Are the existence of plant thorns and thistles proof that the world can only be a few thousand years old? Yes! according to most young-earth creationists.
I’ve written several times about thorns and creation (eg. The Prelapsarian Acacia and the Good Creation: On the Origin of Thorns) but a video available at creationtoday.org – a small fringe young-earth organization – had me thinking again about the origin of thorns. The relevant content is found between the 6-10 minute mark in the video (HERE). Here you will hear John McKay explaining that fossil thorns are proof that the world is young.
The logic in this video goes something like this:
1) Thorns only came into existence after the Fall of Adam because after the Fall, God curses the ground and Genesis 3:18 says: It (referring to the ground) will produce thorns and thistles for you and you will eat the plants of the field. (NIV).
2) Therefore, any plants that have thorns must therefore have arisen after the fall of Adam.
3) There are fossils of plants that appear to have thorns, therefore these fossils, and the rocks that contain them, must have been created after the fall of Adam.
4) Adam fell only 6000 years ago and thus these fossils and rocks must be younger than 6000 years.
In a nutshell this, along with the assumption of no death before the fall, is what drives young earth creationism to claim all rocks – and the fossils in – them must be young. Furthermore, to accommodate the fossils in these young rocks they look to the Noahic flood narrative to explain the existence of fossilized thorns.
How can young earth creationists be so dogmatic in their assertion that thorns could not have existed in the original creation? The scriptures provides no direct support of this interpretation of Genesis 3. Genesis 3 merely says that thorns will be produced for man to make his work more difficult. In other words, Genesis 3 is describing a new function for thorns and thistles not necessarily the physical creation of the structures themselves.
Does assigning function to thorns prove that no thorns existed for other purposes prior to the fall? The assumption that Adam’s sim resulted in the brand new creation of thorns appears to arise from modern man’s assumptions of what a good and perfect world should look like. John McKay and other young-earth creationists have decided plants with thorns could not be part of God’s good plan.
I have pointed out in the past that thorns can be integral parts of a “good” creation. Here we find McKay essentially saying that any sharp projection on a plant could not have existed prior to the fall because a sharp end could not be part of a good creation. This reminds me of some creationists who believe that all the planets traveled in perfectly circular orbits around the sun before the Fall of Adam and that sin caused their orbits to decay into the oval ones that they are today. Circles are “good” and perfect but ovals are imperfect and therefore could not have existed.
Adam, Eden and the land outside of Eden
But even if we grant the young-earth creationists conception of that Garden was a “good” creation with no pain or sorrow is it necessary to believe that the entire earth was identical to the Garden in Eden? In Genesis, Eden is depicted as a geographical location set apart from the rest of creation. Indeed, the Garden of Eden itself was to be found in a specific part of Eden in the East of Eden. The Garden of Eden is frequently depicted by young earth literalists as being a place of perfection. How then was the Garden distinguished from the rest of creation? The Garden is often portrayed as a tropical paradise, presumably because lush growth represents perfection vs less growth (and food) but what about the outside of the Garden? Was this land somehow less good in the minds of these creationists?
These questions are never addressed in the YEC literature. They always act as if the entire earth was a perfect paradise despite some very clear indications from the rest of Scripture that this was not the relationship of the Garden of Eden with the outside world. The key, as I recently pointed out in recommending the writings of Dr. G.K. Beale and others, is understanding that the Garden represented the holy place in Eden which itself is a sacred space in creation. The creation account and the creation itself is a portrait of the beginning of God’s unfolding plan for man and his relationship with what he had created.
It is important to note that Adam had been created outside the Garden of Eden (Gen. 2.8), possibly even outside of Eden. The image is that of his being created outside of God’s direct presence and then he is brought into his presence when placed in the Garden of Eden just as the priest came into the tabernacle and temple. Adam was originally made innocent and could enter into God’s presence but the priest had to make sacrifices and wash himself before he could enter that sacred space in the Temple or Tabernacle. That place was the only place where the Shekinah glory – God’s dwelling – was exhibited on earth at his footstool (the Ark of the Covenant).
Thus, the place where Adam had his origins was outside of this dwelling place. The image of this place of origin if that of the wilderness – or the disordered creation – the formless and void of Genesis 1.1. He was taken from the wilderness and placed into Eden, a sanctuary in God’s creation where he could commune directly with God (Genesis earth. In Eden, Adam was able to walk and talk with God in the Garden of Eden. In Genesis 1 we see that God, the creator, took the disorder of the initial condition of the cosmos (Genesis 1:1) and put order to it. In Eden we see that He has took the chaos (the wilderness) and made it fit/habitable for man. In other words He made it a “good” place for man. In each case, His creation of things were proclaimed “good,” not as an ethical statement about the objects themselves but rather they were good in their purpose as they related to man. It was their function for which the inspired author is primarily concerned.
