Dinosaurs: Questions Christians ask
Young Matthew stood entranced at the Fort Worth zoo. He could hardly believe his eyes! There in front of him stood Cera, his favorite dinosaur, from his favorite movie, The Land Before Time. He stared…and stared…and stared. His parents, somewhat appalled that he preferred looking at this mechanical model to all the live animals, insisted it was time to go somewhere, anywhere but here. Sobbing, he pleaded for more time wailing, “but I love her.” Firmly in parental hands, he cried, “Cera, I love you!” as he was led away. Such childhood attachments to dinosaurs may fade with time for many, but some retain a lifelong love for these fascinating creatures.
Children within the Christian community are no exception; however, among the more conservative denominations, there arise a number of theologically based questions that become problematic as the children mature. These may be synthesized into one question: How do dinosaurs fit into a biblical worldview?
Currently there is an expanding database on dinosaur materials that include bones, teeth, tracks, eggs, embryos, skin impressions, and dung. Apparently, these land-dwelling animals came in all shapes and sizes. The information we have suggests active, breeding populations on a global scale.1 In the face of the growing evidence, it is difficult to argue that dinosaurs never existed. However, some individuals hold this view, not because they think the scientists have invented these creatures to delude us, but because they cannot reconcile the existence of the dinosaurs with their understanding of the nature of God. Thus, there is a need for Christians to address the significance of these animals within the biblical view of Earth history.
This dilemma is commonly expressed as “I can't believe God put Tyrannosaurus rex in the Garden of Eden.” Others comment that dinosaurs are “so ugly.” They cannot believe that a loving, compassionate God would create a vicious “killing machine.” At the same time, these individuals are very comfortable with God's creation of lions. This prompts one to ask, “What is the difference between a T. rex and a lion?” There are, of course, many differences, but the issue is one of predation in the Garden of Eden and, in that respect, they were both carnivores. Even though Bible-believing Christians believe God created a “kind” of cat, they assume the cats were herbivores in the Garden of Eden at least until sometime after Adam and Eve sinned. It seems logical that such an argument could also be applied to the carnivorous dinosaurs.
What appears to be a rather simple question becomes quite complex when addressing the issues inherent in it. We will examine these issues in the following questions.
Did dinosaurs really exist?
A few scattered bones would not be enough to conclude that dinosaurs really existed. However, the record of dinosaur bone material is quite extensive, and the variety of dinosaurs enhances our understanding of these creatures. Well-preserved tracks and eggs with embryos indicate that the dinosaurs were alive, walking around, and breeding.2 The tracks are the most powerful arguments for their existence.
Rock records all over the world provide us with some fascinating information that may help us answer our questions. Scientists find in these rocks large deposits of dinosaur bone material. This bone material seems to have been replaced by a variety of minerals, preserving them for us to see. Bones that have been turned into rock are called fossils. If there is enough fossilized material available, scientists can reconstruct the animal. By 1990, scientists had reconstructed 197 complete skeletons of dinosaurs.3 More have been found since then.
As they studied the bones, scientists also developed a classification system from a number of distinctive bone structures unique to this group of animals. Consider, for example, that dinosaur skulls have openings not found in reptiles or mammals; the ankle is composed of a simple joint; and the vertebrae are distinctive from those of other organisms.4 Examination of the structure within the bones suggests that dinosaurs are a unique group of animals, very distinct from mammals and reptiles. Much of the bone structure show cell-by-cell replacement and preservation as they became fossils.5 Such fine detail in the fossils means that we can observe growth lines and vesicles in the bones. This combination of features is not found in reptiles or mammals and is unique to dinosaurs, though some claim there are similarities between the coelophysids and birds.
Dinosaurs have been classified into two distinct groups based on their pelvic structure. The first group consists of the theropods or carnivorous dinosaurs, and the sauropods, the large-bodied dinosaurs built like suspension bridges with long necks and tails, having pelvic structures similar to reptiles. The second group contains all the other dinosaurs, which have hip structures similar to birds. Despite the similarities to other animals, however, the pelvic structures are unique to dinosaurs.6
Problems in the classification system for dinosaurs arise from difficulties in distinguishing genus and species. In 1990, of the 285 genera of dinosaurs, 45 percent were identified from a single bone. Many people are skeptical of such identifications. Researchers are also concerned about the classifications that have been developed for dinosaurs because too many genera have only one species. Researchers suspect that some of these genera are actually species from only one described genus.7 Despite these difficulties, there is considerable material to suggest that a wide variety of dinosaurs existed.
The features discussed here suggest that dinosaurs were unique creatures and, as such, could well represent a created “kind” as recorded in Genesis. The variety, distribution, and combination of dinosaur traits suggest that cross-breeding is possible, with dogs and flowers as modern examples; however, species variation is much easier to accomplish than the variation found among the dinosaur families as well as the origination of a new class of organisms.
