The great success science has achieved during the past two centuries has resulted from one fundamental principle that underlies this discipline: experimentation. Science is at its best when the investigator can experimentally test variables one at a time.
In historical geological research, direct experimentation can rarely be done to test ideas. Instead, we must think of all possible explanations for what we observe, then try to eliminate those that seem less likely by comparing the ideas with the data. Experimental re-creation of past events is not possible, since so few of the conditions are known. Thus, we are reduced to creating a possible scenario as an explanation.
I share this so you can better appreciate the issues that challenge our understanding when it comes to what we can know about Noah’s flood. There are no addressable eyewitnesses we can ask. Scientists must rely on interpretation of indirect, consequential data for an event that is not reproducible, is worldwide in scope, occurred a long time ago, and for which there are no modern counterparts. We are additionally challenged to derive from these data information about a world that no longer exists and that was very different from the world we know today in ways that we cannot properly fathom.
Indeed, conception of that world might be impossible if it were not for the existence of a secondhand eyewitness account recorded in Genesis 6-8, as well as other support in Scripture. Jesus recognized the authority of the Genesis account (Luke 17:26, 27). Paul repeatedly asserts the fall of a literal, perfect Adam (Rom. 5). These scriptures are reliable witnesses to real events. In 2 Peter 3:3-6 we are told that Creation and the Flood were real events that scoffers would deny in the last days. This prophecy is fulfilled abundantly in the philosophy of modern naturalistic geology which denies God a role in Creation and the Flood.
We hold to three crucial positions that inform our view of Scripture and affect our faith commitment to our Creator.
1Be content without having answers to all of your questions. As scientists, if we had all the answers, we would be out of business. It is the challenging, unanswered questions that provide the impetus for us to continue. Early in my career I was challenged to discover meaningful questions to answer. Now, later in my career, I have many unanswered questions, far too many to answer in what remains of my time on earth. Am I unhappy? No, I am delighted with the answers I have, and happy to pass the unanswered questions to others. Being willing to live a life of faith while continuing to seek answers is the privilege of believers in Christ.
2Recognize that all answers science offers are tentative. Science is based upon a methodology that involves human reasoning. Because humans are limited in time and space and have restricted realities, human logic is limited, flawed, and prone to error that can become permanently entrenched. As scientists, we try to arrive at the best conclusions, but the possibility that we are wrong is real. Consider the following example.
Early in the twentieth century a German meteorologist, Alfred Wegener, proposed that the surface of the earth was mobile, and the Americas were at one time part of a larger land mass, including Africa, Europe, Australia, and Asia. His ideas, supported by an abundance of data, were largely ignored. In the mid-1960s geologists proposed an explanation involving moving continents, and his idea began to gain traction. By the 1980s only a few diehard geologists had failed to convert to the new worldview, now referred to as “plate tectonics.” When these geologists died or retired, plate tectonics achieved domination. This was a completely new way to view the earth, entirely incompatible with the previous science.
3Whatever our decision about origins, we cannot demonstrate it based on science alone. Whenreduced to essentials, there are only two competing worldviews on origins: the Creation Model (all living kinds created in six literal days; a few thousand years ago) or the Standard Model (evolution of life itself; all living forms, covering billions of years). You might think it would be easy to discriminate between these two views, but it is not. Both views are working in the domain of past history, and it is difficult to develop reliable scientific data.
If one considers the current state of molecular biology, the Standard Model lacks a coherent explanation for the complexities of even the simplest cell, and thus fails as a model. Some scientific theories challenge the Creation Model, and some challenge the Standard Model. No one, layperson or scientist who knows the science can say that all the science favors one model. How then do we decide our position on origins if science cannot be the sole determinant? This is where we as scientists can appeal to something outside the boundaries of science, such as our philosophy or religious experience. We should acknowledge this, and carefully evaluate our position. Doing this will go a long way toward protecting us from passive acceptance of a popular model.
Three contributions to modern science help our Adventist understanding, while remembering that commitment to any model will always be a matter of faith.
1Origin of life without an Originator is the single most difficult problem that adherents to the Standard Model must confront. The earliest scientific theories on how life originated date to the nineteenth century. These theories were developed in the absence of detailed knowledge of the complexity of the cell. Since then we have learned that life, even in its most basic form, is far more complex than what these early advocates understood.
2The complexity of life forms shows design at a level inconceivable to Darwin and generally ignored by conventional proponents of the Standard Model. This evidence, which is deep and pervasive in all living systems, supports the Creation Model, but challenges the Standard Model.
3The earth’s crust contains a record of processes consistent with a global catastrophe. It is widely recognizedthat the layers of rock on the earth’s crust are the results of catastrophic action, but this is rarely admitted because of a concern that this would play into the hands of creationists, who expect catastrophic events. The amount of time available to those who invoke the Standard Model is multiple orders of magnitude greater than the time available to those who wish to support the Genesis accounts. This ought to make some discernible difference in what can happen and what can be seen. When one factors in a catastrophe of the magnitude recounted in Genesis, it would appear that the geologic action must have been on a scale many times faster than that invoked by the Standard Model.
One criterion would be to look for evidence of time. If a geologic event results in the deposition of a layer of sediment, the Standard Model tells us that time passed between that event and the deposition of the next layer. The geologist might ascribe a period of millions of years to the deposition of a set of beds. Dividing the thickness of the beds by the time of deposition gives a time per unit thickness in the Standard Model. These figures often are in the centimeters per thousand years range.
Sediment is rarely stationary for long. It can be eroded by currents or burrowed by organisms. Estimates based upon modern sedimentary environments suggest that within an hour to a year, all of the sediment will have been reworked by burrowing to a depth of several centimeters so that none
of the original internal sedimentary structure remains. A careful study by Leonard Brand and his colleagues determined that the sediments were rarely disturbed after deposition, and thus that the evidence for passage of time was absent. This is counter to what the Standard Model predicts, but entirely consistent with a global catastrophe in a short time.
At this point science cannot tell us which account is correct. There are too many details that are unknown or unknowable. Data from the ratios of radioisotopes, as generally interpreted, supports a long period of time for life on this earth. Study of the sediments themselves seems to indicate that these interpretations are wrong, that sediment accumulation rates appear to have been very fast. The complexities of living organisms and the absence of any credible model for the production of such complexity demand a supremely intelligent Creator.
While we still have many questions, we have more than sufficient grounds for commitment, and we have the assurance we are not alone in our attempts to learn more. The God who called us into existence has commissioned us to be witnesses to His Creatorship (Isa. 43:10). This is His commission to us personally as we continue our walk with Him.
Arthur Chadwick is a research professor of biology and geology and codirector of the Dinosaur Science Museum and Research Center at Southwestern Adventist University.