Does Death Before the Fall Make God a Liar?

| By on Reading the Book of Nature

ABOVE: A lioness roars for her prey in Thornybush Game Reserve, South Africa. Her two cubs were hiding nearby, waiting for their mother to make a kill and share it with them. Photograph by Kathryn A. Davis.

Young-earth creationists like to say things of this sort: if the earth is really billions of years old, then God (or Jesus) is a liar. Today’s post begins a short series of articles scrutinizing and challenging that claim.

An important example involves the central YEC tenet that suffering and death among animals is a direct result of human sin, such that animals did not suffer or die prior to the Fall. Plants weren’t included in the curse, and YECs regard the status of insects and other invertebrates as uncertain (see footnote #1 here), but other animals were.

On that basis, creationist physician Elizabeth Mitchell gave a strongly negative review to a special issue of the pro-ID magazine, Christian Research Journal, devoted to the question, “Where Did We Come From?” Although she appreciated the “[m]any commendable articles in this journal [that] demonstrate the impossibility of Darwinian evolution and the bankruptcy of theistic evolution,” she still found the issue to be “dangerously compromised” by the fact that most authors accept an old earth. “Thus, there lurks throughout the journal a general assumption of millions of years of living and dying.” The implicit assumption “that such miseries were all part of God’s ‘very good’ creation (so named by God in Genesis 1:31) is to impugn God’s character. If God had called a world already full of bloodshed and death ‘very good,’ then He either had a cruel sense of irony or didn’t know what He was talking about, or worse, He is a liar.”

She said the same thing when commenting on William Dembski’s proposal that an omnipotent, omniscient God could make natural evil predate the Fall chronologically, while still having the Fall be its theological cause. Finding Dembski’s suggestion “unbiblical,” Mitchell added, “Scripture (such as Romans 5:12ff) is clear that death entered the world as a direct result of Adam’s sin. Disputing what God plainly says on the ground of what God could do is essentially calling God a liar.”

It’s ironic that Mitchell cited that particular passage in Romans in support of her view that animal death resulted from human sin. As the great natural theologian Edward Hitchcock pointed out before the Civil War, that very passage shows “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” (quoting Hitchcock, cited below, pp. 300-301). Hitchcock was right. Romans 5:12-14 gives no support for the YEC view that no animals died before the Fall.

Let’s look more closely at Mitchell’s charge that Dembski “is essentially calling God a liar.” She seems to assume that the Bible teaches the YEC theodicy with such clarity that it is beyond question. To be sure, one can make a decent biblical and theological case for the teaching that animal death resulted directly from human sin. Indeed, that was the standard Protestant view during and after the Reformation. Martin Luther and John Calvin found it in Genesis 3:17-18, and John Wesley endorsed it in a sermon, “The General Deliverance.” On the other hand, according to a detailed study by Jon Garvey, the same view had actually been explicitly rejected by most theologians prior to the Reformation, including 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). Were Augustine, Aquinas, and many others calling God a liar?

Even more importantly, the Bible itself gives us significant reasons to avoid the kind of dogmatic assertions about theodicy that Mitchell and other YEC authors often make without hesitation. Several biblical passages can be cited in support of their view, yet in other places God’s Word gives very different answers about the origin of human suffering. Among the many texts I might mention, I’ll confine myself to the final chapters of Job and the ninth chapter of John’s gospel.


“The Just Upright Man is laughed to scorn,” colorized engraving of Job and his friends from Illustrations of the Book of Job (1826), by William Blake.


The entire book of Job is about the origin of suffering—yet we look in vain for even one reference to Adam, Eve, or the Garden of Eden. Right from the start, we are told that Job “was blameless and upright; he feared God and shunned evil,” a description that God himself soon affirms in the same words, adding that “There is no one on earth like him.” (Job 1:1 and 1:8). Yet, God allowed Satan to afflict Job with great suffering, and “In all this, Job did not sin by charging God with wrongdoing.” As the drama unfolds, Job’s three “friends” come to “sympathize with him and comfort him” (Job 2:11), uttering the biblical equivalent of Shakespearean soliloquies, yet Job is still not comforted (with friends such as those, it is not too hard to understand). When all is said and done—and a great deal more is said, than done—God finally appears again on stage and answers Job “out of the storm,” saying, “Who is this that obscures my plans with words without knowledge?” (Job 38:1-2) In some of the most profound and majestic passages in all of Scripture, God pulls rank on Job, demanding him to answer what no human can answer and challenging a creature to tell what only the Creator can know—while leaving the ultimate question of the whole book unanswered.

