various degrees, including a PhD in philosophy.

In The Christian View of Science and Scripture  Ramm analyzed the process by which Biblical Christianity during the nineteenth century moved in the universities from a central role to a place of near-total irrelevance. Much of this was due to secular factors, but part of the blame lay with the lack of a viable philosophy of science among the Christians.

In the book’s preface, Ramm distinguished two traditions in Bible and science. The “ignoble tradition” has “used arguments and procedures not in the better traditions of established scholarship”. The “noble” approach “is the tradition of the great and learned evangelical Christians who have been patient, genuine, and kind and who have taken great care to learn the facts of science and Scripture.” Unfortunately, “the noble tradition which was in ascendancy in the closing years of the nineteenth century has not been the major tradition in evangelicalism in the twentieth century. A narrow bibliolatry, the product not of faith but of fear, buried the noble tradition.” Ramm hoped to “call evangelicalism back to the noble tradition”.

Ramm used the term “hyperorthodoxy” to describe the fundamentalist approach that creates disharmony. This hyperorthodoxy is “far more rigid and dogmatic than Scripture itself”, and “makes the words of God and the work of God clash”. The key error driving this approach is the failure to differentiate interpretation from inspiration and revelation.  We can all agree that Genesis 1 is inspired revelation, but that does not tell us how it should be interpreted, i.e. what it should mean to us today. The opinion that Genesis account was intended to teach that the creation actually occurred in six 24-hour days is a fallible, human opinion, not to be confused with the divine revelation itself.

Ramm argued for a local, rather than universal Flood. He saw Genesis 1 as depicting six days when God revealed six aspects of His creation activities; the timing of these activities might well have been spread out over millions of years.  He claimed that the Bible was given for the purpose of revealing truths about God, not for teaching science. Ramm noted that “the language of the Bible with reference to natural things is popular, pre-scientific and non-postulational”.  Also,   “…the Holy Spirit conveyed infallibly true theological doctrines in the cultural mold and terms of the days of the Bible writers, and did not give to the writers the secrets of modern science. It is a misunderstanding of the nature of inspiration to seek such secrets in various verses of the Bible.”

Although Ramm himself did not fully embrace evolution, he acknowledged that “men whose orthodoxy is unimpeachable have accepted some form of theistic evolution or at least were tolerant toward evolution theistically conceived.” His interpretive approach left ample room for a new generation of Christians to engage fearlessly with the full range of the sciences, including evolutionary biology.

The Christian View of Science and Scripture quickly became controversial and polarizing.  This was an era when the new “evangelicals” were starting to define themselves as distinct from the belligerent, often ill-informed fundamentalists who had made Christianity untenable for many educated Americans. Evangelicals such as Billy Graham sought to present the core aspects of the gospel, what C. S. Lewis called “mere” Christianity, with minimal distraction from side issues or cultural baggage. Thus, they welcomed Ramm’s book as an approach that could allow science-literate Americans and Europeans to consider the claims of Christ.

On the other side, fundamentalists did not appreciate being characterized as ignoble, hyper-orthodox bibliolaters, and were appalled at Ramm’s apparent concessions to modernism. They pointed to The Christian View of Science and Scripture as a warning of what can happen if a rigorous literal interpretation is abandoned or if Christians try to incorporate any “uniformitarian” geology into their approach to Genesis.

The Genesis of The Genesis Flood

John Whitcomb Responds to Ramm’s Challenge

Among these incensed traditionalists was John Whitcomb. In the early 1950’s Whitcomb was pursuing graduate studies at Grace Theological Seminary in Indiana. He believed that Christians should lay aside any effort to harmonize the scriptures with the findings of modern science. Rather they should take the bible as literally and simplistically as possible, as the only reliable guide to reality.  If at any point the scientists disagreed with the literal interpretation, the scientists must be wrong. Period.

His doctoral thesis was largely an attack on Ramm’s work. Whitcomb defended the biblical necessity for a recent six-day creation and for a global flood which killed all humans and terrestrial animals apart from those preserved in Noah’s ark.  Whitcomb had become convinced that George McCready Price’s Flood geology was the correct approach to explaining the physical evidence. Whitcomb wanted to publish his work so as to counter Ramm’s influence, but he realized his thesis would be more persuasive if he could add more scientific content.

Henry Morris Provides Scientific Horsepower

Whitcomb tried to recruit a number of conservative Protestants with scientific training to join him in this enterprise, but they declined for various reasons. When Wheaton College geology professor Douglas Block read Whitcomb’s manuscript, he was dismayed. He got in his car and drove from Wheaton, Illinois to visit Whitcomb in Indiana and personally explain to him why Flood geology was incorrect. Whitcomb, however, did not want to hear about any science which contradicted his views on Genesis and the Flood. [see The Creationists, p. 190].

At length Whitcomb persuaded Henry M. Morris to sign on as co-author. Morris was at the time a professor of hydraulics at Virginia Tech, who had long been active in apologetics from a YE creationist perspective. It was Morris who had introduced Whitcomb to Flood geology at an ASA meeting in 1953. Prior to that, Whitcomb had been a gap theory man.

Morris produced pages and pages of material which presented a model for understanding the rock strata in terms of a single Flood, and which also described supposedly fatal problems in mainstream uniformitarian geology. Morris’s contribution eventually comprised more than two-thirds of the final book and defined the essence of young earth creationism from that time forward.  Morris would go on to ever-greater heights within the YE creationist movement, earning the title of “the father of modern creation science.”

The Genesis Flood: The Book That Changed Everything

Early edition of The Genesis Flood, as offered on

Early edition of The Genesis Flood, as offered on

When The Genesis Flood finally appeared in 1961, it was an impressive work. Some 500 pages long, it had scholarly footnotes on nearly every page, illustrations, and two indices.  Its publication was a cultural watershed event. It became wildly popular among conservative Protestants, going through 29 printings and selling more than 200,000 copies in its first 25 years.

