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Pastor Glenn McDonald: Good Disasters

What swept the dinosaurs from the face of the Earth?

That question has puzzled paleontologists for a very long time.

This year marks the 200th anniversary of the arrival of every school child’s favorite critters onto the international stage. In 1824, Oxford geology professor William Buckland declared that a set of fossilized bones belonged to an extinct predator that he named Megalosaurus (which loosely translated means, “A freaking big lizard”).

At least 700 species of dinosaurs have since been identified, currently at a rate of about one new addition per week. The geological record suggests that these extraordinary creatures dominated our planet for as long as 175 million years. Then, about 66 million years ago, they suddenly vanished.

What happened?

Between 1840 and 1940, paleontologists fielded over 100 different theories. Perhaps dinosaurs ate all the available food. Or they were poisoned by noxious vegetation. Or they succumbed to terminal hay fever from the new kinds of flowering plants that appeared during the Cretaceous period. One scientist even proposed that they gassed themselves to death, having generated too much methane and the resulting dino flatulence.

Perhaps small mammals developed a fondness for dinosaur eggs. I remember as a child seeing artistic depictions of rat-like creatures plundering T-Rex nests.

It’s possible that an epic series of volcanic eruptions made life untenable. Or maybe Earth’s climate somehow became too hot, too cold, too wet, or too dry, and the dinosaurs finally ran out of adaptive options.

All of those theories aligned with the speculations of one of the 19th century’s most famous scientists, Charles Lyell. The British geologist, who strongly influenced Chales Darwin, vigorously advocated the doctrine of “uniformitarianism.” Lyell believed that virtually everything that had ever happened in natural history had happened slowly. Imperceptibly. At a leisurely, uniform pace that could be identified and measured.

Above all, Lyell had no love for “catastrophism,” the idea that sudden, dramatic events could change everything.

Lyell dismissed the catastrophists who speculated that something from outer space might have toppled the dinosaurs. He also waved aside the Bible students who proposed that Noah’s Flood was the real culprit – leaving us to wonder why Stegosaurus and Triceratops somehow failed to receive tickets for the ark.

Then, in 1980, a startling discovery changed the conversation.

A geological research team led by Nobel Prize-winner Luis Alvarez proposed that the Earth had been struck by a gigantic cosmic object. Alvarez noticed, all over the world, that the thin layer of dark clay at the so-called K-T boundary (between the Cretaceous and Tertiary periods) is unusually rich in the rare metal iridium, which is known to be abundant in asteroids.

The strata below the K-T boundary (those would be the older rocks in the geological timeline) are packed with dino remains. And above the K-T boundary? Not a single dinosaur fossil has ever been found.

Alvarez hypothesized that the iridium-rich clay boundary is proof that an asteroid or comet of immense size slammed into the Earth. The result was a dinosaur apocalypse. Subsequent investigation has suggested that the 90-mile-wide Chicxulub crater near Mexico’s Yucatan peninsula is the likely impact site.

And when did the mountain-sized Chicxulub object enter our atmosphere? It happened about 66 million years ago – the very time the fossil record reveals the end of the dinosaurs, and approximately 66 million years before Bruce Willis would be available to save the planet.

Almost overnight, the uniformitarians were out of business.

Paleontologists now believe that at least five different catastrophes, or mass extinction events, are discernible in the storybook of the ground beneath our feet.

Charles Lyell’s geological convictions may be yesterday’s news. But cultural uniformitarianism seems to be alive and well.

It’s all too common to imagine the average American life as a predictable series of events. We tell our kids that if all goes well, they will grow up, go to school, earn a degree, marry a wonderful person, find a job they love, raise a family, save their money, retire comfortably, then play a lot of golf and take their grandchildren on special trips.

Along the way, we will root for them to get excited about Jesus, attend a lot of Christmas Eve and Easter services – and, well, probably the next most interesting thing that will happen to them spiritually is that they will die.

That’s America’s watered-down version of the Good Life. It’s sane, pleasant, and predictable.

The problem, of course, is that nobody’s life really looks like that.

If we were entirely honest with our kids, we would tell them that uniformitarianism is hogwash. Their worlds will almost certainly be rocked by catastrophes that no one will see coming. The drunk driver. The heart-stopping CT-scan. The special needs child. The addiction. The “reduction in force” at work. The divorce. The tsunamis of anger, loneliness, and depression.

One day, seemingly out of a clear blue sky, their worlds will implode. And they will wonder if they can even go on.

It’s often at such moments, however, that we discover the true source of our hope. The next most interesting thing that will happen to us spiritually turns out not to be when we die – when we finally see Jesus face to face – but when we discover that he actually keeps his promises to us right here and right now.

British author J.R.R. Tolkien, celebrated for The Lord of the Rings, called it “eucatastrophe.” It’s the good disaster, the life-threatening moment that gives us life instead. The health crisis brings us to our knees. The lost job opens unexpected doors. The special child teaches us how to love in ways we could never have imagined.

In the Old Testament, the worst thing that ever happened to Joseph became the best thing that could ever have happened to the rest of his family. In the New Testament, the worst thing that ever happened to Jesus became the best thing that could ever have happened to the rest of the world.

Tragedy turns into triumph. Weakness becomes strength. Unimaginable loss becomes unexpected gain.

Through it all, we are never alone.

The Gospel of Matthew opens with the Child named Immanuel, God-With-Us. And it closes with Jesus assuring his friends, “Surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age” (Matthew 28:20).

He is always with us, and he is always at work.

Which means that whatever might seem like the end of your world in 2024 may turn out to be one of God’s most surprising gifts.


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