The question posed in the title of the documentary-style film “Is Genesis History?” sounds provocative, but the answer was never in doubt in the mind of the filmmakers—or the primary audience. The producers surely hoped that non-Christians and Christians alike with questions about origins/natural history/science would be drawn in by the title query and subtitle “two competing worldviews, one compelling truth.” Indeed, when I saw the film, I sat next to a man who knew nothing of young-earth creationism (YEC), was Catholic and told me he had always wondered what to make of the early chapters of Genesis, so he showed up to find out. However, he was a distant outlier among the theater goers. The vast majority of the audience likely were there because they hoped the film to support their belief in a young earth. They had most likely heard about the film through promotions run by young-earth creationist organizations.
In Part I I suggested that the high production, perceived trustworthiness of the narrator and a desire to believe the message result in the film built a very “convincing” case in the eyes of the primary audience. However, presenting a convincing case does not mean that truth was necessarily presented. As in a court case, a verdict is based solely on the facts presented and the narrative that weaves the evidence together into a coherent interpretive framework. “Is Genesis History” sets out to build the strongest case it can that the history of Genesis is one of a young earth shaped by a catastrophic flood just 4500 years ago. Most who attended the film or have bought the DVD knew the verdict before hearing the case but were eager to hear the evidence that supports their convictions.
For the filmmakers, the verdict was never in doubt. The question was never one whose answer was unknown. The verdict was in hand before evidence was brought to bear on the question. This is not unlike a trial in which the lawyers for one side will only present supporting evidence for their side and seek to provide alternative interpretations for, or outright dismissal of, evidence that is said to conflict with their position. Only in this case, there was no opposing counsel, no exculpatory evidence and no appeal by the defense. It seems to be a Kangaroo Court (but see footnote 1)
One strategy used to draw the audience, if not already convinced, to the desired verdict was the use of a common debate device. It couched the resolution of the question in as a dichotomous choice, providing its primary audience with only one palatable option—the earth is young—even if that choice leaves many with more questions than answers. A central thesis of the film seems to be: If the earth can be proven to be “guilty” of being young, then Genesis (as they interpret it), by extension, is proven a trustworthy historical record. To make their case, a carefully selected—one could say cherry-picked—set of data was presented to the audience. That limited set of data was then used to weave a narrative that supported their preconceptions.
In my opinion, the audience was led to a faulty verdict, though one that they could readily accept because they already “knew” that Genesis is history. So why do so many Christians object to the film’s assertion that Genesis is history? After all, many Christians, including myself, can answer the question in the affirmative. Yes, Genesis does record real history. But that history isn’t necessarily intended to communicate answers to all our questions about history. Everything that the author of Genesis intends to communicate to us about the history of God’s creation is true, but if we interpret that history to include truths that were never intended by the author, ultimately God himself, we will find ourselves believing a false history.
The question of the film wasn’t really “Is Genesis History?” but rather something much more specific: “Should you believe the young-earth interpretation of the what the author was communicating to us about history vs. all other interpretations?” The interpretation is assumed to be unassailable and thus the evidence from creation must support that interpretation. In part III of this series we will examine how the film moves back and forth between evidential and presuppositional approaches to apologetics. (also see my article: A Young Earth Creationist Approach to Scientific Apologetics) For now let us observe that much of the film seeks to provide lines of evidence in support of a young-earth in hopes that the viewer will come to accept the truth–as defined by the young-earth interpretation–of the Bible.
Unfortunately, the majority of scientists, Christian or otherwise, find that the lines of evidence drawn from observations from creation presented in this film laid nothing more than a false foundation upon which no coherent and defensible understanding of geology, biology, astronomy or theology can be adequately built. An apologetic for the gospel built on such grounds is of little value in building the Kingdom. It can only work if God’s works of creation truly do tell the story of a recent creation. If, as many of us are convinced, it does not, then either the history that YEC’s believe Genesis tells is a false history or they have misread that history.
On vast sedimentary deposits….
