Extinction episodes as a challenge to faith

Hey, Mr. Dinosaur, you really couldn’t ask for more
You were God’s favorite creature, but you didn’t have a future
The Police, “Walking In Your Footsteps”

In a previous post I summarized the atheistic account of evolution:

The cosmos has no guiding intelligence behind it; evolution proceeds disinterestedly from cause to effect, with no telos (ultimate objective) in view.

Christians beg to differ. Those of us who accept that the theory of evolution is true nonetheless insist that it was set in motion by the Creator. God had a telos in mind and continued to work toward it.

The proportions of the timeline are admittedly problematic, as we explored in the previous post: a 4.55 billion year old cosmos, with human beings arising only in the last 40,000 years. But God is eternal: to contemplate the passage of billions of years may boggle the human imagination, but presumably it isn’t such a big deal to God.

However, there are other problems confronting a theistic account of evolution. In this post, I want to talk about extinction episodes.

Most people are familiar with one extinction episode. Dinosaurs once ruled the earth and then, shockingly, they were wiped out. I suggest that this is a problem for anyone who thinks evolution is a telos-oriented process. Why would God create a whole order of animals, establish them as dominant over the rest of the animal kingdom, and then wipe them out? How does that constitute progress toward a goal?

It comes as a bit of a shock to dig a little deeper and learn that there were other extinction episodes, some of them even more dramatic. Here I am summarizing data gleaned from Richard Fortey, Life: A Natural History of the First Four Billion Years of Life on Earth. (The geological time lines are conveniently laid out here.)

Age Date Episode
End of Precambrian 543 million years ago “This is an important development: for the first time, something has been taken away, never to reappear; previously, change was wrought by the successive addition of more and more kinds of organisms.” (p. 83)
End of Ordovician 443 million years ago Due to a little-known ice age, “many kinds of animals became extinct; in fact, well over half of all the species previously living.” (p. 135)
During the Devonian 417 to 354 mya “There was a series of extinctions … which have only recently been recognized, and whose cause is still debated.” (p. 180)
End of the Permian 248 million years ago “The greatest of all extinctions … was probably a double event [about 10 million years apart]. … The transformation was evidently greatest in the sea, where it has been claimed that up to 96 per cent of all species died out (and nearly 60 per cent of the families, the higher units of classification). … Many of the land-based vertebrate animals [likewise] suffered an extinction (but less marked).” (pp. 203-5)
End of Cretaceous 65 mya The dramatic demise of the dinosaur and other animals, including marine animals.

Extinction episodes present a significant problem for any theistic account of evolution. I have no easy, tidy solutions to offer. (In any event, I would rather provoke you to think than tell you what to think.)

Suggestions, anybody?

copyright © 2006, Stephen


5 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Jamie
    Nov 05, 2006 @ 19:32:40

    Can’t help on this one. I agree with you; it’s a major problem. What surprises me is that in a conflict between theology and science, you are only willing to question your theology, not the science. This, in spite of the fact that you seemed to acknowledge (in comments on my blog) that science is at least somewhat biased against theism. Why would you not question anti-theistic science on points where it contradicts your theistic beliefs?


  2. Stephen
    Nov 06, 2006 @ 09:14:10


    I always make a distinction between (1) the raw data and (2) the interpretation of that data. Admittedly, it’s a problematic distinction. People don’t look at the raw data from a standpoint of pure, detached objectivity. Even scientists sometimes fail to see what is right in front of them.

    Despite that problem, data and interpretation are, in principle, discrete elements.

    Both elements are present in both science and theology. For example, we may ask whether Jesus was raised bodily from the dead. In 1Co. 15, Paul lists a bunch of resurrection appearances. The synoptic Gospels tell us that the tomb was empty. This constitutes the raw data. A sceptic will ask, do the accounts go back to eyewitnesses?

    If we decide that the accounts preserve eyewitness reports, then we’re on something like solid ground. But the raw data still have to be interpreted.

    A sceptic may propose that the “eyewitnesses” were hallucinating. Absolute proof always eludes us. But perhaps the raw data prove the resurrection beyond a reasonable doubt. Perhaps, on a balance of probabilities. Again, we may ask whether they prove a bodily resurrection, or merely spiritual survival beyond death.

    First we debate the raw data; then, their interpretation.

    Why would you not question anti-theistic science on points where it contradicts your theistic beliefs?

    With respect to science, it is impossible for me to challenge the raw data. I can’t debate the fossil record, let alone the number of particles in orbit around an atom. I am simply not competent to form an opinion; I have to trust what the experts tell us.

    Thankfully, scientists challenge one another. Errors get exposed, though it sometimes takes a while.

    However, the interpretation of the data is a separate matter. In my opinion, science is suspect at that point. There is clearly a naturalist bias at work which glosses over the many significant difficulties which stand in the way of an atheistic account of Earth’s history.

    I am satisfied that a literal interpretation of the Bible is untenable … even risible. The age of the earth remains a very important starting point. Scientists agreed on the raw data long ago … beginning even before Darwin. As for its interpretation, alternative theories have been proposed, debated, and rejected. In my view, it is impossible to take the “young earth” position seriously.

