Previous columns have dealt with Edward Hitchcock’s work with fossil footprints and how geology influenced his approaches to natural theology and the interpretation of Genesis. The last time, we saw how he understood suffering and death in the human world, in light of his high view of divine sovereignty. Today, in the final column devoted to Hitchcock, we see how he dealt with animal death, specifically how he handled the implications of an ancient earth for theodicy: what if animals died before the first sin?
The title of this column is taken directly from the first edition of Edward Hitchcock’s textbook, Elementary Geology (1840), where it was printed across the top of the page in the section devoted to theodicy, the problem of how a good and powerful God could have created a world replete with suffering and death. When the early natural historians accepted the earth’s great antiquity, they necessarily admitted “that violent and painful death was in the world [among animals] before the fall of man,” as Hitchcock bluntly put it (p. 274). The identical phrase (“death before the fall”) was used at least once in the eighteenth century, but it came into general use only about the time his textbook appeared. The English divine John Pye-Smith used it as a header in a book published the same year, On the Relation between the Holy Scriptures and Some of Geological Science (1840), and the previous year it had appeared in a discussion of theodicy in a magazine, The Christian Observer. Used continuously since then, the terminology is now commonplace in Christian books about origins—indicating that no one solution has been found fully satisfactory.
Photograph of a page from Hitchcock’s Elementary Geology (1840), by Edward B. Davis.
Animal Suffering before the Fall
Hitchcock brought the full weight of his Calvinist theology to bear on the problem of animal suffering. At that time, animal suffering and death was generally thought to result from the disobedience of Adam and Eve—the very view upheld by creationists today. However, according to a detailed study by physician and theology student Jon Garvey, that view had actually been rejected by most theologians prior to the Reformation, including the monumentally important Augustine (especially in The City of God, book 12, chap 4) and Thomas Aquinas (Summa Theologica, Part 1, question 96, article 1, Reply to Objection 2). On the other hand, for reasons that are not entirely clear, it became the standard Protestant view during and after the Reformation, such that Martin Luther and John Calvin found it in Genesis 3:17-18, and John Wesley endorsed it in a sermon, “The General Deliverance.”
Thus, Hitchcock faced a dilemma, since geological evidence appeared to contradict “the general interpretation of the Bible.” Surprisingly, the “plausible reconciliation” he proposed did not challenge the traditional link between human sin and animal suffering. Instead, he found what he needed in a core component of Calvinism: divine foreknowledge. Hitchcock held that God foresaw the Fall and planned accordingly before creating the world. He developed this view for the first time in the eighth (1847) edition of Elementary Geology (quoting here and below from pp. 299-301), at that point the most widely used geology textbook in the United States.
Let’s see how he came to this conclusion. First, he stressed the plain biological facts:
“Not only geology, but [also] zoology and comparative anatomy, teach us that death among the inferior animals did not result from the fall of man, but from the original constitution given them by their Creator. One large class of animals, the carnivores, have organs expressly intended for destroying other classes for food.”
Furthermore, leaving aside carnivorous activity, all livings things, both vegetable and animal, were subject to “decay and dissolution” in the end; nothing lives forever. Even if that were not so, some animals would still be killed from falling bodies and other accidents. “In short, death could not be excluded from the world, without an entire change in the constitution and course of nature; and such a change we have no reason to suppose, from the Mosaic account [Genesis], took place when man fell.”
Next, he offered an incisive argument from Scripture. When God threatened Adam and Eve with death for disobedience, the Bible “seems to imply a knowledge on his part, of what death was, that is, that he had seen it among the inferior animals: for it would be a strange legislation, that imposed a penalty of which those under the law could form no idea.” He also dealt with the two biblical texts that he saw as most pertinent to the received view, Rom. 5:12 and 1 Cor. 15:21. The first text could not be used to support that view; it showed “not that death passed upon all animals, but upon all men; and because all had sinned, an act of which the inferior animals, destitute of moral natures, are not capable.” As for the second text, it “is limited to the human race” by its reference to the resurrection of the dead. In addition, it “draw[s] a contrast between Adam and Christ, as to their influence upon the human family. If the inferior animals are included, then they must not only share in the resurrection, but be interested in the redemption by Christ.” He didn’t take that thought any further, presumably because he considered it absurd.