There was data and lines of evidence presented in the documentary that myself and many other Christians working in scientific fields have observed are incomplete and misleading. Most of these are not new problems. They have been pointed out time and time again over many years by many Christians who are scientists (for example the GeoChristian and Age of Rocks blogs and many scholarly books; The Bible Rocks and Time, Grand Canyon: Monument to an Ancient Earth, A Biblical Case for an Old Earth, and The Biblical Flood: a case study of the church’s response to extrabiblical evidence). Yet the same problematic arguments continue to be promoted by YEC adherents. Let’s take a brief look at a few examples from the film.
One theme presented in the film is that one past event, the Flood, was so different from anything we experience today that we can’t interpret that past based on present processes. If there were geological formations that we can’t see forming today then that could be a line of evidence that a different process was at work in the past. It could then be inferred, according to YECs, that different process was a global flood.
The observation that the same sedimentary rock formation can be observed over thousands of square miles is one such line of evidence that was recited multiple times during the film. We are given the distinct impression that these widespread sedimentary rocks can only be explained within the context of a world-wide flood. In the film and in his previous publications, Dr. Snelling claimed that we don’t see this happening today and that geologists have no explanation for such deposits. For example, he previously published that: “Slow-and-gradual (present-day uniformitarian) processes cannot account for this evidence.”
It is very difficult to find a way to respond to these statements in a charitable light when little truth can be found in them. The producers and narrator, Dr. Tackett, can be excused for a lack of familiarity with the evidence, but they employed experts to provide an honest evaluation of the evidence and were not well-served. No one disputes the fact that there are vast horizontal sedimentary deposits that are widespread across some continents, although most are not as evenly distributed as implied in the film. But the declaration that we don’t see this happening today is demonstrably false. Furthermore, Dr. Snelling completely ignores a vast swath of research into past elevation of continental crust, sea levels and tectonic motion that provide compelling explanations for the observed layers of sediments across large geographical regions. He must ignore this literature in order to continue to promulgate the young-earth poor understanding of when and where this simplistic (see Here and Here) understanding of uniformitarianism can be applied.
But geologists don’t need to look into the past to see sedimentary processes occurring that can account for what Snelling claims can only be explained by a global flood. Today, we observe that sediments are being deposited over thousands of square miles on continental shelves, most notably off the coast of South America. Similarly massive sand deposits are being deposited over the majority of Saudi Arabia and northern Africa, also known as the Sahara. More details about present-day deposition can be found in this article: Can we trace rock layers across continents only because of Noah’s Flood?
If large areas of sediment deposition can readily be explained by a number of past (eg. Sediment Transport and the Coconino Sandstone) and present processes, it should be rather shocking that Dr. Snelling and other young-earth writers claim that the presence of such widespread sedimentary rocks are one the best “evidences” [sic] of a global flood. One of the best? This evidence is equivocal at best and we would argue has far less explanatory power than an old earth model.
Interpreting the Fossil Record
Later in the film, Dr. Carter mentioned that fossils of the sea reptiles called Mosasaurs are all found on land. This resulted in an audible gasp from the audience in the theater. This seemed like compelling evidence that could only be explained in the young-earth/global flood paradigm. Granted, this observation by itself would not be inconsistent with a global Flood, but Dr. Carter should be well aware that it is not inconsistent with a deep-time model of earth’s history either. When further observations are made about the context of those fossils—including what is not found with them—the young-earth narrative falls apart.
How is the presence of mosasaurs explained by geologists? Geologists have long understood that shallow seas once covered the central portion of North America. They know—and YECs also acknowledge—that sea levels have changed dramatically in the past. Sea level has been much lower—100 meters or more—during Ice Ages and much higher during times when the Earth was warmer than it is today. Combined with abundant evidence that many regions, such as the North American plains, have been uplifted along with the rise of mountain chains such as the Rocky Mountains, there is nothing mysterious about the discovery of sea reptiles in rocks found above sea level today.
