45 Was there death before the fall of humanity? (Part 2)

That Paul has spiritual death, not physical death, in view in his argument in the early part of Romans becomes even clearer when we observe that he makes a statement about sin and death but then restates it in two different ways that bring out its spiritual emphasis. He first says, “Just as sin came into the world through one man, and death came through sin, and so death spread to all because all have sinned . . .” But this is later restated, “Just as one man’s trespass led to condemnation for all, so one man’s act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all.” And then Paul expresses this same meaning in yet another way: “Just as by the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners, so by the one man’s obedience the many will be made righteous.” We see from these parallels that coming under the reign of death is equivalent to being condemned and to being made a sinner. The death in view, in other words, is the spiritual death of separation from God.

We find final confirmation of this understanding in the exhortation Paul gives as the argument of these section of the epistle reaches its culmination: “Present yourselves to God as those who have been brought from death to life.” We see here that the “death” Paul has been talking about is a state we can be in even as we are physically alive, and which we can leave without being resurrected from physical death. It is thus, once again, the spiritual death of being under the power of sin, alienated from God.

We should therefore make no more appeal to the book of Romans than to the book of Genesis to argue that physical death only entered the world after the fall of humanity. Both books describe a spiritual death from which physical death necessarily resulted, but neither thereby excludes there having been physical death beforehand, from other causes.

One more observation we may make is that the objection we have been considering expresses a misunderstanding of the evolutionary process itself. Death is not, strictly speaking, necessary for evolution, and so this process could have been responsible for human origins even if there had been no death before there were people. Evolution simply posits that new life forms originate from previously existing ones through genetic variation under propitious conditions. It is not necessary that the older life forms die in order for the newer ones to come into existence.

We often think of evolution, in misleading popular terms, as “survival of the fittest” (and thus the extinction of the less fit). But the “fittest” need to be there in the first place if they are to survive a changed set of conditions that others may not survive. They thus come into existence not through the death of their predecessors, but through genetic variation. At least in theory, new life forms could have become established as adaptable variants moved into or emerged within new habitats, worldwide environmental conditions remaining unchanged, with those forms not adapted to the new habitat staying behind alive in the old one.

Creatures adapted to life in the ocean depths have features such as bioluminescence, that is, generating their own light in the blackness of the deep sea.

But because environmental conditions have changed dramatically and repeatedly, the matter may be stated even more strongly. Far from being dependent on death, the evolutionary process as seen in the fossil record is actually the antidote to death. If new species were not formed by the process of genetic variation, there would be no survivors when environmental conditions did change and existing species proved so poorly adapted to the new conditions that they became extinct. So death is not necessary for evolution, but evolution has been necessary for the continuation of life.

One might object, however, that even if death were not necessary to the evolutionary process itself, it would nevertheless have been necessary to have kept the earth from becoming overpopulated to the point where all of its inhabitants starved. Such overpopulation would admittedly have been the result if no creatures had died during the long periods of time evolution is understood to require.

But this very same objection can be made to the creationist scenario. Until and unless humans sinned, creatures with a potentially infinite lifespan and no natural predators would have reproduced exponentially and in a few generations have exhausted the world’s available food supply. We have already seen that the Bible regards eating to have been necessary for their survival. The only way to address this objection is therefore to say that God foresaw or perhaps even foreordained the fall and so created the world the way he did knowing that death would intervene before the world’s creaturely population all starved. But this position is really not very far away, theologically, from “death before the fall.”

44 Was there death before the fall of humanity? (Part 1)

We may next take up the question of how death could have been active within the evolutionary process for billions of years before there were any people, if the Bible teaches that death first entered the world through the disobedience of humans. Our first response to this question must be to establish whether the Bible indeed teaches this.

When we study the Genesis account, we discover that it actually does not teach that no creature could have died, or that no creature actually did die, before the fall of humanity. It rather suggests just the opposite.

For example, at the very end of the story of creation and the fall we read, “Then the Lord God said, ‘See, the man has become like one of us, knowing good and evil; and now, lest he put forth his hand and take also of the tree of life, and eat, and live forever’—therefore the Lord God sent him forth from the garden of Eden.” If God’s concern was that the man might eat of the tree of life after the fall and live forever, and took steps to prevent this, the clear implication is that if he did not eat of the tree of life, he would not live forever. But this would have been true whether or not he had fallen. In other words, not dying is shown here to be something that does not follow directly from having been created. It requires something further: eating of the tree of life. According to this account, therefore, it appears that if the humans had not eaten of this tree, they would have died, even in an unfallen state.

The fact that the food that humans and animals were to eat is specified in the opening creation account in Genesis also implies that they were not created immortal. Why would creatures have to eat, if they could not die? The clear implication is that this food was to sustain them and keep them alive, and that they would die of starvation if they did not eat. (For that matter, do we suppose that if Adam, when innocent, had fallen forty feet out of tree and broken his neck, he would not have died?) While we have this passage in view, we should also specify that the fact that humans were not permitted to eat animals does not mean that the only way an animal could have died at this time was if a human had killed it in order to eat it.

A further consideration is that the plants that humans and animals ate died when they were uprooted and consumed. If we are going to argue that there was no death before the fall, then we must argue that no living thing ceased to live before the fall. But the Bible itself describes the opposite. It suggests that innumerable plants not only died but were “killed” by people and animals for food in the Garden of Eden.

It is sometimes argued that since vegetation is “insentient,” its “death” before the fall is not really significant. But this is to introduce a definition of death as “the cessation of consciousness,” and this would actually allow a great deal of the evolutionary process to have taken place without “death.” There will be varying understandings of where on the scale of complexity we should locate the least complex “sentient” beings, but it is doubtful that all animal life should be considered sentient. Thus creationists themselves would have to allow for the death before the fall of worms and spiders and perhaps even dinosaurs if they wish to discount the death of plants before the fall.

