“The writing on the wall”
It was a Friday afternoon like any other. Katrina pulled into the driveway promptly at 4:30 PM upon returning from her weekly exercise class and a much needed shopping run. For Katrina, it was a three-hour sanctuary in which she could recuperate from the constant demands of Molly, her energetic toddler. That role was temporarily assigned to Sarah, a young neighborhood girl with comparable creative energies.
“How was she?” asked Katrina, while struggling to close the door through a web of heavy shopping bags. “Did she cause you any trouble?”
“Not at all,” replied Sarah, “I think she finally fell asleep.”
Carefully nudged against the cracked door, however, Katrina’s motherly peer was immediately stolen by an unfamiliar disarray. “That’s not wallpaper…”, she thought silently to herself. With a slight rush of adrenaline, she nervously flipped on the light to find the new ‘Ivory White’ paint job ruined by chaotic swaths of bright green, blue, pink, and purple. The floor was covered with toys, among which torn-open boxes of crayons and markers were strewn (recent gifts from the grandparents, of course).
Without hesitation, Katrina broke her daughter’s slumber to begin the inquisition. “What did you do?!” Immediately overcome with tears, Molly yet cunningly evaded her mother’s accusation, vehemently denying any role in the vandalism. “It wasn’t me!” she cried.
For Katrina, it was flatly obvious how to reconstruct the scene. The preponderance of evidence could be explained only by one parsimonious, albeit uncomfortable theory. But as she pressed Molly toward confession and a lesson in responsible arts and crafts, Sarah interjected, much like something out of a TV courtroom drama.
“Isn’t it possible,” she speculated with confidence, “that someone other than your daughter could have drawn what is on that wall?”
“Sure, it is possible,” Katrina replied after a short pause, “but I see no reason to believe that anyone…”
“And isn’t it possible that Molly’s crayons and markers, which are hardly unique, were not the ones used in the process? I only ever saw her draw on these sheets of paper…” interrupted Sarah, while pulling a set of crude drawings from beneath the pillows.
Frustrated at being cut off in her attempts at parenting, Katrina tried gently to explain why the evidence did not support Sarah’s wild hypotheses. But each line of reasoning was met by another possibility that let Molly off the hook. Possibility. She came to despise the word.
“The bottom line,” concluded Sarah, “is that your interpretation of the facts makes your daughter out to be a liar.”
Frustration swiftly became anger, as Katrina sought to end the fruitless debate before it tainted their relationship forever. “With all due respect, Sarah, you’re not seeing the whole picture. It is abundantly clear what happened here today, and I can easily explain both the writing on the wall and Molly’s refusal to take responsibility. Nobody in their right mind would let your speculation override what is plainly known! You are casting unreasonable doubt. But I know what happened, and I’m going to take action.”
Content that she had said all that was necessary, Sarah let the emotional energy dissipate in a moment of silence. Then she made her final plea, while seeing herself out.
“With all due respect, Kat, were you there?”
Rebuilding a natural wonder of the world, one page at a time
While maintaining its status as the iconic geological wonder, the power of time over solid rock, and a symbol of the American National Park system, the Grand Canyon has become for many a battlefield in the creation science movement. No doubt, this honor was facilitated by the 1994 publication of Dr. Steve Austin’s Grand Canyon: Monument to Catastrophe by the Institute for Creation Research. Concomitantly, teams of creationists began hosting raft trips along the Colorado River. Up close and personal, sympathetic adventurers would learn how this icon of geology was built and carved in a span of less than 6,000 years.
Wait, only 6,000 years? For those unfamiliar with the claim, it may seem so incredibly far-fetched as to be unworthy of consideration. However, the creationists’ reinterpretation of the Grand Canyon caught on so successfully, that they were able to sell their book Grand Canyon: A different view (a collaborative work, edited by Tom Vail) in the official Grand Canyon bookstore for a time. In an effort to defend against creationism in the public sphere, moreover, the National Center for Science Education (NCSE) began leading their own rafting trips for a chance to rebut the standard tenets of ‘Flood Geology’.
But why such an emphasis on the Grand Canyon? Isn’t the world full of places to learn about and debate geological history?
Of course, and by no means do creation ministries limit their discussions to this one site. However, the Grand Canyon is frequently the point of departure for understanding ‘Flood Geology’ and tends to come up again and again and again and again. As one originally sympathetic to Steve Austin’s book, I feel confident that I know why. In my opinion, the Grand Canyon—or the Colorado Plateau in general—is the only place on Earth where the Flood Geology model appears both plausible and persuasive to curious, would-be converts to Young-Earth Creationism that lack formal training in the Earth sciences.
