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Questions sceptics ask

January 2006 | by Jonathan Swingler

When Mt St Helens erupted in May 1980 it caused great devastation but also provided amazing evidence of the way geographical features can be generated over short time periods – in hours, days and months rather than the millennia usually invoked for their formation.

Currently most people accept the notion that our planet has been around for billions of years. This scenario is presented in TV programmes – and taught in our schools and universities – as an unquestionable scientific fact.

The vast ages assumed for earth’s development are needed by the theory of evolution to account for the origin of life and the diversity of living things. Evolutionary mechanisms act so slowly that the theory relies absolutely on the passage of millions of years since the earth was formed.

The importance of Mt St Helens lies in the way it undermines these assumptions – by demonstrating that geographical formations can arise very rapidly if enough power is expended(as in the global flood recorded in the Bible).

It adds to the growing body of scientific evidence that supports a straightforward reading of the Bible’s account of creation and other events as miraculous works of divine power. This, therefore, is an exciting time to be involved in the debate between creation and evolution.

Questions

I have given presentations based on the ETarticles in a number of churches, highlighting these particular issues. One of these meetings attracted an unexpectedly large audience – so people do seem to want to know more about these things.

A freelance writer attended one meeting and put to me 20 ‘top’ questions that he thought sceptics might ask. These included such things as: What existed before the earth was created? Doesn’t the phrase ‘let the earth bring forth’ suggest that God could have created things by a process of evolution? What do you think Adam and Eve looked like? How could animals such as polar bears and penguins be brought to the ark? Where do dinosaurs fit in to the creationist viewpoint? And how could people live for so long (e.g. Noah’s 950 years)?

I am not going to answer all these questions here, let alone all 20 that were put to me (it would take a book to do so!), but I do want to address three of the questions that were asked, because I think they are the most important – and for particular reasons.

A universal flood

One question ran as follows: ‘What evidence is there that the flood covered the entire world?’ This is a most important matter because it brings to light the way our ‘worldview’ affects the answers we give to such questions. Specifically, our answers reveal how much credence we give to the Bible as we seek to interpret the scientific evidence.

There are three kinds of evidence that bear on the subject:

1. What the Bible says. In Genesis 6:7 God said he would destroy man and animals from the face of the earth. In Genesis 7:22-23 we are told that every creature living on dry land died except those sheltered in the ark. In Genesis 8:17 we read that Noah brought out the animals from the ark that they might ‘abound on the earth’ – hardly necessary if the flood had been just local.

2. What other cultures say. Stories of catastrophic floods are found in many cultures across the planet. The Babylonian Gilgamesh epic, for example, recounts such a flood with details remarkably similar to the biblical account. In this epic, as in the Bible, the flood is global in extent. Prehistoric ‘flood myths’ survive not only in the Middle East but in the Americas, Europe, India, Indonesia and China.

3. What the rocks say. If there was a global flood what would you expect? You would expect to find billions of fossils in sedimentary rock laid down by catastrophic water flows – on every continent on earth.

And this is exactly what we do see! If you adopt an evolutionary worldview you have to postulate complex scenarios to explain what we observe. You have to explain why slow geological processes (which cannot preserve fossils) were interrupted by multiple catastrophic events to produce the fossil record. A global flood catastrophe is a simpler and more elegant model – and one that fits all the scientific evidence.

Dating the rocks

Another key question was this: ‘Apart from the eruption of Mt St Helens, what other evidence is there that rock-dating techniques are unreliable?’ This is important because it highlights the fact that so-called ‘absolute’ dating methods are not absolute at all.

These techniques rely on the radioactive decay of isotopes of certain chemical elements. For example, the isotope Potassium 40 ‘decays’ into Argon (the ‘daughter element’) at a known rate. By measuring the relative amounts of Potassium 40 and Argon in a rock it is possible, making certain assumptions, to tell how much time has passed since the rock solidified.

The problem lies in the assumptions that have to be made – for example, that there was no Argon in the rock to start with. No one knows whether these assumptions are ever correct – but we do know of many cases where they are obviously wrong.

That the amount of ‘daughter element’ found in a rock sample cannot be simply related to the time since solidification is demonstrated by the following examples. False dates were obtained using the ‘absolute’ radiometric Potassium-Argon technique at these four well-known sites:

1. Sunset Crater, Northern Arizona. Samples were dated at more than 200,000 years whereas tree-ring and archaeological data fix the eruption in the year 1065.

2. Lava flows at Mt Ngaurhoe, New Zealand, were dated at 275,000 years, whereas documented eyewitness accounts say the flows occurred in 1949, 1954 and 1975.

3. Hualalai basalt, Hawaii. The ‘absolute’ radiometric technique yields an age of 1.4–22 million years. According to documentary evidence this rock was formed in 1801.

4. Mt Etna basalt, Sicily. Absolute date 140,000–350,000 years. According to documentary evidence of eyewitnesses this rock was actually formed in 1972.

While there are other rock-dating methods that claim to be absolute (including so-called isochron techniques) the fact remains that all these methods rely on unproven assumptions of one kind or another – and allare known to yield false results for certain samples of known age.

Believing the Bible

The final question I want to address runs as follows. ‘Could any amount of concrete evidence ever make you not believe in the literal truth of the Bible?’ Clearly this is a cynical challenge but I am happy to respond.

First it has to be said that some portions in the Bible are not meant to be taken literally. But these are usually self-evident – either from a straightforward reading of the text or a consideration of the literary genre employed.

For example, there are many poetical passages that are clearly not intended to be taken literally. There are apocalyptic writings such as the book of Revelation which makes free use of symbols and images. While it relates to real historical situations, these are presented in symbolical form. Again, the parables of Jesus are obviously made-up stories intended to illustrate spiritual truths.

However, when Jesus refers to the creation record and historical accounts of the Old Testament, he always treats them as genuine history. When the Gospels tell us that Jesus healed the sick and stilled the storm they mean exactly what they say – these things actually happened. And when it is recorded that Jesus rose from the dead, he did just that.

Proving the point

Having said that, the question of evidence is the most critical question of them all. Could any amount of evidence ever make me notbelieve the Bible? My answer is yes! That’s right, I said yes. If the sceptic can provethat any factual statement in the Bible is wrong, we should stop wasting our time.

In particular, if the sceptic can prove that Jesus did not rise from the dead then Christianity is futile and a waste of time. Those are not my words – it’s what the apostle Paul says in 1 Corinthians 15:17!

But the sceptics have been trying for 2,000 years to prove their point and so far they have failed. So I’m not holding my breath.