The Ebola Example: Could a loving God really send people to Hell?

One of the questions I had when considering the gospel had to do with hell. Probably like you I had heard preachers talk about it as if it was quite real – admittedly a rather frightening prospect. But then I also heard that God was ‘loving’ and that ‘God is love’. Taken together these principles were a paradox for me: How could a loving God send people to Hell?  At first glance it seemed that these two doctrines were at odds with each other. After all, if God ‘loved me’, surely he would not send me to Hell. Or, if God did send me to Hell then He certainly could not be loving, or at least not love me. One or the other may hold but the two together seemed contradictory. And then, since I usually heard about hell through some animated preacher, it made me wonder if they were just using fear tactics to exert control over me.

Ehrman and Hell

I am not alone. In fact, gospel arch-critic and renowned New Testament professor Bart Ehrman had this to say in one of his widely read books:

“… There is not literally a place of eternal torment where God, or the demons doing his will, will torture poor souls for 30 trillion years (as just the beginning) for sins they committed for thirty years. What kind of never-dying eternal divine Nazi would a God like that be? … We therefore have nothing to fear in death.”

Bart Ehrman. 2010. Jesus Interrupted: revealing the Hidden Contradictions in the Bible (and why we don’t know about them). p. 276

Many of us may identify with Ehrman. And given that hell is such an ominous subject it is easy to dismiss it from serious thinking – in fact we explicitly avoid thinking about it – reasoning somewhat as Ehrman does, and feeling rather safe in the belief that the majority of modern and progressive people think similarly. We avoid thinking further about it and hope it will therefore go away.

What spurred me to think this through was to recognize that it is the truth or falseness of a belief that should be considered, not whether it is ominous or not, nor whether it is doubted by most. After all, before Copernicus, most people thought that the sun revolved around the earth – the majority were wrong. Furthermore, coming to grips with unpleasant outcomes are required for safe & healthy living. Campaigns about AIDS, drunk driving, and smoking are effective precisely because they force us to think about nasty consequences. We do not consider these campaigns manipulative or scare tactics. In fact, we are thankful that they raised an issue we perhaps did not want to think about, and in so doing, increased our safety and well-being.

Jesus and Hell

So, though the question of hell may not be in vogue, it is worth considering. For starters, it may be surprising to learn that it is Jesus Christ himself – the person who stands out in history as the teacher par excellence on topics such as mercy, forgiveness and the love of God (In fact the reason we associate love with God is largely through the influence of this man.) who also taught about hell. Notwithstanding his emphasis on the love of God, he also taught more about hell than all the other Biblical teachers combined. Consider the following quotes from Jesus:

“Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord’, will enter the Kingdom of Heaven, but only he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven… Then I will tell them plainly, ‘I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers”   Matthew 7: 21-23

“The Kingdom of Heaven is like a king who prepared a wedding banquet for his son. He sent his servants to those who had been invited … but they refused to come. Then he sent more servants and … invited [them] … But they paid no attention and went off – one to his field, another to his business… Then the King said to his servants, ‘Go to the street corners and invite any you find’ … Then the king told the attendants ‘Tie him hand and foot and throw him outside, into the darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth’” Matthew 22: 1- 13

“When the Son of Man comes in his glory, … he will sit on the throne in heavenly glory .. He will separate the people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats … Then the King will say to those on his right [the sheep], ‘Come, … take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world …. Then he will say to those on his left [the goats], ‘Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil …” Matthew 25:31-41

“It is better for you to enter the Kingdom of God with one eye than to have two eyes and be thrown into hell” Mark 9:47

“Fear him who, after the killing of the body, has power to throw you into hell” Luke 12:5

“Once the owner of the house gets up and closes the door, you will stand outside … But he will reply, ‘I don’t know you or where you came from. Away from me all you evildoers” Luke 13:25-27

So warnings about the reality of hell, do not begin with obscure Biblical passages or wild-eyed preachers – they are centered in the teachings of Jesus himself.

Ebola and Hell

Ebola Quarantine Sign

Ebola Quarantine Sign

Enforcing Ebola Quarantine

Enforcing Ebola Quarantine

Suited up for Ebola

Suited up for Ebola

Suiting up for Ebola

Suiting up for Ebola

But then how do we reconcile these two seemingly opposing teachings? If ‘God is love’, how can hell be in the picture too? Perhaps the world-wide panic over the Ebola outbreak can serve as a vivid example of one portrait that Jesus used when he taught about Hell.

We see in the news how Ebola has spread through West Africa and has raised concerns around the world with the recent spread of infections to other regions. We have all seen the images of completely suited, masked and gloved nurses and doctors caring for those infected with Ebola and for those handling the bodies of the Ebola dead. The World Health Organization, infectious disease experts, and medical professionals are telling us that success or failure containing Ebola hangs on one overarching strategy – quarantine.   Ebola spreads by person- to-person fluid contact so the only way to control it is to quarantine and completely seal off those infected.   Even small tears in the protective suits and minor lapses in isolation protocol cannot be tolerated.

These thorough and sometimes frantic procedures to isolate and quarantine the Ebola virus are examples of a similarly systematic procedure to isolate a spiritual virus – and that quarantine is called Hell.

How is this so?

Ebola quarantine measures

Ebola quarantine measures

Heaven and Hell

Jesus centered his teaching on the coming of the ‘Kingdom of Heaven’. When we think of ‘heaven’ we often think in terms of its situation or milieu – the ‘streets of gold’ as it were. But the greater hope of the Kingdom that Jesus anticipated is a society that will be comprised of citizens of exclusively honest and selfless character who therefore won’t pilfer the said gold off those streets. Continue down this line of thought and reflect on how much we build into the ‘kingdoms’ here on earth to protect ourselves from each other. We all have locks on our homes, advanced security systems even; we always leave our cars locked; we tell our kids not to speak to strangers. Can you even imagine a city without some ‘law enforcement’ in place? Why do we password protect all our personal electronic data? When you stop and think of all the systems, practices and procedures that we have put in place in our ‘kingdoms’ and realize that they are there simply to protect ourselves from each other then you may get a glimmer of a looming problem. It is like there is something awry with us.  If God were to setup a kingdom in the paradise of ‘heaven’ and then invite all of us to become citizens of it, we would quickly turn it into the hell we have turned this world into. The gold on the streets and the pearls on the gates would vanish in no time.

