Sunday, November 26, 2006

Sunday School: What Was God Doing Before He Invented Man?

JAMES USSHER, the 16th Century Archbishop of Armagh and Primate of All Ireland-- in a stupendous article of Faith and Science, Annales Veteris et Novi Tentamenti -- is famous for proving that God created the Universe on 23 October, 4004 BC, based on the Biblical enumeration of the generations of the ancient Israelites back to Adam and Eve and a vast erudition of Bible history. Even Jose Rizal was aware of this work and wrote about it in his epistolary from Dapitan with Pablo Pastells, SJ.

There would be numerous excommunications, book burnings, and burnings-at-the-stake, and lifetime house arrests for obstinate heliocentrists, to enforce the established religious and political correctness of Ussher's arithmetic about the age of the Universe and other related doctrines.

Ironically Ussher had actually sown the seed's of Medieval Religion's humiliation with this numerology. You see, Ussher's conclusion that God created everything all at once at some particular moment in 4004 BC, was a testable proposition about the Age of the Universe and life on earth being just a few thousand years old. It was a scientific hypothesis that could be proven to be false by observable facts.

And it was. The Earth and the Universe are undoubtedly far older than six thousand years old, a fact already suspected in the time of Ussher. Safe in the 21st Century, even here in very Roman Catholic Manila, it is of course easy for us to scoff at the good Archbishop's naive adherence to some Hebrew Creation Myth and First Century Greek Gospel writings. After all, we have had the benefit of five centuries of modern Astronomy, Physics, Biology, Chemistry, Paleontology and Archaeology, whose very existence is partly due to the need of curious and persistent persons to see if Ussher was right or wrong. He was wrong.

The facts as we know them today are these. The planet Earth is about four billion years old and orbits an ordinary yellow star, one of some 250 billion stars, belonging to a spiral galaxy called the Milky Way. Life, in the form of microscopic, bacteria, has existed on Earth for at least two billion years, and more complex plant and animal life for at least 500 million years, on both land and sea, as well as the air. There were large predators, the dinosaurs by 200 million years ago. But the human species, Homo sapiens, has been around only for about 130,000 years!

So today, we ask the question:

What was God doing before Man invented Religion?

Some people may prefer to approach this question in a form that James Ussher might have appreciated after being confronted with the evidence that Man and Beasts and Stars were not contemporaneously originated as claimed in Genesis or his own works:

What was God doing during the two billion years of Life on Earth, before He created the species Homo Sapiens, 130,000 years ago?

Cosmic Log points to the NOVA Science Now series from the US Public Broadcasting Service(PBS). An episode on one of my favorite Big Topics-- Mass Extinctions --aired just a few days ago. (Click on the link and watch it for an entertaining summary of the last 250 million years.) I don't know if there will ever be another Carl Sagan on television, but astrophysicist Neil de Grasse Tyson hosts what may be a worthy successor to the fabled Cosmos series in Science Now.

MASS EXTINCTIONS are a way of life and death on the planet Earth (this post lists the five most significant ones of the last half billion years). Even here in the far-off Philippine Archipelago, many have heard of the extinction event that wiped out the dinosaurs 65 million years ago when an asteroid or comet the size of Mount Everest evidently slammed into the earth and triggered a 5000 year long Global Winter as billions of tons of the collision ejecta went into orbit and shut out the sun for a couple of millennia. Fortunately for us, the ancestor of what would become the modern mammals, and Homo Sapiens, survived that mass extinction event, mute but eloquent evidence of which is the ancient 200-mile wide Chixulub Crater in the Gulf of Mexico, discovered in the 1990s as proof of the Impact Extinction theory.
Billions upon billions of living creatures, predators, prey, living, breathing, breeding, bleeding animals, died in an unimaginably horrible Holocaust a quarter of a billion years ago.

