by Fr. Michael Chaberek, OP
In my previous answer I said that creation was like painting an image or making a cake. In both cases an artificer adds layers of novelty on top of the previous layers thus perfecting his own creation until it achieves the preconceived idea. This is quite a harmonious vision of the history of divine formation of the universe that was developed by Christian scholars throughout the centuries. But today we know that the history of creation was not as smooth as the uniformitarianists (such as Charles Lyell) imagined. On the other hand it was not as rapid and abrupt as the catastrophists (such as George Cuvier) postulated. Today we believe that the history of the universe is a combination of great catastrophes such as world-wide floods and earthquakes, volcanic eruptions and meteorite impacts on the one hand and slow incremental erosions and tectonic plates shifts on the other. We have evidence of a sudden production of great geological formations (such as some canyons, lakes and mountains) as well as slow emergence of many features of current nature (such as the production of fossil fuels or Himalaya Mountains). The history of the forms of life follows the same basic pattern – we see sudden appearances and mass extinctions on the one hand and the unchanged existence of given species for tens and hundreds of millions of years on the other.
One general conclusion from our modern understanding of natural history is that there existed many things both living and non-living that were lost for good millions of years before man appeared on earth. This is especially true about the living species that underwent extinction long before any man could have encountered them. Some estimate that 99% of all species that once existed are now extinct. A natural question that follows for a Christian is what was the sense of divine providence to allow for the apparently aimless existence of so many things that does not contribute anything to our own life? This question is additionally supported by the deeply Christian thinking that the entire material universe was created for the sake of man, to serve and amaze him alone.
If we, however, look at the natural history of the universe with a theological eye we can clearly see the sense and purpose of the history of creation as it stands. I will distinguish here three reasons why it should be so without implying that these are the only possible or complete answers.
(1) First of all, it is not sure that the existence of these other species do not contribute anything to our own existence. In fact we discover more and more evidence to the contrary. For example, we know that fossil fuels and some rocks, so crucial for our own prosperity, must have been produced over vast periods of time from plants and animals that existed long ago. Surely the same applies to many other elements of the universe including geological formations, planetary systems etc.
As one, somewhat sophisticated example, let’s consider the role of the moon in our solar system. We know that the planets escape from each other due to the expansion of the universe. At the same time, the sun as it burns out gets bigger in volume, therefore changing its proportion to the moon. Now, as J.W. Richards and G. Gonzales explained (in the book “The Privileged Planet”) the total solar eclipse is observed only from the earth in the entire solar system. This cosmic event has had a great impact on human development especially in astronomy and modern cosmology. The perfect eclipse is like a natural experiment that served for centuries to make new discoveries and incite wonder. But this kind of event, when the moon and the sun align in such a way that the moon perfectly shields the sun, is possible only when the sizes and distances of the relevant celestial bodies are perfectly calibrated. This kind of coincidence takes place only within a relatively narrow window of time – it was not possible millions of years ago and it will not be possible probably within a hundred thousand years. Thus we see that the history of man, which is just a tiny fraction of the entire history of the universe, is perfectly placed on the timeline of the universe. If it happened earlier many useful resources would not be there yet, many things would not be grown and formed. If it happened later many important things, like species of useful living beings, would have been already lost.
As another example, let’s take the existence of animals. If we went back 150 million years we would see the earth covered with a variety of aggressive, gargantuan, monster-like creatures generally called dinosaurs. This would be anything but an appropriate dwelling place for humans. Today, however, we are surrounded by smaller (on average) animals that are also less dangerous and more acceptable for aesthetic reasons. We may still fear an encounter with a bear or a lion in Africa but this is nothing like a Tyrannosaurus rex at a local park. We also see that the later species are much better adapted to serve humans. Horses and camels seem to be designed specifically for human use (which was the case for the vast majority of human history) cows and chickens for food, etc. We see progress in life forms as they were created by God to make them more and more compatible with the arrival of man, a rational creature that is the only one capable of using them. In order to make room for these perfect (i.e., proportional, beautiful, useful and relatively harmless) species the old species must have gone extinct.
