John C. Whitcomb Jr., one of the early pioneers of the contemporary Young Earth Creationist movement, died on February 4th.
In 1961, John Whitcomb teamed up with a hydraulic engineer, Henry M. Morris, to write The Genesis Flood, the foundational book that launched today’s Young Earth Creationist movement. Whitcomb was a theologian at Grace Theological Seminary, and he sought out Morris, who was then the chair of the civil engineering program, at Virginia Tech, in Blacksburg, Virginia. Combining Whitcomb’s knowledge of the Bible and Morris’ knowledge of science, the two collaborated in articulating the now, well-known thesis, that a global flood, as described by a traditional interpretation of the Book of Genesis, could sufficiently explain the existence of the fossil record, in an attempt to show that science could be synchronized with a traditional understanding of the Bible.
Other leading evangelical thinkers, such as Edward John Carnell, the president of Fuller Theological Seminary, were determined to persuade Whitcomb and Morris, that their project was ill-advised, and at one point, the preferred publisher, Moody Press, refused to publish the book. But Whitcomb and Morris persisted with tenacity, and so the idea that the earth was only 6,000 years old, and not 4.34 billion years old, as maintained by the scientific consensus, took off in the imagination of thousands of Bible believing Christians.
In subsequent years, organizations such as Ken Ham’s Answers In Genesis would expand on the themes articulated by the Whitcomb/Morris “flood geology” thesis, proposing that dinosaurs lived together with humans, in recent earth history, before the great flood. Such ideas have stood to be contrary to the reigning contemporary scientific consensus, that dinosaurs lived millions of years ago, long before the appearance of humans on planet earth.
Despite the fact that The Genesis Flood has had virtually no impact on the modern scientific enterprise, as taught by a plethora of public schools, universities, and Smithsonian museums, Whitcomb and Morris’ thesis has continued to generate controversy in evangelical churches across America. Dr. Whitcomb was also known for his defense of a classic 6th century B.C.E. date and traditional authorship of the Book of Daniel.
I first made an attempt to read The Genesis Flood during my years as a mathematics major in college, while studying other scientific disciplines as electives. While I was attracted to Whitcomb’s appeal to the Bible’s authority, I remained unconvinced by his thesis. It was not until 20 years later that I actually began a written correspondence with Dr. Whitcomb. In his letters, between the two of us, over several months, I was impressed by his earnest appeal, and even more impressed by his gentle piety, in commending his ideas towards me. In particular, Dr. Whitcomb was clearly tenacious in holding his interpretation of the Bible, despite my attempts to encourage him to consider other alternatives.
“Agreeing to disagree,” on non-essential matters of the Christian faith, can lead to having some difficult conversations. But in my interactions with Dr. Whitcomb, I came to treasure his candor and gentle demeanor when engaging in controversial subjects. God used that time of correspondence with Dr. Whitcomb in my life, to help me to have a greater love for others, and encourage an interest in building bridges with other believers, even when agreement in sensitive matters, is not always easy to be had.
While I am open to the possibility of Dr. Whitcomb’s thesis, I am still not convinced that his understanding of Scripture, nor his understanding of the science, is correct. Nevertheless, I consider Dr. Whitcomb as a dear brother in the Lord, who genuinely desired that others may come to know and love the Creator of the universe, and so I grieve his death, yet knowing that he is surely with the Lord Jesus now. One day, I hope to be able to have a conversation with Dr. Whitcomb, where we will both surely learn the exact extent of what the flood really was, and exactly how old the earth really is.