It would be even worse if there were only a narrow few who would not follow such a standard. Imagine a society where all the citizens were perfectly honest – no lies and no theft. In that society there would be no locks, no need of written contracts (because one’s word would be good enough), no security cameras, no computer passwords – because there would be no need of them in such a society. But if you then introduce just one citizen who is a liar and a thief he would disrupt that society far more than liars and thieves do here. Since there are no built-in precautions this one thief and liar can go about his activities with impunity – causing havoc among the citizens of the kingdom of heaven. The only way to keep this from happening is to make sure that not even one such person enters this kingdom – because then it would be ruined.

But what then for those who are denied entry? In this world, if you are denied entry to a country you cannot also expect to participate in its resources and benefits. For example, Canadian citizens can benefit from programs of its government. But someone who is denied access to Canada cannot expect to somehow receive its welfare, medical treatment etc. – this is arranged for its citizens.  But all in all, people around the world, even terrorists on the run from all countries, enjoy the same basic amenities of nature, such as breathing the same air, seeing the same light as everyone else.

But who made light? The Bible claims that ‘God said, “Let there be light” and there was light’. If that is true then all light is His – and it turns out that we are just borrowing it now. But with the final establishment of the Kingdom of God, His light will be in His Kingdom. So ‘outside’ will be ‘darkness’ – just as Jesus described Hell in one of the passages above.

If it is true that God is the Creator, then most of what we take for granted and assume is ‘ours’ is really His. Starting with such a basic entity as ‘light’ and then considering the world and going on to our natural abilities such as thought and speech – we really did nothing to create these abilities – we simply find ourselves using and borrowing them.   When the Kingdom is finalized the Owner will reclaim them.

When we look at barriers, past and present, erected to keep ‘barbarians’ out of civilization, from the Great Wall of China down to the present-day the fence proposed on the US-Mexcio border to keep illegal immigrants out, you can see that it is natural to erect barriers when a Kingdom must keep certain people out for the very sake of that kingdom. When Ebola breaks out and threatens death and havoc among us all we hear no argument when experts insist on quarantine. So it is no surprise to hear Jesus teach in his parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus that

And besides all this, between us (in Kingdom of God) and you (in Hell) a great chasm has been set in place, so that those who want to go from here to you cannot, nor can anyone cross over from there to us. Luke 16:26

The Love of God and Hell

So where does the ‘love of God’ fit in all this? When an epidemic rages, along with quarantine, there is a search for vaccines that can neutralize the deadly virus. Jesus’ death and resurrection is the corresponding inoculation. In trusting him we, in a sense, are injected with a spiritual vaccine that begins to disinfect us, slowly making us fit and able to enter into this Kingdom when it is fully established.

For Ebola victims what is most difficult to accept may not be the necessary quarantine, but rather it is that one has the disease to begin with.  Similarly, more difficult to accept than the reality of hell itself is that you and I are stricken with a deadly spiritual virus.  We fight that diagnosis, which leads many to ignore the cure.

Though it may be presumptuous to question a learned professor like Ehrman, and though my line of thinking cuts against the current of western culture today, Hell is quite consistent with the notion of a loving God – who created and owns all and is setting up a Kingdom where righteousness is the norm – not the exception – and therefore requiring restricted access. At the very least, since it is such a serious subject, and because God’s Love has moved him to make a ‘vaccine’ freely available, it warrants reflection on our personal spiritual diagnosis. Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, developed by him to help us more clearly diagnose our fitness for the Kingdom of Heaven, may be a good place to start.

MH17 fallout & Gaza conflict today! A maverick seer’s rumblings of long ago?

Newsrooms are straining to keep up with the crises reverberating around our planet in recent days. The World Cup is a distant memory in the wake of these emergencies. ISIS pushing Iraq to the brink of splintering; the downing of Malaysian Airlines flight MH17 by Russian-backed separatists in Ukraine; to the juggernaut of conflicts – the bombardments between Hamas in Gaza and Israel leading to an ongoing ground war.  Riots and demonstrations for both sides in this conflict are popping up around the world. We are witnessing these events take our world by storm.

I have been reading and listening to experts and statesmen trying to predict where these events will go and what the fallout will be. Perhaps you have too. It may be useful to hear also from another witness. He is not an expert in the traditional sense – he has no credentials, he is not a celebrity, nor does he head any State or agency. In fact, he has been dead for about 2700 years. Yet before he died he penned a very significant but highly controversial book. Academic tradition has it that he was sawn in half (!) because of the audacious themes in his book. He was a seer of sorts – a maverick who, though he had no army or following, authored the doom and the rise of many kings and states. Ancient yet timeless, his work was bizarre in that he purposefully wrote for a future audience.

The Sprouting Branch

Even for us today?  You judge for yourself; here is how he starts a key excerpt of his book:

A shoot will come up from the stump of Jesse;
from his roots a Branch will bear fruit.

Jesse was the father of King David (i.e. of Goliath fame) who founded the city of Jerusalem ca. 1000 BC. When these words were penned Jesse had been dead about 300 years but through David a royal dynasty from Jesse was ruling in Jerusalem. The maverick seer wrote that this dynasty, like a tree when felled by an axe, would one day be reduced to a ‘stump’, i.e., the kingdom would fall. (No wonder he was sawn in two with this kind of seditious writing against his state.) But then after this dynasty was ‘stumped’ a ‘Branch’ would ‘shoot’ up from that very same stump. This Branch would ‘bear fruit’. What or who would this Branch be?  What about the ‘fruit’?

Our maverick seer was part of a very select squad who also wrote similarly seditious works. What was unique about this squad was that the members by-and-large never met. You can imagine the immense difficulty in coordinating a consistent theme with people you have never met. Look at the difficulties our political leaders are having in coordinating a consistent response to all the precipitous events today – and they communicate regularly. We know the members of this squad never met because they lived several hundred years apart. Separated through time they still managed to build a consistent theme of this Branch in their writings that was so important for us to know.