Flood geology quickly swept aside the gap approach among fundamentalists, as creation research organizations sprang up to support and popularize Morris’s vision. From about 1970 onward, the Flood geology form of YE creationism has become the standard position among fundamentalists and the more conservative evangelicals. Polls show something like 20-40% of all Americans believe the earth was created less than 10,000 years ago. That translates into a high percentage of American evangelical Christians as being YE creationists. Evangelical missionaries have spread YE creationism throughout the world. Here is a lament from a missionary in the former Soviet Union, written in 1997:

The worst aspect of YECS [Young Earth Creation Science] teaching is that it creates a nearly insurmountable barrier between the educated world and the church. .. How many have chosen to give up their faith altogether rather than to accept scientific nonsense or a major reinterpretation of Scripture?…How much have we sinned against Christian brothers holding another opinion by naming them “dangerous” and “compromisers”? … missionaries and evangelists need to get materials expressing other viewpoints translated to oppose the virtual monopoly YECS teaching has overseas. As I write this paper, I see YECS literature becoming more and more widely distributed in the growing churches in my corner of the former Soviet Union. We are sowing the seeds of a major crisis which will make the job of world evangelism even harder than it is already.

The Genesis Flood offered a scientific case for retaining the simplest literal sense of the Genesis story; the beast of evolution had been slain at last. Thus energized, American fundamentalists emerged from their isolation and began pushing to have YE creationism presented in public schools. This was the opening wedge of conservative Christian political activism which continues to this day.

Because of all the seemingly scientific material in The Genesis Flood, claiming to explain the observed phenomena more consistently than did mainstream geology, Morris and his followers termed his approach “scientific creationism” or “creation science”. In a series of landmark cases, however, the courts found Flood geology to be religion, not science, and thus ineligible for public school curricula.

Today, organizations like Answers in Genesis and Creation Ministries International continue to spread the gospel of Flood geology, and The Genesis Flood retains its appeal. By 2011, the book had sold 300,000 copies in 48 printings and had been translated into German, Korean, Serbian and Spanish. [ Paul J. Scharf, “The Genesis Flood, Tidal Wave of Change,” Baptist Bulletin (July 2010), as referenced in Wikipedia “The Genesis Flood“]

Whitcomb and Morris Conceal the George McCready Price Connection

The scientific framework of The Genesis Flood was taken straight from George McCready Price’s works. Much later (History of Modern Creationism, 1984) Morris would acknowledge this, describing his first reading in 1943 of Price’s The New Geology as “a life-changing experience for me”.

Whitcomb and Morris agreed, however, to conceal this connection from readers of The Genesis Flood. As Whitcomb wrote to Morris (Jan. 24, 1959; see The Creationists, p. 198), “For many people our position would be somewhat discredited by the fact that ‘Price and Seventh-Day Adventism’ (the title of one of the sections in that chapter) play such a prominent role in its support. My suggestion would be to supply for the book a fairly complete annotated bibliography of twentieth-century works advocating Flood-geology, without so much as a mention of the denominational affiliation of the various authors.”

Accordingly, Whitcomb and Morris scrubbed Price out of their book nearly completely. They made no mention of Price in their description of the development of geological thinking with respect to the Flood, mentioning him only briefly in connection with overthrust rock layers.

Bad Science and Bad Theology in The Genesis Flood

The Lewis Overthrust According to Whitcomb and Morris

Like his mentor George McCready Price, Morris laid great stress on trying to show that key out-of-order formations were not true overthrusts, but rather resulted from plain, continuous deposition of sediments during the Flood. Again, if these formations were proven to be simple continuous sedimentary deposits, that would smash the evolutionists’ claim for a general faunal succession in the sedimentary strata.

Morris devoted some 20 pages in The Genesis Flood (TGF) to attacking thrust faulting, with (like Price) an emphasis on the Lewis Overthrust.  Morris focused particularly on a section of the Lewis fault in Montana’s Glacier National Park, a figure of which is shown below.

As noted earlier, the Lewis fault is part of a great thrust belt system that runs the length of the Rockies, and there are obvious factors which demonstrate massive overthrusting did in fact occur. This drawing shows how the Precambrian layers of the Livingstone and Lewis ranges were forced atop younger Cretaceous rocks. Erosion has worn away parts of the upper Precambrian layers, so the Precambrian (Altyn limestone) Chief Mountain stands isolated at the front of the thrust. There is a lot of folding and crushing among the rocks towards the left side of this diagram, which bear witness to the intense compressional forces involved.

Whitcomb and Morris, however, provided their readers a forceful case for rejecting this view of these formations. Their claims included:

Claim (1). The interface (i.e. the supposed fault) between the older and younger layers looks flat and undisturbed (conformal). This claim is supported, for instance, by this quote from two geologists:

“Ross and Rezak say: ‘Most visitors, especially those who stay on the roads, get the impression that the Belt strata are undisturbed and lie almost as flat today as they did when deposited in the sea which vanished so many years ago'” [TGF p. 187].

Claim (2). The underlying Cretaceous shales are not very disturbed:

…”The Cretaceous shales are bent sharply to the east in a number of places, but with this exception have suffered little by the sliding of the limestone over them, and their comparatively undisturbed condition seems hardly compatible with the extreme faulting which was necessary to bring them into their present position.” [ TGF p. 187, quoting J. Kulp, who was quoting a 1886 report of the Canadian Geological Survey].

Claim (3). Another difficulty with massive overthrusting is that “it should have produced a large mass of broken rock in front of it and on the sides. But this has not been found.” A quote from Ross and Rezak is included in support of this claim. [TGF, pp. 188-189].

Claim (4). The isolated Chief Mountain is presented as problematic. It rests “conformably on Cretaceous shales”. Also, “On top of the mountain are found no remnants of Cretaceous shales as might be supposed but only a few granitic boulders.”

Claim (5).  In many places a close examination of the fault by Dr. Walter Lammerts found no sign of the grinding and deformation which would be expected if one huge, heavy mass of rock slid atop another. “Careful study of the various locations showed no evidence of any grinding or sliding action or slicken-sides such as one would expect to find on the hypothesis of a vast overthrust.” A photograph by Lammerts (TGF Figure 17) illustrated the horizontal, undisturbed interface.

Claim (6). Further from Lammerts: “Another amazing fact was the occurrence of two four-inch layers of Altyn limestone intercalated with Cretaceous shale…Likewise careful study of these intercalactions showed not the slightest evidence of abrasive action such as one would expect to find if these were shoved forward in between layers of shale as the overthrust theory demands.” [TGF pp. 190-191, quoting personal communication from W. Lammerts]. These “amazing” intercalations were illustrated with a photo by Lammerts [TGF, Fig.18].

Claim (7).  The physics of rock deformation and material integrity would not allow such massive lateral motion without completely shattering the rocks. If some thrusting did occur, it would have to be during or just after the Flood, when the sedimentary layers were still moist and soft.

