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An Answer for Mark: Death as a Divine Tool

Mark responded to my post Dealing with the Theological Implications of Evolution, and in turn poses a question to me, well summarized in the last sentence of his last paragraph:

What is the particular problem that is raised that Stegosaurus had a million or so years in the sun but now is no longer?

Which reminds me that I get in the most trouble for the things I don’t say in a post. That question needs to be put into the context of the point I was trying to address in the post. Some Christians respond to evolution by saying that it doesn’t really make any difference. Genesis tells us that God created; evolution tells us how God created.

Depending on your audience, that will mean substantially different things. In some ways I regret growing up and essentially completing my formal education as a young earth creationist. There are so many lines of inquiry I would have pursued. I don’t mean things that would have advanced knowledge generally, but that could have advanced my knowledge.

At the same time, I understand how young earth creationists think, and telling them that evolution doesn’t make any difference is quite futile. You see a substantial part of the young earth creationist background involves an understanding of the fall. I’m not saying that every young earth creationist feels this way, but I personally haven’t encountered one who doesn’t.

The fall of humanity happened at a specific historical point. There was no sin in the world before that, and there was sin afterward. The physical world suffered as a result of sin, and was, in fact, dramatically altered because physical death was introduced at that point. (Never mind how an ecology would function without death.) In the particular form in which I learned it, the deteriorating ages of the patriarchs in Genesis 5 & 11 indicates the deterioration of the very fabric of the universe, or at least of life, so that people became less and less long-lived as they separated from God.

In that context, to say that evolution makes no difference theologically is nonsense. Evolution makes all the difference in the world. If God used evolution as his tool to create the world, not only is the chronology different, but the connection between sin and physical death is broken. There might be some deterioration of the world after sin, though no evidence of this is available, but the direct connection cannot exist.

For people who hold the young earth creationist viewpoint, at least in the form I grew up with, evolution is a devastating blow to all they hold dear. If the fall did not cause deterioration, then how can redemption cause recreation? Remember here that they believe this does involve the physical world, all of creation (Romans 8:22). Everything from God’s personal care of everyone, to redemption, and finally to the life hereafter and the new creation falls under their system if evolution is true. The theological impact is massive.

I would add a side note on the “gap theory” or “ruin and restoration creationism” which holds that the earth is very old, the same age as that held by mainstream science and by old earth creationists, yet that sin was brought to earth before the creation that occurred in Genesis 1. In their view sin caused death, but did so before Adam was created. Adam then participated in that death at the fall. For them successive extinction events can become successive acts of destruction by God intended to wipe out or punish evil. Evolution is still devastating to their theology and they would reject it vigorously.

One other odd view is Bill Dembski’s view that death was introduced prospectively, i.e. God knew that evil would occur and dealt with it before the fact. Adam was thus responsible, even though he sinned much later. I blogged about it a bit here, and Dembski’s article can be found here. (Note that he has revised this several times, so quotes from it in any earlier articles may be wrong. I’ve tried to note the date, but I think I forgot a few times. I always used the version that was online as of the date I posted.)

Old earth creationists and theistic evolutionists are in essentially the same place on this. Death must be seen as a natural part of the way the universe is designed, and death becomes God’s tool. I would say that the issue is even harder for old earth creationists. Let me digress for a moment to explain why.

I’m not much impressed with the common argument that God didn’t create evil; God created Satan, who then rebelled. In other words, I don’t feel the separation between God taking action directly, God creating someone who has the option to take an action, or God creating a process that has that same effect. If God created Satan knowing he would do evil (a requirement if one accepts foreknowledge, which in the traditional sense I do not), then God is equally responsible. If God creates a world in which the holocaust can occur, he can’t evade responsibility. In scripture, I don’t see any great effort to avoid God’s responsibility for whatever happened. That seems to be mostly a later effort.

Let me illustrate. Supposing I have responsibility for a group of children, and I let them loose in a room full of valuable but fragile items. I don’t set any parameters, but simply tell them to play and then I run off. I don’t come back, observe, and most importantly intervene when their play gets lively and the valuable items are broken.

If the owner of the valuables comes to me and charges me with responsible, will he except the excuse that the children did it? I suspect not. I put the children there. I didn’t instruct them properly. I didn’t monitor them, and I didn’t intervene to stop them. I think most people would regard me as responsible for the breakage.

In the same way I regard God as responsible for the universe. I think I have warrant to believe that God regards God as responsible for the universe.

But the fact is that in my experience most people do not agree with me with regard to God. They do find “the devil did it” to exonerate God in some sense. In that context, I think the old earth creationists have a bit of a problem. As a theistic evolutionist I believe that God so ordered the universe that there would be processes that would bring about life and allow it to diversify. I must accept that God is thereby responsible for such things as scarcity of resources; no diversification would occur if there was no selective survival.

The old earth creationist, it seems to me, must see God as creating an incomplete process. Variation and natural selections works some, but appears to be defective. Thus God allows the process to work and then steps in and creates greater variations from time to time. So God is not merely using a tool that is part of the fabric of the universe; he is also getting involved on a day to day (or more likely age to age or period to period basis. I think if they were consistent the same people who accept a devil based theodicy should regard this as God with dirty hands.

