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. First, what is the role of death in creation? I’ll deal with that here. Second, how do we understand death coming into the world in light of Christian scripture (particularly Genesis 2-3 and Hebrews) and evolutionary biology? I’ll deal with that in the next post.
A matter of life and death, and Life and Death
The first thing I would say is that it’s important to make a distinction between life and eternal life. I have already posted on the presence of the Holy Spirit, the breath that divides non-existence from existence, non-life from life, animal life from human life, and human life from eternal life. All of these things are life and all of them are blessings, but they are not all the same thing. I want to affirm that it all occurs by the breath of God moving in creation and yet, in a critical way, there is a fullness in the latter that isn’t present in the former. There is a fulfillment of creation in eternal life.
Similarly, we must make a distinction between death and eternal death, or what Francis of Assisi called “sister death of the body” and death of the soul. See Matthew 10:28, where the soul >and< the body are destroyed. This is inconsistent with most popular notions of Hell, where the body is destroyed but the soul remains. The part I want to emphasize is that death of the soul and death of the body are presented as different things.
The Life of the World
God, through Jesus Christ in eternity, did a curious thing. Dead does not mean “not-alive”; rather it means should be alive or used to be alive. Human beings were created such that we can pass through death into life. Specifically, our bodies can die to be replaced by new bodies (resurrection bodies or spiritual bodies) while our soul persists. Mind you, I don’t think the soul ever exists separate from any body; it goes to sleep in this body and wakes in the next. There is never a live soul in a dead body, though there may be a living soul in a body that once died. The soul need not die with the body.
Life arises from non-life by the movement of the Holy Spirit. Death, an end of life, comes about through the departure of the same Spirit. Death of the body occurs when the dust of the earth is no longer enlivened by the breath of God. Thus, when Jesus “breathes his last”, he is really surrendering that same Spirit. There is now less inspired dust, but no less spirit than there was before. By grace, God resuscitates us by breathing that same spirit into a new body (probably in the exact form of the old body, but this is a great mystery).
Death of the soul means that the partnership of breath and body comes to a final end. I must confess to some confusion here, for the dust returns to the earth and the breath returns to God. What becomes of the individual?
Option A: the refiner’s furnace (Isaiah 48:10; Daniel 11:35; Zechariah 13), the fuller’s lye (Isaiah 1:25; Malachi 3:2-3), the reaping of the weeds (Matthew 13:24-30), and shaking away that which is loose (Hebrews 12:27-28). It may be that the wicked perish and cease to exist. With C.S. Lewis in The Great Divorce, I fear it is possible to so alienate ourselves from the breath of God that we cease to be. There is no me in me, only God enlivening the dust. To fully remove the breath is to cease to exist.
Option B: the old yeast (Matthew 16:6; Luke 12:1; I Corinthians 5:8), evil spirits or unclean spirits (Luke 11; Acts 19). It may be that bodies can be animated by spirits that are not the Holy Spirit. Such is the medieval notion of demon possession. This requires something truly evil to subsist is inconsistent with Omnipotence and makes God only the most powerful entity within the cosmos, rather than the Supreme Governor of the cosmos. It also too easily justifies doing harm to animate creatures. Personally, I don’t see how anything can exist without some breath of God moving within it, so it makes more sense to me to view these as infections of a live host by other living, albeit very sick, creatures. That throws us back to option A.
Existence must be form of life and health. Death is a cessation of that health; it cannot be its opposite. So, I cannot conceive of truly eternal life in Hell, but I can imagine a very protracted form of self-asphyxiation, for those who insist on remaining in the fire until the last whiff of Divine breath fades away. I can also imagine bodies which die with so little Spirit left in them that there is not enough to enliven a spiritual body. These once individuals simply cease to be upon the death of their bodies. Really the only question for me is between universalism, in which some small part of every person is saved, and some form of soul annihilation, in which souls fade away to nothingness. I just don’t know how long the process takes and whether it is completed the time the body dies. Death of the soul means a weakening or elimination of some individual in eternity.
Death exercised dominion
I suspect that death of the body could happen in the Garden of Eden. To everything there is a season, even death (Ecclesiastes 3:2). Plants died so that humans and animals could live. There was, however, profound harmony such that everything was within its proper bounds; those things that died, died at the right time. By eating the apple, Adam and Eve acquired the ability to choose good and evil for themselves, to hold the illusion that there could be life without Spirit, good without God, light and truth without the Light and the Truth. They learned to alienate themselves from the breath that animated them. And, perhaps even worse, they refused to reconcile with God, who sought them out and tried to have a conversation. Read closely. Adam and Eve hid and then passed the buck. It was not just a trespass, but a refusal to communicate about it that sealed their fate. By sin came death.
I do not know whether this factually happened. I doubt it, I suppose. I think it is true because it reveals something about the way we, as humans, with the breath of God in us, can also choose death. It’s hard for me to imagine the population genetics working out with a population of two. And did Cain and Seth marry their sisters? Ew. Honestly, I don’t see any benefit from assuming it to be factually true and I think it distracts from the central message about our relationship with God. That said I’m also not committed to it being factually false. That’s not the point of the story! Better to keep our eyes on the prize of the goal of the heavenly kingdom, a peaceable kingdom where we are once again in profound harmony.
Jesus, according to tradition, did not just die in body. In some miraculous way, Christ wandered from the Spirit in such a way that he could step outside the garden and invite Adam and Eve back in. We say the he “harrowed” Hell. God chased after us in life and in dying, and in earthly life again. In doing so, he baptized death of the body.
I believe that Kingdom life is eternal. I do not know about Adam and Eve. Perhaps they would never have died in the flesh, had they not tried to separate themselves from life. I do know that most humans live in fear of death of the body. I know that we use it as an excuse to run away from the Spirit and so die in soul. Jesus has shown us that the two need not be tied together and that God is willing to chase after us into the darkness.