Over the past week, I have been trying to show that the world we inhabit is in fact a very good world. It is marred by human sin, but the operations of the natural world express the values of freedom and growth, just as God intended them. Today, we come to what is likely to be the most contentious of my entries. How do we deal with the biblical language about death? We started this series with quotations from John Calvin and T. F. Torrance in which they asserted that the unpleasant realities of this world (predation, natural disasters, and so on) were not part of God’s original creation but were the results of human sin. This theology is usually taken from the curse language of Genesis, and Paul’s explanation of death in Romans 5, 8, and 1 Corinthians 15. There are, however, several more things going on here than meets the eye. The two major issues that need to be dealt with are the varying biblical perspectives on death and the influence of cultural accommodation in the text.
Starting with the first of these, we must acknowledge that the Bible treats the issue of death in several different ways, and that it recognizes several different types of death. First we must draw a distinction between physical death and spiritual death. This is particularly evident in Paul’s writing to the Romans. In Chapter 7, speaking of the effects of sin, Paul writes, “For sin, seizing the opportunity afforded by the commandment, deceived me, and through the commandment put me to death” (Romans 7:11). Now obviously, a man put to death physically could not have later written those words! An even more telling passage is 1 Corinthians 15:31 where the apostle writes, “I die every day—I mean that, brothers.”
It is interesting to note that in both places where Paul explicitly states that death came through Adam, he speaks of his own death as a past reality. This is not conclusive of Paul’s use of the word “death” but it is suggestive that we should be careful of assuming a simple one-level meaning. Certainly we see other places where Paul is clearly indicating physical death, such as 1 Corinthians 15:35-42, as he speaks of the physical resurrection of the body after (what is clearly) physical death.
This leaves us with the question: Which kind of death is Paul referring to when he states that death came through Adam? Unfortunately, this is not always clear. In Romans 5, Paul seems to be speaking of spiritual death, as he speaks of effects of death in contrast to eternal life and later (in v.18) uses “condemnation” as a substitute for death.1 However, considering Paul’s reliance on Genesis 3 where the curse language clearly indicates physical death through the phrase “dust you are and to dust you will return” (Genesis 3:19) it is likely better to adopt what Douglas Moo calls a “physico-spiritual” death which keeps both the physical and spiritual aspects in mind.2 These two are closely entwined in Paul’s mind, and the enmeshing of the two will become important later. The same multi-layered concept of death is true of 1 Corinthians 15:20-22, where Paul speaks of death and then future physical resurrection.
How does this view of death interact with modern science? It is clear that death was present in the world long before human sin, indeed, death has been present as long as life. It is also clear that death is necessary in order to renew resources and allow for evolutionary development. Paul, however, would not have known this. He would not have recognized the importance of death in ecosystems, nor would he have understood the horror of the limited types of “immortality” that we see in the natural world, such as cancer. Paul was an ancient thinker. Just as Pete Enns wrote about Paul’s views on Adam not necessarily determining our scientific and historical understanding, I would propose that Paul’s views on death need not keep us from accepting the insights of modern science.
This is where the issues of biblical interpretation get interesting. Most of us take for granted that if we read the Bible, we need someone who can translate from the original languages of Greek, Hebrew, and Aramaic before we have a hope of understanding what is being said. What is less acknowledged is that worldviews and cultural assumptions must also be translated. Ancient perspectives, whether in science or history, must be moved into forms that make sense to a contemporary audience and to the questions a modern mind is asking.
Remember I said earlier that Paul entwines together spiritual and physical death? Both in the ancient world are seen as evil, as opposed to the will of God and against the flourishing of His creatures. Part of translating Paul into our culture means distinguishing between these two types of death, and acknowledging the necessity of physical death, while maintaining the sin-death connection in relation to spiritual death. Death did come through sin, but spiritual death, not physical death.
This in no way undermines Paul’s main argument in Romans. Paul is explaining our need for Christ to redeem us from our sin, and our need for life that swallows up death. This remains true in two ways. First, Christ redeems us from our spiritual death, from the separation from God which sin instills. Second, Christ assures us of the future life of physical resurrection. While Christ deals with our sin problem completely, believers still die. If sin were the cause of physical death, we would expect Christians to live forever. But this is not the case. Our hope, as it ever was, lies in the resurrection, which is a direct consequence of Jesus’ work. Physical death will one day be defeated, but this comes from walking through the valley of the shadow of death, not around it. Where Paul attributes a conditional immortality to the figure of Adam, and sees eternal life as a past historical reality, we must instead root the cessation of death in the eschatological future.
While this brief 3-part treatment is in no way complete, I hope it will open up discussion and allow for new ways of seeing the truth, goodness, and beauty in the creation we inhabit.
1. Or, as “The style is thoroughly mythological. Hence Paul is definitely not speaking of personal guilt or naturally necessary death but of the forces of sin and death which have invaded the world.” Ernst Käsemann, Commentary on Romans, trans. by Geoffrey W. Bromiley (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1980), 147
2. Douglas Moo, The Epistle to the Romans (Grand Rapids, MIL Eerdmans), 320.