Last week, the online edition of Nature, the premier journal for the natural sciences, published a study by evolutionary biologist Mary Schweitzer which confirmed the presence of medullary bone in the fossil of a Tyrannosaurus rex discovered in Montana in 2000. Medullary bone is found, in living species, only in birds and is uniquely associated with pregnancy. Schweitzer concluded reasonably that the T. rex relics were likely that of a pregnant female, and that analysis for the presence of medullary bone in fossils “would provide a means for unambiguous gender determination and reproductive status in extinct theropods.” Extrapolation of her findings was equally judicious: she saw the research as “offering a novel approach to investigate the paleobiology of birds and their extinct dinosaurian relatives.” She spun no grand metanarrative tales; leaving that, I suppose, to the journalists.

Stories of ancient worlds emerge from theory and fossils—the relics of “deep time”; time “so vast that it defies narrative”, as paleontologist and evolutionary biologist Henry Gee writes in his iconoclastic book, In Search of Deep Time. But we are story-telling animals, so narrate we do. We patch and piece together a history of nature—of life—from fossils, each of which is “an infinitesimal dot, lost in a fathomless sea of time”, so that any story we tell of cause and effect, of linkage and relationship, is “only ours to make. We invent these stories,” Gee insists.

My own fossil collection is sparse. From Lake Cumberland in Kentucky, I have a few fragments of fossil crinoid stalks—the plant-like base of marine animals, and some impression fossils of small bivalves from Calvert Cliffs on the Chesapeake Bay. 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. The trilobites are dated to the Cambrian era, about 500 million years ago, when all life was marine life and complex life first exploded.


I have no actual dinosaur fossils, but I do have a 1/10 scale museum quality reproduction of a fossil Tyrannosaurus rex skull, as well as some small plastic dinosaur figures, including a T. rex, a Velociraptor, and a Stegosaurus. My latest acquisition is a framed 10 x 20 drawing print of a fully-articulated Tyrannosaurus skeleton shown in a predatory, fighting pose. T. rex flourished during the late Cretaceous period, about seventy to sixty-five million years ago. I like my fossils and reproductions—which I keep in my home office—for the reason every little boy, of whatever age, likes them. Because fossils and dinosaurs are cool. But I am also intrigued by the story they may tell.

That story, the history of nature, records a spiral chronicle of creation and extinction, of birth and life and death, that lasted millions of years, however we may gloss the causes, the details, and the sequence. According to the standard story, 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, paleontologist 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 event was only one of several massive extinctions that have punctuated the natural history of Earth. The best known was 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 may have been caused by an asteroid impact—a flaming prophet of chance and necessity—just off the coast of what is now the Yucatan peninsula.

My Tyrannosaurus rex skull and my trilobite fossils are a memento mori of this natural history, relics and reminders of a story so unfathomably ancient, alien, and otherworldly that it seems to have nothing whatever to do with human history, let alone my own short life. Something happened, something rich and wonderful and terrible, however fragmentary and inventive our collective reconstruction and “remembrance” of this story may be.


In my living room—which my married daughter calls the Jesus Room—the decorating scheme tells a different story. There are nearly a dozen framed prints of the life of Christ hanging from the walls, including Jan Van Eyck’s Annunciation, Fra Angelico’s The Adoration of the Magi, a print reproduction of Noirin Mooney’s batik of Christ as the Suffering Servant, and an assortment of reproductions of anonymous icons, one often called “Christ the Teacher”. Facing each other across the room are two depictions of the Last Supper—a Byzantine icon, and Salvador Dali’s surrealised The Sacrament of the Last Supper. Both are somewhat de-historicized; they are more visual liturgies than literal presentations, objectifying the Church’s remembrance of the historical event. As well as being aesthetically pleasing, these artworks are constant reminders to me of the story and meaning of Christ’s life. A mediated remembrance.

As close as I have to concrete relics of the narrative remembrance of Christ is a mounted display of facsimiles of some of the most important early papyrus fragments of the New Testament, including the Rylands Papyrus, the earliest verified copy of a part of the New Testament; a few partial verses from the account of Pilate’s interrogation and condemnation of Jesus in the Gospel of John. “P87”, a small fragment of Paul’s letter to Philemon, is from the Oxyrhynchus Papyri, which were excavated from an ancient trash dump in Egypt. There is one folio from the Bodmer Papyri, a nearly complete codex of the Gospel of John, and one folio from the Chester Beatty Papyri, which are a collection of several portions of most of Paul’s letters.

PapyrusThe facsimiles are all actual-size, reproduced from high-resolution digital scans of the originals, and printed on real papyrus themselves; startling similitudes of the originals. The Greek writing is legible, if I could still read Greek. My ¼ size replica of the Codex Sinaiticus—the oldest complete manuscript of the New Testament—is a framed mock-up made of parchment paper and matte board, a sort of 3D print. These relics are not as deep in time as my fossil collection; they give a much more direct connection to the past, and to a narrative remembered truly, not “cleverly invented” (2 Peter 1:16). The manuscript reproductions and the artwork ringing my living room are not just a personal devotional reliquary; they “tangibilify” for me the story of Christ and of God’s involvement in human history, nudging the subjectivity of my personal narrative of salvation away from solipsism, outward in embodiment and relationship.