A final consideration from the Genesis account is this: The warning that God gave to the first pair of humans about the tree of the knowledge of good and evil—“in the day that you eat of it, you shall surely die”—would have been incomprehensible and therefore useless if death were an entirely unknown thing in the pre-fall world. Here the biblical account itself therefore suggests that death was part of the human experiential knowledge base even before the fall. In other words, humans were able to understand what God meant by “death” because they had already seen other creatures die.

In light of all of these considerations, we must recognize that the objection we are discussing here comes much more from the book of Romans than from the book of Genesis. It is there that we find such statements, frequently quoted by creationists, as, “Sin came into the world through one man, and death came through sin, and so death spread to all” (Rom. 5:12). This would seem to imply that before the fall of man there was no death in the world. But we must pay careful attention to the kind of “death” that is actually in view in this part of the book of Romans.

It is probably most accurate to say that it is a spiritual death (separation from relationship with God) that leads, among other things, to physical death. This, we should note, is precisely the definition of death that literalist interpreters use to explain how it was that Adam did not die physically “in the day” that he ate of the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. He died spiritually that day, they insist, and physically as an eventual result. (Otherwise, we would need to appeal to a “day-age” theory to explain the statement, “In the day that you eat of it, you shall surely die.”)

Recognizing that Romans is speaking of a spiritual death with eventual physical consequences enables us to make the best sense of its teaching. For example, Romans 5:14 says, “Death exercised dominion from Adam to Moses, even over those whose sins were not like the transgression of Adam.” What is in view here is clearly the reign of spiritual death over those who sin, that is, over morally responsible beings—humans. This is not a discussion of the progress of physical death throughout the created world.

43 Wouldn’t evolution allow for the development of species beyond humankind?

The “alien diva” from the 1997 movie The Fifth Element. In this case the beyond-human being had surpassing powers of song. Ironically, some human singers have now caught up with her and are able to perform her supposedly “impossible” aria themselves. But she remains a celebrated fictional example of a creature beyond humans.

As we continue to consider the status of humans within creation, we may next take up the observation that the evolutionary process, since it is “ateleological” (not directed to a particular end or goal), would presumably allow for the development of species beyond humankind. This seems difficult to reconcile with the apparent biblical teaching that humans are the goal and culmination of God’s creation. We may respond to this difficulty in two ways.

We may first observe that according to the Bible, humans are able to serve as God’s vice-regents and superintend creation because they bear the “image of God.” But in what does this image consist? Theologians have disputed this point throughout the centuries, but the main positions in the current debate are that the image of God in humanity consists of either:

– Human possession of a soul, in addition to a physical body (that is, humans are “like God” in being spiritual);

– Human reception of a divine commission to superintend the earth (that is, humans are “like God” in exercising rule); or

– Human capacity for relationships (humans are “like God” in the way they exist essentially in relationship with other persons).

Whichever of these options we may prefer, and however we may elaborate it (e.g. in what does the soul consist?), the “image of God” does not depend on the way human biological characteristics might differ from those of other creatures. (This is true unless we choose the third option and also consider relational capacity to be essentially biological. But one weakness of the third option, from a strictly theological perspective, may already be that it does not sufficiently distinguish humans from other creatures that do not bear the “image of God” but which appear nevertheless to live in relationships and communities, at least of a sort.)

Thus an organism could theoretically emerge through the evolutionary process that had greater cognitive capacity than humans or in some other way seemed “better adapted” to life on earth. Indeed, there are already many kinds of organisms that surpass human capabilities in different respects. Birds fly, we can’t; dogs have better hearing; some birds see better than we do; many animals have a better sense of smell; many run or swim faster than we can; some have electro-receptors, while others see sound (such as dolphins, with their very sophisticated echolocation).

But no matter what its capabilities—and I am very aware of mixing religious and scientific categories here—if God did not give such an organism a soul, or commission it to tend the earth, or call it to live in relational community with it fellows (that is, however it might not bear the “image of God” as humans do), it would not “surpass” or “replace” humans in their essential purpose. In other words, while we must allow for the theoretical possibility, from an evolutionary perspective, of a creature “beyond” humans,* there would be no automatic grounds for this creature to usurp the special role for which God, according to the Bible, has chosen humans within creation, and for which God brought them into being uniquely equipped.

The second response we must offer to the observation that the nature of evolution as an ateleological process implies the possibility of a creature beyond humans is that it simply makes no sense to speak of “beyond” in an ateleological process. If there is no goal, then there are no grounds on which to argue that those who held that a goal had been reached at a given point were proven wrong when the process continued past that point.

It might be objected that those who claimed that a goal had been reached at any point were certainly wrong if they were observing an ateleological process. But this is actually a claim that can be made legitimately if it is made not from within the process, but from outside it, on the basis of insight into who initiated the process and for what purpose. From within the process, we cannot speak legitimately of “beyond” and “ateleological” at the same time. Our vantage point does not permit that. But from above the process, we can see that someone can have been at work to fulfill a larger purpose through a process that was not self-informed.

An example from my own life may be illustrative. In my young adult years, I met many women about my own age, through a variety of circumstances. Whom I met, and whom I didn’t meet, was not within my control and seemed randomly determined. But at one point I began to wonder whether one of the women I’d met was the wife that God had “chosen” for me. I prayed and received assurance that this was the case. I proposed, she accepted (this was further assurance!), and we were married. The seemingly “ateleological” process continued; I still met women about my own age through the rest of my life, through a variety of circumstances not under my control. But there was no “beyond.” As a Christian I believed that the covenant I had entered into was for life and I remained happily and faithfully married to my wife.

