Niagara Falls and the Bible by Larry Pierce
We live near Niagara Falls. This must rank as one of the must see sights in the world for every time we drive to the Toronto airport to pick up guests, the subject usually comes up. After the small talk of how the flight was, one of our guests casually asks, “Do you not live near Niagara Falls?” My wife and I look at each other and wince. We both know all too well what the next question will be! We have seen the falls so many times with guests, it has lost its charm.
Aside from the beauty and grandeur of the falls, of the millions of people who go there to see the falls, very few realize that what they are looking at was the major basis of the evidence for the abandonment of biblical chronology.
What Charles Lyell Saw and What He Concluded
In 1841, Lyell, a British scientist, ventured to Niagara Falls. From observations of the various rocks both at the Falls and along the Niagara River, Lyell was able to illustrate that the cascading waters had eroded the gorge from the edge of the escarpment at Queenston – Lewiston to its present location.
Lets see how Lyell used the Niagara gorge to undermine the chronology of the Bible. In 1841, the falls was much harder to reach than it is today. It was late that year that Sir Charles Lyell visited the area and did his research into the falls and its formation. In those days it would be a long trip by stagecoach over log roads cemented with mud and clay to form a very rough form of pavement. No one disputes what he saw for you can go there today and see essentially the same things that Lyell saw. However his purpose was not to go as a casual sightseer but to determine the approximate age of the gorge that was excavated by the Niagara River. He noted that the gorge was about seven miles or 35,000 feet long from its location in 1841 down to Queenston. He noted the composition of the gorge. It basically has two layers. The uppermost layer is composed of limestone sitting on a foundation of shale. This is a painting of the falls from 150 years ago.
He was told and saw that large chunks of limestone broke off and fell into the gorge. Because of the freezing action of water in the winter, any cracks in the limestone would frequently fill with water and freeze. As the water froze, it expanded and either weakened the limestone by expanding the cracks or caused spectacular sights when large chucks of limestone broke loose and fell into the gorge. He was told that a few years before he visited the area, two large chucks fell, one in 1818 and the other in 1829. They shook the surrounding country like an earthquake. In 1829, a resident, who had lived there for forty years, told Mr. Blackwell, who was the son of an eminent geologist, that the falls had receded about fifty yards during the forty years he had lived there. This would give an approximate age of 10,000 years for the falls.
Reading the Headlines — Not the Report
When Lyell returned to England, he reported that he had scientifically determined that the Niagara gorge was 35,000 years old. Few people actually read the report of his trip that he published in his book The Principles of Geology. Even fewer had any knowledge of Niagara Falls in those days — much less saw it. Since Lyell was a respected English gentleman, his estimate was blindly accepted by most people. They readily understood how water erodes rock and this made Lyell’s report all the more believable. The church caved in rather than adopt a wait and see attitude. This was unfortunate because anyone who actually read Lyell’s book could detect some logical fallacies in how he arrived at his conclusions. However, the damage was done and most people began to suspect the biblical chronology was not reliable in the light of what Lyell had said. Lyell was the forerunner of Darwin and helped prepare the way for Darwin and his book on evolution which was published a few years later. If Lyell had not effectively undermined the confidence people had in the biblical chronologies, it is doubtful that Darwin’s book would have been as well received as it was.
Selective Reporting of Facts
What Lyell wrote in his book, Principles of Geology about what he saw on his trip to Niagara Falls was accurate and sufficient to satisfy the curiosity of most readers. What he omitted, would have undermined his age estimate to any alert reader. The old adage of never let the facts spoil a good theory seems to apply here. He noted the limestone and shale layers but did not report their thickness even though this was easily visible and readily measured. At Goat Island near the falls, the limestone layer is about 90 feet thick. The lower layer of shale is about 70 feet thick. The limestone layer is about twice as thick at the falls as it is two miles down from the falls at the suspension bridge. It remains about this thickness of 45 feet for the remaining five miles to Queenston. The gorge is between 200-300 feet deep in places between Niagara Falls and Queenston. The limestone layer is much harder than the soft layer of shale. Once the limestone is eroded, the softer shale would erode very quickly compared to the limestone.
Fudging the Data
Lyell was aware of the report by Mr. Blackwell that eye-witnesses, who lived there for forty years, stated the falls retreated about a yard a year. He chose to disregard the data and conducted his own investigation of the residents. He does not state what he did or how he arrived at his new rate of about one foot a year. In any case, this lower rate much better suited his purpose. At a yard a year, the age would be about 12,000 years which was in the ball park of the biblical chronology given the uncertainties in estimating the age of the gorge. Since the gorge was 35,000 feet long and he assumed the falls dug it at a rate of one foot a year, he estimated that the gorge must be 35,000 years old! This estimate most effectively undermined the confidence people had in the biblical age of the earth of about 6000 years. Recent measurements of the rate of erosion determined it to be four to five feet a year which is even greater than was assumed by the residents who lived there in those days. Assuming this rate was constant and that the entire gorge was excavated by the falls, then this would place an upper limit of 7000 to 9000 years for the gorge. However, we know the rock for most of the gorge would erode faster because of the thinner limestone layer so even this guess is too high.
