The following essay is an extended version of a post published on “Test Tube” in early 2010.
The controversy over creation and evolution in Brazil has never had the “culture war” status it has in the United States. Considering that most Brazilians (around 70%) are Catholics, and the Catholic Church has never forbidden its faithful to study Darwin’s theory, this discussion has been dormant until late 2008, when it was triggered by the decision of a Presbyterian school in Sao Paulo, Brazil’s biggest city, to include creationism in science classes for elementary school students. Before that, Intelligent Design books like Michael Behe’s Darwin’s Black Box had been published in Brazil but not widely publicized. After the Mackenzie school affair, however, media has given some press to Young Earth Creationists, but not much compared to the attention given to scholars who would discredit creationist theories.
After this brief introduction on the evolution debate in Brazil, I’d like to remind BioLogos Forum readers of this paper written by theologian, pastor, and scholar Bruce Waltke, in which he presented the results of a survey given to American evangelical theologians about 11 barriers that might prevent them from accepting evolution. Some of these barriers are well known, like the idea that evolution assumes an old earth and must therefore be bad science (since many Christians believe the earth is thousands, not billions, of years old), and I was already familiar with them. The third one was new to me, however, and that’s why it caught my attention:
Traditional readings of Genesis 3:17-20, Romans 8:20-22 lead some evangelicals to the conviction that all death and decay is the result of human sin. Robert R. Gonzales, Jr., Dean and Professor of Biblical Studies Reformed Baptist Seminary, Easley, South Carolina, in a forthcoming polemic against Collins, writes: ‘Paul, following the teaching of Genesis and the rest of the OT, believed human sin had ecological ramifications.’ Thus, the third barrier of the survey:
3. God’s sentence of death and decay on the creation in connection with Adam’s Fall can not be harmonized with the theory of creation by the process of evolution.
Before going on, I would like to make clear that “creation through the process of evolution” means that Christians recognize God as creator of the universe, and that it has been created from nothing. The Scripture passages mentioned by Waltke in the context of this barrier are the following (KJV):
And unto Adam he said, Because thou hast hearkened unto the voice of thy wife, and hast eaten of the tree, of which I commanded thee, saying, Thou shalt not eat of it: cursed is the ground for thy sake; in sorrow shalt thou eat of it all the days of thy life; Thorns also and thistles shall it bring forth to thee; and thou shalt eat the herb of the field; In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread, till thou return unto the ground; for out of it wast thou taken: for dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return. And Adam called his wife's name Eve; because she was the mother of all living (Genesis 3:17-20).
For the creature was made subject to vanity, not willingly, but by reason of him who hath subjected the same in hope, because the creature itself also shall be delivered from the bondage of corruption into the glorious liberty of the children of God. For we know that the whole creation groaneth and travaileth in pain together until now (Romans 8:20-22).
The objection to evolution stated in the barrier raises interesting questions: if death and decay entered the world only after the Fall, would there have been predators beforehand? What about natural catastrophes like the one which led to the extinction of dinosaurs? Of course, this is a non-issue for Young Earth Creationists, who take the 6-day Genesis account literally, but for Old Earth Creationists a certain interpretation of these (and other) biblical texts would lead to a “temporal” impossibility for evolution: if the processes of natural selection could be triggered only after the Fall, there wouldn’t be enough time for species to evolve as proposed by Darwin. In order to learn whether this barrier can be considered a valid problem, I interviewed a Catholic priest and two Protestant theologians.
Father Celso Nogueira, of the Legionaries of Christ and a specialist in science and religion, claims that a Young Earth interpretation of the Bible couldn’t even be called “literal,” because it doesn’t respect the goals of the human author, which was to send a theological, not scientific, message. The Catholic Church doesn’t share the assumptions made by Young Earth Creationism. “Adam and Eve realized they were naked only after the Fall. Didn’t they see that before? Of course they did, but their nudity didn’t mean a threat of being desired as an object; it becomes so only after they sin. In the same way, animals did kill each other before the Fall, but the so-called ‘cruelty’ of the nature didn’t mean any temptation of greed and hatred for man during that time,” he says.
Long before Darwin, St. Thomas Aquinas wrote about the subject in Summa Theologiae:
In the opinion of some, those animals which now are fierce and kill others, would, in that [pre-Fall] state, have been tame, not only in regard to man, but also in regard to other animals. But this is quite unreasonable. For the nature of animals was not changed by man's sin, as if those whose nature now it is to devour the flesh of others, would then have lived on herbs, as the lion and falcon. Nor does Bede's gloss on Genesis 1:30, say that trees and herbs were given as food to all animals and birds, but to some [the implication being that the others, still requiring food, would have fed on other animals]. Thus there would have been a natural antipathy between some animals. They would not, however, on this account have been excepted from the mastership of man: as neither at present are they for that reason excepted from the mastership of God, Whose Providence has ordained all this. Of this Providence man would have been the executor, as appears even now in regard to domestic animals, since fowls are given by men as food to the trained falcon (I, q.96, a.1, ad.2, emphasis mine).