God keeps his own counsel, sharing it not even with his servant, Job. God does not tell Job that his own sin brought about his suffering; nor does he tell Job that the sins of Adam and Eve brought about his suffering. What the Bible does tell us, in the only book-length treatment of the problem of suffering, is that we mere creatures do not know what God knows: we do not know why the righteous suffer.

Likewise, when Jesus heals the man born blind, “His disciples asked him, ‘Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?’” Jesus’ answer is totally outside the YEC box. “Neither this man nor his parents sinned, but this happened so that the works of God might be displayed in him.” Jesus did not qualify his statement that “neither this man nor his parents sinned.” He did not (for example) add, “but his first parents sinned, when they ate the forbidden fruit in the garden, and their sin made him blind.” He left Adam and Eve entirely out of his answer, even though this would have been the perfect place to bring them in.

Taken together, these two biblical passages are simply silent about the cause of suffering. This isn’t a soft silence that is easily ignored. It’s an extremely loud silence: God never tells Job to blame his suffering on what went down in the Garden, and Jesus never tells his disciples to blame Adam and Eve for the blindness of their descendent. While I don’t blame anyone for holding the traditional Protestant view about the origin of suffering, I do think there are excellent biblical reasons for questioning it—am I calling God a liar?

As for animal suffering, some biblical passages seem to imply that God does not necessarily view it in a negative way, as we might expect if it were a direct consequence of human sin. Perhaps the most startling such passage is Psalm 104, one of my favorite texts in all of Scripture. Almost the entire Psalm is devoted to praising God for many wonders in the creation, including the provision of food and habitat for animals. The tone is overwhelmingly positive in its description of God’s majestic governance and care for the creation, including predation. Nothing is said or implied about the Fall, except for a brief condemnation of sinners in the final verse. In the midst of this great paeon to the maker of heaven and earth, the Psalmist says, “You bring darkness, it becomes night, and all the beasts of the forest prowl. The lions roar for their prey and seek their food from God. The sun rises, and they steal away; they return and lie down in their dens.” A few verses later, we read that “All creatures look to you to give them their food at the proper time. When you give it to them, they gather it up; when you open your hand, they are satisfied with good things.” I do not see any way to reconcile the tone of those magnificent passages with the YEC theodicy.

Am I calling God a liar?

Notes

Citations

MLA

Davis, Ted. "Does Death Before the Fall Make God a Liar?"
https://biologos.org/. N.p., 26 Oct. 2017. Web. 22 November 2017.

APA

Davis, T. (2017, October 26). Does Death Before the Fall Make God a Liar?
Retrieved November 22, 2017, from /blogs/ted-davis-reading-the-book-of-nature/does-death-before-the-fall-make-god-a-liar

References & Credits

Thanks to Jon Garvey for kindly allowing me to cite his fascinating research (as yet unpublished) into the history of Christian thought about death before the Fall. For a brief glimpse of his work, see this. Readers interested in seeing more of Edward Hitchcock’s views (which influenced William Dembski) should read his “Connection between Geology and Natural and Revealed Religion,” with particular attention to pages 299-301.

About the Author

Ted Davis

Ted Davis is Fellow of the History of Science for the BioLogos Foundation and Professor of the History of Science at Messiah College. A former high school science teacher, Ted studied history and philosophy of science at Indiana University, where his mentor was the late Richard S. Westfall, author of the definitive biography of Isaac Newton. With the English historian Michael Hunter, Ted edited The Works of Robert Boyle, 14 vols. (London: Pickering & Chatto, 1999-2000), but his interests include the whole 2000-year interaction of Christianity and science. Author of dozens of scholarly articles and essays, Ted is one of few historians who have written extensively about both the Scientific Revolution and modern America. He and his wife Kathy enjoy theater, music, and traveling to new places.

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