One of the central points of conflict in the Genesis debate is geology. The current dispute over the true interpretation of geological evidence illustrates the entire origins debate. Despite tremendous amounts of popular writing on geological items such as fossils and layers of strata, many Christians are unfamiliar with the history of the rise of geology in the 18th and 19th centuries. This deficiency leads to some key mistakes. If these mistakes are left unchallenged they will skew the entire debate.
Geology and Christianity
One popular misconception is that the earliest geologists presented their work in order to overthrow the reigning Christian understanding of Genesis. Those who hold this notion imply that theories which involve millions of years of time are part and parcel of Charles Darwin’s theory of biological evolution. In other words, Christians who accept old-earth geology are accepting evolution. Henry Morris (1918-2006), widely acclaimed as the father of modern young-earth creationism, sums up the view of millions:
From our point of view, however, any interpretation of Genesis which accommodates the standard system of evolutionary geological ages is a clear-cut compromise with atheistic evolutionism, and it is very sad that Christians who profess to believe the Bible as the Word of God will not acknowledge this.1
Those who agree with Morris imply that Charles Lyell (1797-1875) and other early geologists acted in a virtual conspiracy with Charles Darwin (1809-1882). The claim is that, by introducing long ages, Lyell essentially became the co-founder of biological evolution.
We believe this popular view is based on a shallow understanding of the history of geology. Principles of Geology, Lyell’s landmark work on geology published in 1830, predates Darwin’s 1859 Origin of Species by nearly three decades. Although Darwin’s theory of biological evolution did rely on Lyell’s geology, it does not logically follow that Lyell’s geology is, by nature, evolutionary. Lyell’s work on the geological column could as easily be interpreted as the material record of God’s creation of life.
Most overlook the fact that Lyell strongly objected to Darwin’s theory of species transmutation for many years. Ian Taylor, an opponent of Lyell’s old-earth geology, explains:
In his earlier writings Lyell stuck rigidly to the biblical dogma of the fixity or immutability of the species and in this matter was opposed to Darwin’s proposal of the mutability of species – that is, one species could evolve into another. … The sudden appearance of new species in the fossil record was, to Lyell, evidence that re-creation had taken place, while, conversely, the appearance of fossil creatures in several strata and their absence in succeeding strata indicated extinction of that species.2
Lyell did finally capitulate and accept Darwin’s theory in the last couple years of his life, but he understood that his geology was distinct from Darwin’s view of biological evolution. All geologists at the time accepted Lyell’s geological framework for the age of the earth, but few accepted the raw atheistic naturalism inherent in Darwin’s theory.
The Problem for Darwin: Geology
A host of evangelical scientists, such as James Dana and J.W. Dawson, remained committed and vocal theists as they practiced their old-earth science. Even those scientists who accepted the mechanism Darwin suggested were generally committed to the idea that God was involved in the rise of life. This view is essentially what we know today as “theistic evolution.” It was this view, not Darwin’s naturalistic
view, which actually became known as Darwinism in his day. Darwin’s theory implied atheism, and that was too much for most to swallow at the time.
The initial response to Darwinism by conservative Christian leaders in the late 19th century was to “unite in rejecting Darwin’s transmutation hypothesis as simply bad science.”3 Many notable scientists followed this approach throughout the 20th century. It was not until the 1920s that Darwin’s atheistic naturalism became widely accepted. This, coupled with a developing understanding of genetics and mutation, was called Neo-Darwinism. Darwin’s triumph did not happen in an instant, but took about 60 years.
The irony is that Darwinism and Neo-Darwinism face great difficulty today in that geological evidence has, to date, not confirmed the theory. Darwin predicted geologists would find a host of missing links which would construct a great chain of life from the earliest organisms to man. Darwin explains this as a real problem for his view a little more than a decade after the initial release of Origin of Species. He noted the problem when he wrote:
Why is not every geological formation and every stratum full of such intermediate links? Geology assuredly does not reveal any such finely graduated organic chain; and this is the most obvious and serious objection which can be urged against the theory.4
The popular phrase which sums up Darwin’s view is “amoeba to man” evolution. The problem for Darwin’s theory is that geologists haven’t found the many missing links he predicted would be found. More than a hundred years of geological research has failed to confirm his theory. Stephen J. Gould, the prominent evolutionary biologist, emphasizes the problem for Darwinian evolution:
The absence of fossil evidence for intermediary stages between major transitions in organic design, indeed our inability, even in our imagination, to construct functional intermediates in many cases, has been a persistent and nagging problem for gradualistic accounts of evolution.5
In order to explain this embarrassing reality, evolutionists have developed a new theory of biological evolution called “Punctuated Equilibrium.” This theory contends that species remain relatively unchanged for long periods of time. When substantial changes between the speciesdo occur, they happen very fast – so fast we are left with virtually no fossil documentation in the geological record. (This development is an admission that the fossil record shows nothing about the origin of species except when the species were created.)
