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.