A Review of “Death Before the Fall: Biblical Literalism and the Problem of Animal Suffering” by Ronald E. Osborn
Note: Today’s blog features a review of Ronald Osborn’s Death Before the Fall by biologist Craig M. Story—come back tomorrow for an interview with Osborn, himself.
In the introduction to Death Before the Fall, author Ronald Osborn notes that very little has been published on this topic. Yet, in my experience as a biologist teaching at a Christian college, the issue of the Fall is very often singled out as the most significant theological objection to evolutionary science. In many discussions with evolution doubters, they rarely object to the scientific ideas themselves, but after some period of conversation, it becomes clear that the death and suffering intrinsic to evolutionary biology provides a deep taproot of mistrust from which spring many familiar anti-evolution arguments. Thus, Osborn’s book is certainly timely, as it deals head-on with this issue of the death and suffering of living forms. Osborn’s central thesis is that blaming all animal suffering on human sin comes out of a misplaced literalist reading of the biblical text, and, furthermore does not actually solve the problem of theodicy (the presence of evil and suffering in God’s world).
Osborn argues that predation and biological death are an essential part of God’s good (but not perfect) creation. In his arguments, he cites the examples of animal ferocity in the book of Job, the “cosmic conflict” model of C.S. Lewis, and historical Judaic understandings. Osborn also has his own first-hand appreciation of nature, growing up in Zimbabwe observing nature’s life and death cycles. Osborn discusses problems with a literalist interpretation of Genesis using rather forceful prose. In fact, the tone at times is too harsh, and will likely turn off the very readers he needs to reach with his argument (e.g.creationists are described as “self-taught science dilettantes”).
The opening nine chapters provide a multi-faceted assault on a literalist interpretation of the creation accounts in Genesis. Throughout, Osborn claims that one can still maintain a high view of scriptural authority. For example, he cites the writings of philosopher Nancey Murphy, and notes that to view the biblical text as one that “requires no interpretation” is itself a pre-hermeneutical assumption that is self-consciously brought to the text. Furthermore, Osborn makes the very sensible point that what is a “plain” or “obvious” reading to one person may not be to another.
This fact that the biblical text requires interpretation to ascertain its meaning raises the possibility that sources of truth outside the text, including scientific truths, are valid for informing our interpretation of Scripture. This is certainly one implication of Osborn’s book. The idea that scientific findings can inform our reading of the Bible would be very controversial in many circles, and is certainly dismissed out of hand by many in the church today. Why is this? I believe there is a great mistrust of science as a body of knowledge and even as a method in many churches. Science is often perceived by the public as shaky, uncertain and ever-changing, and built upon unstated assumptions that are highly suspect.
Osborn’s discussion of progressive vs degenerating research programs was particularly helpful in dealing with this issue of the trustworthiness of science. Here citing the ideas of the Hungarian philosopher of science Imre Lakatos, Osborn shows how the defense of the core idea that biblical truth trumps all other truths, has led to problems. Specifically, the many ad-hoc hypotheses found in creation science provide a clear indication of the degenerating science that it represents. This is in marked contrast to the situation with the evolutionary paradigm accepted by mainstream science, which is continually expanding, developing, and flourishing.
Osborn also notes the irony that for many biblical literalists, particularly those in the “scientific creationist” group, the authority of Genesis hinges precisely on the scientific truth to be found in the biblical text. These folks have ironically embraced the idea that all truths should be scientifically verified. They have drunken deeply from the wells of scientism, Osborn points out, yet they reject the methods and findings of modern science as they contradict the literal reading of Genesis, and they view their bible-based science as superior.
In one rhetorical flourish, Osborn raises the possibility that if someday it turns out that the life forms on the planet “are actually six to ten thousand years old we should cheerfully accept this finding.” This point was made to underscore the fact that our faith should not rest on any finding of science, however unlikely. But here I believe Osborne may confuse the reader by suggesting that such a well-established finding of science could ever be reversed. I believe that such a reversal is, in every sense of the word, inconceivable. When multiple lines of independent evidence give a single answer to a scientific question, these become a form of scientific truth that we can trust. There is an argument to be made that some findings of science are so well established, and founded upon multiple independent varieties of evidence that they build a strong edifice of actual truth. Do the continents drift on molten magma? Yes. Does the earth circle the sun annually? Yes. Are there such things as atoms with distinct chemical properties? Yes. Is the genetic information made of nucleic acids such as DNA or RNA? Yes. The reason for confidence in such areas of science is that so much very good and strong evidence exists. Science never claims to “prove” anything—however, it comes close in some cases and one is not far off to say that there are “facts” of science.
On the other hand, there are questions that are much more difficult to answer, such as whether people should have more or less fat or salt in their diet, or how best to reduce one’s cholesterol. Health-related questions are challenging to answer, in part due to the complexity and variety of human physiology. Yet, the fickleness of health-related science is the first thing many laypeople think of when they view science as ever-changing. The key reason some questions are not decided is that the evidence is lacking, or not sufficiently robust.
However, once the evidence is in on a basic scientific question, such as the age of the oldest earth rocks, it is typically settled. It is very hard to think of a single example of a basic scientific truth based on a strong foundation of experimental evidence that has ever been fundamentally overturned. The question science skeptics should be asking is not whether an idea or theory of science is true or not, but “How strong is the evidence in support of this idea?” Such discussions can be fruitful, engaging, and are worth having. Rejecting an idea or theory without examining the evidence is no different than someone rejecting the gospel of Jesus Christ without any familiarity with the Bible.
As John Polkinghorne is fond of mentioning, scientific truths answer different kinds of questions about the world than those found in Scripture. Scientific truths never contradict Scripture, properly interpreted. In fact, as Osborn would argue, the truths of science can help us more properly interpret Scripture. Let us hope that books such as Osborne’s will move people to consider both science and Scripture as sources of truth that are not in competition. Here it is important to say that both are equally valid, when properly understood and interpreted. Perhaps painfully, this cuts both ways; the Scripture needs to be validly interpreted, and science must also be validly done and interpreted. The confident assertion that the Bible trumps science stems from a misunderstanding of the purpose of Scripture, and a misapplication of the Bible to answer questions that can only be answered by the application of science.
In the final section of the book, Osborn provides a personal account of his experience growing up keeping the Sabbath in a more profound (and literalistic?) way than probably most of his evangelical readers have done. In doing so, he observes the indifference to animal suffering casually displayed by many religious folks who have distanced themselves from culpability; by blaming an ancient “fall” for the suffering, they are off the hook in some sense. Osborn points out that it is the environmentalists, the Jane Goodalls and Rachel Carsons of the world who care for animal welfare, who are doing the real work of redeeming creation. In closing, Osborn suggests that the real dilemma for theology is not the theodicy, but an anthropodicy deriving from our indifference to animal suffering, and in which we play a part every time we consume a hamburger.
I highly recommend reading this book, and when you do, don't let the sometimes harsh tone turn you off. Consider the arguments made by the author, and let these arguments be a conversation-starter between theologians, scientists, pastors, and laypeople in the church.