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Evolution, death, and all that

I’m a Christian who happily accepts mainstream scientific reflection on natural history. So, how does a “theistic evolutionist” like me deal with their personal set of curly questions?

Here’s how Mikey put the question yesterday:

It’s hard to process millions of years of disease, death-by-exposure, cancer, crippling mutation and hominids killing each other that theistic evolution requires.

My initial response was, well, it’s no more puzzling than God’s baby-killer ostrich and bloodsucking hawks, right?

And this is a timely topic, too. In the last few months, the historical Adam has become a popular point of discussion in American Protestant circles. It was a Christianity Today cover story in June, and Biologos and the Jesus Creed blog have both been steadily exploring it.

The fact that this particular issue has come to the fore indicates that the “origins debate” has changed: many evangelical Christians are now exploring how evolution fits within Christianity rather than reacting antagonistically to it.

Back to Mikey’s question: what is a Christian to do with apparent pre-fall chaos? I’ve jotted down a few more thoughts, but instead of looking at science and the primal couple, I’ve taken a more biblical-theological angle, plus some inspiration from the church fathers.

See what you think!

ZERO. The creation was made very good — that is, just how God wanted it to be, the fitting backdrop to God’s work. However — and this is worth emphasising — the creation was not initially perfected; the creation was always incomplete.

Here are two reasons for this, which form complementary reasons why “pre-fall chaos” shouldn’t alarm us.

ONE. Humanity was commanded to extend God’s sanctuary-garden over the whole creation. The creation required an ongoing co-creative work of filling and multiplying. From the beginning, there was a whole planet awaiting the arrival of Eden. And, mysteriously, there was also a crooked serpent in the garden. This is all part of the pre-fall picture.

Even if we cannot say that chaos has always been present, there remains a sense in which the very good creation was always anticipating further manifestations of divine order.

TWO. The creation finds its perfection only in Christ, the true human. The creation was always waiting to be swept further up into the life of God through God’s representative image-bearers. Humans failed in this task, but humanity completes its task in Christ.

SALVATION. As Protestants, we’ve come to emphasise the post-fall brokenness of creation, in which case salvation is all about redemption: rescue, repair, correction.

However, there’s also a second dimension of salvation: the upward movement into the life of God. (This was something particularly identified by Irenaeus & co as part of “recapitulation”.) Adam and Eve weren’t created in perfected form, but were created for an eternity of moving ever closer to God. Sin derailed this trajectory; Christ restores it and completes it.

So then, if salvation is about not only redemption but also perfection, this leaves us with some relevant questions:

• What if the fall is not the ultimate before-and-after event?

• What if pre-to-post-fall is not the primary movement in history?

It seems to me that the recovery of this second dimension of salvation alleviates some of our anxiety about natural history.

How does this sound to you? What seem to be the ongoing issues here?

Categories: Uncategorized Written by Arthur

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Arthur Davis

Arthur Davis is an Aussie living in Tanzania, writing at

20 replies

  1. Does this mean your thinking has changed since the old Logos forum days (if I’m remembering correctly, you objected to the idea that there was death before the fall, if not, ignore this question)? What prompted the move?

  2. I don’t remember being all that concerned about pre-fall death. The main change has been rejecting Intelligent Design, which I was mostly interested in because of vestigial notions that science is an atheist stronghold…

  3. Hey Arthur,

    I don’t really understand the contours of the debate. Does it go like this —

    1. Assume that Adam and Eve actually existed, and that the Fall was a historical event;
    2. Also assume that humans, as a species, evolved over millennia;
    3. Try to determine a theology of life pre-Adam and Eve in the Garden?

  4. Luke, I’ve edited the post slightly to show that the point about salvation starts there. Ask the question again if needs be.

    Tom, yeah something like that. There are at least two concurrent issues:

    We assume that the creation account is true. The question is, In what sense? (Does it require an actual primal couple? Or does it reflect a primal community? Or is it still more artistic than that?)

    We also assume that our (scientific) accounts of natural history provide us with true pictures of what the Universe is like.

