Plenty of animals make cameo appearances in the Old and New Testaments-snakes, sheep, and frogs, to name just three-but there isn't a single mention of dinosaurs. (Yes, some Christians maintain that the "serpents" of the Bible were really dinosaurs, as were the fearsomely named monsters "Behemoth" and "Leviathan," but this isn't a widely accepted interpretation.) This lack of inclusion, combined with scientists' assertion that dinosaurs lived over 65 million years ago, makes many Christians skeptical about the existence of dinosaurs, and of prehistoric life in general. The question is, can a devout Christian believe in creatures like Apatosaurus and Tyrannosaurus Rex without running afoul of the articles of his faith?
In order to answer this question, we first have to define what we mean by the word "Christian." The fact is that there are over two billion self-identified Christians in the world, and most of them practice a very moderate form of their religion (just as the majority of Muslims, Jews, and Hindus practice moderate forms of their religions). Of this number, about 300 million identify themselves as fundamentalist Christians, an inflexible subset of which believes in the inerrancy of the Bible concerning all things (ranging from morality to paleontology) and therefore have the most difficulty accepting the idea of dinosaurs and deep geological time.
Still, some types of fundamentalists are more "fundamental" than others, meaning it's difficult to establish exactly how many of these Christians genuinely disbelieve in dinosaurs, evolution, and an earth that's older than a few thousand years. Even taking the most generous estimate of the number of die-hard fundamentalists, that still leaves about 1.9 billion Christians who have no trouble reconciling scientific discoveries with their belief system. No less an authority than Pope Pius XII said, in 1950, that there was nothing wrong with believing in evolution, with the proviso that the individual human "soul" is still created by God (an issue about which science has nothing to say), and in 2014 Pope Francis actively endorsed evolutionary theory (as well as other scientific ideas, like global warming, that some people disbelieve).
Can Fundamentalist Christians Believe in Dinosaurs?
The main thing that distinguishes fundamentalists from other types of Christians is their belief that the Old and New Testaments are literally true-and thus the first and last word in any debate concerning morality, geology, and biology. While most Christian authorities have no trouble interpreting the "six days of creation" in the Bible as figurative rather than literal-for all we know, each "day" may have been 500 million years long! Fundamentalists insist that a biblical "day" is exactly as long as a modern day. Combined with a close reading of the age of the patriarchs, and a reconstruction of the timeline of biblical events, this leads fundamentalists to deduce an age for the earth of about 6,000 years.
Needless to say, it's extremely difficult to fit creation and dinosaurs (not to mention most of geology, astronomy and evolutionary biology) into that brief a time frame. Fundamentalists propose the following solutions to this dilemma:
Dinosaurs were real, but they lived only a few thousand years ago. This is the most common solution to the dinosaur "problem": Stegosaurus, Triceratops and their ilk roamed the earth during Biblical times, and were even led, two by two, onto Noah's Ark (or taken aboard as eggs). In this view, paleontologists are at best misinformed, and at worst perpetrating an outright fraud, when they date fossils to tens of millions of years ago, since this goes against the word of the Bible.
Dinosaurs are real, and they're still with us today. How can we say dinosaurs went extinct millions of years ago when there are still tyrannosaurs roaming the jungles of Africa and plesiosaurs shadowing the ocean floor? This line of reasoning is even more logically incoherent than the others since the discovery of a living, breathing Allosaurus wouldn't prove anything about a) the existence of dinosaurs during the Mesozoic Era or b) the viability of the theory of evolution.
The fossils of dinosaurs and other prehistoric animals were planted by Satan. This is the ultimate conspiracy theory: the "evidence" for the existence of dinosaurs was planted by no less an arch-fiend than Lucifer, to lead Christians away from the one true path to salvation. Granted, not many fundamentalists subscribe to this belief, and it's unclear how seriously it's taken by its adherents (who may be more interested in scaring people onto the straight and narrow than stating the unadorned facts).
How Can You Argue with a Fundamentalist About Dinosaurs?
The short answer is: you can't. Today, most reputable scientists have a policy of not engaging in debates with fundamentalists about the fossil record or the theory of evolution, because the two parties are arguing from incompatible premises. Scientists gather empirical data, fit theories to discovered patterns, change their views when circumstances demand, and boldly go where the evidence leads them. Fundamentalist Christians are deeply distrustful of empirical science and insist that the Old and New Testaments are the only true source of all knowledge. These two world-views overlap exactly nowhere!
In an ideal world, fundamentalist beliefs about dinosaurs and evolution would fade into obscurity, driven out of the sunlight by the overwhelming scientific evidence to the contrary. In the world we live in, though, school boards in conservative regions of the U.S. are still trying to either remove references to evolution in science textbooks, or add passages about "intelligent design" (a well-known smokescreen for fundamentalist views about evolution). Clearly, vis-a-vis the existence of dinosaurs, we still have a long way to go to convince fundamentalist Christians of the value of science.