According to some Christian outlooks we were made for another world. Perhaps, rather, we were made for
this world to recreate, reclaim, and renew unto God's future aspiration by the power of His Spirit. - R.E. Slater
Secularization theory has been massively falsified. We don't live in an age of secularity. We live in an age of
explosive, pervasive religiosity... an age of religious pluralism. - Peter L. Berger
Exploring the edge of life and faith in a post-everything world. - Todd Littleton
I don't need another reason to believe, your love is all around for me to see. - anon
Thou art our need; and in giving us more of thyself thou givest us all. - Khalil Gibran, Prayer XXIII
Be careful what you pretend to be. You become what you pretend to be. - Kurt Vonnegut
Religious beliefs, far from being primary, are often shaped and adjusted by our social goals. - Jim Forest
People, even more than things, need to be restored, renewed, revived, reclaimed, and redeemed; never throw out anyone. - anon
... Certainly God's love has made fools of us all. - R.E. Slater
An apocalyptic Christian faith doesn't wait for Jesus to come, but for Jesus to become in our midst. - R.E. Slater
Christian belief in God begins with the cross and resurrection of Jesus, not with rational apologetics. - Eberhard Jüngel, Jürgen Moltmann
Our knowledge of God is through the 'I-Thou' encounter, not in finding God at the end of a syllogism or argument.
There is a grave danger in any Christian treatment of God as an object. The God of Jesus Christ and Scripture is
irreducibly subject and never made as an object, a force, a
power, or a principle that can be manipulated. - Emil Brunner
Ehyeh Asher Ehyeh means "I will be that who I have yet to become." - God (Ex 3.14)
Our job is to love others without stopping to inquire whether or not they are worthy. - Thomas Merton
The church is God's world-changing social experiment of bringing unlikes and differents to the Eucharist/Communion table
to share life with one another as a new kind of family. When this happens we show to the world what love, justice, peace,
reconciliation, and life together is designed by God to be. The church is God's show-and-tell for the world to see how God wants
us to live as a blended, global, polypluralistic family united with one will, by one Lord, and baptized by one Spirit. - anon
The cross that is planted at the heart of the history of the world cannot be uprooted. - Jacques Ellul
The Unity in whose loving presence the universe unfolds is inside each person as a call to welcome the stranger, protect animals
and the earth, respect the dignity of each person, think new thoughts, and help bring about ecological civilizations. - John Cobb & Farhan A. Shah
If you board the wrong train it is of no use running along the corridors of the train in the other direction. - Dietrich Bonhoeffer
God's justice is restorative rather than punitive; His discipline is merciful rather than punishing; His power
is made perfect in weakness; and His grace is sufficient for all. - anon

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Evolution and The Problem of Sin and Death: A Look at Evolutionary Theodicy

 
How Could God Create Through Evolution? Part 1
 
How Could God Create Through Evolution?
Part 1
 
 by Bethany Sollereder
editing by R.E.Slater
July 22, 2010

Bethany Sollereder has a Master's Degree in Christian Studies from Regent College in Vancouver, Canada. Her focus was on science and religion, and her thesis was entitled "Evolutionary Theodicy: Toward an Evangelical Perspective." She has been accepted into PhD studies at the University of Exeter and hopes to start in 2011. Bethany's first degree was in intercultural studies. Bethany's other great love is 19th century British history, so when she is not reading about science and religion, she can usually be found reading Victorian literature.
 
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
 
“How could a good God create through a process that involves so much pain and death?” For many people, accepting evolution is less a scientific question than a theological one. After all, seeing evolution as God’s method of creation requires affirming that death, pain, and natural disasters are part of God’s creative toolbox instead of a result of the Fall. In this three-part blog series, I will first look at how theologians and scientists have seen the world in contrary ways, and then reflect theologically on how a world created through evolutionary means can be good.
 
Is Death Necessary?
 
First, let’s see how theologians have thought about our world. Theologians––academic and popular, contemporary and ancient––have almost universally affirmed the connection between sin and physical death. Drawing from passages such as Genesis 3 and Romans 5 & 8, they have argued that death came through sin. In regard to the natural world, this means invoking a Cosmic Fall scenario in which not only human death came through the Fall, but earthquakes, tornadoes, pain, predation, and disease as well.
 
