Last week we looked at how our very good evolutionary world necessarily includes unpleasant realities like earthquakes and pain. This week, we are going to look at why God might have created a world through evolutionary processes. What is the advantage of a world where pain and death are necessities? What is gained by an evolutionary process that would not be present in an unchanging, static, ‘perfect’ world? Why did God not simply create heaven in the first place? These are questions of huge theological significance and are not going to be satisfactorily answered here. I do, however, hope to offer some starting points for discussion.
I began to look at these questions by researching Irenaeus’s theology of creation. Irenaeus of Lyons was a second-century Church Father, and one of the Church’s greatest theologians. One of the most intriguing parts about his theology is that he understood the creation as being made in immaturity. Most of us imagine the world of Genesis 1-2, or the original creation, as a perfect world, where everything is already completed, and where Adam and Eve were meant to live out their lives in a perfect existence. Apart from multiplying and filling the earth, there is not a lot of room for growth, either physically or spiritually, for humans or for creation because everything has already “arrived.” In a radical re-imagining of this story, Irenaeus pictures Adam and Eve in the garden as children––not perfect, but on a journey toward maturity and perfection. This is because perfection is not something you can give to an infant; it must be grown into. Irenaeus argues, “For as it certainly is in the power of a mother to give strong food to her infant, [but she does not do so], as the child is not yet able to receive more substantial nourishment; so also it was possible for God Himself to have made man perfect from the first, but man could not receive this [perfection] being as yet an infant.”1 So, God does not force something on to humanity that it is not ready for. Perfection was not something that could be implanted; it had to be journeyed toward. And so Irenaeus gives us our first value of an evolving world: room for the growth and development of humans.
Now, let’s extend this argument to the wider cosmos. Just as humanity is not created in static perfection, the world around is not fully completed either. Colin Gunton, reflecting on Irenaeus, writes, “Creation is a project... It has somewhere to go.”2 There is value in saying that creation has the freedom to grow, that it is an ongoing project. A world with freedom must have choice, and this is present in a world with a long evolutionary history. The cosmos, like humanity, is created very good, but it is not created in its final state. This giving of freedom (and perhaps even limited autonomy) to the creation is, I would argue, more consistent with the nature of divine love than a creation where everything is determined. God gives true freedom to humanity, leading to moral choice, and true freedom to creation, leading to evolutionary development. This is God’s act of love, and this is why God did not just make heaven in the first place.3 Freedom and growth are valuable, and God delights in them.
A third value given through evolution is the ability to move toward a goal. And that begs the question: “Where is evolution going?” I would argue that evolution was moving toward developing a community of beings which carries God’s image and amongst which God would be made incarnate. The Incarnation was not a contingency plan brought in when humanity sinned, but rather was one of the original purposes of creation. This concept is one of the great contributions of Irenaeus––creation was always headed for the Incarnation! Also, this creation was always part of the journey toward new life. God’s promise of a new creation is not a contingency plan either!4 The new (or, rather, renewed) creation, as described at the end of Revelation, was always part of the plan. I don’t think that any theodicy can say “this world is good” without also pointing forward to the time when there will be no pain, no death, and no tears, under some new and unimaginable reconstruction of the universe. Keep in mind that we do tend to imagine the new future as static in some ways. Many of the values that are achieved here (such as having children or freedom of moral choice) are not imagined to exist there in the same way. In no way does saying “this is a good world” undermine the Christian hope in the world to come. Actually, recognition that this life was always meant to be renewed can help our Christian walk. The spiritual growth coming from this world is seen most easily, perhaps, with the example of death.
In the present world, physical death is the most poignant reminder of our mortality. While we grasp at immortality through various means, we find it is always beyond our reach. The suffocating horror and fear that accompanies many of our encounters with death reminds us finally that we are not God. Yet it is in those moments of deepest agony that our need for the hope of resurrection is the strongest.
What do we do with death? In light of the new creation, death is a transition from this life to the new life. It is a leap of faith that God always intended, and one which God himself did not avoid. In the lives of saints and martyrs, we see a taste of what physical death was intended to be (I am speaking here of physical death without sin; our present experience of death is horridly marred by sin and the reality of spiritual death). We see how many of the martyrs approached death with peace, acceptance, and even joy––to lay down their lives and be called into the presence of God. I believe that this was the original intention of death. Death was to be a transition, a final giving up of oneself into the enfolding arms of God. Our bodies go to decompose and support new life, while our trust is placed in the promise of the resurrected life.
I want to be careful here. This does not mean that we should not grieve death. Even Jesus, when he was at the tomb of Lazarus, wept openly, even though he knew that he was about to raise Lazarus from the dead. There can be a strange disconnect, where if we Christians say something is good or natural, we sometimes feel we should then be able to avoid a real emotional response to the situation, or that faith means not being broken by certain situations. This is not what I am advocating. Encountering death should make us weep, because the loss we experience is real. Christian hope makes us more human, not less––we should feel more deeply, not less. But we should also feel differently. We grieve, knowing that there is hope and life and renewal ahead. We know that physical death does not have the last word, because of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. We hear Paul’s triumphal cry “Where, O death is your victory? Where, O death is your sting?…The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God! He gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.”5 Our path is not to avoid pain and death, but to walk through them, following our Lord and Savior in life, in death, and in resurrection life.
Speaking of Paul, I feel that I should acknowledge the big white elephant in the room. Someone will ask, “Doesn’t Paul say that death came through the Fall? How do you deal with the biblical texts where death is called the enemy of God?” This will be the topic of next week’s entry.
1. Irenaeus, Against Heresies, in The Ante-Nicene Fathers, ed. Alexander Roberts & James Donaldson (Grand Rapids, MI: 1975), IV. xxxviii. 1.
2. Colin Gunton, The Triune Creator: A Historical and Systematic Study (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1998), 56.
3. Here, I mean “heaven” in the sense of the new heavens and the new earth of the eschatological future, not the current dwelling place of God.
4. Read, for example, N. T. Wright’s book Surprised by Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church (New York: HarperOne, 2008).
5. 1 Corinthians 15:55-56.