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Death’s Resurrection

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December 18, 2009 Tags: Problem of Evil
Death’s Resurrection

Today's entry was written by Daniel Harrell. Please note the views expressed here are those of the author, not necessarily of BioLogos. You can read more about what we believe here.

Much of the debate among Christians surrounding evolution and faith concerns human origins, but an even trickier theological problem is the death that evolution requires. Biologically speaking, evolution demands enormous amounts of organic death and decay for the sake of new life. Competition among species for limited resources (a.k.a. survival of the fittest)—one animal preying on another for food, decay as a means of enriching the soil for plant growth, less advantageous species giving way to more productive (and reproductive) species, and the inescapable, physical reality of entropy—all challenge the view that God highly values purpose, life and economy. The apostle Paul presents death as the consequence of Adam’s sin (Romans 5:16), and yet there had to be death in the Garden, otherwise Adam would have been overrun by bugs and bacteria long before he took that forbidden bite of fruit. Death has occurred since the first breath of biological life (and some would say since the first “breath” of cosmological life), long before Adam inhaled. Ironically, therefore, death must be a part of God’s good creation. Moreover, human death due to sin must be something different than the physical death we all die. Theologically speaking, death is alienation from God. It is death as the termination of relationship. It’s what Jesus describes as an ethereal chasm between the rich man and the beggar named Lazarus (Luke 16:19-26).

We experience death as the ultimate evil, but there is another side to it. Death may be the paycheck for sin (Romans 6:23), but death is also the utmost expression of love. Jesus said that the greatest love you can show is to lay down your life for another (John 15:13), which he then exhibited by laying down his own life for sinners (Romans 5:8). Christianity holds up the cross as the supreme demonstration of sacrificial love. What if instead of seeing biological death in the evolutionary epic as purposeless waste, we viewed natural selection as redeeming death for the sake of new life? Look at it this way and you’re able to see in evolution a preview of the way God will act to redeem the negativity of death due to sin. Jesus said, “Unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds” (John 12:24 NIV). More than stating the horticulturally obvious, Jesus is making a much larger point about the way all things are. Just as the death of an organism will allow for its flourishing reproduction and continued genetic life (not that the Bible would put it this way), so would the death of Jesus and the subsequent deaths of Jesus’ followers lead to a new flourishing and continuation of life in Christ. God redeems death for good.

Sacrificial giving is a part of God’s nature. Why should we be surprised to see it revealed in nature’s nature? If the earth reveals the handiwork of God (Psalm 102:25), we would expect to see the marks of God on the world as science observes it even if science doesn’t acknowledge it. God gives himself in creation and for creation, ultimately dying to redeem it toward new creation.

So then what about Paul’s description of death as the last enemy (1 Corinthians 15:26)? I’d argue that the enemy is not the cessation of physical life on earth, but rather the sinner’s eternal alienation from God. Having been reconciled to God in Christ, Paul delightfully declares not that death is gone (not yet at least), but that it has lost its sting, the sting that it assumed on that fateful day in the Garden (1 Corinthians 15:55-56). No longer is death viewed as the end of life, but as the gateway to new life and new creation.

Granted, the Bible does promise an eventual end to death (Revelation 21:4). If “no death” literally means no death (which it must mean if we’re talking eternity), then we should anticipate a new creation with a new sort of biology and physics---at least one where entropy no longer holds sway and death is no longer required. With no death there would be no evolution, since in heaven, presumably, everything achieves its perfection. And yet just as evolution previews Christ’s death and resurrection, so also do aspects of heaven already exist on earth. As people are made in God’s image, so creation is made in heaven’s image. Humans are not rescued out of the world; the entire created order participates in the redemption of humanity. Christians hold that the created and cursed is the very stuff that gets redeemed and glorified. Though all things die and return to dust, it is out of that same dust that resurrection happens.

(Photo courtesy of rfgatch34/Flickr)

Daniel Harrell is the Senior Minister of Colonial Church in Edina, Minnesota. He is the author of the books Nature’s Witness: How Evolution Can Inspire Faith, How To Be Perfect: One Church’s Experiment with Living the Book of Leviticus, and the forthcoming Wisdom of the Saints (And Near Saints): Christian Inspiration from A-Z. He also teaches theology at Bethel Seminary in St. Paul.

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Charlie - #987

December 18th 2009

Death does occur and yes it is involved in the process of evolution, that we know.  As far as individuals coorelating death with sin, sacrifice, or love (forming some morally justified purpose for death) or attempting to determine what happens after death (developing comfort for individuals who fear death); these beliefs are only based on faith in their self-interpretation of another’s writings.  Why quickly rule out that death has no moral structure?  Why do we need to know what happens after death?  Why are these questions still asked in religious circles if the Bible gives them a sufficient answer?

Glen Davidson - #990

December 18th 2009

In any case, death explains a whole lot of biology.  Obviously it exists, whatever you believe about it, and the only way to understand biology is to understand its phenomena, including death and its effects.

