With a Little Help from My (Dinosaur) Friends

Who would have thought that dinosaurs would feature in Christian apologetics? Like everyone of my vintage, I loved dinosaurs when I was a child, and later thrilled to Jurassic Park (yep; I’m that old). But for all their reptilian roaring wonderfulness, dinosaurs never figured prominently in the world of my apologetic attempts to convert people to the Christian faith. Dinosaurs of course existed (we can view their re-assembled skeletons in museums), but—whatever. The truth (or otherwise) of the Christian Faith depended upon the evidence of the empty tomb and the resurrection of Jesus, not upon those large dinosaur skeletons.

Imagine then my surprise when one of my intelligent young people informed me that he was leaving the Church and abandoning the Faith because he “could not find dinosaurs in the Bible”. My initial reaction was: “Wait—what?” When I eventually sorted it all out, the argument against the Faith went something like this: the Book of Genesis represented an historical account of creation, and since it did not mention dinosaurs, and since dinosaurs obviously existed (remember those skeletons in the museums), then the Book of Genesis was obviously wrong, and since the Church believed that the Book of Genesis recorded an historically accurate account of primordial history, the Church obviously could not be relied upon. So, the Christian Faith was wrong, and he was out of here. Years of pondering his defection still leaving me asking the question, “Wait—what?”

The question of course involves how we interpret the Book of Genesis. Do we believe that it represents an historical account of what actually happened? In some versions of this question, dates get mentioned, with some people doing the math in Genesis (and sometimes reading the Fathers), and concluding along with Archbishop Ussher and his crowd that the earth was created about 6000 B.C. Others avoid doing the math, but still read the first chapters of Genesis as an account of what actually went down historically long ago.

The Fathers read it as an historical account, but were not that emphatic or excited about the history. For them, the point of Genesis was not the historical narrative, but the meaning of the narrative, and this meaning could be best understood through an allegorization of the narrative. One soon gets the idea that our historical concerns (with our interminable debates over evolution) were not those of the Fathers, and perhaps would have bored them considerably. What happened historically was rather less important to them than what it all meant.

Meanwhile, the modern question remains as to how we should interpret the Book of Genesis. Should we read it primarily as a story expressing theological truth through the medium of ancient cosmology (with its assumption that the sky was solid and kept the celestial sea from falling down upon the earth), or should we read it primarily as an historical account of what actually happened? That is the question.

Some thoughtful readers have acknowledged a mythological element or two in Genesis—such as that solid sky in Genesis 1, or that talking snake in Genesis 3. But at the end of the day, they still accept it basically as an historical account, even if it does contain obviously mythological elements (or, if one prefers, “meta-historical elements”). Such people regard as non-negotiable the assertion that death and conflict in the world began only after the fall of Adam, so that before Adam sinned, no sentient being died. Death (defined as “the death of sentient beings”) only began after Adam sinned.

Admittedly the Genesis narrative does not specify what it means by “death” any more than St. Paul does when he mentions it passing in his Epistle to the Romans. The sentence of death in Genesis clearly was intended for Adam, Eve, and presumably for their progeny. Not a word was said about the death of the animals that were created before them. Including the animals in the sentence of death God announced for Adam and Eve in Genesis (or Romans) is not exegesis, but interpretation—and perhaps eisegesis. Note too that asserting that animals did not die before Adam sinned also involves denying that any of them were created to be carnivores—something that is also absent from the Genesis text, and perhaps alien to its thought. One gets the idea that when Genesis says that God created the animals (such as the lions) it expected the readers to understand by this the animals they were familiar with—i.e. lions that ate meat, and roared after their prey, seeking their food from God (as in Psalm 104:21).

It is just here that an interpretation that reads these Genesis stories as meta-history (like the meta-histories of other creation stories of the ancient Near East) receives a little help from its dinosaur friends. All scientists acknowledge that dinosaurs lived before man appeared on earth. There is no credible dissenting scientific voice about this. Dinosaurs did not die out after Man appeared on earth, but before Man appeared on earth. This being so, it is clear that sentient beings died before Man appeared on earth and before Man (or Adam) sinned. So…(let’s connect the dots) those stories of Genesis cannot be received and interpreted as historical accounts of what went down long ago, but as something else.

