The other day, Auggie, my six-year old Springer Spaniel, scored a major victory. After chasing squirrels his entire life, to no avail (Coyote-Road Runner style) he finally caught one–in our backyard. The squirrel didn’t have a limp or anything. When Auggie nabbed him, he instinctively and abruptly ended the poor little guy’s life. It was as if he’d been envisioning this moment for years. I won’t go into details, but it wasn’t a pleasant experience for us onlookers. Not every Minnesotan is a hunter (though I assume every Springer Spaniel is). It was slightly traumatic for our two-year old daughter who was playing outside. But at least it was over quickly. Afterward, Auggie stood over the squirrel like it was some trophy.
There’s a theological question here behind this story.
For theistic evolutionists, who accept the scientific consensus position on evolution as the basic story of origins (at the natural level), we are led to consider why God “permitted” death, physical suffering, and apparently tremendous “waste” in the history of the emergence and development of life. Scientists say that well over 99% of all species that have ever existed are now extinct. That’s a staggering number. Lots of trial and error, it seems. Lots of death. Untold suffering.
What kind of God would choose such a route to bring creation to this point? Does this mean that God “created” death, in a sense? This is, of course, a problem of theodicy. As much as we might want to relegate theodicy to a conversation of the past, I think it’s still quite relevant for understanding faith–and life and death–today.
First it’s important to note that this is not a problem unique to theistic evolutionists. Anyone who believes God has foreknowledge–and puts that foreknowledge to use in his providential oversight–faces the same sort of problem (this includes Calvinists and classical Arminians). So, for example, a Calvinist or Arminian who believes in the historicity of Adam/Eve and of the Fall has to account for the fact that God “planned” (either through active ordination or passive permission) death and suffering to be a pervasive, inevitable component of life. Furthermore, only Young Earth Creationists–and not all of them, at that–believe there was no animal (and plant) death before the Fall (Gen. 2-3 certainly makes no mention of it). So there’s plenty of theodicy problem to go around for everyone. Intelligent design theorist William Dembski makes an interesting proposal for death as a retroactive consequence of human sin (a result of the Fall, applied to the chronological distant past, but to me it’s more intriguing than convincing.
The particular problem theistic evolutionists face, then, is that death was a part of life from the very beginning, and that it has been “natural”–and often. Death is an inevitable part of life, from the very first simple-celled organism to the entire dinosaur population to today.
So how, as a theistic evolutionist, does one deal with this? There are many more–and much more sophisticated answers, but let me give just two briefly:
1. Death is necessary for life to flourish (and propagate) in a limited space–such as earth
A biologos essay on this topic states,
The death of plants and animals is actually an essential feature in a healthy ecosystem. Plants provide food for animals, and animals return nutrients to the soil upon their deaths. Without predators, populations of some species would explode and crowd out others, maybe even pushing those species to extinction. Predators tend to pick the most populous species to eat, limiting its growth so that other species can compete successfully.
2. Death, as evidence of finitude, creates an existential crisis which can stir up faith.
As psychologist Ernest Becker famously observed, human beings carry within us deep anxieties about death. We know that it’s coming–and we know that it’s coming to all of us. We cannot escape it, but we can try to deny or suppress it. The fact that death has been around for billions of years and that we continuously are confronted with its reality, can spur us to think seriously about matters of the eternal. God did not create a perfect world (Genesis 1-2 never claims such a thing): he created a good world–and good can coexist with death. Death is a natural part of our finitude. And finitude is good. (Contrary to popular opinion, in the biblical testimony, human beings were not originally created as eternal beings, with immortal souls that would live forever.) S0 the brevity of this life can quicken and intensify our thoughts about the next. On the other hand, reflection on death–especially untimely, brutal, tragic, death–can also dampen or squelch one’s faith. That has to be noted. But I suppose that’s what makes faith, faith. It’s trust in God in spite of not having an air-tight solution to the antinomies and paradoxes of life–and of death.
3. Life is harsh–but beautiful; death is not the end.
I like N.T. Wright’s phrase (I’m paraphrasing): “Heaven is great and all, but it’s not the end of the world. The “New Heaven and New Earth,” not the intermediate state, is the the direction to which everything is heading. The ultimate telos. So death is bad too, but it’s certainly not the end of life. Creation is always juxtaposed with “new creation” in Scripture. Creation, life and death are intertwined on a forward trajectory. The Eschaton is not a return to some pristine, perfect (death-less) past reflected in Gen. 1-2, but a movement toward the future which is transforming the present by its light. The coming, presence of God (Rev. 21-22) is death’s inverse shadow.
I remember laying out some form of this argument in class, that death has been a part of creation from its very beginning. A student looked at me increduously. “But death is horrible,” he said. “Why in the world would God intend it as a part of creation?”
Death can be horrible, indeed. And death can be horribly worsened by human sin and evil. There is no reason to glorify death or to understate its consequences. Death removes persons we love from human community–even if only “temporarily.” But let’s remember that death is relativized in light of the cross and the “New Jerusalem.” Paul said it best: “to live is Christ, to die is gain!”
My friend and Cultivare colleague, Daniel Harrell, notes in another Biologos blog:
So then what about Paul’s description of death as the last enemy (1 Corinthians 15:26)? I’d argue that the enemy is not the cessation of physical life on earth, but rather the sinner’s eternal alienation from God. Having been reconciled to God in Christ, Paul delightfully declares not that death is gone (not yet at least), but that it has lost its sting, the sting that it assumed on that fateful day in the Garden (1 Corinthians 15:55-56). No longer is death viewed as the end of life, but as the gateway to new life and new creation.
Rev. 21 says God will “dwell with mortals.” The garden of Eden will be supplanted by the new city, the new Garden, when “all will be in all.” No more death, no more crying, no more tears.
One day the hound will lie down with the squirrel. Take note, Auggie!