I OWN THREE FOSSIL TRILOBITES, two small inch and a half specimens—elrathia kingi—taken out of the Wheeler Shale in Utah, and a larger one of unknown provenance, which I believe is a paradoxides. They are all dated to the Cambrian era, about 500 million years ago, when all life was marine life and complex life first exploded. They are marvels of living engineering, with segmented bodies and intricate compound eyes. There were dozens of variations. They were one of the few species to squeeze through the window of the Cambrian extinction and last into the Permian era. Trilobites are one of the most successful living organisms ever, in variety, numbers and longevity. They are all dead and gone now. What I hold in my hand are stone ghosts, traces of living creatures mineralized and memorialized as their own gravestones.
Around 250 million years ago, at the end of the Permian period, ninety percent of all living species died in the greatest mass extinction event of all time. Including all the trilobites. In his aptly titled book, When Life Nearly Died, palaeontologist Michael Benton concludes that massive volcanism in a region called the Siberian Traps caused a cascade of effects—acid rain, extreme CO2 emissions, a runaway greenhouse effect—that turned the atmosphere and the oceans into poisonous killing zones. This happened in the space of only several thousands of years, the blink of an eye in geological time. Death was the order of the day. And the end-Permian was only one of several massive extinctions that have punctuated the natural history of Earth. The best known is the extinction event that killed fifty percent of all living species, including the dinosaurs, at the end of the Cretaceous period 65 million years ago. That event was caused by an asteroid impact just off the coast of what is now the Yucatan peninsula.
THE NATURAL HISTORY OF LIFE ON EARTH RECORDS A SPIRAL CHRONICLE OF CREATION AND EXTINCTION of life and death. Moreover, throughout this history and even today, the infrastructure of life is predation, eat and be eaten, all the way up and down the food chain, from trilobite-eating Anomalocaris, to T. Rex, great white sharks, and viral bacteriophages. Why? Why, if there be a Living God, is life so permeated with death? There are no easy answers.
Charles Darwin was famously incensed at the thought that a good God would deliberately design something so seemingly gruesome and cruel as parasitic wasps who laid their eggs in caterpillars, the hatched young slowly eating their hosts alive from the inside out. So God did no such thing, if indeed there be a God—an argument from squeamishness for God’s non-existence. So for Darwin and his disciples the answer is, that’s just nature, and like gravity and nuclear fission, natural selection is the Way of the World, and there simply is no divine teleology to material existence and no creation, only chance and necessity. Biological life—indeed all of existence—is purposeless and pointless. Have a nice day.
Young-earth creationists, who are sincere but I believe seriously mistaken, believe that creation happened only 6000 years ago—a virtual denial that there even is a “natural history”—and that there was no death at all until after the Fall. No death at all? If bacteria (simple, but nonetheless living creatures) did not die, the known universe would be filled with bacteria in about two months. If insects did not die, what then? Rats? And the cosmological and geological evidence for a quite ancient Earth is extensive and mutually supporting.
William Dembski, in his book The End of Christianity, offers a proleptic Fall as the answer to Earth’s natural history of creation and extinction, life and death. Dembski acknowledges standard cosmological and geological dating, and the creation-extinction spiral of life on Earth. He suggests that for the billions of years prior to the creation of Adam and Eve, the Earth was “pre-Fallen”. God, knowing all things as from the beginning, knew from all eternity that the first humans would succumb to Sin, so he built his judgment of their disobedience into the natural world. Eden, humanity’s original home, was a sanctuary set apart and protected from the death and mayhem out in the world. This answer is intriguing, but not without problems. God’s command in Genesis 1:28, “Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it,” often called the “cultural mandate”, called for Adam and Eve to domesticate the natural world (via agriculture, etc.) and civilize the planet. This would seem to be an impossible task if the whole world outside Eden was already a pre-Fallen deathtrap.
I OWN THREE FOSSIL TRILOBITES, two small inch and a half specimens—elrathia kingi—taken out of the Wheeler Shale in Utah, and a larger one of unknown provenance, which I believe is a paradoxides. I hold them in my hands and I marvel at their design, I imagine their lives and the world they lived in and I am fascinated. I reflect on their deaths and I am perplexed. I think I need to look through and beyond death and know it is only a horizon. Death is a fact, but it is not a theme. And it seems a signpost, but is neither the road nor the destination. Life is either unfinished or altered awaiting repair. I am not sure which, maybe it’s both. The whole story of natural life chronicles a history of wild glory and a sometimes harsh beauty. A mysterium tremendum et fascinans—a terrifying yet entrancing mystery. The edge of holiness. Maybe life is dangerous because God is dangerous—It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God.
We can be grateful sometimes that we are often protected from the sharpest edges of the natural world. But we should not take from this that the dangerousness of life is incidental or accidental. Life is not an amusement park, the danger is real. The universe is not all rounded corners and edges, nor soft landings. Life, and death, bears down on us, as if to say, this is the weight of reality, and it will not bend or alter to suit your fondest wishes. We had better find out if there is meaning beneath the pressure, or life surely will crush us. What we desire, decide, and do has consequences and meaning. Life is strange, hard, bewildering, daunting, and dangerous. It is Hopkins’ Pied, patched Beauty and Blake’s burning Tyger. But it is not Hobbes’ nasty brutish War of all against all, or Schopenhauer’s insatiable Will, or Malthus’ Struggle for existence, or Darwin’s Survival of the fittest. To think that is to misunderstand life and to embrace and glorify death. It is more than hope to believe that death itself will eventually be swallowed up by life.
I have learned a lot from my trilobites.