Casting a long shadow – the Geological Column

Author: Angus Kennedy

Over most of Ireland, the underlying rocks are hidden from view under soil and peat. To see them, you would have to go to places where they appear (or outcrop) on the surface, such as along the coast, or on mountains and in quarries. When you look at rocks, you will see there are different kinds. Most rocks can be placed into one of three categories:

Igneous - these rocks are formed from molten magma which rises from deep within the earth.

Sedimentary – Sediments, such as sands, silts and muds, are formed from the breaking-up of pre-existing rocks or other sediments, and the transportation of the resultant particles by water, wind, gravity, or by other means, and their deposition when they can be transported no further. Some sediments are formed through chemical or biological activity (e.g. precipitates and limestone), or by other means (e.g., evaporites). When sediments are compacted and cemented, they form rocks, such as sandstones, siltstones and mudstones.

Metamorphic – These are formed when rocks of any kind are subjected to changes in pressure or heat, which then alters the minerals in them.  Metamorphism can be brought about by earth movements and volcanic activity.

In this short article, we will be looking at how geologists first sorted sedimentary rocks into an (imaginary) vertical column of rock called the Geological Column, and its significance to Christians.

Sedimentary rocks, because they have been deposited in layers (or strata) and contain fossils, were of crucial importance to early geologists in constructing the Geological Column. Nicholaus Steno (1638-1686) was the first to recognise: 1) That sedimentary rock layers were water-laid sediments; 2) That younger rocks were deposited on top of older rocks; 3) That strata were originally deposited in horizontal layers, and, 4) If strata were no longer horizontal, they had been disturbed after deposition. Though his principles of stratigraphy are still taught to geologists today, few of them would know that Steno believed the Bible and accepted that the sedimentary strata, and the fossils they contain, were laid down by Noah’s flood. However, many other early geologists rejected the Biblical account in part or in whole. Some of the main protagonists were:

  • Scottish geologist, James Hutton (1726-1797) argued that the Earth had gone through many cycles of erosion, deposition, metamorphism and earth movements over vast eons of time. He saw “no vestige of a beginning or prospect of an end” in the geological record.
  • William Smith (1769-1839), the “Father of English Stratigraphy”, was a drainage engineer and surveyor who, in the course of his work, studied sedimentary rock layers and the fossils they contained. In 1815, he produced the first geological map of England showing the order of sedimentary strata and the fossils they contained.
  • Charles Lyell (1797-1875), revived Hutton’s ideas of an interminable past in his three volume Principles of Geology (published 1830-1833). He argued that the 'present is the key to the past', and that the rock strata could be interpreted only in the light of present day erosion, sedimentary and tectonic processes, and only at the present observed rates (uniformitarianism). The acceptance of Lyell’s arguments dealt a fatal blow to the biblical Flood account in the minds of many.

Having assumed uniformitarianism/evolution in the first place, and having rejected the Creation/Flood account, the observation that fossil content of the strata varies was interpreted by most early geologists as proving either: 1) There had been a series of multiple catastrophes, with new life forms arising after each catastrophe (as did Frenchman Georges Cuvier (1768-1832)); or, 2) All living creatures had descended from previous forms of life by changing over time, i.e., evolution.

Charles Darwin (1809-1882) took a copy of Lyell’s Principles with him on his famous five-year voyage on the Beagle (1831-1836). This, together with ideas from his grandfather Erasmus Darwin’s (1731-1802) book, Zoonomia (1794-1796, and one of the first published theories on evolution), helped to inform his observations on the geology and zoology of the places he visited. From this seedbed sprang his world-famous book “On the Origin of the Species”, first published in 1859. Charles’ earth-shattering idea was to suggest that mutation and natural selection was the mechanism for evolution. Thus an entirely naturalistic view of nature and the world, and how we all came to be, was cemented into the minds of many. Blind chance operating through mutation and survival of the fittest was all that was needed, God was not required.

By the 1850s, geologists had compared (correlated) strata in different parts of the world and had classified them according to their depositional order (stratigraphy) and fossil content into the familiar geological periods. By ‘stacking’ the periods on top of each other, an imaginary column of rock some 138 km (86 miles) high was constructed. The length of time taken to accumulate the sediments represented in the column was then estimated by dividing its height by an assumed average sedimentation rate. This gave an age of several hundred million years for the oldest fossil bearing rocks, NOT the six thousand years plainly indicated by the Bible.