Consider this quotation from John Calvin: “For it appears that all the evils of the present life, which experience proves to be innumerable, have proceeded from the same fountain. The inclemency of the air, frost, thunders, unseasonable rains, drought, hail, and whatever is disorderly in the world, are the fruits of sin. Nor is there any other primary cause of diseases.”1 Pretty clear, right? God did not want these “evils” to be part of the world, and the only reason they exist is because of human sin.
 
What’s more, theologians see the redemption by Christ on the cross as the denunciation of these natural evils. For example, T. F. Torrance writes “The Cross of Christ tells us unmistakably that all physical evil, not only pain, suffering, disease, corruption, death, and of course cruelty and venom in animals as well as human behaviour, but also ‘natural’ calamities, devastations and monstrosities are an outrage against the love of God and a contradiction of good order in his creation.”2
 
Scientists, on the other hand, have looked at these same natural phenomena, and have come to the conclusion that realities like pain, earthquakes, and death are in fact necessary to good and flourishing lives. How do they do this? Let’s look at two examples: earthquakes and pain.
 
Is Death Good?
 
When discussing plate tectonics3, the media tends to focus on the negative effects of our planet’s mobile plates. We hear about volcanic activity that shuts down European flight zones, tsunamis that devastate whole populations, and of course earthquakes, which have caused major devastations and cost many people their lives in Haiti, China, and Chile. How can earthquakes be good? What else does the plate cycle do?
 
First, plate tectonics, through the rotation of the mantle below, contributes to the magnetic field which surrounds our planet, keeping the atmosphere in and warding off deadly cosmic rays from the sun, which would destroy life if they reached the planet. Second, plate tectonic movement involves the solid plates being forced down into the liquid mantle and melting in some places, while in other places the plates separate and allow hot magma to rise and solidify. This recycling uses up heat produced by the interior radiation of the earth. This process is so effective that it uses up almost 90% of the heat produced by the Earth. In comparison, on Venus, the lack of plate tectonics means that the same heat produced by the core does not get recycled, and the pressure and heat build up so high that the distinction between mantle and crust gets lost––the whole planet goes molten. The rest of the time, surface temperatures average around 500 degrees Celsius. There are many other advantages to plate tectonics, including stabilizing atmospheric carbon dioxide, maintaining temperatures for liquid surface water, renewing nutrients in the soil, and keeping a distinction between ocean and continent. Life, and certainly human life in this world, simply does not have a chance without plate tectonics. I do not want to understate the great human and animal cost associated with earthquakes, volcanoes, and tsunamis, but without plate tectonics, there would be no life at all. I would affirm that this world’s plate tectonics are part of God’s very good creation.
 
What about pain? If any of us were given the choice to live without pain, most of us would say an enthusiastic “yes please!” Until, that is, we saw what a life without pain really looks like. In our mind’s eye we would imagine striding untouched though hardship and peril, like a real-life Superman, able to conquer all the aches and pains that keep us from reaching our full potential. In reality, a painless life is a horror show. In reality, painlessness looks like leprosy.
 
Leprosy, also known as Hansen’s Disease, is a bacterial infection that invades the body’s pain nerves and ultimately destroys them, leaving the person with an inability to feel pain. That is, in fact, almost all that leprosy does. The subsequent damage that we associate with leprosy––fingers falling off, open wounds, and missing limbs––does not actually come from the bacteria themselves, but from the resulting painlessness. Patients burn themselves and do not pull back; they walk on broken limbs and do not notice. In the book The Gift of Pain, Paul Brand describes how in one African clinic, rats were coming in the night and feeding on patients fingers, and because they felt no pain, they slept on.4 Pain is a good thing, our ever-present protector, developed through an evolutionary process to help us live good lives. Now, this is not to say that pain never goes wild. It does, and with realities like chronic pain or torture, pain can become an enemy. But that does not undermine the fact that our ability to feel pain is a great gift; it just means that sometimes that gift becomes twisted in its expression. The solution is not to wish for a world with no pain, but for a world where pain is appropriately experienced.
 
