We apologize for this improbable headline to draw attention to two stories making the rounds: new claims about Noah’s Ark on Mt. Ararat, and new claims about life on Mars. Headlines on these topics show up periodically in the news. What do the subjects have in common? How do they differ? Do the most recent instances affirm tradition or break new ground?
Claims about Noah’s Ark are usually made – though not exclusively – by some Bible-believing Christians (also some Muslims and Jews), while claims about life on Mars are typically made (though again, not exclusively) by some evolutionists. There is nothing about the Biblical story of Noah that prevents an unbeliever from being interested in claims about a boat on Ararat, and there is nothing that prevents a Christian from accepting the possibility of life on Mars. Nevertheless, advocates are generally divided along those ideological lines, and critics equally divided along the opposing lines: evolutionists are often boisterous in their ridicule of “Arkeologists” (while some Christians are, too), while Bible-believers often ignore or sneer at claims about life in outer space (while some evolutionists do, too).
The latest Ark claim burst onto the scene April 25 with a press conference and a website (noahsarksearch.net) showing detailed pictures and video of a wood structure allegedly found inside a cave high on Mt. Ararat in Turkey. It seemed too good to be true. Instead of the usual vague shapes of rock that might resemble a ship from some angles, here was unmistakable artificially-manipulated timber shaped into rooms and structures found above timberline. Unless the eyewitnesses were all liars, it seemed straightforward. One of them said he was 99.9% sure it was Noah’s Ark. Some creation organizations snatched up the tantalizing news with cautious optimism; others, having been burned in the past, seemed to adopt a wait-and-see attitude. CMI put out a short press release with daily updates, but expressed the “need for caution—in both directions.…” The story made Fox News, ABC News and other leading news organizations. Skeptics like those at the James Randi Foundation were quick to moan “not again!” with dismissive vituperation against what they perceive as Christian gullibility. Alan Boyle in his Cosmic Log at MSNBC positioned the claim in the tradition of reports that surface occasionally, remarking that “a boatload of skepticism is in order.” Then on April 27 a letter from Dr. Randall Price surfaced. He is a Biblical archaeologist and member of a rival search team. His letter, reproduced at Bible Places Blog, claims that the site is a cleverly-devised hoax. The timbers were hauled up there from the Black Sea, he claims, by Turks who misled the Chinese into thinking they were the remains of Noah’s boat. Nevertheless, that claim does not answer all the questions. Some diehards are questioning Price’s motives, because he lost money on the deal and may not be impartial because he has his own search going on. They also doubted his first-hand knowledge of details mentioned in the letter. Subsequent to Price’s hoax allegation, World Net Daily posted a lengthy article sharing some of the diversity of opinions about the claim, and so did the Christian Science Monitor. The rest of this story is TBD.
Update 12/07/2010: Randall Price was interviewed by CBN and claims he has proof it is a hoax by a disreputable guide who misled the Chinese team. But he also claims his own team has found a rectangular anomaly under the ice with ground-penetrating radar, and hopes to excavate it next summer. Video at World of the Bible.
What’s lively on Mars? News about Martian microbes tends to come around more frequently than Noah’s Ark reports. This month has been no exception. In a way kind of mirroring the Chinese Ark story, there was a short-lived headline that NASA had new evidence of life on Mars posted by The Sun, a British tabloid, which NASA quickly denied as “positively false” according to Clara Moskowitz on Space.com. More serious sources kept hope alive, though. New Scientist updated notions with optimism: “Life on Mars, if it ever existed, may be easier to find than previously thought,” an article said, announcing that common Mars rocks can preserve life after all. “New research on terrestrial rocks suggests that a type of rock common on Mars can preserve fossilised microbial life, rather than erasing evidence of it as previously thought.” But that’s only a possibility, not a discovery. The possibilities for unique Martian life were dimmed somewhat by PhysOrg’s report from the American Society for Microbiology that “Earth microbes may contaminate the search for life on Mars.” This is another in the “too late” category: our landers may have already contaminated the Red Planet with our own germs. (In a sense, then, if Earth were destroyed, Mars could be a kind of Ark preserving at least some organisms; but that’s hardly a justification for the tabloid headline to this entry.) James Urquhard announced a headline on New Scientist sure to give fodder to cartoonists: “Look for Mars life with laughing gas.” Scientists at the University of Georgia think that nitrous oxide could provide an atmospheric biomarker for future missions hunting Martians: “This could be an easy way to ‘sniff’ around the surface of Mars looking for pockets of sub-surface brine that might be hotspots for extreme microbial life.” It goes without saying that the relatively new science of “astrobiology” has ambitions beyond Mars. Europa, Titan, and Enceladus are all hot targets, and the sky’s the limit: millions of dollars have been spent on missions like Kepler, the Space Interferometry Mission, Terrestrial Planet Finder and other stepping stones to the discovery of life among the stars. And then there’s SETI: privately funded, but just as eager to find an unseen, hoped-for reality.