For those who think dinosaur bones are fakes, there are additional data that suggest otherwise. Some of the bone material is found overlying skin impressions. These fossils provide us with additional information about the appearance of these organisms. If the bones are a hoax, someone went to a lot of trouble to include impressions of fossil skin in the deposit.
For these to be a hoax, the hoaxer must also create tracks. The information obtained from the tracks is most interesting.8 Tracks appear in a variety of sizes and shapes. When the trackway is of sufficient length, the stride and gait of the dinosaur can be determined. Most of the tracks indicate that the dinosaurs were walking rather than running, and the dinosaurs seem to be limping. It is difficult to determine why the dinosaurs were limping. They may have been injured or moving their young or carrying food. Whatever the explanation, the presence of tracks confirms that dinosaurs were actually alive and moving across the ground. It is interesting to note that researchers have not found any dinosaurs stopped “dead in their tracks” yet. Layers of dinosaur bones are found above and below but not with the tracks.
Some of the trackways have large tracks surrounding smaller tracks.9 This is suggestive of a “herd” of dinosaurs. Some researchers assume that these herds were following a natural migration route through the region. Others might not agree with that conclusion. Within the context of a biblical Earth history, dinosaur movement may reflect survival responses and stress factors related to shifting Earth with rising and falling flood waters.
Finally, evidence exists for breeding dinosaur populations. Dinosaur nests, eggs, embryos, and juveniles have been reported.10 There are more than 200 egg sites worldwide. Evidence for in situ nests is not as abundant. Embryos and juveniles are quite rare. The existence of these deposits indicates that at least some of the dinosaurs were reproducing.
Researchers cannot always tell which dinosaur laid which eggs. In the early 20th century, eggs found in Mongolia were thought to be laid by Protoceratops, the dominant herbivorous dinosaur in the region.11 Then in the late 1900s, another nest was found with the bones of the small predator, Oviraptor, overlying the eggs. In addition, an Oviraptor embryo was discovered by scanning an egg. The deposits in Mongolia raise many questions. Why would Oviraptor sit on the nest while it was being covered up in a sandstorm? Or did it drown in an inter-dunal pond during a sudden rainstorm? Did Oviraptor sit on the nest because it was warm-blooded? How many oviraptors were sitting on the eggs? How many “nests” were there?
Many questions remain about specific characteristics of dinosaurs, but the large body of data available to us confirms that they did indeed exist.
When did dinosaurs exist?
Evidence for when dinosaurs existed is not so definitive. They occur in the Mesozoic (“mid-life”) layers of the rock record (geologic column). Radiometric dates from the associated volcanic ash and lava layers indicate that they lived between 65 and 225 million years ago, well beyond accepted biblical ages. (According to radiometric dating, the earth is thought to be 4.6-4.7 billion years old.)
The first dinosaur bones in the rock record are found in the same unit, the (Carnian) Triassic Period, on four continents.12 This diverse and widespread appearance of dinosaurs in the fossil record is difficult to explain according to current evolutionary theory. This difficulty is seldom brought to the attention of the public; however, this is not uncommon, as none of us likes to talk about what we don't know.
It is important to remember that the radiometric dates are not data (hard facts); they are mathematical calculations based on the distribution of radioactive materials in the rocks.13 Time is not measured directly; time is an exponent in the formula for the slope of the line generated by the distribution of the isotopes. That distribution is based on chemical and physical properties within the melted rock body. Consequently, the biblical account of Earth history is equally legitimate as a source of data with regard to time.
In summary, just as scientists believe they have a reliable way to measure time periods in the rock record, many Christians believe they have a reliable source of information (the Bible) regarding the age of life on Earth. Consequently, pinpointing the age of the dinosaurs remains controversial.
Did dinosaurs and human beings live together? How?
The belief that dinosaurs and human beings lived together on this Earth is not based on scientific evidence (there is none), but rather on confidence in the divinely inspired word of God. The belief that God created all living things and that they were good, as well as the belief that there was no “shedding of blood” (predation) on Earth until after human sin, leads many to believe that dinosaurs and people may have lived together peaceably.
It is important to note that not all dinosaurs were of the large, meat-eating varieties.14 Half the dinosaur families were the size of an adult male giraffe (about 23 feet tall) or smaller, some the size of a large dog or wild turkey. In addition, most dinosaurs were herbivores (plant eaters).
Is Satan responsible somehow for the origin of the dinosaurs?
Did Satan alter the DNA of some animals to produce the dinosaurs? Are human beings responsible for the origin of the dinosaurs? Did human beings genetically engineer the first dinosaurs? The answer to all these questions in my opinion is “No.” Dinosaurs were distinctive organisms. They had structures and traits that were unique to them. This means that their origin required more than mixing or alteration; it required new information, a creative activity that most Christians believe resides in the power of God alone.
Were the dinosaurs cross-bred from other kinds of animals?