I have delved into what this squad wrote about the Branch. Why not invest 10-15 minutes to learn what they had to say. Because in their works you see:

The Branch and the Nations today…

It is worth our time to understand this because it is affecting our lives today – including these events now dominating headlines. How do I know? Because in this Branch excerpt the maverick seer continued seamlessly on and wrote how a Current of Events would flow from the Branch’s career climax, flooding into the future. Here is how he put it:

In that day the Root of Jesse will stand as a banner for the peoples; the nations will rally to him, and his resting place will be glorious…

Jewish regathering today

The seer (by the way, his name was Isaiah) wrote that this Branch, or ‘Root of Jesse’, would have nations ‘rally to him’ in a future ‘day’ or time. When? He continued:

In that day the Lord will reach out his hand a second time to reclaim the surviving remnant of his people from Assyria, from Lower Egypt, from Upper Egypt, from Cush,from Elam, from Babylonia, from Hamath and from the islands of the Sea.

He will raise a banner for the nations and gather the exiles of Israel;
he will assemble the scattered people of Judah from the four quarters of the earth.
Ephraim’s jealousy will vanish, and Judah’s enemies will be destroyed;
Ephraim will not be jealous of Judah, nor Judah hostile toward Ephraim.

That ‘day’ for the Branch will be the same ‘day’ that the Lord ‘will’ for a ‘second’ time reclaim ‘his people’ from states all around the globe. Isaiah was quite clear who these people would be – the ‘exiles of Israel’, the ‘scattered people of Judah’.

Below is a historical timeline of the Jews (taken from a more in-depth article). You can see that they had a first re-gathering from a Babylonian exile about 530 BC (just after the short red section). But since Isaiah specifically foresaw a ‘second’ exile he was looking to the end of the whole timeline. This dispersion, inaugurated with the Roman sacking of Jerusalem in 70 AD was truly worldwide, and it lasted 1900 years. The return from this second exile is literally as Isaiah the seer wrote 2700 years ago – from ‘the four quarters of the earth’ (i.e. North, South, East & West).

Historical Timeline of the Jews - featuring their two periods of exile

Historical Timeline of the Jews – featuring their two periods of exile

When did this worldwide reclaiming from exile occur? Why is it ongoing right now! In fact, this is a major reason why there is so much turmoil in Israel and Palestine today and is the underlying reason why the rockets and ground warfare have been going on in Israel and Gaza these past few weeks.

Re-gathering to one nation

Below is a map showing the nations in the day Isaiah penned this excerpt. You can see that back then the Jews were divided into two rival kingdoms – Judah & Israel – rather like the Koreans today who are divided into two opposing countries – North & South Korea.

Map of Israel + Judah and surrounding countries in 750 BC vs. map of Israel and countries today

Map of Israel + Judah and surrounding countries in 750 BC vs. map of Israel and countries today

When Isaiah looked into the future and wrote

Ephraim will not be jealous of Judah, nor Judah hostile toward Ephraim

He meant that when the Jews re-assembled from this world-wide exile they would not be divided anymore, as in his day, but united into one nation. This is what has happened as this modern-day return from exile was triggered in 1948 when a United Nations resolution birthed one single modern state: Israel.

Israeli & Palestinian conflict

If you look closer at this map of the nations in Isaiah’s day you will see Philistia sandwiched between Judah and the Mediterranean Sea and Moab, Edom and Ammon directly to the East. Note the states in the corresponding places today and you will see that they are Gaza, the West Bank and Jordan. The West Bank was captured from Jordan in the six-day war of 1967 by Israel. Armed with this insight, we can make sense of the rest of Isaiah’s excerpt.

They will swoop down on the slopes of Philistia to the west;
together they will plunder the people to the east.
They will subdue Edom and Moab,
and the Ammonites will be subject to them.

When Isaiah saw the Israelites returning from that long, second, world-wide exile and foresaw the birth of the one modern Jewish state which would then ‘swoop down on the slopes of Philistia to the west’ he was envisaging an intense confrontation of the Israelis into Gaza – just like we are witnessing now. The ‘subduing’ of the people of Edom, Moab and Ammon is the modern-day Israeli control of the other Palestinian enclave – the West Bank. It is like Isaiah was 2700 years ahead of our current events.

The Branch: seen in the MH17 aftermath

But this return from world-wide exile and conflict in Gaza and the West Bank was to happen in the day that the Branch was to be a banner to peoples around the world, with nations rallying to him. What did Isaiah mean?

Below are photos of peoples around the world mourning the other great tragedy of this month – the downing of Malaysian Airlines flight MH17.

Victims of the MH17 plane crash are commemorated during a memorial service in the Saint Bavo cathedral in Haarlem, The Netherlands (from EPA)

Victims of MH17 are commemorated during a memorial service in a cathedral in Haarlem, The Netherlands (from EPA)

People pray during a special Mass in memory of the victims of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 on July 20 in Hilversum, Netherlands.  (from CNN)

People pray during a special Mass in memory of the victims of MH17 on July 20 in Hilversum, Netherlands. (from CNN)

People pray for the victims of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 at a church outside Kuala Lumpur (from CNN)

People pray for the victims of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 at a church outside Kuala Lumpur Malaysia (from CNN)

Memorial service in Australia for victims of MH17 (from the Guardian)

Memorial service in Australia for victims of MH17 (from the Guardian)

Notice the common context in the photos though the mourners are not conscious of it, and we are apt to miss it because it has become such a familiar part of culture.  We are witnessing peoples in diverse nations seeking comfort in the face of death in the context of churches, liturgies and prayers founded from the life and career of one unique person – Jesus of Nazareth – the Branch that Isaiah foresaw would one day be a banner for the nations. The MH17 memorial photos cry out as one instance of Isaiah’s vision of the Branch becoming ‘a banner for the peoples’, with ‘nations rallying to him’.

The Branch & The Re-gathering: Farfetched yet seen from Isaiah’s viewpoint

We may dismiss this by noting that there is nothing remarkable about funerals and liturgies in churches, for which Jesus is somehow a banner, since it is part of our heritage and has been so for several centuries. But in Isaiah’s day, 2700 years ago, that was hardly a foregone conclusion. In that day the world was a vast ocean of pagan idolatry with no tendency towards worship of one God, nor devotion to any redeemer figure. Nothing of the impact of Jesus’ career on the generations coming after him, which we now take for granted, would have been self-evident in Isaiah’s day. Living 700 years before Jesus, Isaiah saw past Jesus’ career to the impact that it would have on nations around the planet long after the Branch had completed that career. No one else back then, except for Isaiah and his squad, was betting that the die would be cast in that direction. And Isaiah explicitly timed the cresting of the Branch’s impact to that of another global current – the regathering of the Jews back to Israel and the resultant upheavals and bitter conflicts that this would cause. The two crises dominating our news this week – the grieving over the downing of flight MH17 and the conflict in Gaza/Israel – are vivid illustrations of this remarkable double-edged foresight coming to pass in our time.