Seen from above, what was a random and ateleological process when seen from within actually had a definite purpose: to bring me together with my future wife. While from one perspective the process continued “beyond” this point, from another perspective it did not, because its purpose had been fulfilled. In the same way, even if at some future time creatures develop whose capacities exceed those of humans in significant respects, we have no biblical basis to believe that God will transfer his choice of a vice-regent on earth from humanity to these new creatures.

*Evolutionary biologist Ernst Mayr, however, interestingly believed that there was virtually no chance that the human race would break up into several different species or evolve into a “better” new species. He observed that humans now “occupy all the conceivable niches from the Arctic to the tropics that a humanlike animal might occupy” and that there was “far too much contact among all human populations for any kind of effective long-term isolation that might lead to speciation.”   He added that modern humans “constitute a mass society and there is no indication of any natural selection for superior genotypes that would permit the rise of the human species above its present capabilities.” What Evolution Is [New York: Basic Books, 2001], p. 261.

42 How can humans have a special status within creation?

As we continue “fishing in the middle of the lake,” we may now turn to consider the place of humans within creation, the second large category into which questions fall about the theological compatibility of natural history as sketched by biological science and the history of creation and redemption as narrated in the Bible.

As we have already noted, the questions in this category are numerous and significant, and they include the following: (1) If humans developed from the same source as all other species, by the same process, on what basis can it be said that they enjoy a special status within creation, as the Bible teaches? (2) If the evolutionary process is “ateleological,” that is, not pursuing any particular goal, doesn’t this allow for the development of species beyond humankind? How would this square with the Bible’s teaching that humans are the goal and culmination of God’s creation? (3) If, as the Bible teaches, death entered the world first through the disobedience of humans, how could death have been active within the evolutionary process for billions of years before there were any people? (4) How are we to understand the Bible’s teaching that because of this disobedience the created world has “fallen” from a formerly pristine state, if it has rather come about through an uninterrupted process that has led to greater and greater complexity? While it may not be possible to resolve all of these questions definitively, much can be said to show that the scientific and biblical accounts are not as incompatible as they are sometimes thought to be.

Let us first take up the question here of how humans can be said to enjoy a special status within creation if they come from the same source, and have come about through the same process, as other life on earth. It is important to recognize, first of all, that the Bible does not justify humanity’s rule over creation on God’s behalf by appeal to a distinct process of origination. That is, the Bible portrays people and other creatures as having come about through the same process, but teaches that God chose people for a special role nonetheless.

In the second creation account in Genesis, we read that “the Lord God formed man from the dust of the ground” and then that “out of the ground the Lord God formed every animal of the field and every bird of the air.” The process is the same.

William Blake, “Elohim Creating Adam,” watercolor, 1795. While Blake’s painting portrays this as a dramatic action, according to Genesis the man was nevertheless formed “from the dust of the ground,” that is, by the same process as the other creatures.

The first account of creation in Genesis is complementary to the second one; in it as well there is no description of a distinct process of origination for humans. They are created on Day 6 with the other land creatures; they thus fit neatly into the realms/populace scheme into which the whole account is organized (the realms created on days 1, 2 and 3 are populated, respectively, by the creatures made on days 4, 5 and 6). In other words, humans are not portrayed here as being an exception within the overall process.

The specific language of this account does not imply this, either. The verb “create” is used for humans in Genesis 1:27, rather than the verb “made,” which is used in most of the rest of the chapter. But we should not attach too much significance to this. The verb “create” is also used for the sea creatures and the sky creatures in v. 21. While God creates throughout the first account by spoken fiat, in some places He says, “let the earth bring forth” or “let the waters bring forth” a particular kind of creature (vegetation in v. 11, water creatures in v. 20, cattle and creeping things in v. 24). Since He does not say “Let the earth bring forth humans” but rather “Let us make humankind in our own image” in v. 27, this may seem to suggest a different process for humans. But nothing “brings forth” the birds, either; God simply says, “Let birds fly above the earth” (v. 20). So while we will still have to explore what creation in the image of God means, it does not necessarily require creation through a special process.

We see in these chapters that what is unique about humans is not the process by which they come about, but rather the purpose for which God makes them. It is certainly not our place to insist that if God is going to use something for a distinct purpose, He needs to bring it into being through a distinct process. We have already seen that the Bible as the word of God does not appear to have come about through a different process from that by which other literature has been produced.

Now a distinct process may be called for in some cases. Christians believe that the virgin birth of Christ, for example, enabled Him to be a sinless representative of the race when He died on the cross. But it was apparently not necessary for humans to have been created by a distinct process in order for them to function as God’s vice-regents on earth. The two opening creation accounts in Genesis describe them as having been made by the same process as other creatures. It is rather God’s choice of them that gives them a special status, and a special responsibility, within creation.

41 It’s typical of God to begin a new thing by starting with something that already exists

To continue the discussion, begun in the last post, of whether an evolutionary process is inconsistent with the character of God as revealed in the Bible—and, specifically, whether that inconsistency arises from a “brutal” and “wasteful” process being used to produce humans—the Bible does not, to my understanding, teach that all other life on earth was brought into existence for the sake of humans. Rather, it teaches exactly the opposite. In the Genesis account, while the man and woman are told to “fill the earth and subdue it,” this must be understood in a sense imitative of God’s creative activity in restraining the wildness of the unformed universe and creating order and harmony. The same responsibility is in view when the man is put in the garden “to till it and keep it.” In other words, the special place of the human within creation (to anticipate our next discussion a bit) is to serve and bless all other life.

