July/August 2016 Church & State | Featured

Eleven scientists have produced a new book titled The Grand Canyon: Monument To An Ancient Earth that debunks the claims of biblical creationists concerning the age and formation of Arizona’s famed Grand Canyon.

The book includes 255 photographs (most in color), 17 photographs of artwork and 104 diagrams or sketches. It is available at Amazon.com and other online sellers and is being sold at all eight bookstores operating within Grand Canyon National Park.

The authors include professors of geology, biology, paleontology and other disciplines. Eight of the authors are evangelical Christians, while the other three identify as agnostic.

Steven Newton, a geologist at the National Center for Science Education, said that the book “does a great job explaining the science of Grand Canyon’s spectacular geology, as well as helping readers understand how the creationist misuse of Grand Canyon finds no support from science.”

One of the authors, Tim Helble, a retired hydrologist at the National Weather Service, discussed the book recently with Church & State.


Q. What led you to write this book?

Helble: All 11 authors wanted to help counter the misleading information being disseminated by the young-Earth creationist (YEC) ministries. For me, it started back in 1994 when I attended an “Answers in Genesis” seminar sponsored by the Institute for Creation Research. That was the first time I saw Ken Ham. I could see he was going to be a rising star in the young-Earth movement. But what really struck me was a book I found on a back table – Grand Canyon: Monument to Catastrophe – edited by Ph.D. geologist Steve Austin.

Having worked as a hydrologist at the Grand Canyon for six months while in graduate school, I couldn’t resist thumbing through the book. Within a minute I found two pretty significant errors, but I bought it anyway so I could evaluate the whole book. With all the errors I found in this and other materials available at the seminar, I wondered how they reflected on Christianity. I decided something needed to be done to counter YEC teachings, which eventually led to my involvement in this book.


Q. Your publisher, Kregel Publications, is an evangelical firm, and Solid Rock Lectures, which is associated with the book, is evangelical as well. What can non-evangelicals take from this book?

Helble: We submitted manu­scripts to many secular and Christian publishers. Kregel was a good match for us because they have experience doing color, published other books dealing with origins issues and would be able to sell the book in venues where evangelicals can be reached.

Three things we agreed to before we started writing were (1) our target audience is people who are uncertain about the age of the Earth, (2) a Christian reader shouldn’t feel like he/she is being ridiculed and (3) a college science degree shouldn’t be needed to understand it. To get to your question, many reviewers tell us that if you skip past the parts critiquing flood geology, the book still provides a great introduction to geology and the Grand Canyon. So most anyone can enjoy the book and just look at the parts critiquing flood geology from a human interest standpoint.


Q. The book talks about the origins of flood geology. Where did it come from, and when did it begin to gain traction in fundamentalist communities?

Helble: Several books have been written on this subject. In The Creationists, Ronald Numbers emphasizes the role of George McCready Price, who in the early 1900s tried to use geology to explain how Noah’s flood laid down most of the Earth’s sedimentary record. In their book Beyond Creation Science, Timothy Martin and Jeffrey Vaughn push the roots back to the early 1800s and the literalism associated with the premillennial dispensationalism of John Nelson Darby.

Flood geology really started gaining traction in evangelical and fundamentalist communities in 1961 with John Whitcomb and Henry Morris’ book The Genesis Flood. If you read Grand Canyon: Monument to Catastrophe, you can see how the author was trying to flesh out the framework provided in The Genesis Flood for the Grand Canyon. I think evangelical and fundamentalist communities embraced flood geology because it provides an easy way for non-scientists to make sense out of the Bible as it reads in modern English. Modern megachurches serving these communities made it easy to spread flood geology with surprisingly little effort.


Q. Americans United has tangled with Ken Ham of Answers in Genesis a good bit lately. As you know, Ham’s Ark Encounter in Kentucky is due to open this month. What would you say to an evangelical who planned to visit that park?

Helble: You often hear YEC leaders say that they use the same data as conventional scientists (who they broadly paint as “evolutionists”), only they come to different conclusions. To test this, I would urge Ark Encounter visitors to make a real effort to examine the information that practicing scientists use to conclude that the Earth is very old.

Of course, I would recommend The Grand Canyon: Monument to an Ancient Earth as a good starting place, but there are many other good books like Davis Young and Ralph Stearly’s The Bible, Rocks, and Time and Daniel Wonderly’s Neglect of Geologic Data: Sedimentary Strata Compared with Young-Earth Creationist Writings. I would also urge Ark Encounter visitors to be alert for misleading information, and to ask themselves if it’s really necessary to use deception to support one’s faith.


