Monday, April 7, 2008

Sin, Death, and Evolution

Does the biblical link between sin and death mean that there could not have been death anywhere on earth before Adam fell? That is the argument I’ve seen used the most against the notion of theistic evolution. I am not an advocate of theistic evolution (I’m neutral to slightly negative on the issue at this time), but I think it’s a question worth wrestling with, so let’s think out loud about this topic for a little while.

First, let’s define some terms.
Let’s be clear about what “theistic evolution” means. Evolution is essentially descent with modification – the notion of small, incremental changes in DNA causing one species to slowly change into a new one across the generations.

By “theistic,” I’m referring to the notion that this was not an unguided, purely naturalistic phenomenon but one employed and directed by God.

Sin = death?
The idea that physical death is the result of sin is usually tied to two scriptures:

“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” (Romans 5:12 ff).

“And the Lord God commanded the man, ‘You are free to eat from any tree in the garden; but you must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for when you eat of it you will surely die’” (Genesis 2:16-17 ff).

These verses are not just terribly convincing when applied to that position. First, Rom 5:12 can be read as spiritual death (i.e., separation from God and proclivity toward sin) as easily as physical death – indeed, it is used to argue that sin causes spiritual death and by some of the same authors who use it for physical death.

Related to that objection is the fact that almost every other such usage of “death” in Romans seems to be clearly referring to spiritual death (e.g., Rom 6:16).

Next we have to consider that Adam and Eve didn’t die when they ate the fruit. Various explanations have been offered for this, but the most common seems to be that the death they were promised in Gen 2:17 was a spiritual death.

This seems to call into question the notion that physical death was the result of Adam and Eve eating the forbidden fruit.

A sinless death
The next objection I might raise to this notion is: If physical death is the punishment for sin, how did Christ, who was without sin, die?

I can certainly see an argument being made that Christ died as a result of our sin, but that may actually open up a door for theistic evolution – I’ll explain in a moment.

Bon appetite
The final objection to this notion that I’ll raise is a scientific one: Life causes death. You cannot eat anything without killing something. A carrot was a living thing before you plucked it out of the ground as was that apple from the tree. If death did not exist before the fall, biology must have been completely different, and after the fall there must have been a complete transformation in how the universe works – a notion that, I think, goes beyond what the scriptures seem to say.

An idea
What if sin and death are linked because immortality is a bad thing for sinful creatures to have? That’s why Adam and Eve were blocked off from the tree of life.

What if death always existed because of the sin that would come?

We know that God had planned the cross before He created Adam (c.f., Ephesians 1:3-10). Is it within the realm of possibility that God created death because it would eventually be necessary?

If Jesus died for sins that He didn’t commit, if animals now die because of human sin, could animals have died because of human sin before there was human sin?

If so, then theistic evolution cannot be excluded from consideration a priori for theological reasons. That still does not mean it’s correct, but it would mean we may need to give it more serious thought.

OK, your turn. What are the holes? Where have I made an error in logic, theology, or hermeneutic? Let the sparks fly, and may we all be better for it.


Anonymous said...

In The Silmarillion, J.R.R. Tolkien explains that The First Children of Iluvatar were the elves, who were given the wonderful gift of immortality. But they grew weary of the world. So when Iluvatar created his Second Children, men, he gave them the wonderful gift of death so that they would not become weary of the world like the elves. (I think this is what J.R.R. Tolkien explains--I'm doing this from memory without the book in front of me.) This comment is somewhat tongue-in-cheek, I know; I don't mean to minimize your very good post.

Stephen Matheson said...

Hello Chris--
I'm not a big fan of the term 'theistic evolution', but I like your post a lot. My own position is that this is a question that Christians should ponder, but not fear, and I'm not inclined to stake a whole lot on the physical identity or place of residence of Adam and Eve. The scriptures, after all, are all about the Christ, not the dirt-man.

ChrisB said...

Bob, Tolkien references are always welcome :) Though I think the better illustration might be the immortals Swift's Gulliver met. They offer, I think, a fairly good metaphor of fallen but immortal people.

Stephen, I agree that the truths of the creation and fall can go beyond the historicity of the Genesis record, but I understand the concerns of those who are disinclined to give up on a literal Adam. And it may well be that we can have divinely guided evolution and a literal Adam and literal fall.

For me, the jury's still out. I'm mostly concerned to make sure we think things through clearly.