Prophetic Overarching Themes, not random sayings

Perhaps you agree with me. Or perhaps you think I am reading way too much into Isaiah. The fact that these themes run through the rest of that squad tips it for me since they form multiple-sourced, consistent themes.  Starting with Abraham, then Moses and down to Ezekiel & Jeremiah we see the theme for Israel.  Starting at the dawn of human history, again to Abraham & Moses, then to DavidDaniel & Zechariah there is a clear theme of a coming redeemer.  I did not draw it from one random paragraph of Isaiah.  It is like one Mind was writing through this squad of authors.  At the minimum it is worth being informed of their themes.

Isaiah, The Branch, You & A Promise

But so what anyways? So what if Isaiah foretold the modern-day re-birth of Israel complete with the turmoil surrounding it? So what if he and the squad foresaw the global veneration (even if only cultural) of the coming Branch – Jesus of Nazareth? What difference does that make to you and me?

Isaiah never claimed to have innate powers of foresight. He was not a clairvoyant. He claimed that God – who created our planet and the universe, who is sovereign over all states, both Jewish and non-Jewish – revealed this to him. And if he was right about these things visible today then we have reason to take him seriously about his Source. He did not only write this little excerpt that we are looking at. He also wrote, as a mouthpiece for this God

“Come, all you who are thirsty, come to the waters;
and you who have no money, come, buy and eat!…
Listen, listen to me, and eat what is good,
and you will delight in the richest of fare.
Give ear and come to me; listen, that you may live.
I will make an everlasting covenant with you…
Seek the Lord while he may be found; call on him while he is near.
Let the wicked forsake their ways and the unrighteous their thoughts.
Let them turn to the Lord, and he will have mercy on them,
and to our God, for he will freely pardon” (Isaiah 55:1-7)

Here is an ongoing invitation, through the pen of this maverick seer that this same God who controls destinies on a global and enduring scale is inviting you and me to come to Him, to listen to Him, receive pardon – and even find Him. If there is even a chance this seer was correct about the global events he foresaw, then he will be right about this invitation for us as well. An invitation on this scale warrants weighing Isaiah and the squad’s ‘Branch’ case. The case can be examined even to textual, historical and prophetic details.

Isaiah & Euphrates River today

Speaking of details, I did not finish this excerpt we started. Right after Isaiah wrote those lines about the Jews returning from world-wide exile while in conflict with those around them, he concluded with:

The Lord will dry up the gulf of the Egyptian sea;
with a scorching wind he will sweep his hand over the Euphrates River.
He will break it up into seven streams so that anyone can cross over in sandals. (Isaiah 11)

That is a rather extreme detail to be projecting down centuries. The reality is that water shortage & drought has become a great concern through that region in the last decades – somewhat in sync with the world-wide return from exile that started in earnest almost 70 years ago. But more recently, since ISIS has taken Northern Syria they control the mid-stream reservoirs of the Euphrates, setting them on a collision course with Turkey which controls the Upper Euphrates. Turkey has just now shut off the taps. While the world has been fixated on MH17 & Israel/Gaza, conflict over Euphrates water, brewing for several years now, has reached new heights as notified in a recent bulletin of the Middle East news outlet Al-Akhbar

The Turkish government recently cut off the flow of the Euphrates River, threatening primarily Syria but also Iraq with a major water crisis. Al-Akhbar found out that the water level in Lake Assad has dropped by about six meters, leaving millions of Syrians without drinking water.

…Violating international norms, the Turkish government recently cut off the water supply of the Euphrates River completely. In fact, Ankara began to gradually reduce pumping Euphrates water about a month and half ago, then cut if off completely two weeks ago, according to information received by Al-Akhbar.

The Euphrates is drying up! Perhaps it would be wise to keep our eyes looking through the lense that this maverick seer and his cohorts penned so many centuries ago that seem to stalk the events occurring in our day.

Best, Sudden Death ‘n the World Cup

As the World Cup in Brazil continues in the Sudden Death of the Quarter Finals the drama  intensifies.  Early favorites Spain and Italy crashed in the group stage while Uruguay’s Suarez bizarre gnawing of an Italian opponent fueled ‘biting’ commentary in the football gossip column.  In the Round of 16, high-profile diving (Netherland’s Robben against Mexico) as well as nail-biting penalty kick deciders (Coast Rica’s dramatic win over Greece) has vaulted both intrigue and suspense into the games.  With every game closely matched the favorites have gone to the edge of sudden death elimination as scrappy underdog teams have fought them every minute of play.  The BBC states that a wide variety of statistics show that this is the best World Cup tournament ever.

For pundits and social media discussions a question remains:  Who is the best player?  Prior to the tournament Messi was an early favorite.  Though he has played very well, Neymar has also excelled.  Columbia’s 22 year old Rodriguez’s tournament leading 5 goal performance and brilliant touch has vaulted his name into the ranks of the contenders.  We await the coming super-star showdowns as the Sudden Death knock-outs continue.

With such world-wide attention riveted on the World Cup and the drama surrounding the teams, games and players it might lead one to wonder whether our devotion will make a lasting mark on us and the world, melting our problems away.

George Best - the best footballer of his generation

George Best – the best footballer of his generation

But then I am reminded of another football player – also a household name – but in a previous era.  Then, like now, this player’s actions both on and off the pitch engendered much discussion and speculation.  He was, in the spirit of our reality TV and celebrity gossip world an ‘idol’.  Regarded as the best player in the world, the irony was that this was also his name – George Best.  He was one of those rare individuals who actually lived out his name.

