Quotes & Sayings

We, and creation itself, actualize the possibilities of the God who sustains the world, towards becoming in the world in a fuller, more deeper way. - R.E. Slater

There is urgency in coming to see the world as a web of interrelated processes of which we are integral parts, so that all of our choices and actions have [consequential effects upon] the world around us. - Process Metaphysician Alfred North Whitehead

Kurt Gödel's Incompleteness Theorem says (i) all closed systems are unprovable within themselves and, that (ii) all open systems are rightly understood as incomplete. - R.E. Slater

The most true thing about you is what God has said to you in Christ, "You are My Beloved." - Tripp Fuller

The God among us is the God who refuses to be God without us, so great is God's Love. - Tripp Fuller

According to some Christian outlooks we were made for another world. Perhaps, rather, we were made for this world to recreate, reclaim, redeem, and renew unto God's future aspiration by the power of His Spirit. - R.E. Slater

Our eschatological ethos is to love. To stand with those who are oppressed. To stand against those who are oppressing. It is that simple. Love is our only calling and Christian Hope. - 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

We become who we are by what we believe and can justify. - R.E. Slater

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) or, conversely, “I AM who I AM Becoming.”

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

Our little [biblical] systems have their day; they have their day and cease to be. They are but broken lights of Thee, and Thou, O God art more than they. - Alfred Lord Tennyson

We can’t control God; God is uncontrollable. God can’t control us; God’s love is uncontrolling! - Thomas Jay Oord

Life in perspective but always in process... as we are relational beings in process to one another, so life events are in process in relation to each event... as God is to Self, is to world, is to us... like Father, like sons and daughters, like events... life in process yet always in perspective. - R.E. Slater

To promote societal transition to sustainable ways of living and a global society founded on a shared ethical framework which includes respect and care for the community of life, ecological integrity, universal human rights, respect for diversity, economic justice, democracy, and a culture of peace. - The Earth Charter Mission Statement

Christian humanism is the belief that human freedom, individual conscience, and unencumbered rational inquiry are compatible with the practice of Christianity or even intrinsic in its doctrine. It represents a philosophical union of Christian faith and classical humanist principles. - Scott Postma

It is never wise to have a self-appointed religious institution determine a nation's moral code. The opportunities for moral compromise and failure are high; the moral codes and creeds assuredly racist, discriminatory, or subjectively and religiously defined; and the pronouncement of inhumanitarian political objectives quite predictable. - R.E. Slater

God's love must both center and define the Christian faith and all religious or human faiths seeking human and ecological balance in worlds of subtraction, harm, tragedy, and evil. - R.E. Slater

In Whitehead’s process ontology, we can think of the experiential ground of reality as an eternal pulse whereby what is objectively public in one moment becomes subjectively prehended in the next, and whereby the subject that emerges from its feelings then perishes into public expression as an object (or “superject”) aiming for novelty. There is a rhythm of Being between object and subject, not an ontological division. This rhythm powers the creative growth of the universe from one occasion of experience to the next. This is the Whiteheadian mantra: “The many become one and are increased by one.” - Matthew Segall

Without Love there is no Truth. And True Truth is always Loving. There is no dichotomy between these terms but only seamless integration. This is the premier centering focus of a Processual Theology of Love. - R.E. Slater


Note: Generally I do not respond to commentary. I may read the comments but wish to reserve my time to write (or write from the comments I read). Instead, I'd like to see our community help one another and in the helping encourage and exhort each of us towards Christian love in Christ Jesus our Lord and Savior. - re slater

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
 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.
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“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?”


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.

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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.


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.
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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.


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.