Man was formed out of the wilderness/chaos but established in a place of order and in communion with God – he was in the God’s temple and had direct access to Him. There he was to tend and protect the Garden. He was also to exercise dominion. Part of the expression of that dominion was to “name” the animals. He could do so because he was emulating or even taking-on the role which God had taken in Genesis 1. In the act of naming the animals he was assigning/naming them their functions to the parts of the creation just as God assigned the plants for food, the sun, moon and stars for signs etc… God made Adam his vice-reagent over the earth he had created. As long as Adam fulfilled his role he would the Garden would continue to expand until it filled the whole earth. There are many references to this eschatological goal throughout the Bible and I would direct you to G. K. Beale, Meredith Kline etc.. for a fuller defense of these biblical principles. For starters, G.K. Beale authored a paper in the Journal of Evangelical Theological Society that I find to be a very accessible summary of his book: “Eden, the temple and the church’s mission in the new creation.” http://www.etsjets.org/files/JETS-aPDFs/48/48-1/48-1-pp005-031_JETS.pdf JETS. March 2005 48(1): pp 5-31.
We know what happened though. Adam failed to tend and protect the Garden. He allowed Satan into Eden. Notice that Satan is a malevolent force that is already present in the world. But in keeping with the image of the creation and the Garden through the whole Bible, the wilderness outside the Garden hadn’t yet been transformed by Adam and Eve and their offspring as God’s appointed image-bearers. Adam didn’t protect Eve and the Garden in his role as priest and the devil in the form of a snake brought the wilderness into the Garden. Being tainted by sin, the Garden could no longer be inhabited by Adam. Adam had to leave the garden and was cast out into the rest of the world. Throughout scriptures, being cast out of the Garden, the promised land, or outside the holy place of the temple or of the tabernacle is always seen as being cast out into a waste land in which the blessings of God are not fulfilled. A place in which the full bounty of creation is not available to man – at least not without a redeemer!
We might ask ourselves at this point: Why is it that the consistent message of Scriptures points to imagery of places outside of God’s presence as being inhospitable or at least not as hospitable (physically or spiritually) and yet so many people conceptualize the land outside of Eden as a tropical paradise? It isn’t even clear that Eden was a tropic paradise as we might imagine today. Rather, a more natural and consistent reading of Genesis that takes into account the imagery of Eden in Scriptures sees Eden as a place set apart from the rest of the world. When Adam sinned he was cast out into the wilderness where God’s bounty (food, water etc..) and personal relationship with man would be broken. Adam would now have to contend from a weakened position with a world he was supposed to have transformed. Now rather than transforming that world into a Garden that world would affect and transform him.
How many times do you find the warning to the Israelites that if they didn’t obey that they would be taken away and thorn bushes would come and swallow up the land. That is exactly what happened, the Israelites were carried off and their previously tended garden and fields previously likened to the Garden of Eden were consumed by the thorn bushes encroaching from the surrounding deserts.
An Application to the Origins of Thorns:
Despite the fall, Adam and his offspring are still is under the commission to expand God’s kingdom but his efforts won’t be as perfectly productive as they would have been had he obeyed God. Much more could be said about how this fits with the rest of scriptures but I think this is sufficient to draw out an application to our interest in the origins of thorns and thistles.
In summary, rather than thorns and thistles being created de novo in a world lacking them, thorns and thistles are a natural part of the creation but they would figuratively and literally thwart Adam’s mission to bring the rest of the world under submission. Rather than successfully transforming the wilderness into a garden that was productive, the wilderness would encroach on man. The act of being removed from the Garden meant he would be thrown into a world were the thorns and thistles already present in the wilderness – because they serve a good purpose to those plants – would now compete with man for resources. Had Adam continued to cultivate the garden the thorns would be kept at bay. Literally, tending the fields and gardens faithfully would have meant blessing which would have been a well-watered land free of thorn-bushes. Figuratively, the thorns are the effects of the evil one in man’s midst. Now that Adam is in the wilderness literally and figuratively he will contend with the pain and suffering that a lack of proper relationship with God brings. Emotional and physical distress abounds and will continue to abound – the creation groans.
But to the question of the physical origins of thorns themselves. The typical young-earth proposal that anything that even resembles a thorn could not possibly be present in the original creation boxes creationists into proposing rather awkward explanations for the present world. Elsewhere, McKay talks about all thorns, spines, spikes, prickles and all other points on plants as being degraded parts of the original creation. In his mind, thorns are stems that have lost their original “perfect” or “good” nature of being stems and have become “bad” thorns. As I pointed out for the acacias (The Prelapsarian Acacia and the Good Creation). Thorns might be “bad” for you or because they prevent us for easily attaining the fruit that might be on the bush, but the thorns provide homes for ants and are as amazing an example of natural design that works for the benefit of the organisms involved as the human eye is for us. The young earth creationist is constantly forced to denigrate amazing features of this world as being the result of sin yet at the same time will turn around a claim many of these features as amazing examples of intelligent design (see: Mixed Messages: Confusion about the Origins of Sea Otters at AiG). So McKay wants us to believe that all these bad feature are “negative” evolution or de-evolution in his words. They are the product of breakdown in an original perfect system. He makes it sound like it would be easy for complex genetic systems to change (mutations?) causing the stems to start make thorns (new characteristics).