In this quote, he analyzes man’s pre-Fall dominion over the rest of creation and mentions an objection according to which this dominion was limited by the existence of animals that were aggressive towards other species. But the theologian concludes that the aggressive behavior of certain animals belongs to their own nature and has nothing to do with human sin.
Agemir de Carvalho Dias, Presbyterian pastor and teacher of the Evangelical College of Parana, says that such Young Earth concerns are unusual in Protestant theology schools in Brazil; even then, he claims that a literal reading of the first chapters of the Genesis gives no background to the notion of a “universal peace” between creatures, without any predation or catastrophes, even if such situations aren’t mentioned in the biblical text. “The biblical description of creation says the world was without form and void (Genesis 1:2), using a Hebraic idiom which means something like ‘chaos.’ In the creation process God puts order in this chaos”, he says, adding that this process still leaves room for happenings like natural catastrophes. “Even after the Garden of Eden is made the creation isn’t complete yet, because God says that it’s not good for the man to be alone. And we must keep in mind that the description of Eden itself already splits animals into beasts and cattle, and this distinction helps in pointing out each animal’s role in creation,” he claims.
Both Father Celso Nogueira and Professor Uipirangi Camara, who teaches at the Theological Baptist College of Parana, believe that the core of the issue is defining what kind of death entered the world after the Fall. “What Adam’s sin brings is spiritual evil, not physical death,” claims Camara. Dr. Dias adds that “the death that entered world with Adam is understood as something that takes man apart from God, a spiritual death, in the sense that the access to God is now closed and can be restored only through faith.” Father Celso says that the concepts of life and death in the Old Testament go well beyond a biological meaning. Man, the priest says, has an immortal soul. “The soul, or vital principle, of animals is merely material, not spiritual. On the other hand, the human soul is spiritual, not subject to death, because what’s immaterial can’t be divided in parts and can’t decay. Since humans are made of body and soul, physical death is a violence against this unity, but that’s not the case for animals,” he explains.
Drs. Camara and Dias remind us that, unlike in the Catholic Church, which has an “official” interpretation given by Church Magisterium, inside their churches (Baptist and Presbyterian respectively) there’s no agreement on the issue. When comparing what different Protestant churches say on the subject, views may be even more conflicting. Both scholars state that their opinions are merely personal and believe that, depending on the community, only a minority of churchgoers think like them, though no formal polls have been taken to indicate what Brazilian Protestants believe about creation and evolution. That’s why we cannot speak of a “Protestant Theology,” but of many Theologies—as many as there are groups.
Here we can already draw a conclusion: Father Celso and Drs. Camara and Dias say that the idea doesn’t make sense that evolution as proposed by Darwin would be impossible because there was no death and decay before the Fall. “Such conclusions taken to reject a scientific theory in the name of the Bible are an abuse,” says the Catholic priest. In his view, those Animal Planet-like scenes of fantastic chases, with rabbits beating leopards (or being eaten by them), did exist before the first sin. “The Genesis images relate to man’s relationship with God, his equals, and the world. They don’t say anything about the animals and plants’ status in themselves,” adds Father Celso.
But the discussion doesn’t stop here. All three scholars agree with Robert Gonzales about possible “ecological consequences” of the Fall. “When animals kill each other, this belongs to the order God wanted for the world by creating animals and splitting them between beasts and cattle. But the original sin introduced a disorder in the man’s relationship with nature. He had the original task of taking care of everything,” says Dr. Camara. Father Celso adds that “the man breaks his harmonic relationship with God when he wants to ‘know’ (in the biblical sense, to possess) ‘good and evil.’ Greed leads to disharmony, first towards God, generating distrust; then, with other humans, when they realize that they are naked and their bodies become objects of desire; and, with nature, because greed makes man an exploiter of creation, no longer its caretaker; and creation answers with hostility.”
Dr. Dias adds more examples of disharmony between man and nature: “Man creates disorder when he accumulates all kinds of energy [natural resources] that were supposed to be more evenly spread around the world. Economic inequality is an example; the obesity epidemic is another one. In the Bible, a situation of divine order can be seen when God feeds the Israelites on their way out of Egypt – each day, God would send the right amount of food for only that day, and if anyone collected extra food for the following day, the manna would break down. The Sabbatical year is another example: every seventh year, the Israelites let the land rest. Man was supposed to live in harmony with nature, but this harmony was broken,” he points out. Human sin, Dr. Dias claims, disturbed a “symbiotic balance” between man and nature. “In order to survive, man must tame nature, which leads to man’s alienation and nature’s destruction. That’s how we can understand the Apostle Paul when he claims that Christ’s victory over sin restores the hope for such balance,” he adds, mentioning one of the texts quoted in the beginning.
The author would like to thank Kathryn Applegate for valuable suggestions on the rewriting of this text.