Biological Death: Part of God’s “Good” Creation?


The ideas that make up evolutionary creation have been instrumental in my personal journey as a Christian evolutionary biologist and paleontologist, allowing me to wholeheartedly embrace the scientific study of our planet and its vast history alongside my faith. But I also must admit that this perspective has raised some difficult theological questions for me. In recent years, there has been much work devoted to questions surrounding Adam and Eve, the origin of humanity, original sin, and the like. But there has been comparatively less work addressing the evolutionary process as it relates to non-human animals. If evolution is indeed a process ordained and sustained by God, then what are we to make of millions of years of competition, predation, suffering, and extinction in the animal world before the advent of humans? How can pre-human animal death fit within the paradigm of creation, fall, redemption, and consummation that is so central to my faith? These types of questions must be grappled with by any Christian entertaining the idea of an ancient universe, even those who might be averse to God creating life via an evolutionary process.

The standard account, often attributed to Augustine, has been that the existence of all forms of natural evil in the world (including animal death) are due to moral evil, i.e. the fall of humanity into sin. However, with any understanding of an ancient earth, this perspective seems untenable given the temporal problem it presents. During the earth’s long history, death in the natural world seems to have existed as long as life has. There is evidence that animals preyed upon one another for hundreds of millions of years before humans were around to sin on this planet. Given this, the notion of a pre-Fall world without any animal death or predation is difficult to maintain. So how can a Christian reconcile this?

One approach suggests that human sin is still the cause of all the natural evil in the world, despite the fact that natural evil preceded humans chronologically by billions of years. In his book The End of Christianity: Finding a Good God in an Evil World, William Dembski argues that the consequences of the Fall effectively impact the rest of creation retroactively to the beginning of time. In this scenario, God anticipated humanity’s fall into sin and willfully created a world in which the consequences of our sin (and, thus, our need for salvation) were evident all around us. As Keith Miller points out, this proposal doesn’t explain why natural evil would need to exist in order to remind us of our fallen state, when the consequences of human moral evil alone would be sufficient. Christopher Southgate suggests that Dembski’s model exacerbates the problem rather than alleviating it, as the goodness of God could be rightly questioned in such a scenario. In the words of Michael Lloyd from one of his chapters in Finding Ourselves After Darwin (pp. 260-261), “How is it just to make innocent prelapsarian nonhuman creatures [i.e., animals that lived before the Fall] suffer for human sin? … How is it redemptively coherent for the punishment to precede the crime and to be meted out on other creatures than the criminals?”

A different approach centers on the idea that a pre-human angelic Fall could be to blame. While a number of individuals have written in support of this view, C.S. Lewis is its most famous advocate, describing this idea in The Problem of Pain. This argument maintains the notion that animal death could be due to the rebellion of a freely acting moral being, while avoiding some of the difficulties associated with natural evil being the result of human sin. However, this position presents some challenges as well. Miller points out that it may be difficult to reconcile a satanically distorted creation with the repeated proclamations describing the creation as “good” in the opening chapter of Genesis. Bethany Sollereder argues that this position also seems to cede undue power to Satan, undermining God’s immanence and providence in sustaining all of the natural processes that occur in our world, including the instances of animal wildness and predation that are described in Job 38-40 and Psalm 104. In the words of Miller, “Scripture does not seek to distance God from the ongoing death and pain present in the creation, and neither should we.”

This sentiment suggests another possible way forward here. What if we were to reconsider animal death as a part of God’s “good” creation rather than as a consequence of human or angelic sin? In his book, The Lost World of Genesis One: Ancient Cosmology and the Origins Debate, John Walton argues that, in its ancient near-eastern context, the repeated refrain “It was good” in the opening chapter of Genesis refers to proper functionality rather than any notion of morality. Indeed, a functioning ecosystem necessitates biological death at virtually every turn—to allow for energy acquisition across each level of a trophic cascade and for the return of nutrients to the ecosystem. John Wood describes the centrality of death in biological systems, going so far as to say, “Nothing in ecology makes sense apart from death” (p. 74). Yet there is something beautiful about this notion, as ecologically speaking, it is literally death that makes new life possible. This brings to mind the metaphor put forth by Holmes Rolston III that nature has a sort of cruciform character. Just as “the crucifixion and resurrection of a suffering Messiah … produces life out of death in his followers,” so too is biological “life … redeemed in its perpetual perishing” (pp. 219, 221).

 

running cheetah across field

We can extend this notion beyond the ecological realm and into an evolutionary purview as well. It is differential success in survival and reproduction that enables populations of creatures to move toward adaptive peaks. For example, the stunning power and speed of cheetahs might never have arisen if slower individuals had been just as successful in hunting and reproducing as faster individuals were. The majestic running of gazelles might never have existed if slower individuals were not caught by predators more often than faster individuals were. The loss of these less-fit individuals leaves a higher proportion of individuals in the population with genes that will make the next generation better adapted to its ecological niche. In Science and Religion: A Critical Survey, Rolston writes, “the cougar’s fang has carved the limbs of the fleet-footed deer, and vice versa” (p. 134). In this sense, each creature not only contributes energy and resources to the ecosystem when it perishes, it helps enable its species to reach greater levels of adaptation. Rolston suggests that “There are sorts of creation that cannot occur without death, and these include the highest created goods. Death can be meaningfully put into the biological processes as a necessary counterpart to the advancing of life” (p. 217).