    From there, it’s not a matter of harmonising the two so much as working out what the overlaps and difficulties are…

  5. As well as the “death before sin” question…
    Is there (& was there always) a clear line between humans (in the image of God) and animals?
    If so, would there have been a discontinuity – the first humans born of non-humans?

  6. It sounds like it would be difficult to follow this line without accepting that at least to some degree the Genesis story of creation and fall is metaphorical rather than historical. I personally think this is the only sensible way to read them. However this leaves me with a problem – to what extent is the story of redemption also metaphorical? When Paul says in Rom 5:19 “just as through the disobediance of one man many were made sinners, so also through the obedience of one man many were made righteous” we would read the first part of this statement as metaphorical. How would re read the second part?

  7. Thanks Arthur — I think I understand it now.

    Jon — that’s a really great question. There’s also the possibility that Paul was mistaken to the first ‘limb’ of Rom 5:19 as historical. So, the verse illustrates Paul’s understanding of recent history by analogy with his understanding of (purported) distant history. If he was mistaken about the distant history, it doesn’t necessarily mean that the analogy does not stand.

    So, perhaps the verse could be read as “just as through the disobedience of one man many were made sinners (metaphorically), so also (by analogy with the metaphor) through the obedience of one man many were made righteous (literally).”

    Just a thought.

  8. We often make analogies with the fictional or legendary.

    “It’s like when you have a frog in slowly boiling water”

  9. Tom: You gotta be *really* careful when you start doing that: “Paul *couldn’t* have meant this literally, so it *has* to be a metaphor instead” (I’m not saying you’re that strident, but it’s a slippery slope.

    Tim Keller puts it well:
    “The key for interpretation is the Bible itself. I don’t think the author of Genesis 1 wants us to take the “days” literally, but it is clear that Paul definitely does want readers to take Adam and Eve literally. When you refuse to take a biblical author literally when he clearly wants you to do so, you have moved away from the traditional understanding of biblical authority.”


  10. Hey &y

    Perhaps — but isn’t that really the theological nub of this problem? I.e: how do you interpret Scripture where a ‘traditional’ understanding appears untenable in the light of other objective evidence? Of course it’s difficult, but I think it’s unavoidable for modern Christians.

    I agree with Tim Keller’s point that the view that the rejection of a historical Adam and Eve is doctrinally risky. My view, however, is that there is just as much doctrinal risk in trying to preserve a particular interpretation of Scripture, especially regarding historical aspects, in the face of strong historical/scientific evidence to the contrary.

    I think Keller’s article fails to address the premise of the question posed at the start: what if there were no historical Adam and Eve? What does that do to Paul’s teaching, and what interpretive challenges arise?

  11. @ &y and Tom

    Keller says, “it is clear that Paul definitely does want readers to take Adam and Eve literally”. I’m not really sure it’s as clear a Keller thinks. Tom’s and Eric’s explanations make more sense to me. Paul makes an analogy with the Adam and Eve story because it is a foundational story of Jewish belief (and something his predominantly Jewish readers would know intimately), not necessarily because he saw it as a literal, historical account.

  12. Jon: No, not an analogy. It makes *no* sense to speak of Jesus’ *literal*, historical redemption reversing the effects of a purely *literary*, mythical Fall caused by a literary, mythical Adam. That’s intellectually poor.

    If Adam is not a real person, who really caused the Fall of humankind into real sin and real separation from God, then one has to ask exactly what Jesus’ death and resurrection saves us from?

  13. Keller’s article is quite revealing, in that it shows that the real goal here is to protect a particular soteriology, a ‘federal’ and covenantal view of original sin and redemption. If you are not wedded to that view, then the question of the historical individual Adam loses its urgency. I think the Romans 5 is bearing too heavy a theological load in many systems – it ends up being the hinge of the whole of Christian theology.

  14. @Jon and Andrew Bowles:

    Yes, I agree with both your points.


    I don’t think the metaphorical reading (or at least my reading) of Genesis 2 is that the fall, sin and separation did not happen — it’s that they did not result from a man, from whom we are all descended, eating a fruit at the behest of the serpent. Rather, that story is an allegory for what has happened spiritually to the human race. Whether or not it was caused by a discrete, historical act is not really the point. This does not mean that the historical act of the Cross did not save us from this.

