Of Rhinoceri and Palm Trees

Did you ever see a palm tree growing next to a glacier?  I did, kind of.

Have you ever been inside a rhinoceros?  I have, in a way.

Let me explain a bit.  Most readers of the Beacon Lights are not aware that many years ago it was my privilege to be a teacher in our Protestant Reformed schools.  Having graduated with a bachelor’s degree in chemistry, I decided that I ought to obtain the master’s degree in earth science.  I was accepted at a large graduate school with the proviso that I first take prerequisite courses in mineralogy, geology and climatology.  This I arranged to do at Western Washington University, located near our Lynden congregation.  It was the summer of 1964.  You will say; we are dealing here with ancient history in more ways than one!

After six weeks of intense classroom instruction we spent the last two weeks of the summer on field trips, first on the beaches and in the mountains of western Washington, and then in the arid environs of the eastern part of the state.  Go with me on two of these trips on which we collected rocks and minerals, and observed various structures of geologic significance.

Riding high above the coastal plain of northwest Washington stands Mt. Baker (10,776 feet), blanketed in perennial snow, with long fingers of glaciers reaching down in several directions.  These slow-moving glaciers maintain a thickness of forty to a hundred feet:  compressed ice at the bottom and new snow at the top.  In sight of Coleman Glacier, at an altitude of approximately 8,500 feet, we were being instructed in glacier movement when the boulder I was resting upon caught my attention.  Our learned professor informed me that what we had here was a large fossil of a palm frond.  Careful application of the rock hammer yielded a magnificent specimen which even now sits on the hearth of my study fireplace.  A large, flat piece of petrified material, it clearly shows the structure of part of a palm leaf, the ridges and veins converging on a point (not on the rock), giving the familiar appearance of the palm leaf.  At 50 degrees north latitude, and at 8,500 feet elevation, with glaciers all around?  Our leader fearlessly dated the fossil at 90-70 million years old.

The following week found the class in eastern Washington which, for the most part, is covered with lava (scoria) from ancient volcanoes and other disturbances.  One evening after supper in a state park, the leader of our class asked several of us if we were up to some stiff work; if we would row across the lake and do a little climbing, he would show us something we would not soon forget!  Soon two rowboats were tied to some brush on the far side of the lake.  Six of us students then climbed a faint trail on the face of a cliff that was only a few degrees on the friendly side of perpendicular.  Our attention was directed to a small hole high above our heads.  With flashlights in hand, we took turns standing on each other’s shoulders.  When my turn came, I thrust head and shoulders through the small opening and found myself inside a rhinoceros!

By shining the flashlight about, I observed a perfect cast of a mature rhinoceros body.  The opening I filled was near the rump of the animal; the remainder of the cast stretched out before me for ten or twelve feet.  The animal had been lying on its side with its feet slightly higher than its spine when it was entombed in flowing lava.  Closer inspection revealed every toenail on its round, stumpy feet, the coarse hair that covered parts of his body, and at the far end the head with eyes minutely outlined, deep wrinkles about the face and two terrible horns.  There was no skeleton or any other remains of the three-ton body; likely everything had been incinerated by the lava, but every detail and dimension was faithfully preserved in rock.  The professor was correct in that I’d never forget this; he was dead wrong when he dated the demise of the beast at 90-70 million years ago.

Does the Christian, holding faithfully to the Word of God, have answers for the fossil record?  Is this record embarrassing at best or soul-shaking at worst?  If we try to deny fossils, or anything that definitely belongs to the creation in which we live, we do two things:  we bring unnecessary reproach of unbelievers upon the Church for being blind, ignorant and naïve, and we deny God His glory for something wonderful He has done.  Although every fossil and related phenomenon may not have a Biblical answer at this time, we may be sure that there is such an answer.  And, by faith we also understand that no theory contrary to the Word of God can possibly be correct.

The two examples mentioned above pose no threat to the child of God who holds to divine creation in six, twenty-four hour days and to all the rest of Scripture as well.  Palm trees in northern climates and rhinoceroses near the Canadian border may surprise us today, as we know these creatures to be found only in the tropic sub-tropic zones.  (There are other examples of what may be called odd displacements:  remains of tropical fish and warm-water coral sprinkled lavishly across the Arctic part of the globe).  All these things point in the direction of a pre-flood, universally mild climate.

The Bible has a way of giving scientific facts that no Christian student or scientist may ignore.  On the basis of Genesis 2:5-6, we are justified in saying that it did not rain before the flood; God nourished the plants with a mist from the earth.  On the basis of Genesis 8:22, we are justified in saying that before the flood there were no seasons, for in this verse God speaks for the first time of “seed time and harvest, and cold and heat, and summer and winter.”  One of the tremendous, cataclysmic acts of God in the flood was that He tilted the axis of the earth 23 ½ degrees from an upright position relative to the sun.  Without this tilt there could only be inhospitable torrid and frigid zones; somehow, Rehwinkle suggests either ocean currents or a cloud canopy (cf. The Flood, Alfred M. Rehwinkle, St. Louis:  Concordia Publishing House, 1951), God created a universal, mild, Spring-like climate that allowed plant and animal life to prosper everywhere on the face of the earth.

In the flood, that great deliverance of the Church by water and that great picture of the final deliverance of the Church in the end by fire, God worked many changes in His creation.  The windows of the heavens were opened and the fountains of the deep were broken.  What havoc was worked when God shook the earth:  incalculable amounts of water were added to the earthly sphere; the earth tilted to a specific degree in relation to the sun; seasons began; continents, islands and mountain ranges (above and below sea level) were formed, large areas of the earth were convoluted; and countless volcanoes belched forth their unlovely contents.  All animals, birds and men not with Noah in the ark were destroyed, including the rhinoceros I invaded.  Plant species became restricted as to where they could grow and bring forth after their kind.  In the universal flood, and in the changes worked by God in that flood, we find the answers to most, if not all, the challenges hurled by unbelieving science against the Bible and its adherents.

In that class, so long ago, I recall two classmates:  a Jewish teacher from a public school in Arizona and a “Reformed teacher” from a Christian school in Michigan.  The Jewish teacher, though he denied the New Testament and the Christ, held to creation according to Genesis 1-2.  The “Reformed teacher” believed in the period theory and accepted eagerly all that the professors were saying.  “Oh, that men would praise the Lord for His glorious and for His wonderful works to the children of men!” (Psalm 107:8)