Creationism and the Grand Conjectural Canyon

“The writing on the wall”

It was a Friday afternoon like any other. Katrina pulled into the driveway promptly at 4:30 PM upon returning from her weekly exercise class and a much needed shopping run. For Katrina, it was a three-hour sanctuary in which she could recuperate from the constant demands of Molly, her energetic toddler. That role was temporarily assigned to Sarah, a young neighborhood girl with comparable creative energies.

“How was she?” asked Katrina, while struggling to close the door through a web of heavy shopping bags. “Did she cause you any trouble?”

“Not at all,” replied Sarah, “I think she finally fell asleep.”

Carefully nudged against the cracked door, however, Katrina’s motherly peer was immediately stolen by an unfamiliar disarray. “That’s not wallpaper…”, she thought silently to herself. With a slight rush of adrenaline, she nervously flipped on the light to find the new ‘Ivory White’ paint job ruined by chaotic swaths of bright green, blue, pink, and purple. The floor was covered with toys, among which torn-open boxes of crayons and markers were strewn (recent gifts from the grandparents, of course).

Without hesitation, Katrina broke her daughter’s slumber to begin the inquisition. “What did you do?!” Immediately overcome with tears, Molly yet cunningly evaded her mother’s accusation, vehemently denying any role in the vandalism. “It wasn’t me!” she cried.

For Katrina, it was flatly obvious how to reconstruct the scene. The preponderance of evidence could be explained only by one parsimonious, albeit uncomfortable theory. But as she pressed Molly toward confession and a lesson in responsible arts and crafts, Sarah interjected, much like something out of a TV courtroom drama.

“Isn’t it possible,” she speculated with confidence, “that someone other than your daughter could have drawn what is on that wall?”

“Sure, it is possible,” Katrina replied after a short pause, “but I see no reason to believe that anyone…”

“And isn’t it possible that Molly’s crayons and markers, which are hardly unique, were not the ones used in the process? I only ever saw her draw on these sheets of paper…” interrupted Sarah, while pulling a set of crude drawings from beneath the pillows.

Frustrated at being cut off in her attempts at parenting, Katrina tried gently to explain why the evidence did not support Sarah’s wild hypotheses. But each line of reasoning was met by another possibility that let Molly off the hook. Possibility. She came to despise the word.

“The bottom line,” concluded Sarah, “is that your interpretation of the facts makes your daughter out to be a liar.”

Frustration swiftly became anger, as Katrina sought to end the fruitless debate before it tainted their relationship forever. “With all due respect, Sarah, you’re not seeing the whole picture. It is abundantly clear what happened here today, and I can easily explain both the writing on the wall and Molly’s refusal to take responsibility. Nobody in their right mind would let your speculation override what is plainly known! You are casting unreasonable doubt. But I know what happened, and I’m going to take action.”

Content that she had said all that was necessary, Sarah let the emotional energy dissipate in a moment of silence. Then she made her final plea, while seeing herself out.

“With all due respect, Kat, were you there?”

Rebuilding a natural wonder of the world, one page at a time

While maintaining its status as the iconic geological wonder, the power of time over solid rock, and a symbol of the American National Park system, the Grand Canyon has become for many a battlefield in the creation science movement. No doubt, this honor was facilitated by the 1994 publication of Dr. Steve Austin’s Grand Canyon: Monument to Catastrophe by the Institute for Creation Research. Concomitantly, teams of creationists began hosting raft trips along the Colorado River. Up close and personal, sympathetic adventurers would learn how this icon of geology was built and carved in a span of less than 6,000 years.

Wait, only 6,000 years? For those unfamiliar with the claim, it may seem so incredibly far-fetched as to be unworthy of consideration. However, the creationists’ reinterpretation of the Grand Canyon caught on so successfully, that they were able to sell their book Grand Canyon: A different view (a collaborative work, edited by Tom Vail) in the official Grand Canyon bookstore for a time. In an effort to defend against creationism in the public sphere, moreover, the National Center for Science Education (NCSE) began leading their own rafting trips for a chance to rebut the standard tenets of ‘Flood Geology’.

But why such an emphasis on the Grand Canyon? Isn’t the world full of places to learn about and debate geological history?

