The Role of Catastrophes in Scientific Thinking

The cathedral was crowded; this was All Saints’ Day! Unexpectedly, the building started shaking and the parishioners tried to rush out through the arched entrance. Others were trying to escape from another church located on one side of the cathedral, while buildings several stories high rose ominously on the other side. Suddenly, moments later, the fronts of the churches and accompanying buildings came crashing down towards each other and buried all the poor souls gathered there.[i]

This was the famous Lisbon, Portugal earthquake of November 1, 1755, that destroyed over half of the town and much beyond. Three major tsunamis followed and fires burning for five days contributed to further destruction. The earthquake’s magnitude has been estimated at 8.7 and some suggest that on that day as many as 90,000 to 100,000 people perished in Europe and Africa. Its effects were unusually widespread, being noted even in the Caribbean region, thus involving three continents. While a few other larger earthquakes have been reported, the Lisbon earthquake is likely the most significant, especially because of its profound philosophical implications on humanity’s thinking. It came at a very critical time in western thought. Where was God? How could a beneficent loving God, who had sent His Son to save humanity, allow such a tragic event?

There is an abundance of literature that addresses the apparent conflict between God’s goodness and the presence of evil in the universe (theodicy).[ii] Among the more prevailing resolutions is the suggestion that (1) suffering is necessary in order for us to develop a good character. Related to this is the idea that (2) calamities such as earthquakes teach us that the principle of cause and effect prevails, the universe is rational, and good and evil have their consequences. Still another dominant view is that (3) God grants freewill, and we are allowed to make wrong choices that can have bad consequences. True freedom requires that evil be permitted. Since God has granted freewill in the universe, He is not responsible for the evil brought about by those who cause suffering in a great conflict between good and evil. (4) Others suggest that “earthquakes don’t kill people, buildings do!” That statement is too often correct, since the mass mortality of earthquakes could be dramatically reduced if we would construct stronger buildings. (5) The Bible suggests that God is involved in some catastrophes like the great Genesis flood. A loving God’s involvement is explained because it “grieved”[iii] God to bring on the catastrophic Genesis Flood, and He did it to save as many as He could of a humanity that had become “only evil continually.”[iv] In that context, the horrendous Flood was primarily the result of humanity’s wickedness—the consequence of the freewill that God has granted. (6) Some suggest that God is not directly involved in many natural disasters. The frequent earthquakes we experience, including the one in Lisbon, occur as the earth adjusts imbalances. The worldwide Genesis Flood could have caused a lot of imbalance in the crust of the earth that is still adjusting even today. Considering how intricate reality is, it is likely that several explanations are valid.


FIGURE 1. Lava flowing on the island of Hawaii. Soon after this picture was taken, the tree in font of the flow suddenly burned up.

Catastrophes come in many forms and rates. One of the more exotic ones was the 1986 sudden release of a huge cloud of mainly carbon dioxide gas from Lake Nyos in Cameroon. The cloud replaced the air in the region, suffocating some 1700 people. Avalanches, landslides, hurricanes, and tornadoes (cyclones), occasionally take their toll. Likely, the most significant catastrophic agents are earthquakes, floods and volcanoes. One of my most memorable days was watching volcanic flows on the Island of Hawaii (Figure 1). I had never seen rocks form so fast! Lava pouring from fractures in India cover 500,000 square kilometers of the famous Deccan Volcanic Field, indicating widespread volcanic activity.[v] Water inundation tends to be very devastating. The greatest example is the Genesis Food that covered the whole world. Earthquakes can generate huge waves call tsunamis. In 2004, more than 250,000 perished in one day from a tsunami in southeast Asia.[vi] Waters behind the 100 meter high Teton Dam in Idaho eroded it down in less than two hours.[vii] Catastrophes like the Lisbon earthquake are commonly rapid events.

The degree of importance of catastrophes for the geologic history of the earth has been the basis of a long scientific controversy that involves deep time questions. Before the nineteenth century, in spite of the Enlightenment movement, most scientists[viii] believed the biblical account of beginnings, although there were some varied interpretations. The very dominant view was that there was a recent creation by God a few thousand years ago, followed by the catastrophic worldwide Genesis Flood. The abundant fossils, coming from the kind of organisms that live in the ocean, but that were so abundant in the high Alps of Europe, were interpreted as evidence of that astonishing Flood.