Now let me insert one caveat here: in no way do I want to say that just because pain is “natural” that we have no responsibility to help relieve it. That is not what I am arguing. I would say that pain serves important purposes, which are needed for a good life. At the same time, we should look to the example of Jesus, who walked into pain-filled situations and brought healing, regardless of the cause of the suffering. It is our recognition of suffering in the other5 and our responsibility of stewardship to one another that must motivate our medical ethics.
 
Why Didn't God Create Heaven in the First Place?
 
There is a lot more that we could talk about here. We could speak of predation, which encourages biodiversity and drives evolutionary innovation. We could explore how physical death is a good and necessary part of a world that has limited resources, keeping organisms from becoming cancerous (cancer cells never die on their own and are thus “immortal”). These are important, but they roughly follow the same type of argumentation as above. In my next post, I will look at the values of a world developed through an evolutionary process, or, as it is sometimes asked, “Why didn’t God simply create heaven in the first place?”


NOTES

1. John Calvin, Commentaries upon the First Book of Moses called Genesis (1554) in Calvin’s Bible Commentaries: Genesis, Part I, trans. J. King (Forgotten Books, 1847, 2007), 113.

2. T. F. Torrance, Divine and Contingent Order (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1981), 117.

3. For more about plate tectonics, check out Peter Ward and Donald Brownlee, Rare Earth: Why Complex Life is Uncommon in the Universe, (New York: Copernicus, 2004).

4. Paul Brand & Philip Yancey, The Gift of Pain: Why we hurt & what we can do about it (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1993), 127.

5. Suffering, and not necessarily pain. Pain is the brain’s reception of the stimulation of pain nerves. Suffering is a psychological state, and can be caused by many things. Pain can be absent in those who suffer, as is the case with
leprosy. We should be careful not to collapse these two distinct concepts into one and the same thing.


 
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
 
 
This image shows "slices" of the Universe at different times throughout its history (present day, and at 4 and 11 billion years ago). Each slice goes further back in time, showing how galaxies of each type appear. The shape is that of the Hubble tuning fork diagram, which describes and separates galaxies according to their morphology into spiral (S), elliptical (E), and lenticular (S0) galaxies. On the left of this diagram are the ellipticals, with lenticulars in the middle, and the spirals branching out on the right side. The spirals on the bottom branch have bars cutting through their centres. The present-day Universe shows big, fully formed and intricate galaxy shapes. As we go further back in time, they become smaller and less mature, as these galaxies are still in the process of forming. This image is illustrative: The Hubble images of nearby and distant galaxies used were selected based on their appearance; their individual distances are only approximate. 

 
 
How Could God Create Through Evolution?
Part 2
 
by Bethany Sollereder
editing by R.E.Slater
July 26, 2010

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.”
 
Room for Growth and Development
 
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 [creation and] humans.
 
Creation Has To Go Somewhere
 
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.
 
Creation Was Meant for the Renewal of Life
 
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.
 
Why 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 [but we bear the image of this Creator 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.
 
Is Death the Enemy of God?
 
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.


NOTES

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.
 
 
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
 
 
 
Death's Renewal
 

How Could God Create Through Evolution?

Part 3
 
by Bethany Sollereder
editing by R.E.Slater
July 31, 2010
 
Over the past week, I have been trying to show that the world we inhabit is in fact a very good world. It is marred by human sin, but the operations of the natural world express the values of freedom and growth, just as God intended them. Today, we come to what is likely to be the most contentious of my entries. How do we deal with the biblical language about death? We started this series with quotations from John Calvin and T. F. Torrance in which they asserted that the unpleasant realities of this world (predation, natural disasters, and so on) were not part of God’s original creation but were the results of human sin. This theology is usually taken from the curse language of Genesis, and Paul’s explanation of death in Romans 5, 8, and 1 Corinthians 15. There are, however, several more things going on here than meets the eye. The two major issues that need to be dealt with are the varying biblical perspectives on death and the influence of cultural accommodation in the text.
 
Correcting Our Presuppositions
 
Starting with the first of these, we must acknowledge that the Bible treats the issue of death in several different ways, and that it recognizes several different types of death. First we must draw a distinction between physical death and spiritual death. This is particularly evident in Paul’s writing to the Romans. In Chapter 7, speaking of the effects of sin, Paul writes, “For sin, seizing the opportunity afforded by the commandment, deceived me, and through the commandment put me to death” (Romans 7:11). Now obviously, a man put to death physically could not have later written those words! An even more telling passage is 1 Corinthians 15:31 where the apostle writes, “I die every day—I mean that, brothers.”
 