Of course, and by no means do creation ministries limit their discussions to this one site. However, the Grand Canyon is frequently the point of departure for understanding ‘Flood Geology’ and tends to come up again and again and again and again. As one originally sympathetic to Steve Austin’s book, I feel confident that I know why. In my opinion, the Grand Canyon—or the Colorado Plateau in general—is the only place on Earth where the Flood Geology model appears both plausible and persuasive to curious, would-be converts to Young-Earth Creationism that lack formal training in the Earth sciences.

Figure 1 from When and How Did the Grand Canyon Form? by Snelling and Vail.

Figure 1 from When and How Did the Grand Canyon Form? by Snelling and Vail.

The story is actually rather simple, and anyone can understand how it explains the details of the canyon. Earth as a solid sphere with crust, mantle, and core, was formed during the creation week, some 6,000 years ago. We still find remnants of that original structure in what is termed ‘basement’—massive foundations of crystalline rock, which are largely covered with sedimentary deposits today. In fact, this basement rock is found at the base of the Grand Canyon (Figure 1). Also during creation week, and shortly after, large amounts of sediment were deposited amid the shifting oceans and continents and became ‘Pre-Flood’ sedimentary rocks. Being formed prior to the judgment of Noah’s Flood (and perhaps the creation of marine and land life), these sediments are naturally devoid of animal and plant fossils. As it just so happens, the prominent rock layers of the Grand Canyon are underlain by tilted sedimentary strata that are devoid of major animal and plant fossils.

The onset of Noah’s flood was presumably accompanied by major erosion of the existing surface of the Earth, which is clearly demonstrated by the Great Unconformity near the base of Grand Canyon. This geological boundary separates ‘Pre-Flood’ sediments from fossiliferous Flood deposits now exposed along the canyon walls. As the flood transitioned from erosional to depositional, the major strata accumulated one by one, each custom crafted by the relative strength of currents and source of mineral grains. That a large flood was responsible for these sedimentary deposits is evident in their horizontal superposition and vast extent across the continental United States. Once the flood waters retreated from the Earth, however, massive reservoirs of water still filled large basins across the landscape. Eventually, these reservoirs would give way to the erosional torrent that carved out Grand Canyon in a matter of days, weeks, or perhaps years at most.

Creationism and the Grand Conjectural Canyon

By this point, creation ministries have sold their story to millions, who have eagerly accepted it as a comfortable alternative to the secular geologists’ presumptuous accusation. In the mind of young-Earth creationists, you see, the classic multimillion-year history of Grand Canyon makes God out to be a liar. But this conclusion is unacceptable for obvious reasons, and so understandably, Flood Geologists have taken radical evasive action.

“Isn’t it possible,” they ask, “that the layers of rock were deposited rapidly by a catastrophic flood, rather than slowly by a series of small events? The aftermath of Mt. St. Helens demonstrates this on a smaller scale, not to mention glacial outburst floods in Iceland!”

In reality, no competent geologist would interpret the fine-laminated beds of volcanic ash and mud at Mt. St. Helens to have been deposited over ‘millions of years’, rendering the analogy completely invalid. Additionally, what megafloods teach us is that deep torrents of fast-moving water leave characteristic deposits, of which none are found in the sedimentary layers of the Grand Canyon. Besides, there is no reason to believe that large amounts…

“And isn’t it possible,” they continue, “that the massive cross-bedding of the Coconino Sandstone was formed by really deep water moving at high speeds, and not in an ancient desert?”

Yes, it does seem possible at first glance, and several early workers considered this mechanism of deposition. Whatever the characteristics of the sand grains and their bedding, however, it is well known that the Coconino Sandstone has preserved numerous reptilian footprints on the dune slopes. But to form the cross beds found in the Coconino would require flow velocities between 1–1.5 meter/sec (2.2–3.3 mph) and water depths of nearly 100 meters or more! How many small reptiles do you think can walk up a dune slope underwater in such strong currents at those depths? This speculation cannot explain the big picture…

“But isn’t it possible that the canyon was carved rapidly by retreating or remnant flood waters, rather than over millions of years by a tiny river? Have you not seen the size of the Colorado River in comparison? It’s incomprehensible!”

