When we think of the importance of nature for Christians, major ideas that come to mind include caring for the environment (for example, by reducing/recycling/reusing or through prevention of natural disasters, such as fires) and learning about the life of plants and animals, the structure of the earth, or other aspects of the creation. But what about fossils? Do we ever think that the study of fossils is important for Christians?
Fossils are organisms of the past, or remains of their activities that have been preserved in the rocks. How can petrified plants, bones, or shells be important for a Christian believer?
First, Christians, as most other people, are curious. Finding a fossil shell, bone, teeth, or leaf in a rock immediately draws our attention. Children are especially captivated by fossils, and some of them carry that interest on into their adult lives and become paleontologists.
God reveals Himself in the Bible, and most significantly in the life of His Son, Jesus. But the Bible’s revelation indicates that nature is also full of lessons that can point to the wisdom and qualities of its Creator. Inspired by the Holy Spirit, the psalmist claims, “The heavens declare the glory of God” (Ps. 19:1); and the patriarch Job asserts, “But now ask the beasts, and they will teach you; and the birds of the air, and they will tell you; or speak to the earth, and it will teach you; and the fish of the sea will explain to you” (Job 12:7, 8, NKJV).1 How do we speak to the earth? How does the earth teach, and what does it teach us? How do we speak to the fish, and what do we learn from them? Paleontologists “speak” to the earth through scientific study of the fossils and the rocks that contain them. The fossils and rocks speak to us through analysis of their attributes, such as mineral content and physical structure.
Indeed, we even speak to fossil fish, which are some of the most abundant fossils found in the rocks, millions of them in sedimentary rocks, often showing excellent preservation. By the study of their preservation and characteristics we ascertain what these organisms of the past were like, how they lived, and the qualities of the environment they inhabited. This applies to all kinds of fossils. Paleontologists also compare fossils with living counterparts in order to understand how the former lived, died, and were preserved. For example, multiple studies in modern habitats show that dead fish do not last long on the sea floor or the bottom of a lake.2 They are quickly scavenged by other animals or destroyed by microbial decay. If that also was the case in ancient environments, how then are there any fossil fish at all? For many paleontologists, the existence of fossil fish in the rock record is an indication that in the past some environments were different from what we observe in the present, or that some geological processes occurred differently and favored preservation over destruction of many specimens.
People of the Christian, Jewish, and Muslim faiths believe that many of the fossils now found in the rocks were organisms living before or during Noah’s flood, the global catastrophe by water recounted in the Bible. Rapid and massive deposition of sediments must have occurred during that global catastrophic event, and millions of fish must have been buried, resulting in fossilization. The same may be said for many other aquatic organisms, as well as for terrestrial organisms such as reptiles, mammals, birds, and plants.
Paleontologists believe that Archaeopteryx is in reality a bird with “mosaic” traits.
Destruction and decay after death is the norm in modern and ancient times, and yet millions of fossils are in the rock record, strongly suggesting that most of those fossils might have been formed during a global catastrophe that brought about sudden death and burial. Some species survived, while others went extinct. Thus, the global Flood described in the Bible provides a good model for the occurrence of millions of fossils in the fossil record, and the study of the fossils gives us clues as to how the Flood must have occurred in terms of geological processes. This is one reason Christians believe that fossils are important.
Fossils also tell us what ancient organisms looked like, at least from what can be inferred from their hard parts (shells, bones, teeth, wood, etc.). By carefully studying the characteristics of fossils, paleontologists learn that some of the organisms of the past were morphologically different from ones living today, whereas others were similar or equivalent to modern ones. People who believe that life arose on earth during millions of years beginning from simple forms and evolving into more complex and diverse organisms invoke these differences in the fossils and their occurrence at different levels of the rock layers to support their theory. If that theory is true, there should be millions of intermediate fossil forms as well as living intermediates among animals and plants.
An informed Christian who has studied the fossil record knows that such is not the case: fossils do not show the gradual morphological variations expected in a slow, long pace of gradual change over long geological time. When paleontologists find a fossil frog, a fossil turtle, or a fossil fern, they clearly discern what kinds of organisms they are. There are no obvious intermediate or transitional forms in the fossil record. Some may argue that the bird Archaeopteryx, with amixture of reptilian and avian characteristics, could qualify as an intermediate form in the evolution of birds from reptiles. However, paleontologists believe that Archaeopteryx is in reality a bird with “mosaic” traits, not necessarily indicating an evolutionary lineage.
This understanding is in harmony with the biblical statement that God created every living creature “according to their kinds” (Gen. 1:21, 24, 25). In the original creation there were no intermediate or transitional forms like those expected in the evolutionary model of gradual appearance of life. Instead, distinct forms of plant and animal life were differentiated into kinds that Adam could name without confusion. The same pattern of clarity is found in fossils. Christian researchers with a high view of the Bible find that the fossil record confirms the pattern of distinctiveness of life forms that Genesis asserts, and this is another important reason the study of fossils is relevant.
In recent years several scientists have reported the occurrence of soft tissue and organic molecules in fossils that in some cases have been assigned ages of tens or hundreds of millions of years, based on radiometric dating. Examples are proteins, lipids, DNA, and vascular tissue found in dinosaur bones, shells, teeth, amber, and plants. Even functional bacteria have been found in sediments purportedly millions of years old. Yet scientists know that it is impossible for complex organic molecules to be preserved and survive for millions of years. These molecules become unstable and degrade, especially in the presence of water. How are they then preserved in fossils that allegedly are millions of years old? There are good reasons to believe that these fossils are only a few thousand years old, not millions. The discovery of preserved organic molecules in fossils is a strong indication that fossils are not as old as radiometric dating and the evolutionary theory suggest. This is another excellent reason for Christians to study fossils.
Some Seventh-day Adventist institutions have realized that fossils provide an excellent resource for teaching about the history of life, earth history, the biblical account of Creation, and the Flood. Universities in many countries—Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Mexico, Peru, South Korea, the United States—as well as many schools,
have prepared displays in which aspects of the fossil record are interpreted in light of the biblical worldview of Creation and the Flood. Other Christian institutions have also built museums and displays that feature fossils. Through these displays many students, teachers, and visitors can not only appreciate the beauty of fossils, but also explain them in a way consistent with the teachings of Scripture regarding Creation and the Flood. Many Christian students realize that the modern study of fossils yields quality information that challenges evolutionary theory and long ages for life on earth, and provides an excellent way to share their faith in God’s revelation.
Fossils and the rocks in which they are contained are an excellent platform for discussing origins from a biblical perspective, especially in relation to the design and complexity of ancient life and the worldwide destruction caused by Noah’s Flood. Many questions regarding fossils, origins, Creation, and the Flood are still there for us to investigate, and the Geoscience Research Institute, where I serve as a scientist, is committed to supporting our students and institutions as they engage in the scientific study of the creation within a biblical worldview.
Raúl Esperante is a research scientist at the Geoscience Research Institute, Loma Linda, California, in the United States.