Evolution and the Sting of Death (RJS)

The latest installment of the BioLogos series Southern Baptist Voices, published earlier this month, explored the troubling issue of the role death plays in evolution. John D. Laing, Associate Professor of Systematic Theology and Philosophy at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary’s Havard School for Theological Studies, raised the issue in his essay Evolution and Death.

The point I wish to make here is that the theistic evolutionist simply cannot escape the fact that the necessary corollary to survival of the fittest is destruction of the weakest and therefore, he must view death as a primary creative force of God.

This is contrary, Laing believes, to the clear teaching of scripture.

This, though, is contrary to the biblical view, which depicts death as an invader, disturber of peace, and a force of evil. While it must be admitted that in the Old Testament, death is sometimes presented as a natural consequence of finite human existence, it is most often associated with consequences for sinful activity or the judgment of God.

He concludes:

At the end of the day, then, it seems that Christians who accept evolution and those who deny evolution are operating with differing views of the doctrine of creation. However, even if agreement may be reached over this issue, the proponent of God-guided evolution must reconcile the biblical material on death with its positive function in his model. It seems to me that this cannot be done in a way that is fair to both biblical text and evolutionary thought. Evolution requires that death serve a creative function, and the Bible precludes such an understanding of death; therefore, the evangelical must reject evolution as the means by which God creates.

Those who are interested will find it useful to read the entire article linked above, not just the brief bits I’ve highlighted here.

Does the Bible preclude an understanding of death as serving a creative function?

If so, why do you think this is true? If not, why not?

Jeffrey Schloss, Distinguished Professor of Biology and director of the Center for Faith, Ethics, and the Life Sciences at Westmont College in Santa Barbara, Calif provided a response to Prof. Laing.

There is a distinction between human death and all biological death – from part 1 of the response.

I have already agreed with John that the Bible persistently presents death as an enemy of God’s purposes for humanity. But I have suggested (perhaps altogether wrongly!) that he does not provide clear scriptural evidence for death being a comparable enemy to and intrusion upon God’s purposes for all creatures. A faithful reading of the Bible does not seem to be incompatible with seeing death as part of the magisterial history of life as depicted by evolution and other natural sciences.

In part 2 of his response Schloss addresses two related questions –  “Is non-human death an evil?” and allowing perhaps that it is evil of a sort, especially the death of a sentient creature – a favorite cat, a crafty squirrel, or a wildebeast, he asks “Is non-human death a permissible evil?

Part 3 moves on to consider a point raised by Prof. Laing, and an important issue for many:

The understandable theological uneasiness expressed by John and many others about this issue ultimately rests not just on an understanding of God’s creative activity, but also on a particular representation of evolution. In this regard John makes two important claims:

a) “…natural selection, with its emphasis on a natural state characterized by competition for limited resources and a general struggle for survival, is the primary means by which speciation takes place…”

b) “death actually functions as a mechanism for life. Death plays a vital role in natural selection by rooting out weakness and driving evolutionary development.”

For reasons I discussed in the previous section, it is not entirely clear that death constitutes an evil that is incommensurate with divine activity. However, the fact is that the above depiction of evolution—which is not unique to John amongst public commentators and is largely commensurate with Darwin’s own views—does not adequately portray current discussions within evolutionary biology. There are three problems with this portrayal that I’d like to address in turn—three aspects of evolutionary theory that need to be better understood.

In his ensuing comments Schloss gives a brief discussion of these three points.

1. Natural selection is not the only mechanism of evolution, and may not be the sole, or even the primary, means of speciation. Evolution is much more complex than simply competition and natural selection.

2. Competition does not play quite the role Darwin, or many others have suggested. Schloss points out that competition is neither necessary or sufficient for speciation.

3. Death is a part of life – but Schloss suggests that death does not drive evolution. Survival and fitness drive evolution.

To the three points raised by Schloss I would add a fourth, related somewhat to his third.