    The length of time during which homo sapiens has existed is likewise well established. We’re left with a gap of billions of years, during which other living things prospered and, in many cases, became extinct.

    Even if that information is accepted to be “fact”, we always return to the tricky business of interpretation. Does such data disprove God’s existence? For example, one might imagine the God of the deists — an “absentee landlord” — as Creator.

    Or one might continue to defend the God and Father of Jesus Christ as Creator. The thing is, the certainty of fundamentalists on this point is ridiculous. Personally, I have completely lost interest in debating such abstruse constructs as the Trinity … hence my decision to shut down Toward Jerusalem. Theology students who think that’s the cutting edge of the debate assume way too much.

    I’m way back at the earlier stages of the debate. How confident can we be of God’s existence? How defensible is the core body of Christian doctrine?

    (I identified what are for me the core doctrines in a comment to David Wilkerson here.)

    I have many questions … and few answers.


  3. David
    Nov 06, 2006 @ 23:49:45

    You seem unusually intelligent and, more importantly, curious for a theist. I fear (or hope) your faith is or will eventually be in jeopardy. This kind of random intermingling of of rational logical thinking with faith – statements backed up by no evidence at all – formed for me a significant initial fissure in my faith.

    Raised in a good/decent Christian home, son of a New Testament scholar and ordained minister, I was always fascinated by science (dinosaurs, evolution, etc.) religion always troubled me. After over 40 years of precarious and forced faith, followed by agnosticism, I’ve finally come to terms with my athiesm.

    If there is a God, or Gods, He/She/They went to ridiculously and extraordinarily great lengths to cover His/Their tracks. The more and more I read/learn, through science, about the Universe, Evolution, etc. the more it appears that religion is just so much wishful thinking. And for me the revelations of science has filled my mind and “spirit” with more awe and wonder and gratitude – orders of magnitude more! – than religion ever did. Religion in comparison is small, incurious, parochial, puny.

    Reading Dennett’s ‘Breaking the Spell’, I’m now convinced that religion has been upgraded – from a mystery to a problem – it can and is being subjected to scientific inquiry, and will likely someday be (perhaps hundreds of years hence) explained away and widely accepted as bunk. Just as belief in Zeus, Thor, and Poseidon is no longer considered “logical”. You are already an atheist. You do not believe in the Gods of those religions, nor in the Gods of Islam, Judiasm, Hindiusm, etc.

    I would respectfully suggest if you want to retain your faith, that you stop asking such troubling questions. Religion, all (successful) religions, have set up (evolved) a system whereby it is essentially taboo to even question certain basic tenets. A survival mechanism, like a the shell of a tortoise. You are on the verge of violating those taboos.

    I bet you are one of the few theists who has the intellectual honesty and courage to even read a book like ‘Breaking the Spell’. I hereby challenge you 😉



  4. Stephen
    Nov 07, 2006 @ 12:28:55

    Hi, David:

    You’re quite right:
    • I’m a theist who won’t desist asking questions;
    • This constitutes a violation of a key religious taboo, which has made me something of an outcast in church circles;
    • it also makes faith problematic for me, personally.

    Raised in a good/decent Christian home, son of a New Testament scholar and ordained minister … I’ve finally come to terms with my athiesm.

    I have a great deal of respect for that. Christians admire those who make great personal sacrifices for the faith; but it can also require great personal sacrifice to renounce faith. A blogging friend, Snaars, is a case in point. (Scroll past the first part of the post.) Painful stuff!

    I am a former pastor. I went through a crisis of faith in the late 90s. No doubt I’m still working through it … but with much less angst than I was feeling five years ago. If faith is false, I will walk away from it.

    This kind of random intermingling of of rational logical thinking with faith – statements backed up by no evidence at all – formed for me a significant initial fissure in my faith.

    It is perhaps impossible to point to positive evidence of God’s existence. What a theist can point to are the areas of great mystery — riddles which science may never be able to solve.

    I’m aware that this is often dismissed as a “God of the gaps” approach to theism. But some of the gaps — e.g., the origins of life — are enormous. Atheists insist that a naturalist explanation will emerge in due course. Theists regard that as a faith stance, and offer a different faith stance in its place.

    The question that troubles me more is, whether such a faith is worth maintaining!

    For me the revelations of science has filled my mind and “spirit” with more awe and wonder and gratitude – orders of magnitude more! – than religion ever did. Religion in comparison is small, incurious, parochial, puny.

    I appreciate you sharing that perspective with me. Another blogger, Jewish Atheist says the same thing (though not in his current post).

    Finally … I’m sure I’m up to the challenge of reading “Breaking the Spell”. I’m currently reading a biography of Charles Darwin, and a book called “Seven Clues to the Origin of Life”. Soon I would like to read “Genesis and Geology”.

    So I can’t say when I’ll get to the book you recommend, but it isn’t for lack of courage!


  5. David
    Nov 07, 2006 @ 15:48:37

    Thanks, Stephen, for your thoughtful response. I’m always interested in hearing views from reflective/curious Christians. Take care, David.


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