Best - on the pitch

Best – on the pitch

In spite of arguably being the best football player in the world, George Best had a problem.  This problem is also one that you and I face.  As you can guess, his problem was not lack of football trophies, though heralding from a non-powerhouse football country of Northern Ireland, a World Cup performance eluded him.

best3

Best brings home another trophy

Best’s charm and good looks gave him the nickname “the 5th Beatle” and a steady entourage of girlfriends and wives surrounded him – so his problem was not a lack of relationships and popularity.  Best also had a reputation for drink and fast-living, so his problem was not a lack of fun and good times.

Much of what we hope will give us the ‘good life’ Best got: talent, fame, money, friends and lovers.  He was the talk of the day, admired, loved and followed by so many.

best4

Best – the 5th Beatle

But Best still had this problem that would not go away.  It is one so widespread and common, and so unavoidable that he probably kept himself from thinking about it too much – just as you & I are also tempted to.  Like Best, we may figure that the problem is too intractable and unsolvable that we are better off not thinking about it – perhaps by remaining singularly focused on the revolving sports and entertainment headlines of today.

George Best - Old & Sick

George Best on the left; Older.

George’s problem was that he got sick … got old … and eventually … he died.  True, he accelerated his demise by drinking to excess, but even had he been the picture of sobriety all his life he would only have delayed the inevitable – just as we can (perhaps) only delay the same inevitable fate that awaits us by healthy diet and proper exercise.

It is the utter finality and inescapability of death that pushes us to almost  denial.  Though it is not Sudden Death as in the knock out stage of the World Cup, it is Certain Death that is continually creeping up on us.  We do all we can not to think about it – since after all what can we do about it?  So for many of us our motto becomes “I’m not here for a long time, I am here for a good time”.  We fill our waking hours with work and with good fun – like mesmerizing ourselves with the latest in the non-stop sports and entertainment machine.

Maradonna - Invincible in the 1986 World Cup, here up against 6 Dutch players

Maradonna – Invincible in the 1986 World Cup up against 6 Dutch players

But with the perspective of seeing formerly invincible World Cup champions succumbing to the advances of Death I know that this generation of ‘idols’, in spite of their breath-taking prowess today, also are held in the steely grip of this unseen enemy, stronger by far than any opponent they face on the pitch.

Now if there was no possible solution out there then I would probably concur that it is better just to ‘live for today’ and not think about it.  After all, there is nothing out there that can avoid this approaching sting of Death.

Or is there?  This actually is the central facet of the gospel, the very reason that ‘gospel’ means ‘good news’.  The gospel is not about religious observances, whether worthwhile or

Maradonna - losing his invincibility

Maradonna – losing his invincibility

not; it is not about what we should do; nor is it about some ethereal heaven.  The gospel is that Jesus conquered death, erasing its sting, when he rose alive from the dead, not as a ghost, not like some zombie, nor as a spiritual metaphor – but historically, in the reality of this world, and in the flesh.  And he will give this same resurrection as a gift to any who would take it.

Now some do doubt whether this indeed did happen.  Fair enough, but consider this.  Many of the matches in this World Cup have ended with a dramatic goal in the last minute – even in extra time.  In the last seconds of play, the pessimists (fancying themselves as realists) on the sidelines could rightly say “The chance of scoring is very low”.  But the players in the game and their fans know that until the whistle actually blows there is still hope to seal the game.  In this hope they continue to give everything they have, trying every avenue that opens up to get that last precious goal.  They have nothing to lose and everything to gain by chasing every loose ball and running down every open lane.  All of us expect this from them.

So what about even an offhand possibility that Jesus could have risen as the gospel states?  The stakes are so game-changing that it is surely worth the effort to check it out.  And it can be scrutinized with an investigative, open-minded outlook; it need not be, as some suppose, believed with a religiously narrow-minded don’t-look-at-the-facts attitude.  For starters the textual reliability (ie whether the Biblical documents have been changed or messed with) of the New Testament accounts can be reasonably evaluated and the message of the gospel understood in summary.  Then the events of the alleged resurrection can be weighed with what we know happened in history.   And the Old Testament (written hundreds of years before Jesus ever walked the earth) can be evaluated to see if they really are prophetic utterances, woven together with a consistent theme predicting well in advance whether this indeed was a Divine plan.  There are many openings available to us to seek a lane that is suitable for our position.

I am planning to enjoy the rest of the World Cup, to be captivated with the drama of sudden death knock-outs, the finesse, as well as the prowess displayed by today’s top players of the ‘beautiful game’.  I hope that this would be a memorable tournament for you as well.  We will soon see who the best player in the world is today.  But perhaps with the perspective of knowing that this crop of contenders have only replaced yesterday’s older ‘Greats’, and in Qatar 2018 many of them will be supplanted by the next generation – and that (in the words of Pink Floyd)

You’re older … shorter of breath and one day closer to death

This is why Jesus came and this is why the gospel deserves to be considered.  I hope that you do.

Palm Sunday: Passover Plot or Providence Program?

People around the globe today are commemorating Palm Sunday – the Sunday before Jesus was crucified when he rode into Jerusalem on the foal of a donkey as the long promised Coming King.  It is recorded in all of the Gospels as a watershed event which set in motion the crisis of that Passover Week.

I believe the Gospel for several reasons, but very high up on the list are the widespread, diverse and testable prophecies that, in spite of the vanishingly impossible odds, are fulfilled sometimes hundreds of years after the prophecies were first written down.  I had shown how Daniel (ca 550 BC) had predicted the interval of time to the coming of this awaited King.  This was fulfilled precisely on that Palm Sunday when Jesus rode into Jerusalem on a donkey.  Because of the long time span involved – over 500 years – this meant that the chance that his birth would even just fall in the proper time frame for there to be a chance that he could be around to ride into Jerusalem would itself be startlingly improbable.   Jesus could not have humanly engineered the timing of such a scope.