Two hunting parties: Arkeologists and Astrobiologists. Both get excited over each tantalizing hint of success. Both have outspoken critics. Both have yet to find definitive proof of their reason for being. Both are convinced that proof would clobber their critics with the superiority of their theological or philosophical views. One can only wonder what would happen if Noah’s Ark and life on Mars were found simultaneously. At least it would be a good day for sociologists.
This comparison and contrast is not meant to depict the two camps as equal and opposite, nor the implications of each belief system as equally credible and equally ridiculous, or any such thing. For goodness’ sake, look at the asymmetry in funding! Astrobiology gets millions of dollars from the federal government and is supported by the major universities, whereas Ark researchers struggle with private donations on a thankless and difficult search in a remote, politically-dangerous part of the world. Ark research is tangible and potentially falsifiable. The mountain is finite. Disproving astrobiology would amount to disproving a universal negative. The Flood may be ridiculous to certain anti-Christian rationalist skeptics (you know, the ones with the Enlightenment baseball caps who act skeptical of everything but their own skepticism – about that, they are certain). These people love to yuck it up over the credulous Christians falling for the latest Noah’s Ark hoax. Out come the clippings of Jammal and all the rest to parade before the press again. They never seem to recognize their own credulity when it comes to the Mars meteorite and every whiff of methane or laughing gas that is detected that might suggest the remotest possibility, against astronomical odds, that life could have “emerged” there by unintelligent causes. Recently one of their heroes, Stephen Hawking, proposed that life might exist in the interior of stars (see Rob Sheldon blog). Did any of them blush at that? Let them tell us on what scientific observations such a preposterous suggestion could possibly be based. It’s beyond the credibility of even science fiction. It sounds like something a drunk Smogarian would say after staring at a lava lamp. Let them laugh at Christians who believe in the Flood account all they want; they are laughing in the face of Jesus Christ, who mentioned the story of Noah as if it were a fact of history (Matthew 24:38–39). And they had better not forget that millions of smart Christians and scientists in the intelligent design community, find evolutionists’ astrobiological beliefs even more ridiculous. Life by chance? in primordial soup? You’ve got to be kidding. So Dykstra’s Law holds: everybody is somebody else’s weirdo. Understood? Come, let us reason together. (Just remember that by reasoning you are partaking of Judeo-Christian assumptions, so park your naturalism at the door if you want in.)
First, what would extraterrestrial life imply? This has been discussed for centuries by Christians and skeptics alike. It is not a new question. No Christian philosopher is biting his fingernails worrying about the day when life on Mars or some exoplanet is found, as if it will disprove the Bible or make theology irrelevant. One cannot say extraterrestrial life will prove the naturalistic origin of life without begging the question. It could have been created. There is a very rich history of discussion about this very question we cannot possibly do justice to here; suffice it to say there is a diversity of opinions about the implications of extraterrestrial life, because the Bible is silent about the question. It would be an interesting discovery; it would not be a damaging discovery for Christianity. The absence of life anywhere but on Earth, however, would be very difficult for naturalists to explain. It would make life unique to Earth. Their only appeal would be the Stuff Happens Law: the anti-scientific cop-out.