Claim (8).  Even if some thrust fault motion (e.g. a few inches or feet) occurred with hard rock layers (as evidenced by some abraded surfaces at the fault interface), truly long-range motion (miles or kilometers) would result in much more deformation and fractioning than is currently visible.

Evaluating the Case Against Overthrusts

For most the readers of The Genesis Flood the set of claims above constituted a compelling case that the Lewis formation was not a gigantic overthrust, but was instead a simple, continuous sedimentary feature. This would mean that mainstream, uniformitarian geology is bankrupt, with Flood geology giving a better explanation for the observed rock strata.

How accurate are these 8 claims regarding the Lewis fault?  We will take a closer look at each of them, aided by John Solum’s article “Thrust Faults” on the TalkOrigins Archive.

Re Claim (1):  The full quote from Ross and Rezak (1959 p. 420) is as follows, with the portion cited by Whitcomb and Morris shown in bold:

Most visitors, especially those who stay on the roads, get the impression that the Belt strata are undisturbed and lie almost as flat today as they did when deposited in the sea which vanished so many million years ago. Actually, they are folded, and in certain zones they are intensely so. From points on or near the trails in the park it is possible to observe places where the beds of the Belt series, as revealed in outcrops on ridges, cliffs, and canyon walls, are folded and crumpled almost as intricately as the softer younger strata in the mountains south of the park and in the Great Plains adjoining the park to the east.”

First, Whitcomb and Morris omitted the word “millions” from phrase “the sea which vanished so many million years ago,” since it did not fit their view that the earth is not millions of years old. It is explicit dishonesty not to mark an omission within a direct quote with an ellipsis (“…”).

Second, Whitcomb and Morris cherry-picked the part of this quote which describes the inaccurate, superficial impression (“the Belt strata are undisturbed”) that a visitor would obtain viewing the formations at a distance; this creates the impression that Ross and Rezak agree that the Lewis strata are undisturbed.   Meanwhile, Whitcomb and Morris omitted the text which describes the actual state of the rocks: “Actually, they are folded, and in certain places they are intensely so…the beds of the Belt series, as revealed in outcrops on ridges, cliffs, and canyon walls, are folded and crumpled”. That is implicit dishonesty.

Re Claim (2):  The quote from the 1886 Canadian Geological Survey opining that the depth of deformation in the lower shales is less than expected was written in 1886. Since then we have developed more understanding of faulting. As noted above at The Earth Story  a relatively narrow zone of pulverized and deformed rock can sustain extended movement of a thrust fault. This 1886 report did observe that “The Cretaceous shales are bent sharply to the east in a number of places”, which is exactly what thrust fault movement to the east would produce.

Re Claim (3): This claim was that massive overthrusting “should have produced a large mass of broken rock in front of it and on the sides. But this has not been found.” A quote from Ross and Rezak was included in support of this claim.  Solum shows that this is another case of quote-butchering – Ross and Rezak were noting that IF the leading edge of the thrust slab had emerged onto open ground in the course of the thrusting, THEN the slab there should have broken up into rubble. The absence of this rubble simply confirms that the fault plane in the vicinity of what is now exposed at surface was deeply buried at the time of the fault movement. There was nothing in the full Ross and Rezak quote that would raise questions as to whether massive thrusting motion had occurred along the Lewis fault.

Re Claim (4):  The isolated Chief Mountain was presented as problematic, resting “conformably on Cretaceous shales”. Also, “On top of the mountain are found no remnants of Cretaceous shales as might be supposed but only a few granitic boulders.”

First, there is no reason to expect “remnants of Cretaceous shales” atop Chief Mountain, if Chief Mountain is part of an overthrust atop the shales.

Second, Chief Mountain does not rest “conformably” on the underlying shales. It has all the marks of having been shoved to its current location. One of the early investigations of Chief Mountain was conducted by Bailey Willis in 1902. Willis describes Chief Mountain as follows:

The detailed structure of the Algonkian mass above the Lewis overthrust is sometimes chaotic when considered in the small, yet simple when observed in the large. The chaotic structure is best exhibited in Chief mountain, where the lower massive member of the Altyn limestone is crushed (reference to figure omitted). The fractures divide the masses irregularly into blocks of all angular shapes varying from a few inches to 25 feet on a side. . .The base of massive Altyn limestone is traversed by minor thrusts which are often subparallel to bedding, so far as it can be made out. These thrusts dip 30 degrees and occupy a zone about 1,000 feet thick above the Lewis major thrust. They are limited above by an upper major thrust which is at the base of nearly horizontal thin-bedded limestones, constituting the upper member of the Altyn formation.

All this fracturing and additional thrust faulting is consistent with massive thrusting of the Chief Mountain block, not with a recent gentle sedimentary deposition atop the Cretaceous underlayer. Note that this information from 1902 was available to George McCready Price as well as to Whitcomb and Morris, but they ignored it because it did not fit their script.

Re Claims (5) and (6): Observations and photos by Walter Lammerts of a completely undisturbed interface, and intercalation.

It turns out that these photos are not of the actual Lewis fault. Lammerts was a botanist, not a geologist. He took those photographs during a vacation trip in 1956, relying on a park ranger to locate the fault line on Chief Mountain.  In 1962 Lammerts revisited Chief Mountain in the company of two Seventh-day Adventists, Richard Ritland and P. Edgar Hare. Ritland and Hare each had Ph. D.’s in geological science. Numbers described their trip and its aftermath, documenting his account with an interview with Ritland and correspondence by Lammerts:

On the morning of July 5, 1962, Lammerts met Ritland and Hare at Glacier National Park as planned. Together the men hiked up to the overthrust area at the south rim of the park, where the contact line between Precambrian and Cretaceous can be seen for miles. To Ritland and Hare, the evidence of overthrusting, especially signs of grooving and scouring, was “overwhelmingly clear”. Lammerts, though appreciative of his young companions’ scientific approach to the problem, found himself more confused than convinced. He thought it especially puzzling that Ritland and Hare seemed “so anxious to prove that Price was wrong and that this wrong order formation was really the result of overthrusting.” As he descended the mountain, Lammerts appeared “badly shaken.” Not only had he just gone on record in The Genesis Flood as discounting the evidence for overthrusting, but, as Ritland and Hare pointed out, the supporting photographs he had given Whitcomb and Morris were of rocks two hundred feet above the contact line. Besides, he had an article in press at Christianity Today in which he described the thrust faults in Glacier National Park as “purely imaginary.”