This is because, as I do understand the Bible to teach, God loves and values this life for its own sake. At the end of the opening creation account in Genesis, God surveys the finished creation and declares it all “very good.” God answers Job out of the whirlwind not by explaining everything that has befallen him, but rather by reassuring Job about His governance of the universe, detailing His intimate concern and care for all creatures right down to providing food for baby ravens when they “cry out to God” (Job 38:41). In a similar vein, Psalm 104 re-tells the story of creation with a particular view towards describing God’s continuing care of it. And Jesus told his disciples that a single sparrow would not fall to the ground “apart from your Father” (Matt. 10:29), referring not just to God’s knowledge, but to God’s presence and participation. (As Shakespeare put it in Hamlet, “There is special providence in the fall of a sparrow.”)

So we should understand that God views all life as valuable in itself and for its own sake. If God had brought simpler forms into being essentially as means of producing humans through evolution, even if this had been done in a much more “efficient” way than natural history records, this would have been inconsistent with the biblical portrayal of God. But to have caused a profusion of life to have flourished in various eras is not.

But what about the extinctions, some of them massive? Are not these incompatible with the work of a God who loves life so much? Not according to the Bible, which tells us that the same God who surveyed creation and proclaimed it “very good” later sent a great flood to “blot out from the face of the ground every living thing” (Gen. 7:4). These actions are not incompatible because it is possible to bring something about initially as an end in itself, but then subsume it to a higher end.

In the case of the flood, according to the Bible, the end was to renew the earth entirely after it had been corrupted by pervasive violence and wickedness. Smaller-scale divine judgments related in the Bible are said to have the same purpose: to cleanse and renew, not essentially to destroy. The plagues and pestilences of the Old Testament are an important issue in the area of “theodicy,” or “justifying the ways of God.” They are a problem with which thoughtful people of faith will always wrestle. But we can say this much about them here: There is certainly no conceptual inconsistency between the extinctions observed in the evolutionary process and biblical judgments such as the flood. (It would certainly not be consistent to object to the evolutionary process from a creationist perspective as unnecessarily wasteful, but then appeal to “flood geology” to explain the origin of fossils!)

It may be because of this problem of theodicy, in fact, that the earlier reviewer of our book who suggested the questions I’m taking up here spoke of “the loving, compassionate God revealed in the mission of Jesus of Nazareth,” rather than more generally of the “God revealed in the Bible.” Jesus certainly did reveal to us the love and compassion of God, supremely when he gave his own life for our salvation. But Jesus exhibited the qualities of both justice and mercy, in keeping with the self-disclosure of God throughout the Bible.

Jesus drove the money changers out of the temple with a whip (John 2:13-22 and parallels), prophesied that Capernaum would be cast down to Hades (Matt. 11:23, Luke 10:15), and warned that the scribes and Pharisees would not escape Gehenna (Matt. 23:33). Once again we must wrestle honestly and thoughtfully with the full range of the divine character as revealed here. But as we do, we will recognize that it is reasonable to suppose that God, as revealed in the pages of Scripture and specifically in the person of Jesus, would have employed a process such as evolution, which features both the lavish flourishing of life and small- and large-scale extinctions.

A final consideration we may introduce in a more positive light, as we ask whether God might have used a process such as evolution, is that the Bible describes it to be typical of God to begin a new thing by starting with something that already exists. It may be recalled from this post, for example, that the book of Genesis is really a story of “generations,” that is, what one person or thing after another “generated” or brought forth. Moreover, the various covenants that make up the story of redemptive history grow out of earlier covenants, adapting and modifying their provisions.

On an individual level, when God invites a person to enter His service, He typically asks, “What is in your hand?” This was God’s question to Moses, for example, who wondered how he would win the support and trust of the people he was called to deliver (Exodus 4:2). Similarly, when a widow cried out to Elisha for relief from a creditor, he asked her, “What do you have in the house?” (2 Kings 4:2). When Jesus fed the multitudes, he began with the five loaves and two fishes that a little boy had brought. The Genesis creation account itself is one of God shaping and ordering an already-existing chaotic mass, rather than one of strictly ex nihilo creation (creation out of nothing). So it is not inconsistent with the biblical understanding of God to believe that He created a diversity of life through a process of modification and adaptation.

All of these considerations show that it is not unreasonable to believe that the God revealed in the Bible would have worked through a process such as evolution.

A mosaic of the loaves and fishes that Jesus multiplied to feed a crowd of thousands. Jesus began this miracle by asking his disciples what they had on hand.

40 Is the evolutionary scenario brutal and wasteful, and so inconsistent with God’s character?

The rain forest, where life is found in some of its greatest profusion. “Why so much life?”

We may begin our exercise in “fishing in the middle of the lake” (that is, considering religious and scientific answers together) by exploring the question of God’s character in relationship to natural history. This question was posed very articulately by one reader of a draft version of our book, who urged us to address what he saw as the “incompatibility of the brutality and wastefulness of the evolutionary scenario with the idea of an all-wise, all-powerful, and all-loving God.” This reader asked, “Is it reasonable to suppose that the loving, compassionate God revealed in the mission of Jesus of Nazareth would employ such a process?”

While this question looks out over the lake, it is clearly posed from the side of faith and morals, not that of science and reason. The observation is being made that within the evolutionary process, a great number of different life forms come into being, but that they survive for greatly varying lengths of time. Only a very few survive for a significant portion of the total period of time for which we have fossil evidence, and it appears that all of them ultimately become extinct. This observation is being made specifically in value-laden language: The process is judged “brutal” and “wasteful.”