During the history of creation new creatures emerged all of the sudden here and there over vast time. The universe in which the work of formation would not be completed would not be a stable place – too unpredictable to constitute an appropriate setting for rational beings who are aware of what is going on around them and make decisions with the assumption that nature would not leap in an unpredictable manner. Thus, the history of formation must be completed, and some species must be out to make room for humans.
As a general rule we should not assume that anything in history happened without any reference to ourselves. But even if this was the case, would it bother us at all? Or would it diminish anyhow divine wisdom and plan? After all, the entire theater of creation could have been performed by God to wonder the angels rather than people.
(2) The second answer is based on the Christian principle that the universe reflects the beauty, power, and wisdom of the Creator. As St Paul (in Rom 1:21) and the Book of Wisdom (ch. 13) reveal, God can be known from creatures as their source and first cause. Hence, the greater the creation is the more of divine beauty, power and wisdom it reveals. We are used to thinking about divine creation in the diachronous way, that is, in the perspective of a one time-moment, usually our own. We see the abundance of life forms as they exist today, we see the intricacies of biological systems and we wonder at the precision and the efficiency of biological designs. If we adopt a different perspective – the synchronous approach – we look at the history of life as it developed over the eons of time.
Now, realize that many other designs and inventions were present in all those other species that are now extinct. Imagine how much more there is to the design of life if we incorporate not just the static picture of our own time but its development throughout the history. This is one good reason for why God performed this spectacular activity over time. The earth is simply too small to display the entire vastness of God’s contrivance and ability to design and create. This is why He chose to make the earth a stage on which different plays were performed over the years. And performing many different plays obviously reveals more ingenuity of a composer.
What is even more striking is the fact that today we can study the entire history of life. Like detectives we rediscover species, reconstruct them, visualize them or even use as actors in our plays and movies. Thus it is not the case that those old species do not have any bearing on us today. Surprisingly, it is the opposite – today’s impact of let’s say dinosaurs on human imagination is greater than ever. This reconstruction of the past is possible thanks to the mechanisms of fossilization and preservation which by themselves display a good level of intricacy. From the theological perspective there is no doubt that God built into the universe those mechanism to preserve the distant past for humans to teach them about the history of life and reveal his own glory according to the synchronous approach. Thus the existence of species that are lost for long is anything but irrelevant for us, our culture, and our appreciation of the Creator.
(3) The third thing to notice goes somewhat beyond the topic of species. One could ask not just why there were so many species that we would never encounter but also why there is so much space and so many bodies in the universe that do not have any apparent impact on us, that we will never observe let alone visit? Also, why does the history of the universe stretch back billions of years if just a few million could be sufficient to satisfy our imagination? 13 billion years is incomprehensible for humans. So why is Earth history so long?
Again, we begin our answer with the deeply Christian idea that the universe reveals the glory of
God. The greater the universe the more glory it reveals. Hence a small universe, the one imagined until early modernity, is pretty well comprehensible and thus somewhat less bewildering. But it also incites less wonder and makes the argument for divine grandeur less compelling. And it is similar with the age of the universe. A few thousand years is less than we can actually trace within the human culture (even the written one!). A few million years is impressive, but billions of years make us think of God as the eternal and immutable Absolute. If such a time-scale is nothing for Him, how much greater He is in his eternity? The argument for divine greatness is much stronger if the universe is vast and old.
Here we need to refer to young earth creationists who often defend the “veracity” and the “authority” of the Bible by defending the six natural days of creation and the four thousand years of human history before Christ. Yet, by allegedly defending the Bible (which, in fact, is not defending the authority of the Holy Writ, but rather one particular interpretation of it) they diminish a much more important cause, namely, the cosmological argument for the greatness of God. This is how one can strain out the gnat and swallow the camel.
There is also a question of compatibility between the size and the age. If the universe is great beyond imagination in terms of space should it not be also great in terms of its age? The old and vast universe beyond imagination is a proper dwelling place for rational creatures, because they cannot be satisfied with small things. The fact that God made the universe much larger than we practically need testifies to His generosity as the Creator. This kind of abundance and generosity is observed everywhere in nature. Thus we can conclude that God always makes more and better than we initially assume. His power and wisdom challenges our small expectations and by this opens our hearts to knowing, desiring and loving Him.