One of the most awesome scientific graphs I've ever seen is the one below produced by David Raup and John Sepkoski of the University of Chicago, which diagrammatically shows the history of life on earth during the last 250 million years as revealed by their analysis of the geological fossil record, discussed here in a Lawrence Berkeley Lab Review. Please realize that each peak in the plot below represents a mass extinction event in which 10 to 90 per cent of all life on earth goes extinct. Shown at 65 million years ago is the event that wiped out the dinosaurs. But less known is the mass extinction event 250 million years ago (to the far left of the graph below) in which 90% of all life on earth died and many whole branches of the Tree of Life were cut off. This event, was however, not due to asteroid impact, but may have been a global warming catastrophe involving a gigantic Siberian volcano system in which the oceans lost their oxygen and bacteria took over! Various causes have now been hypothesized for these mass extinction events of the Very Distant Past.

I think this graph shows what God was doing for a quarter of a billion years before he invented Homo sapiens. He was designing millions of different species and families of life forms and calling to life uncountable trillions upon trillions of living creatures--googols of them-- from trilobytes to dinosaurs to mammals to insects to bacteria, to live upon the earth. Then killing them off, as a Great Artificer might take an eraser and obliterate some drawing or sketch.

What was God doing before he invented Man? Perhaps He was just practicing to be Eternity's greatest biocidal Maniac. Or perhaps, it was really Man who created God, around the time Ussher claims vice versa.


sattvicwarrior said...

cool/ a LITTLE long but a GOOD read. thanks for sharing:)

Bernardo F. Ronquillo said...

Dear DJB, your Sunday School Post intrigues me and I have to make a comment much against my druthers.

When God finished creating the earth and created man, a day was reckoned by how many hours the earth rotates in its orbit and a year by how many days the earth revolves around the sun. That comes to 24 hours a day and 365-1/4 days in a year. That's how man reckons time.

But from the time God began creating the universe up to when he finished creating the earth and man, THAT WAS GOD'S TIME. And one day of God is equivalent to a THOUSAND years to man. King David, the Psalmist wrote in Psalms 90:4
"For a thousand years in your (God's) sight are like a day that has just gone by, or like a watch in the night."

2002 years of that 4004 years are God's time and should be reckoned by that and you will get your billions of years, more in fact. Just how many, I don't know and won't venture to even think about it because that belongs to the realm of God and is beyond the comprehension of a mere man. For how can one explain INFINITY?

But up

Rizalist said...


I was only arguing with Ussher, not GOD. For it is not God that is a deep mystery, but MAN.

In fact, this is not about God at all. It's about paleontology and ancient earth history.

It's about catastrophe on a planetary scale, about vulcanism and comet impacts and global warming.

I think the mistake that Ussher made is not numerical but metaphorical. By quantifying the age of the Universe, he had mixed up the symbolism and mystery of Genesis with arithmetic and geology and biology. This brought upon Religion a vulnerability by which Science could attack it in the ponderable, material world.

In trying to use Science to serve Religion, Ussher had demeaned Religion, and exposed it to the attacks it has suffered, deservedly!

But God in His Heaven--I'm sure he is safe from these worldly manifestations.

Rizalist said...

A warm welcome to Philippine Commentary, Sattvic Warrior.

Jego said...

The trouble with Ussher and the literalists is that they believe God incapable of poetry. But what kind of logic do the attackers of belief use when they accuse the belief according to the folly of believers? They in turn believe believers are incapable of screwing up.

Tom said...

You state: "The facts as we know them today are these. The planet Earth is about four billion years old . . ."

I'm glad you added the qualifier "as we know them today" and the relatively safe "about" in "about four billion . . ." Still I question the use of the term "facts." At best, your proposition as to the age of planet Earth, among other things, is a "theory." I suspect that even in the scientific community, there is no unanimous verdict as to the age of planet Earth.

Rizalist said...

That science is a series of successive approximations to the truth cannot be denied. There is really nothing 'exact' about science in that sense. But that is its strength, not its weakness. Science builds on what it knows to be FALSE not what it knows to be TRUE. I think that is what it means for some idea to be "scientific" that it is "falsifiable".

One thing for sure, Ussher was wrong. That we know. We also "know" that the earth is "about" 4 billion years old. But we are open to correction.