His initial reaction was to correct the piece in Christianity Today in light of what he had seen, but he eventually decided there was sufficient ambiguity to justify publishing what he had originally written. This decision “badly disillusioned” Ritland, who was further chagrined when he read Lammert’s description of him as a Harvard-trained Ph. D. who agreed with Price that “most” of the sedimentary rocks had resulted from Noah’s flood.   [The Creationists, pp. 218-219]

Thus, these photos in The Genesis Flood were not of the Lewis fault at all, but were taken at a location some 200 feet above it. The reality is that there is ample evidence of deformation at the immediate thrust fault zone. This indicates that the layers did indeed slide past each other as solid rock formations to assume their present positions. Solum provides a number of photos of the Lewis fault zone, noting, “Figures 6-11 demonstrate the all the classic indicators of fault motion; intense fracturing, brecciation, polish surfaces, and slickenlines, can be found along the Lewis thrust.” His Figure 7, for instance, shows intense deformation of the rocks underlying the fault plane: A close-up of the thrust fault plane for the Lewis Overthrust. The rocks underlying the fault plane are intensely deformed. A close-up of the thrust fault plane for the Lewis Overthrust. The rocks underlying the fault plane are intensely deformed.

Re Claim (7): if some thrusting did occur, it would have to be during or just after the Flood, when the sedimentary layers were still moist and soft, not with hardened rock  layers.  Solum explains why this assertion is incorrect. Morris was a hydraulic engineer, and did not understand modern geophysics.

Re Claim (8): even if some thrust fault motion occurred with hard rock layers ,  long-range motion would result in much more deformation and fractioning than is currently visible.   The reason Morris made this claim is that even he had to admit that in at least some spots there was evidence (e.g. abrasion and fracturing at the fault) that the massive rock overlayers had in fact slid over the lower layers. He complains that there should be more fracturing than there is. Again, Morris had no expertise in geology and did not understand that a relatively narrow zone of powdered gouge, once established, can support extensive fault motion.

Kurt Wise earned a Harvard PhD in paleontology. He is a YE creationist. He has been dubbed “The honest creationist”, since he refuses to shrink from honest treatment of the evidence, no matter how hard it is for him to reconcile that evidence with a young earth and a universal Flood. His 1986 assessment of the Lewis fault: “The existence of an inverted section in a thrust belt region with slickensides, dragfolds, and sheared rubble along the unconformity leaves no reasonable doubt that the Lewis Overthrust is in fact a result of overthrusting.” [The Creationists, p.281]

In sum, all of these eight points against the Lewis Overthrust are bogus, but only someone who had the motivation and opportunity to seek out the opinion of a professional geologist would know this. Thus, Whitcomb and Morris practiced deception on their non-expert readership.

The case for massive overthrusting is clearest in sections of the Lewis fault where the same sequence of rock layers (Precambrian and later) are exposed on both sides of the fault. This was discussed above in connection with Price’s errors on overthrusts, where we showed a section of the Lewis fault somewhat south of Glacier National Park. Whitcomb and Morris avoid exposing their readers to this awkwardness by confining their attention to the Glacier Park segment where the Precambrian sequence appears only on one side of the fault. This again demonstrates that Whitcomb and Morris had no interest in dealing fully and honestly with the relevant information, but only in propagandizing for their viewpoint. It is also worth noting that now, using via seismic signals and measurements from space, we can actually measure massive thrust faulting occurring in various places in the world, so there is no doubt that thick sections of the earth’s crust do in fact get pushed atop other sections.

You might think that anyone who had read Solum’s TalkOrigins article exposing The Genesis Flood’s falsehoods regarding the Lewis Overthrust would have to concede that this formation really is a massive overthrust. If that is what you thought, you would be mistaken. The psychology of YE creationists is such that they are simply unable to acknowledge the facts which prove their view to be incorrect. For example, CreationWiki, the self-styled “Encyclopedia of Creation Science”, has an entry disputing Solum’s TalkOrigins article. The CreationWiki piece botches a few of Solum’s points, ignores the rest, and calls on a 1974 Creation Research Society Quarterly article by Clifford Burdick to prove that there are portions of the Lewis fault that show no signs of motion or disturbance. This is the same Clifford Burdick whom even many creationists have acknowledged to be unreliable, after he mistakenly promoted co-existent human/dinosaur tracks and mistakenly claimed to have found modern-day pollen within ancient Grand Canyon rocks [cf. The Creationists, pp. 259-268].

More Bad Science by Henry Morris

In The Genesis Flood Whitcomb and Morris included many other claims of the failure of mainstream geology. All these claims were based on false or incomplete information and all have been long since refuted, but many still circulate in the YE creationist community. For example, below is shown the first 17 out of entries in a table by Henry Morris of supposedly contradictory estimates of the age of the earth according to “uniformitarian” geology:

First 17 out of 70 entries in a table by Henry Morris; See

First 17 out of 70 entries in a table by Henry Morris; See

See Evidences for a Young Earth, for more details on these issues. For instance, the claims that there is too much helium in the atmosphere for an old earth, and too little salt in the ocean, were made in The Genesis Flood and in subsequent books and presentations by Henry Morris. These two claims were refuted by the mid-1990s, but were still listed by YE creationist Ken Ham in his 2014 debate with Bill Nye as evidences for a young earth.

The most amusing claim for me in The Genesis Flood was its assertion that Flood geology would be a better framework for discovering oil deposits than mainstream old earth geology: “It is surely obvious that the evolutionary concept of historical geology is of little practical value in their discovery and exploitation” [TGF, p.438], and “In this most important…of all geological disciplines, the principle of uniformity has proved impotent.” [TGF, p.431]. A casual reading in modern petroleum geology will find today’s hard-nosed, results-oriented oilmen successfully employing the full range of old-earth “uniformitarian” geology (e.g. concepts like index fossils) to understand rock deposition scenarios which provide guidance in the finding of oil.

The long discussion above on thrust faulting demonstrates how tedious it can be to refute a single YE creationist claim, and how unrewarding it is to do so: hard-core YE creationists will typically refuse to concede a point, no matter what facts are brought forth by practicing scientists. On rare occasions YE creation proponents will drop a claim, but then they make up some new, equally unrealistic assertion to replace it. The net effect is that they wear down their opponents by their invincible ignorance, and they maintain a stable of dozens of claims (all false) that they trot out to convince their audience that YE creationism has a strong scientific case.

