Thursday, 22 November 2007

Problems With Creation Science IV: When Death Isn’t Death

One of the few theological arguments I have heard from Creation Scientists involves the issue of death.

The first part of the argument goes like this (it’s my summary, not an actual quote):
“If we don’t accept an earth approximately 8 000 years old, then that would suggest that death existed before sin occurred. And the Bible says that death is the consequence of sin.”
The argument picks up on the link that the NT makes between sin and death:
Romans 5:12 Therefore, just as through one man sin entered into the world, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men, because all sinned…
1 Corinthians 15:21-22 For since by a man came death, by a man also came the resurrection of the dead. For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ all shall be made alive.
1 Corinthians 15:56 The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law…
Romans 6:23 For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.
That is, death is a consequence of sin—it is the wages of sin, or the just reward for evil. And so sin is the ‘sting’ that brings the poison of death. Sin is the cause of death.

And in this schema, Adam has a pivotal position because his primordial sin brought death into creation, and all other death flows from his welcoming death in and giving it lordship over creation by his rebellion.

If life existed before Adam, and presumably died (because, for example, dating of bones would be taken as more or less trustworthy) doesn’t this mean that the link between death and sin is broken?

The question here, I would suggest, is what ‘death’ means in these passages. Does it mean death of anything living, or is it referring specifically to human death?

Creation Scientists seem to assume that ‘death’ means ‘death of anything alive’. In fact, I would argue that the Bible has in mind only the death of humans when it talks of death being the judgement for sin.

The starting point is to recognise that there is no explicit statement that non-human death is one of the consequences of Adam’s sin in the Bible. I’d like to show you some Scripture to that effect but I can’t. You can’t show something that isn’t there.

What we do have is Romans 8:
Romans 8:19-22 For the anxious longing of the creation waits eagerly for the revealing of the sons of God. For the creation was subjected to futility, not of its own will, but because of Him who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself also will be set free from its slavery to corruption into the freedom of the glory of the children of God. For we know that the whole creation groans and suffers the pains of childbirth together until now.
Here there is a clear statement that creation was affected adversely by human sin, and that its redemption will be found when we receive ours—it will share in the ‘freedom of the glory’ that we will receive as God’s children. The key phrase would seem to be the statement of creation’s ‘slavery to corruption’. It’s an easy step to take this as alluding to non-human death, because death leads to the decomposition (corruption) of the body. But that’s too narrow. This part of Scripture is looking at creation as a whole. The whole of creation is in slavery to corruption—animals, and plants yes, but also rocks, water, wind, sun, moon and stars. Even more than that, such creaturely realities as light, sound, energy, even creaturely love and reason have to be included. All of it is under the slavery of corruption. So singling out animals dying as the meaning of the phrase seems a bit strange.

This is the best one has when it comes to establishing that a link between Adam’s sin and non-humans dying exists. And it doesn’t establish that. Not by a long shot.

In actual fact, the teaching of the Bible on the connection between sin and death suggests the opposite. The Bible is clear that sin and death are connected, that death is the wages for sin. Animals don’t sin. Sin is a distinctly human (and probably demonic) phenomena, something that only moral beings are capable of. So, the Bible’s teaching that death is God’s judgement on sin would seem to include only humans within it. Death in animals cannot be the wages of sin and that's the only link the Bible explicitly draws between Adamn's sin and death.

There are four other lines of evidence that I would suggest indicate that ‘death’ refers only to human death.

The first is that the tree of life in Genesis 2 and 3 seems fairly straightforwardly to be a tree intended for human beings only. That is, the gift of enduring life, seems to have been offered only to humans in the Garden, just as only humans are the focus of being driven out of the Garden and barred from the tree of life. So the gift of life without cessation seems to have only been intended for humans. Otherwise, you’d have to argue that the thrust of Genesis 2 & 3 is supposed to suggest that humanity needed the tree of life, but animals didn’t. This seems strange, to say the least. Why would animals contain life in themselves while humans don’t? Surely it is a more noble nature to contain life in oneself than to have to look to something else to sustain it? And if that’s the case, why do animals start dying once the tree of life is withheld? Immortal animals effectively ignores the tree of life.

The second is that only humans are in the image of God. The seriousness of human death seems to be linked to the fact that human beings are unlike anything else in all creation. We alone are in God’s image, hence the seriousness of murder:
Genesis 9:6 "Whoever sheds man's blood, By man his blood shall be shed, For in the image of God He made man.
And even cursing:
James 3:9 With it we bless our Lord and Father; and with it we curse men, who have been made in the likeness of God;
It is fairly obvious, that such serious strictures are not placed around the death or cursing of animals. This suggests a unique sanctity of human life. This in turn would suggest a unique meaning to the ending of human life.

