If someone asks you any question about geology and your answer includes the phrase “plate tectonics,” you have a fairly good chance of being correct or at least on track to the right answer. Plate tectonic theory provides an explanation for the formation of volcanic and granitic rocks. It explains why mountains occur in some places and depressions in others; why the continents are above sea level and the ocean floor is below sea level. The theory also explains earthquakes as the sudden jerking of two plates slipping past each other.
To understand how plate tectonics relate to the Bible, this chapter first describes basic plate tectonic theory and the evidence for it. Geographic examples connect the theory to well-known earth features and demonstrate its all-encompassing applicability. Next, plate tectonic theory is related to the Bible, by considering the history of the theory, Bible geography, and God’s action in the world. Then plate tectonics issues are presented under the headings of scientific revolution, theodicy and catastrophe, time, pre-fossiliferous rocks, and heat dissipation. The conclusion recognizes that much about plate tectonics is unknown because of our finite human understanding.
Plate Tectonic Theory
Plates and Their Movement. Plate tectonics involves more than just the splitting of a supercontinent (commonly referred to as Pangaea); it is the motion of all the continents and “sub-continents” in various changing directions. The earth is made up of seven major plates: six roughly equivalent to the six continents and the seventh encompassing much of the Pacific Ocean. Important smaller plates alluded to in this article include the Arabian, Indian, Philippine, and Caribbean Plates, and the Juan de Fuca, Cocos, and Nazca Plates along the east side of the Pacific Plate.
Most geologic activity of interest to researchers occurs at plate boundaries where two plates move apart (diverge), together (converge), or past each other (transform). At divergent spreading centers such as the inactive East African Rift and the active Mid-Atlantic Ridge, new crustal material is formed (e.g., Surtsey, the volcanic island south of Iceland formed in 1963). At convergent subduction zones, mountains are formed, such as the Andes, Alps, and Sierra Nevadas, Himalayas, and volcanic islands such as the Aleutians and Japan. At a transform boundary, two plates move past each other, such as at the San Andreas Fault in California and at the fault along the Jordan River Valley.
In addition to activity at plate boundaries, in some places hot magma from the earth’s mantle ascends as a plume in plate interiors to heat the crust and produce volcanoes. Such a stationary hot spot under the moving Pacific Plate yielded the string of Hawaiian volcanoes and another under North America produced volcanism across Idaho, culminating in present day activity in Yellowstone.
Differentiation. According to theory, plate tectonic processes began in a homogeneous early earth. Magma welled up at early spreading centers, forming new oceanic crust. Volcanic and granitic rock was forged at subduction zones, making new continental crust. As material in the earth’s interior partially melted, rose to the surface in magma form, then crystallized, the earth’s elements differentiated into lighter minerals at the surface and heavier ones in the interior. Several cycles of this process yielded the less dense mountains and continents above sea level and the denser ocean basins below sea level, since crustal rock of lower density “floats” higher on the earth’s “liquid” interior.
Mechanisms. Three mechanisms have been suggested as causing plate tectonic motion: 1) plates are pushed apart as magma from the earth’s mantle rises at the spreading centers to form new crust; 2) plates are pulled together as old crust is dragged back down into the mantle at subduction zones; and, 3) crustal plates are carried along in “conveyor belt fashion” on top of convection cells that are in the plastic mantle of the earth’s interior. The actual cause of plate tectonic motion is probably some combination of all three mechanisms.
Evidence. Evidence for plate tectonic theory comes from differing geochemical data in the earth’s crust, mantle, and core, as well as from geophysical data (e.g., seismic waves, heat flow rates, gravity variations, and the earth’s magnetic field). Earthquakes provide the most direct evidence for plate motion. Less dramatic evidence comes from highly accurate GPS stations located on the various continents that indicate relative plate motions of 20-200 mm/year. Early evidence for plate motion came from maps showing similar contours of the Old and New World continents, suggesting that they once fit together like a puzzle. In some locations, confirmation was provided by similar rocks and fossils located in matching regions of separated continents.