But the gospel writers do not focus on this timing when they record the events of that Sunday.  Instead they direct our attention to the book of Zechariah (ca 520 BC) and explicitly tell us that when Jesus rode into Jerusalem on a donkey he was fulfilling the prophecy given in Zechariah that:

Look, your king is coming to you.
He is righteous and victorious,
yet he is humble, riding on a donkey—
riding on a donkey’s colt.  (Zechariah 9:9)

Now this fulfillment that the Gospel writers trumpet had never really impressed me for the simple reason that it seemed too easy to plot a ‘fulfillment’.  All that Jesus needed to do was to read Zechariah and recognize that to get a ‘fulfillment’ he would need to ride into Jerusalem on a donkey.  The timing of his entrance aside (which I think is impossible to explain naturally), it would be a simple matter for Jesus to plot his entrance into Jerusalem for the Passover festival and make sure he came in on the donkey as per Zechariah’s script.  And being a lowly peasant it would be easier for Jesus to hatch such a plot than for him to procure a war horse – the steed of choice when kings make their entrances.  So could that entry simply be explained as the plotting of a man using an ancient script to ride a Passover exuberance?

Zechariah’s Prophecy in context

So let’s take the trouble to read the original Zechariah prophecy in its full context and consider such a ‘Passover Plot’ conspiracy.  Here it is:

9 Rejoice, O people of Zion!
Shout in triumph, O people of Jerusalem!
Look, your king is coming to you.
He is righteous and victorious,
yet he is humble, riding on a donkey—
riding on a donkey’s colt.

10 I will remove the battle chariots from Israel
and the warhorses from Jerusalem.
I will destroy all the weapons used in battle,
and your king will bring peace to the nations.
His realm will stretch from sea to sea
and from the Euphrates River to the ends of the earth.
11 Because of the covenant I made with you,
sealed with blood,
I will free your prisoners
from death in a waterless dungeon.
12 Come back to the place of safety,
all you prisoners who still have hope!
I promise this very day
that I will repay two blessings for each of your troubles. (Zechariah 9:9-12)

What jumps out is the bizarre change of scope that spans these few sentences.  The king enters Jerusalem on a donkey (v9) and then his rule will extend to ‘the ends of the earth’ (v10).  And God will seal a covenant ‘with blood’ such that prisoners of death will be freed (v11).  Zechariah saw and predicted something of far greater scope than just an entry to a city on a donkey.  According to Zechariah, tied with this entry would be a new worldwide program as well as a new destiny for ‘prisoners of death’.

And who might that be?

Today, the news outlets across Canada are reporting on the sudden and unexpected death of the recent Canadian Finance Minister Jim Flaherty.  He was considered one of the most successful and influential finance ministers in Canadian history.  He retired three weeks ago in the media spotlight to transition his career.  Today he is dead and his sudden and abrupt death has shocked and saddened everyone.  I submit that he is a ‘prisoner of death’.  Though he had been chief of the finance department, his success and prominence there gave him no advantage in this department of death.   And we too are all following along right behind him – not knowing when or how we will die.  We all are ‘prisoners of death’!  Zechariah was writing this 2500 years ago for you and me.  He was telling us that someone was going to come who would free us from this prison.  But how?  Zechariah explained long before Jesus rode the donkey into Jerusalem that it would be done by God making a covenant ‘sealed with blood’ (v11) – echoing the sign of the Passover Blood and the release from death that Isaac experienced in Abraham’s sacrifice.  A few short days after Jesus rode into Jerusalem atop his donkey on Palm Sunday he did indeed inaugurate a new covenant and then literally sealed it with his blood.  And three days after that he rose from the dead.  The doors of that prison which holds us all busted open.  The fact that Zechariah could see it so long before it happened indicates that the entry of Jesus on the donkey was not the desperate plot of a pitiful man, but rather it was a key sign marking a Providential Program for the largest jailbreak imaginable – to spring all of humanity from the prison of death.  The entry of Jesus into Jerusalem on a donkey was prominent for the gospel writers precisely because they saw it as a key sign marking that larger Providential Program that Zechariah had sketched out 500 years earlier.

But what about this rule that Zechariah wrote would go to the ‘ends of the earth’?  Jesus never ruled – the prophecy is in error, critics will charge.  But to think of ‘ruling’ solely in political or military terms is to miss the most powerful rule of all – the personal allegiance of a one’s heart freely given in worship.  Though Jim Flaherty was a senior member of the party that ‘rules’ in Canada, he never had that kind of rule over one single person in the entire country.  But Jesus at his trial calmly claimed that he would one day get this rule – worship – from people around the world.  Here we are two thousand years later with Palm Sunday inaugurating Passion Week which will be celebrated in worship by people around the world, in all nations, in a multitude of languages.  From that point of view Zechariah’s prediction of a rule ‘to the ends of the earth’ was indeed fulfilled by that peasant carpenter who rode into Jerusalem on a lowly donkey so many Sundays ago.

But what about the removal of all weapons of war from Israel (v10)?  That certainly has not happened. In fact today Israel is one of the most weaponized countries in the world!  True enough.  But that prediction is anticipating the conclusion in this Providential Program.  We are not there yet.  We are now at the stage exemplified in v12 where the plea and offer is going out to all us prisoners of death to come to his place of safety.  The news and offer of the ‘jailbreak’ is going around the world and many are choosing to take it.

In the context of this larger Program, Zechariah predicted that this King would make another entrance.  He wrote

“Then I will pour out a spirit of grace and prayer on the family of David and on the people of Jerusalem. They will look on me whom they have pierced and mourn for him as for an only son. They will grieve bitterly for him as for a firstborn son who has died.  (Zechariah 13:10)

The one that had been pierced and had died, and in so doing had sealed that covenant with his blood, will come back!  It is a hope I have, and some may charge me with naïvity for keeping it.  But given that Zechariah was bang on with both the details and the outworkings of that entrance on a donkey, it is simply a reasoned leap to trust that this Second Entrance in this greater Program of Providence will also one day come about.  And when it does, I want to be part of the jailbreak.

The Noah Controversy: Could that Flood have happened?

Russel Crowe starring in Noah

Russel Crowe starring in Noah

Today movie theaters worldwide open with one of the most anticipated blockbusters of 2014 – “Noah”.  Not only is there a lot of hype surrounding the movie but a lot of controversy as well.  Critics are questioning how faithfully the plotline follows the biblical account – with Russell Crowe (who stars as Noah) trying – and failing – to get the Pope’s personal stamp of approval for the film.  In the Islamic world several countries are banning the movie since it visually depicts a prophet – which is forbidden in most Islamic interpretations.  But all these hullabaloos are merely minor hiccups compared to a much deeper and longer-running controversy – did such a worldwide flood really happen?  That’s a question worth considering.