But that is not necessarily the case. The expenditure of life towards a goal is only “brutal” if it is done with disregard for the value of life. We do not consider a general brutal who wins a victory and perhaps ends a war at the cost of many casualties, if these were the minimum necessary to reach that end and if they have prevented the potential loss of a great many more lives. But we do consider a general brutal who thoughtlessly and needlessly sacrifices soldiers out of disregard for the value of their lives.

In the same way, the expenditure of any resource towards a goal is only “wasteful” if the expenditure is only a means to an end, not also an end in itself, and if that end could have been achieved with much less expenditure. Science would simply say, descriptively, that the evolutionary process has generated many kinds of life forms and that very few have survived for relatively longer periods of time. It is only when we superimpose certain premises—such as that God’s goal throughout the whole process was essentially to produce humans—that it may appear “brutal” and “wasteful.”

In the question, God is described, consistently with biblical teaching, as “all-wise, all-powerful, and all-loving.” The implication is that such a God would have known a different means by which to have created humans, and the species with which they currently share the planet, without needlessly sacrificing countless more species on the altar of natural selection; that this God would have been able to use this alternative means; and that this God would have cared enough about the creatures themselves to have used it, thus sparing them the brutal fate to which an evolutionary process would have consigned them.

There is a problem with this analysis, but is not in the description of God. It is rather in the description of evolution.

One can look at the evolutionary process and ask, “Why so much death?” The process itself seems to involve constant small-scale extinctions as less-adapted species are selected out, and historically it seems to have been punctuated by massive, planet-wide extinctions.

But when I look at the evolutionary process I wonder instead, “Why so much life?” If evolution were simply the means that an all-knowing, all-powerful, all-loving God were using to produce humans, it should not have taken nearly so long as it apparently did. I claim no expertise in this area, but apparently natural history does not describe a “straight line” development from simpler forms to the most complex ones. Rather, it finds many twists and turns and detours along the way.

How are we to explain these: that God did not know, or did not care, or was not able? Or that God loves life so much as to produce it in variety and abundance, for its own sake? Is it really kinder to a potential creature never to bring it into existence than to let it have its “day in the sun,” even if it ultimately “returns to the dust”? Was God inefficiently trying only to bring humans into existence? Or was God also receiving joy from making a beautiful variety of creatures along the way?

(These questions imply an explanation for why the development of biological diversity proceeded less directly and quickly than it conceivably might have. Admittedly, this explanation cannot be entertained within a biological perspective, from which the process is seen to be blind and ateleological, as will be discussed shortly. There is therefore no “potential creature” in the first place to consider giving a “day in the sun.” Even if such a creature might exist in the mind of God, it is not accessible to biological investigation. The need to ask questions that make sense only when seen from one shore illustrates the hazards of fishing in the middle of the lake! But we will continue to try to do just that as we pursue these questions in the next post.)

39 Fishing in the Middle of the Lake

In an earlier post, I (Christopher Smith) described how I reached the conclusion that there was nothing disloyal to God about deciding that the most reasonable interpretation of the observations biologists had made to date was that later, more complex life forms had developed from earlier, simpler ones in a process extending over time. To return to an analogy drawn in that same post, this conclusion has to do with the side of the “lake” on which science fishes, looking for answers to questions of what and when and how. But can such a conclusion ultimately be squared with what religion, and biblical Christianity in particular, has been pulling out of the other side of the lake for thousands of years, as it has offered answers to questions of why and who?

If it’s the same lake, that is, the work of the same God being viewed through different faculties (reason and faith), there ought not to be any essential differences in what the nature of this work implies about the character and actions of that God. This is an issue that must, however, be taken up in the “middle of the lake.” Science, on its own terms, can not validly entertain any discussion of what its findings might imply in a realm inaccessible to it. And faith cannot, by its own resources alone, determine that natural processes and natural history have been correctly understood.

Nevertheless, to the extent that it has understood them, faith has always held this natural evidence to disclose something about its own purpose, design and Designer. It has been doing so at least since David sang, “The heavens declare the glory of God, and the firmament shows forth his handiwork” (Psalm 19:1), and no doubt long before that. So it is appropriate to ask this same question based on our current understanding of the natural world. We must simply be mindful of the wisdom of not spending too much time in the middle of the lake before swimming back to one side or the other.

What are the issues, then, that we must take up as we consider whether natural history, as sketched by biological science today, is theologically compatible with the history of creation and redemption, as narrated in the Bible? I have heard many intriguing and stimulating questions posed along these lines over the years, but they all seem to me to fall into two large categories:

(1) The character of God: Could a God who might have used a process such as evolution in creating the world be the same God revealed to us in the Bible?

(2) The position of humans within creation: On what basis can it be said that they enjoy an elevated status, and how could their actions in relation to God have affected all other life on earth?

The questions in this latter category are numerous and significant. They include the following: (a) If humans developed from the same source as all other species, by the same process, on what basis can it be said that they enjoy a special status within creation, as the Bible teaches? (b) If the evolutionary process is “ateleological,” that is, not pursuing any particular goal, doesn’t this allow for the development of species beyond humankind? How would this square with the Bible’s teaching that humans are the goal and culmination of God’s creation? (c) If, as the Bible teaches, death entered the world first through the disobedience of humans, how could death have been active within the evolutionary process for billions of years before there were any people? (d) How are we to understand the Bible’s teaching that because of this disobedience the created world has “fallen” from a formerly pristine state, if it has rather come about through an uninterrupted process that has led to greater and greater complexity?

In the following posts, I will take up each of these issues in turn. While it may not be possible to resolve all of the questions definitively, we will certainly pursue them. Much can be done to show that the scientific and biblical accounts are not as incompatible as they are sometimes thought to be.