In the 1960s, ocean crust patterns provided compelling evidence leading to near-universal acceptance of plate tectonic theory. The radiometric ages and alternating magnetic patterns of the Atlantic Ocean floor seemed to be arranged symmetrically on both sides of the Mid-Atlantic Ridge. Plate tectonic theory provided a succinct explanation for this: oceanic crust was continuously formed as magma moved up, cooled and solidified, and then was pushed away from the spreading center in both directions. When the magma solidified, the iron-bearing minerals in it were frozen in alignment with the earth’s magnetic field at the time. As the direction of the earth’s magnetic field alternated between north and south, normal and reverse magnetic polarity directions were symmetrically frozen into the oceanic crust.
Plate Tectonics and the Bible
Science from the Bible. Theologians suggested early plate tectonic ideas related to the Bible. In 1668, French cleric François Placet suggested that “before the deluge America was not separated from the other parts of the earth.” In the 1700s, German theologian Theodor Christoph Lilienthal suggested a separation of land by water based on an exegesis of 1 Chron. 1:19 (or Gen. 11:25); however, if one associates plate tectonics with Noah’s flood, the separation would have happened sooner than indicated in these verses. In 1858, French geographer Antonio Snider-Pellegrini noted the parallelism of opposing shores of the Atlantic Ocean and inferred that an originally continuous landmass had been split to form the Atlantic at the time of Noah’s Flood.1
Bible Geography. Important geographical features described in the Bible are the result of plate tectonic activity. Mt. Sinai is made up of Precambrian granite emplaced before most fossils were buried. The island of Patmos is a recent volcanic formation, created as the African Plate subducted beneath the Eurasian Plate. Mt. Hermon, the Sea of Galilee, the Jordan River, the Dead Sea, and the Gulf of Aqaba are located on a north-south transform fault where earthquakes frequently occur as the Arabian plate slips past the African plate. Parts of Galilee and the area east of the Dead Sea are covered with black volcanic basalt produced at the boundary between these two plates. These plates are pushed together at a bend in the transform fault to form Mt. Hermon and are pulled apart in another place to form the Dead Sea depression. In the Red Sea, the plates are actually diverging at a spreading zone.
God’s Action. The Bible refers to plate tectonic activity when it describes earthquakes and volcanoes, and in some cases, Scriptures indicate that these phenomena are directly caused by God. He apparently caused the earthquake that resulted in the swallowing up of Korah and company (Num. 16:31,32). Other earthquakes implying divine origin occurred during Jonathan’s attack on the garrison in Gibeah (1 Sam. 14:15), while Elijah was at Horeb (1 Kings 19:11), at Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection (Matt. 27:51; 28:2), and when Paul was in prison at Philippi (Acts 16:26).
More indirectly, the Old Testament mentions an earthquake that occurred in the days of King Uzziah (Amos 1:1; Zech. 14:5). Other references to the earth moving are more general (Job 9:6; Ps. 18:7; 46:2,3; Jer. 4:24), are the result of judgment (Ps. 60:2; Is. 13:13,14; 24:19,20; 29:6), or are prophecies (Ez. 38:19; Zech. 14:4; Matt 24:7; Mark 13:8; Luke 21:11; Rev. 11:19).
Indications of God causing mountains to burn, melt, flow, or smoke may be references to volcanoes (Ps. 97:5; 144:5; Is. 34:9,10; 64:1-3; Jer. 51:25). In the future, the elements will melt with fervent heat (2 Pet. 3:10) and a lake of fire will be used in judgment (Rev. 19:20; 20:10,14,15; 21:8). When God descended upon Mt. Sinai, it both quaked (Ex. 19:18; Ps. 68:8; 77:18; 114:4-7; Heb. 12:26) and burned (Deut. 4:11; 5:23; Judges 5:5). Other texts refer to both earthquake and volcanic type activity occurring at God’s presence (Ps. 104:32; Mic. 1:4; Nah. 1:5,6).