4. Evolution does not require violent or “unnatural” death. It is driven not by death, but by success in reproduction. Every member of a species that goes extinct could live a “normal” life and die a “peaceful” death. The idea that life is not permanent is not a new idea – it is consistent with Calvin’s commentary on Genesis for example. Immortality is not a natural part of creation, but is a divine gift of God. This I believe scripture clearly teaches.

This is not a final, or exhaustive answer to the questions raised by John Laing … but grounds to start a conversation.

Is the role of death in evolution a deal breaker?

Does Laing or Schloss convince you? How would you respond to either side of this argument?

If you wish to you may contact me directly at rjs4mail[at]att.net.

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  • CGC

    Hi RJS,
    When it comes to issues like you are exploring, it seems our theological imaginations are very stunted. We are so used to thinking in linear categories, or spatial, or chronology, or concretely. We are like the book “Flatlands” of two dimensial beings who do not know how to comprehend or deal with three dimensial reality. Since I believe Scrpture has multi-layers of meaning and significance, one reading of it can not discount all the others. For example, we are so used to reading only Paul’s interpretation of Genesis without looking more closely at only what Genesis says or how about the Psalms or Job? There are different aspects to death.
    I think it’s a mistake for those following a theological heritage or history of interpretation to discount biological science of death as well as those who understand biology to discount theological interpretations of death. There are many different facets of death and they are I believe complementary and not contradictory as some suppose.

    Here is an example of an illustration to relate to this issue of death. The rainbow, when we read it in Scripture, it certainly may be the first time a rainbow shows up or created? But the text is not specific enough to say there were never any rainbows until after the flood story. It could just as very well be God chose something so striking as a rainbow and gave it new meaning. The Scriptures are all about new meanings and new beginnings. The issue in the end is not to define biblical topics so narrowly that we have to force everything else into those categories. The issue should be to allow the many ways God shines different colors of light like a rainbow to see the rich and varied ways God’s beauty is revealed in creation and in God’s Word.

  • scotmcknight

    Death, like Adam, are make and break issues for many. It is impossible for us to conceive of a created order of fish and plants, land animals and flying creatures — as Genesis 1 names them — without conceiving of their only possible way of existing through death — they ate things that died. It is impossible to conceive of trees without their going through some cycles of death.

    We can imagine, of course, an alternative world in which death does not enter this picture until Adam, but we need not. This is where science’s findings, not to mention rock solid common sense, teaches us that death existed before and alongside “Adam and Eve in Eden.” Once we do this we can begin to ponder again what the threat/promise of death meant when God said “you will surely die.” Is there then a better way to conceive of “death” in Genesis 3 than the first time created order knew death? I say Yes, and we need to theologize that view.

  • David Coulter

    “Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father.”

  • Michael Teston

    I am struck by the blind/narrow spots of (some) theological exercises. Didn’t Jesus utter, “Unless a grain of wheat falls into the ground and dies, it remains a single grain . . .” Didn’t the death of Jesus, in all of its broadness theologically and otherwise somehow, and I mean that in the broadest sense, somehow bring life. Stunted imagination eventually traps us all into categories/prisons of our own making. The categories of death and life I imagine are much broader than the categories Laing proposes delimits the discussion.

  • James Rednour

    I think God allows death to demonstrate his eventual sovereignty over it. There is nothing more terrifying to a conscious creature than the end of his consciousness. By conquering death, God reveals His ultimate power and love. God allows sin to exist for His glory, so why not death as well?

  • Bev Mitchell

    “At the end of the day, then, it seems that Christians who accept evolution and those who deny evolution are operating with differing views of the doctrine of creation.” John D. Laing

    Yes, “different views of the doctrine of creation” is very much part of the problem. We need a broader view of creation. The resurrection of Christ is our primary evidence for what perfect creation looks like. A new, recreated, incorruptible body – eternally so. Our understanding of creation as God wants it to be would do well to begin with the Resurrection. All else falls far short.

