Some years ago, after I had lectured to Adventist university students and young professionals, a pastor approached me and asked, “Could you please talk to my wife and convince her that dinosaurs really did exist?”
This request was not a joke. The pastor’s wife was a school teacher and she refused to teach her students that dinosaurs had ever existed. Right away, I realized that behind her denial of dinosaurs was a struggle to understand the mystery that perplexes some and fascinates others: how do we explain the past existence (and extinction) of dinosaurs within a biblical context?
Unfortunately, this denial of the existence of dinosaurs has become more widespread than we would like to admit, even taking into account our scientific society with highly advanced research in all fields, including geology and paleontology. These specific sciences seem out of place in our schools and colleges and are hardly considered by our Adventist youth when choosing a profession. As a Christian and a paleontologist, I must daily face the widespread notion of a biological evolution involving millions of years, and I can understand that some people fear becoming involved in a philosophy that may prove to be contradictory to Scripture.
However, it is possible to study fossils, rocks, and evolution without renouncing our faith. If we are to appreciate the beauty and mystery of earth’s Creation and subsequent history, a great deal depends on how and what our teachers and pastors transmit in our schools and churches. In this article, I outline ways for students, teachers, parents, and pastors to productively think about the place of dinosaurs within a biblical paradigm in a faith-affirming way.
The museum dinosaur
If you have ever visited a natural history museum, you probably saw spectacular and massive dinosaur skeletons. In other places, you can see animated reproductions of dinosaurs which, in the case of television documentaries, seem to be alive and real. When viewing these animations, the visitor should take into account several details.
First of all, we should accept that dinosaurs did exist for a period of time on earth and that, in certain places, they seemed to be numerous. Paleontologists have found evidence of their existence in sediments on every continent, including Antarctica. This evidence includes bones, eggs, nests, and footprints. These dinosaur footprints and tracks are abundant and cannot positively be associated with any other creature except what we now call dinosaurs.
Secondly, we should be aware that skeletons found in museums are typically not actual bones, but rather replicas. The original bones are too valuable and delicate to be exposed to the general public, and therefore, are usually stored in safe places within the museum. Furthermore, “complete” skeletons in museums are often assembled from replicas of bones from various specimens, which, on occasions, come from very distant places. This does not mean the skeletons are just cobbled together. Paleontologists are able to piece together the body architecture of dinosaurs even though they might not have all the skeleton elements of the same creature, and thus, the replicas we see in museums are reasonably trustworthy. Some nearly complete specimens unearthed, including the Tyrannosaurus rex, are exhibited in Chicago’s Field Museum. The animations seen on television, however, are much more speculative, especially regarding skin color, physiology, behavior, and so forth.
In the geologic column, dinosaur remains appear in rock layers that paleontologists call Triassic, Jurassic, and Cretaceous. These layers of sedimentary rock, stacked one on top of the other, show specific characteristics, including those of certain fossil species such as mollusks, reptiles, fish, dinosaurs, and microscopic organisms (diatoms and algae, among others) that once filled the oceans. Some paleontologists believe that dinosaurs, as well as other groups of animals and plants, suddenly disappeared as a consequence of a gigantic meteorite impact 65 million years ago. Others doubt this model for a variety of reasons.
Most creationist scientists believe that dinosaurs disappeared, together with other species, during the worldwide Flood described in the book of Genesis. This scenario could include meteorite activity resulting in gigantic tsunamis, volcanic activity, and the emission of carbon dioxide, sulphides, and other chemicals harmful to plants and animals. Therefore, the idea of a meteorite impacting the earth is not necessarily incompatible with the biblical model of the Flood.
In spite of a lack of consensus among scientists about what made dinosaurs disappear, the media and pseudoscientific press have decided that the meteor impact theory is the only valid explanation. This is far from reality. Dinosaurs did disappear, but we do not know exactly when or why. However, the possibility of their extinction during the Genesis Flood (with or without the associated impact) can be viewed as a plausible scientific hypothesis and deserves consideration.
Dinosaurs and human beings
Much has been written and argued regarding certain evidence that supposedly shows dinosaur and human remains together. The evidence includes what are interpreted to be human footsteps together with dinosaur footprints, as well as prehistoric pictures in caves and on pottery where human figures appear together with exceptional creatures very similar to current reconstructions of these giant reptiles. However, rigorous scientific study has shown that these features have been misinterpreted.