Q. Ham would assert that if the incidents recounted in the Bible, such as the story of the Great Flood, are not literally true, the book has been undermined and has no value. What is your response to that?

Helble: Of course the Bible has tremendous value – I just think the young Earthers over-globalize the flood account, fail to see the worldview of the ancient Near East people and miss out on the rich poetic devices used in the early parts of Genesis. For example, they assume the Hebrew word eretz (land) refers to planet Earth, when in reality a spherical planet would have been a foreign concept to the ancient Israelites. Similarly, there are many places in the Old Testament where the expressions “all” or “every” would not necessarily mean global.

When Genesis 7 says “the water prevailed more and more upon the eretz” and “the water prevailed 15 cubits higher and the mountains were covered,” it could be referring to a major flood in Mesopotamia that covered the land up to 15 cubits deep. I’d add that, “the water prevailed more and more upon the eretz” doesn’t sound at all like planet-circling waves visible from space as depicted in the Creation Museum video.


Q.�Young-Earth creationists some­times claim their views are being censored. They’ve had some success with this strategy, and a book promoting a young-Earth view of the Grand Canyon, titled Grand Canyon: A Different View, is sold in book stores within the national park. What are your thoughts on this?

Helble: I think those claiming censorship misunderstand how the scientific process works. You can’t write an article about something like a geologic formation that basically says “the Flood did it,” and expect to have it accepted by a scientific journal. There has to be a quantitatively realistic mechanism consistent with the laws of physics behind what you are proposing.

A few articles by YECs have actually been published in scientific journals, but they are very narrow in focus and you don’t see them making sweeping statements like “this was most likely formed during a global flood.”

The “look here, not there” tactic is often used in young-Earth publications, but this also doesn’t fly in conventional science. For example, a flood geologist told me he thinks a single sandstone formation in the Grand Canyon was deposited in 40 days and 40 nights, but this doesn’t leave a whole lot of time for depositing many thousands of feet of layers above and below that sandstone during a year-long flood.

Concerning the book Grand Can­yon: A Different View, Grand Canyon Association bookstores stopped selling it in 2014, but the National Geographic store just outside the park in Tusayan is still carrying it.


Q. We often seem to be fighting over creationism and evolution in public schools. How in your view should our schools handle this topic?

Helble: Creationism is a third rail in public schools, but there are some ways to inoculate students against it without directly addressing the subject. Schools could to do a better job of teaching how we know the Earth is old. For example, instead of just teaching that sedimentary rocks are made of sediments like sand and silt, students can be shown how fossils are found in such rocks of things that take a long time to form like intact reef systems, termite nests, forest communities and orderly nests of unhatched dinosaur eggs. (As an aside, scientists could make high-resolution digital photographs of such evidence more readily available to teachers.)

When a student brings up the “Were you there?” question taught at creation seminars, a good response is, “How do detectives look for evidence at a crime scene even though they weren’t there when the crime occurred?” Then, follow up with an age-appropriate discussion of how geologists gather and interpret their data. With all the challenges facing our future on this planet, I also think a semester geoscience class covering topics like the carbon and rock cycles should be a requirement at high schools.

By the way, when a student brings up young-Earth arguments, the worst thing to do is attack his or her faith. All you’re doing then is reinforcing the “us-vs.-them” mindset and helping the young-Earth ministries keep a lifetime follower.


Q. One often hears talk about the clash between religion and science. Is there a clash? How can these two best coexist?

Helble: It certainly seems like there is a clash if you focus on the extremes – the “new atheists” at one end and the YECs at the other. It’s interesting that both of them insist on a wooden, literal interpretation of Genesis 1-11.

I think religion and science can coexist if they don’t tread on each other’s turf where it’s not appropriate. I’ve seen new atheists use some pretty bad theology, and I think religious people should accept that there are some things that you just have to take on faith – stop trying to find “ultimate proofs” of difficult theological ideas like creation.

For the clergy, steps can be taken to increase their understanding of science. Solid Rock Lectures provides workshops at seminaries on the evidence for an old Earth and ideally, seminarians would be required to take a few college-level physical or biological science courses. Efforts to get scientists and clergy/theologians talking with each other, such as the American Association for the Advancement of Science’s Dialogue on Science, Ethics, and Religion, should be encouraged in many subject areas.