There really is no way around this conclusion. Let’s review: IF the Genesis account is fundamentally historical to the point that the death of sentient beings occurred only died after Adam sinned, THEN dinosaurs lived and died out after Man/ Adam came upon the earth. If one is not willing to assert this, but acknowledges that dinosaurs died out before Man appeared on earth, then one must tweak the view that Genesis represents that kind of historical account, and must acknowledge that death, conflict, and “nature red in tooth and claw” predated the coming of Man/ Adam. One must then look again at what Genesis and Paul meant when they said that death came with Adam’s sin, and ask the question, “What did Genesis and Paul mean by ‘death’?”

Acknowledging that dinosaurs lived and died before Man arose on the earth does not mean that the Bible is wrong, or that the Church has no credibility, or that one must renounce the Christian Faith and leave the Church to retain intellectual integrity. It simply means that the view which reads Genesis as primarily an historical account is not the only one on the market. One doesn’t have to read the Book of Genesis as if it came from the History Channel. One can read it as if it came from the ancient Near East, and used the ancient cosmology as the vehicle for theological truth. I suggest the latter, and also suggest that the theological truth it offers was never more needed than it is today.

27 comments:

  1. Amen. As one who has grappled with the evolution debate within modern western Christianity, coming across the theological a-historical meaning of Genesis was a profound moment of revelation – it opened up so much more awe in me for the revelation of God, appreciation of the theological grammar of scripture, and the fact that I didn’t have to worry about a “tidy historical empirical reconciliation” because it was comparing apples to oranges. What a relief that was, and what a profound deepening of faith it led to beyond a strictly literalist account with “meta-historical adjustments.” Paul’s work with Adam in Romans can be so easily obscured without a theological vision of Adam being understood by seeing primarily only a historical, literal account.

    I imagine this is also why one of the saints is recorded as saying we need to be poets to become Christians. Strict literalism can run faith afoul so quickly, and keep it so stunted. I remind my peers that we are—particularly in modern western Christianity—two thousand years and half a world removed from the story of Jesus. How much more from the writing of Genesis… we cannot approach it simply from a modern western mindset, particularly the “two-story universe.”

  2. One element of Genesis that I’ve wondered about is the statement that “God had not caused it to rain on the earth.” For a culture where water and rain was vital, it’s strange to begin with a world without rain. I’ve always seen the Flood as the first rain, but that would mean that the atmosphere would have been quite different until then. And for the Flood itself, there’s the reference to the “fountains of the deep” being broken up. We do know that the interior of the earth itself contains a lot of water within rocks and there are great trenches and volcanic chains on the ocean floor. It’s interesting how Genesis may be a kind of meta-history, but it contains peculiar details that don’t seem to have an obvious reason for being there. Genesis doesn’t have the “frills” of other religious origin stories. There’s a frustrating lack of detail about many things, but the details it does have come across as matter-of-fact common knowledge.

    1. The bit about God not yet causing rain on the earth in Gen. 2:4-6 is given to explain why before the creation of man there was no foliage or harvest on the earth. It is meant to contrast with the situation after the creation of man, when man could till the ground. The author is showing how important man was to the production of the plants of the fields.

  3. Sorry, but I’m afraid Gen. 1:30 sure doesn’t sound like “nature red in tooth and claw” to me. If it’s eisegesis, it’s eisegesis by the author of the P-source.

    1. The point of the article is that all scientific evidence regarding the existence of dinosaurs points to a time before the appearance of man when nature was red in tooth and claw. Exegesis or eisegesis refers to the interpretation of a text; the evidence for a violent world prior to man is indisputable, apart from any interpretation of the Bible. In line with the article, I would ask: you are denying that dinosaurs died out before the coming of man, or that some of them were carniverous?

