The Lazarus effect
You just walked over from Jerusalem because something is happening in Bethany. Being a sensible person, you expect only the excitement of a bereaved family and the visit of an influential Teacher—Jesus Christ. Perhaps you are a Pharisee waiting to pounce if Jesus misinterprets the law. Or you’re a Sadducee smugly confident in your worldly wisdom, yet sympathetic to the suffering of Mary and Martha as they mourn their brother. “It may be true that the idea of a resurrection is nonsense,” you think, “but it's easy to see how simple-minded superstitious people might cling to such wishful thinking.” Whether a Sadducee or a Pharisee, what happened after Jesus cried out, “Lazarus, come forth!” must have been mind-blowing.
Evidence can wreak havoc with our theories. This is as true today in the world of science as it was 2000 years ago in the hills of Judea. An example of unexpected evidence is the discovery of living organisms thought to have become extinct millions of years ago. Scientists call these living fossils “Lazarus species” because, like Lazarus, they appear to have come back from the dead.
Wollemi pines are an Australian example of a Lazarus species. These towering trees, first discovered as fossils, were thought to be extinct until a small stand was found in 1994 in the Wollemi National Park near Sydney. The Wollemi pine fossil record is commonly reported to span from 90 million to 2 million years ago. This means these trees appeared extinct but must have lived during the 2 million years fossils are absent. Could this interpretation of the fossil evidence possibly be correct? Or is it driven by philosophical assumptions having little to do with science?
Other examples of Lazarus species include coelacanth fish, thought to have become extinct some 65 million years ago, before being discovered alive and well off the coasts of Africa and Indonesia. Possibly the most spectacular example of Lazarus species are modest-looking molluscs called monoplacophorans. According to common interpretations of the fossil record, monoplacophorans became extinct about 320 million years ago, yet we now know they are living deep in today’s oceans, producing the same kind of shells found in the fossil record.
Lazarus species raise many questions. For example, if organisms can disappear from the fossil record for millions—or even hundreds of millions—of years and yet still be living, how can we be sure that they were not alive long before fossils of them first formed? As Bible-believers, we don’t embrace the idea that life has been suffering and dying for millions of years. Lazarus species indicate that we should be thinking about mechanisms other than deep time to account for the order observed in the fossil record.
It is true: some data is well explained by invoking deep time, but that doesn’t answer the fundamental question of veracity, as just about any theory explains some data. The trick is to elegantly explain all the data. It's also true that, while evidence accrues requiring heroic explanations if “deep time” interpretations are to be maintained, Bible-believers also lack glib explanations for some data. However, we maintain faith in a logically sufficient cause for what is observed in the creation and the Bible’s historical record of the Creator’s action in nature.
Of course, confronting evidence may not be sufficient to cause adherents to abandon cherished theories. How did those returning from Bethany respond to the startling evidence they witnessed? Some believed, others plotted to murder Jesus. We, similarly, when confronted with evidence about life on Earth, have a choice: we can recognise the handiwork of our Creator, or we can put faith in theories that explain Him away.
Dr Timothy G Standish is a research scientist at the Geoscience Research Center in Loma Linda, California.