Again, Lyell’s geology is an entirely separate issue from either of these forms of biological evolution. Geology continues to provide a reasonable argument against Darwin’s biological evolution.
The Rise of Intelligent Design
More recently, some scientists have presented an additional case against all forms of “amoeba to man” evolution. What Darwin thought were the earliest and simplest forms of life involve remarkable complexity. Darwin could never have dreamed that the most basic living organisms are intricate systems which involve perfectly functional components. This complexity cannot be explained by gradual development over time, because all of the components must be present and perfectly functional for these organisms to exist at all. Some scientists are developing a formal case that even the most basic life-forms involve “irreducible complexity.”6 This implies that incremental biological evolution over time, as evolutionists conceive it, is simply impossible.
The age of the earth is irrelevant to the “irreducible complexity” argument for “intelligent design” – a technical term for creation. One can accept an earth that is millions or even billions of years old and still reject biological evolution. Many scientists do. Author William Dembski, a leader in the Intelligent Design movement, explains:
Suppose you do not accept the Darwinian picture of natural history, that is, you do not believe that the vast panoply of life evolved through undirected naturalistic processes. Presumably, then, you are a creationist. But does this make you a young earth creationist? Ever since Darwin’s Origin of Species Darwinists have cast the debate in these terms: either you are with us, or you are a creationist, by which they mean a young earth creationist. But of course it does not follow, logically or otherwise, that by rejecting fully naturalistic evolution you automatically embrace a literal reading of Genesis 1 and Genesis 2. Rejecting fully naturalistic evolution does not entail accepting young earth creationism.7
Creationism does not hinge on the age of our universe. Dembski astutely points out that belief in a young earth follows from a particular method of interpreting Genesis 1 and 2, i.e., a literal interpretation.
Lyell – Cornerstone or Capstone of Geology?
A related misconception about the history of geology is the belief that Lyell’s 1830 book was an entirely new concoction. It is common to view Lyell’s work as initiating a radically new concept of a very old earth. This understanding implies that modern geology dates to Lyell and is, in reality, a doctrine self-consciously created to overthrow the Christian beliefs of the day.
When the history is studied closely, the reality is quite different. Ian Taylor makes this sobering admission:
The early nineteenth century geologists, such as William Buckland went out with the intention of finding geological evidence to support the Genesis account. These men were neither fools nor knaves, yet they came away from all they saw converted to the idea of long ages.8
The irony of this situation was that in the nearly thirty years between Lyell’s Principles of Geology and Darwin’s Origin, the most fruitful and practical work in geology was carried out by men such as Adam Sedgwick, William Buckland, William Conybeare, Roderick Murchison, Louis Agassiz, and others, most of whom in those early years were convinced of the historicity and universality of the Noachian Flood.9
The science of geology was not consciously formulated to undermine Christianity. Geology developed and matured as a direct result of the practical needs of the 18th and 19th century. The industrial revolution, with its demand for transportation, prompted the construction of canals and railways across England. The innovation of the steam engine required the mining of coal to power trains, ships, and industrial factories. All of these activities led scientists, a significant number of whom were Christians, to gain first-hand experience of the geological detail which lay under earth’s surface. These early geologists came to realize that specific fossils were segregated in distinct layers of strata. Geology matured as a direct result of the practical needs of the 18th and 19th century.
Lyell’s work, released in 1830, was simply not new. He relied on the earlier work of an English geologist and canal engineer by the name of William “Strata” Smith (1769-1839) who observed that rock formations appear in layers or strata. Smith deduced that each of these layers could be recognized and catalogued by the distinctive fossils they contained. As his knowledge of the precise order of these layers increased, he could make exact predictions about the location of coal deposits. In 1793 “Strata Smith” made the first geological map of Great Britain.
