Perhaps the most frequent questions asked of me related to the age of the earth are these: What do Christians say about dinosaurs? How do Christians account for dinosaurs and the death we observe in the fossil record? Doesn’t the very existence of dinosaurs in the fossil record, contradict the claims of the Bible? There’s an impression, even amongst Christians, dinosaurs present the Christian community with a true dilemma. There seems to be something contradictory about the archeological record of dinosaur life, and the biblical record of creation. This apparent contradiction exists for a number of reasons, and as a community, we need to talk about them so we can move forward to accurately evaluate the natural and special revelation God has given us.
The first issue seems to be the uncomfortable silence in the Biblical creation account when it comes to dinosaurs. Why aren’t they mentioned specifically as part of God’s creation? It is true there don’t appear to be any references to dinosaurs in the Biblical record (although some will maintain that the ‘behemoth’ and the ‘leviathan’ mentioned in Job – the Bible’s oldest book – reference dinosaurs). But the argument from silence is really not a fair argument to make here, as it assumes the short Biblical creation account exists to provide humans with a concrete scientific chronology, when it exists for no such purpose. God wrote the short Genesis account to a specific people in a specific period of history. God’s intention here was for the ancient Israelites (who knew nothing of dinosaurs) to understand they were created in God’s image, and their world was also the product of a Creator God who considered them to be the crown of His creation. Beyond this, God had no detailed scientific purpose. Remember the Bible is God’s love letter to us and not a science manual.
The Genesis account is also silent about all kinds of creatures, especially if we consider the specific species or life forms falling under the larger categories listed in the Biblical record. While the Genesis account says God created all kinds of animals that walk and crawl on the ground, it does not specifically mention marsupials, for example. They are simply a subset of the larger group mentioned by Moses. In addition, there is nothing said about reptiles or amphibians or insects. Clearly Moses was aware of these creatures, for he also wrote the account of the serpent in the Garden and the frogs and insects of the Egyptian plagues. Why is he silent about them in the creation account? Because every piece of literature is written for a specific purpose and this must be considered when we read the literature. The Biblical creation account is far more interested in man’s role within creation and man’s relationship to the Creator than it is interested in listing every species that ever lived on planet earth. Don’t be misled by silence here.
The second issue plaguing Christians as they consider the possibility dinosaurs existed millions of years ago (and well before the existence of humans), is the belief (held by many Christians) the earth is far too young to account for the long dinosaur history indicated in the fossil record. But, as controversial as it sometimes seems, many Christians believe in a very ancient earth (with long creation periods), and hold to these beliefs while simultaneously retaining the utmost respect for the authority of Scripture.
But there is yet another issue troubling many Christians as they ponder the existence of dinosaurs. It’s the idea nothing on earth died before the fall of Adam. Many Christians believe the Bible describes a perfect world before Adam’s sin; a world in which nothing dies. If this is true, we would have great difficulty in explaining the presence of death we observe in the ancient fossil record, preceding the appearance of humans. Clearly, all kinds of species of life, both very primitive and more advanced, can be seen captured in the fossil record. How can this be the case, if death comes to the planet only through the sin of Adam? Doesn’t the Bible teach this is the case? Let’s take a look at some important passages of scripture and see for ourselves:
Therefore, just as sin entered the world through one man, and death through sin, and in this way death came to all men, because all sinned- for before the law was given, sin was in the world. But sin is not taken into account when there is no law. Nevertheless, death reigned from the time of Adam to the time of Moses, even over those who did not sin by breaking a command, as did Adam, who was a pattern of the one to come.
The first thing we need to define here is the word “death” (‘thanatos’ in the Greek). What kind of death is Paul talking about here? Is he talking about biological death or spiritual death? Well, in verse 21 of the very same passage, Paul says, “…just as sin reigned in death, so also grace might reign through righteousness to bring eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.” Clearly Paul is contrasting ‘death’ with ‘eternal life’. It certainly appears Paul is referring to ‘death’ in its spiritual context, not its biological context. And this is consistent with Genesis 2:6. In this passage in Genesis, Moses says God warned Adam and Eve “in the day that you eat of the tree you will surely die”. Adam and Eve did not die biologically “in the day” they ate from the tree, did they? But they did die spiritually in the sense they came under the divine judgment of death as it was executed against man. Adam and Eve were then removed from the garden as a symbol of this spiritual death and were prevented from eating from the tree of life. While the biological sense of death is also meant here, it is clear spiritual death is also in sight.
