THE PLASTIC WORLD AND THE BIBLE
In 1859 Charles Darwin exploded a bomb that rocked the established institutions of science and religion, forcing them to rebuild on new foundations. A hundred years later a similar discovery was made, the impact of which is only gradually being felt by these same systems. It is likely that the reason for the relatively mild shock that this new idea is causing to Bible scholars is the modern readiness to accept scientific authority on its record of proven trustworthiness.
The issue in question is geology and the Bible; and the new discovery is continental drift. Otherwise known as plate tectonics, this theory postulates movements of segments of the earth’s crust on a scale far beyond that of localized tremors. Whole continents are in motion, rolling along like juggernauts on massive treadmills of magma (molten layers beneath the crust). As they crunch and grind over resisting masses of ocean floor, mankind feels the occasional effects as his buildings and bridges collapse and his towns are obliterated by lava spurting up through the cracked surface or tsunamis rolling over sea-coast settlements.
The momentous discovery of continental drift came about as a part of the combined efforts of American and Russian scientists to map the ocean floor during the International Geophysical Year of 1957-1958 (prolonged into 1959). It was noted that a ridge down the middle of the Atlantic exactly matched the contours of the adjacent land masses, and the conclusion was reached that the present Atlantic shorelines had once been joined along that middle ridge. Other investigations since that time have confirmed the theory with respect to the remaining continental areas.
Geologists are generally agreed that the great land masses of the earth were once joined into one huge supercontinent, designated as Pangea - meaning “All Earth.” Pangea was made up of two massive areas, Laurasia (North America joined to Eurasia) in the North and Gondwana (the unified bulk of all the southern continents) in the South. About 200 million years ago, Pangea began to break apart like a giant jigsaw puzzle. This was during the age of the dinosaurs, a time noted for its intense volcanic activity. The split-up of Pangea continues to the present day. It is estimated that South America is moving away from Africa at a rate equivalent to “the length of one’s body in a lifetime.”
Many startling and significant conclusions may be drawn from this new information.
• The old terra firma concept is now definitely obsolete. Whereas the ancients believed in a stationary earth, it is now known that our planet exhibits all kinds of motion - rotational, orbital, and facial (surface plasticity).
• The rate of drift of the continents from their point of conjuntion is conclusive proof that the earth is very old. Dating the creation at 4004 B.C. with Archbishop Ussher or at 3761 B.C.E. with the Jewish calendar is no longer defensible.
• The Jordan River rift and the Red Sea were formed when Arabia was partially wrenched away from its connection with Africa. This accounted for the rugged and dramatic topography of the Holy Land - with extremes typified by the heights of Mount Hermon and the depths of the Dead Sea. This country continued throughout Bible history to display a violent geological temperament - as when Sodom was destroyed, the walls of Jericho shaken down, and the Jordan River blocked off. The ground vapor mistaken for Samuel’s ghost in the cave at Endor was another likely consequence. This region remains today a site of potential upheaval; hence, the prophets’ ominous warnings that hills will fall, valleys be elevated, and seas flee away, as earthquakes continue to the end of time.
• The fabled “lost continent” of Atlantis never existed; there is no room to fit it into the cosmic jigsaw puzzle of the Atlantic seafloor. An alternate and very satisfactory theory has been recently advanced to solve the identity of Atlantis: it was the civilization destroyed by the volcanic explosion of the island of Thera (now Santorini). This catastrophe obliterated the Minoan culture of Crete about 1380 B.C. and may have also accounted for some of the unusual phenomena of the Exodus (the pillar of fire, darkness at noon, the parting of the sea, etc.)
• India was once a part of Africa, but it broke away and collided with Asia, thereby pushing up the Himalayas, the tallest mountains in the world. Africa also bumped into Eurasia and pushed up the Alps and Caucasian chains - which were barriers to the southward migrations of northern barbarians - invasions of the feared hordes of Gog and Magog in the Bible.