Lyell combined Smith’s work with his own field experience to produce his Principles of Geology in 1830. There is no doubt that Lyell’s book was a major accomplishment. It was the capstone of practical field work that stretched back into the 1600s with Burnet,10 Hooke,11 Lhwyd,12 Ray,13 Steno,14 and Woodward.15 To this day it looms large in the field of geology.
The Coincidence of Geology and Theology
It is at this point that we suggest an amazing coincidence of history. Something else developed in the British Isles concurrent with modern geology: a theological view of planet Earth’s history and future. In order to understand the importance of this theological development we must look at the contemporary religious situation in England during the days of Smith and Lyell.
The early 1800s saw the formation of a small group of Christians known as the Plymouth Brethren. They were united in the belief that the Bible must be interpreted according to a strictly literal method. The Brethren also had a fascination with Bible prophecy. Historian Timothy Weber explains:
Along with other British evangelicals of that period, the Brethren were deeply interested in biblical prophecy. In contrast to many of them, however, the Brethren were futurists who believed that Bible prophecy pointed to future events, those scheduled to take place just before Christ’s return.16
Their prophetic view was known as premillennialism because they believed the second coming would inaugurate a literal, 1000-year reign of Christ from Jerusalem. Premillennialism was not unique to the Brethren. Morgan Edwards (1722-1795) unsuccessfully promoted it in America during the 1780’s. Manuel Lacunza (1731-1801), a Spanish Jesuit scholar, developed a similar view in his massive 1790 tome titled The Coming of Messiah in Glory and Majesty. (Lacunza’s defense of premillennialism was published under the pseudonym “Ben-Ezra.”) Edward Irving (1792-1834) drew crowds in London to hear exposition of premillennialism during the 1820s.
What distinguished the Brethren is how they further refined premillennial theology. They also promoted a theological belief known as dispensationalism. Like other dispensationalists of the time, the Brethren broke all human history into distinct time periods or “dispensations” in which God dealt with mankind according to distinct principles. The millennial reign of Christ to come would be the seventh and final dispensation of earth history. Historian Ovid Need gives this definition:
Dispensationalism: a philosophy that divides history into a number of distinct eras in each of which the mode of God’s operations, if not nature’s, is unique.17
Need is correct to mention nature in his definition. Dispensationalism eventually produced the premillennialist view of nature. Because of their theology, dispensationalists began to expect radical changes in nature to match their belief in radical changes in dispensations. For example, they concluded that Adam’s physical world radically changed after the fall. Likewise, the Genesis flood ostensibly caused a comprehensive physical change across planet Earth. Dispensationalists also applied the same approach to the future as well. They consistently argued for coming world changes during the “millennium,” where nature will be more or less like the pre-flood world. They also expected the “new heaven and new earth” to be a physical return to Adam’s pre-fall world: no biological death or pain or sorrow, etc. The full details and implications of those views took decades to develop, but their prophetic system had repercussions for the rest of the Bible, including Genesis.
In the early days of dispensational premillennialism the most talented speaker among the Plymouth Brethren was John Nelson Darby (1800-1882). He added a new element to dispensational premillennialism by insisting that the Bible contains two completely separate divine plans in history. One plan relates to God’s chosen people, the Jews, while the other plan relates to God’s heavenly people, the Church.
Darby’s new insight meant that the Bible could only be read properly by keeping these two plans in mind. To Darby, it was an error to apply biblical passages to the Church which were meant for the Jews and equally wrong to apply to the Jews what was written to the Church. Darby’s views were extremely controversial at the time for they were entirely novel.
The Other Capstone Event of 1830
The Plymouth Brethren began to gain followers but their system, like geology at the time, was still in development. Before 1830 dispensational premillennialists believed that the so-called “rapture” would only take place after Christians lived through a coming great tribulation. In other words the Brethren, like all dispensationalists of the time, “believed that the rapture would occur at the end of the tribulation, at Christ’s second advent.”18
Ironically, the turning point came in 1830. That was the year the Plymouth Brethren commissioned Darby to go to Glasgow, Scotland, to investigate reports of an outbreak of charismatic gifts of the Spirit among some Scottish premillennialists. There, Darby met Margaret MacDonald, a teenage girl who claimed prophetic gifts of the Spirit. She believed that through these miraculous gifts of revelation she received special insight about the second coming of Christ. She claimed to see in advance how the present dispensation would come to an end. Her insight would, in time, forever change the landscape of both English and American theology.