As this discussion makes evident, understanding biological death as integral to the functioning of the world God created is not a novel idea. But the question remains how this might fit into a theological framework that retains an overall arc of creation, fall, redemption, and consummation. In his chapter in Evolution and the Fall, James K.A. Smith engages in what he calls “a provisional model as a kind of imaginative experiment,” conceiving of a scenario in which this would be possible. He writes:

In the beginning, God created the heavens and earth. From what he seems to tell us via the book of nature, the mechanics of creational unfolding was an evolutionary process: the emergence of new life was governed by the survival of the fittest, such that biological death and animal predation are part of this process, even part of what can be acclaimed as a “good” creation. So some of the phenomena we might have traditionally described as “outcomes” of the Fall seem to be part of the fabric of a good, emerging creation. (p. 61, italics removed)

But if animal death and predation are not effects of the Fall, then what are we to make of passages like Romans 8:20-22 that imply that all of creation was critically impacted by human sin?

Smith goes on to write, “And things change in the ‘after’: there are cosmic effects of some discernible nature (cp. Colossians 1–2); there is also the cosmic fallout of humanity’s failure to cultivate and care for creation” (p. 62, italics removed). This notion retains the idea that the rest of the created order was impacted by the Fall, but places the emphasis on humanity’s relationship with the rest of creation rather than any fundamental changes in the non-human creation itself. R.J. Berry concurs, writing that “The ‘Fall’ is not primarily about disease and disaster … Rather, it is a way of describing the fracture in relationship between God and the human creature made in his image,” a fracture that produces “disorder within ourselves, with our neighbors, and with our environment” (p. 94). This notion of broken relationships is echoed by Rolston: “[H]uman sin can henceforth throw nature out of joint … We are made for fellowship at multiple levels: with God, with persons, with the Earth. When that sense of community breaks, the world begins to fall apart” (p. 226). Our sin has caused the rest of creation to fall into a sort of disarray, made increasingly evident today when we consider the global impacts of human activity that threaten myriad species and perturb sensitive ecosystems. We have failed to live up to our calling as God’s image bearers, sustaining and cultivating the creation. In emphasizing these effects of the Fall (in addition to the traditional kinds of sin and brokenness we recognize), we also can accentuate our call to restore the fragile ecological balance that allows all of God’s creation to thrive. In so doing, we can begin to retake one aspect of our role as his image bearers, living in the world in such a way that all of God’s creations can give him glory by playing their vital roles in the functioning of a good creation.

Some of the ideas presented here are certainly challenging, but I think they can be held within an orthodox Christian framework that includes a good creation, a disruptive Fall, the chance of restoration, and the hope of consummation in the eschaton. However, even if we are comfortable with the idea of biological death being a critical part of a good, functioning creation, there are still a number of difficult questions that must be considered. Why would God create a universe in which creaturely death was a key part of its very functioning? Beyond simply animal death, what are we to make of instances when creatures apparently suffer prior to death? How do we interpret eschatological visions of wolves and lambs feeding together and lions feasting on straw like oxen (Isaiah 65:25)?

It may strike some that trying to craft a sort of evolutionary theodicy is a rather fruitless path of inquiry. After all, Christians have continued asking some of the same basic sorts of questions regarding God and evil for millennia, and sometimes we do not seem any closer to having any answers. Indeed, as I work through these issues, I occasionally struggle to make sense of what I see in nature and read in Scripture. Sometimes the problems seem intractable. However, I think it is of utmost importance for us to engage with these questions, for they can hinder Christians from affirming modern science and prevent non-religious scientists from considering Christian faith. In considering these difficult issues, I am reminded, in the words of Cornelius Plantinga from his book Engaging God’s World (p. 66), that:

A faithful Christian will assume that the conflict is only apparent – that God doesn’t contradict himself in the two books that reveal him. But she will not assume that we’ll be able to resolve the conflict any time soon. Honest, patient scholarship refuses to manage conflicts of these kinds by forcing an early resolution. Instead, the patient Christian scholar puts issues of this kind into suspension for a time while she continues to think about them.

So let us continue together along these paths of inquiry: moving forward in the spirit of fides quaerens intellectum (faith seeking understanding); rooting ourselves in faith as we cautiously, carefully, and prayerfully consider these issues; and always maintaining a posture of humility as we try to work toward possible answers to some of the most vexing questions for people of faith.


Notes & References


Ryan Bebej
About the Author

Ryan Bebej

Ryan Bebej is a professor in the Department of Biology at Calvin University, where he was selected as professor of the year in 2017. He earned his Ph.D. in ecology and evolutionary biology with a focus in paleontology from the University of Michigan. His research focuses on the evolution of aquatic mammals from terrestrial ancestors, including cetaceans (whales, dolphins, and porpoises) and pinnipeds (seals, sea lions, and walruses). He is especially interested in the earliest stages of these large-scale evolutionary transitions and the anatomical modifications that facilitate changes in swimming mode. He has excavated skeletons of fossil whales at Wadi Al-Hitan, a UNESCO World Heritage Site in Egypt’s western desert, and he routinely spends time working in collections at world-renowned museums. Ryan is also deeply interested in the relationship between science and Christian faith. In addition to being a member of BioLogos Voices since 2016, he has been a Scholarship and Christianity in Oxford (SCIO) visiting scholar in science and religion and a participant in SCIO's Bridging the Two Cultures of Science and the Humanities II program. When he isn’t working, he loves spending time with his wife and two sons, playing German tabletop games, and rooting for the Michigan Wolverines and St. Louis Cardinals.
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