The third line is that only humans are spoken of as receiving the Holy Spirit and of being united to Christ. Both of these are, in the NT, directly linked to eternal life, and are given only to humans, by faith. They aren’t for animals, and so there is no means to enter into eternal life held out to animals.

Finally, only humans are offered the resurrection of the body. Only humans are actually given redemption from death. When I die, I die in the hope that death will one day release its hold on me and I will stand and see my Lord with my own eyes. No such hope is there for the goldfish or faithful Fido. Even if fish and dogs are in the New Earth, there is no promise that any dog that has existed will be resurrected.

What God offers human beings is not offered to animals. It’s not just the continuation of a species but the life of the individual that is the Christian hope. And that is promised to humans alone.

In other words, the general thrust of the Bible’s teaching about human beings and eternal life tends to draw a distinction between human life and non-human life. ‘Life’ and ‘death’ as blessing and judgement tends to be significant only for human beings, in the Bible’s spotlight. So death as a consequence of Adam's sin is most naturally read as human death being the result of one human's sin.

Creation Scientists, in my experience, tend to obscure this distinction between human and non-human. They replace it with a distinction between plant life and animate life (human and animal). The reason for the distinction is argued to be the way the Bible speaks of the latter as having ‘the breath of the spirit of life.’ Plants don’t have this, and so, on this view, plant ‘death’ is not linked to sin (it’s not biblical ‘death’). Both animals and humans do have ‘the breath of the spirit of life’ and so, on this view, both ‘die’ in the Biblical sense, and hence as a consequence of Adam’s sin.

I have already given the substance of my response above, namely that the fact that both have the breath of the spirit of life is not enough to indicate that ‘death’ as a consequence of sin encompasses both in the absence of any explicit text to that effect and against the lines of evidence drawing a distinction between humans and everything else.

But I’ll add a small extra point just to point out (again) how this kind of approach only selectively reads the Bible literally.

In the Flood, God states his intention as:
Genesis 6:17 And behold, I, even I am bringing the flood of water upon the earth, to destroy all flesh in which is the breath of life, from under heaven; everything that is on the earth shall perish.
Here God states that he intends to destroy all flesh in which is the breath of life, ‘from under heaven’, and then restates it in good Hebrew parallelism with a complementary statement: ‘everything that is on the earth shall perish’. So all flesh under heaven which has the breath of life shall be destroyed and all life on the earth shall perish.

This suggests, fairly straightforwardly:
  1. everything that has the breath of life will die.

  2. everything that lives on the earth will die.
And this is what happened:

Genesis 7:21-23 And all flesh that moved on the earth perished, birds and cattle and beasts and every swarming thing that swarms upon the earth, and all mankind; of all that was on the dry land, all in whose nostrils was the breath of the spirit of life, died. Thus He blotted out every living thing that was upon the face of the land, from man to animals to creeping things and to birds of the sky, and they were blotted out from the earth; and only Noah was left, together with those that were with him in the ark.
All ‘in whose nostrils was the breath of the spirit of life’ died. All ‘living things that were upon the face of the land’ were blotted out. Only Noah and those in the ark were left.

The problem is what do we do about life in the water?

Is it classified as having ‘the breath of life’ in it? Do turtles, dolphins, whales, and seals have the breath of life? How about fish life? If so, then they should be included in the total death that God was brought through the flood.

Yet, that can’t be done because they don’t live on the earth, and the two terms (has breath of life/lives on the earth) are in parallel. This therefore suggests that they are not included as entities that have the breath of life in them. They are effectively ‘plant life’.

And so we get the bizarre position that the death of land animals and birds is the result of Adamn's sin, but the death of water life (mammal and fish) is not….

In fact, the Flood, like Genesis 2, has no interest in water life at all. And this in an account which another part of the Bible (2 Peter 3) states is an account of the destruction of the world on a par with the destruction by fire of the Day of Judgement! It again suggests that it isn’t trying to answer scientific questions…

This is a bit of an excursus, but the basic point is to show that ‘having the breath of the spirit of life’ is not the primary category of division. It is not animate life on the one hand and plant life on the other as the big issue when it comes to ‘death’. For in the great OT experience of the day of judgement, water life is left out of this division (and that’s a lot of life to be left out if you’re concerned about trying to square things with science).

So, I’d suggest the following:

  1. The Bible makes a far bigger division between human life and the rest of creation than between animate life and plant life.

  2. Life and death is primarily linked to humanity.

  3. The link between sin and death is only linked to humanity

  4. Animal death as the consequence of Adam’s sin is nowhere explicitly stated by the Bible.
Accordingly, I’d suggest the best way to submit to the Bible’s teaching on this subject is to (at a minimum) profess no position on the relationship of animal death and human sin (which still means that animals dying before Adam's sin is not a theological issue) or (at a maximum) follow the trajectory of the Bible’s teaching that ‘death’ as a wage for sin relates to humans only.

