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.


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

called anthracite.

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

geological time.

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

creationist perspective.

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.


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

(Genesis 6:5-7).

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:

Creation-Life Publishers).

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.

Keating), 2:449-456.

`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).

Apologetics Press

230 Landmark Drive

Montgomery, AL 36117-2752


Index - Evolution or Creation

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