The cross-breeding suggested by some Christians for dinosaurs requires viable offspring from a mix of mammals and reptiles, two distinct phyla. In our world it is not possible to cross-breed phyla. Cross-breeding of species is fairly common; however, there are limits to that kind of breeding.15
So did God really create the dinosaurs?
Why would a loving God create the Tyrannosaurus rex? Did T. rex live in the Garden of Eden? It is reasonable to assume, from the data (facts) we have, that God created some basic kind or kinds of dinosaurs. In addition, some variety of theropods, which may have included T. rex, could have existed in the Garden of Eden.
However, given the theological perspective of most Bible-believing Christians, it would be hard to believe that the animals in Eden were carnivores (meat eaters). The alteration of their diet would have occurred after the Fall, just as thorns and thistles appeared after Adam and Eve sinned.
What killed the dinosaurs?
Many theories have been proposed for the demise of the dinosaurs:16 (1) a drastic change in climate due to an asteroid impact or increased volcanism, or both; (2) a break in the food chain; or (3) the evolution of dinosaurs to birds. Many Christians do not believe that dinosaurs evolved into birds, and the evidence for a break in the food chain has proved difficult to document.
Destruction of the dinosaurs by the Genesis flood fits within the biblical view held by many Christians. Independent of the time issue, the burial of dinosaurs in a variety of water-laid sediments worldwide17 is consistent with the biblical account. Furthermore, given the complexity of the Genesis flood, asteroid impacts and increased volcanism may have played a significant role in the destruction of the Earth and its organisms as well.
If dinosaurs were created by God, why are they extinct?
Lots of organisms that Christians believe were created by God have gone extinct. The marine systems have dramatically changed from that of the pre-Flood world. Insect populations, amphibian, reptilian, and mammalian organisms are radically different. Not everything God created has survived to the present day. This probably was not God's choice; but rather the result of human sin.
God acted continually throughout the Genesis account of the Flood to save life. Unfortunately, not everything that was saved could survive in the post-Flood world.
Were there any dinosaurs on the ark?
At least half of the families of dinosaurs could have been on the ark. They were certainly small enough. In addition, it is important to remember that not every single species had to be on the ark. Only representative kinds or basic types were needed because we recognize that there is variation within genera (groups of species) at least. However, it is important to remember that there is no scientific data to support this idea. The belief that dinosaurs were on Noah's ark is a statement of faith.
Some may think these questions are ridiculous. However, Christians ask such questions because they desire an explanation of nature that makes sense within the biblical account of Earth history. While the answers given here may not altogether satisfy everyone, at least they provide a basis for discussion and further study.
There is much yet to be known about the wonders of God's creative work–both before and since sin entered into our system–and the divine promise is that we shall know this from the eternal Teacher Himself in the earth made new. Until then, we as Christians are obligated to search and study earth history with divine assistance through the quidance of the biblical account and the inspiration of the Holy Spirit.
Elaine Graham-Kennedy (Ph.D., University of Southern California) is a geologist who has focused her research on the Grand Canyon of Arizona and in Patagonia, Argentina. She is currently studying a dinosaur bone bed in eastern Wyoming and serves as adjunct professor of geology at Southwestern Adventist University in Keene, Texas. Dr. Kennedy has recently published Dinosaurs: Where Did They Come From . . . And Where Did They Go? (Boise, Idaho: Pacific Press Publishing Association, 2006), which is available through http://www.adventistbookcenter.com. Her email address: firstname.lastname@example.org.
- K. Carpenter, K. Hirsch, and J. Horner, Dinosaur Eggs and Babies (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2000), p. 372.
- M. Lockley, Tracking Dinosaurs (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1991), p. 238.
- D. Lambert and the Diagram Group, Dinosaur Data Book (New York: Avon Books, 1990), p. 320.
- A. Romer, Vertebrate Paleontology (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1966), p. 468.
- A. Chinsamy-Turan, The Microstructure of Dinosaur Bone (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2005), p. 216.
- Romer, pp. 148-163.
- P. Dodson, “Counting Dinosaurs: How Many Kinds Were There?” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 87 (1990), pp. 7608-7612.
- Lockley, pp. 61-70.
- Ibid., pp. 71-82.
- Carpenter, et al., p. 372.
- A. Hunt, “Synchronous First Appearance of Dinosaurs Worldwide During the Late Triassic (Late Carnian: Tuvalian),” Geological Society of America, Abstracts with Program (1991), p. A457.
- G. Faure, Principles of Isotope Geology (New York: John Wiley and Sons, 1986), p. 608.
- Lambert, et al., p. 320.
- http://origins.swau.edu/papers/evol/gibson/default.html: Paper by J. Gibson, “Creation and Evolution: A Look at the Evidence” (1999).
- http://www.priweb.org/ed/ICTHOL/ICTHOL04papers/04.htm: Anonymous paper summing up a variety of explanations given for the extinction of dinosaurs.
- Lambert, et al., pp. 230-261.