• The deep trenches of the ocean floor are now seen to be conjunctions of sections that are folding under (“subducting”) in treadmill fashion. Korah and his fellow rebels were said to have been swallowed up alive “into Sheol” by falling into a ground fissure in the Sinai desert. But rift fractures on land or sea are not apertures of hell or bottomless pits as was formerly imagined.
• Antarctica shared common boundaries with all the southern continents and once supported a common flora and fauna with the others. The presence of the fossils of one particular lizard-like dinosaur in India, Africa, and Antarctica demonstrates that the three were once joined.
On the vast scale of time it was but yesterday that Columbus shook the flat earth concept and that Magellan sailed around a new “global” earth. For most of his tenure on earth, man has held with a world of “corners” and “pillars” and “vaults.” He postulated a cosmic edifice erected by the divine Architect, “stablished” (having static stability) and founded on “cornerstones.” (“And I saw the cornerstone of the earth; I saw the four winds which bear the firmament of heaven” 1 Enoch 18:2.) It was a terra firma surmounted by a shell-like firmament, a fixed structure immovable except by the hand of God (in a violent theophany) or the thrashings of the cosmic subterranean dragon Tehom-Leviathan. Earth was the middle stratum (cf. Norse Mid-gard) of a tri-level universe, and it served as the lid on the Abyss. (Note that a bottomless pit is a literal impossibility with a spherical Earth.)
The medieval world, which treated the Bible as an infallible book of natural science, wore blinders of faith when looking at life. Therefore, to them the earth was a flat disc floating on the cosmic ocean. Scholars were idealists, presenting to their students a flawless cosmology, created perfect by God. It was marred, to be sure, by the sin of Adam except in the still-pure heavens. Accordingly, ecclesiastics were scandalized by the pock-marked face of the moon and the spots on the sun when they first viewed them through Galileo’s telescope.
The science of cartography was little known. Maps depicted an ideal world without any qualms that these charts did not accurately reflect the true layout of the land regions. Such maps remained in use until the eleventh century period of the Crusades and the age of exploration. At that time more accurate and realistic navigational aids were required.
The idealized picture of Earth first seen in Genesis was that of a pancake world having Eden at its center and quartered by the four cosmic rivers. Later, Jerusalem assumed the central position (the “navel”) of Earth, and Eden was relocated to the eastern horizon or elevated to the skies as a heavenly Paradise. The blue crystal “pavement” or “sea” of sky was supported by pillars set upon four mountainous extremities of the Earth-island - the Atlas, the Alps, the Zagros, and the Caucasians. The earth disc was itself supported by pillars atop the Abyss and surrounded by the primordial ocean. Several Bible passages describe the primitive cosmology of those times.
The Earth is laid upon water: Psalm 24:1-2, 136:6.
The Earth is set on pillars or a foundation: Job 9:6, Psalm 75:3, 102:25, 104:5, 1 Samuel 2:8, Jeremiah 31:37.
The Earth is flat: Job 11:9, Psalm 65:8.
The Earth has four corners: Isaiah 11:12.
Heaven has four corners: Jeremiah 49:36, Isaiah 13:5.
Heaven is set on pillars: Job 26:11, Psalm 104:2.
The Firmament is like crystal, glass, or a pavement of lapis lazuli: Exodus 24:10, Job 37:18, Ezekiel 1:22, Revelation 4:6.
Palestine is located at the center of the Earth: Ezekiel 38:12.
Since the Bible’s writers believed in terrestrial stability, earthquakes were perceived as instances in which the immovable moved. Such motion was understood to be portentious, even an indication that the end of the world might be imminent.
Taking their cue from scriptural earthquake predictions, many modern adventist sects go to great pains to show that seismic activity is becoming more frequent in these “latter days.” But now that the new light of continental drift has been manifested, one can see that earthquakes are not likely to increase or intensify. They have lost much of their mystery and now fall into the realm of scientifically predictable phenomena. Earth tremors and volcanoes are now assignable to specific “hot spots” on the earth’s surface, and the reason for their occurrence at these locations is apparent. Who knows but what God’s command that man should subdue the earth and have dominion over it (Genesis 1:28) might one day apply to controlling its spasms?