Teleology Then and Now: The Place of Open Theism within Evolutionary Teleology

The purpose of dinosaurs - Extinction and the goodness of God
Sep 23, 2013

What Evolutionary Teleology Is Not
I recently took a friend’s three-year-old son to the Natural History Museum in London. We stood together in awe in the hall of dinosaurs, wondering at the beauty, strength and majesty of the long-departed creatures. I questioned how a good God could let such magnificent creatures as the iguanodon or the allosaurus simply fade from the earth.
My question could extend well beyond dinosaurs: about 99 percent of all species that have ever lived are now extinct. Though increasingly extinction is now the result of humans’ impact on the environment, extinction has always been an intrinsic part of the evolutionary process.
If God is both the author and lover of creation, why would God use a process to develop complex beings that necessitates species extinction?
This question has been addressed theologically in two main ways. One route is taken by teleological anthropocentrists, for whom all species, including those which have become extinct, find their fulfillment only in relation to the development of humankind.
Michael Corey, for example, concludes Evolution and the Problem of Natural Evil:
Now we are in a position to understand why an omnipotent Deity would have opted to create the universe in a gradual, evolutionary manner, instead of instantaneously by divine fiat. He presumably did so in order to facilitate the human growth process as much as possible; but in order to do this He seems to have been compelled to implement the same evolutionary processes in the natural world that appear to be an essential part of the Human Definition. 
By this logic, every death and every extinction is significant only insofar as it is the means to an anthropic or human end. Only humans really matter to God.
At the opposite pole from Corey are thinkers for whom evolution is entirely a chance process, with no teleological end involved. God, in this view, is essentially tied to chance. For example, Wesley J. Wildman, whom we might call a “ground of being” theologian, says that a plan for creation’s fulfillment or care for the creatures is simply not a characteristic of the divine being. Nothing really matters to God.
Both of these approaches present difficulties for Christians as they think about extinction. The first approach devalues all nonhuman creatures by insisting that they are simply means to an end. The second ascribes little or no value to any particular state of creation.
What Evolutionary Teleology Is
Is it possible, however, to see creatures [gone long ago] as valuable in their own right, as ends in themselves, while not giving up the sense that they are part of a larger providential reality? In her thought-provoking book God and the Web of Creation, theologian Ruth Page refuses to see the deaths of various species as merely a means in the process of creating human beings. Page argues that the life of each creature, and the existence of each species, is an end in itself.
Teleology is always now! It is with creatures as they live, rather than persuading them further up the evolutionary ladder. Indeed there is no ladder, a metaphor which gives comfort to human beings at the top. Instead, there is only diversity with different skills and lives. . . . [Therefore] creatures who die in the recurrent ice ages, or who are caught in the lava from volcanoes, have their importance to God, and their relation with God during their lives.
Page discards the idea of an evolutionary ladder and contends that the relationship that God has with each individual creature gives the creature’s life meaning regardless of whether it serves the process of evolutionary development.
In fact, the very notion of “greater evolutionary development” would be suspect to her. The value of any given life is found in God’s companioning of a creature, God’s co­-experience of life and God’s remembering of that life.
This is a foreign concept in a society that idolizes accomplishment. What worth, what meaning, we ask, does a life have that does not survive? What is the meaning of a species that turns out to be an evolutionary dead-end, whose descendants do not have a place among contemporary flora or fauna?
For Page, value is found simply in the act of participation in life. “Fellowship, concurrence or relationship among creatures and between creatures and God is the greatest good of creation. The possibility of such relationships is what creation is about.”
In the creative space of possibility instituted by God in creation, each creature and each species brings glory to God in whatever form it takes. In light of this claim, Page concludes that “neither continuing background extinction, nor the devastation of species in cataclysms, tells against God’s companionship and possibilities of influence in the world.” God’s goodness and love are not called into question by extinction since the worth of the creatures that die is not reliant upon some future good; God was not using their deaths for some larger picture. From Page’s perspective, a world of dinosaurs, or of bacteria, is just as worthwhile to God as the world we currently see, because value is found in being.
Does Teleology Carry Any Additional Meanings?