In other words, death is natural for Fido, and is a scandal for human beings. That’s why we have funerals for humans but don’t (or at least shouldn’t) for animals. ‘Death’ is more than just ‘cessation of biological activity’. Looked at theologically, it means something very different when a human dies and when an animal dies. Humans were never meant to die. Animals were never intended to have eternal life, because they are not human beings and are not in the Image of the eternal God.

Or in other words, Christ came into the world to save sinners, which means he came to save human beings, not dogs or cats or humpback whales. Redemption may catch them up as well (and it may open up a kind of life for them that is radically new), as it brings in a New Heavens and a New Earth that is different from everything that has gone before it. Nonetheless, the gospel of salvation from sin and death is for the children of Adam alone.


Andrew said...

Hi Mark,

Enjoying your work. Mercifully this is not a big issue in our current situation, but it certainly deserves more sustained reflection than it is often given.


qraal said...

Hi Mark

Nicely put and a good expansion on the point I raised in my comment to Part II - your exposition makes things clearer than mine. I find it such a weird mental blank in people who claim to be "literalists" and yet they mistake what the Bible says for what they want it to say.

I am, perhaps, as guilty, but I don't try to make a multi-million dollar ideological empire out of it like the Creation Scientists have done - Ken Ham, for example, sprang from our home country and now has major influence in the USA, but at the cost of burning bridges here in Australia. He parted with the Australian arm of "Answers in Genesis" on less than Christian terms.

A minor sin for a greater cause? Or a sign that the modern edifice of Creation Science is really based on the ego of people like Henry Morris and Ken Ham? They've quite willing sacrificed honesty in exegesis for what sells. The number of well-meaning Christians who have taken up vegetarianism in the mistaken view that it's somehow a result of sin that we eat meat... well you get my drift.

All I can say is that good exegesis goes a long way towards reframing this tired debate over "literal Genesis" versus "liberal Genesis" - did Jesus use the genealogical data to make a point? Or did he speak about what the Word was trying to tell people in his day and ours? God's Word in Genesis still applies to us - "what God unites let us not divide" (to paraphrase) - as it applied 2000 years ago, and however many before that.

Martin Kemp said...

If death in the biblical sense is refering to human death, do you see a place for human evolution? When did the chain become 'human' (and therefore when did death become something more than a natural process)?

Also Bill Dumbrell has written some interesting stuff (if I am remembering him correctly). He notes that Adam was made outside the garden, and then placed in the garden where there was the antidote to death in the the form of the tree. I think some interesting things follw from this observation:

1. Sin existed outside the garden
2. Adam was formed outside the garden in the realm of death (allowing for evolution)
3. Inside the garden it's not that death didin't exist, it's just that there was an antidote.
4. Adam and Eve's punishment was that they were barred from the antidote.

Interesting stuff.

Bruce Yabsley said...

Mark this is a fine reading of the Scripture on its own terms, and well-suited to your purpose. But it leaves one (very important) stone unturned: a naturalistic understanding of human death. If you plan to address this in post V, I am happy to wait for it, but let me sketch my concern briefly:

I often hear from the pulpit, or in pious Christian talk, reflections on the sheer unnaturalness of [human] death. In a sense one knows what this means: it is contrary to our individual value and --- how shall one put this? --- spiritual nature. It is offensive. And yet ... as animals, we die: we are mortal. This is uncanny, and recognised as such even by quite secular figures, but it is obviously unnnatural only in a certain sense.

To forestall a criticism: like many naturalistic objections, this needs no strong closed-universe or atheistic framework to proceed. On the contrary, quite weak premisses are enough. I understand it may not be your chief concern, but it is an elephant in the room nonetheless ...

michael jensen said...

To take up Bruce's point: are Adam and Eve 'naturally' immortal, or are they immortal because they are sustained by eating from the tree of life?

cynergy said...

Wow, you stop reading a blog for a little while and everyone jumps in! But I can see why, it is a thorough-going interaction with the issues raised by creationists.

I agree with your 4 conclusions here but was wondering from a very early stage in the post, or perhaps waiting, for a discussion of the role of the OT sacrificial system. Even at a theologically naive level, like mine, there is a huge link between human sin and animal death... Of course it bears only tangentially on the robust discussion at hand - but it was where I thought you would end up?!

I will also say here that it has been interesting reading all of them in succession, having just spent half a day trying to 'deplagiarise' some lecture notes that have been bequeathed to me on plate tectonics and continental drift. I didn't find it difficult to conceive that the 'land' could be flooded entirely at all! It is hard for us scientists to NOT wonder how things in the early chapters of Genesis occurred (although that is not to say that 'artsy' folk don't also wonder!). I find that I constantly have to reboot my mind to think and read Genesis as theologically polemical - as a strong message of ancient counter-culture. My 'doubts' dissipate rapidly when read that way, yet one always wonders if it is nothing but a salve. Looking forward to the last three!