38 The basis of our confidence in the Bible’s moral authority (Part 4)

We should instead see inspiration of the Bible not in the process, but in the product. This is consistent with the way we approach the rest of life as people of faith. Even though we understand rain formation in empirical terms, when it rains after a long dry spell, we still lift our eyes to heaven and thank God for sending the rain. And many of those who have concluded that the most reasonable explanation of the story told in fossils is that biological diversity is the result of an uninterrupted natural process nevertheless consider human beings to possess worth and dignity because they are “created in the image of God.” (This is one of the fundamental underpinnings of the notions of equality and human rights, for example.) So even though the Scriptures do not appear to be the result of a process that is qualitatively different from the normal one of composition, we can nevertheless recognize them by faith to be the word of God, supremely authoritative in matters of faith and practice.

To speak of our own faith testifying to the divine origin and moral authority of the scriptures is to acknowledge that while the Bible is the supreme authority in the life of the Christian, it is not the only authority. Just as the sacraments have three components—they constitute (1) the church bearing witness to (2) the work of God (3) in the life of an individual—so there is a “triangle of authority” that may be well understood by analogy to this “sacramental triangle.” The analogy is this: (1) God, through the Bible (recorded by individuals in a community in covenant relationship with God); (2) the community, through its historic teaching, creeds, and ongoing communal search for understanding (influenced by God and its individual members); (3) and the individual, through faith, reason, and experience (influenced by God and the community), all contribute to the confidence a Christian may have on any question of belief or practice, including the question of what authority or authorities to place confidence in. In other words, while the Bible can and does speak of its own inspiration and authority, it does not have to be exclusively self-attesting. There are two other authorities that support its claims.

The Bible’s own teaching about itself is well-known. “All Scripture is inspired by God” (2 Timothy 3:16). “No prophecy of Scripture is a matter of one’s own interpretation, because no prophecy ever came by the impulse of man, but men moved by the Holy Spirit spoke from God” (2 Peter 1:20-21). “The Spirit of the Lord spoke through me; his words were upon my tongue” (2 Samuel 23:2). If we believe what the Bible says about itself, we will accept it as the inspired word of God. But how can we know whether to believe the Bible’s own self-description? We have already seen that we should not look for “magical” features that point to a superhuman process of composition. What, then, should we do?

We can, first of all, add to the Bible’s own testimony that of the church, which is a second, even if subordinate, authority in the life of the Christian. After much debate in its early centuries, the church declared that the books currently in our Bible were the ones it believed God had led it to embrace as Scripture. This declaration was made, and has been maintained ever since, with virtual unanimity.

A manuscript of the Diatessaron, the life of Jesus told as a single story by combining the four gospels. It was created in the mid-Second Century by Tatian and is accepted in place of the gospels by a small number of Christian communions.

A few historic communions in the Middle East have retained in their Bibles only a single gospel, a combination of the four canonical ones known as the “Diatessaron” (meaning “from four”). Some parts of the church include in their Bibles the books known to Protestants as the “apocrypha,” but even so they acknowledge that these books do not meet the same standard as the others; they are therefore also known as “deuterocanonical,” or “meeting a second (lower) standard.” Martin Luther, early in the Reformation, put Hebrews, James, Jude and Revelation in an appendix at the back of the Bible, arguing that these books did not “preach Christ,” but later in his life he moved to a higher view of them and restored them to full status. These are the kinds of exceptions—and they are admittedly very minor—that can be cited to the otherwise unanimous acceptance throughout the church, throughout history, of the books in our Bible. Thus the church puts its authority behind the Bible’s own claims about itself.

A third authority does the same. Our individual faith as Christians testifies to us that the Bible we read is the word of God. This faith, moreover, is reasonable. That is, it is supported by another dimension of the individual component of authority: reason. It is not a leap in the dark. Is not a book that teaches love for God and neighbor as the supreme duty, that disallows all spiritual privileges based on human distinctions, that tells the story of God coming in person to save those who could not save themselves, that holds out the promise of life in the Spirit to those who have God’s laws written on their hearts, that teaches us to care for the weak and the needy as if we were caring for our Lord himself—is not such a book reasonably the word of the God whose character it reflects in these ways?

Our faith and reason themselves may appeal to the testimony that the church has borne to the Bible’s inspiration down through the ages. They may also appeal to the love shown for this book by those who have been most godly and compassionate. But in the end, we must walk by faith, and not by sight. The Bible was never meant to take the place of God. Having a relationship with a book is no substitute for having a relationship with the person spoken of in its pages, and who speaks through its pages. (Even less satisfactory is having a relationship with a myth about that book, a myth that closer acquaintance will inevitably explode.) The Bible does not give us the answer to any possible question we might ask it. But it does introduce us to the one who can live inside us as we work out our salvation with fear and trembling, in abiding fellowship with the ultimate source of our being.

We do not, therefore, need to believe that the biblical authors were given natural-scientific insights far beyond the capabilities of their cultures in order to maintain our faith in the Bible as the inspired word of God and our supreme authority in matters of faith and practice.

37 The basis of our confidence in the Bible’s moral authority (Part 3)

To continue this discussion of the basis of our confidence in the Bible’s moral authority, we can demonstrate much more simply that the Bible appears to have been composed in much the same way as other literary products not attributed to the action of God, and so its authority does not come from a magical character. We do not need to settle definitively the questions of cosmogony (“how the world began”) or eschatology (“how the world ends,” presumed to be the subject of much biblical prophecy) that are likely to be the subjects of perpetual debate among readers of the Scriptures. We may simply observe the biblical writers at work.

