Science in Christian Perspective




Disease and Dying in the Fossil Record: Implications for Christian Theology

Clarence Menninga*

Calvin College

Grand Rapids, MI 49546

From: Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith 51.4 (December 1999): 226-230 Response: Magilit

A traditional view among Christians has been that death of all sorts is a consequence of Adamís disobedience and fall into sin. Beginning about two hundred years ago, the study of rocks led many Christians to accept the conviction that the Earth is vastly older than six thousand years, and the study of fossils found in the rocks brought Christians to face the question of death among plant and animal organisms prior to the existence of humans. While death before the Fall is still a hurdle for some Christians, many of us have come to accept this scientific conclusion as being compatible with a proper understanding of Scripture. A topic which has not been the subject of much discussion among us, however, is the matter of disease and trauma in fossil organisms, including pre-Adamic hominids. This study, called "paleopathology," demonstrates the presence of disease and trauma in many fossil plants and animals prior to the existence of humans on Earth, and faces Christians with the question of the relationship of disease to Godís good creation. A brief description of some of the evidence for disease and trauma in fossil organisms serves as the impetus for discussion of the teaching of Scripture with regard to disease, trauma, and dying.

Much evidence has been collected from the study of Godís world which supports the conclusion that the Earth and its fossils are vastly older than the several thousand years that were espoused by Bishop Usscher and are still being proposed by a significant number of Christians. This paper is written in the context of a conviction that the history of the Earth and its living organisms has extended over billions of years. There is abundant evidence in the fossil record justifying the conclusion that dying has been an integral part of the existence of living organisms on Earth. The very existence of a fossil older than human existence on Earth demonstrates the occurrence of death among living organisms prior to human disobedience and sinfulness. While death of living organisms prior to human sin is an unacceptable conclusion for some Christians, many of us are convinced that such a conclusion is amply testified to by the evidence, and that this conclusion is compatible with historic Christian faith.

There is also a preserved record of disease and trauma in fossils spanning much of the history of living organisms on Earth. Evidence of pathological conditions are found in a wide range of organisms, including plants, insects, dinosaurs, mammals other than hominids, hominids other than modern humans (Homo sapiens sapiens), as well as in modern humans of ancient times. These observations raise questions for Christians that have not been discussed much in our theology, i.e., questions about the origins of disease and the relationships between disease and the fall of humans into disobedience and sin. The fossil evidence argues against the common perception that disease and trauma are the consequence of human sinfulness. This paper is written in the hope of instigating and furthering the discussion by Christians about the relationships among disease, human sinfulness, and redemption in Christ.

Observational Evidence

In addition to the testimony to death and dying that is presented by the existence of a fossil record, there is a large amount of evidence for disease and trauma in living organisms spanning much of the history of life on Earth. A few examples of such evidence in plants, insects, dinosaurs, mammals other than hominids, and in hominids are presented in the figures accompanying this paper. (Figures are reprinted with permission.)

Figure 1 shows galls on fossil oak leaves which are approximately fifteen million years old. Figure 2 shows a termite preserved in amber along with the fungus infection which had invaded its body prior to its death and preservation. Figure 3 shows the preserved parts of the forelimb of a Tyrannosaur, which lived approximately seventy million years ago, with damage to its humerus resulting from injury sustained during its lifetime and healed prior to its death and preservation. Figure 4 shows a diseased rib from a woolly mammoth, along with graphical data on disease in  Pleistocene elephants in Britain. (Glacial and interglacial periods are identified by European nomenclature. The Cromerian interglacial period began approximately 1.5 million years ago, and the decline of the Devensian glaciation took place approximately fifteen to eleven thousand years ago.) Figure 5 shows three different views and an x-ray view of the right humerus of a Neanderthal individual whose skeleton was excavated from Shanidar Cave (modern Iraq). This individual lived approximately seventy thousand years ago. The humerus displays atrophy from paralysis (or possibly hypotrophy from a birth defect). The bone had been broken in at least two places, and had healed during the individualís lifetime. The arm had been severed just above the elbow, either by some accident or by amputation, and healing had occurred before the individual died. Figure 6 shows the diseased right ankle and foot bones of the same Neanderthal individual whose arm is shown in Figure 5.

Other examples of pathological conditions found in fossil organisms have been published in the scientific literature. The Smithsonian printed a summary of a paper presented at a University of Texas symposium in Nov 1989 in which evidence was presented for "broken limbs, dislocated hips, severe back injuries, and chronic arthritis" in many of the studyís two thousand saber-toothed tigers from the La Brea tar pits of California.1

A discussion of feeding behavior in carnivorous dinosaurs in The Dinosauria reports: "Carnosaur skeletons exhibit signs of more frequent injury than those of herbivorous dinosaurs. Broken ribs are found in Tyrannosaurus rex, fractured humeri in Albertosaurus libratus [see Fig. 3], and fractured humeri and radii in Allosaurus fragilis; all had healed. These suggest that struggles with prey did take place Ö"2



An article in the Nov 1991 issue of Discover magazine is entitled "Dinosaur Doctors" and subtitled "Tracing Modern Disease to the Ancient Reptiles." The article reports finding evidence of rheumatoid arthritis in dinosaur skeletons, as well as in pre-Columbian native American skeletons and in modern humans.3

The connection between ancient dinosaur disease and modern human afflictions is only suggestive, but the existence of disease in various ancient organisms is beyond dispute. So disease and trauma, along with earthquakes and tornadoes, are somehow a part of Godís good creation, in existence long before the Fall of humankind into sin and disobedience.

