Tuesday, January 02, 2007

Death in a Good Creation?

This is continuing my series on questions connected with creation / evolution.

One of the best arguments I've heard for why evolution is not consistent with the Bible is the argument from death. I'm going to explore the argument a bit, show why I don't think it works, then show how an argument might be constructed that might work.

The Argument from Death

Here is a selection of quotes that hopefully illustrate the Biblical background to the argument:

The LORD God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to work it and keep it. And the LORD God commanded the man, saying, "You may surely eat of every tree of the garden, but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die."
Genesis 2:15-17, ESV

But the serpent said to the woman, "You will not surely die. For God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil." So when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate, and she also gave some to her husband who was with her, and he ate.
Genesis 3:4-6, ESV

Therefore, just as sin entered the world through one man, and death through sin, and in this way death came to all men, because all sinned ... death reigned from the time of Adam to the time of Moses, even over those who did not sin by breaking a command, as did Adam, who was a pattern of the one to come.
Romans 5:12, 14, ESV

The argument then goes something like this:

  • Genesis teaches that death entered the world through Adam and Eve
  • Romans shows that a literal understanding of Genesis 3 is required
  • Evolution teaches that there must have been death in the world before the time of Adam and Eve
  • Therefore evolution before the time of Adam and Eve does not fit with the Bible.
Why the Argument Fails

I'll start by agreeing with a fairly literal understanding of Genesis 3. I'm not convinced that it's necessary for someone who believes the Bible to be authoritative and true to think that, but I do.

One key is what Paul means by "death" in Romans 5:12, as quoted above. The verse says "and in this way death came to all men, because all sinned" - it's clearly talking about human death. So when it says "death entered the world through sin", it seems likely that it's talking about human death too.

It's worth noting that "men" here is ανθρωπους - "people" would probably be a better translation in the context.

Furthermore, when I hear the argument from death used, it usually argues that animals didn't die until after Adam's sin. Why priviledge animals like that? Why shouldn't plant death count? Why not bacterial death? And if bacteria didn't die, what about Adam's gut bacteria, or those in a cow or rabbit or something?

What does Romans 5 require? That the first people did something wrong - they went against what God had told them to do, and that they died eventually as a result. That actually fits fine with evolutionary theory. After all, what is to stop God revealing himself to some hominids and thereby making them into the first people? In fact, it seems to suggest that part of what it is to be human is to be in some kind of relationship with God... I'm not saying that the Bible teaches that people evolved from something else - I'm pretty sure it doesn't. But I think that here it's consistent with it, just as it is with a Young Earth. I don't think this argument makes us say that the Earth is either Young or Old.

Were Adam and Eve Ever Immortal?

I guess the standard understanding is that these first people were made immortal in their interaction with God, and then lost it again by their disobedience. But is that actually what the passage says?

Once again, I think the passage isn't clear. God says that they will die "in the day that they eat" of the fruit (Genesis 2:17, above). But Adam survives another 930 years (whether to take the ages in Genesis literally is a completely different question, which I might come back to some day). So, even allowing for the Hebrew "day" to mean more than just 24 hours (as it clearly does in Genesis 2:4) what is going on?

What happens after they eat the fruit is that God confronts them and changes their working conditions. In particular:

Then the LORD God said, "Behold, the man has become like one of us in knowing good and evil. Now, lest he reach out his hand and take also of the tree of life and eat, and live forever--" therefore the LORD God sent him out from the garden of Eden to work the ground from which he was taken. He drove out the man, and at the east of the garden of Eden he placed the cherubim and a flaming sword that turned every way to guard the way to the tree of life.
Genesis 3:22-24, ESV

It's interesting that God tells Adam that he's going to return to dust (v19), but then his action is excluding him from the tree of life so that he will not live forever. What would have been the effect of eating from the "Tree of Life"? Maybe it would have reversed the effects of Adam being made mortal - in which case, why have it in the garden in the first place? Or maybe (and this seems to me much more plausible), maybe it was there because it was only in eating from the tree that Adam could live forever in the first place. We certainly see the tree again in Revelation 22 (in the New Creation), and it bears fruit continually rather than just as a one off.

So it seeems likely that Adam's promised death comes about as a consequence of him being excluded from the Tree of Life rather than by God changing his nature so that he becomes mortal. That further undermines the argument from death.

(this topic is discussed in more detail here)

Is Death Good?

Another strand of the argument is that God says that creation is good in Genesis 1, and therefore that it does not include death until Adam's fall. But that doesn't quite work either - it assumes that animal death is bad rather than that the complexities of life cycles and life coming from death in the natural order is in itself part of a good creation.

Towards a Better Argument

I've heard (and read) the argument from death trotted out quite a lot. And because I know it doesn't work, it makes me doubt that the Young Earth Creationists actually have anything better.

Here are some thoughts as to how a better argument might work - they aren't a coherent whole yet, because I'm not sure I understand all the passages involved properly. I haven't heard people argue this one, so maybe it can't be made to work...

The Bible is pretty clear that Jesus' is not just significant for his relationship to people, but to the natural world as well. A simple example would be his ability to command the natural world and it obey him, for example his ability to stop storms by telling them to stop.

But a stronger and more relevant example is the future relation of creation to Christ.

And God made known to us the mystery of his will according to his good pleasure, which he purposed in Christ, to be put into effect when the times will have reached their fulfillment—to bring all things in heaven and on earth together under one head, even Christ.
Ephesians 1:9-10, NIV

For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us. For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God. For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of him who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. For we know that the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now. And not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies. For in this hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what he sees? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.
Romans 8:18-25, ESV

There certainly seems to be a cosmic aspect to what Christ will do in the future in "liberating creation from its bondage to decay" and in "bringing all things under Christ". The problem is that I'm not sure what that means. Is it simply speaking about the New Heavens and the New Earth of Revelation 21? Will there be different laws of physics?

The potential better argument uses this, and somehow ties the creation's "futility" to Adam's sin. Christ's action certainly has cosmic consequences - if it could be shown that Adam's action also had cosmic consquences, but that the "bondage to decay" (whatever that means) was required for evolution, then that would be a much better argument.

Having just checked John Stott's commentary on Romans, he points out that the word translated "futility" is the same word used in translating Ecclesiastes into Greek, which makes sense of the passage to me - I'll blog about it some other time, but I don't see that it requires this to be the consequences of Adam's sin.


The argument from death does not show that the Bible requires a Young Earth, nor does its failure show that it teaches an Old Earth.

1 comment:

Simon said...

I enjoy the "argument from death" people because it's so easy to wind them up. Did God create everything in Eden perfect?, I ask. Of course, they say. Did God create the perfect ecosystem in Eden?
Now you see them getting a little less sure of themselves, but their logic dictates that they answer yes to this one too.

In a perfect ecosystem there would be no overcrowding; if we have an overcrowding problem right now despite the existence of death, how much worse would it be if there was no death? Furthermore, how long would it take before we all drowned in a big sea of poo? How, then, can you describe such an ecosystem as perfect?

I remember a fantastic sermon preached on Genesis 1 by one of our vicars. He said that too many people take a "domino theology" attitude to Genesis 1. That if Genesis 1 cannot be trusted to be literally and absolutely true, then you cannot trust Genesis 2, nor the whole of Genesis, nor the rest of the Bible. But our faith does not stand or fall based on Genesis 1; it stands or falls on the life, death and resurrection of Jesus.

Young Earth Creationism is solving the wrong problem; it's an idea which is required when you swallow fundamentalism, literalism and domino theology. To solve the right problem, you just need to let go of any one of those three things.