I have shown how multiple cultures around the world have a memory of a great flood leaving only a handful of survivors from which they descended.  There is anthropological and historical evidence for a ‘Noah’.  But are there any physical evidences of ‘his’ flood around in the world today?

The Power of Moving Flood Water seen in Tsunamis

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The Tsunami hits the coast of Japan in 2011

Let’s start by surmising what such a flood would have done to the earth.  For sure, a flood of that scope would involve unimaginable quantities of water moving at great speeds and depths over continental distances.  Large quantities of water moving at high speeds have a lot of kinetic energy (KE = ½ * mass * velocity2).   This is why floods are so destructive.  When we saw the pictures of the 2011 Tsunami that devastated Japan, we saw how kinetic water energy can cause extensive damage, easily picking up and moving large objects like cars, homes and boats – and crippling nuclear reactors in its path.

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That tsunami showed how the energy of a few ‘big’ waves could move and destroy almost everything in their path

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Floods and Sedimentary Rock

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A flooding river in Ecuador. The water is brown because the fast moving water is carrying a lot of dirt – sediment.

Thus, when water increases its speed it will start to pick up and transport sediment – particles of dirt, sand, rocks and boulders.

This is why swollen and flooding rivers are brown – they are loaded with sediment (soil and rock) that has been picked up from the surface over which the water is traveling.

Aerial view in New England showing brown flood water entering ocean.  It is brown from the sediments

Aerial view in New England showing brown flood water entering ocean. It is brown from the sediments

sediment will sort into layers based on particle size even in a 'dry' flow

sediment will sort into layers based on particle size even in a ‘dry’ flow

When water starts to slow down and loses its kinetic energy it then drops this sediment which is deposited in laminar layers resulting in a particular kind of rock.

Japan tsunami 2011. Sediment laid down during tsunami flooding.2011-tsunami-sediment

Sediments from the 2011 Japan Tsunami showing pancake-like layers – this is the signature for sedimentary rock – rock that was laid down by moving water. Taken from British Geological Survey website

This kind of rock is known as sedimentary rock and is easily recognized by its trademark pancake-like layers that are stacked upon one another.  The figure below shows sedimentary layers about 20 cm thick (from the measuring tape) that were deposited from the devastating 2011 tsunami in Japan.

Sedimentary rock from Tsunami that hit Japan in 859 AD

Sedimentary rock from a tsunami that hit Japan in 859 AD. It also produced sedimentary rock about 20-30 cm thick. Taken from British Geological Survey website

Tsunamis and river floods leave their signatures behind in these sedimentary rocks long after the flood has receded and things have turned back to normal.

Sedimentary Strata around the World

So, do we find sedimentary rocks that are, in a similar way, signature markers for the Noahic deluge that the Bible claims happened?  When you ask that question and you start to look around you will see that our planet is literally covered in sedimentary rock.  You will notice this type of pancake-layer rock on highway cut-a-ways.  What is different about this sedimentary rock, when you compare it with the sedimentary strata that were produced by the devastating tsunami of Japan in 2011 is the sheer size – both laterally across the earth and in vertical thickness of sedimentary layers.  Below are some photos that I have taken of sedimentary rocks as I have traveled.

Mountains of Sedimentary rock in hinterlands of Morocco

Sedimentary formations in the hinterlands of Morocco that extend for many kilometers and are hundreds of meters thick vertically

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Sedimentary rock in Joggins, Nova Scotia. The layers are tilted about 30 degrees and are stacked vertically more than a kilometer deep.

 

The escarpment in Hamilton Ontario shows vertical sedimentary rock many meters thick

The escarpment in Hamilton Ontario shows vertical sedimentary rock many meters thick. This is part of the Niagara escarpment which extends for hundreds of miles.

 

This escarpment extends for hundreds of miles.  This sedimentary formation covers a good part of North America

This sedimentary formation covers a good part of North America

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Sedimentary formations on a drive through US MidWest

Sedimentary formations on a drive through the US Midwest

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Note the cars (barely visible) for scale to compare with these sedimentary rocks.

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The sedimentary formations go on and on…
Bryce Canyon Sedimentary Formations

Bryce Canyon Sedimentary Formations in US Midwest

 

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Towering Sedimentary formations on drive through US Midwest

 

Continental extent of the sedimentary strata in US Midwest.  Miles thick and hundreds of miles wide
Continental extent of the Sedimentary strata in US Midwest. Miles thick and extending laterally for hundreds of miles. Taken from ‘Grand Canyon: Monument to Catastrophe’ by Dr. Steve Austin

So if one tsunami which caused such devastation in Japan left sedimentary layers measured in centimeters and that extend inland a few kilometers, what mechanism explains the gigantic and continental-in-scope sedimentary formations found almost over the entire globe (including on the ocean bottom) that are measured vertically in hundreds of meters and are measured laterally in thousands of kilometers?  Could these sedimentary rocks be the signature of Noah’s flood?

Rapid Deposition of Sedimentary Formations

No one argues that the planet is not covered in sedimentary rock of unbelievably massive scope.  The question is whether these sedimentary rocks were laid down by one event (i.e. Noah’s flood), or whether these massive formations were built up over time through a series of smaller events (of the scope of the tsunami in Japan of 2011) that were separated by significant intervals of time. The figure below illustrates this other concept.

Conceptual illustration of how large sedimentary formations could have formed

Conceptual illustration of how large sedimentary formations could have formed apart from Noah’s flood

As you can see, in this model of sedimentary formation (technically known as neo-catastrophism) a series of high impact sedimentary events are separated by large intervals of time.  These events add sedimentary layers onto the previous layers and so, over time, the huge formations that we see around the world today are built up sequentially.

Soil Formation and Sedimentary Strata

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Sedimentary rock in Prince Edward Island. We can see that a soil layer has formed on top of it so we know that some period of time has elapsed since these strata were laid down by flood water

Do we have any real-world data that can help us evaluate between these two models?  Actually, it is not that hard to spot.  On top of many of these sedimentary formations we see that soil layers have formed.  Thus a physical and observable indicator of time passage after a sedimentary event is soil formed on top of it.  Soil is characterized by horizons (called A horizon – often dark with organic material, the B horizon – with more minerals, etc.).