As useful as this account is, I don’t think Page tells the whole story. To value creatures for themselves is a good and necessary correction of the anthropocentric approach that has long dominated reflections on the natural world. But it does not necessarily diminish the value of the individual to say that the individual has an impact that is bigger than itself. After all, the world has had a particular history. The chronological march of time gives the world direction, and past events are causally linked to the flourishing and diversification of biological novelty today.
Page is right to avoid instrumentalist language in discussing the value of a creature or of an extinct species. We can build on Page’s position by saying that in retrospect, the impact of past lives on today’s world changes our interpretation of their lives. The subsequent history can add a dimension of either glory or tragedy to the meaning of past lives without limiting their value to a merely instrumental role.
The most well-known major extinction of creatures is that of the dinosaurs some 65 million years ago. At the end of the Cretaceous period, a meteorite hit the Yucatán Peninsula, causing widespread climate change and environmental disruption. Dinosaurs could not survive the changes and were wiped out. Without competition from dinosaurs, mammals (until that time minor players in earth’s history) suddenly flourished in the new environment. The diversification of mammals eventually ended up in the emergence of Homo sapiens—and that development, we might add, led to the incarnation of God in the person of Jesus Christ.
So how do we interpret the mass extinction of dinosaurs? Certainly we want to acknowledge that their extinction was a tragedy. The loss of a unique way of being in the world is a true loss, just as the loss of an individual is a true loss. We can acknowledge with Page that God companioned and valued dinosaurs’ lives for what they were and was fully satisfied with their lives as they were. Teleology now! But I think we must also have a sense of “Teleology then.”
Open Theism and Teleology
The position I will outline involves the belief that God does not control all of creation in every respect. Furthermore, God does not know the whole of the future. God rarely has fixed specific outcomes in mind. God changes desired outcomes based on creaturely interaction and the “givenness” of the past. God always acts in perfect love and wisdom and will continually and creatively work to bring about good, even if the path to the good is circuitous due to the freedom exercised by creatures.
This account of God is generally termed “open theism.” From the open theist perspective, one can say that God is constantly companioning each being in the here and now. God cannot be simply using the present as a means to a foreordained end because God does not know which ends will actually occur. God knows only the possibilities of the future.
At the same time, [past and present] creatures have important and lasting effects on future creatures. The world looks as it does today precisely because creatures in the past lived and died, fought and reproduced, flourished and were made extinct. Their lives and their narratives are linked to ours today.
The full meaning and impact of species long since extinct are, in fact, still in development. Our stories continue their stories. This adds a providential twist: in the choices that are made today, the possibilities which God foresaw in the life of a now extinct Tyrannosaurus rex are either realized or closed. The possibilities that help make the extinction of a species more-or-less meaningful in retrospect are realized only in the future.
God is constantly working toward giving the greatest amount of meaning to the events that have occurred. God is constantly redeeming the lives of the past by luring creation toward ends that will lead to the greater glory of the individuals of the species now extinct.
How The Past Is Realized in the Present?
And How Does The Present Complete The Past?
An analogy is found at the end of Hebrews 11. After describing the long line of heroes of the faith, the writer says, “Yet all these, though they were commended for their faith, did not receive what was promised, since God had provided something better so that they would not, without us, be made perfect.” The passage continues directly into the paraenesis, the instructions about how to live, starting with “Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us . . .”
The saints of the Hebrew Bible recounted in chapter 11 lived and died long before, but the author of Hebrews feels that the current righteous action of believers enriches their legacy. Although they are long since dead, part of the promise of their lives is realized in the present. Conversely, there is a possibility of fulfillment that will not be realized if their descendants choose not to “lay aside every weight and the sin that so easily entangles.”
In a similar way, consider the role of Abraham. Abraham’s life is enriched by the later reality of Christ—but that doesn’t mean Abraham was the only means to a Christocentric end. He was a man who had an important part to play in the ongoing story of God’s relationship with the world. Abraham’s obedience as well as his numerous disobediences are wrapped into the narrative of salvation, and his life is given a greater glory, a greater meaning, because of the events that followed.
This view can be extended to all living creatures. All living creatures are companioned by God and loved and valued on their own terms. Yet each life also lives within a divine promise that the legacy of their life will be for the good. It is possible to see the ongoing history of evolution, comprising as it does ever increased complexity and interrelations, as the way that the promise of the past is being fulfilled.
