A History of Death

My friend Gianluca sent me several questions about evolution, death, and Christianity.  They seem to be fairly common, so I thought I would post my answers here. I see two main pieces to the problem. In my last post, I addressed how death could be part of God’s world, conceptually. In this post, I try to tackle how it could have happened historically.

1) I believe there was death of the body in the Garden of Eden. Genesis 1:29-30: God said, ‘See, I have given you every plant yielding seed that is upon the face of all the earth, and every tree with seed in its fruit; you shall have them for food. And to every beast of the earth, and to every bird of the air, and to everything that creeps on the earth, everything that has the breath of life, I have given every green plant for food.’ Genesis 2:16 And the Lord God commanded the man, ‘You may freely eat of every tree of the garden;

The fundamentalist position that there was literally no death in the garden only works if you distinguish between plant death and animal death and I don’t see any warrant for that in the text or in biology. As to whether the human body might have died, I cannot say. I will speculate that had Adam and Eve eaten of the tree of life – the other tree in the midst of the garden, which was not forbidden – perhaps they would have put on spiritual flesh in the resurrection sense. Genesis 3:22-23 Then the Lord God said, ‘See, the man has become like one of us, knowing good and evil; and now, he might reach out his hand and take also from the tree of life, and eat, and live for ever’ – therefore the Lord God sent him forth from the garden of Eden, to till the ground from which he was taken. I suspect that the expulsion from the garden was as much mercy as punishment, for eating of both trees (in the wrong order) may have ended in eternal separateness from God.

2) I believe that there was not death of the soul in the Garden of Eden. This is the death that resulted from the fall, from Adam and Eve’s transgression and their refusal to reconcile with God. If the story is not factual/historical, there is no need to map Adam and Eve onto real ancestors of living humans; there is, however, still the problem of evil. How, if God made the world good, could death of the soul have entered in? And if it did, when did it do so?

The problem as I framed it has to do with identifying the good as something other than the good seen by God. We’re looking for an event that has to do with a will. I have heard of a number of plausible options. Let me say that I take them as interesting speculation, but not essential to making the right choice now. I wade into this with the caveat that these should be taken cautiously and not as the foundation for moral arguments.

A) The Atemporal Solution. Origen and other early Christian (leaning gnostic) thinkers suggested that the choice between good and evil was made in eternity. Either by accident or by will all the souls of all time were sorted into good and bad. Time reflects either the playing out of the consequences (justice) or the opportunity for repentance (mercy) for those who did not choose perfectly. Downside: counterintuitive.

B) The Trial Solution. The Book of Job suggests that the Adversary is a member of God’s court, always acting in God’s interests but against the interests of humans. In this interpretation, all of human existence is a trial of sorts, in which we discover if humanity is worthy of eternal life. This brings deeper meaning to the idea of Jesus Christ as our Advocate. Think of two lawyers arguing before the Divine Throne. Downside: God becomes less benevolent, at least from the human perspective.

Both A and B basically move the “original sin” out of the timeline so that it exists necessarily from the physical creation until the apocalypse.

C) The Insertion Solution. CS Lewis and other early 20th century theologians have suggested that a lineage of primates became human through a miraculous transubstantiation at some point in geologic time. Under this model we can imagine an early population of proto-humans into which God inserts souls. They become human and live in harmony with their environment until a few of them, out of illness or confusion or diabolic intervention (see B) did something to break that harmony. Language, tool use, weapon use, fire, and agriculture have all been proposed both as the advent of souls and the “original sin.” Downside: It seems a bit arbitrary and prone to ideological hijacking.

D) The Gradual Solution. Teilhard de Chardin and other early 20th century theologians have suggested that creation represents a gradual movement from chaos to order. Humans are part of the process of God shaking out the bad bits. Thus “original sin” was not an event, but the inertia of the chaotic deep from which we are arising. Downside: tends toward chaos/cosmos dualism and, consequently, body/soul dualism.

I lean toward A, myself. I think we deal with the bad choices made by ourselves and others. It is an “original” sin in that it forms part of our environment from which we cannot escape. It is inherited in that we find ourselves part of corrupt systems, but not in any essential sense.


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