An earthquake like the one in Lisbon dramatically illustrates how rapidly some geologic changes can take place. However, just a few decades later, a few geologists were suggesting that things had gone on more slowly and for a much longer time than proposed by the biblical model of origins. In 1830 a seminal book appeared titled Principles of Geology. That book would lead to important changes not only in geological thinking, but for science in general. Written by Charles Lyell, it became very popular, running through 11 editions. One can get the gist of Lyell’s thinking from a letter he wrote to his colleague, the geologist Roderick Murchison. There he states that “no causes whatever have from the earliest time to which we can look back , to the present, ever acted but those now acting and … they never acted with different degrees of energy from that which they now exert.”[ix] The emphasis was on slow geologic changes over long geologic ages instead of rapid catastrophic changes.

Two major concepts came into conflict at this time. The traditional catastrophism view proposed that major catastrophes, usually of worldwide consequences, have been the primary agent in shaping the crust of the earth. A lot of time is not required. The new view, uniformitarianism, proposed that ordinary rates of change operating over very long periods of time, have been the important factors in forming the crust. Catastrophes are not important, but a very long time for slow changes is required. Catastrophism fits well with the Biblical model of origins, while uniformitarianism fits the model of slow development over eons of time. This new view blatantly challenged the truthfulness of the Bible. Was it not the true word of God? Much more than just geologic interpretations were at stake here.

At this same time, several geologists in England, some of whom had strongly supported the creation and Flood model of the Bible, started considering the need for long ages in the geologic layers. Also, as championed by Charles Darwin’s seminal Origin of Species, ideas about the gradual evolution of life forms over a very long time started to be accepted. Catastrophism became the equivalent of a dirty word. It was in the same category as creationism finds itself in the scientific community today: totally unacceptable. Interpretations involving major catastrophes were not allowed. Uniformitarianism won and became dogma for well over a century.


However, all was not well. Study of the rocks revealed facts that seemed to require catastrophism. In 1923, the geologist Harlan Bretz from the University of Chicago, was studying the scoured southeast quarter of the state of Washington. There was evidence of hundreds of ancient waterfalls, some of them 100 meters high (Figure 2), and lots of other evidence for catastrophic activity.

FIGURE 2. Dry Falls, one of the hundreds of ancient falls noted by Harlan Bretz in the Channeled Scablands of southeastern Washington sate. The water flowed from left to right across the picture, eroding a huge channel beyond the view to the right. Water spilled over the 100 meter cliff to the left, creating the huge plunge pool in the middle were water now stands.

Bretz dared to suggest in a geological publication[x] that a major, short lived catastrophic flood had produced this washed out landscape. But catastrophes were not allowed. To adopt a model so close to the biblical Flood[xi] implied retreating back to the “Dark Ages.” In Bretz’s own words, “the heresy must be gently but firmly stamped out.”[xii] Bretz needed special attention from his colleagues, and was offered a hearing before the Geolgocal Society of Washigton, DC. A phalanx of doubters were present to challenge the flood hypothesis. After Bretz’s detailed report, five members of the prestigious United States Geological Survey presented objections to the flood model. Two of them had not even visited the study area! Apparently, no one at the meting changed their minds, but in succeeding years more and more data from the rocks that supported Bretz’s view was discovered, and the views of this modern day Noah and his likewise unwanted flood were vindicated. For his careful work and bravery, Bretz was later awarded the Penrose Medal, the United States’ most prestigious geological award.

Another problem arose along the southern California coast. Layers of sedimentary rock, both on land (Figure 3) and offshore, showed shallow water features and fossils mixed with deep water fossils found only hundreds of meters down in the ocean.[xiii]

FIGURE 3. Layers of turbidites above Santa Paula Creek, near Santa Paula, California. Each turbidite, which consists of several layers, is in the decimeter thickness range, and was laid down by a single turbidity current.

How could that be if everything was laid down slowly under quiet conditions? Furthermore, experiments in the laboratory had shown that mud flowing under water, called a turbidity current, could travel rapidly down slope, resulting in complex characteristic deposits called turbidites (Figure 4). In Figure 3, each turbidite is in the decimeter range in thickness, and several layers are usually laid down by a single turbidity current. Deposits from a single turbidite can sometimes reach 200 meters in thickness. The mystery of the shallow and deep water sources found in the same layer is resolved if, along the southern California coast, you had turbidity currents flowing from a shallow shoreline source to a deep locality where deep water organisms were picked up into the flow.

FIGURE 4. Process of turbidite formation. Turbidites are only formed under water. In this illustration a mud source to the left, flows down the slope towards the right as a turbulent density current. As it settles to the right, different turbidite configurations can be formed, usually consisting of several to many layers.