The extinction of the dinosaurs is a tragedy, and yet the flourishing of mammals contributes to the meaning of the dinosaurs’ extinction. Thomas Merton, in another context, summarizes what I’m trying to say: “But the grace of Christ is constantly working miracles to turn useless suffering into something fruitful after all.”
Perhaps one of the ways we might see redemption of this kind is to consider that the wonder of human architecture, or the transcendence of music, or the capacity of human love is actually bound up with the meaning of the extinction of past creatures we never knew. Our stories serve their stories, and vice versa. By merit of the dinosaurs’ extinction, we are here, and our retrospective vision allows us to interpret their deaths as having been meaningful in a way that an imagined human observer at that time could not have foreseen. Other equally meaningful and fruitful possibilities of redemption along the road of time no doubt were not explored in order that our road might be. God is always working toward redemption, though the specific realization of redemption is flexible.
The Fractals of Open Teleology
Is this at all plausible? Is it really possible to have a God who is at every moment working toward the good of each existing individual while also working toward the good of the legacy left by every creature of the past? In her book Wandering in Darkness, Eleonore Stump explores stories of suffering and redemption. Drawing on the book of Job, she suggests that stories of similar redemptive shape are nested within each other in such a way as to become what she calls fractal.
A fractal is a type of self-similar, and infinitely complex, pattern in which the smallest unit resembles the shape of the whole. So, for example, the raven’s story in the divine speeches is part of Job’s story, which in turn is part of Satan’s story. And in each story exists God’s personal relationship with that particular creature as God works in their life toward their own specific good.
“Within each of the nested stories the creature whose story it is is an end in himself,” explains Stump, “even if in some other story he is also a means to an end for some other creature.” God allows these individual narratives to “work upward” in complexity and scope until the greater story, like the smaller story, is a picture of God working toward the good in a systemic sense.
Seen from this perspective, the individual and the system are not set against each other competitively, as is so often the case in reasoning about animal suffering or extinction. Page’s “Teleology now!” stance ensures that we never see extinction as only a means to an end. At the same time, a view of ongoing, ever-building fractal narratives means that we never relinquish an extinction event to the rubbish heap of history either.
Another way to envision fractal narratives is to think of a photograph that is a complex mosaic of smaller photographs. The shade, light and texture of each individual photograph are arranged to create a larger image.
This kind of photo mosaic is different from a tapestry, because in a tapestry each thread is not a valuable and unique whole in itself. A thread becomes something worthwhile only when it is a part of the finished tapestry. A thread may easily be replaced by any other thread.
In a photo mosaic, however, each photograph that acts as a pixel is in fact a complete image in itself––apart from its involvement in the larger image. But the individual photograph is also a necessary component of the larger picture. The uniqueness of each photograph is, in fact, precisely what makes it a component of the larger image, and its unrepeatable blend of color and shade means that it uniquely fits in that space, better than any other available picture.
The levels of the photo mosaic are not limited to just two, either. As we look at a smaller picture, it could itself be made up of a mosaic of still smaller pictures, each a whole in itself. There is no limit to how small or large the scale may go, and no limit to the complexity of the arrangement.
Even this analogy is too static. Each picture remains what it is without change. Reality and relationships, however, are dynamic. So instead of imagining photographs that merge together to form a great photograph, we should imagine little (fractal) videos so artfully arranged that together they create a larger, more dynamic video.
This is the type of picture we must have in mind as we imagine God’s weaving of the world’s narrative. To the complexity of this picture we must add that each video, both the small and large, are not carefully acted and scripted pieces, but dynamic real-time scenes, full of improvisations. The end of each individual video, as well as the end of the large-scale video, is not yet determined in detail, and all of the actors have the freedom to determine their own response to divine direction in their own capacity.
God winds the texture and reality of each of these into the larger-scale video, which is influenced (but not determined) by each pixel of its makeup. God interacts at each level of the mosaic, luring, directing and arranging to bring about God’s purposes at every level.
Thus God’s providential action is twofold: each individual creature and species is an end in itself, existing for the glory and delight of God in that moment; and the disparate story lines of all beings that exist or have existed are wound into the epic tale of earth’s [larger] history.