My fossils in one room, and Jesus and the New Testament in the other, is more a décor choice than a compartmentalizing of narratives, yet my separation of relics and images mirrors the too easy separation—by design or neglect—of natural and salvation history. If the Earth is the Lord’s and everything in it, from the Big Bang to the Eschaton, then there is one seamless sequence of events—one ontological history—and so, in principle, there should be a grand story—one metanarrative—that unifies all of these events. And if Wolfhart Pannenberg was right, all of this history has something to say about God.

I have a pretty good idea from the prophets, the apostles, and the gospels what it says about God that Jesus walked among us, died, and rose again. What does it say about God that Tyrannosaurus rex walked the Earth, and died, and left behind only relics from deep time? I think I have also figured out fairly well what Athens and Jerusalem have to do with each other. What about Jesus and the dinosaurs? I am persuaded that Tyrannosaurus rex lived and hunted and went extinct millions of years ago is as certain as any fact of natural history can be; and equally persuaded that Jesus lived and breathed and was crucified and three days later was bodily raised from the dead is as certain as any fact of ancient history can be. While I fall quite short of cognitive dissonance in the matter, the problem of a grand-unifying metanarrative of nature, humanity, and salvation is more than café chat for me. I can’t teeter on the edge of absurdity for too long without the assurance that there is one story—or at least the sketch of one—that makes sense of it all.

blogger-image--2074139506The problem, of course, is the regime of death. Why, if there be a Living God, is natural history—the story of created existence before there were humans to contemplate it—so permeated with death? The apostle Paul adumbrated the answer for the history of humanity and of salvation. We turned away from the Living God and embraced death: “. . . sin entered the world through one man, and death through sin . . . death reigned from the time of Adam to the time of Moses” (Romans 5:12-14). Just as we were delivered to the rule of death by one man, we will “reign in life through the one man, Jesus Christ” (Romans 5:17). In terms of my need for everyday existential meaning and eschatological comfort, Paul’s answer is sufficient to get me out of bed each morning, if in a perpetual and paradoxical state of being “sorrowful, yet always rejoicing” (2 Corinthians 6:10). But then I look at my trilobite fossils and my T. rex skull and think, “What about them?” What do their deaths, and lives, mean? The question becomes more urgent contemplating that throughout history the infrastructure of life is predation and death, eat and be eaten, all the way up and down the food chain, from trilobite-eating Anomalocaris, to T. Rex, great white sharks, man, beast, and viral bacteriophages. Why?

The “young-earth” answer, which I accepted for a time, is that death itself came into being with Adam’s sin. Young-earth creationists, who are sincere but I believe seriously mistaken about both science and the Bible, 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? As far as chronology is concerned, the astronomical, cosmological, and geological evidence for a very ancient Earth is extensive and mutually supporting. Biblically, the Old Testament genealogies cannot really yield a date for creation of Saturday, October 22, 4004 BC, as Bishop James Ussher calculated in the 17th century. The young-earth insistence that dinosaurs and humans coexisted for a time requires a rather tortured exegesis for them to find literal references to dinosaurs in the expressive descriptions of “behemoth” and “leviathan”, in the books of Job, Isaiah, and Psalms. Despite the bold banner at the Creation Museum in northern Kentucky, proclaiming “Biblical History is the Key to Understanding Dinosaurs”, the Bible tells us nothing about the life and death and meaning of dinosaurs, beyond the theological certitude that God is their Creator.

jesus-dinosaur1If young-earth creationists dissolve natural history, Darwinists dissolve both human and salvation history. The scientific evidence for the standard neo-Darwinian story of macro-evolution and complexification of species is surprisingly thin, whatever the Establishment consensus may be. And the astonishing claim that struggle and death itself should have the creative capacity to generate entirely new biological structures requires much more than a few iconic relics to overcome Henry Gee’s “invented stories” paradigm.

This is because Darwinism is, first and foundationally, a theological position, which started with Charles Darwin himself. Darwin was famously incensed at the thought that a good God would deliberately design something so seemingly gruesome and cruel as parasitic ichneumon 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. For Darwin and his disciples the answer for death is just “that is how nature is, red in tooth and claw”, and like gravity and nuclear fission, death and natural selection are 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. With no teleology, there really isn’t even a history, natural or human, just a chaotic sequence of events going nowhere, about which we socially construct stories; illusions to suit our conceits. Nietzsche may have been the prophet of postmodernism, but certainly Darwin helped build its temple.

Mathematician 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 have found no easy reconciliation between Jesus and the dinosaurs, as William Blake left no resolution in The Tiger, just six stanzas of questions. I have found a mysterium tremendum et fascinans—a terrifying yet entrancing mystery. The edge of holiness, or at least sublimity. God who sends his Son to be the ransom for our sins, and God who sent a 40 ft. carnivore with banana-size serrated knives for teeth, to rend and tear flesh for its daily bread.

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 that we are sometimes protected from the sharpest edges of the natural world. We should be grateful that God seeks us like sheep who have wandered into the wilderness. 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, bear down on us, as if to say, this is the weight of the world, and neither it nor God will bend or alter to suit our fondest wishes.