Thin layer of soil (and trees) has formed over sedimentary rock that has been exposed for a time

Thin layer of soil (and trees) has formed over sedimentary rock in US Midwest showing that these sedimentary rocks were laid down some time ago.

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Soil layer clearly visible on top of sedimentary rock in US Midwest. These rocks were thus laid down sometime ago.

Sedimentary strata laid down to form a new ocean bottom will also soon be marked with life signs.  Wormholes, clam tunnels and other signs of life (known as bioturbation) provide tell-tale signs of life and of the passage of time since the strata were deposited on the sea floor.

bioturbation

Life on the bottom of shallow seas will, over a rather short interval of time, reveal its telltale markers. This is called bioturbation

 

Conceptual illustration of how large sedimentary formations could have formed

Testing the model of catastrophe sequences by looking for evidence of soil formation or bioturbation at the ‘Time passes’ planes

Armed with this insight we can see if we find evidence of soil formation or bioturbation at these ‘Time passes’ borders in the strata formation.  After all, this model is saying that at some point these ‘Time passes’ boundaries were exposed surfaces for significant periods of time either on land or under water.  In that case we should expect some of these surfaces to have developed soil or bioturbation indicators.  When these time boundary surfaces were buried by subsequent sedimentary events the soil or bioturbation would have likewise been buried.  Take a look again at the photos above and below.  Do we see any evidence of either soil formation or bioturbation?

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No evidence of soil layers or bioturbation in this sedimentary formation in US Midwest.

There is no evidence of soil layers or bioturbation in the above photo or the one below.  Look again at the Hamilton escarpment photo and you will see no evidence of any bioturbation or soil formation.  From that data the bottom of these formations were laid down almost equivalent in time from the top.  Yet these formations all extend vertically about 50-100 meters.

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Folding of Sedimentary Rocks

 

Sedimentary strata formed in 1980 from Mount St Helens had already become brittle by 1983
Sedimentary strata formed in 1980 from Mount Saint Helens had already become brittle by 1983. Taken from ‘Grand Canyon: Monument to Catastrophe’ by Dr. Steve Austin

Sedimentary strata, when they are laid down in moving water are initially permeated with water and thus they bend very easily.  They are pliable.  But it only takes a few years for these sedimentary strata to dry out and harden and when that happens they become brittle as was learned from the events of Mount St Helens eruption in 1980 followed by a 1983 lake breach.

When brittle rock is bent it snaps. This principle is shown

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Sedimentary rock gets brittle very quickly. When brittle it snaps when bent.

 

in the figure on the side.  We can see this sort of rock failure in the Niagara escarpment.  After these sediments were laid down they became brittle and when an upthrust then pushed up some of these sedimentary layers they snapped under the shear stress, forming the Niagara escarpment which runs for hundreds of miles.  From this evidence

Niagara escarpment

Niagara escarpment is Sedimentary Rock that broke under shear stress and was thrust up in a fault.

Niagara escarpment is an upthrust extending hundreds of miles

Niagara escarpment is an upthrust extending hundreds of miles

we know that the upthrust that produced the Niagara escarpment happened after these sedimentary strata became brittle so there was some time lapse between the deposition of these sedimentary strata and the upthrust which produced the escarpment.  There was at least enough time between these events for the strata to harden and become brittle – which does not take eons of time, but does take a couple of years at least.

The photo below shows large sedimentary formations that I photographed in Morocco.  You can see how the strata formation bends as a unit.  There is no evidence of the strata snapping either in tension (pulled apart) or in shear (sidewise stress).  This whole formation must have still been pliable when it was bent.  But if it takes only a couple of years for sedimentary rock to become brittle. This means that there can be no significant passage of time between the lower layers and the upper layers in this formation.  If there had been ‘time passage’ in these layers then the earlier layers would have become brittle and would have snapped rather than bent when the formation was contorted.

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Sedimentary formations in Morocco. The whole formation bends as a unit showing that it had still been supple (rather than dry and brittle) when it was bent. This indicates that there is no time passage from the bottom to the top of this formation.

Schematic of upthrust at Grand Canyon showing it was raised vertically about 5000 feet - one mile

Schematic of monocline (bending upthrust) at Grand Canyon showing it was raised vertically about 5000 feet – one mile. Adapted from “The Young Earth” by Dr. John Morris

We can see the same type of bending in the Grand Canyon.  At some point in the past there was a bending upthrust (technically known as a monocline), similar to the Niagara escarpment, that raised one side of the strata one mile vertically up (this you see from the elevation difference of 7000 ft compared to 2000 ft on the opposing sides of the upthrust).  But here the strata did not snap (like the Niagara escarpment did).  Instead it bent at both the bottom and the top of the formation, indicating that it was still pliable throughout rather than brittle through the formation.

Bending that occurred at Tapeats, in the low layer of Grand Canyon sedimentary formations

Bending that occurred at Tapeats, in the low layer of the Grand Canyon sedimentary formations. Taken from ‘Grand Canyon: Monument to Catastrophe’ by Dr. Steve Austin

This indicates that the time interval from the bottom to the top of these strata has an upper limit of a couple of years (the time it takes for sedimentary strata to become hard and brittle).

Noah’s Flood vs. Flood on Mars

The idea of Noah’s flood having actually happened is, of course, quite controversial and in this one article I cannot cover all the issues that it raises which I hope to do later.

Sedimentation and flooding on Mars?

Sedimentation and flooding on Mars?

Mars sediment 2 But at the very least, it is instructive to consider an irony in our modern day.  Because of the channeling and evidence of sedimentation that are visible on Mars, it is actively postulated that Mars was once inundated by a huge flood.  The big problem with this theory is that no water has ever been discovered on the Red Planet.  But for the Earth, though it is 2/3 covered by water – deep enough to cover our whole globe to a depth of one mile if the oceanic trenches were raised and the land mountains smoothed down so the world had less topographic variation – and though it is covered with continental sized sedimentary formations that by physical and observable evidence seem to have been deposited rapidly in a devastating cataclysm, it is almost considered heresy to postulate that any such flood has ever occurred on this planet.  Is that not a double standard?  Though we may look at this Russell Crowe Noah movie as only a reenactment of a myth written as a Hollywood script, perhaps we should look and consider whether the rocks themselves are crying out about this deluge story written on scripts of stone.