As for the possibility of finding the Ark, even for those who accept the Biblical story there are reasons to doubt it was preserved. For one thing, the Bible is vague about the location: all it says is that the Ark came to rest in the mountains of Ararat (plural). One has to ascertain if the original language refers to the same region, let alone the same mountain. Would the Ark have come to rest near the summit of such a peak? The modern Mt. Ararat has also been subject to violent earthquakes and landslides. Its extreme environment makes it hard to believe a wooden structure would survive for thousands of years. The descendents of Noah might have needed to strip it for materials in the first years after the Flood. Why should anything remain?
Nevertheless, persistent eyewitness reports, some of them credible by reasonable standards, and a long history of written reports from antiquity, have not let hopes die. They keep hardy individuals willing to invest and climb and search in hopes of locating the biggest archaeological artifact of all time. One cannot blame them for trying. What’s the harm? The harm is only when there are hoaxes and frauds, but many of the searchers are honest men and women who really want to follow the evidence and know the truth. The self-seeking frauds are usually found out in due time. They give the honest ones a bad name. A certain level of enthusiasm and readiness to hope the latest claim is real is to be expected; it keeps hope alive in a difficult and often thankless enterprise. If rationalist skeptics are going to laugh out loud at Arkeologists, they need to laugh out loud at themselves every time they jump to conclusions about life in outer space.
Regarding this latest claim by the Chinese, the story is still developing; for now, we are going to treat it as “interesting, worth investigating further, but probably not Ark-related till proven otherwise.” The pictures were certainly eye-popping. If these really were taken at 14,000 feet up that mountain, something large and artificial got there somehow, and if the timbers were trucked up there from the Black Sea by hoaxsters like Randall Price claims, that’s quite a trick. It could have been done with enough money and motivation. The Chinese team appears too credulous, too eager to link this with Noah, and not careful enough with their documentation and scientific measurements. There are too many questions. The burden of proof is high. We do not need another fraud or disappointment paraded in the news. Without an independent investigation done rigorously, and with claims of fraud coming from a plausible (albeit not disinterested) source, no one should trust the claims at this time.
We’re all believers in something. We all need a healthy skepticism, too. The Apostle Paul gave advice skeptics and believers alike should be able to agree on, whether looking for life on Mars or a boat on a mountain: “Test all things; hold fast what is good” (I Thessalonians 5:21).
Footnote to Christians: Would proof of Noah’s Ark convince skeptics? Consider that Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead, out in the open, in front of multiple eyewitnesses, after Lazarus had been dead and in the tomb for four days. Evidence doesn’t get much better than that. His highly-educated enemies could not deny it – and did not try to. What was their response? When they saw throngs of people following Jesus because of what he had done, their rational, calm, reasoned, enlightened response in view of overpowering physical evidence was not only to plot to kill Jesus, but to kill Lazarus, too (John 11–12:9). This was after they had already interrogated the man born blind Jesus had healed, and his parents, but refused to believe. Evidence separated the truth-seekers from the pseudo-truth-seekers.
What is the value of evidence for Christians? Some have responded to this latest Noah’s Ark story that they don’t need archaeological evidence like Noah’s Ark; they believe the Bible by faith. OK, well, define faith. That sentiment is a half-truth. Faith had better be based on something or else it is an irrational leap in the dark, not faith. The Bible portrays faith as a leap out of darkness into the light. True faith should step in the direction the evidence is pointing. After all, the Bible itself is archaeological evidence – an inscription from the past. On what basis do you believe it? Hopefully, because you know it can be corroborated by both internal and external evidence, in addition to its impact on your own heart. The discovery of Noah’s Ark would be one particularly powerful instance of many correspondences of the Biblical record to extra-biblical history, but no one item like Noah’s Ark should be treated like a prop on which one’s faith depends. It is the preponderance of evidence from multiple, independent avenues that gives a Christian confidence to trust God’s word. One can hope that real truth-seekers would also be impressed by such a discovery were it to be confirmed, and would be moved to trust in God also. Regarding the pseudo-truth-seekers: well, without repentance, no amount of evidence will change a stubborn, rebellious heart (2 Peter 3). You will know them by their fruits.