Let’s return to the passage in Romans 5. We looked at the word used for “death”, now let’s look at the word used to say “the world” (‘kosmos’ in the Greek). It does appear Paul is saying death is the result of sin, and sin has entered into the entire world (including all other forms of life in addition to humans). If this is true, then it is easy to see why some Christians don’t believe anything died before Adam’s sin. But, if we take a close look at how the word for ‘the world’ is being used here, it is clear Paul is not actually speaking about all the world, but is instead talking directly about mankind. Look at how he uses the same word in verse 13: “…for before the law was given, sin was in the world (‘kosmos’). But sin is not taken into account when there is no law.” We know one thing for sure; sin doesn’t exist the non-human realm. So what “world” is Paul talking about here? He is talking about the world of human beings; the world of humanity. That’s why Paul uses he phrase “all men” in the second portion of the passage (verse 12), and he uses it as a synonym for “world”. Take a look at verse 18. There it is again, the expression “all men” being used as a synonym. In this particular verse, Paul is saying spiritual and physical death came to mankind as a result of the sin of Adam. That’s why we see evidence of both animal and plant death in the fossil record long before the appearance of mankind. Sin brought death to mankind, not to the animal and plant world in general.
Was All Creation Cursed?
Some Christians have also argued Paul said all creation was forever changed by the fall of Adam and was ‘frustrated’. They believe part of this ‘frustration’ resulted animals preying on one another. The implication is death and carnivorous activity did not exist before the sin of Adam. The argument comes from this passage of scripture:
I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us. The creation waits in eager expectation for the sons of God to be revealed. For the creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the glorious freedom of the children of God.
Many Christians have taken this passage to mean that before the frustration of the planet, there was no death or decay of any kind. While it is clear Paul is talking about all of creation here (unlike the passage in Romans 5), it is not clear Paul is talking about animal and plant death prior to Adam when he uses words like “corruption” or “decay”. In fact, Paul seems to be referencing Isaiah as he describes how creation is waiting eagerly to be liberated from its bondage to decay:
The earth dries up and withers, the world languishes and withers, the exalted of the earth languish. The earth is defiled by its people; they have disobeyed the laws, violated the statutes and broken the everlasting covenant. Therefore a curse consumes the earth; its people must bear their guilt. Therefore earth’s inhabitants are burned up, and very few are left.
But your dead will live; their bodies will rise. You who dwell in the dust, wake up and shout for joy. Your dew is like the dew of the morning; the earth will give birth to her dead… See, the LORD is coming out of his dwelling to punish the people of the earth for their sins. The earth will disclose the blood shed upon her; she will conceal her slain no longer.
Isaiah seems to be saying the earth mourns because it is concealing its slain. It mourns because it is a mass graveyard! This is also what Paul is talking about in Romans 8. The earth will be liberated of its dead at the end of the age, when the dead are resurrected. This passage does not eliminate the possibility plants and animals died before Adam’s sin.
Did They Eat Meat Before Noah?
A friend of mine told me recently many of his beliefs related to this issue of animal death prior to Adam come from the Genesis creation account and God’s commands to Noah following the flood. He believes these two passages work together to suggest no animal ate meat prior to the great flood, and no animal had to die prior to the fall of Adam (to be eaten as food by other animals). Let’s look at both passages:
Then God said, “I give you every seed-bearing plant on the face of the whole earth and every tree that has fruit with seed in it. They will be yours for food. And to all the beasts of the earth and all the birds of the air and all the creatures that move on the ground — everything that has the breath of life in it — I give every green plant for food.” And it was so.