Significantly, the very fact that mosasaurs and other sea reptiles are found in vast deposits of rock over the interior of the US is evidence that a shallow sea once existed there. Much like the deposition that is happening off the coast of South America and other continents today, sediments were being deposited across wide stretches of North America constantly over long periods of time. Going back to Snelling’s assertion that deposits over large areas require a global flood, the deposition of sediment in a shallow sea over the interior central portion of North America didn’t require a global flood and thus the presence of large sediments layers is not proof of a global flood.
On the surface, the above explanation could appear to be a different interpretations of the same facts. Well, it may look that way. At a minimum it demonstrates that it is irresponsible to act as if the YEC model is the only model that fits this data. But, in fact, a closer inspection will quickly reveal that the YEC model is an inferior model for explaining our observations. In the film Dr. Snelling makes a big deal about the sharp contacts between rock formations and although he admits they are not perfectly flat everywhere he gives the impression that these contacts are very sharp over large areas. This is misleading but even if we grant that generally there are “missing” layers of rock between formations, the shallow sea model is a far better explanation for the observed data than the global flood model.
A widespread shallow inland sea would explain sediment deposition, especially the dolomites and limestones, across wide regions. It would also explain the sharp contacts between rock formations that cannot be explained by a chaotic global flood. Conventional geology provides a very reasonable explanation for our observations. A shallow sea would have dried up during cooler periods in earth’s history, thus exposing massive regions to the air,stopping further sedimentation. During that time some erosion would occur—think of what is happening on the plains of Nebraska or Kansas today. Later, when sea levels rose again and covered the land, deposition under different conditions would resume, adding new layers of sediment of much younger age. The contact between these layers would be quite sharp with evidence of stream valleys in cross sections of the rocks when viewed later in time. This is exactly what we see (image to the right).
There are many places where we can identify topographical variation in the contact regions between layers where the sediment below had been eroded by small and large stream systems. In the global flood context water moving quickly across a continent might explain the overall flat contact of layers—though no better than a shallow sea model—but the observation of meandering stream beds at those contact layers contradicts the flood model.
The closer one looks at the flood geology model of earth history, the more inconsistencies one finds. For example, examining thousands of fossils in their depositional context quickly reveals that the model for fossil preservation presented in the film does not fit the observational evidence. Dr. Ross presented the standard young-earth explanation for the order of the fossil record but the mosasaurs in the film don’t make any sense within that narrative. Tens of thousands of individual fossils of more than 800 species of sea reptiles that have been described, yet not a single one of them has ever been found in the same rock formation as any of the tens of thousands of more than 150 species of fossil Cetaceans (whales, porpoises, and dolphins). Sea reptiles are always found in sedimentary rocks below those in which whales are found despite the fact that sea reptiles and cetaceans (whales and dolphins), had they lived in the same seas before the Flood, would have been members of the same ecological communities. This is not what a global flood model would predict and to act as if a global flood provides even a plausible explanation—much less the “best” explanation—is disingenuous to the audience, who is not being provided all the evidence or the current scientific explanations.
Throughout the film, the experts presented pieces of evidence and then asserted or insinuated that these observations could best (or only) be explained by a global flood. At the same time, the same evidence was frequently portrayed as impossible to explain by conventional scientists, leaving the audience to conclude that young-earth paradigm alone holds the key to unlocking the mysteries of the history of the Earth and by extension, that most “conventional” scientists have only a tenuous grasp of truth or evidence.
Mt. St. Helens and Yellowstone: A story of incomplete information and bad analogies
In the very beginning of the film, the stunning scenery of Mt. St. Helens is suggested to have provided the context to show that non-uniform events in the past are a better explanation for what scientists until “just a few decades” before would have believed were caused by slow processes acting over long periods of time. As would be seen throughout the remainder of the film, Tackett gave no citation for this supposed belief of “opposing” scientists. This left a false impression that catastrophic processes are not appreciated by geologists today. In fact, the valleys carved at Mt. St. Helens at best have only superficial similarities to the Grand Canyon. Any geologist worth his/her salt, even in the years before Mt. St. Helens exploded, would be able to identify similar formations in other places as the result of rapid processes occurring at a local scale. Even in the film it is obvious that the pattern of erosion of unconsolidated ash is far different than the erosion of hard sandstones as found in the Grand Canyon. This is a comparison of apples to oranges, but the audience is led to believe that scientists believe the two are the same fruit.