At one point in his epistle, for example, the author of Hebrews is trying to warn his readers against spiritual complacency. The metaphor he chooses is “striving to enter God’s rest.” To demonstrate that “there remains a sabbath rest for the people of God,” he quotes the opening section of the book of Genesis, where it is written, “And God rested on the seventh day from all his works.” The only problem is, the author of Hebrews doesn’t seem to remember exactly where this is written, so he introduces this quotation by saying of God, “he has somewhere spoken of the seventh day in this way” (emphasis added).

If our expectation of the Bible is that it came about through a process that is qualitatively distinct from the normal process of composition, in that God inspired and aided the authors, would it not be reasonable to anticipate that God would at least have helped this author remember that the statement he wanted to quote came from one of the most conspicuous passages in all of the Hebrew Scriptures? If God were going supernaturally to override ordinary human weaknesses in the composition process in order to signal a divinely inspired product, this would have been an awfully good place to intervene!

But it is not the only such place. Paul confesses to imperfections of memory on his own part, even as he is composing what we consider an inspired epistle, when he writes to the Corinthians, “I do not know whether I baptized anyone else” besides Crispus, Gaius and the household of Stephanus (1 Cor. 1:14-16, emphasis added).

His admonitions to these same Corinthians about marriage provide another insight into the “ordinary” process of composition behind this epistle. He prefaces these various admonitions with statements about the source of their authority. “To the married I give charge, not I but the Lord, that the wife should not separate from her husband,” he says at the beginning of his discussion (1 Cor. 7:10). But shortly afterwards he writes, “To the rest I say, not the Lord,” that a believing husband should not divorce an unbelieving wife (v. 12). And he later writes, “Now concerning the unmarried, I have no command of the Lord, but I give my opinion as one who by the Lord’s mercy is trustworthy” (v. 25).

It is important to explain that when Paul writes “the Lord says,” or speaks of a “command of the Lord,” he is referring to statements of Jesus on various subjects passed down to him through Christian tradition (as in 1 Cor. 11:23, “I received from the Lord what I also passed on to you”). He is not speaking of a direct revelation from God to him on a subject about which he was seeking guidance.

So the contrast here is not between (1) subjects on which God had “inspired” him and (2) those on which God had not sent inspiration but on which Paul was writing anyway. (This would constitute evidence that the Bible, by its own admission, is not uniformly inspired!) Rather, the contrast is between (1) instruction passed down from Jesus and (2) instruction that Paul is giving “as one who by the Lord’s grace is trustworthy.” In neither case does he consciously understand or describe himself to be inspired as he writes, even though the church has judged him to have been inspired as he wrote. Indeed, even within his own generation, the apostle Peter classified Paul’s letters with “the other Scriptures” (2 Peter 3:15-16). But in whatever way Peter, as an inspired writer himself, recognized Paul’s epistles as Scripture when he read them, it was not because he saw that Paul always knew just what to say because God told him directly as he was writing.

The end of 1 Peter and the beginning of 2 Peter in the Papyrus Bodmer (c. 3rd Century A.D.), the oldest source for Peter’s second epistle, in which he describes Paul’s letters as “Scriptures.”

Nor was it because Paul never made a mistake, even when he was referring to the earlier Scriptures themselves. When he was warning the Corinthians against immorality, for example, he appealed to the experience of a previous generation of Israelites and wrote, “We must not indulge in immorality as some of them did, and twenty-three thousand fell in a single day” (1 Cor. 10:8). The chastising plague Paul is referring to is described in Numbers 25, but we discover there that the total of its victims was actually twenty-four thousand. Some have suggested that the confusion arose in Paul’s mind because immediately afterwards a census is reported and the tribe of Levi, which was instrumental in stopping the plague, is reported to have had twenty-three thousand men of fighting age (Num. 26:62). But whatever the explanation, Paul got the number wrong, contrary to what we would expect if we understand “inspiration” to mean a divine overruling of the normal composition process, a process that ordinarily does include such lapses of memory.

Some Christians are so insistent, however, that inspiration must consist in such divine intervention that they have developed elaborate theories to account for phenomena such as the “missing thousand” of 1 Cor. 10:8. It has been asserted in all seriousness, for example, that the actual number who fell in the plague was 23,500, and that the author of Numbers is rounding up, while Paul is rounding down. There are many obvious objections to this assertion. Paul knew about the plague only by reading the Scriptures, where the number given is 24,000, so he really never faced the question of whether to round 23,500 up or down. Even if someone were to make the extreme claim that God supernaturally revealed the real number to Paul, why would he, as an inspired author, have rounded down, when the earlier inspired author had rounded up? What is the “inspired” way to handle a half-thousand? It seems to be different in the case of two different “inspired” authors. What this proposal is ultimately saying is that the Bible gives the wrong number in two places, not just one!

But what is most dangerous about such proposals is that they create a “meta-text,” that is, another version of events beyond that of the Bible’s. This “meta-text” ends up saying things that the Bible doesn’t say anywhere, such as that 23,500 fell in the plague, or that Jesus cleansed the temple twice. (This explanation is adopted to account for John’s description of the cleansing at the beginning of Jesus’s ministry even though Matthew, Mark and Luke place it at the end.) But even though it says things the Bible doesn’t say, this meta-text possesses greater authority, because the Bible is made answerable to it. We thus surrender the Bible’s supreme authority while trying to establish its inspiration, if we insist on understanding inspiration as divine intervention in an otherwise natural process.

36 The basis of our confidence in the Bible’s moral authority (Part 2)

In my last post, I argued that when biblical writers such as Matthew speak of a prophecy being “fulfilled,” they don’t mean that a foreseen future  has come to pass. Rather, they mean that sayings or events from an earlier point in the biblical story have taken on a fuller and deeper meaning in light of later redemptive-historical developments.