The story is actually rather simple, and anyone can understand how it explains the details of the canyon. Earth as a solid sphere with crust, mantle, and core, was formed during the creation week, some 6,000 years ago. We still find remnants of that original structure in what is termed ‘basement’—massive foundations of crystalline rock, which are largely covered with sedimentary deposits today. In fact, this basement rock is found at the base of the Grand Canyon (Figure 1). Also during creation week, and shortly after, large amounts of sediment were deposited amid the shifting oceans and continents and became ‘Pre-Flood’ sedimentary rocks. Being formed prior to the judgment of Noah’s Flood (and perhaps the creation of marine and land life), these sediments are naturally devoid of animal and plant fossils. As it just so happens, the prominent rock layers of the Grand Canyon are underlain by tilted sedimentary strata that are devoid of major animal and plant fossils.
The onset of Noah’s flood was presumably accompanied by major erosion of the existing surface of the Earth, which is clearly demonstrated by the Great Unconformity near the base of Grand Canyon. This geological boundary separates ‘Pre-Flood’ sediments from fossiliferous Flood deposits now exposed along the canyon walls. As the flood transitioned from erosional to depositional, the major strata accumulated one by one, each custom crafted by the relative strength of currents and source of mineral grains. That a large flood was responsible for these sedimentary deposits is evident in their horizontal superposition and vast extent across the continental United States. Once the flood waters retreated from the Earth, however, massive reservoirs of water still filled large basins across the landscape. Eventually, these reservoirs would give way to the erosional torrent that carved out Grand Canyon in a matter of days, weeks, or perhaps years at most.
Creationism and the Grand Conjectural Canyon
By this point, creation ministries have sold their story to millions, who have eagerly accepted it as a comfortable alternative to the secular geologists’ presumptuous accusation. In the mind of young-Earth creationists, you see, the classic multimillion-year history of Grand Canyon makes God out to be a liar. But this conclusion is unacceptable for obvious reasons, and so understandably, Flood Geologists have taken radical evasive action.
“Isn’t it possible,” they ask, “that the layers of rock were deposited rapidly by a catastrophic flood, rather than slowly by a series of small events? The aftermath of Mt. St. Helens demonstrates this on a smaller scale, not to mention glacial outburst floods in Iceland!”
In reality, no competent geologist would interpret the fine-laminated beds of volcanic ash and mud at Mt. St. Helens to have been deposited over ‘millions of years’, rendering the analogy completely invalid. Additionally, what megafloods teach us is that deep torrents of fast-moving water leave characteristic deposits, of which none are found in the sedimentary layers of the Grand Canyon. Besides, there is no reason to believe that large amounts…
Yes, it does seem possible at first glance, and several early workers considered this mechanism of deposition. Whatever the characteristics of the sand grains and their bedding, however, it is well known that the Coconino Sandstone has preserved numerous reptilian footprints on the dune slopes. But to form the cross beds found in the Coconino would require flow velocities between 1–1.5 meter/sec (2.2–3.3 mph) and water depths of nearly 100 meters or more! How many small reptiles do you think can walk up a dune slope underwater in such strong currents at those depths? This speculation cannot explain the big picture…
“But isn’t it possible that the canyon was carved rapidly by retreating or remnant flood waters, rather than over millions of years by a tiny river? Have you not seen the size of the Colorado River in comparison? It’s incomprehensible!”
It is true, large floods do form similarly shaped canyons in a short amount of time, but it is rather obvious that the Grand Canyon was not carved in this fashion. First of all, the role of the river is to deepen the gorge and remove sediment, while the canyon is continually widened by gravity, ice, and surface runoff across the steep slopes. How do we know this? Because the north side of the canyon is wider than the south side, due to the fact that the north rim is at higher elevation and receives more rain/snow. Additionally, the steepness of the canyon walls varies in accordance with the resistance of each rock layer to everyday erosion. In other words, sedimentary strata had to lithify completely before any erosion took place. Finally, the walls of the canyon contain hundreds of decorated caves, which could only have formed when the river (and water table) was at the same level as the caves.
The list of questions goes on, as Young-Earth Creationists continue to cast unreasonable doubt on the conventional history of our most famed national park. For them, any scientific debate on the age of the canyon is evidence that geologists are hopeless and confused. Dubious results of radiometric dating (essentially rigged by Flood geologists), moreover, indicate that geochronology is in peril and the age of the canyon’s volcanic rocks remains unknown. Young-Earth Creationists have mastered the art of exploiting uncertainty in order to sell their story. But despite having the appearance of scientific rigor and healthy skepticism, the methodology they employ is notably backwards, because it begins with a ‘known’ conclusion, which is proven only by a series of disconnected hypotheticals.
All of this effort, of course, is to advance an ostensibly virtuous worldview, which precludes the notion that God is a liar. It is predicated on the seemingly innocent, yet misguided position that God indirectly recorded the canyon’s history through his prophets. But in so doing, Flood geologists have carved a Grand Conjectural Canyon, which is so far removed from reality that it nonetheless makes God out to be a liar.
At the end of the day, I can only emphasize that of all the wonderful and brilliant things that the Book of Genesis is, it is not an authoritative guide to historical geology. So whether or not you believe that God had anything to do with the grandeur of this natural wonder, we should all be able to agree on one detail: if we wish to learn its history, the writing is on the wall.
Featured image: Fog fills the canyon, from Wikimedia Commons