It is interesting to note that in both places where Paul explicitly states that death came through Adam, he speaks of his own death as a past reality. This is not conclusive of Paul’s use of the word “death” but it is suggestive that we should be careful of assuming a simple one-level meaning. Certainly we see other places where Paul is clearly indicating physical death, such as 1 Corinthians 15:35-42, as he speaks of the physical resurrection of the body after (what is clearly) physical death.
 
This leaves us with the question: Which kind of death is Paul referring to when he states that death came through Adam? Unfortunately, this is not always clear. In Romans 5, Paul seems to be speaking of spiritual death, as he speaks of effects of death in contrast to eternal life and later (in v.18) uses “condemnation” as a substitute for death.1 However, considering Paul’s reliance on Genesis 3 where the curse language clearly indicates physical death through the phrase “dust you are and to dust you will return” (Genesis 3:19) it is likely better to adopt what Douglas Moo [(the Editor of the NIV Bible)] calls a “physico-spiritual” death which keeps both the physical and spiritual aspects in mind.2 These two are closely entwined in Paul’s mind, and the enmeshing of the two will become important later. The same multi-layered concept of death is true of 1 Corinthians 15:20-22, where Paul speaks of death and then future physical resurrection.
 
Science's View of Death
 
How does this view of death interact with modern science? It is clear that death was present in the world long before human sin, indeed, death has been present as long as life [itself]. It is also clear that death is necessary in order to renew resources and allow for evolutionary development. Paul, however, would not have known this. He would not have recognized the importance of death in ecosystems, nor would he have understood the horror of the limited types of “immortality” that we see in the natural world, such as cancer. Paul was an ancient thinker. Just as Pete Enns wrote about Paul’s views on Adam not necessarily determining our scientific and historical understanding, I would propose that Paul’s views on death need not keep us from accepting the insights of modern science.
 
This is where the issues of biblical interpretation get interesting. Most of us take for granted that if we read the Bible, we need someone who can translate from the original languages of Greek, Hebrew, and Aramaic before we have a hope of understanding what is being said. What is less acknowledged is that worldviews and cultural assumptions must also be translated. Ancient perspectives, whether in science or history, must be moved into forms that make sense to a contemporary audience and to the questions a modern mind is asking.
 
Remember I said earlier that Paul entwines together spiritual and physical death? Both in the ancient world are seen as evil, as opposed to the will of God and against the flourishing of His creatures. Part of translating Paul into our culture means distinguishing between these two types of death, and acknowledging the necessity of physical death, while maintaining the sin-death connection in relation to spiritual death. Death did come through sin, but spiritual death, not physical death.
 
Creation's Need for Christ
 
This in no way undermines Paul’s main argument in Romans. Paul is explaining our need for Christ to redeem us from our sin, and our need for life that swallows up death.
 
This remains true in two ways. First, Christ redeems us from our spiritual death, from the separation from God which sin instills. Second, Christ assures us of the future life of physical resurrection.
 
While Christ deals with our sin problem completely, believers still die. If sin were the cause of physical death, we would expect Christians to live forever. But this is not the case. Our hope, as it ever was, lies in the resurrection, which is a direct consequence of Jesus’ work. Physical death will one day be defeated, but this comes from walking through the valley of the shadow of death, not around it. Where Paul attributes a conditional immortality to the figure of Adam, and sees eternal life as a past historical reality, we must instead root the cessation of death in the eschatological future.
 
While this brief 3-part treatment is in no way complete, I hope it will open up discussion and allow for new ways of seeing the truth, goodness, and beauty in the creation we inhabit.


NOTES

1. Or, as “The style is thoroughly mythological. Hence Paul is definitely not speaking of personal guilt or naturally necessary death but of the forces of sin and death which have invaded the world.” Ernst Käsemann, Commentary on Romans, trans. by Geoffrey W. Bromiley (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1980), 147
 
2. Douglas Moo, The Epistle to the Romans (Grand Rapids, MIL Eerdmans), 320.
 
 


 
 
 
 
 

No comments:

Post a Comment