Let us analyze, for example, the alleged “human” and dinosaur prints found in the riverbed of the Paluxy River in Texas. A few decades ago, some enthusiastic scientists proclaimed that this was sure evidence against the theory of evolution and proof for the occurrence of a worldwide Flood. Intrigued by these statements, more than one evolutionist and creationist scientist studied in detail the marks found on the rocks. In that particular place, the riverbed and bank have many marks due to water erosion. We can tell the true dinosaur tracks from the pseudoprints due to the marks left on the rocks from the circulating water. With a little imagination, we can make out prints similar to those of almost any animal.
Laboratory studies have been done also. If a print is authentic, we would expect to see the layers of sediment in the rock depressed under the print, from the weight of the animal. To test for this characteristic deformation, the scientists cut the print crosswise and observed that no such deformation was present. They concluded that the shape was not a real human footprint but instead the result of erosion, either by nature or by a human forger. Later studies showed that certain “prints” and drawings had been deliberately placed by fanatic defenders of the human-dinosaur coexistence idea. This kind of unfortunate forgery may have been produced by those who are overeager to present irrefutable evidence to support their belief in Creation and the Flood; others may do it simply to exploit believers in some way or to make money.
On other occasions, disbelievers in the biblical account of history were the ones to take advantage of the naïveté of these fanatics to create false proof and, thus, cause mockery and rejection among the academic world. Faking fossils and other “evidence” harms the true research among creationist scientists; most of these researchers have learned to be careful in the accuracy of their statements.
Dinosaurs and the Bible
The story of Creation in Genesis 1 tells of a God who created sea life as well as birds on the fifth day and the rest of the animals on the sixth day.
Although reptiles are listed among the animals created, dinosaurs are not specifically mentioned. This should not surprise us, because in Moses’ day (the author of the book of Genesis), the word dinosaur did not exist, nor was he under the obligation to specifically mention them; he didn’t mention numerous other groups of animals as well. For example, Genesis does not mention beetles, sharks, starfish, moss, algae, or any number of other groups of organisms.
The fact that, in the Bible, dinosaurs were not mentioned by name does not prove that God did not create them; nor does the strange appearance that they have in museum replicas. Currently, there are many animals just as strange in appearance as dinosaurs—consider deep-sea anglerfish, platypuses, and kangaroos—and they don’t draw that much attention. Some people believe that dinosaurs appeared as the result of the curse after Adam’s and Eve’s sin, but the Bible does not shed any light on this, nor does it explicitly identify which animals changed as a result of sin and about what kind of changes these might have been.
Most creationist scientists believe that dinosaurs disappeared during or shortly after the Genesis Flood. Again, the Bible does not give us a clue regarding the fate of these animals. The fact that dinosaurs disappeared during a worldwide catastrophe that we call the Flood is a hypothesis that we should seriously consider but only through scientific research, and that’s because of the silence in the Bible on the matter. The demonstration of this hypothesis should come from geological and paleontological data, not by forcing the Bible to say what it does not say.
Last of all, there are people who think dinosaurs survived after the Flood and disappeared a short while later because they could not adjust to a new environment. This is also a possibility, since some dinosaurs could have been inside the ark, then disappeared during the postdiluvian colonization. The Bible mentions two strange creatures, behemoth (Job 40:15–18) and leviathan (Job 41:1), which some interpret as possible examples of postdiluvian dinosaurs. However, most Bible scholars do not accept this explanation, and the words behemoth and leviathan are usually translated as “hippopotamus” and “crocodile,” respectively, and therefore, are not related to dinosaurs.
Dinosaurs and Ellen White
The term dinosaur was first used by the British zoologist, Richard Owen, in 1842, to name a group of reptile fossils then recently discovered. The use of the term spread as new discoveries took place throughout Europe and North America. Around the time Ellen White wrote her first statements on Creation, the Flood, science, and faith (in 1864), the term dinosaur had already found its way into scientific books and newspapers. However, Ellen White never used this term or any other similar word referring to these extinct reptiles.
In a brief declaration in 1864, she wrote, “Every species of animal which God had created were preserved in the ark. The confused species which God did not create, which were the result of amalgamation, were destroyed by the flood.”1 This has become a favorite statement for some Adventists who believe it explains fossils with intermediate characteristics2 and other extinct organisms, including dinosaurs. Many people read into these words what we know as genetic engineering, indicating that in prediluvian times people practiced crossbreeding, including animals and human beings, resulting in strange biological hybrid forms.