Margaret MacDonald’s idea was brand new to Darby. She envisioned that the rapture of the church would take place before the great tribulation. This imminent rapture would be a secret “catching away” of all believers seven years before the second coming. Darby instantly agreed. As a result of what Darby experienced in 1830,
Darby understood the rapture and the second coming as two separate events. At the rapture, Christ will come for his saints, and at the second coming, he will come with his saints. Between these two events the great tribulation would occur. With the church removed, God could resume dealing with Israel, and Daniel’s seventieth week could take place as predicted.19
Later, Darby explained that a secret, pre-tribulational rapture was the natural result of his method of reading biblical prophecy. He formed his defense of the pre-tribulational rapture by keeping the divine plan for Israel distinct from the divine plan for the Church. He claimed that the Church could not be involved in the prophecies about the coming worldwide great tribulation. According to Darby, those events were related solely to God’s dealings with the Jews:
It is this conviction, that the Church is properly heavenly in its calling and relationship with Christ, forming no part of the course of events of the earth, which makes its rapture so simple and clear; and on the other hand, it shows how the denial of its rapture brings down the Church to an earthly position, and destroys its whole spiritual character and position. Prophecy does not relate to heaven. The Christian’s hope is not a prophetic subject at all.20
From 1830 on, Darby dogmatically claimed the Church must be “raptured” from the earth before the great tribulation could begin.
Darby combined dispensational premillennial theology with his doctrine of a secret, pre-tribulational rapture (ultimately, from Margaret MacDonald). This innovation was the capstone of modern dispensational premillennial theology. To this day, the imminent pre-tribulational rapture view dominates modern futurist views of prophecy among evangelical Christians.
The 1830 Synchronicity
We have arrived at an amazing historical synchronicity. The modern doctrine of pre-tribulational rapture, dispensational premillennialism was completed in 1830 – the same year Lyell published his Principles of Geology! The rise of modern geology and modern dispensational premillennialism took place at the same time and in the same English locale. Both reached major milestones in 1830. Darby’s work on biblical prophecy and Lyell’s work on geology would both come to dominate 20th century American culture, both religious and secular.
At this point it may not be obvious that this disparate parallel history has anything to do with the Genesis debate. While Lyell is often at the center of controversy, why would Darby’s teaching be relevant to the Genesis debate? The answer is that Darby’s prophetic system became the foundation for a coming challenge to Lyell’s geology. Many years would pass before the violent collision between Lyell’s old-earth geology and Darby’s dispensational premillennialism would become manifest, but the two histories in the opening decades of the 19th century, even the two climactic events of 1830, were destined to create a titanic struggle once the implications worked their way out in history. It was only a matter of time.
1 Henry M. Morris, History of Modern Creationism (San Diego: Master Books, 1984), p. 329.
2 Ian T. Taylor, In the Minds of Men: Darwin and the New World Order 3rd Ed. (Toronto: TFE Publishing, 1991), pp. 70-71.
3 Mark A. Noll, The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1994), p. 179.
4 Charles Darwin, Origin of Species, 6th Edition, (London: John Murray,  1902), p. 413.
5 Stephen J. Gould, Evolution Now: A Century After Darwin, ed. John Maynard Smith, (New York: Macmillan Publishing Co., 1982), p. 140.
6 Michael J. Behe, Darwin’s Black Box: The Biochemical Challenge to Evolution (New York: The Free Press, 1996).
7 William A. Dembski, Mere Creation: Science, Faith & Intelligent Design (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1998), p. 24.
8 Taylor, In the Minds of Men, p. 110.
9 Ibid., p. 350.
10 Thomas Burnet, Sacred Theory of the Earth, 1681.
11 Robert Hooke, Micrographia, 1665.
12 Edward Lhwyd, Lithophylacii Britannici Ichnographia, 1699.
13 John Ray, Three Physico Theological Discourses, 1693.
14 Nicholas Steno, Prodromus, 1669.
15 John Woodward, Natural History of the Earth, 1695.
16 Timothy P. Weber, On the Road to Armageddon: How Evangelicals Became Israel’s Best Friend (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2004), pp. 19-20.
17 Ovid E. Need, Jr., The Death of the Church Victorious: Tracing the Roots and Implications of Modern Dispensationalism (Lafayette, IN: Sovereign Grace Publishers, 2004), p. 11.
18 Weber, On the Road to Armageddon, p. 24.
19 Ibid., p. 24.
20 John N. Darby, Collected Works, 11:156, as quoted in Weber, On the Road to Armageddon, p. 25.