  4. I read the work of Irenaeus of Lyon ‘Against the Heresies.’ online again recently At least I could not finish it , again.
    Gnostics were spreading their ancient teachings again at the time. It is a frightening complicated vision of Creation.
    This is what Irenaeus wrote.
    …………………………….
    Inasmuch as certain men have set the truth aside, and bring in lying words and vain genealogies, which, as the apostle says, “minister questions rather than godly edifying which is in faith,” and by means of their craftily-constructed plausibilities draw away the minds of the inexperienced and
    take them captive, [I have felt constrained, my dear friend, to compose the following treatise in order to expose and counteract their machinations.]
    ……………………….
    I think that Gensesis as a whole was included to refute this kind of philosophy which may have been ancient in Irenaeus’ time.
    God made the world from nothing in Genesis ,not in these complicated genealogies of gods and older gods and younger gods making the world by accident or in defiance of other gods, and in Genesis the sun and moon and Time are made by God and were not warring deities who had to be placated. Man ( Adam) was made specially of the same elements as the Earth. This is modern science. too. We are made of atoms and molecules, rearranged but the same as the rest of the world.
    The timeline of the creation which we now know to have been millions of years was not considered to be of interest. Evolution was not a line of improvement. (that has now been proven to be true. The best adapted did not always survive.) it all happened in a static universe.
    So Genesis in all it’s information is not a history of Creation just an explanation. of how things come to be as they are.

  5. I propose that even a cursory reading of Genesis (whatever speculations one would like add or remove from the simple text) makes it clear that God created the universe in six days and on the seventh day He rested.
    The Holy Scriptures make no mention of Big Bangs, Evolution (biological, geological, universal, or multiversal).
    Occam’s Razor instructs us not to heave theory upon theory when we already have a fully functional theory.
    This doesn’t mean we abandon Science; nor does it mean that as Christians we adopt the tenets of “Scientism.” Scientism is the belief that all truth is to be obtained by, and only by, Scientific Discovery. So while all of the “…ologists” are busy at telescopes, atom smashers, archeological digs, etc., the rest of us idiots should wait in front of the TV longingly waiting for the next Nobel Laureate to “it like it is.” And like all good little idiots we are spoon fed that which is truth and that which is not. So if you want to interpret Genesis according to Big Bang Theory then you should understand that mathematics (physics) on timescales way up in the billions of billions of billions of light years is not always that accurate. A physicist’s worst nightmare is an infinity. Well every single black hole has an INFINATELY dense singularity at it’s center. What’s a singularity? That’s the thing that Big Banged and created everything in the universe in which we live. Where did it come from? It popped into existence nothing. Sorry, the only thing you get from nothing is nothing! And once your math leads you to an infinity its time to tear it up because you cannot multiply infinities. Would God take 5 or 6 billion years to create the universe using a Big Bang, And then lie to us in His word and state that he did it in 6 days? Well, give it some serious thought; then get back to me. Oh, it behooves one to know that the latest science is to doubt the existence of black holes; and in a futile attempt to avoid infinities, they are now “Brown Holes!”
    Okay, were dinosaurs and humans co-contemporary? Yes, I believe so. There are scholars and scientists (Ham, Morris, etc.) Who have given perfectly plausible reasons for believing that man and dinosaurs walked on the earth at the same time. But I go to the Book of Job where he describes 2 creatures (the Behemoth and Leviathan) and they sure sound like dinosaurs to me. Now, I have to step lightly here as we all know that Job one of the biblical Poetry books. Other beings, both human and animal, are described accurately in Job’s Poem. So, given the descriptions of these creatures, why would I tell myself that one is a hippo and the other an alligator? Especially when they fit the descriptions of dinosaurs so well.
    Well, I hope I have added to the discussion fruitfully. But even more I hope someone’s faith will be increased (and not have strengthened anyone’s stubborn opinion).

    1. Just a brief response to your very long sermon. I ask: if dinosaurs were created after man and described in Job 40-41 (and were presumably on the ark) and survived long enough to be seen by the writer of the Book of Job, then why and when you think that they went extinct? Your rejection of science illustrates the problem I focused upon in the article, and explains why some leave the Church.

      1. Why is the account in Genesis clearly in an illogical order? You don’t have to be a modern scientist to point out that you can’t have light without the sun and stars. It would have been glaringly illogical at first reading throughout antiquity to. The ordering reinforces two things: firstly, that the Creator was able to supply the light of the first day and evening, even before the creation of the sun; secondly, to reinforce that creation can never be accounted for by human scientific thinking, either ancient or modern. The illogicality makes a deliberate point.