Other rate processes were used by 19th century scientists to estimate the age of the earth. Lord Kelvin (1824-1907), calculated it would have taken the Earth 20-40 million years to cool down from an assumed molten state. It was not until the discovery of radioactivity in the late 1800s (by Antoine Becquerel and Marie and Pierre Curie), and its subsequent use as a geological clock (radiometric dating) by geologist Arthur Holmes (1890-1965), that ‘absolute’ ages for rocks were determined.

In the eyes of those who reject God or the Bible, the Geological Column is strong evidence for long ages, uniformitarianism and evolution. Goliath defied the armies of the living God for forty days; atheistic materialism, fathered by the wrong interpretation of the rock record as representing long ages and evolution, has been defying God for over two hundred years. But is this Goliath any more invincible? Christians should not be cowed by the assertions of geologists and scientists that taking God at his word and believing that the world was created in six literal days, and that there was a world-wide cataclysmic flood, is unscientific or just plain silly.

That the Geological Column is a construct can be seen in that the maximum depth of sediments anywhere in the world is less than 1/10th of the  total height of the column. There are also only a few places in the world where all the geological periods are represented (at least in part). Partial sequences with many gaps, i.e., missing periods (in whole or in part), are the norm.

The dictum that the 'present is the key to the past' (i.e., slow and steady) has been overturned by the efforts of neo-catastrophists such as the late Professor Derek Ager (no friend of creationists!). He had travelled the world studying sedimentary rocks and had come to the conclusion that they had been laid down rapidly in repeated series of ‘local disasters’ (for creationists, the year-long Flood of Noah and its aftermath). If sedimentation was rapid and catastrophic (also needed to bury and preserve fossils), where are the millions of years? Ager was reduced to squeezing time between the layers, in effect saying that the nothingness between layers represented long periods of quiescence, with no deposition or erosion, even though the layers to all intents and purposes appear to have been laid continuously and without interruption.

Despite the above, uniformitarians will say that radiometric dating proves long ages. However, it too, like any rate process, is based on un-provable assumptions: Has the decay rate stayed the same throughout all time? Has any of the parent or daughter element leached in or out of the mineral or the rock? Is all the daughter element derived from the parent element; was any of it original? Radiometric dating has its problems for long-agers. Different methods often give radically different dates. Also, dating of the fossiliferous part of the column is in effect calibrated against the expected date indicated by the fossils (this is circular reasoning). Discordant dates are rejected and explained away with ad-hoc reasons.  Let's do a thought experiment: If the likes of Darwin had said that the rate of mutation was such that it would have accomplished all the evolution we see in half or twice the time as the presently  radiometric 'proven' ages, would some other rate process not have been found that could be made to fit the assumed age required?

The scale of past catastrophic events which have recently been studied is impressive. The most recently reported involved the ‘megaflood’ that cut the English Channel in a matter of days and separated Britain from the continent. Neo-Catastrophism fits in well with the biblical Flood and its aftermath. If the actual evidence on the ground shouts out ‘catastrophe’, why should the veracity of the Genesis account of the Flood be rejected?

Regarding the fossil sequence; a fossil that is found throughout long sections of the column is of no use in assigning a supposed geological period to the rocks it is found in. Geologists look for fossils that are only found over short sections in order to date the rocks. These are called index fossils. The unwelcome fact is that as more fossils are collected, more are found 'out of place' in strata either 'older' or 'younger' than previously assumed. Such fossils have to have their range extended, some to such an extent that they lose their suitability as index fossils. One of the biggest fossil evidences against the column and evolution are the 'Lazarus Taxa' of creatures previously found only as fossil remains in rocks 'dated' as being many millions of years old, with no remains found in the intervening rocks, only to be discovered alive and well! These are just passed off as 'Living Fossils'.  Many examples exist; better known ones are the Coelacanth and the Wollemi pine.

Lastly, when we read about David and Goliath in 1 Samuel 17, we often overlook that Goliath had a shield bearer. It is a sad fact that many in the queue for the job as shield bearer for our modern Goliath are Christians. It should give pause for thought. Christians should appreciate that the creation/evolution debate goes right to the heart of belief – if we can't believe that God is true, and that Genesis is the true history of the world; from creation, Adam and Eve, the fall, entrance of sin, to redemption, and final consummation, what can we believe or how can we persuade others?

Christian's should take heart. Peter asks us to 'always be ready to give a defense to everyone who asks you a reason for the hope that is in you' 1 Peter 3:15 (NKJV). Studying the many scientific evidences for creation and against evolution will greatly help Christians in strengthening their faith in God and the Bible, and their witness before a godless world.