    The reason all else falls short is because God faces serious opposition. There is rebellion on every front. The rebellion is spiritual – Scripture is full of examples. This spiritual rebellion has very serious implications for the material world. We don’t understand the mechanism and may never understand it this side of the eschaton, but spiritual rebellion is able to affect the material world.

    If we accept this as a clear teaching of Scripture, an immediate question pertaining to creation of the heavens and the earth is, when did this rebellion arise? Did it arise coincident with time? before time began? in the garden? In short, and somewhat impiously, Who let that snake in the garden, and where did it come from?

    An approach that seeks to explain the role of death in creation solely from Scripture, as Laing appears to insist upon, faces the same problem that one would face trying to explain planetary motion and a heliocentric solar system solely from Scripture. Pure scientific facts had to be called upon to arrive at a more accurate world view, to radically change a world view that was once considered so clearly accounted for by Scripture.

    We are at that same point in our great concern about how biological evolution can be reconciled with what Christians and many others believe God has made and continues to make possible. We must begin with the facts. And, it is altogether possible that our perspective on the Scriptures is a bit off. This is completely different from saying that the Scriptures are a bit off. If we cannot resolve these last two sentences, we are stuck with disagreement.

    Using the facts of science as a starting point – simply recognizing what is, we can then begin to read Scripture anew and see what it might be saying in the light of what we now know. It is entirely possible that creation of the earth and the heavens – the bringing of order out of chaos, light out of darkness, Form out of formlessness, purpose out of purposelessness – faced spiritual opposition from the beginning. Yes, God also created spiritual reality, about which we know so very little. And Scripture makes clear that not all of spiritual reality is in agreement with God. So, somehow, perhaps before material creation, perhaps before time, part of spiritual reality was allowed to rebel. That is, it exercised its libertarian free will to say ‘no’ to God. 

    (I realize that libertarian free will – real ability to say no, to do otherwise – is not accepted by all. But, those who do not accept it will have to come up with their own version of how to reconcile what we know from science with what we interpret from Scripture.)

    That ‘no’ to God was effective to the extent that it put limits on what God could do to create something good and very good. One great limitation was in resources. Death is not a consequence of Darwinian competition. Death is a consequence of limited resources. This is a fact. Taking only carbon as an example, there is not enough of it available for living things to live forever. If we reproduce, we also must die to make room for more individuals. Consider those pesky aphids in your hard-won summer garden. Consider what exponential growth looks like. Then consider a world where every plant is covered by immortal aphids, then the entire globe. Aphids must die to make room for more aphids.

    Or, consider the cells in our bodies. They are programmed to die. Molecular machinery has evolved in complex, multicellular organisms like us to make sure cells die on cue. The process is called apoptosis – programmed cell death. We could not live without it. When it fails, as it sadly does at times, cancer is one of the results. New human generations cannot live if former generations fail to die. In very few generations we would simply all starve to death – or have to stop reproducing altogether.

    So, physical death is first of all a biological event and it has very good biological and material explanations. Physical life, as God wants it to be, seems to be so far only represented in the risen Lord. Spiritual life, as God wants it to be, is offered to us now from the Father, in the Holy Spirit, through the Son. We are promised a future when we shall be like him. This will be a time when God will do things in his own loving way, without any opposition. A new heaven and earth will come into being – both physical and spiritual. The biology to come will be interesting indeed.

  • Bev Mitchell

    I forgot to add, if you want a bit fuller account of my current thinking on this check out the two guest posts on Jeff Clarke’s blog at http://jeffkclarke.com/. They are entitled: “Toward a creation theology of love and power” and “Creation under limiting conditions.”