It is true, large floods do form similarly shaped canyons in a short amount of time, but it is rather obvious that the Grand Canyon was not carved in this fashion. First of all, the role of the river is to deepen the gorge and remove sediment, while the canyon is continually widened by gravity, ice, and surface runoff across the steep slopes. How do we know this? Because the north side of the canyon is wider than the south side, due to the fact that the north rim is at higher elevation and receives more rain/snow. Additionally, the steepness of the canyon walls varies in accordance with the resistance of each rock layer to everyday erosion. In other words, sedimentary strata had to lithify completely before any erosion took place. Finally, the walls of the canyon contain hundreds of decorated caves, which could only have formed when the river (and water table) was at the same level as the caves.

The list of questions goes on, as Young-Earth Creationists continue to cast unreasonable doubt on the conventional history of our most famed national park. For them, any scientific debate on the age of the canyon is evidence that geologists are hopeless and confused. Dubious results of radiometric dating (essentially rigged by Flood geologists), moreover, indicate that geochronology is in peril and the age of the canyon’s volcanic rocks remains unknown. Young-Earth Creationists have mastered the art of exploiting uncertainty in order to sell their story. But despite having the appearance of scientific rigor and healthy skepticism, the methodology they employ is notably backwards, because it begins with a ‘known’ conclusion, which is proven only by a series of disconnected hypotheticals.

All of this effort, of course, is to advance an ostensibly virtuous worldview, which precludes the notion that God is a liar. It is predicated on the seemingly innocent, yet misguided position that God indirectly recorded the canyon’s history through his prophets. But in so doing, Flood geologists have carved a Grand Conjectural Canyon, which is so far removed from reality that it nonetheless makes God out to be a liar.

At the end of the day, I can only emphasize that of all the wonderful and brilliant things that the Book of Genesis is, it is not an authoritative guide to historical geology. So whether or not you believe that God had anything to do with the grandeur of this natural wonder, we should all be able to agree on one detail: if we wish to learn its history, the writing is on the wall.


Featured image: Fog fills the canyon, from Wikimedia Commons


15 responses to “Creationism and the Grand Conjectural Canyon

  1. Reblogged this on K & T and commented:
    I sympathise with the desire to unite scripture and scientific inquiry, but I have to admit that I agree completely with the author of this post. I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that Young Earth Creationists have reached the point where they are disingenuously casting doubt on things that are plain to see and straightforward to interpret, given what we know in modern times.

    There is a big difference between healthy scepticism and the kind of misleading/distracting techniques employed by so-called creation scientists. I believe the Earth is very old because of the vast amount of evidence I’ve observed firsthand in the rocks, not because of ideological bias or philosophical reasons. In fact, I would prefer the earth to be young, for the simplicity of harmonising it with scripture, but if that is the case then there is an extraordinary amount of misleading data in the rocks!

    Anyway, hope you enjoy the article and feel free to share your thoughts.



    • You know, I thought it was 1994, and when I went to double-check yesterday, the bookseller said 1995! Thanks for the correction.

      You may be right about the book, but I looked for GC: A Different View when we visited in December 2013, and it wasn’t on the shelf. Of course, they may have just been out for the day, but I had heard about some efforts to get it removed and assumed they were successful.

      On the other hand, it’s nowhere to be found in their online bookstore. Maybe they did finally take it out?


    • I have that book. It does present compelling arguments, however they skip on a few such as quickly assuming Noah’s flood smoothed the coconino sandstone and doesn’t mention the footprints, or address the assumption that radioactive methods are flawed, it just assumes that.


  2. This is a very helpful article, Jon. Your analogy with the “writing on the wall” is very effective at showing how not all hypothetical possibilities are equally reasonable, and how it is possible to construct ideas about the past that have warrant to be believed even if we weren’t there.

    I want to press just a bit on one point:

    “But despite having the appearance of scientific rigor and healthy skepticism, the methodology they employ is notably backwards, because it begins with a ‘known’ conclusion, which is proven only by a series of disconnected hypotheticals.
    All of this effort, of course, is to advance an ostensibly virtuous worldview, which precludes the notion that God is a liar.”

