There’s a long-standing notion out there that a Christian and an evolutionary view of the creation are at odds; if we believe the creation story outlined in the Bible, then it seems that the theory of evolution must be false.
Growing up I remember having this idea that evolution and the creation was an uncomfortable subject among Latter-day Saints, really among Christians in general. I can’t track down a specific experience that made me think this was the case, perhaps it was just the lack of discussion about the topic as a whole that lead me to believe that it wasn’t something to be brought up.
I remember looking up the question “Do Latter-day Saints believe in dinosaurs?” when I was a kid (I know, how nerdy can you get?). The only answer I found online was the idea that when God was creating the world, he took bits of other planets, which very conveniently just happened to have dinosaur fossils in them.
Even to a child, though, that idea sounded pretty far-fetched. So I was left with nothing. On one hand, science made it clear that humans and dinosaurs did not coexist, so it’s not like Adam and Eve were hanging out with a stegosaurus in the Garden of Eden. On the other hand, the version of the creation I had been taught in church didn’t seem to match up with what science was telling me. At a loss for what to do, I kind of just forgot about the whole thing, that is, until my first semester at BYU when I took a Geology class.
Imagine my surprise when my BYU professor, who was also a world-renown paleontologist, told me he had no problem merging the theory of evolution with the doctrine taught by the Church.
Fitting dinosaurs into church doctrine
You may have some doubts about how dinosaurs fit into the doctrines you’ve been taught in the Church, especially if you grew up with more conservative parents or leaders. The great thing is, though, that whether or not you believe dinosaurs fit into the Christian creation story really doesn’t matter.
The Church’s 2016 statement on dinosaurs says “The details of what happened on this planet before Adam and Eve aren’t a huge doctrinal concern of ours . . . What matters to us is that as part of His plan for us, God created the earth and then created Adam and Eve, who were our first parents and were instrumental in bringing about the Fall, which enabled us to be born on earth and participate in God’s plan.”
In other words, while dinosaurs are certainly an interesting topic to delve into, understanding them isn’t essential for our salvation, which is music to my ears considering most of the geology class I took in college went right over my head.
But, even for those of us who don’t love geology, the topic of dinosaurs is still pretty interesting.
Understanding how we can interpret the creation story in the Bible
We all know what happens when we make assumptions, so it’s probably best we avoid doing so when it comes to the topic of dinosaurs. James E. Talmage, who was a geologist before he became an apostle, said: “The Creator has made record in the rocks for man to decipher; but he has also spoken directly regarding the main stages of progress by which the earth has been brought to be what it is. The accounts cannot be fundamentally opposed; one cannot contradict the other; though man’s interpretation of either may be seriously at fault.”
So maybe it’s time to consider that the traditional interpretation of Genesis, that the “six days” were literally 144 hours, might be wrong. We know from Alma 40:8 that “all is as one day with God, and time only is measured unto men.”
In my opinion, this is pretty strong evidence that the traditional interpretation of the “six days” is wrong, especially if we’re looking at science to back us up. Instead, I think it would be more accurate to say that there were six periods of creation.
If we don’t limit the creations to our human understanding of time, then it makes a lot more sense how dinosaurs and humans — which according to science, were separated by about 65 million years — could both have been created within the six “days” of the creation.
Another interpretation is simply that the story found within Genesis isn’t meant to be taken literally. According to the Church’s website, “The accounts of the Creation in the scriptures are not meant to provide a literal, scientific explanation of the specific processes, time periods, or events involved.”
Clearly, this doesn’t mean that the accounts aren’t true, just that taking them in strictly literal terms may be a bit of a stretch.
Understanding the difference between religion and science
I think some people tend to see religion and science as conflicting ideas simply because they make the mistake of assuming that their end goals are the same. In the April 1988 Liahona, former BYU geology professor Morris S. Petersen said:
“The scriptures testify of Jesus Christ and how we may receive the blessings of salvation and exaltation through his atonement. They reveal why (not necessarily how) the earth was created, and what laws and principles a person must follow to obtain eternal life. The goal of science, on the other hand, is to learn how (not why) the world was made and to understand the laws and principles governing the physical world.”
Once we understand this idea, it’s easier to reconcile science and church doctrine in our minds. Dinosaurs aren’t mentioned anywhere in the scriptures (although how cool would that be?), but that doesn’t mean that there’s an innate conflict between what science has discovered about them and religion.
In a 1931 address, Elder Talmage said “Concerning this all-important event, we are told that scientists and theologians are at hopeless and irreconcilable variance. I regard the assumption or claim, whichever it be, as an exaggeration . . . Discrepancies that trouble us now, will diminish as our knowledge of pertinent facts is extended.”
Using modern revelation to understand dinosaurs
Luckily, we have a living church where we can the most up-to-date information. This means that we don’t have to jump through hoops or create complicated origin stories for dinosaurs so they fit with what is strictly stated in the Bible. The Church’s statement about dinosaurs says:
“Did dinosaurs live and die on this earth long before man came along? There have been no revelations on this question, and the scientific evidence says yes.”
This leads me to believe that the answer to the question “Do Latter-day Saints believe in dinosaurs?” is yes. We are a religion that believes in truth, and I don’t think it should matter whether that truth comes from studying a 70-million-year-old fossil or from studying the Doctrine and Covenants; truth is truth. As Brigham Young once said:
“There is no truth but what belongs to the Gospel. … If you can find a truth in heaven [or] earth, … it belongs to our doctrine.”