Mormonism and science/Dinosaurs

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    How do dinosaurs fit into God's plan?

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Questions


My seminary class has questions regarding the dinosaurs. They seem to be stuck on "where" and "when." How do they fit into the creation story presented by the scriptures?

Detailed Analysis

Your seminary students are probably hung up on the following issues:

  1. Scientists say dinosaurs lived and died millions of years ago, and became extinct due to a cataclysmic event, probably an asteroid that struck the earth. This is what your students are taught in school, because it reflects the scientific consensus.
  2. It is generally believed by many members of the Church that the fall of Adam and Eve took place around 4,000 B.C., and that before this there was no death in the world.
  3. How do we square #1 with #2? How do we account for fossils that appear to be millions of years old, if we conclude there was no death before about 6,000 years ago?

The core of the problem is that the scriptures and the revelations simply don't talk about dinosaurs, and are inconclusive about whether there was physical death for other organisms before Adam and Eve's fall. This leaves each person to decide for themselves how the fossils we have discovered fit into the timeline of the plan of salvation. There generally two possible solutions that have been adopted by intelligent, faithful Latter-day Saints:

  • Some take the approach that the earth is very old, that there was death before the Fall, and that the dinosaurs lived and died in a era long before the story of Adam and Eve begins.
  • Some have reasoned that there was no death before the Fall, so the dinosaurs must have lived alongside Adam and the early patriarchs, perhaps dying in (maybe even after) the Flood. (See: Death before the fall main article FAIRWiki link.)
  • Some, based on the teachings of Joseph Smith that the earth was organized out of existing material rather than created from nothing, have even concluded that dinosaurs never existed on this world, and that the bones we've found are actually from the destroyed remains of other planets. This is not a popularly held notion today, and it contradicts the findings of modern paleontology. In fact, Brigham Young University has a paleontology museum.


The three important points to get across to your students are:

  1. The scriptures — especially the creation accounts in Genesis, Moses, Abraham, and the temple endowment — are not concerned with laying out a comprehensive history of the earth. They are concerned with telling the story of God's covenant relationship with men, a covenant he first established with Adam and Eve. Anything outside this story is simply not relevant to the issue the scriptures are dealing with.
  2. Latter-day Saints are ultimately interested in truth, whatever and wherever it may be. We should not be afraid of learning new things that may contradict our previous assumptions, and we should not be overly dogmatic about things that are peripheral to the gospel message (that message being Jesus is the Christ, Joseph Smith was a true prophet, the Book of Mormon was divinely revealed, the keys of the priesthood are on the earth). In other words, have an open mind, but not a gaping one.
  3. Ultimately, our salvation does not depend on when we believed the dinosaurs lived, or even if we believe there was (or was not) death before the Fall. Our salvation lies in hearing the word the Lord and then doing it.


The Church does not take an official position on this issue

This is one of many issues about which the Church has no official position. As President J. Reuben Clark taught under assignment from the First Presidency:

Here we must have in mind—must know—that only the President of the Church, the Presiding High Priest, is sustained as Prophet, Seer, and Revelator for the Church, and he alone has the right to receive revelations for the Church, either new or amendatory, or to give authoritative interpretations of scriptures that shall be binding on the Church....
When any man, except the President of the Church, undertakes to proclaim one unsettled doctrine, as among two or more doctrines in dispute, as the settled doctrine of the Church, we may know that he is not "moved upon by the Holy Ghost," unless he is acting under the direction and by the authority of the President.
Of these things we may have a confident assurance without chance for doubt or quibbling.[1]

Harold B. Lee was emphatic that only one person can speak for the Church:

All over the Church you're being asked this: "What does the Church think about this or that?" Have you ever heard anybody ask that question? "What does the Church think about the civil rights legislation?" "What do they think about the war?" "What do they think about drinking Coca-Cola or Sanka coffee?" Did you ever hear that? "What do they think about the Democratic Party or ticket or the Republican ticket?" Did you ever hear that? "How should we vote in this forthcoming election?" Now, with most all of those questions, if you answer them, you're going to be in trouble. Most all of them. Now, it's the smart man that will say, "There's only one man in this church that speaks for the Church, and I'm not that one man."
I think nothing could get you into deep water quicker than to answer people on these things, when they say, "What does the Church think?" and you want to be smart, so you try to answer what the Church's policy is. Well, you're not the one to make the policies for the Church. You just remember what the Apostle Paul wrote to the Corinthians. He said, "For I determined not to know any thing among you, save Jesus Christ, and him crucified" (1 Corinthians 2:2). Well now, as teachers of our youth, you're not supposed to know anything except Jesus Christ and Him crucified. On that subject you're expected to be an expert. You're expected to know your subject. You're expected to have a testimony. And in that you'll have great strength. If the President of the Church has not declared the position of the Church, then you shouldn't go shopping for the answer.[2]

This was recently reiterated by the First Presidency (who now approves all statements published on the Church's official website):

Not every statement made by a Church leader, past or present, necessarily constitutes doctrine. A single statement made by a single leader on a single occasion often represents a personal, though well-considered, opinion, but is not meant to be officially binding for the whole Church. With divine inspiration, the First Presidency...and the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles...counsel together to establish doctrine that is consistently proclaimed in official Church publications. This doctrine resides in the four “standard works” of scripture (the Holy Bible, the Book of Mormon, the Doctrine and Covenants and the Pearl of Great Price), official declarations and proclamations, and the Articles of Faith. Isolated statements are often taken out of context, leaving their original meaning distorted.[3]

In response to a letter "received at the office of the First Presidency of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints" in 1912, Charles W. Penrose of the First Presidency wrote:

Question 14: Do you believe that the President of the Church, when speaking to the Church in his official capacity is infallible?
Answer: We do not believe in the infallibility of man. When God reveals anything it is truth, and truth is infallible. No President of the Church has claimed infallibility.[4]

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