Monday, June 25, 2007


For the thousands of visitors to Grand Canyon National Park, the canyon is truly a “wonder to behold!” For those who have the opportunity to view the canyon from the Colorado River looking up, the word ‘Grand’ is an understatement.[1] Imagine what it must have been like to be the first to see the canyon while riding the rapids of the Colorado without any skills in whitewater navigation, in small wooden boats which modern day river runners have described as the technical equivalent of walnut shells. Worst of all, imagine undertaking such a journey without any knowledge of the course of the river. Major John Wesley Powell and his crew of nine men were the first to take up this epic challenge of exploring the Grand Canyon. Their journey began at noon on May 24, 1869 and ended three months later at the end of August, when six of the original party emerged from the canyon. Four men never completed the journey.
While the Powell expedition makes for an exciting and fascinating read, what is more important for the discerning Christian is Powell’s journey from a knowledge of Scripture which he acquired in a devout Christian home, to the belief that the biblical record was mythology.[2] His parents entertained hopes that their son, like his namesake, would become a preacher of the gospel. What led John Wesley Powell to abandon his Christian roots, and never return? The answer lies in Powell’s acceptance of the doctrine of uniformitarianism which was first proposed by James Hutton in 1795, and later expounded by Charles Lyell in Principles of Geology, written in 1830.[3] Shortly after Darwin’s On the Origin of the Species appeared in print Powell joined the ranks of the naturalists and “religion never again played a major role in defining his outlook of life.”[4] However, his departure from biblical truth was not without struggles. Edward Dolnick writes of Powell’s great intellectual challenge posed by his journey through the canyon: “The challenge was to accept the dizzying lesson the rock landscape proclaimed – in the immensity of time, water prevails over stone and shapes it as it pleases. It is not great feat to mouth the words, but believing them is another matter. To try to grasp the unfathomable stretches of time required for a tricking stream to carve a cathedral-sized cavern is a kind of intellectual vertigo. Geologists today call this time-induced dizziness rock-shock. The shock was all the more profound in an era when it was still commonly believed that the earth was a mere six thousand years old. But for Powell, the rebellious son of a minister who believed in the Bible’s literal truth, the notion of limitless time was a liberation rather than a consternation. It would become a central theme of his intellectual life and the great lesson he was to draw from the Grand Canyon”.[5]
Needless to say, those who still hold to the authority of the Bible don’t share in the excitement of Powell’s liberation. What came as rock-shock to Powell is not proof of the formation of the Grand Canyon, but proof of the significance of one’s presuppositions. Powell went into the canyon believing in billions of years and he interpreted what he saw in the geology of the canyon in light of that belief. He was correct that water prevails over rock, but never considered an alternative mechanism which could cause water to prevail over rock and form the grandest canyon of all – a catastrophic event.[6] Denying the supernatural power, and intervention of God in a worldwide judgment, Powell was left only with the science of his day as his guide. Dolnick writes: “Powell believed with all his heart that science was the only path to truth and that religion was a tangle of myth and obscufation.” [7] Worster said: “On the death of Darwin in 1882, Wes delivered a memorial address that may help to explain the abrupt shift in his youthful beliefs. “It remained for Darwin,” he said, “To demonstrate the laws of biologic evolution, and the course of the progress of life upon the globe." [8] Having been taught the word of God from infancy, I can only conclude that John Wesley Powell was “willingly ignorant” of the power that altered the history and landscape of the earth.[9] He accepted a worldview without God.
In 1902, at the age of sixty-eight, John Wesley Powell came to the end of another journey – his earthly life. There is no indication that he ever returned to his boyhood faith and his father’s belief in the record of Holy Scripture. But to deny the Scripture doesn’t change the truth it reveals. After his death, Powell experienced another rock-shock. He would be confronted with the reality that Jesus Christ was the creator and sustainer of all that exists, seen and unseen.[10] He is the “Rock of Salvation” for all who put their trust in Him for the forgiveness of their sins “… if thou shalt confess with thy mouth the Lord Jesus, and shalt believe in thine heart that God hath raised him from the dead, thou shalt be saved” (Romans 10:9). In his trip down the Colorado River Powell feared that he might be swept into the rapids and perish.[11] That fear never materialized. The same cannot be said about his step into eternity. The Bible say’s: “it is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God” (Hebrews 10:31). John Wesley Powell survived the perils of rafting through the Grand Canyon, he did not escape the judgment of God.
What lessons can be learned from the story of this adventurer’s life? 1) The Christian must beware of the implications of accepting the conclusions of science when they conflict with the clear teaching of Scripture. 2) Every Christian must be a discerning Christian. 3) Those who twist the Scripture to conform to science must be identified and refuted. 4) Every believer needs credible answers in the controversy over the age of the earth and other issues related to the creation-evolution debate. Ministries such as Answer in Genesis and Institute for Creation Research provide credible answers – reasons to continue to believe in the Divinely inspired Word of truth, the Holy Scripture.
God bless,
Pastor Tom

[1] The Grand Canyon is 277 miles long, up to 18 miles wide, and nearly a mile deep![2] Powell was named after the 18th century evangelist John Wesley. Powell’s father was a Methodist preacher who believed in the authority of God’s Word.[3] Uniformitarianism is the belief that geologic changes occur slowly over vast periods of time at the same rate we see today.
[4] Donald Worster, A River Running West: The Life of John Wesley Powell (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2001), p.66.[5] Edward Dolnick, Down the Great Unknown: John Wesley Powell’s 1869 Journey of Discovery and Tragedy Through the Grand Canyon (New York, NY: Harper Collins, 2001), p.198.[6] Noah’s flood. See Genesis chapters 6-9.[7] Dolnick, op.cit., 218[8] Worser, op.cit., 66[9] See 2 Peter 3:5-6[10] Colossians 1:16-17[11] "We are now ready to start on our way down the Great Unknown... We are three quarters of a mile in the depths of the earth... We have an unknown distance yet to run; and unknown river yet to explore. What falls there are, we know not; what rock beset the channel, we know not; what walls rise over the rive, we know not. Ah, well! We may conjecture many things. The men talk as cheerfully as ever; jests are bandied about freely this morning; but to me the cheer is somber and the jests are ghastly." - John Wesley Powell, August 13, 1869

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Hi Pastor Tom,

Thanks so much for your post - it was a joy and encouragement. Praise God for your faithfulness to His Word!

- mike kostura