I must restate, however, that I think theistic evolutions and old earth creationists are in the same boat on this one, and that evolution does not make a theological difference on this one point. But that is only true between old earth creationists and theistic evolutionists. Young earth creationists or ruin and restoration creationists would see it somewhat differently.

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  1. Great post … and to be honest, even though I abandoned the view of the Fall you allude to, I hadn’t thought of it in the context of the evolution/creation debate.

    Which is funny, because I started investigating alternatives to the view you describe precisely because I found enough convincing evidence to decide that evolution was true and the Creationists were wrong. I should have realized how much is invested in that view because I held it.

    IIRC, Genesis reports the warning of quick death for partaking of the forbidden fruit, with language something like “In that day, you shall die” (correct me if I have this wrong). Since Adam then lives quite a while after that, I have always viewed that as spiritual death, i.e, spiritual separation from God, an affliction all of us share.

  2. Just browsing the blog after a month of internet deprivation. Your use of the word “warrant” caught my eye. Isn’t that an Alvin Plantinga concept?

    I ask because I’m just reading one of his papers (“Warranted belief in God”, from a book of his) and, snide Calvin quotes aside, it’s quite interesting. He’s at least approaching things from what I’d see as the most sensible direction. Have you come across him? I’d be interested to know your opinions.

  3. I wonder if there is some mileage, within a generally theistic evolution framework, for the idea that God created the Garden of Eden as a kind of sin-free, death-free bubble within a world which already knew death, and even sin through the activity of Satan. On this basis one could argue that God intended humanity to live in this sin-free paradise and not to die – and perhaps to extend paradise to include the whole earth. But the fall changed everything and put humanity back into the world of death of the animals from whom it was taken. And redemption puts us as Christians at least partly back into paradise, in some senses tasked to rebuild it on earth. I’m not saying this is my position, just one that sounds interesting.

  4. There is also a theory that plants and even insects don’t experience death.

    Cells within our body dies at a very fast rate. This is a process that is needed to be able to live. A definition of death I believe is central to this issue.

    I believe the death that was referred to in the fall was both a physical death and a spiritual death. As I understand it when God said that you will die, it means translated, that you will die and keep on dying. That would be impossible if Adam died on the spot, instead I believe it reffered to a process of degeneration. This means the copy process of cells without ‘God’s tree of live’ (whether this is an actual fruit or His presence or anything else is irrelevant to my point – any one of these can be debated) would deteriorate over time. Death in Hebrew – not Greek – relates to what we mostly call mammals and humans (I don’t think the categories are exclusive).

    In short what I wanted to say is that I think that plants are amazing food producing machines, and I would even go as far as to say that insects are even more amazing machines, but I don’t see that death at the fall referred to either one of them. One of the reasons I believe that is because there does not seem to be any emotion in insects, in other words I don’t believe they can experience death or even dying. We can debate whether this means that in order for something to die it has to be able to experience death, which can turn into a fun philosophical debate (i.e. my computer is busy dying on me).

    I believed for most of my live in an evolutionary model, and defended it hotly. A creation model makes much more sense to me scientifically and also theologically (Although I understand that a lot of people believe contrary to that statement).

    Hans Jansen.

    1. One of the reasons I believe that is because there does not seem to be any emotion in insects, in other words I don’t believe they can experience death or even dying.

      What are your thoughts on brainier critters like gorillas? Does death “count” for them?

      A creation model makes much more sense to me scientifically and also theologically (Although I understand that a lot of people believe contrary to that statement).

      ***Raises hand***. I tend to meet a lot of people who started out as creationist and went evo, but not vice-versa. So I’d be interested to hear your rationale on this – you’ve got rarity value 🙂

      1. What are your thoughts on brainier critters like gorillas? Does death “count” for them?”

        I see gorillas, monkeys, birds, dogs, cats, donkeys, pigs etc. as animals that can experience emotion. I believe that death definitely refers to them.

        On the second one, a lot of my friends have started out evo and went creation. I have not met anyone personally who went the other way. Maybe it is because like-minded people band together (it goes both ways), or it might be the locale. Where I am almost no one is taught creation from a young age, so there is little possibility for someone to switch to evo, but a bigger possiblity to switch to creation.

        There is a couple evo scientists that became young earthers. Would you say that their conversion was for financial gain, popularity, sincere belief change, evidence that seem contradictory, or any other reason (Might also be a combination).

        I do not know if posting on here is the correct way to discuss views, but I do not mind people listening (or rather reading) in on it. If you want you can e-mail me as well. I would love to hear why people turned from creation to evo.

        1. Hans – I edited your comment to correct the blockquote tag that got confused.

          I think this is a great place to discuss this. I installed this threaded comment system to make such discussions easier to follow. I plan to get involved myself, but I’m still catching up with many things.

          In the meantime, enjoy!

        2. Thanks for editing the post. I was not sure how to quote properly. I would love to discuss creation and open theism (probably also the most two controversial topics in Christendom today)

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