It is quite frightening. Ecologists think that we’re well on our way toward the sixth mass extinction.
Data indicates that: (1) the growing human population size, (2) the increasing conversion of land for agricultural usage, and (3) the continuing abuse of the environment all contribute to the destruction of ecosystems. And as ecosystems are destroyed, extinction risks increase. Studies show that species loss is accelerating at rates that exceed background extinctions (those due to normal environmental or ecological factors) by 10 to 100 times.1
Current estimates place about 25% of the world’s species on the verge of extinction. If these species are lost, ecosystems will reorganize and, in turn, render even more species vulnerable to extinction. It’s a vicious cycle. Extinctions beget extinctions.
This loss of species is tragic because it robs the world of beautiful, majestic organisms. The biodiversity loss also threatens human civilization. We depend on ecosystems to deliver several critical benefits, such as:
- stable climates
- sources of fresh water
- agricultural pest control
- control of disease-causing vectors
- crop pollination
In short, without flourishing ecosystems, human flourishing is impossible.
Extinctions: A Challenge for the Design Argument
As frightening as the prospect of another mass extinction may be, extinctions are troubling for another reason—at least for people who believe that a Creator played a role in the origin, design, and history of life.
Skeptics often argue that if there is a Creator, he must not be very capable—as evidenced by all the extinctions that have occurred throughout life’s history. Surely, if he is all-powerful, all-knowing, and all-good, God could have created organisms that weren’t vulnerable to extinction.
This challenge was recently leveled against me on social media in response to an article I posted making the case for a Creator based on the design of biochemical systems. The challenger, Joshua, retorted in the comments, “If life on earth was designed, it wasn’t by an intelligent creator as evidenced by the thousands of extinct species that have existed.”
It’s not the first time I’ve heard this all-too-common objection. Even prominent scientists such as the late evolutionary anthropologist Irven DeVore quipped, “I personally cannot discern a shred of evidence for ‘[intelligent] design.’ If 97% of all creatures have gone extinct, some plan isn’t working very well!”
Withstanding the Challenge
On the surface, this challenge appears to undermine the design argument and the idea that God designed life and oversaw its history. But there’s no reason to fear. Careful reflection exposes a serious flaw in this counterclaim to the design argument: namely, extinctions don’t equate to bad designs.
First, many of the species that have disappeared from Earth became extinct tens of millions to hundreds of millions of years after their first appearance. Considering how long these species endured on Earth, it is hard to argue that they were poorly designed.
Second, Earth’s conditions have changed throughout life’s history. Organisms perfectly suited for an earlier era of Earth’s history, over time, will gradually become ill-adapted to the new environments that emerge as Earth’s conditions evolve. These losses in fitness between organisms and their environments will render species vulnerable to extinction. Again, it’s hard to argue that these organisms were poorly designed when they were ideally created for specific sets of conditions that no longer exist on Earth.
Third, many of the organisms lost to Earth’s past disappeared because of mass extinction events. In almost every instance, some type of cataclysmic event caused the wide-scale loss of biodiversity. Paleontologists have identified five mass extinction events that eliminated between 70–95% of all species in one fell swoop. In addition to these “big five” catastrophes, paleontologists think that somewhere between 5 and 15 additional mass extinctions occurred. These extinctions weren’t as dramatic as the big five, but they still resulted in substantial biodiversity loss.
These extinctions had little to do with the “poor” design of these organisms. Instead, dramatic events rendered conditions on much of Earth so extreme that few life-forms could survive even if they were well-designed.
A Philosophical or Biblical View of the Creator?
When considering challenges to God’s competence and goodness as a Creator, it’s necessary to engage with the concept of God as revealed in Scripture as opposed to a nonbiblical philosophical depiction of God—which is how Joshua (and Irven DeVore) view God.
Though it may be surprising to some, passages in the Bible such as Psalm 104 and Job 38 and 39 describe animal death as part of the good creation God instituted. In these passages, the Creator is worshipped and celebrated for providing prey for predators. It may seem counterintuitive, but there are good and necessary reasons why God would create a world with plant and animal death. Stable, thriving ecosystems would be impossible without plants and animals dying. Is it possible that the Bible teaches that mass extinctions are part of God’s good creation, too?
