Whether you like it or not, dinosaurs are a big deal right now. Thanks to Chris Pratt, Steven Spielberg and a genetically modified T-Rex known as an Indomitable Rex, Universal Studios has a monster hit on its hands. It grossed half a billion dollars on its opening weekend.
So what do Christians think about dinosaurs? It would be fair to say there are a range of views. There are three main approaches to dinosaurs held by Christians.
It seems some Christians take a very negative view of the existence of dinosaurs. Perhaps you heard about the group CAD – Christians Against Dinosaurs? An anonymous mother who started a bit of a storm on a Mumsnet forum recently claimed: "I'm really concerned about dinosaurs, and I think something needs to be done. The science behind them is pretty flimsy, and I for one do not want my children being taught lies. Did you know that nobody had even heard of dinosaurs before the 1800s, when they were invented by curio-hungry Victorians?"
I can sympathise with this mum's desire to make sure her children are kept safe from harmful influences but I can't agree that the scientific evidence for dinosaurs is flimsy. Rather than finding just a few bones and filling in the rest with plaster, skeletal remains of dinosaurs up to 85 per cent complete have been found in locations all around the world.
There's also the fear that dinosaurs teach unChristian ideas. "Dinosaurs are a very bad example for children," this mother wrote. "At my children's school, several children were left in tears after one of their classmates (who had evidently been exposed to dinosaurs), became bestially-minded and ran around the classroom roaring and pretending to be a dinosaur. Then he bit three children on the face."
The problem of course is that you don't need dinosaurs to provide bad examples for children: our fallen natural world currently has enough examples for this. By this logic sharks don't exist either as they have just attacked children swimming in North Carolina. Some commentators on the CAD website argue that the whole site might be a spoof.
It is relatively difficult to find Christians that deny dinosaurs existed at all, but it is easy to find groups that deny they roamed the earth millions of years ago. For example, Dr Thomas Kindell is a young-earth creationist who argues that dinosaurs existed just 6,000 years ago. Kindell agrees the evidence for dinosaurs is overwhelming as dinosaur fossils have been found on every continent.
What Dr Kindell and his collaborators argue is that as the Bible teaches the world is only 6,000 years old, dinosaurs must have been created by God and co-existed with human beings. Kindell argues, for example, that if the Genesis flood took place then you would expect to find dinosaurs in sedimentary rock, which he argues points to a global flood – though this could equally be understood as the most likely place that fossils will form.
Kindell argues that rather than dinosaurs acting as the ultimate "icon of evolution", instead they point to a creator. I can sympathise with Kindell and the young earth creationists' desire to uphold the authority of scripture in an increasingly secularized western world. Creationists helpfully point out that scientific thought, by its very nature, is changing and seeking to marry scripture with scientific theory at any given time will not end well as science will change in light of new evidence.
But the approach to scripture that many employ seems overly literalistic. Rather than hearing scripture on its own terms – understanding its context, genre and working hard to hear the original intention of the authors – many attempt to push scripture beyond its intended semantic range. For example Mark 10:5-6 says: "'It was because your hearts were hard that Moses wrote you this law,' Jesus replied. 'But at the beginning of creation God made them male and female.'"
This passage is used by Kindell to justify the co-existence of dinosaurs and humans. He takes literally Jesus' statement that God created men and women "at the beginning of creation". Of course he does not literally mean 'at the beginning' because that would contradict Genesis 1, which explains that it was on day six that God created human life. Kindell instead asserts that human beings were created roughly at the beginning of the universe and therefore there is not enough time for millions of years of evolution for dinosaurs to have their run of the planet before human beings were made.
But is this really what Mark intends? This is a passage of scripture about divorce and how the law of Moses, under certain circumstances, allowed divorce because God recognises the consequences of living in a fallen broken world. The reference to the beginning of creation here is referring to God's original intention for human marriage to be a permanent bond between male and female. So the reference to "the beginning of creation" seems to simply be referring to the fact that as long as their have been human beings there has been gender and marriage and it was not God's original intention that marriage should be easily ended with simply "a letter of divorce".
In Kindell's use of scripture there is a prior commitment to the idea that the Genesis account must be taken literally and so he has gone hunting for proof texts to back up this assumption. In the same way that many creation scientists accuse scientists of reading into their experimental evidence a bias based on a prior commitment to an old earth. It seems that young earth creationists may be doing something similar with scripture itself.
Some Christians believe that the Genesis account of creation is not intended to offer scientific explanations to the origins of humanity but rather to express in accessible and poetic form the purpose for which God made the universe. Rather than seeking to provide an exhaustive genealogy of human life, the Bible is instead recording a more artistic impression of the origins of the universe and it is not until Genesis 12 and the calling of Abraham that we transition to a more conventional genealogical account.
The account of the six days of creation, for example, is not to be read too literalistically but rather understood in its own literary terms. For example, the six days of creation in Genesis 1 does not necessarily mean God created the world in six literal days as a day does not always mean a 24-hour period in scripture (see Hosea 6:2; Zechariah 14:7).
Also the structure of the six days of creation seems to be more poetic than scientific – the first three days refer to separating things out: light from darkness, sky from sea and land from sea, and then during the next three days these domains are filled: sun in the light and stars in the darkness, birds in the sky and fish in the sea. Finally, on day six, animals and humans on the land. So Christians who hold this view believe that scripture is compatible with the idea that God could have used evolution as his mechanism for creating biological life and there is room for dinosaurs in the timeline of history millions of years ago.
I am sympathetic to this view as it seeks to understand scripture on its own terms and take seriously the evidence that scientists have found pointing to an old universe.
The short answer to the question is that most Christian views of creation allow for the existence of dinosaurs. The bigger question is how Christians interpret scripture. In my view, if we are not careful the relationship between science and Christianity will be another stumbling block for people seeking God. I have been told by some Christians that I am not really a believer because I do not believe in young earth creationism. I am a big boy and I can handle this kind of thing. My fear is that some Christian groups make belief in a young earth a prerequisite of faith. I believe this is to add to the gospel. It's the equivalent of forcing people to be circumcised before becoming a Christian – a painful, unnecessary impediment to genuine faith.
As Jurassic World takes over the box office for the next few months, lets not allow differing Christian views on dinosaurs to distract people from coming to find God. That would be a disaster of monster proportions.