At first glance there seem to be some passages in the Bible that provide confirmation of continental drift. These are the scriptural declarations that the islands will one day “flee” from the wrath of God (Revelation 6:14, 16:20). But these sayings are more likely reflections of a misconception that islands were afloat upon the seas. Their “fleeing” would be a rapid drifting in this case, as though they were ships under sail, not just the gradual displacement connected with the spreading action of the ocean floor.
Nevertheless, the islands are in flight. After fifty million years, California west of the San Andreas fault will have fragmented into an island located offshore of Canada and sliding along in a northwesterly direction. The Afar Triangle of East Africa will have broken off and blocked the entrance to the Red Sea, turning it into a great salt lake. Australia will have drifted northward to the equator. The Hawaiian Islands will be migrating westward and away from their “hot spot” location, and in their original place new volcanic islands will form. The global map will continue to reflect a ceaseless mobility.
Since this American continent is moving westward, concentration of greatest seismic activity will persist on its leading edge, the mis-named “Pacific” coast. That region will continue to be rugged, scarred with buckles and faults, undergoing upheavals and fractures. As to the trailing edge of the continent, its seismic activity will remain in the realm of the negligible. Its offshore reefs will continue to slowly fill in more land bulk. Florida and its environs will be slowly elevated by compressional uplift of the substrata over which the continent passes, and the Caribbean Sea will, therefore, dwindle in size.
Continental drift is the most amazing and exciting geological revelation of the twentieth century, and its implications are phenomenal. The principles of plate tectonics will continue to provide science, philosophy, and religion with new insights and applications, as, once more, perceptive men will stand in awe at the wonders of God’s creation.
The time is far past when science must tremble before religion; and this is right, since God is the Author of both. But just supposing that there were a repetition of the persecution that Galileo experienced - except this time for his believing in continental drift - how appropriate his words would be in this case also. When forced to recant his belief that the earth orbited the sun, he muttered under his breath, “Ippur si muovo” (“Nevertheless, it moves.”). Yes, in a way that Galileo could not have imagined, it does move indeed!
Richard L. Atkins
THE GEOLOGICAL RECORD OF CONTINENTAL DRIFT
In the Ordovician geological age, 450 million years ago, North Africa was located at the South Pole. North America was located at the equator. They were six thousand miles apart, but drifting together. Life forms at that time were trilobites, armored fish, seaweeds, and algæ.
In the Devonian geological age, 400 million years ago, North America impacted Africa, causing the formation of the Appalachian Mountains. Life forms at that time were fishes, small amphibians, and ammonites.
In the Carboniferous geological age, 330 million years ago, Europe impacted Asia, causing the formation of the Ural Mountains. For the next 130 million years, all major continents were combined into the landmass called Pangea. Life forms at that time were large crustaceans, winged insects, and land plants.
In the Triassic geological age, 200 million years ago, Pangea started to break up. There was much volcanic activity. Life forms at that time were dinosaurs, small mammals, and conifers.
In the Jurassic geological age, 130 million years ago, North and South America began to separate from Africa. Life forms at that time included dinosaurs (becoming extinct) and archæopterix.
In the Cretaceous geological age, 90 million years ago, North America separated from Europe. Life forms at that time were flowering plants.
In the Paleocene geological age, 70 million years ago, Australia separated from Antarctica. Life forms at that time were dominated by mammals.
In the Eocene geological age, 40 million years ago, India impacted Asia, causing the formation of the Himalaya Mountains. Life forms included true birds.
In the Pliocene geological age, 4 million years ago, Baja California separated from Mexico, the beginning of the San Andreas fault. Life forms included tool-using prehumans called Australopithecus.