The Fundamental Error in The Genesis Flood: Bible Interpretation

In the preface to the sixth printing, Whitcomb and Morris candidly reveal the basis of their thinking:

We believe that the Bible, as the verbally inspired and completely inerrant Word of God, gives us a true framework of historical and scientific interpretation, as well as of so-called religious truth. This framework is one of special creation of all things, complete and perfect in the beginning, followed by the introduction of a universal principle of decay and death into the world after man’s sin, culminating in a worldwide cataclysmic destruction of the “world that then was” by the Genesis Flood. We take this revealed framework of history as our basic datum, and then try to see how all the pertinent data can be understood in this context…the real issue is not the correctness of the interpretation of various details of the geological data, but simply what God has revealed in His Word concerning these matters.

On this telling, the authors KNOW that the earth was recently created, that decay and death only entered the world following Adam’s apple, and all terrestrial life was drowned apart from the humans and animals on Noah’s ark. Knowing this to be the case, they feel justified in distorting or ignoring whatever physical evidence points to an old earth – they KNOW that old-earth evidence must be invalid, so they need give it no credence: “We take this revealed framework of history as our basic datum, and then try to see how all the pertinent data can be understood in this context.”

Their fundamental mistake is ASSUMING that a verbally inspired, infallible Word of God must always be correct in its statements concerning the physical world. This assumption drives the whole agenda of The Genesis Flood, and it is simply wrong.  Ironically, Whitcomb and Morris make the very mistake that Ramm warned against: believing their interpretation of the infallible Bible to be infallible, and thus above any correction from the physical world.

Various examples can be adduced which demonstrate that Scriptural statements about the physical world, which were appropriate and meaningful for the original audience, can be incorrect according to modern knowledge. To take a simple example, Jesus taught:

“What shall we say the kingdom of God is like, or what parable shall we use to describe it? It is like a mustard seed, which is the smallest of all seeds on earth. Yet when planted, it grows and becomes the largest of all garden plants, with such big branches that the birds can perch in its shade.” [Mark 4:30-32 NIV].

The literal statement here is that the mustard seed is the “smallest of all seeds on earth”. The mustard seed was indeed the smallest seed that ancient Galilean farmers were familiar with, so this was a useful illustration for that audience for the growth of the kingdom from tiny beginnings. Modern naturalists have found other plant seeds which smaller than the mustard seed. If a Bible literalist were truly consistent, he should respond, “I don’t care what those godless scientists say, Jesus said that the mustard seed was the smallest seed, and that’s that. This is the infallible Word of God, so every statement regarding the natural world must be correct.” This would be to make the same mistake, of course, that Bible literalists make with Genesis 1. Most Christians understand that this parable was not really intended to teach horticultural facts; to obsess over whether Jesus taught “error” here would be to entirely miss the point of the passage.

We noted above that the plain, literal meanings of a number of verses depict an unmoving earth and a moving sun (e.g. “He set the earth on its foundations; it can never be moved” Ps. 104:5;  “…The world is firmly established; it cannot be moved” I Chron. 16:30). Astronomical observations eventually led Christians to conclude that the verses that speak of a stationary earth and a moving sun were not intended to be teaching science.  Today some fundamentalists try to claim that these verses were not really teaching a stationary earth. But that is how nearly all Christians understood these verses, until science forced a reinterpretation.

As further evidence that the literal meaning of these verses is geocentric, there is a group of “stationary earth” creationists whose hermeneutical approach is essentially identical to the young earth creationists, publishing books such as Galileo Was Wrong: The Church Was Right. On the web site of the “Association for Biblical Astronomy” we read:

This site is devoted to the historical relationship between the Bible and astronomy. It assumes that whenever the two are at variance, it is always astronomy—that is, our “reading” of the “Book of Nature,” not our reading of the Holy Bible—that is wrong. History bears consistent witness to the truth of that stance. In the case for Geocentricity, for instance, every experiment designed to measure the speed of the earth through space has always returned a speed of zero, just as the Bible claimed all along.

This position on the motion of the earth (“Believe the Bible, ignore the scientists; the evidence actually supports the literal Bible position”) is essentially identical to the position of Martin Luther on the firmament, and today’s young earth creationists on the timeline of creation.

The Jewish and Christian consensus for two thousand years was that the “firmament” which separated the liquid (not vaporous) waters above the sky from the liquid ocean waters (Gen 1:6-7) was a solid dome. It was “hard as a mirror of cast bronze” (Job 37:18).  The sun, moon, and stars were “set into” this firmament (Gen 1:14-17), and the birds flew “across the face of” it, not within it.  The great flood of Noah was sourced in part by the opening of windows or floodgates in the heavens (Gen 7:11), allowing the waters above to pour through. These floodgates were closed (Gen 8:2) at the end of the Flood to stop the waters from pouring down, indicating those waters are still up there. (For more on this see Was the “Expanse” Overhead in Genesis 1 a Solid Dome? )

Firmament on Day 4

Luther vigorously defended this traditional, literal interpretation against the natural philosophers of his day who would “wickedly deny” the existence of liquid waters above the heavenly dome:

Scripture simply says that the moon, the sun, and the stars were placed in the firmament of the heaven, below and above which heaven are the waters… It is likely that the stars are fastened to the firmament like globes of fire, to shed light at night… We Christians must be different from the philosophers in the way we think about the causes of things. And if some are beyond our comprehension like those before us concerning the waters above the heavens, we must believe them rather than wickedly deny them or presumptuously interpret them in conformity with our understanding.

Luther’s stand on the firmament is like of today’s fundamentalists on a literal Adam and a six 24-hour day creation: “the Bible says it, I believe it, phooey on the scientists, and anyone who doesn’t agree with me is wicked or presumptuous”. Nowadays we modify our translations of Genesis 1 to obscure this literal sense of the Hebrew, but that is only because the scientists have convinced us that the sky is a limitless vacuum, not a solid dome.

All these examples where the plain, literal meaning of Bible passages must be set aside due to modern science demonstrate that Whitcomb and Morris are utterly mistaken in their assertion that the Bible gives us a “true framework of … scientific interpretation.” The Bible does not do that, never claimed to do that, and could not possibly do that if it were to be an effective means of communication to an ancient people with a pre-scientific world view.