We may appeal to American history for an illustration of this sense of “fulfillment.” When Thomas Jefferson wrote in the Declaration of Independence in 1776 that “we hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal,” he said this to challenge the premise that kings rule by divine right and that their subjects therefore ow them the kind of unquestioning loyalty they would offer to God. (That is, he said this to justify a revolutionary independence movement.)

But when Abraham Lincoln observed in his Gettysburg Address of 1863 that our nation was “dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal,” he meant instead that slavery was incompatible with the fundamental premises of American society.

And when Martin Luther King said, in his “I Have a Dream” speech of 1963, appropriately delivered from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, that he longed for the day when our nation would “rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident; that all men are created equal,’” he explained that in such a nation, people would “not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.” This is how the “true” or “fulfilled” (fullest and deepest) meaning of Jefferson’s words would be realized, according to King.

The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., greets the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, Aug. 28, 1963.

By this same analogy, in Matt. 1:23 the gospel writer is announcing that Isaiah’s words have taken on a fuller and deeper meaning. The Greek translation of Isaiah’s original words has helped this happen: Isaiah uses the term “maiden.” (The original Hebrew term refers to a young woman, married or unmarried, who has not yet had a child; in Isaiah’s original context, it probably indicates Ahaz’s queen, who became the mother of Hezekiah.) The Greek reads, more intensively, “virgin.” Moreover, “Emmanuel” is no longer the boy’s name, but rather an explanation of his identity — “God with us.” These two intensified aspects of meaning are brought out when the original statement is heard in the light of later developments as the plan of God unfolds.

The case is similar with “out of Egypt have I called my son.” “Son” is no longer a metaphorical description of the nation of Israel, but another accurate disclosure of Jesus’ identity.

As for “he shall be called a Nazarene,” the best explanation seems to be that this was a geographic term of derision (as in John 1:46, “Can anything good come from Nazareth?”), much like “Okie” during the Dust Bowl years. This term “Okie” was applied to people from Oklahoma and nearby areas similarly affected by prolonged drought who migrated West in search of work and food. It ceased to mean “someone from Oklahoma” and came to mean something closer to “gypsy.” Matthew, in his appeal to the prophets, is summarizing their many statements that the servant of God would be “despised and rejected.” (The quotation here is indirect, not direct like the preceding ones, and thus does not belong within quotation marks, although some modern Bibles present it that way.) Other announcements of prophetic “fulfillment” may be understood similarly.

None of this should be taken to mean, however, that those who knew God could not have spoken in prescient ways about the deliverance He would send. They were able to do this, and did so, precisely because they knew the ways of God. Moreover, we must not rule out the existence of an actual “gift of prophecy,” given to humans, through which God discloses details of what He will work to bring about in the future, so that those in the present may take moral warning.

One clear example of prophecy-as-foreseeing is the prediction a prophet made to Jereboam, recorded in 1 Kings 13:2, that a king named Josiah would one day defile the altar he had built to rival the one in Jerusalem. This prediction was fulfilled, not in the Matthean sense, but quite literally, three hundred years later, as described in 2 Kings 23:15-18. Another example is Jesus’ prediction that Peter would deny him three times before the cock crowed the following morning (Luke 22:34 and 54-62, with parallels in Matthew and Mark). Jesus’ estimate of Peter’s impetuous character could certainly have led him to predict that despite his bravado, Peter would deny him. But how would Jesus have known, without divinely-granted insight, how many times, and by when? So there are indeed examples in the Bible of prophetic fulfillment in the sense of “a future foreseen come to pass.”

Nevertheless, these examples do not provide proof of the supernatural inspiration of the writer who recorded them. They take place, after all, within a single continuous narrative that has been recorded after the fact. So they are not offered to demonstrate prophetic insight on the part of the writer. These predictions and fulfillments are rather recounted for other reasons. The far-off but inevitable doom of Jereboam’s altar is proclaimed from its very foundation as a warning against idolatry. And Jesus’ prediction about Peter shows that even as he went to his death, he was full of divine power and knowledge, and that it was therefore willingly that he surrendered himself for our sakes. The account is meant to fill us with gratitude and admiration for Jesus, in other words—not for Luke!

As we seek to understand the Bible’s concept of “fulfillment,” we must also recognize the significance of “intertextuality,” that is, of the new meanings texts take on when they are read in the presence of other texts. For the Christian who believes that the Bible is the inspired word of God, one implication is that it is God Himself who has juxtaposed the texts in question. Divine intention can therefore be seen in connections that would have been impossible for the original authors to have made, since they wrote far apart from one another in both time and place.

The word spoken to the serpent in Genesis 3:15, for example, “I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your seed and her seed; he shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise his heel,” may have meant in its original context only that animals formerly subject to humans would now turn wild and dangerous. But within the pages of the biblical collection, there is now an intertextuality by which these words can be understood validly as a Messianic prophecy, even though the New Testament itself does not make this connection expliclity. This prophecy was fulfilled by the victory of Jesus over the devil at the cross.

But if such “fulfillments” are instead to serve as our guarantee of the divine inspiration of the Scriptures, all of them, without exception, must be examples of uncannily accurate prediction. It simply does not suffice for Isaiah to look 700 years into the future, see a boy miraculously born to a “maiden” or “virgin,” but then get his name wrong. We have a right to expect better than this from God, if we are looking for supernatural proofs.

And if what we think should be happening really isn’t, then we must re-examine our expectations themselves. Has God really promised us that his word can be recognized as his word even without faith? Did not Jesus say that it is “an evil and adulterous generation that seeks a sign” (Matthew 12:39)? If no such signs were granted in the case of the living Word, we should not expect them in the case of the written word, either.