Buried within the bosom of the earth are billions of tons of “bottled sunshine”—more commonly known as coal. How did this material come to be there? And how much time was involved in its deposition?

There are two general theories regarding the formation of coal.

First, there is the uniformitarian view, which asserts that coal is the result of “the slow accumulation, through long ages, of the leaves, seeds, stems, and trunks of this vegetation, now hardened and pressed down into a fraction of its original bulk by the pressure of rocks above.”

It is alleged that in vast swampy areas, “this process was often repeated again and again, through immense periods of time” (see: Richards, 3:28). This is the theory favored by most evolutionists.

Accordingly, the assumption that the earth’s coal deposits required millions of years to accumulate is advanced {commonly as proof that the earth also is very ancient—billions of years old (estimates fluctuate between 8 and 20 billion years—not very precise, one must conclude). The claim is made, therefore, that the Bible, which contains numerous indications that both the earth and mankind are relatively young, must be inaccurate—or else the record of scripture is simply a “poetic” account.

There is, however, another view of how and when coal was formed. It may be designated the cataclysmic view, which associates the formation of earth’s coal beds with the great flood of Genesis 6-8. The cataclysmic concept contends that the Noahic deluge accounts for the transportation, and sudden burial of, vast amounts of vegetation that constitute the various coal seams found in the earth today.

Interestingly, when Peter affirmed that the world of Noah’s day “overflowed” with water (2 Peter 3:6), he used the Greek term katakluzo, from which derives our word “cataclysm.” The word is composed of kata, “down” and kluzo, “to wash.” This view argues as follows:

The vegetation that produced the coal beds was swept by the waters of the Deluge into recesses or quiet bays, and there covered by currents that washed mud, sand, or calcareous material in over it from perhaps the opposite direction. The great number of successive seams of coal one above another, alternating with the same kind of sandstone, shale, or limestone, as the case may be, show that there must have been an alternation of currents, such as would be produced by successive tides, with their ebbs and floods (Price, 214).

The pressure of tons of earth and rock upon the buried vegetal material produced the massive coal beds in a relative short period of time. For an excellent discussion regarding the origin of coal, from a creationist perspective, see Nevins, i-iv.

The question is, therefore, which of these two views best conforms to the available data?

First of all, those who believe in the divine origin of the Bible will give its testimony foremost consideration. God’s written revelation, if it touches upon a subject, will, from the very nature of the case, be superior to speculative interpretations of the geological record. And the fact of the matter is, the Bible indicates that man’s existence can be measured only in terms of several thousand years (as evinced by Christ’s genealogical record, which extends back to Adam—Luke 3:23ff; see also: Jackson 1978a).

Furthermore, scripture teaches that human existence extends back to the beginning of the creation (Isaiah 40:21; Mark 10:6; Romans 1:20; see Jackson, 1978b). Thus, the age of the earth can be only several thousand years—not billions of years! Also see the author’s book: Creation, Evolution, and the Age of the Earth (2003).

Now, if there are two views of coal formation—one that contradicts biblical chronology, and one that can be harmonized with biblical chronology—which one should the Christian accept?

Additional Considerations

In addition to the above, however, there are other geophysical evidences that ought to lead one to reject the evolutionary uniformitarian theory of coal formation. A brief summary of some of them is as follows.

Coal beds are not being formed today.

If the uniformitarian principle, (“the present is the key to the past”) of coal origin were true, we would expect to find vast areas where coal is undergoing various stages of formation today. This, however, is not the case. Whitcomb and Morris observe: “All known coal beds, therefore, seem to have been formed in the past and are not continuing to be formed in the present, as the principle of uniformity could reasonably be expected to imply” (164).

There are no evolutionary changes in the coal record.

If coal were formed over an era of millions of years, the fossilized plant life it contains should reveal a series of evolutionary changes. Yet, as professor Harold Clark noted:

In the Coal Period, which was supposed to have lasted millions of years and to have submerged over and over again, the vegetation remained the same. It was practically identical over the world, and evolutionary assumptions do not seem to be very consistent with the facts (85).

Polystrate tree trunks

There are numerous examples of tree trunks extending through several successive beds of coal, with their alternating layers of sandstone or shale. This precludes the notion that these beds formed over vast ages of time. N.A. Rupke stated:

A special class of polystrate stems is constituted by stumps which extend up through a coal seam, together with some layers of sandstone and sandy slate, or even through two or more of these coal seams and all inter-bedded strata.

He thus concluded: “the coal beds were rapidly deposited just as well as the above-mentioned inorganic sequences” (as quoted in Lammerts, 154).

Preservation of plant fossils

In all of the great coal deposits “there are found the leaves and tissues of plants so exquisitely preserved that it is absurd to think of the material lying for centuries rotting in a peat bog or swamp, as the common theory involves” (Price, 215).

Relatively recent formation of coal

A number of discoveries indicate that coal has been formed within the era of human history. Near Glasgow, Scotland, for example, under a mass of boulders, an iron, man-made instrument was discovered imbedded in a natural seam of coal seven feet under the surface (Bible-Science Newsletter, July 15, 1970). One evolutionist admitted: “In a vein of coal in England there once were found a number of stone hammers and picks that must have belonged to men way back in the Stone Age of human history” (Richards, 9:435).

Near Freiburg, Germany, a certain wooden railroad bridge was being replaced with steel. The wooden piles which had supported the weight were found to have turned partially into coal. This proves that coal can form within the short hundred year span of the railroad era (Daly, 138).

Rapid formation

Finally, it has been demonstrated by experiments in recent years that wood or other cellulose type material, under the proper conditions of pressure and heat, can be converted into coal or coal-like products in a matter of hours. These experiments conclusively prove that the formation of coal and oil did not necessarily require millions of years or even thousands of years to form. (Gish, 1-5). As Derek Ager, a militant evolutionist, conceded a few years back: “The hurricane, the flood, or the tsunami may do more in an hour than the ordinary processes of nature have achieved in a thousand years” (80). Dr. Donald Chittick has noted that the failure to recognize the relatively rapid formation of coal and oil, on the part of evolutionary scientists, has seriously deterred solutions to the energy crisis that is plaguing much of the world (214).

The coal record beneath the earth is a serious challenge to Darwin’s theory of organic evolution.

[This article was originally published in the print version of the Christian Courier, October 1978, 14:22-23; recently revised.]