Ironically, the film itself provided an example that contradicts the message presented in the introduction of the film at the foot of Mt. St. Helens. It is claimed that Yellowstone volcanic activity spread ash over hundreds of thousands of square miles. The existence of these ash layers has been acknowledged for over 100 years. No one today believes they were the result of long ages of slow deposition. Likewise, massive deposits of ash at Yellowstone, many of which are very deeply eroded, such as at Yellowstone Falls Canyon have been recognized as the result of catastrophic processes.
Remember that no one was there to see these events. There is no human or written divine eyewitness testimony to these events, yet scientists are not fooled into assuming that ash layers or large beds of unconsolidated debris must be the result of processes working very slowly over time. It is disingenuous to portray geologists as unable to interpret that history correctly if shown the deposits and eroded valleys of Mt. St. Helens without the eyewitness testimony of the eruption and subsequent events. I would expect any geologist with a moderate amount of experience to be able to collect data that would allow them to determine the relative sequence and timing of the events that are recorded in the sediments. A geologist, who is also a Christian, has written about the particular challenge that Yellowstone presents to the YEC earth-history hypothesis: The Pleistocene is Not in the Bible.
Geologists have examined the Yellowstone ash layers in detail and have determined that there were multiple super-eruptions at this location which spread ash over hundreds of thousands of square miles each time. Furthermore, while these ash layers were deposited in a blink-of-an-eye, the sediments found between the ash layers required much more time. Some of these ash layers are separated by hundreds of thousands of years if not millions of years.(2) Evidence of multiple eruptions is easily observed by the presence of entire ecosystems preserved in sediments between the ash layers. While briefly mentioned in the film, the very existence of these multiple catastrophic events is very difficult to accommodate in the very short YEC timeline of the post-Flood world. However, these data are readily accommodated in an old earth model that acknowledge the regular occurrence of dramatic short-term events that have long-term consequences such as erosion of ash to form mature soils.
The mention of Yellowstone volcanism highlighted another common problem in the YEC literature and an internal inconsistency in the film. The massive widespread volcanic ash layers were used as evidence in the film to infer that if short-duration catastrophic events could be responsible for widespread destruction and sediment deposition, then a global flood could do much more, even though—it is worth noting—a flood and a volcano are not at all the same thing. But nothing presented in the film showed that a global catastrophic event was required when a local catastrophe—whether that be a flood, volcanic eruption, or rapid change in elevation due to an earthquake—could better explain the observations.
In summary, for those of us with even passing familiarity with the full scope of the many lines of evidence that point to an old earth, the film was a painful series of awkward attempts to fit square pegs into round holes. Like most YEC claims, they sound good on the surface but when placed under cross-examination they are found wanting.
- I do not mean to suggest that the producers were in any way obligated to examine both sides. There is certainly no requirement that a documentary present both sides. I understand that this film was never meant to examine both sides or even present another side. It was never meant to be anything other than a young-earth apologetic. However, I write this so that those that watch the film will know what they are watching and more importantly that they are watching a minority view among theologians and Christian scientists.
- Lanphere, Marvin A., Duane E. Champion, Robert L. Christiansen, Glen A. Izett, and John D. Obradovich. “Revised ages for tuffs of the Yellowstone Plateau volcanic field: Assignment of the Huckleberry Ridge Tuff to a new geomagnetic polarity event.” Geological Society of America Bulletin 114, no. 5 (2002): 559-568. http://gsabulletin.gsapubs.org/content/114/5/559.short
Editing provided by LC