Then God blessed Noah and his sons, saying to them, “Be fruitful and increase in number and fill the earth. The fear and dread of you will fall upon all the beasts of the earth and all the birds of the air, upon every creature that moves along the ground, and upon all the fish of the sea; they are given into your hands. Everything that lives and moves will be food for you. Just as I gave you the green plants, I now give you everything. “But you must not eat meat that has its lifeblood still in it.”
The Genesis 1 passage seems to be saying God gave plants to the animals to be eaten for food prior to the fall of Adam. The Genesis 9 passage then seems to be lifting some kind of restriction on meat, suggesting even humans were not eating animals prior to this point in history. If no one is eating animals until this point in time, then there would be no death prior to Adam caused by animals in search of a good meal. This does seem to fly in the face of archeological evidence of sharp toothed carnivorous dinosaurs who roamed the earth, eating other animals. But look at Genesis 1:29-30 once again. There is nothing in this passage saying animals where prohibited or unable to eat anything other than plants. It simply says plants exist as part of creation to serve as food for the animals created next. Plants are to be the foundational element in the food chain, and indeed they are. The herbivores so dependent on plants for their survival are, in fact, the base diet of the carnivores. So, in essence, both herbivores and carnivores alike are dependent on plants for their survival. And look now at Genesis 9. This is a command directed at Noah and mankind. It has little or nothing to say about the behavior of the ‘lower’ animals themselves and certainly does not eliminate the possibility animals ate each other and died prior to the sin of Adam.
Are the End Times a Restoration, or a Promise of Something Better?
Many Christians also point to the end times predictions of Isaiah to make a case the world was without death prior to the sin of Adam. Isaiah clearly describes the eschatological future world as a place where carnivores will no longer eat other animals:
Isaiah 11:6-9; 65:25
The wolf will live with the lamb, the leopard will lie down with the goat, the calf and the lion and the yearling together; and a little child will lead them. The cow will feed with the bear, their young will lie down together, and the lion will eat straw like the ox. The infant will play near the hole of the cobra, and the young child put his hand into the viper’s nest. They will neither harm nor destroy on all my holy mountain, for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the LORD as the waters cover the sea… The wolf and the lamb will feed together, and the lion will eat straw like the ox, but dust will be the serpent’s food. They will neither harm nor destroy on all my holy mountain,” says the LORD.
Christians sometimes read these words as a description of what the world must have been like before sin. After all, the scriptures have described Jesus as the second Adam who ushers in a new world; a new inheritance for us as the children of God. Doesn’t the second Adam simply return us to the state of the first Adam? Doesn’t the new world then resemble the world as it was before sin? Not necessarily. It is certainly a stretch to assume the second Adam ushers in a perfect world which is merely a restoration of the Garden of Eden. God promises us something even better than what Adam experienced in the Garden. There is nothing in the scripture mandating the Garden was a place of utter perfection, perfectly equal to the promised world awaiting us at the end of time. We’ve already discussed all the passages dealing even tangentially with condition of the Garden. Any other assumption is just that: an assumption. Nothing in the Bible excludes the possibility plants and animals died long before Adam was created by God.
The Biblical Argument for Death Prior to the Fall
In fact, it could be argued the Bible teaches just the opposite. Let’s take a look at the creation text found in Psalm 104, for example. Here is a poetic creation psalm that recalls God’s creation in detail. The first 18 verses carefully recollect the creation of the universe and the earth. The psalmist retells the creation of the heavens (vs. 2) and the earth (vs. 5), the creation of the oceans (vs. 6) and the solid ground (vs. 7), the creation of animals of the fields (vs. 11) and the birds of the air (vs. 12), the creation of plants (vs. 14) and trees (vs. 16). Then, starting in verse 19, the psalm starts to talk about the creation of the moon and sun, and explains that the moon was actually created by God so that nocturnal animals would have enough light to be able to prowl and hunt their prey:
The moon marks off the seasons, and the sun knows when to go down. You bring darkness, it becomes night, and all the beasts of the forest prowl. The lions roar for their prey and seek their food from God. The sun rises, and they steal away; they return and lie down in their dens. Then man goes out to his work, to his labor until evening. How many are your works, O LORD! In wisdom you made them all; the earth is full of your creatures. There is the sea, vast and spacious, teeming with creatures beyond number — living things both large and small. There the ships go to and fro, and the leviathan, which you formed to frolic there. These all look to you to give them their food at the proper time. When you give it to them, they gather it up; when you open your hand, they are satisfied with good things.