What Is the Bible About?

In their mistaken commitment to literalism, Whitcomb and Morris overlook and minimize what the Bible does claim for itself.  The clearest teaching of the Bible on the Bible is found in II Timothy 3:15-17:

from infancy you have known the Holy Scriptures, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the servant of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work. (NIV)

Let’s look at the wording here: “wise for salvation”, “faith in Jesus Christ”, “for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness.” This is all about doctrine and morals; nothing about geology or biology. Those who try to extend the range of the Bible’s authority to geology and biology are imposing their own fallible opinion, which we demonstrated above to be untenable.

Dogged adherence to a literal interpretation seems like an admirable position, standing against attacks by infidels on the trustworthiness of the Bible. Unfortunately it is based on ignorance of the nature of the Bible, and is simply incorrect. YE creationists fail to take into account two factors:

(1) The Bible’s subject matter has nothing to do with physical science. Jesus said that the function of the Old Testament was to testify about him and his saving work (John 5:40; Luke 24:44). Peter (I Pet 1: 10-12) wrote that prophets spoke of the sufferings and glory of Christ. This is all about spiritual revelation which could not be deduced from natural observations. There is nothing here about authoritatively teaching geology or biology. This is a biblical view of the Bible’s intent, which differs from some evangelical statements about inerrancy which mistakenly over-extend the Bible’s sphere of authority into general science or history.

(2) We must recognize that the ancient Israelites had existing notions of the physical universe, and that God accommodated His revelation to the science of that day. Paul Seely’s Inerrant Wisdom (1987) explores in depth this divine accommodation, and exposes the fallacies involved in literal inerrancy.

People in the Near East in the time of Moses “knew” that the earth was immovably fastened to its foundations, the sky overhead was a solid dome, and animals reproduced strictly after their kind (no evolution). God could have corrected this ancient science, but chose not to. This was not a mistake or “error.” Rather, God wisely and graciously accommodated His spiritual revelation to the existing physical understanding, in order to facilitate communication of vital spiritual and relational concepts such as God’s wisdom, beneficence and sovereignty, and man’s responsibilities. It would have been pointless and confusing if the Israelites had been given a creation account in terms of today’s science (Big Bang, supernovae, plate tectonics, dinosaurs, etc.).

We need to understand the physical aspect of the ancient worldview, without taking it to be authoritative, in the same way that we do not endorse slavery even though the Bible treats it as normative and do not require veils on women despite Paul’s direct command (I Cor. 11:3-16). It’s just part of the broader task of translating the Bible from its original language and setting.

Bible-believing Christians have a number of understandable concerns about letting go of a literal interpretation of Genesis. These include a fear of a slippery slope towards denial of all Scriptural truths, including the Resurrection; questions about how Jesus and Paul viewed Genesis; and wondering if Christ’s redemption makes sense apart from a literal Fall. These concerns are addressed here and (regarding Adam and the Fall) here.


We have shown that modern Flood geology sprang from Adventist George McCready Price’s drive to accommodate the “visions” of prophetess Ellen White. She claimed to have been transported back in time to witness a six-day creation and Noah’s Flood.

A cornerstone of Price’s system was the denial of massive overthrusts, such as the Lewis Overthrust in Montana. By denying the existence of overthrusts, Price believed he had refuted modern (old-earth) geology and evolution. The physical evidence shows, however, that large-scale thrusting did occur there, similar to similar large-scale thrusting of rock layers that is occurring today in the Himalayas.

Flood geology was popularized in the late twentieth century via The Genesis Flood, written by John Whitcomb and Henry Morris. They based their geology on Price’s work, but concealed that Adventist connection from their readers. Their treatment of the Lewis Overthrust perpetuated Price’s errors. Like Price, Whitcomb and Morris refused to acknowledge what professional geologists presented to them. Instead, they distorted and ignored the physical evidence, and relied on mistaken information supplied by creationist Walter Lammerts.

The hermeneutical approach of Whitcomb and Morris also in large measure parallels Ellen White’s teachings. White claimed to have divine insight that the Genesis story must be taken as literally true. On that basis, she condemned any scientific investigations which led to conclusions counter to her opinion.

Like White, the starting place of Whitcomb and Morris was an insistence that their view on Bible interpretation was indisputably correct. They thus felt justified in ignoring or distorting any scientific discoveries which did not fit their viewpoint. This is every bit as arrogant and divorced from reality as White’s approach, and is at variance with historic Protestantism. The reformed Christians of the 17th-19th centuries humbly acknowledged the potential fallibility of their interpretation of the Bible, and so they welcomed the input from God’s works to correct their understanding of God’s Word.

Posted in Age of Earth, Bible Interpretation, Fossils, Natural Theology | Tagged , , , | 16 Comments

Folding and Electric Scooters and Bikes for Commuting the Last Mile

Many urban rapid transit systems have stations about a mile apart. This leaves much of their service area a mile or more from the stations. Helping users to traverse this distance between the stations or bus stops and their homes or offices is termed the “Last Mile Problem”:

While a generally accepted rule-of-thumb is that people will walk 1/4 of a mile to a local bus stop, people are usually willing to walk up to a mile to a rapid transit station. Note that we cannot just draw a circle with a mile radius around a station and conclude that all locations within the circle are within walking distance, as non-contiguous street networks and cul-de-sacs may mean that while people may be within one mile of a station as the crow flies they are more than one mile in walking distance away from the station.

Some of this reluctance to walk is sheer laziness, but a lengthy outdoors hike in work attire may be impractical or uncomfortable in hot, cold, or wet weather. Having safe bike racks at the suburban transit station and bike sharing facilities downtown would allow users to ride their own bikes from home to the train or bus, then pick up another bike to get them to the office. A few cities in the U.S, and many more in Europe, make this option work.

An alternative would be to have some device to ride from home to the station, take on the train or bus with you, and then ride to the office. Some transit systems like New York’s will only allow you to take a regular bike aboard with you during off-peak hours, which doesn’t help you if you are commuting to work.

In a previous article, Fun Things to Ride: Stepper Bikes, Carving Scooters, Electric Unicycles, etc., we described a number of devices for recreational riding. These included bicycles where you stand upright, three-wheeled scooters powered by weight-shifting, stabilized electric unicycles, and the Onewheel skateboard which has a single large rubber electric-powered wheel in the middle

Of these devices discussed above, the Onewheel and the electric unicycles could reliably get you to the station and could be readily carried onto a train or bus. For the young, athletic folks who would be riding these devices, carrying their 25 pound (11 kg) weight down the stairs and onto the subway should not be a problem.