Assumptions in Dating Method
Like all dating methods that do not depend on direct observation, assumptions must be made to arrive at an age estimate. No matter how reasonable these assumptions may be, we cannot be certain they are true unless we have eyewitnesses for the entire time period in question.
Here are some assumptions that Lyell made:
1) The first assumption is that the falls excavated the whole gorge. Without eye-witness accounts, we cannot verify this assumption. For simplicity’s sake, we will grant that it is true. Lyell tacitly assumed it was true for his article.
2) The rate of erosion can be determined and was constant in the past. Again, without eye-witness accounts, we cannot verify this assumption. We can readily measure the erosion rate today but cannot say what it was in the past. The fact that Lyell disregarded the reported rate and used a much lower rate is very suspicious. Consider the following things that would affect the rate of erosion:
a) The hardness and thickness of the rocks being eroded.
b) The quantity of water flowing that would erode the rocks.
c) The dip or inclination of the rocks being eroded. The faster the water flows, the more erosion is done by the water and the material the water carries or pushes along its river bed.
d) The frequency or absence of fissures or seams in the rocks.
e) The amount of sediment in the water.
f) The ice age carved out the finger lakes in New York state and it may have excavated part of the Niagara gorge too. In any case, water from the melting glaciers would have greatly increased the flow of the Niagara River.
It is most likely incorrect to say the erosion rate was constant over the time the gorge was excavated. The rate of erosion was very likely much faster in the past for several reasons:
1) The material being eroded today is not of the same composition as most of the gorge is. At the present location of the falls, the limestone layer is twice as thick as it is for the first five miles of the gorge. Once the harder limestone layer is eroded, the soft shale is eroded very quickly. Hence, the first five miles of the gorge would have eroded more quickly than the last two miles. If we assume the longer five mile part eroded at twice the present rate of 4 to 5 feet a year then it would have been excavated in about 3000 years. Since the thickness of the limestone varies from 45 feet at the suspension bridge to 90 feet at the falls, we assumed an average thickness of about 70 feet and an average erosion rate of 7 feet per year. This would give an estimated age for the remaining two miles of the gorge of about 1400 years. (The gorge near the suspension bridge would erode faster than the gorge near the falls.) This puts an estimate of about 4400 years for the age of the gorge which is a long way from the 35,000 years Lyell published.
2) Lyell assumed a greater rate of flow of water in the past. Most rivers seemed to have had much more volume in the past than today and this assumption seems reasonable. However, Lyell made this assumption and then illogically concluded that the erosion rate would have been slower than the observed rate. It seems more reasonable that if more water flowed, the rock would erode faster — not slower.
3) After the biblical flood, we would expect the rivers to be dirtier than they are now from flood sediments. This would also increase the erosion rate.
4) Some rock does not erode but breaks off instead. Lyell was told that in 1818 and 1829 two huge chunks of rock fell into the gorge and shook the country like an earthquake. He did not factor this into his calculations for this would have lowered his age estimate.
When all these things are considered, the revised estimated age of the gorge will agree quite nicely with the biblical time of the flood of about 4500 years ago. The present age for the gorge is estimated at 12,000 years and this estimate is based on radiometric dating of a piece of wood found in St. David’s gorge. Even using the present erosion rate of the Niagara River, this estimate is too high! We all know how accurate radiometric dating is!
Lessons for Today
It seems the only thing we learn from history is that we do not learn anything! Here are the lessons we should have learned:
1) The hype in the newspaper headlines is rarely justified when the full report is read and been reviewed by others. If the report contradicts the Bible, look at the assumptions and reasoning used to arrive at the conclusions and see if they are logically valid. If you read with a critical eye, you should start to see inconsistencies in the material.
2) The Bible is true no matter what men say. The burden of proof rests on the scoffers to prove it incorrect. If you look down through history, the scoffers have a 100% batting average — OF BEING WRONG! Given enough time, any report that appears to undermine the Bible, will itself be undermined by later reports! That is the nature of science.
Larry continues to work full time with the Online Bible program which he started more than 25 years ago, before there was a World Wide Web. He and his wife Marion are presently correcting the text and updating the English of Charles Spurgeon’s 63 volume Metropolitan Pulpit and working with a Cuban translator preparing more Spanish material for the Online Bible.
Children today are tyrants. They contradict their parents, gobble their food and tyrannize their teachers. – Socrates, 450 BC