Dinosaurs before the fall

Yesterday my son was rapt with a new book on dinosaurs. It was nice and thick and full of obscure dinosaur names that even I find difficult to pronounce. Takes me back to when I was a young boy. But because of that, I know questions about dinosaurs and God aren’t too far away. Sooner or later he’s going to twig to the fact that the popular interpretation of Genesis and the popular interpretation of evolution don’t gel too well. So, what’s my take on it?

Quite simple. I think the popular interpretation of Genesis and evolution are both deficient, at least in some respects.

Firstly, evolution. I think the theory of evolution by mutation and natural selection has enormous explanatory power. But I think it’s misguided to think we have a completed theory. I think it’s misguided to conclude everything can be explained by reductionism. I think it’s misguided to conclude evolution rules out an open universe, and hence, God. Indeed, I think that convergent evolution (seen, for instance, in the similar body design of ichthyosaurs, dolphins and sharks) suggests external constraints have as much a part to play as internal coding, that reductionism needs to be balanced out with contextualism. In short, however powerful the theory of evolution may be, evolution is contextual.

Secondly, Genesis. I think the Bible is authoritative, but I’m not convinced our theology is so God breathed. Theologies, like our scientific theories, are contextual, incomplete and sometimes just plain wrong. Of particular relevance here are theologies of the fall. Most popular theologies focus on “the tree of the knowledge of good and evil”, virtually ignoring “the tree of life”. When I was younger, wrestling over the dinosaur question, I asked myself, “How could dinosaurs have become extinct before humans arrived in the world if death did not exist in the world before the fall?” It eventually dawned to me to ask, “Why the heck is the tree of life in the story?” If humanity was not subject to death, why the second tree? Why a tree of life?

In a flash I realised life the trees were symbolizing two mutually exclusive choises! The more I read the more it hit me that there was nothing in the text to suggest eternity was something humanity already had, it was more like an option we were being offered. Thus, eating from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, while popularly interpreted as the introduction of death into the world, could just as easily be interpreted as the loss of the opportunity to live forever. It was not an opt-out situation for humanity, it was an opt-in one. Indeed, when I thought about it, if the eating of plants can be seen as a type of death, death was already in the world. Thus the resolution: an interpretation that takes the tree of life as a lost opportunity is not incompatable with pre-fall dinosaur extinctions.

For me this raise all sorts of interesting questions about entropy. Is entropy of the creation or of the fall? If entropy is of the creation, how can we say it is evil without going Gnostic? If entropy is of the fall, how did time exist before the fall? From this exploration I’m inclined to say: entropy is of the creation, it is therefore not evil in and of itself, it is just not the highest good, it is not where God wants to leave us. Having been made in the image of God, we were offered a challenge: what does it mean to be God-like? We failed. We chose self-centredness. But Jesus overcame where we did not. He chose other-centredness. The cross of death is the tree of life offered once again.

9 thoughts on “Dinosaurs before the fall

  1. I think this speaks into what Wilbur called the pre/trans falacy. The pattern is often thought of as unconscious life > conscious death > conscious life when its more like unconscious death > conscious death > conscious life.


  2. Love this, Matt! Thanks for sharing your process here. I have wondered some along this line myself.
    I also have added the Big D / little d, as well as Big L / little l ideas: They were aware of physical death and life in themselves and around them in the natural cycles in the garden. They were not really aware of Spiritual Death and Life before their poor choice and it’s horrific consequences.
    Too tired to work out a new progression, but this is a quick attempt: unconscious Life and Death > conscious life and death > conscious Death > conscious Life.


  3. Good questions on the “death before the fall” problem. Another thing to consider is what the original hearers would have taken “death” to mean. We have a concept of biological death that may not have an analogue in their thinking. I once checked a concordance, and found a single instance of a plant dying, and even that might have been a metaphorical use of the term. (The trees clap their hands more times!) We need to be careful of reading our technical terms back into their words. When we are more careful, there might be quite a bit more wiggle room.
    C.S. Lewis did a lot of work in the area suggested by your entropy ideas. In the Space Trilogy, it is suggested that human death has a mercy in it. If we had been allowed to become immortal after the fall, we would have likely created hell for each other. If you decide to punish another immortal human, could not the punishment be everlasting? Lewis had other insights here as well. Perhaps entropy is necessary for there to be a redeemable fallenness.


  4. Rick, I think that’s a very interesting suggestion. I have no idea what the answer is, given my general illiteracy with ancient Hebrew, but it would be interesting to hear what historians have to say about ancient Hebraic understandings of death. I wonder if ancient Mesopotamian literature could shed any light?
    For if I’m correct that the two trees represent two mutually exclusive choises, then we must consider the possibility that Genesis points to three possible conditions for humanity (positive choice, negative choise and pre-choise) rather than the two possible conditions (pre-choise and negative choise) that contemporary teachers normally talk about. So what Genesis meant by “for when you eat from it you will certainly die” and “He must not be allowed to reach out his hand and take also from the tree of life and eat, and live forever” needs some re-examination.
    It’s important for us to consider that the contemporary scientific understanding of the arrow of time is linked directly to entropy, that the former is not seen as making any sense without the other. Lest we bow to Gnosticism by default in scientific debates, we must ask: what is our (moral) theology of entropy?


  5. There are at least two sides to any question like the one about “death.” One side is what the word would have generically meant in the culture. The other is what the writer wanted to say. He has to use a language common to all. But he may have things to say that disagree with the surrounding culture. So knowing ancient Hebrew is one part. But within Scripture, you can find out how words are used, too. The point on biological death is plausible from a Concordance, when you see what contexts the word is used in. But also, we know that our ideas of biological death are quite foreign to anything an ancient person would think. Could the killing of bacteria have made sense to them?
    I think your ideas on the trees are worthwhile. I wonder if “when” (in “when you eat of it”) doesn’t mean “if.” KJV uses the more literal “in the day.” There’s a parallel passage in 1 Kings 2:37, where the death sentence is not carried out that very day, either, even if it is decided.
    A “garden” seems like a greater amount of order than, say, a “wilderness.” Man without woman was not good. There seems to be a lot that was not optimal allowed before the fall. In fact, things began formless and void. But God was bringing things to higher levels of order. It might be that disorder is not evil as such. But taking something from a higher level of order to a lower level of order is evil. That’s where I would think the distinction was.


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