The Thornbug: created or adapted?
To this argument of McKay’s I offer up the simple thorn bug pictured below. There are many species of thorn bugs and they all have modified outer wing casings that mimic different species of plant thorns. The function is pretty obvious, when they sit on a stem they can blend into the other stems thorns and will not be bothered by birds preying on them. If there were NO thorns in the pre-fall world – the prelapsarian state in theological terminology – for what purpose did hundreds of species of thorn bugs make “thorns”? They have pointy casings wherein if they sat on bushes in great number would be very pesky for one of us trying to grab that branch. Could such pain and inconvenience be part of this perfect world?
Before answering consider the function of the “thorns” on these bugs. They act as a disguise. It is a form of cryptic variation that allows them to not be noticed by one of their chief predators: birds. But in the perfect world would they need such elaborate defenses? And what good would being cryptic be if plants didn’t produce thorns. Birds would learn very quickly that everything that looks like a thorn is not a thorn – since real thorns didn’t exist – and therefore they are bugs which are good to eat. The YEC perfect paradise presents an ecological conundrum for the YEC who insists there is no death of animals.
It does get a bit tricky here. Most young-earth believers have a naive view of the original creation to be sure but YEC leaders such as Ken Ham are a bit more nuanced. They generally believe that bugs were not “living” things as life is defined by the bible so insects could – and did – die before Adam sinned. Even so, if insects could die but birds could not in the perfect creation then wouldn’t one expect that insects might have defenses against being eaten if God had given birds and animals all non-living (non nephesh life) things to be eaten? But the thornbug raises the same problem. If plant thorns didn’t exist then the thornbug is not imitating anything at all and thus a portion of its designed defense is useless until Adam sinned and plants evolved thorns.
The Garden of Eden – as the entire world ecosystem – in the YECs mind must have been a very different place than we typically imagine. Why would camels have humps if the world was well watered? Why would antelopes be able to run incredibly fast if their was never anything to escape from? The list could go on and on of features that we clearly associate with functions that are tied to survival but would have no purpose in a perfect world with no death.
Based on other examples from the YEC literature I expect that some YECs might respond that these bugs didn’t look like thorns before the fall. Rather the thorns on their backs were genetically pre-loaded/designed into their DNA by God who foreknew the fall was going to take place and this was his providential way of providing these bugs with some protection in the fallen world. What gets me about this argument is that McKay tries so hard to say that no new features can evolve. The only thing that can happen is degradation of features. These “thorns” are clearly not degraded features of something else like a “good” branch becoming a sickly “thorn” but rather these thorns are complex adaptation of what was already a very well designed set of wings that would not devolve into something more complex like these thorns.
There are a hundred angles to run with this from here which we won’t pursue right now. But I hope that I have given you something to think about.
I came across this short blog post that exemplified some misconceptions about the Garden of Eden. Here is a quote from Dr. Mike Harmon, Baptist minister writing about the location of the Garden of Eden:
If the Tigris and Euphrates mentioned are the same rivers by those names today, that would put the Garden of Eden somewhere in the Middle East, likely in Iraq. It cannot be mere coincidence that the Middle East region is where the planet was most lush—the place where the Garden of Eden was. If oil is, as most scientists believe, primarily decayed vegetation and animal matter, then this is the area where we might expect to find the greatest deposits of oil. Since the Garden was the epitome of perfection, it stands to reason that the decomposition of the earth’s most perfect and lush organic materials would produce vast stores of the earth’s best oil. (link to whole post)
I’m not sure how he came to believe that the Middle East region used to be the most lush place on the planet? Yes, there is evidence that it was much wetter there in the past but not a tropical zone. But again why is lushness the “epitome of perfection?” Is this a Biblical concept or our perception of perfection? The Bible describes the promised land as a land flowing with milk and honey as a new Eden! Fig trees, pomegranates, olive tress, grains and grapes are all symbols of the goodness of creation. These are not “lush” plants but are semi-arid adapted plants! To his point that great oil deposits are found here. Yes, there is much oil there but there is a lot of oil elsewhere and if a global flood then how does he know that the organic material wasn’t transported to this area? BTW, oil doesn’t result from decomposition of organic material as that would destroy it rather it results from transformation of organic material in the absence of decomposition but that really is a minor issue.
cover image courtesy of http://www.freeimages.com/photo/no-roses-just-thorns-1406427