Editor's note: This article was first published December 18, 2009.
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). 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.