    2. My education was in astrophysics, theology and mathematical modelling. The “Big Bang” theory and subsequent evolutionary postulations violate the first and second laws of thermodynamics and require events of infinitesimal probability. The photographs from the Hubble Space Telescope of the earliest galaxies show them to be mature rather than proto-galaxies. This was unexpected and is called the ‘mature early galaxy problem’. The theories postulated by atheist, materialist scientists rely on fallacies such as circular reasoning and ‘begging the question’. To accept these postulates is to be, effectively, a Deist rather than a theist. Serious scientists who hold a young-earth creationist position hold that the cosmos was created in a mature state, just as the wine at the wedding at Cana was mature and of the best vintage.

      1. Interestingly, in 2004 the New Scientist published an “Open Letter on Cosmology” of thirty-five physicists to the scientific community in order to protest against the obstacles dressed against alternative research on the origin of the Universe made necessary by new observations incompatible with the Big Bang theory. Such alternative research, they say, is made impossible for lack of funds, since funding is channeled exclusively to conventional research. “Observations are now interpreted through this biased filter (of compliance with the Big Bang theory), judged right or wrong depending on whether or not they support the big bang… This reflects a growing dogmatic mindset that is alien to the spirit of free scientific inquiry.” This Open Letter has by now been signed by over 200 scientists Cf. http://www.cosmologystatement.org (gives the names of the initial signers).
        One may add that the same dogmatization at the cost of scientific truth is at work also in the field of evolutionism.

        1. Nun Irenea, thank you for that link. The complications emerging from trying to fit new evidence into the Big Bang theory are not unlike the multiplication of epicycles that resulted from the dogma that the planets must move according to combinations of circles. We are now in the strange state of a theory that postulates that the observed matter in the universe is only 4% of the whole, the rest being ‘dark matter’, and further that there is ‘dark energy’ responsible for the observed apparent acceleration of the expansion of the universe.

          The problem of mature galaxies being observed by the Hubble Space Telescope is tantalising and frustrating cosmologists too.

  6. Fr. Farley,

    Thank you for the article and the rest of the blog. I’m not too invested in either Genesis-as-historical-account or Genesis-as-meta-history, but I do have a question about the following sentence: “There is no credible dissenting scientific voice about this.”

    Isn’t it the case that evolutionary science relies on philosophical naturalism, and therefore on an axiom that precludes the possibility of Christianity? That’s why I don’t pay too much attention to its conclusions. Methodological naturalism seems OK for most purposes (building airplanes, etc) but not appropriate—at least for Christians—when applied to anthropology and natural history.

    Best,
    Tiberius

    1. Thank you for your irenic comments. To answer your question: No, evolutionary science is not the least dependent upon philosophical naturalism. I suggest reading such books as The Language of God by Christian writer Francis Collins, Adam and the Genome by Christian writers Dennis R. Venema and Scot McKnight, and Evolutionary Creation by Christian writer Denis Lamoureux.

      1. I would also suggest reading Finding Darwin’s God by Kenneth R. Miller, an evolutionary biologist and faithful Catholic, as well as the (Lost World of . . .) series of books by John H. Walton, an Old Testament scholar, which explicate how a literal, fundamentalist reading of the first few chapters of Genesis not only violate our scientific understanding, they also violate how the Hebrews, or any ancient Semitic culture, would have understood it.

        Also, for those suspicious of the Big Bang theory on theological grounds: it certainly can be questioned, and some physicists do, on its scientific merits, but it was formulated by a Catholic Priest (Fr. Georges Lemaître), and was resisted by many prominent scientists in his day precisely because it sounded too much like a creatio ex nihlo event.

  7. Concerning these questions, the best source of information for Orthodox Christians is the book by Fr. Seraphim Rose “Genesis, Creation and early Man – the Orthodox Christian View”, Platina, 2nd editions 2011. It contains a rich documentation on the patristic tradition on the subject as well as on the scientific aspect, giving also many useful information sources (books, websites). As to the dinosaurs’ alleged disparition millions of years ago, that theory is severely challenged by the discovery over ten years ago already of non-fossilized dinosaur remains with soft tissues and blood cells, which of course would be impossible if these remains were millions of years old. cf. for example: https://creation.com/dinosaur-soft-tissue
    And on the subject of the diet of animals in their first-created state, Genesis chapter 1, verse 30
    tells us this: (And God said) .”…and to every beast of the earth and to every bird of the air and to everything that creeps on the earth, everything that has the breath of life, I have given every green plant for food.” And it was so.
    Meat-eating was blessed by God only after the Flood (cf. Gen 9,3).

