GENESIS, AND THE ORIGIN OF COAL
by Trevor J. Major, M.Sc.
Two hundred years ago, James Hutton suggested that the "present is
the key to the past." He believed that the geological features we see
on Earth today must be accounted for by the geological processes we see
working today. If these processes worked as slow in the past as they
seem to work in the present, Hutton reasoned, then the geological
record of the rocks must have taken millions of years to form. Hutton
completely rejected the idea that God, or any other supernatural agent,
had "interfered" with the natural operation of the Universe. His idea,
also known as uniformitarianism, left no room for a global, divinely-
caused catastrophe such as the Genesis Flood.
However, Hutton's theory was not widely accepted until, fifty years
later, Sir Charles Lyell succeeded in making uniformitarianism the
dominating interpretative framework of geology. Lyell also influenced
Charles Darwin to apply the same sort of thinking in biological
Today, numerous geologists are willing to allow for regional or
even global catastrophes (e.g., the controversial mass extinction at
the Cretaceous-Tertiary boundary). Still, to suggest that coal---the
subject of this article---could form rapidly and recently would meet
with little enthusiasm, to say the least.
The usual uniformitarian explanation is that coal was made millions
of years ago by the gradual accumulation and burial of plant remains.
This assumes, in accordance with Hutton's views, that if the rate of
coal formation is imperceptibly slow today, then it must have taken
long periods of time to create existing supplies of coal. Indeed, coal
is classed as a `nonrenewable resource' because its present rate of
formation is far less than its rate of consumption.
Given the great influence of energy supplies on our everyday lives,
it is not surprising that we should want to know more about these
important resources. We might ask, "When, and how, was coal made?"
However, the answers we receive often challenge our faith in the truth
of God's Word. The purpose of this article is to show that the
existence of coal confirms, rather than contradicts, the Genesis record
of the Creation and the Flood.
ORIGIN OF COAL
According to the standard uniformitarian theory, coal formation
begins in a swamp (Figure 1). In this water-saturated environment, dead
mosses, leaves, twigs, and other parts of trees do not decompose
completely. Instead, this plant matter goes to form a layer of peat.
At various intervals, the swamp may be covered by sand and mud when a
river floods, or when ocean levels rise. Under the weight of these
sediments, the peat may lose some of its water and gases, eventually
turning into a soft, brown coal called lignite. With increasing
pressures or temperatures, more water and gases are driven off forming
the common bituminous family of coals. Finally, high temperatures and
pressures may cause bituminous coal to turn into a hard, black coal
The type or rank of coal is thought to depend more on depth of
burial than time. For example, it is possible to find lignite and
bituminous coals which seem to have formed at the same time, but in
different places. Thus, high rank does not necessarily indicate old
Problems with the Uniformitarian Model
The standard model of coal formation faces a number of problems.
The following list provides a summary of some of those problems.
First, the transitional sequence from peat to anthracite does not
exist. For example, you cannot drill below a modern swamp and find peat
turning into lignite. Normally, deposits consist of peat, or lignite,
or bituminous, or anthracite coals, and do not show vertical gradations
from one rank into another. This writer knows of a case where peat
swamps lie over rocks containing sub-bituminous coal fields (Waikato,
New Zealand). However, in the evolutionary scheme of time, the coal
preceded the peat by 50 million years (Schofield, 1978, 2:449), and the
two deposits are related by nothing more than geography.
Second, there is a problem with the proportions of coal deposits
found on the Earth today. Theoretically, it takes 10 feet of plant
matter to form one foot of peat, and 12 feet of peat to form one foot
of coal (see Morton, 1984, p 215). Based on these figures, a coal seam
10 feet thick would require 1,200 feet of plant matter, and a 200 feet
thick seam would require 24,000 feet of plant matter! A geologist
holding to the conventional model would respond that this peat
accumulated over long periods of time, given a suitable climate, a
productive ecosystem, and a continually subsiding basin. Nonetheless,
hundreds of feet of plant matter or peat are not collecting in swamps
today. Thus, we cannot explain coal formation if we maintain that the
"present is the key to the past." W.G. Woolnough (1971, p 6) stated,
Again, nowhere in the world, at present, can accumulations
of vegetable matter be found which are `quantitatively'
commensurate with any of the major coal deposits of past
Similarly, a single seam belonging to the Pennsylvanian coals of the
central and eastern parts of the United States covers an area of one
hundred thousand square miles (Nevins, 1976, p ii). There is no modern
analogy for such an extensive freshwater peat swamp.
Third, there is a problem with the type of plants and fossils found
within coal deposits. Many coal deposits contain fossils of animals
which lived in the sea. This might be acceptable if coals formed from
peat collecting in a marine swamp. However, as Nevins (1976, p i)
points out, anatomical studies of plant remains within coals suggest
that most coal-forming plants were adapted neither to marine nor swamp
environments. While some plants may have tolerated wet ground
conditions, many others required dry land (see Morton, 1984, p 216).