  • Sam

    It seems that part of the problem is collapsing the categories of human and animal life/death. The Bible seems to go out of its way to say that when a human dies, its not the same as when an animal dies. This is why, for example, “the blood of bulls and goats cannot take away sin,” but only remind us of the soul-killing effects of it. If theistic evolution is true (and I’m far from saying it is), animal death is not a deal breaker. It may be my limited theological imagination here, but I still have to go back to Ken Keathley’s articles at the beginning of these series: the historicity of Adam and Eve and their deaths (whatever that means) is pivotal in any theology of creation. An unbiblical understanding of Adam’s death is a deal-breaker for me. The age of the earth is not nearly as significant as the place of human death on earth. When did humans begin to die? When did humanity emerge as a distinct species? How involved was God in that emergence? How involved was God when they began to die? Why did they begin to die? In a sense all these questions have broad-stroke answers in the orthodoxy of the Church. But very little thologizing seems to have been done in light of recent scientific developments. This is why this series by biologos is so exciting.

  • CGC

    Hi Scot #2,
    I would be interested in you theologizing that view and/or pointing to a book that you think does a good job on dealing with this issue? Three more quick thoughts:

    1. Just like painbirth for women was greatly increased by the fall, so possibly the violence and pain of death?

    2. Death is a doorway into another realm or existence. Death itself has become another place of testing. I think of EO’s writing about toll booths and creation was not one of perfection by the fathers but one that was simply “good” need to be considered.

    3. I reflect on some of Henri Nouwen’s writings who says for Christians, we need to embrace death as a friend, not as an enemy. If God is reconciling all things to Himself, why not death also? Isn’t God into turning enemies into friends?

  • AHH

    With regard to non-human death going on during God’s creative process (which very clearly happened from the evidence), that should be a non-issue given the many times Scripture praises things like God providing one animal to another for food.

    The human death thing is admittedly trickier. I tend to think that the real problem there from the “Fall” is our relationship to physical death, that it is now an enemy for us rather than a transition into a different sort of life in God’s presence. But there is a lot of theological wrestling to do there, and I don’t pretend to have all the answers.

  • Bev Mitchell

    Scot (2) asks then concludes “Is there then a better way to conceive of “death” in Genesis 3 than the first time created order knew death? I say Yes, and we need to theologize that view.” This is so true.

    Attempts to make humans out to be something physically different from other animals needs to remain a biological question. We are physically different, but not by much, all things considered. We even use essentially the same battery of genes to express “human” as other animals use to express something non-human. This is a major clue. We can go on about the brain and the mind, but, speaking of things spiritual as the gospel does, we would really like to understand the brain-mind-spirit axis much better than we presently can. We can begin, as does Paul, with the law written on our hearts Rom. 2:15 and go from there. The matter is essentially a spiritual one. The death we most want to avoid, and can avoid in Christ, is spiritual death.

  • Imagine that in the creation evolutionary process *homo sapiens* evolved to the point that, as Genesis 1-3 describe, a relationship between The Creator and *homo sapiens* becomes a conscious reality (conscious is a key word). The author of Genesis is helping Israel trace her ancestry back into the past beyond liberation from Egypt and to set Israel up to receive the Torah. Suppose Paul actually helps us discern that in Genesis we learn not about the entrance or intrusion of death into a creation ignorant of death, but in Genesis we learn about the revisioning of death in view of new realities: God and humans are in a purposeful, covenantal relationship where humans are Eikons and are very aware that human choices carry moral consequences? What enters in Eden so to speak is not death per se, but the “sting” of death, i.e., up until rebellion from God death had no sting. And what prompts the “sting”? Sin. Do animals sin? What activates/gives strength to sin? A command. A law. See 1 Cor. 15:54-57. In the creation story God does not say, “You will die” as if that is a new idea. God says, “You shall surely die.” Why the emphatic *mot tamot*? Bev Mitchell, in his essays, points us to the resurrection of Jesus and to what human life is like, not without death, but without the eternal *sting* of death. If death is simply falling asleep in view of Jesus Christ’s conquering of it, why would not pre-Fall death be simply that as well? It is the entrance of conscious awareness of obeying or disobeying God that transforms death into the primary enemy as described in the Grand Story of God. If Adam and Eve and the named animals were eating fruit and vegetables and pooping the waste out, then death of some kind was happening prior to the Fall.