PS - your other half gave me my moniker - I am not wilfully being anonymous! :)

Baddelim said...

Hey cynergy,

Well no, anyone who knows you knows how well my wife named you :D (although Earthmother does win hands down...)

I don't have a problem with anonymity in a very wide range of circumstances. Anonymous blogs, anonymous comments, even anonymous articles, letters to editors and the like.

My problem arises when a person is using that anonymity to enable them to get away with things that they wouldn't try if their identity was known - personal attacks, snarkiness, and the like. And the blog in question has got form in these areas, so I'm putting the boundary for them up front. Anyone else wanting some kind of anonymity who doesn't want to use it to avoid consequences from bad behaviour is fine with me.

As to there being some kind of link between human sin and animal death, I'll agree that the two often are linked--animals often die because humans sin and bring a widescale judgement down. I'm not sure I'd want to see the sacrificial system as part of that matrix. Not sure why, but it doesn't 'feel' right. But showing that animals sometimes die because humans are being judged doesn't really prove that animals would be immortal except for Adam's sin, to my mind.

It might help an argument to that effect as a strand of evidence (like a counter to my strands of evidence in the blog entry), but it'd need a lot more to go with it, I think.

And yeah, this has caused a reaction out of all proportion to what I thought would happen. Once again, where angels apparently not only fear to tread, but have put up "Danger, Stay Away" signs in bright colours that I somehow missed...

Dannii said...

It's not animal vs plant life, it's souls verses soulless. In ch 1, God makes many souls, like the birds, sea creatures and land animals. In 2.7, man became a living soul (nephesh). In ch 9 it's the souls that Noah is to take on the ark, and it's with every soul that he makes his covenant. In Lev 17 we find out what defines a soul: blood.

As an interesting aside, in Gen 1, God doesn't create the plant life, but rather instructs the earth to sprout vegetation. The soulless plants are an extension of the earth. I wonder if the krill are an extension of the seas?

Baddelim said...

Hi Dannii

Thanks, that's a much better indication of the validity of the category than I gave.

I'm not suggesting that the Bible doesn't make a difference between plant and animate life, just that that division doesn't seem to be as significant as the division between human and non-human.

My question from what you've said here, is that if Genesis 1 teaches that plant life is an extension of the earth, how does that square with your view that it has to conform with reality we see it to be true (from an earlier comment)? Isn't this at least a little weakening of that principle?

Dannii said...

The distinctions about being human are that we're made in the image of God and we have a spirit. I'm not sure if there are any distinctions made as far as souls go...

I'm not sure what you're asking or how it would be a weakening?

Baddelim said...

Hi Dannii,

Sure, the 'distinction' I was speaking about was whether the big category in thinking about immortal life was ensouled life versus nonsouled 'life' or whether it is human versus non-human.

I agree that if we just look at souls, there's evidence that that is something animals and humans share. They're both souls (or have souls, depending :) ). But when we bring the other issues in, is the common factor of the soul decisive? I think that's the focus of my argument.

Apologies that the other question isn't clear. I'll try and make it better. I remember you arguing that Genesis 1 can only make the theological points it makes if the history it recounts is factual. (Not trying to force words upon you that you don't like there). I take it that you don't think plants are not alive. Doesn't the view that Genesis 1 is predicated on the idea that plants aren't alive undercut your argument a bit? Wouldn't this be something that it recounts that isn't factual for you?

Is that any clearer?

Michael said...

Thanks, Mark, I've just been pointed to your series, and have found it thoroughly stimulating.

I'm curious about your take on our experience of grief at the death of a beloved pet. (I appreciate that some of your readership will have never experienced this, especially in relation to cats.) Our experiential conviction is that there is something inherently wrong at the demise of a furry friend.

Is this just because we have foolishly anthropomorphised companion animals? Theologically, you conclusion seems to suggest that we should only mourn the loss of species of animals (say, for example, the extinction of domestic dogs) rather than individual animals (e.g. Fido).

Baddelim said...

Hi Michael,

I'm not sure what to make of those feelings you highlight. I tend not to see feelings as either reliable indicators of reality nor as wrong. By and large, I prefer to just work with feelings as they are.

The feelings could arise from not having enough enough to do with animals-many farmers and the like don't seem quite as sentimental about pets as I am. But it may be like either aspects of life, where one regrets that something comes to an end, even though it's meant to (like a course of study that brought people together).

I suspect that I do see far more tragedy in the ending of a species than the ending of an individual, when the species is designed to be mortal. Although this also raises the possibility of species intended to be mortal...