Fourth, there is a problem with the slow formation of coal over many
millions of years. Several lines of evidence are presented below:
* Vertical tree trunks within coal deposits suggest that they must
have been buried fairly quickly, otherwise the exposed portion of
the trunk would rot before preservation could take place (for
examples, see references in Morris, 1974, p 108).
* Coalified wood from uranium-rich rocks on the Colorado Plateau, and
from the Chattanooga Shale, contain radiohalos which may indicate
that the wood was turned into coal rapidly, and in relatively
recent times (Gentry, 1976). These radiohalos are microscopic,
spherical sites of alteration, and are thought to be caused by the
decay of radioactive particles deposited by water flowing through
the wood before it was transformed into coal. One unusual group of
halos created by the breakdown of uranium appears too young for the
age assigned by uniformitarian geology. Analyses of the halos
suggest that they are several thousand years old, not several
million years old.
Another group of radiohalos has an elliptical shape. It seems that
these halos---formed by the breakdown of polonium over a period of six
months to a year---were originally circular. Then, while the coalified
wood was still reasonably plastic, they were squashed by the pressure
of overlying sediments. Some of these halos are very unusual, however,
in that they are superimposed by a second, circular halo. Apparently,
about 20 years after the wood was compressed, the breakdown of an
unstable variety of lead caused another halo to form in the same place.
In Gentry's model, this means that the period of compression began, and
ended, within a few decades after burial under many feet of sediment.
Further, the very existence of these polonium halos may suggest a
rapid process of transforming wood into coal. Radiohalos would no more
be preserved in unaltered wood than a bubble of air would be preserved
in unset jelly. If the wood had not been turned into coal within a few
days (or few weeks at most), the polonium atoms would have broken down
before the evidence of their decay could be preserved.
Thus, Gentry has provided evidence which seems to show that this
wood, and the sediments in which it lies, were: (a) buried quickly and
in relatively recent times; and (b) transformed into coal and rock
quite rapidly. Also, because these radiohalos are found in coalified
wood from several different locations, and appear to have formed at the
same time, then a single, widespread, catastrophic event seems to be
responsible. As Gentry concludes, "This is exactly what would be
expected on the basis of a near simultaneous deposition of all the wood
at the time of the flood" (1986, p 58).
* Nevins (1976, p iv), Snelling and Mackay (1984), and Gentry (1986,
p 59) also refer to cases in which coal or coal constituents were
produced in the laboratory. Some of these experiments suggest that
coal can be formed in relatively short periods of time, and in the
sort of conditions predicted for the Flood.
In summary, evidences against the uniformitarian model of coal
formation, and evidences for a catastrophic interpretation, are as
follows: (1) the lack of gradation from one coal rank into another; (2)
the great quantity and extent of coal deposits; (3) the type of fossils
and plants associated with many coal deposits; and (4) the evidence for
the rapid and recent formation of coal in nature and in the laboratory.
The following section will outline an alternative model from the
A Flood Model
In his research on a Kentucky coal bed, Steven Austin (1979) found
evidence to indicate that many coal deposits did not form from the
gradual accumulation of peat in freshwater swamps---for many of the
reasons given in the previous section. In an alternative model, he
suggests that a raft of plant debris floating on top of a sea or lake
could sink, be buried, and then become transformed into coal. Thus, the
raw materials of coal did not collect in place, but were transported to
the site of deposition. This would explain the occurrence of marine
fossils and sediments in coal, and the size and composition of many
coal deposits. Austin, a creationist peviously writing under the pen
name of Stuart Nevins, would further suggest that the "log raft" model
is consistent with a catastrophic flood.
Possible support for Austin's model came in May, 1980 with the
eruption of Mt. St. Helens. Within a few minutes, a blast 500 times as
powerful as the Hiroshima bomb blew 1,500 feet off the side of the
mountain, flattening trees for 15 miles around, and sending ash more
than 60,000 feet up into the stratosphere and around the Earth
(`Science News', 1980, 117:324,355,366). Millions of these trees were
deposited in nearby Spirit Lake, forming a dense log mat over much of
the surface. Many logs with an attached root system were found floating
in an upright position, and an estimated 15,000 logs were partially
buried in the lake sediments. Hence, it is possible that upright tree
stumps found in many coal beds represent, not the remains of trees
growing in a peat swamp, but the effects of a flood or similar
Further, bark and branches from these logs fell to the bottom of
the lake forming a layer of peat. According to Austin (1986, p 9),
The Spirit Lake peat resembles, both compositionally
and texturally, certain coal beds of the eastern United
States which also are dominated by tree bark and appear
to have accumulated beneath floating log mats.... All
that is needed is burial and slight heating to transform
the Spirit Lake peat into coal.
Andrew Snelling and John Mackay (1984) have compared the findings
at Mt. St. Helens with two coal deposits in eastern Australia (the
Pilot Coal Seams, at Newcastle, New South Wales, and the Walloon Coal
Measures at Oakleigh, Queensland). They report the following: (a)
remains of pine forests which could not have grown over peat swamps;
(b) layers of coal and volcanic material arranged in a similar fashion
to the Spirit Lake deposit, including trees in apparent "growth
position"; and (c) possible evidence for the rapid transformation of
wood into coal.