For the rest of us, a folding scooter or bike, perhaps with electric assist, is probably a more realistic solution.  Kick scooters only weigh about 10 lb. Electric scooters are often over 30 lb. Folding bikes can weigh 25-32 lb, but sometimes can be rolled like a piece of luggage. Adding electric boost adds another several pounds.

Folding Standing Scooters

The cheapest, lightest device is an adult “urban” kick scooter. They fold readily, and have larger wheels (6”-8”) than children’s scooters. The A5 Razor,  with 8” (200 mm) polyurethane wheels, is one of the lightest (8.5 lb) and cheapest ($80) models.

To soften the bumps, some of these scooters have softer tires or have springed suspensions. The Know-Ped  (made by Go-Ped) is a popular urban scooter. It has wide, solid rubber tires, a footboard wide enough to place both feet side by side, and brakes on both front and rear wheels. The last two features help provide safe and comfortable rides down long and/or steep hills.

Here is the saga of one man’s quest to choose the best kick scooter for commuting around New York City. After trying a number of scooters, he settled on a Know-Ped.

In considering these products, New York-based NYCewheels  (pronounced “NiceWheels”) is a good place to start. They have done a lot of selecting and testing to pick out the best solutions for urban users. Their site includes articles on how to choose scooters and bikes. They sell the “Kick-Ped” version of the Know-Ped, where the front brake is removed and the footboard is shaved narrower for easier kicking on level ground and to save weight.

NYCewheels carries several electric-powered, folding scooters that you stand on. At 24 lb, the E-Twow is the lightest model, and among the cheapest ($999). It has solid rubber tires and a springed suspension for a smooth ride. Its battery is on the small side, but the braking system helps to recharge the battery during braking. Its range is about 22 miles, which is probably more than adequate since reportedly it is tiresome to ride this type of narrow scooter (standing with one foot in front of the other) more than a few miles.

Earlier we described Trikke three-wheeled “carving” scooters, which you propel by leaning and turning. Trikke offers several electric-powered versions of these scooters. With their wide stance and their mechanism for tilting the wheels into a turn, these are comfortable and stable to stand on, even at higher speeds. They are also fun, since you can do as much as you want of the turning and leaning action to make it a workout. The Trikke  Pon-e has lithium batteries and approximately 10 inch pneumatic tires, and folds to a very small package to take onto a bus or train. The 36V Lite version (shown below), with a range of 10-18 miles costs about $1500, and goes up to 13 mph. The 48 V Pon-e version ($2100) weighs 46 lb, and has a top speed of 16 mph, a range of 15-24 miles, and a more powerful motor for climbing hills.

36V Lite Trikke Pon-e Electric Scooter

36V Lite Trikke Pon-e Electric Scooter

Sit-Down Electric Scooters

For comparison, one of the least-expensive sit-down scooters is the Razor E300S (about $250).  It uses lead-acid batteries instead of Li-ion cells. It looks like a crude but capable adult scooter, with 10” pneumatic tires. It goes about 15 mph (you flick it on or off, no speed control) on level ground. It weighs about 54 lb (24.5 kg) and does not fold, so you’d have to lock it in a bike rack or roll it onto the train with you, if that is allowed. The seat can be unbolted to give a slightly lighter stand-up version.

Razor E300S Electric

Razor E300S Electric

The only really small, foldable sit-down electric scooters I am aware of are models that are not yet for sale, but should become available later in 2015 as inventors’ concepts get turned into production units.  The Urb-E goes up to 15 mph, with a range of 20 miles. Weighing only 27 lb and folding to 16″x16″x 36″, it is easy to roll or carry onto a bus or train. The cost is $1600.  (Early supporters of the Urb-E development on the crowdsourcing site Indigogo will get their scooters for less.) I’m guessing the cost will later come down if production is eventually shifted from the U.S. to China. The designers of the Urb-E tried to make it large enough to be a primary urban transportation vehicle (i.e. car replacement) as well as a carry-on device. It looks great for riding on sidewalks and empty residential streets, but with the short wheelbase and smallish tires I am not sure I’d be comfortable on this sharing the road with automobiles.

Urb-E Folding Electric Scooter

Urb-E Folding Electric Scooter

A competing folding scooter is the Stigo. This was designed by a team of young Estonians, and is starting production by a French bicycle company. It is supposed to go on sale in 2015 for 2000 euros (about $2300). It goes up to 25 km/h (15 mph), with a range of 20-40 km (12-24  mi), depending on battery option. It weighs 30 lb (13.5 kg). It folds in seconds to about the size of a wheeled golfbag, so it can easily go on a bus or train, or roll into the restaurant or office with you. It has a longer wheelbase and bigger wheels (12”) than the Urb-E. It looks like it is just large enough to go where most bicycles go, including traveling beside automobiles in city traffic.


As of November, 2015, the Stigo website offers a chance to sign up for delivery of a scooter in the spring of 2016. If you can’t wait that long, a Chinese company offers what seems like a larger, heavier version of the Stigo. The folding E.T. Scooter was originally offered with sturdy aluminum construction and fat tires, weighing a hefty 30 kg (66 lb). The range is 35 km (22 miles) per two-hour charge.  The newer version, the E.T. Smart scooter, has slimmer tires, a polymer frame, waterproof Bluetooth speakers, and weighs in at 18 kg (40 lb). Both models are currently for sale at $ 1390.

ET Scooter small

E.T. Smart folding electric scooter. Source:

Folding Bicycles

Most folks are accustomed to riding bicycles on sidewalks, in roadways, and on dirt trails. Folding bicycles are available which collapse small enough to be carried or rolled onto a train or bus. Again, NYCewheels offers a high-quality selection. Here  is their comparison of the major brands.

The Brompton is generally acknowledged as the premier small folding bike. Hand-made in London, it rides well and weighs about 24 lb. It double-folds into an amazingly small package with all the greasy parts inside, making it the most convenient folding bike to carry around or put in a suitcase. Because it has only 16” wheels, it looks a little spindly. For longer rides or rougher terrain, many cyclists prefer folding bikes with 20” wheels. Nevertheless, this user demonstrated that one can ride 150 mi (250 km) from New York to Philadelphia in a day on a Brompton.