Issues in Plate Tectonics
A Scientific Revolution. Plate tectonics provides a classic example of a scientific revolution — a major change in paradigm as new data becomes available. Alfred Wegener’s ideas about continental drift in the 1920s were derided because he provided no mechanism for the continents to drift through the ocean floor like a ship plowing through an ice pack. Not until the 1960s were his ideas resurrected, albeit in a slightly different form, based on new data from the ocean floor. Now most every explanation in geology is connected in some way to the paradigm of plate tectonics. The new plate tectonic model incorporated much from previous geology theory, but the data are now set in a new framework. This exemplifies how an earth history model has changed in major ways and indicates that significant changes will no doubt occur in the years to come.
Theodicy and Catastrophe. The Bible recognizes the cyclical uniformity of natural law (Eccl. 1:4-7), but also warns of catastrophes. The 8.7 magnitude Lisbon earthquake of November 1755 was due to African Plate subduction beneath the Eurasian Plate. It triggered a 5-10 meter high tsunami and killed 60,000 people. This led to questions about God’s responsibility for evil, exemplified by Voltaire’s book, Candide. The 9.1 magnitude Banda Aceh earthquake and resulting tsunami of December 2004 due to subduction of the Australian Plate beneath the Eurasian Plate killed more than 150,000 people. More recent examples are the 7.0 magnitude Haiti earthquake of January 2010 (from the Caribbean Plate moving past the North American plate) and the 8.8 magnitude Chilean earthquake of February 2010 (from the Nazca Plate subducting under the South American Plate). Examples of volcanic catastrophes include the destruction of Pompeii by Vesuvius (at the boundary between African and Eurasian Plates) and the 1980 eruption of Mt. St. Helens (from the Juan de Fuca Plate subducting beneath the North American Plate).
Time. At the current rate of about 25 mm./year, the separation of the Old and New World to their present positions would take about 200 million years. To model rates of plate motion, in the 1980s, John Baumgardner used a Cray supercomputer at the Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico, USA to write a Fortran computer program called Terra. Results from using standard parameters in the equations for his model have been reported in the scientific literature.2 Baumgardner also used significantly different parameters to develop a catastrophic plate tectonic (CPT) model in collaboration with others.3
The CPT model begins with the breakup of a single supercontinent, Pangaea. The edges of Pangaea then sink into the mantle at ever faster rates due to a mutually accelerating increase in heating and weakening of the mantle. This runaway subduction induces rapid reversals of the earth’s magnetic field, causes volcanic fissure eruptions, jettisons steam into the atmosphere that results in global rain, and raises the ocean floor displacing water onto the continents. The CPT model has been reported in U.S. News & World Report, with the summative statement, “Indeed, there is universal agreement that Terra, created to prove the Bible literally true, is one of the most useful and powerful geological tools in existence.”4
It must be noted that this CPT model has several scientific difficulties. First, postulating rapid reversals in the whole earth’s magnetic field is problematic. Evidence is available for some rapid local changes in magnetic field,5 but explanations for rapid global changes are remain hypothetical.6
Pre-fossiliferous Rocks. The second problem with the CPT model is that it begins with the uni-directional rifting of Pangaea in the middle of the fossiliferous (fossil-containing) Phanerozoic part of the geologic column. The model does not address the evidence for multi-directional plate motion in the early Phanerozoic part of the geologic record, nor in the even earlier non-fossiliferous Precambrian part. The evidence suggests that the plates moved back and forth in what are termed “Wilson cycles” rather than in just one direction7, and that most of the continental land masses were formed by plate tectonic activity during the Precambrian.
Heat. Third, for the plates to move nine orders of magnitude faster (i.e., in 2 months instead of 200 million years), the mantle viscosity (resistance to flow) must be a billion times smaller than at present. Since viscosity varies exponentially with temperature, this decreased viscosity would be possible only if the mantle temperature were hundreds of degrees greater than at present; however, the higher temperatures would be expected to yield different types of rocks.
