September 4, 2019

Does Jesus love dinosaurs? No metaphysical question haunted my childhood more than this one. Raised by my mother in her own caring and compassionate understanding of Christianity, I desperately wanted to believe that Jesus – wherever he sat enthroned in heaven – shared my passion for stegosaurs and iguanodontids. Yet I had my doubts.

From an early age, I had struggled to fathom how a loving God could possibly have passed a death sentence on creatures as magnificent as dinosaurs. At an age when I only had to look at a cow to wish it were a Triceratops, it filled me with a sombre sense of the sheer immensity of time, and the impermanence of living things on the face of the planet, to know that the placid fields which stretched behind my house had once been a Jurassic swamp.

How was my understanding of this to be combined with what I was simultaneously being taught in Sunday School: that God had created the heavens and earth in six days, that he had fashioned every living creature, “every beast of the field, and every fowl of the air”, only a short time before fashioning humans; and that all of them had co-existed? How did dinosaurs fit into this narrative?

At Sunday School, our illustrated children’s Bible showed Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden alongside a Brachiosaurus. That no human being had ever seen a sauropod – a source of the intensest grief to me – seemed not to worry my teacher one little bit. When I asked her how Adam could possibly have lived alongside dinosaurs, bearing in mind that they had all died out 65 million years ago, she shrugged the question aside. The older I got, the more the question niggled. God, speaking to Job from the whirlwind, had told him of drawing Leviathan with a hook, and with a cord pressing down his tongue.

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But I found this hard to square with what I knew of ichthyosaurs and mosasaurs. The reaches of time seemed too icily immense for the life and death of a single human being two thousand years ago possibly to have had the cosmic significance claimed for it by Christianity. Why should Homo sapiens be granted a status denied ammonites? Why, if God existed, had he allowed so many species to evolve, to flourish, and then utterly to disappear? Why, if he were merciful and good, had he permitted an asteroid to smash into the side of the planet, making the flesh on the bones of dinosaurs burst into flame, the Mesozoic seas boil, and darkness cover the face of the earth? Increasingly, the hope offered by the Christian story, that there was an order and a purpose to humanity’s existence, felt like something that was slipping my grasp.

I was hardly the first to tread this path, of course.

Dinosaurs had played a notable and glamorous role in the Victorian crisis of faith. To Edward Drinker Cope, a Quaker from Philadelphia whose genius as a palaeontologist served to revolutionise the understanding of prehistory, they were literally the stuff of nightmares. In 1876, fossil-prospecting in the badlands of Montana, where the bones of dinosaurs stretched for miles in an immense and uncharted graveyard, the monsters he had been excavating by day would come to visit him in his sleep, “tossing him into the air, kicking him, trampling him down”.

Every evening, before retiring for the night, he would hold prayer meetings and readings from the Bible – but still the dinosaurs kept haunting his dreams. The immensity of geological time; the cycles of evolution; the brutal finality of extinction: all, when he contemplated them, served to corrode his faith. Bones entombed in rock seemed to mock the reassurance provided by the Christian message of the Resurrection. In 1877, a year after he had lain amid the fossil beds of Montana, Cope resigned from the Society of Friends.

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Yet without Christianity, it is unlikely that dinosaurs would ever have been identified as prehistoric creatures many millions of years old, that Cope would ever gone prospecting for their fossils, and that I, as a child, would ever have known the first thing about sauropods. In truth, fathoming the deep past of the earth was an ambition that had always come naturally to Christians. “Of old,” the Psalmist had written in praise of the Creator, “You founded the earth, and the heavens – Your handiwork. They will perish and You will yet stand. They will all wear away like a garment.”

Here, in this vision of a world that had both a beginning and a history, linear and irreversible, lay an understanding of time in decisive contrast to that of most peoples in antiquity. To read Genesis was to know that it did not go round in endless cycles.

Unsurprisingly, then, scholars of the Bible had repeatedly sought to map out a chronology that might reach back before humans. “We must not suppose,” Luther had declared, “that the appearance of the world is the same today as it was before sin.” Increasingly, though, enthusiasts for what by the late 18th century had come to be termed ‘geology’ were founding their investigations, not on Genesis, but directly on their study of God’s creation: rocks, and fossils, and the very contours of the earth.

It was among the clergy that this had grown to become a particular obsession. In 1650, when James Ussher, the Archbishop of Armagh and one of the most brilliant scholars of his day, sought to establish a global chronology, his exclusive reliance on written records – and in particular on the Bible – led him to identify the date of the Creation as 4004 BC.

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In 1822, when William Buckland, another clergyman, published a paper demonstrating that life on earth, let alone the deposition of rocks, was infinitely older than Noah’s Flood, it was his dating of the fossils he had found in a Yorkshire cave that enabled him to demonstrate his point. Two years later, he wrote the first full account of a dinosaur. In 1840, he argued that great gouges across the landscape of Scotland bore witness to an ancient – and decidedly unbiblical – Ice Age. Buckland, a noted eccentric with a taste for eating his way through every kind of animal, from bluebottles to porpoises, saw not the slightest contradiction between serving as Dean of Westminster and lecturing on geology at Oxford.

Nor did most Christians. Although some, clinging to a literal interpretation of Genesis, refused to accept that the earth’s history might stretch back immeasurable distances before man, the vast majority felt only awe before a Creator capable of working on such a prodigious scale.

Palaeontology, then, bred as it was of the biblical understanding of time, served to buttress as well as shake the foundations of Christian belief. If Cope ended up losing his faith, then many palaeontologists did not. Today, Bob Bakker – perhaps the most celebrated of all living palaeontologists, whose theories have proven as influential as anyone’s on the way that dinosaurs have come to be understood – sees no contradiction between his work as a scientist and his preaching as a Pentecostal minister. When he declares the discovery of the Mesozoic to have been “the proud legacy of evangelicals who searched for the truth in the pages of Scripture and the chapters written in stone,” he is not wrong.

Does Jesus love dinosaurs? It remains a question I am unqualified to answer – but certainly, without Christianity, we would have lacked the understanding of time that enables us today to know that such wondrous and extraordinary creatures as dinosaurs ever existed.

Tom Holland’s Dominion: The Making of the Western Mind is published by Little, Brown