Compared to the Genesis Flood, the Mt. St. Helens eruption was but
a minor disaster. Imagine, then, what might be achieved by the violence
of the waters and "fountains of the deep" which wreaked havoc across
the Earth in the days of Noah. Indeed, the evidence from many existing
coal deposits, the modern analogy from Spirit Lake, and the model from
Austin, all provide a way to explain coal in terms of a young Earth and
the Noahic Flood.
THE IMPORTANCE OF FOUNDATIONAL PRINCIPLES
One reaction to the uniformitarian challenge is to capitulate to
the naturalism of Hutton and Lyell, and thereby compromise or abandon a
conservative interpretation of Scripture (e.g., Young, 1982). Another
approach, while having good intentions, also fails to consider the
proper relationship of science and Divine Revelation. Specifically,
people have suggested to this writer that fossils, coal, and other
geological features look old because God made them that way. These
efforts to invoke God in discriminately wherever there is a gap in our
understanding about nature are bound both to cheapen God's Creation and
His Word. They are reminiscent of times past when fossils were thought
to be the work of the devil, or jokes, or freaks of nature, or failed
experimental attempts of the Creator (Matthews, 1962, p 146).
Yes, it is true that God created the world in a mature state---with
apparent age, as it were (see Major, 1989): that the trees were fully
formed and bearing fruit (Genesis 1:12); and that man and the animals
were able to go forth and multiply as God commanded them (Genesis
1:22,28). It is also true that God sent forth a Great Flood to destroy
all life on Earth "wherein is the breath of life" (Genesis 6:17). As
all land-dwelling animals were destroyed (Genesis 7:22), it is hardly
conceivable that plants remained untouched by the violence of the
raging waters. Rather, as we have just observed, these plants may have
become the source for much of the world's coal. To say "God just did
it," is to suggest that God may be deceiving man into thinking that
coal formed from the catastrophic burial of plant matter, when it
really wasn't. Further, to say "God just did it," is to deny that coal
offers remarkable evidence for His watery judgment of sinful man
Perhaps we can learn a lesson from Nicolaus Steno---a naturalist of
the seventeenth century with a special interest in geology. Steno is
often acclaimed as a man who was able to apply science in a rational
way, despite the supposed religious intolerance and ignorance with
which he was surrounded. Yet, a hundred years before James Hutton took
God out of geology, Steno happily interpreted the rocks of Tuscany in
terms of a recent Creation and the Flood of Noah. As far as Steno was
concerned, "nature supplements Scripture, or neither provides an
answer, but in no instance does nature suggest one thing and Scripture
another" (Lindberg and Numbers, 1986, p 146).
Steven A. Austin (1979), "Depositional Environment of the Kentucky No.
12 Coal Bed (Middle Pennsylvanian) of Western Kentucky, With Special
Reference to the Origin of Coal Lithotypes," Unpublished Ph.D.
dissertation (Pennsylvania State University).
Steven A. Austin (1986), "Mount St. Helens and Catastrophism,"
`Proceedings of the First International Conference on Creationism',
August 4-9, 1986, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania (Pittsburgh, PA: Creation
Science Fellowship), 1:3-9.
Robert V. Gentry, et al. (1974), "Radiohalos in Coalified Wood: New
Evidence Relating to the Time of Uranium Introduction and
Coalification," `Science', 194:315-318.
Robert V. Gentry (1986), `Creation's Tiny Mystery' (Knoxville, TN:
Earth Science Associates).
David C. Lindberg and Ronald L. Numbers (1986), `God & Nature'
(Berkeley, CA: University of California).
Trevor Major (1989), "Questions & Answers," `Bible-Science Newsletter',
William H. Matthews (1962), `Fossils' (New York: Barnes & Noble).
Henry M. Morris, ed. (1974), `Scientific Creationism' (San Diego, CA:
Glenn R. Morton (1984), "The Carbon Problem," `Creation Research
Society Quarterly', 20:212-219.
Stuart E. Nevins (1976), "The Origin of Coal," `Impact', No. 41.
Andrew Snelling and John Mackay (1984), "Coal, Volcanism, and Noah's
Flood," `Ex Nihilo Technical Journal', 1:11-29.
J.C. Schofield (1978), "The Late Mobile Phase: Tertiary; Stratigraphy:
Auckland, South Auckland, & Coromandel Range," `The Geology of New
Zealand', edited by R.P. Suggate (Wellington, New Zealand: E.C.
`Science News' (1980), "The Dark Side of Mt. St. Helens," 117:324.
`Science News' (1980), "In the Wake of Mt. St. Helens," 117:355,366.
W.G. Woolnough (1971), "Sedimentation in Barred Basins and Source Rocks
of Oil," `Origin of Evaporites', AAPG Reprint Series (Tulsa, OK:
American Assoc. of Petroleum Geologists). As quoted in Morton
Davis A. Young (1982), `Christianity and the Age of the Earth' (Grand
Rapids, MI: Zondervan).
230 Landmark Drive
Montgomery, AL 36117-2752
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