    This is quite a simplistic analysis in soteriological terms, but I’m sure there is a more developed one out there somewhere. Arthur?

    Back to the original post. Arthur, you wrote:

    “TWO. The creation finds its perfection only in Christ, the true human. The creation was always waiting to be swept further up into the life of God through God’s representative image-bearers. Humans failed in this task, but humanity completes its task in Christ.”

    Can you unpack this a bit? I don’t understand ‘recapitulation’. Eschatology is really not my thing, but how does this sit with Rev 21:1 (old Earth swept away, replaced with new)? I have always thought that, post-Fall, the ongoing perfection of creation through humanity was abandoned in favour of the ‘new creation’, whereby the old would be forgotten (and not preserved) in favour of the new.

    Am I going horribly wrong somewhere here?

    — T

  15. Good discussion, folks

    Our discussion here is getting bogged in dichotomies between “literal” and “metaphorical”. But we all seem to be committed to the theological content and truth of Scripture, so perhaps let’s try telling this positively/constructively.

    What if we reframe the issue: Paul’s theological point appears to presuppose an individual Adam. However, current genomic evidence suggests that modern humans are descended from a primal community rather than two individuals. So then, are we supposed to harmonise these two things? Or is there a still wider theological perspective that we need to take into account? Or something else?

    If you’re interested in pursuing the historical Adam question, keep an eye on the science and faith topic at Jesus Creed.

  16. Hi Tom — I’d say the picture is one of redemption and transformation of the old, rather than erasure.

    Take the great biblical phrase, “I will be their God and they will be my people”. This is how it was in the beginning, with heaven and earth woven together in the garden-sanctuary of God. But humanity’s rejection of God tore heaven and earth apart; humanity was expelled from the garden and God could no longer make his home with us. The problem with our world is not just that it’s a broken place, but that it’s not joined to God’s place. Heaven is “there” when it should be “here”.

    However, God makes a promise to re-establish this relationship (Gen 12:1-3). The people of Abraham are the people of the promise, the site of God renewing his presence among his image-bearers, the beachhead for heaven to take back earth once more. And so, as the story of the promise-bearers continues, we see the beginnings of a new sanctuary: tabernacle, temple, Jerusalem, Zion.

    The new creation, then, is “a new heaven and a new earth” (Rev 21:1). God’s sanctuary is perfectly re-established; heaven and earth knitted together once again (21:2). As in the beginning, “I will be their God and they will be my people” (21:3). Those great biblical threads of garden and temple-city all come plunging back together.

    So the “new creation” is creation renewed — and simultaneously transposed into a whole new key (which is sort of where recapitulation comes in, but more on that later…).

    How does this sound to you?

  17. Hey Arthur

    Thanks for that. Sounds good. It’s been a long time since MYC 2005…

    Meanwhile on your reframed question: I think that, as you’ve identified, whether or not Paul erred in assuming a historical Adam is irrelevant to his theological point *if* it can be accepted that the doctrine of original sin does not require an individual protagonist. If it does not, then Paul’s assumption of a historical Adam, though erroneous, does not detract from his theological point.

    Stepping back a little, this debate is a great example of one of the biggest difficulties I have with the Christian faith — how does one reconcile the Bible with evolving understandings of the world in which we interpret it? That’s just an observation, I’m not meaning to re-pose this as a (ridiculous) question.

  18. In regards to the issue of ‘pre-fall’ disorder, I would say that ‘death’ is only a meaningful concept in terms of properly personal beings. In nature what happens is really a transfer of energy between creatures as they pass in or out of existence and maybe feed on each other. Is the ‘death’ of a particular fish a tragedy that cries out for resurrection? Maybe in the long term it might be, but that is the whole point of the human project of taming creation and uniting it freely to God for eternity. The problem that the sin of ‘Adam’ gets us into is the death and destruction of personal and spiritual beings, which has no apparent remedy. Until…

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