Theological Discussion

But how is the history of disease, trauma, and dying in living organisms to be taken into account in our Christian theological perspective? Are disease and dying a normal aspect of our creatureliness as humans (in our state as sinless creatures) as it is for plants and other animals?

If we accept the antiquity of the Earth and its fossils, as many or most Christians do, the dying of plant and animal organisms is a normal part of the processes taking place in Godís creation. While many preachers and other Christian leaders have accepted the conclusion that dying occurred among plants and animals long before humans existed on Earth, they have not generally spoken or written about disease and trauma as experiences which are a normal part of our human existence. Many Christian sermons, especially at funerals, attribute disease and physical suffering in this world to the consequences, if not the curse, of human sinfulness. But, if the evidence cited earlier is valid, it must be the case that disease, too, is a normal component of Godís good creation.

It has also been commonly supposed by many Christians that the dying of humans is the consequence of human sinfulness, and a result of Godís curse pronounced in Genesis 3. While many preachers and other Christian leaders have accepted the idea that death occurs among plants and other animals as a normal part of Godís good creation, many sermons, especially at funerals, refer to the dying of humans as "not the way it was supposed to be."

Ö physical death is a normal and expected aspect of life on Earth, 
and Ö the dying which follows sinfulness is a spiritual dying Ö

What is the teaching of Scripture? Are there some alternative perspectives which are consistent with good exegesis of Scripture? Yes, there are. In Genesis 2, in his instructions to humans in the garden, God said: "When you eat of it [the tree of the knowledge of good and evil] you will surely die" (vs. 17, New International Version. The King James Version translates it: "in the day that thou eatest thereof, thou shalt surely die"). But Adam did not experience physical dying until many years later. It is clear that physical dying, for Adam, was not the immediate consequence of his disobedience. We must conclude that the Scripture has another meaning. I suggest that the death which God threatened is the separation from God which sin inevitably brings, and which is sometimes called "spiritual death." Physical dying of humans, however, like physical dying of other creatures, is a normal aspect of Godís good creation.

This perspective, i.e., that physical death is a normal and expected aspect of life on Earth, and that the dying which follows sinfulness is a spiritual dying, is also consistent with New Testament teaching. This is especially apparent in Jesusí conversation with Martha upon the physical dying of Lazarus (John 11: 21ń27). Jesusí words, "I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in me will live, even though he dies; and whoever lives and believes in me will never die" (John 11:25, 26), obviously do not promise that believers will never experience physical dying, because many have experienced physical death during the centuries since Jesus lived on Earth. So the deliverance which Jesus promises is the deliverance from the spiritual separation and estrangement which were the consequences of sin. Jesus promises complete deliverance from the guilt and curse resulting from our sinfulness, but belief in Jesus does not release us from physical dying. Thus we conclude that human dying, also, is a part of Godís good creation.

The Heidelberg Catechism (an ancient catechism) also teaches this interpretation of Scripture. On the physical dying of humans, it asks the question, "Since Christ has died for us, why do we still have to die?" and gives the answer, "Our death does not pay the debt of our sins. Rather, it puts an end to our sinning and is our entrance into eternal life" (Q. & A. 42).

Allow a pure conjecture, please. If humans had not sinned, but had maintained perfect obedience and fellowship with the Creator, we would still not be immortal. We would have to undergo some sort of transformation to make the transition from life on Earth to life in Godís presence, a transformation that the Apostle Paul refers to as a process or event in which "the perishable must clothe itself with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality" (1 Cor. 15:53). Our present-day experience of physical dying may indeed be blemished with some of the fear which often accompanies our feelings of guilt, but might physical dying, shorn of that fear, be the process or event by which we are transformed from mortal existence to immortality? Then Godís statement as he banished Adam and Eve from the garden, "dust you are and to dust you will return" (Gen. 3:19b) is a description of our human creature- liness, and not a pronouncement of a curse resulting from human disobedience.

There are some Christians who consider it unthinkable that death of any sort occurred before humans fell into sin. In "Back to Genesis," Henry Morris wrote:

At the conclusion of Godís six days of creating and making all things, He placed it all under manís dominion and then pronounced it all to be ëvery goodí (Gen. 1:26, 28, 31). There was, therefore, nothing bad in that created world, no hunger, no struggle for existence, no suffering, and certainly no death of animal or human life anywhere in Godís perfect creation Ö no carnivorous activity at that time, Ö4

The testimony of the evidence presented here, in the context of the conviction that the history of Earth and its living organisms spans billions of years, is in sharp disagreement with the perspective expressed by Morris.

Christians should study and consider the evidence for the antiquity of the Earth and its fossils, think and talk about the evidence for the existence of disease in living organisms before humankind fell into sin, and discuss the possible place for incorporating the conclusions from that evidence into our Christian perspective. But in our discussion of death and dying and disease in the history of living organisms, we should sympathetically recognize the wide range of views held by fellow Christians. We hope and pray that the discussion will be carried out in the spirit of mutual Christian love and charity.



1Robert McC. Adams, "Smithsonian Horizons," Smithsonian (Feb. 1990): 12.

2R. E. Molnar and James O. Farlow, "Carnosaurian Paleobiology," in The Dinosauria, Weishampel, et al., eds. (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1990), 223.

3 Karen Wright, "Dinosaur Doctors: Tracing Modern Disease to the Ancient Reptiles,"Discover (Nov. 1991): 46ń51.

4H. Morris, "Back to Genesis," insert in Acts and Facts (April 1998).