  • phil_style

    I highly recommend Richard Becks long (28 parts?) blog series on this.

    The premise is a discussion around this (copied and pasted directly from his introductory post):
    The idea I’m exploring is a reversal of the typical Protestant formulation:
    Sin causing Death

    The formulation I’m working with flips the Protestant understanding around:
    Death causing Sin

    The focal passage I’m working with is Hebrews 2.14-15:
    Since the children have flesh and blood, he too shared in their humanity so that by his death he might break the power of him who holds the power of death—that is, the devil—and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by their fear of death.

    The idea is that we are “held in slavery by our fear of death.” Fearing death we act in various ways that are prompted by needs for self-preservation. Life is ruled by a Darwinian survival instinct that makes us selfish, acquisitive, rivalrous and violent. Mortality fears create our sinful actions and attitudes.

  • Gregory Du Bois

    One thought that I had is about the distinction between natural death and spiritual death. Since Adam and Eve went on living in the body after their disobedience, the Bible seems to clearly distinguish between the two. Definitely they died spiritually and this was the new kind of death introduced by sin. Also, Gen. 3:22b says, “He must not be allowed to reach out his hand and take also from the tree of life and eat, and live forever.” This implies the point, immortality was not part of nature, but was to have been the gift of God pursuant to Adam & Eve’s continuing obedience.

  • DRT
  • Percival

    Very educational. Schloss is quite convincing, but then again, I was already sympathetic with his viewpoint.

  • AHH

    Schloss is an interesting case, because for several years he was a Fellow of the Discovery Institute, the main promoter of “Intelligent Design”. But I gather he ultimately rejected their tactics and their anti-evolutionism.
    Schloss wrote a thorough and insightful review a few years ago of the ID propaganda film “Expelled”:

  • Luke Allison

    Bev Mitchell # 6

    Wow! Can I just, like, make that my theology? I’ll give you credit…..at first. 🙂

  • CGC

    Hi Everyone,
    Without death, there can’t be resurrection!

  • Craig Wright

    Psalm 104:21 says that lions seek their prey, food from God. This psalm about creation seems to imply that God set it up that way.

  • Kyle

    RJS, I think the implications for the nature of original sin are astounding if we take seriously the notion that we are evolved from not only lower creatures but creatures whose identities were cast in the primordial and instinctual jungle of wrestling for survival. God may have set Adam and Eve apart to uniquely communicate with him, but undoubtedly they entered this relationship with a biological/psychological/sociological/spiritual predisposition to rebel and fear death, in much the same way that you or I might. How then were they different, apart from being first, and can they through this rethinking maintain an innocent posture? We can make a choice to surrender to God, but without the guiding work of the Spirit to assist us as we, to use NT Wright’s thesis in After You Believe, reform our character, each of us is lost to an inferior and imprisoned self. Sanctification is a process that occurs in fits and starts and, from the human perspective anyway, is far from seamless and, from any perspective, protracted. Were Adam and Eve predestined to make this same journey? Was Christ’s reconciling sacrifice, then, foretold in God’s decision to create, and should we perhaps ascribe a kind of maturity to the fall (an ongoing struggle to submit to God as a symptom of spiritual evolution)?

  • Marshall

    Theist-Evolutionists should be looking at not just biological evolution (Darwinian natural selection), but also the Cosmological progressive emergence of increasingly “orderly” structures out of a completely uniform energy field (eg) … “evolution” in the original sense of “unfolding”. From this perspective, death is just what is left behind. Kenosis. And eventually it all gets left behind. Just the way it is, and I don’t see why we would even want to yell at God about it.