First, note God clearly designed the lion to prowl for its prey. The food of the lion is obviously not vegetation here, and it is being described in the context of this creation psalm, right alongside with the description of the creation of the animals and the creation of the moon. Even this early in the creation order, lions appear to be hunting. But notice something more. This hunting exercise is not only condoned by God, it has been given to the lion by God. He delights in it. The hunting activity of the lion pleases God and it is part of his perfect plan for the world. That’s right, death before the fall of Adam is still described as part of God’s perfect plan.
The Natural Argument for Death Prior to the Fall
This description of carnivorous activity in the most ancient era of God’s early creation does match what we see in God’s natural revelation to us in the fossil record. The fossils tell us a lot about life on the early earth, and they don’t tell us that evolution is true (but that’s another story for another post). Instead, the fossil record repeatedly tells us life starts and stops; species appear suddenly and disappear just as suddenly in the many years prior to the sudden appearance of Adamic humans. This is exactly what we would expect to see from a Creator God. Not the slow evolution of species with millions of incremental transitional forms, but the sudden appearance of species over the course of history, some of which have been allowed to continue into the present era and some of whom have been eliminated completely. Death is recorded in the fossil record, and it is recorded long before the appearance of man. This is consistent with the Biblical interpretation death was (and is) simply a part of God’s creation plan for the animals and plants surrounding us. We are different than the other animals and plants in our environment. We were created in God’s image. We are destined for eternity. But this truth does not preclude the fact the plants and animals we live with are not so designed.
I think it is hard for some of us to imagine God would design any kind of death into His created world, especially the world of Adam and Eve prior to the fall. But clearly Psalm 104 indicates His design of carnivorous activity was (and is) part of His perfect plan; part of His perfect design. Why would this be true? Perhaps it is because God’s creative acts have always been targeted toward the very crown of his creation, mankind. Remember Adam and Eve are the last created beings. They are the guests of honor at the banquet table being set for them by a Holy Creator. As the guests of honor, they enter the banquet room last. They alone are created in the image of God. All else has been designed for them. They have authority and dominion over everything else. If a cup drops from the table and breaks, it will be replaced. Plants and animals will be killed in order to prepare the banquet. In fact, much of the activity that is conducted prior to the entrance of the honored guests might be seen as destructive. But mankind was created for communion with God. Mankind was created for eternal relationship and worship. We sometimes mistakenly elevate all of creation to the status that the Bible ascribes only to humans. We sometimes act as though the table setting is as important as the guest of honor.
Yes, dinosaurs did live and roam the earth. God created them. And yes, dinosaurs (and many other forms of animals and plants) did live and die before Adam was ever created. This was also part of God’s good plan as he continued to prepare and shape the planet for the appearance of the crown of His creation, the human race.
For more information about the reliability of the New Testament gospels and the case for Christianity, please read Cold-Case Christianity: A Homicide Detective Investigates the Claims of the Gospels. This book teaches readers ten principles of cold-case investigations and applies these strategies to investigate the claims of the gospel authors. The book is accompanied by an eight-session Cold-Case Christianity DVD Set (and Participant’s Guide) to help individuals or small groups examine the evidence and make the case.
J. Warner Wallace is a Dateline featured Cold-Case Detective, Senior Fellow at the Colson Center for Christian Worldview, Adj. Professor of Christian Apologetics at Talbot School of Theology, Biola University, author of Cold-Case Christianity, God’s Crime Scene, and Forensic Faith, and creator of the Case Makers Academy for kids.
Subscribe to J. Warner’s Daily Email