All of this occurred around the middle of the Twentieth Century, and at that same time details of an earlier major turbidity current flow into the North Atlantic Ocean were being worked out. An earthquake along the maritime provinces of eastern Canada loosened a lot of sediment on the edge of the continental shelf, and that sediment flowed down as a turbidity current unto the abyssal plain at the foot of the continental slope. The flow ran into the hulk of the Titanic that had been there since 1912. The turbidity current also broke a number of transatlantic cables lying on the floor of the ocean. One could tell where the head of the flow was when the cables quit transmitting messages; and calculations indicated rates of travel of over 100 kilometers per hour. The turbidity current took about 13 hours to extend out 700 kilometers from its source. The resulting one meter thick turbidite had an estimated volume of 100 cubic kilometers, covering an area of 100,000 square kilometers.[xiv] The turbidite concept quickly gained momentum, and just two decades later it could be stated that “tens of thousands of graded beds stacked on top of one another have been interpreted as turbidites.”[xv]


What happened during the middle of the 20th Century, is that significant data was plainly indicating that the strict uniformitarianism stance of the geologic community was wrong. Gradually other geologists dared to suggest other catastrophic interpretations, including the suggestion that an asteroid hit the earth and killed off the dinosaurs at the end of the Cretaceous Period.[xvi] Based mainly on data from the rocks, catastrophism was making a dramatic return. This change has been identified as “a great philosophical breakthrough”[xvii] and it was acknowledged that “the profound role of major storms through out geologic history is becoming increasingly recognized.”[xviii] The new catastrophism is a little different from the classical catastrophism where the biblical Genesis Flood dominated. Now major catastrophes are accepted, but often a lot of time is postulated between them, thus accommodating the long geologic ages concept.

There is a deep lesson to be learned from the turbulent history of the catastophism concept of the scientific community. First catastrophism was the accepted view, then the concept was expelled from acceptable interpretations, only to be reaccepted 130 years later. The complex sociological and psychological reasons for such changes are beyond simple analysis, but we can still learn from what happened. Once a concept is thoroughly rejected by the scientific community, this does not mean that it is wrong, furthermore this does not mean the scientific community will not readopt it. While science is worthy of qualified respect, reality is above humanity’s drifting opinions.

Ariel Roth, PhD

Loma Linda, CA


[i] For details of this infamous event, see Chapter 1 in Shrady N. 2008. The Last Day. New York: Viking.

[ii] For five references, see note 4 on page 321 of: Roth AA. 1998. ORIGINS: Linking science and scripture. Hagerstown, MD: Review and Herald Publishing Association. For a discussion of suffering, specifically in the biological realm, see the end of DISCUSSION No. 3, of the Bible and Science series, in the author’s web page:

[iii] Genesis 6:6.

[iv] Genesis 6:5.

[v],689645&_dad=portal&_schema=PORTAL. (Viewed 1/1/2015)

[vi] (Viewed 1/1/2015)

[vii] . (Viewed 1/1/2015)

[viii] At that time, those who studied nature were called natural historians or natural philosophers instead of scientists.

[ix] From Chapter 2 of the book: Hallam A. 1983. Great Geological Controversies. New York: Oxford University Press.

[x] Bretz JH. 1923. The Channeled Scablands of the Columbia Plateau. Journal of Geology 31:617-649.

[xi] A few geologists have suggest several flood events. Most of those who endorse the biblical model do not equate Bretz’s flood with the Genesis Flood, but consider it a more recent flood associated with ice age activity.

[xii] Bretz JH, Smith HTU, Neff GE. 1956. The Channeled Scabland of Washington: new data and interpretations. Geolgical Society of America Bulletin 67:957-1049.

[xiii] Natland ML, Kuenen PhH. 1951. Sedimentary history of the Ventura Basin, California, and the action of turbidity currents. Society of Economic Paleontologists and Mineralogists Special Publication 2:76-107; Phleger FB.1951. Displaced foraminifera faunas. Society of Economic Paleontologists and Mineralogists Special Publication 2:66-75.

[xiv] For details and leading references see: Roth AA. ORIGINS: Linking Science and Scripture, Hagerstown, MD: Review and Herald Publishing Association, p 216-217.

[xv] Walker RG. 1973. Mopping up the turbidite mess. In: Ginsburg RN, editor. Evolving concepts in sedimentology. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, p 1-37.

[xvi] Alvarez LW, et al. 1980. Extraterrestrial causes for the Cretaceous-Tertiary extinction. Science 208:1095-1108.

[xvii] Kauffman E, as quoted in Lewin R. 1983. Extinctions and the history of life. Science 221:935-937.

[xviii] Nummendal D. 1982. Clastics. Geotimes 27(2):23.