    The Bible on the other hand is about God’s plan for humans. As part of the Expulsion from the Garden, God implanted a Fear of Death into humans, which in a number of ways has been an important driver of our human social structures: the knowledge of death, and the limited control we can develop over it. Which the lion preying on the lamb doesn’t have: one can argue that death has pain but no sting for either the lion or the lamb. Fear of death should properly drive humans away from sin and into caring for each other. Our dissatisfaction with the current state of play is exactly that process at work; encouragingly, there is evidence that we are actually making progress.

    Jesus overcame his human fear of death in order to live out his obedience to the Father. I think that death, or fear of death, is a particular preoccupation of post-Enlightenment individualism. If we properly understood our nature as members of families, communities (even in a strictly secular sense), and the body of Christ, our individual fate would seem like less of a problem.

    Going back to Cosmology, the big problem (pun intended) is that the Universe is a very large but finite object with a very long but finite duration of meaningful structure. That is, there’s no way to fit “Eternity” into it. But of course once one admits the Supernatural, the game is on again.

  • Bev Mitchell

    Several comments today bring John 12 to mind.  Using NT Wright’s translation:

    “The time has come”, said Jesus in reply. “This is the moment for the son of man to be glorified. I’m telling you the solemn truth: unless a grain if wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains all by itself. If it dies, though, it will produce lots of fruit. If you love your life, you’ll lose it. If you hate your life in this world, you’ll keep it for the life of the coming age.”

    “If anyone serves me, they must follow me. Where I am, my servant will be too. If anyone serves me, the father will honor them.”

    “Now my heart is troubled,” Jesus went on. “What am I going to say? ‘Father, save me from this moment’? No! It was because of this that I came to this moment. Father, glorify your name!”

    and a bit further on:

    “Now comes the judgement of this world! Now this world’s ruler is going to be thrown out! And then when I have been lifted up from the earth, I will draw all people to myself.”

  • Mike M

    Maybe we’re thinking this death thing incorrectly. I happen to think the whole Garden of Eden story is just that. Be that as it may, bear with me while I work a out different concept. Maybe when God breathed a “soul” into the first people, that he intended them to never experience a “second death.” All men are appointed to die as are all forms of life. But the souls rest in the bosom of Abraham, kind of like NT Wright’s interpreation.
    At the Resurrection, Jesus will judge all humanity, based not only on their faith in the Father but also their works (Matt 25:35). Those who are goats will be cast into the Lake of Fire where their bodies and souls or essences will perish. That is the “death” part which Adam & Eve chose as a possible option.
    From my reading, I think after the truly incorrigible are totally destroyed that those who never heard of the Messiah but did good works will be given a second chance for like a 1000 years maybe?

  • “he must view death as a primary creative force of God.”

    I guess I agree with him, because I will gladly admit that this is exactly why I think.

    If all things were created in Christ, and christ—in his life, DEATH, and resurrection—is the perfect manifestation of the character and being of God and has existed in and with God for all eternity, I don’t know how we could expect to NOT find death at the center of God’s creative force.

    The very energy and method of creation MUST be God’s love, spoken in His self-giving, voluntary, death. How else are we to understand that Christ (meaning the sum total of his person, life, and work) is the “word” that was with God, and was God?

    Our modem conceptions of God as a deity who exists “out there” and created “ex nihilo” have obscured this truth I’m afraid. We picture God sitting in a vastness of empty space deciding to conjure up the universe and in doing so we miss the enormity of what it actually means for God to create something that IS NOT himself.

    For a bubble to form inside an infinite ocean part of the infinite must be displaced. The bubble is within the ocean but the ocean has been ruptured to create the bubble.

    For an infinite, timelessly eternal God to create finite, temporal reality His own omnipresence must die. To create an “other” that may know and Love God, He has has voluntarily subjected Himself to Death until the time when death itself is destroyed and all of creation is redeemed into eternal union with their Trinitarian God.

    Everywhere I look in scripture I see this truth. God is most perfectly manifested in love worked out in death for the sake of an other.

  • CDL

    This has always been the rub for me with evolution. I’ve always been content just to be discontent and live with the mystery, but there are some great thoughts here to process through.