In his thoughtful, gracious, and fair-minded essay, Professor John Laing focuses on what many believers and non-believers alike recognize as perhaps the most significant challenge to faith in an all-good, -knowing, and -powerful Creator God: the problem of natural evil, and in particular, the acrid sting of death. While the issue is an ancient one, Laing—and many other contemporary commentators who range from sympathetic to antagonistic toward biblical theism—view evolution as exacerbating the problem to the point that one must choose between the good God of scripture and the truth of evolution. Although the general issue of “evolution and evil” is manifold and beyond the scope of a single essay, John (if I may), zeros in on two ways in which evolution seems to aggravate the particular theological challenge of death. First, in the view of scripture, death is “an invader, disturber of the peace, and a force of evil”; therefore its primordial (as opposed to post hoc) place in the world described by evolution seems incommensurate with an originally good creation. Second, it is not just the primordial place but also the functional role of death that appears to constitute a problem: evolution by natural selection is widely viewed as being driven by death, and more generally by fierce competition, in a way that seems hard to reconcile as a mode of creation that a wise and good God would employ.
I agree with John that these are serious issues. Little is accomplished either by glibly dismissing their prima facie legitimacy or by responding with theological concessions that relinquish core claims of the gospel. In his words: “a fundamental aspect of the good news in the Gospel is the defeat of death – this negative, destroying force – in the resurrection of Christ.” Amen! In what follows I hope to engage sequentially both issues he raises in a way that takes them seriously while avoiding compromised hope.
The Primordial Place of Death
I need to start by acknowledging that these are not just arid intellectual issues but also profoundly personal ones. I have just returned from keeping vigil at the deathbed of my father, and the sting of death is especially acute. The fact that every son sees his father die (or worse, that a parent may see a child die) –that in some sense, universal human death is part of the current “natural order” we all experience – offers no solace for the tearful remonstration of what an awful violation it is. It is a violation not just of our deepest desires, but also of what we construe to be God’s purposes, for the God of scripture is not a mere field of energy or prime mover or initial organizing principle, but is wondrously and clearly portrayed as “the living God” whose explicit purpose is that we “have life, and have it in abundance.” Indeed, in the most extensive section of his essay John cites over 40 scripture passages that affirm life as God’s intention for humanity and death as an intrusive, subverting consequence of sin. I could not be in stronger concord.
Although all Christians have traditionally affirmed resurrection (for both the redeemed and unredeemed), there have been longstanding debates about whether the life that is redemptively restored in Christ and the death that is brought about by sin is “spiritual” (involving the vitality or disruption of communion with God) or “physical” (involving the viability or dissolution of biotic function). Of course these are not mutually exclusive, and perhaps they are not even ultimately distinguishable. But however one understands death to be an incursion upon human telos, it does not answer or even clearly bear upon the evolution-related question of whether other living beings beyond and before humans were created to be immortal. “Violence” in western thought has often been understood as a disruption of natural ends: but do we assume that all creatures share the same “natural end”? For instance, is the nature or telos of worms immortality? Is death a violation of all creaturely natures that was therefore absent from earth prior to initial human intimacy with and subsequent estrangement from God? Significantly, not a single one of the scriptures John cites explicitly refers or even vaguely alludes to the general place of death in the natural order: virtually every one emphatically focuses on death as a consequence of sin for uniquely human moral agents, and—correspondingly—on eternal life as God’s special purpose for supernaturally redeemed humanity.1 Indeed, I am at a loss to find in the entire Bible a scripture that clearly teaches death across the entire biotic realm postdates and is a consequence of human sin.2 Neither is this point affirmed or even mentioned in the most prominent historic creeds of Christian orthodoxy.
Yet none of this means that there is not an issue here. The view that death in all creation is not endemic but followed from a recent human fall was—with the exception of Aquinas and a few others—the dominant perspective of the church fathers, key reformers, and most Christians through the 17th Century (see sidebar). However, by the same token, so was geocentrism and so was the doctrine of human exceptionalism. Virtually all Christians have relinquished geocentrism in light of utterly compelling scientific evidence along with the recognition—in part motivated but not dictated by findings of science—that no clear and persistent scriptural teaching or core theological doctrine is compromised by this view.3 On the other hand, the claim of exceptionalism continues to be affirmed by many Christians – including myself – in light of important theological commitments and ongoing scientific discussion.