However, this interpretation presents various problems. The first rises from the difficulty of defining what Ellen White meant by “amalgamation.” Thorough studies on this statement have not shed a definitive answer, and we conclude that we do not know exactly what the prophet wanted to say in her statement.
A second problem arises in the application of “amalgamation” to real cases in the fossil record. If “amalgamation” meant “hybrid,” how could we recognize them among fossils or among modern day plants and animals? How could we determine which species are hybrid before the Flood, if they actually existed at all? Some have answered this question by saying that hybrid species did not survive the Flood, precisely because God didn’t want them to. But this sort of reasoning is a circular fallacy because the criteria we use to differentiate hybrids (extinction) is precisely the same as we use to define what we would like to differentiate (hybrids). In other words, amalgamations explain their own disappearance, and their disappearance defines what they are.
After the previous statement, she goes on by saying that “since the flood there has been amalgamation of man and beast, as may be seen in the almost endless varieties of species of animals.”3 In the first place, it is important to emphasize that Ellen White says amalgamations of and not between man and animals, as some have chosen to read. Secondly, if amalgamation means intermediate forms, hybrids or strange-engineered creatures, what are the criteria to recognize them? If these were formed after the Flood, they likely became fossils, and others would have survived up to now. How can we differentiate one from the other fossils and living organisms that are not the result of hybrids? Ellen White gives us no clues on that issue.
Further on, in the same text, Ellen White states that she was “shown that very large, powerful animals existed before the flood, which do not now exist.”4 In another text, she states that “[t]here were a class of very large animals which perished at the flood. God knew that the strength of man would decrease, and these mammoth animals could not be controlled by feeble man.”5
This statement, among others, regarding life before the Flood suggests that the prophet was referring to the existence of a wide variety of animals that did not survive in the ark. However, we are not sure of the meaning of this statement; we do not know what these “very large, powerful animals” were. However, her statements are not really far off from the scientific description of dinosaurs. Biologically speaking, they are somehow confusing, not only because some of them are gigantic, but also their body parts (legs, neck, tail, brain, and so forth) are, in some cases, out of proportion. Even paleontologists do not agree on whether the dinosaurs were warm or cold-blooded.
The truth is that many people have struggled to find in Ellen White’s statements support for the idea that dinosaurs were not created by God, but rather the result of hybrids before the Flood, and thus, condemned to disappear in the worldwide catastrophe. This might be a possibility, but, after a thorough study of her writings, we find no unequivocal support for such conclusions. We do not know for sure what Ellen White wanted to express, and we should wait until we reach a better understanding of her statements.
Scripture does not mention the existence of dinosaurs—at least not as we now understand them—neither before nor after the Genesis Flood. Ellen White also does not mention them, and we are not sure of the meaning of her statements regarding “large animals.” Neither the Bible nor Ellen White say why they do not mention them. This is very important, since the fact that the Bible probably does not mention dinosaurs is not evidence that they never existed. What we cannot explain does not necessarily lack existence, but is simply another matter, among others, about which the Bible says nothing and that provides potentially fascinating questions for us to study using the fossil record and other data.
We should teach our students and church members that dinosaurs did exist. We have clear evidence: we have dinosaur bones, teeth, eggs, footprints, and even impressions of their skin. Furthermore, at some point in history they disappeared. Their extinction could have taken place before, during, or after the Genesis Flood. Like the rest of the fossils, the origin and disappearance of dinosaurs are wrapped in mystery. For this reason, they require careful and rigorous study, something Christians with the interest and talent should be encouraged to do. Dinosaurs do not challenge or compromise our faith in the Bible’s teachings.
1. Ellen G. White, Spiritual Gifts, vol. 3 (Battle Creek, MI: Seventh-day Adventist Publishing Association, 1864), 75.
2. Intermediate fossils, also known as transition fossils, are those which, according to the theory of evolution, show mixed characteristics between two groups of animals or plants that are considered consecutive in time. An example of this is reptiles that look like mammals, which are considered as an intermediate step in evolution from the fi rst towards the second. These transition fossils are the source of much debate among scientists.
3. White, 75; emphasis added.
4. Ibid., 92.
5. White, Spiritual Gifts, vol. 4a (Battle Creek, MI: Seventh-day Adventist Publishing Association, 1864), 121.