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. I have attempted to answer briefly here. My last two posts go into greater detail on the role of death in creation and the role of death in history.
Was death part of God’s design for Creation?
Death of the body is part of the natural bounds set by God in creation. It is right and good and sometimes even a joyful thing. Death of the soul represents the possibility that humans can diverge from God’s harmony. We allow this to enter into creation when we cling to the illusion of our separateness and thus will ourselves out of that harmony into nothingness.
It is not substantial, so it needs no explanation in the scientific sense. It is painful, so it requires an explanation in the emotional and narrative senses. I don’t think there is one answer that can fill that function for everyone. For me, I place more faith in my personal relationship with God than in my personal feelings of pain.
When the Bible talks about Sin bringing death, how can we interpret this?
Death of the soul is the result of sin. We exist as individuals only when inspired by the Holy Spirit. Death of the soul comes about through rejection of the Spirit, returning us to dust. The residue has no claim on individuality; it is at most a fleeting echo of that which was inspired.
This does not mean we should not fear Hell, for we can anticipate great pain, causing suffering to ourselves and others, if we attempt to annihilate ourselves.
With evolution, death was already in the picture before humankind came into being…how can we reconcile that with traditional understandings about sin/death?
Death of the body was around before humanity. Death of the soul… I do not know. I will accept the possibility that non-human life, from bacteria to angels, may be capable of sin and righteousness. I accept with certainty (strong confidence really) that I am capable of sin and righteousness. I know that I make choices under the influence of societal and evolutionary constraints, but trust that my good will has a good effect. Therefore I will good.
Also, Jesus offered eternal life. However, if death was already planned in God’s creation, then it was not really a problem to begin with – it was something he intended; independent of our deeds. So, if this is the case, did Jesus’ resurrection really “undo” the consequences of sin, or did he alter the state of existence?
Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection both demonstrate and effect God’s reaching out into the dominion of death to call us back to life. As a human Jesus suffered the corrupting influence of society and biology and yet did not sin. As a human Jesus spoke as one at harmony with God and other humans. He was a demonstration, a request, and the seed of a new, healthy community – the kingdom of God. In dying, Jesus revealed God’s willingness to be subject to human will, even unto death, lest we mistake his presence among us as a visit and not a communion. In dying Jesus suffered that separation of body and soul we fear so greatly and so he speaks to us even in that moment when the illusion of disharmony is greatest. He descended to the dead so that even the dead might rise with him. I do not know that all will; I trust that all could. In rising to new life, Jesus invites us into a greater life which we can only find in having suffered with God. I do not know how this can be, but I know that it is. I know that God miraculously allows grace to arise in pain suffered together. Jesus solved the problem of our wandering away from God, by walking out into the darkness and inviting us back in (Luke 15, Matthew 22).