Fourth, and perhaps most problematic, heat from all the magma must be dissipated quickly — again, about a billion times faster than at present. This difficulty has been noted from the standard scientific perspective,8 as well as by Baumgardner himself.9 His response is: “the Flood catastrophe cannot be understood or modeled in terms of time-invariant laws of nature. Intervention by God in the natural order during and after the catastrophe appears to be a logical necessity. Manifestations of the intervention appear to include … a loss of thermal energy afterward.”
The pros and cons of the CPT model have been debated in the creationist literature by Baumgardner and Oard.10 Walter Brown has hypothesized an alternative theory, which suggeststhat the pre-flood earth’s crust was ruptured by the considerable amount of water under it. The escaping water covered the earth and the broken pieces of crust formed hydroplates that rapidly slid to the location of what are now the continents.11 Sam Carey’s much older expanding-earth model has also been analyzed for its merits and problems.12 My conclusion is that plate tectonic theory seems to be well-founded, but the science does not fit easily with a recent one-year flood.
As is the case in many other areas of human investigation, when we study origins issues, we must trust the details to an all-wise God, since His “foolishness” is greater than our wisdom (1 Cor 1:25ff). God has a thousand means at his disposal to bring about things of which we know nothing — with God all things are possible (Matt. 19:26; Luke 18:27). Scientists can continue to ask questions, but like Job, must continue fully to trust God in the process (see Job 13:15).
- 1J. Romm. (1994). “A new forerunner for continental drift.” Nature 367: 407-408.
- 2H-P. Bunge, M. Richards, C. Lithgow-Bertelloni, J. Baumgardner, S. Grand, and B. Romanowicz. (1998). “Time scales and heterogeneous structure in geodynamic earth models.” Science 280: 91-95.
- 3S. Austin, J. Baumgardner, D. Humphreys, A. Snelling, L. Vardiman, and K. Wise. (1994). Catastrophic plate tectonics: a global flood model of earth history. Proceedings of the third International Conference on Creationism. R. Walsh. Pittsburgh, PA, Creation Science Fellowship: 609-621; Answers in Genesis-USA . (2006). Putting the puzzle pieces together: global tectonics and the flood [DVD].
- 4C. Burr. (1997). “The geophysics of God: a scientist embraces plate tectonics — and Noah’s flood.” U. S. News & World Report 122(23): 55-58.
- 5R. Coe, M. Prévot, and P. Camps. (1995). “New evidence for extraordinarily rapid change of the geomagnetic field during a reversal.” Nature 374: 687-692.
- 6D. Humphreys. (1990). Physical mechanism for reversals of the earth’s magnetic field during the flood. Proceedings of the second International Conference on Creationism. R. Walsh and C. Brooks. Pittsburgh, PA, Creation Science Fellowship. 2: 129-142.
- 8R. Barnes. (1980). “Thermal consequences of a short time scale for sea-floor spreading.” J. Amer. Sci. Affil. 32(2): 123-125.
- 9J. Baumgardner. (1986). Numerical simulation of the large-scale tectonic changes accompanying the flood. Proceedings of the first International Conference on Creationism. R. Walsh, C. Brooks and R. Crowell. Pittsburgh, PA, Creation Science Fellowship. 2: 17-30.
- 10J. Baumgardner and M. Oard. (2002). “Forum on catastrophic plate tectonics.” TJ 16(1): 57-85.
- 11W. Brown, Jr (2001). In the beginning: compelling evidence for creation and the flood. Phoenix, AZ, Center for Scientific Creation.
- 12B. Mundy. (1988). “Expanding earth?” Origins 15(2): 53-69.
Chapter taken from: Understanding Creation: Answers to questions on faith and science by L. James Gibson and Humberto M. Rasi.