Dahon  has sold the most folding bikes in the world. Most of their models have 20” wheels, and cost $500-1000. The Mariner D7, shown below, has special rust-resistant coating for use near the ocean.

Downtube bikes (around $500-700) are also well-regarded. Citizen folding bikes are mainly steel-framed, a little heavier (around 30 lb) than other brands, but less costly (around $200-400).

Electrified Bicycles

For riding more than a few miles or going up hills while commuting to a professional job, many users desire electric assist on their bicycle so as not to arrive sweaty. Essentially any bike can be modified for electric power by installing a front or rear wheel with a motor built into the hub. Conversion kits are available to do it yourself. Pro shops can modify your bike or provide you with a new folding bike with electric drive installed. The conversion kits sold on Amazon cost only around $250, but this does not include the battery.

As an example, for about $1300 NYCeWheels provides Li-ion battery conversion kits  for the Brompton and also for generic 20” wheel folding bikes. They also sell the Brompton with electric drive already installed for $2800.     This is one of the most versatile transportation packages available, since (as a bike) it goes anywhere, yet folds to a package roughly 1 ft x 2 ft x 2 ft in size. It goes up to 18 mph for 10-20 miles, depending on battery choice. The top speed of electric bikes is limited to keep them classified as bicycles as opposed to motorcycles, which need to be licensed and follow a different set of rules. The electric Brompton weighs 45 lb, which is hefty, but is still light for an electric folding bicycle. Electrified bikes have an advantage over plain electric scooters in that, if the battery dies or something else goes wrong with the power drive, the human legs can always take over and propel the vehicle with reasonable speed.

The EB Commuter folding  electric bike ($1199) has 20 inch (50 cm) tires and weighs 40 lb. It has a range of 35 miles.

The Velomini   ($1050) is a tiny but fully-functional electric bicycle, with scooter-sized wheels. It weighs 36 lb (17 kg) and folds to about the size of a guitar to fit into a carrying case to sling over your shoulder. The range is about 10 miles (16 km) using no pedal assist.

Velomini folding eBike small

Velomini folding electric bicycle. Source:

Adding Power To Bikes with the ShareRoller

Another means of adding electric power to a bike is the ShareRoller. The base model is a small (8″x 8″x2.7″) box, weighing 5.5 lb and costing $1250.  This box contains batteries. Out of it folds a motor connected to a polyurethane roller. The box attaches to a bracket below the handlebars. The roller presses down on the front wheel of the bike and drives it. It will propel a bike up to 20 mph, with a 12 mile range. A larger box (7.25 lb, $1550) is available with extended range (20 miles).

It was originally developed, using Kickstarter crowdsourcing, as a means to give electric assist to the heavy, clunky commercial rideshare bikes. These bikes have a triangular bracket in front, used for locking into a rack.  You can quickly clamp a ShareRoller onto this bracket, use it to power your ride, then detach it when you return the share bike. The developer then realized that he could use 3D printing technology to produce similar triangular brackets which would attach to other bikes to allow the ShareRoller box to clamp onto them as well.

First up for this treatment was the Brompton:

Brompton with prototype ShareRoller mounted on it.

Brompton with prototype ShareRoller mounted on it.

This gives the lightest available electric assist to the Brompton: the bike plus ShareRoller weighs only about 31 pounds (14 kg), compared to 45 lb for the electrified Brompton discussed above. After you pop the main box off, the Bromption can fold as usual. ShareRoller can adapt to most of the leading folding bike models, so you may able to use your existing folding bike.

A nice feature of ShareRoller is that you can move one unit around to use on different bikes, and even on kick scooters. For instance, below are shown two Hudora scooters with 8” pneumatic tires, each with a ShareRoller. Note the built-in LED headlights in the ShareRoller. The combined weight of the scooter (8 lb) and ShareRoller is less than 14 lb, making this by far the lightest approach for an adult electric scooter.

 Hudora Scooters with ShareRollers attached

Hudora Scooters with ShareRollers attached

This all seems to point to ShareRoller as a strong contender in the electric scooter/electric bike field. The only small reservation I have about it is that on all the videos there seems to be a significant electromechanical noise in use. I don’t know how annoying this would be in practice, but it seems noisier than the electric bikes with motors in the wheel hubs.

Descriptions of other devices which bolt onto your existing bike to give it electric drive are found on links on this web page.

Reality Check on Riding the Last Mile

Traversing a mile takes about 20 minutes walking at 3 mph, about 6 minutes on a kick or small electric scooter at 10 mph, and 4 minutes on a pedal or electric bike at 15 mph. These time and effort savings for a daily commute start to become appreciable when the combined walking distance from house to train and from train to office is more than about 2 miles for a daily round trip.

It seems that many of the devices discussed above could be effective in reducing this travel time, thereby making mass transit a more attractive alternative to driving into the city in a personal automobile. I don’t have data on this, but my concern is that most of these alternative vehicles will, realistically, be ridden only by men younger than about 35 years old. I am trying not to stereotype, but I have simply not observed many females older than 15 or males older than 30 standing on small scooters, even in casual clothes on weekends. When we focus on commuting into a professional job while wearing a suit, this becomes even more improbable. Scootering can involve exertion and physical hazard.  This thread on the subject of adults commuting on kick scooters includes personal accounts of various injuries.

I am guessing that only a stable sit-down electric vehicle has a chance of appealing to many men and women above certain ages. Electrified bicycles probably fit this need the best: everyone remembers riding bicycles in their youth, so there is little familiarization required. Among all the vehicles discussed here, bikes probably feel the safest if one has to venture on the road next to moving cars. There is already a culture of adult bicycle usage in some European countries. I expect this to slowly spread in North American cities as a new generation of young adults takes up urban living with a heightened eco-ethic and less love of cars.

Weather conditions can discourage the use of scooters or bikes, even by intrepid twenty-somethings. Some areas of the world like southern California have a high percentage of dry, temperate days. Other places have a lot of steamy, cold, or wet weather.  Breathable waterproof raingear  can help with riding in the rain, but it is still not fun. In a downpour I’d rather walk a mile under a large umbrella than ride a bike wearing high-tech raingear. Driving, or being driven, to a transit station in an automobile will seem very attractive on days of inclement weather, so there will likely be an ongoing role for ridesharing and taxi-type services like Uber to travel that last mile.

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