    1. Rose’s book is severely flawed; see the review of it by Theokritoff in the SVS Quarterly, vol. 46, number 4, 2002. Sites such as creation.com are an embarrassment to real scientists. Anyone wishing to examine the science involved should read Adam and the Genome by Venema and McKnight, and Evolutionary Creation by Lamoureux (as mentioned my previous comment). The rejection of science that you suggest severely hampers our credibility when we present the Gospel to the world.

      1. If people turn away from the Church because this or that in its teaching – and the Church (which does not mean Theokritoff) certainly teaches that God created all things out of nothing in 6 days- , does not suit their own ideas, then of course that means such people are not ready yet for the Church, and not that the Church should change her teaching to suit their tastes.

        1. This is not a case of the Church changing her teaching to suit anyone’s tastes, but of the Church understanding its own Scriptures properly. Those who opposed Galileo and insisted that the Scriptures taught that the sun revolved around the earth doubtless thought that they do were being faithful to the Scriptures.

          1. Our Holy Fathers – St. Irinaios, St. Basil, St. John Chrysostom, St. Ambrose of Milan, St. Ephrem the Syrian, St. Maximus the Confessor, St. Symeon the New Theologian, St. Nektarios, St. Ignatius Briantchaninov, St. Nikolaj of Ohrid and so many others – certainly have properly understood the Scriptures, and as Fr. Seraphim Rose in his book precisely shows through the extensive quotes he collected there, they all interprete Genesis literally and not allegorically. But the main issue is that darwinism is challenged by science itself, since new fields of scientific research (molecular biology and genetics f. ex.) increasingly show its falseness.

          2. You are not interacting with what I have written in the piece. Are you suggesting that dinosaurs (of which the Fathers knew nothing) died out after the coming of man?

  8. Not myself am suggesting this, but a number of scientific observations, among which the one I indicated in my first reply) and also quite a number of testimonies about what used to be called “dragons” (gr. δρακον) in ancient Christian litterature, where this sometimes refers to demons, but many times to real creatures. See f. ex. John Moschus (7th century), “Spiritual Meadow”. St. John of Damascus (8th century) has even written a special treatise “On Dragons” where he affirms that dragons are real living creatures, citing as example the killing of a 120-foot long dragon by the Roman army (cf. his “Complete works”, vol. 5, pp 306-11 and PG 94, 1600-1601).

    1. Fascinating, but not quite on topic. The question for anyone suggesting that dinosaurs existed after the coming of man and that they survived late enough to be well-known and described in the Book of Job is: why and when did they die off? And why are their skeletons not found in geological layers contempraneous with later species such as Man?

  9. There are fossilized and non fossilized remains of dinosaurs. The fossilized ones often occur in extensive mass graves like those in China and indicate that they died a violent death of suffocation, buried under layers of sediment. Creationist paleontologists understand this as evidence that these dinosaurs died during the flood. They admit the possibility that some dinosaurs were among the animals in the Ark of Noah, survived the flood and multiplied after it. These would account for the “dragons” of ancient literature. When and why they became extinct? These questions exist also for many other post-flood species that have since died out. The problem is that answers cannot be found when questions are not asked, and obviously evolutionist scientists refuse to ask certain questions that are out of tune with their theories. Moreover, there exist serious doubts regarding the reliability of currently used dating methods.

  10. Personally I’ve always felt that the dinosaurs died out after the Fall. I’ve always wondered where all the legends of the dragons came from. These thoughts of dragons are in every culture. Also is there anywhere in Genesis where it states just how long Adam and Eve lived in Eden before the fall? Yes… I do believe St. George actually killed a dragon

  11. It seems to me that “dinosaurs” were invented in order to provide some weight to the newly-created “theory” of evolution. Yes, I understand that sounds ridiculous on the surface. However, the history of the dinosaur phenomenon is riddled with hoaxes, fakery, lies, deceit, speculation, and pseudo-science. I recommend the following link to read more about the possibility that these creatures never actually existed – https://cluesforum.info/viewtopic.php?f=29&t=1594&hilit=dinosaur

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