    Would you say that it is possible, however unlikely, that the young earth reading of the Grand Canyon (and the earth in general) is true, that earth history events as the YECs describe them could, possibly, have left the physical traits we see? If the answer is yes, then imagine a scenario in which it is the case that God would be shown to be a liar if the old earth scenario is correct. In that case, could we say that the extremely unlikely scenarios put forward by YECs would become the most reasonable interpretations of the evidence? All other things being equal, we should not favor extremely unlikely interpretation of physical evidence over extremely likely ones, but if God is portrayed as a liar in the latter case, would that not make the in-itself-extremely-unlikely interpretation the best one and the one we should choose? How would you answer that?

    I know that you don’t think that God in fact is portrayed as a liar on the old earth view, but what would you think IF you assumed that scenario? The question is important because it helps to explore where the real contest in the YEC vs. old earth arguments is. Is the debate primarily scientific, or primarily theological? On which hinge does the debate turn, ultimately?


    • Thanks Mark, I appreciate your feedback. I want to answer your question in parts.

      First of all, no, I don’t think it is possible that the YEC version of Earth history left the traits that we find today in the rocks (whether Grand Canyon or elsewhere). I don’t deem it even a remote possibility, and not because I am close-minded—their hypotheticals are simply contrary to fact altogether. One point I tried to hint at in this article is that speculations in Flood geology are never consistent. Attempts to explain, for example, how the canyon’s layers were deposited rapidly contradict what must be assumed to explain certain details within those layers—e.g. karst sinkholes and caves, footprints, sand dunes, mudcracks, and ripples. What seems remotely plausible in detail thus falls apart with the big picture.

      Secondly, I would lean toward the position that did not make God out to be a liar. However, your hypothetical assumes that we can obtain historical (geological) information from both rocks and the pages of Scripture with equal precision and confidence. You know well that as much as I appreciate the occasional postmodern critique, I am neither a relativist nor a pessimist when it comes to recovering meaning from literature. Nonetheless, whatever information we gain from Scripture passes through an interpretive lens that simply cannot rival the precision and testability of scientific inquiry on certain topics (conversely, scientific inquiry is relatively powerless on theological matters). What I mean by this is that you can never know with sufficient confidence/precision how stories like Genesis 6–9 relate to Earth history, to the point that your exegetical conclusions may reasonably preclude scientific ones. We can debate endlessly what the author had in mind when he described the famous flood, but we cannot test those interpretations in the manner that we test geological reconstructions of, say, the history of Grand Canyon. That is not to say that “science trumps scripture” in the sense feared by many evangelicals. Rather, it is to say that where Scripture perhaps speaks imaginatively with ambiguity, nature has spoken plainly and directly.

      Even a surface-level study of Genesis 6-9 reveals an intentional literary parallel to both the creation narrative (itself semi-poetic and semi-mythic) and the Exodus narrative (40 days vs. 40 years, warning of a plague/judgement, a large wooden structure amid the wilderness, a chosen people saved through a flood, an ark made of ‘wood from the meadow’). Yes, I know, those literary elements don’t immediately rule out the flood as a true historical referent. But it does tell us that whatever historical value the story contains has been laced with rich theological language and narrative rhetoric, which makes it impossible (especially given the current cultural/linguistic gaps) to demarcate perfectly between the two. In my opinion, this is an imprudent task, however irresistible to ‘freethinkers’ like you and me. 😉

      So, I think we can more plausibly reverse your hypothetical. Assuming that God is there and has spoken through Scripture, we have two options for reading that word: one seems obvious to you and many others, but makes God out to be a liar (because what he said never really happened, according to the rocks); the other reading seems unlikely to you, but is at least a remote possibility, given the imprecision of literary exegesis. More importantly, it is consistent with what is recorded (infallibly, I might add) beneath your feet.


  3. If these YECs (and Tas Walker and Paul Garner etc) merely said the canyon was formed much as it is now by God in ‘Creation Week’ they could not ‘refute’ conventional ‘long ages’ geology. Which of course is the real motivation for these ‘Bible apologetics’. To defeat ‘bad’ science.


  4. Good stuff. I like where you went with this. I use to be a YEC, but I have left that sect behind in favor of progressive creationism. I did this because of all the evidence that I had learn about over my years in my college studies. I also have a blog that is linked to my twitter. God bless and keep up the good work.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Pingback: Really Recommended Posts 3/13/15- Fantasy, Feminism, and Formations, OH MY! | J.W. Wartick -"Always Have a Reason"·

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