In other words, if you’re going to care about the sick and the dying as part of your Christian mission, you’d best understand why people are sick and dying.  Malaria was not specially designed by God to cause sickness and death—it evolved, and so did our responses to it.  If you do care about the sick, you deal with the evolution of P. falciparum from a specific (and apparently photosynthetic) lineage, and the contingencies of the evolution of both it and of human defense mechanisms.

Anything else is an abrogation of human concern.

Glen Davidson

Mere_Christian - #996

December 18th 2009

If you are a Christian, isn’t your first concern for others about their eternal life? Fighting disease, suffering and untimely death is a matter of vehicle to impart the knowledge of eternal life into a living person before they die that physical death.

beaglelady - #1009

December 18th 2009

If you are a Christian, isn’t your first concern for others about their eternal life?

Sure, that’s why it’s important to fight disease so babies will survive past infancy— and maybe even learn about Jesus.

Peter Enns - #1016

December 19th 2009


Read the Gospels.

Charlie - #1049

December 20th 2009

“If you are a Christian, isn’t your first concern for others about their eternal life?”

Beaglelady, you responded

“Sure, that’s why it’s important to fight disease so babies will survive past infancy— and maybe even learn about Jesus.”

Saving an infant so that they may have a fulfilling life is not eternal.  If eternal life were someone’s first concern, the infant would live forever regardless of if they were saved from a disease.  Religion does not need to be the motivator to save lives.  Actually the percentage of non-religious people is larger for Doctors than the rest of the community.

beaglelady - #1053

December 20th 2009

Charlie I was trying to make a point.  Both physical needs and spiritual needs are important.

Mere_Christian - #1061

December 20th 2009


Here’s what I found in Luke’s Gospel. Some references to genetic material:

Now Jesus himself was about thirty years old when he began his ministry.

He was the son, so it was thought, of Joseph,
    the son of Heli,

(insert elipsis)

the son of Seth, the son of Adam,
    the son of God.


Luke, it is taught, was a physician That would make his opinion in the league of the educated and highly valued positions. His Gospel has some weight to it. And, if it was copied and recopied, his perspective still bears respecting.

Now in Matthew’s Gospel, the genetic material of Jesus is only traced to Abraham. But Abraham is a descendant of Seth. Who had a father named Adam.

Now, Jesus was not the offspring of Joseph, but he was the biological child of Mary. One of her ovum was used by God to house His son Jesus in His human form. Mary was in the familiy tree of King David. Too.

I’ve read the Gospels. I see know where that metaphorizing the geneaology is to have any weight to it. “I,” as a follower of the works of the apostles/disciples, take the stance that the works they brought to us are necessary to have the proper perspective to being a believer in the real historic figure they call Jesus (the) Christ.

Mere_Christian - #1068

December 21st 2009

Darn it when response overrides spellcheck:

I’ve read the Gospels, and see NOWHERE that metaphorizing the geneaology is to have any weight to it.


Mere_Christian - #1069

December 21st 2009



Peter Enns - #1071

December 21st 2009


I agree about spellcheck.  Ugh.

Anyway, are you willing to apply the logic above to any issue that comes up in Scripture where ancient and contemporary views collide?

peter Enns - #1074

December 21st 2009


I think our exchange got lost in the shuffle. My quip that you should read the Gospels had to do not with the genealogy but to challenge your earlier point about what the central teaching of the Gospel is (or something like that).

RBH - #1087

December 21st 2009

Glen wrote “Malaria was not specially designed by God to cause sickness and death—it evolved, and so did our responses to it.”

That’s not what Michael Behe says in “The Edge of Evolution.”  In that book Behe explicitly asserts that malaria was purposefully designed:

“Here’s something to ponder long and hard: Malaria was intentionally designed. The molecular machinery with which the parasite invades red blood cells is an exquisitely purposeful arrangement of parts. C-Eve’s children died in her arms partly because an intelligent agent deliberately made malaria, or at least something very similar to it” (p. 237).

(And a comment preview option would be greatly appreciated.)

Daneil Ketch - #1163

December 24th 2009

“In other words, if you’re going to care about the sick and the dying as part of your Christian mission, you’d best understand why people are sick and dying.”

You say that as if science was not understood by Christians? It is only the Atheist who mis understand science like yourself.. The world of science when understood fit perfectly with the Christian faith. But it is the atheist who must distort the evidence to support their worldview.

Chris Wiley - #1529

January 1st 2010

Daniel Harrell, nice thoughts.  I especially like your treatment of death’s positive role in self-giving and the nourishment of others leading to fecundity.
Here’s a question – isn’t death’s role in evolution only a problem for the traditional interpretation of Genesis 1-3 and not with the text itself?  I’ve always found it curious that the Tree of Life is there in the garden and Adam and Eve presumably were permitted to eat from it prior to the fall.  Wouldn’t this indicate that senescence and death is somehow intrinsic to physical life and that grace must overcome it?  That would mean that Adam and Eve had access to a source of life that other creatures did not and that, presumably, their punishment was banishment from access to the Tree of Life?

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