Hitchcock would instantly recognize the title of this important new book by the Seventh-day Adventist scholar Ronald E. Osborn. For more information, see the insightful review by Biblical scholar Ben Witherington, who writes, “The real issue is not ‘death before the fall’ but the telos, the end goal, the aim of it all—resurrection life that is far more than mortal life, not merely a return to Eden, but a journey into new creation.” Jim Stump also interviewed Dr. Osborn for BioLogos.
Finally, Hitchcock stated the position “that seems most satisfactorily to explain this subject,” namely, “that God, in view of the certainty of man’s transgressions, adapted the world beforehand to a fallen creature, who must die. … Death, then, was introduced into the world as a prospective result of man’s apostasy,” a view that still “falls in with the common opinion … that all the misery, disorder, and suffering, of the present world, are the fruit of human transgressions.” In other words, God had foreseen the fall and planned accordingly, creating a world in which animal death preceded the fall chronologically, but not theologically—if God in his foreknowledge had known that Adam and Eve would not sin, the creation would have been different.
To the best of my knowledge, Hitchcock formulated this novel solution himself. He liberally cites others throughout the book, but not a single citation accompanies the relevant paragraph. (It has also been credited to John Jay Dana, minister of the Congregationalist Church at Canaan Four Corners, who wrote a highly favorable review of The Religion of Geology in 1853. In fact Hitchcock influenced Dana, not vice versa.) Regardless of where the idea came from, he had done his best to find a new solution to the problem of animal suffering, in light of the way the world is. Ultimately, he realized that are no easy answers to questions in theodicy. A few pages before the discussion of death before the fall, the presence of volcanic activity on the earth is offered as one of “many peculiar proofs of the benevolence of the Deity,” because it allows the internal heat of the earth to vent less violently while forming the continents and valleys where many creatures thrive. He then stated an obvious objection: couldn’t a good and powerful God “secure to his creatures the benefits which result from volcanic agency, without the attendant evils, such as the destruction of property and life?” The answer is crucial for understanding not only Hitchcock, but also the whole enterprise of doing natural theology—even when God is spoken of only as an “intelligent designer.” This is what he said:
“This is a question that meets the student of natural theology at almost every step of his progress: for we find almost universally, that evils are incident to operations whose natural tendency and general effect are beneficial. Probably it is so, because a greater amount of good can thereby be secured in the end. But the existence of evil is one of those difficult subjects whose complete elucidation ought not be expected in this world.” (Elementary Geology, 1847 edition, pp. 285 and 287)
The Situation Today: Hitchcock Redux
As far as I can tell, Hitchcock’s specific solution was not widely adopted, but from his day forward many conservative Protestant writers accepted an ancient earth and the consequent idea of animal death before the fall. Just a few years ago, however, William Dembski enlisted both Hitchcock and Dana as precursors of his own very similar view, which he presented in a highly original book, The End of Christianity: Finding a Good God in an Evil World (2009). Stepping away from his usual ID garb to don the mantle of the old-earth creationist, Dembski writes about the Bible, theology, and the problem of evil. Although his own detailed summary of the book mentions only Dana, his deep sympathy for someone like Hitchcock is still evident. Like Hitchcock, Dembski is keenly aware of the magnitude of the problem, for someone who is (like Hitchcock) “a biblical inerrantist, accepting the full verbal inspiration of the Bible and the conventional authorship of the books of the Bible.” He sees things exactly as Hitchcock saw them: “I would be a young-earth creationist in a heartbeat purely on exegetical and historical grounds. And yet the evidence of modern science seems greatly at odds with young-earth creationism.” Ultimately, then, he lands precisely where Hitchcock landed, proclaiming that “the Bible must be read in the context of a total worldview, which invariably incorporates our current understanding of science” (quoting Dembski’s summary).
Welcome to the twenty-first century, Mr. Hitchcock. So glad to see that you’re still with us.
Dembski’s book, The End of Christianity, is seen by Ken Ham as an example of “the outrageous lengths some Christian academics will go to try to compromise billions of years with the Scriptures, and yet try to keep their belief in a literal Adam and Eve and the original sin!” According to this cartoon from Answers In Genesis (image source), accepting “millions of years” in earth history before the garden of Eden means that God did not create a “very good” world—although Eve’s statement (in the cartoon) that it was a “perfect world” certainly goes beyond the biblical text.
The series on Antebellum religion and science concludes with a final installment, when I will introduce you to a few contemporaries of Silliman and Hitchcock, from opposite ends of the religious spectrum, who objected to concordist readings of the Bible and geology.