I think so. Consider Psalm 104:27–30. This passage describes a cycle of life and death regulated by God’s ongoing actions. Some Bible commentators see this passage as describing the daily occurrences of birth and death in ecosystems. Others have argued that the text has an even richer and deeper meaning, presciently describing mass extinction and mass origination events that have taken place throughout life’s history.
Key to this interpretation is the use of the words bara and ruach in this passage. God is described as renewing (bara) the Earth with life by his Spirit (ruach). The word bara—translated as “renew” in Psalm 104—occurs in Genesis 1 in reference to God originating things that are new; things that did not previously exist. In other words, God isn’t merely replacing creatures with the same creatures. Instead, he is replacing animals that vanished with entirely new ones—unlike anything that has previously existed.
The word ruach is also found in Genesis 1:2, where it refers to the spirit of God hovering over the earth. The use of these two words doesn’t seem accidental. It looks intentionally designed to highlight the connection of the Genesis 1 creation account to Psalm 104. In this way, Psalm 104 not only echoes Genesis 1 but also extends it. If this interpretation of Psalm 104:27–30 is sound, then it expands our understanding of creation days 5 and 6. And it means that mass extinctions and mass originations were part of a divinely orchestrated natural history.
If, indeed, Psalm 104:27–30 references mass extinctions and originations throughout Earth’s history, it is one more example of the remarkable scientific accuracy of the creation accounts found in Scripture. The author of Psalm 104 (presumably David) and those who originally received this psalm wouldn’t have had any concept of mass extinctions and originations. Yet, inspired by the Holy Spirit, the author of this psalm communicated ideas that the original audience would grasp, while at the same time anticipating future scientific insight that would resonate with a modern reader.
A Christian View on Extinctions
“A Christian Perspective on the Sixth Mass Extinction” by Fazale Rana (article)
“Did Humans Cause the Global Extinctions of Mammals?” By Fazale Rana (article)
“Did Humans Cause the Global Extinction of Large Mammals?” By Fazale Rana (video)
“How Should Christians Respond to the Sixth Great Mass Extinction?” By Fazale Rana (video)
Animal Death and the Good Creation
“Wolf Predation Improves Moose Herd Health” By Fazale Rana (article)
“Is Cruelty in Nature Really Evil?” by Fazale Rana (article)
“Why Would God Create a World Where Animals Eat Their Offspring?” by Fazale Rana
“Why Would God Create a World with Parasites?” by Fazale Rana (article)
“Why Did God Create the Thai Liver Fluke?” by Fazale Rana (article)
“Scientists Uncover a Good Purpose for Long-Lasting Pain in Animals” by Fazale Rana (article)
“Of Weevils and Wasps: God’s Purpose in Animal Death” by Maureen Moser (article)
“Animal Death Prevents Ecological Meltdown” by Fazale Rana (article)
“Animal Death before the Fall: What Does the Bible Say?” by Lee Irons (article)
“Animal Death and the Atonement” by Krista Bontrager (article)
“Life from Death” by Fazale Rana (article)
Extinctions and Psalm 104
“Does Psalm 104 Affirm Progressive Creation?” By Hugh Henry and Dan Dyke (article)
- Christopher Sandom et al., “Global Late Quaternary Megafauna Extinctions Linked to Humans, Not Climate Change,”Proceedings of the Royal Society B 281 (July 22, 2014): doi:10.1098/rspb.2013.3254; John C. Briggs, “Emergence of a Sixth Mass Extinction?” Biological Journal of the Linnean Society 122 (October 2017): 243–248, doi:10.1093/biolinnean/blx063; Gerardo Ceballos et al., “Accelerated Modern Human-Induced Species Losses: Entering the Sixth Mass Extinction,” Science Advances 1 (June 19, 2015): e1400253, doi:10.1126/sciadv.1400253; Carlos P. Carmona et al., “Erosion of Global Functional Diversity across the Tree of Life,” Science Advances 7 (March 26, 2021): eabf2675, doi:10.1126/sciadv.abf2675; Gerardo Ceballos and Paul R. Ehrlich, “Mutilation of the Tree of Life Via Mass Extinction of Animal Genera,” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, USA 120 (September 18, 2023): e2306987120, doi:10.1073/pnas. 2306987120.