So is the primordial nature of death more like geocentrism, or more like human exceptionalism? Scientifically, there is little question that it is more akin to geocentrism. Over the last three centuries the empirical evidence for and the explanatory fruitfulness of the view that earth’s biota and death’s existence vastly predate the origin of humans have increased explosively—arguably to an extent beyond any other finding of science. Amongst tens of thousands of natural scientists, there is virtually unanimous agreement on this point.4 I should be clear that this is not an ad hominem argument: to say the evidential and demographic situation is similar to geocentrism is not in itself to claim that the “recent death” position is wrong. Nor is it an ad populum argument: neither John nor I have space to assess scientific evidence for this claim, and the fact that the overwhelming majority of Christian and non-Christian scientists have for several centuries shared the “primordial death” view does not make it true. But it does mean that if that view is to be rejected for the kinds of theological reasons that John raises, it seems there should be unambiguous scriptural warrant for that rejection. Failing that, then there needs to be a compelling theological rationale and a decided lack of plausible alternatives posited by fellow orthodox Christians.
I have already agreed with John that the Bible persistently presents death as an enemy of God’s purposes for humanity. But I have suggested (perhaps altogether wrongly!) that he does not provide clear scriptural evidence for death being a comparable enemy to and intrusion upon God’s purposes for all creatures. A faithful reading of the Bible does not seem to be incompatible with seeing death as part of the magisterial history of life as depicted by evolution and other natural sciences.
With these considerations of the biblical text as background, tomorrow I’ll describe why I do not believe that John or those with kindred perspectives provide a compelling theological mandate for this view of death, either.
1. There are a few scriptures not cited by John, which deal with the absence of carnivory (though not death itself) in images of idyllic creation. Genesis 1:30 portrays a world in which every creature with the breath of life had plants for food. And the images of the new earth in Isaiah 11 and 65 paint a renewal of this order in redeemed creation. Interestingly however, they do not portray an elimination of death for animals, or even for humanity. According to Is 65, the passage which presents the beautiful image of the lion and lamb: “ ‘Never again will there be in it an infant who lives but a few days, or an old man who does not live out his years; the one who dies at a hundred will be thought a mere child; the one who fails to reach a hundred will be considered accursed. They will build houses and dwell in them; they will plant vineyards and eat their fruit. No longer will they build houses and others live in them, or plant and others eat. For as the days of a tree, so will be the days of my people… The wolf and the lamb will feed together, and the lion will eat straw like the ox, and dust will be the serpent’s food. They will neither harm nor destroy on all my holy mountain,’ says the LORD.” This and other eschatological passages in scripture have a history of widely varying interpretations, but taken most literally, it describes a world with prolonged life in which there is still death (he who dies a centenarian will be like a child, and most people will live as long as trees), and in which death, however, is not inflicted by one creature upon another.
2. Although commentators differ over whether the Pauline description of death in Romans 5 refers to spiritual and/or physical death, the passage clearly focuses on humans. It identifies humanity as the subject of infection, instigated and promulgated by initial and ongoing human sin: “in this way death came to all people, because all sinned” (Romans 5:12).
3. Not all Christians have relinquished geocentrism. For example, a well-known public advocate is Dr. Gerardus Bouw, who has a Ph.D. in astronomy and until recently taught at Baldwin-Wallace Christian College. He founded the Association for Biblical Astronomy and authored an apologetic monograph for a stationary earth: Geocentricity (1992, Association for Biblical Astronomy). A crucial commitment of Dr. Bouw is that he “assumes that whenever the two [the Bible and astronomy] are at variance, it is always astronomy—that is, our ‘reading’ of the ‘Book of Nature,’ not our reading of the Holy Bible—that is wrong.” (http://www.geocentricity.com/ accessed 8/1/2012). Note that this epistemic framework asserts not just that the Bible is a more perfect witness to theological truth than nature, but that human understanding – “our reading” – of the Bible is somehow more immune to error than our reading of nature. The Bible itself does not clearly teach that humans, in our frailty, are less vulnerable to misunderstanding special than general revelation. The difference between faith in the scriptures and faith in our understanding of the scriptures is important though not always recognized, and underlies much tension in faith-science issues.
4. To his credit, even the most prominent critic of primordial death cited by John acknowledges this evidential and demographic claim. In a moving autobiographical essay, Kurt Wise acknowledges “I accepted the Word of God and rejected all that would ever counter it, including evolution. With that, in great sorrow, I tossed into the fire all my dreams and hopes in science.” Although he believes in the viability of searching for a scientific rationale, he affirms “I am a young-age creationist because that is my understanding of the Scripture. As I shared with my professors years ago when I was in college, if all the evidence in the universe turned against creationism, I would be the first to admit it, but I would still be a creationist because that is what the Word of God seems to indicate.” [Kurt Wise, in John F. Ashton (ed)., In Just Six Days. 2001. Master Books. Page 355.]