Sin and death and drosophila

Peter Enns takes a look at fundamentalist Calvinist John Piper’s recent podcast arguing that the Bible and evolution are incompatible, “Evolution is ‘theoretically possible’ but ‘unbelievably unlikely’: thoughts on creation and evolution from John Piper.”

Enns’ response is compassionate:

What I sense here is Piper’s public expression of cognitive dissonance. He is smart enough to know that evolution cannot simply be brushed aside, but he is struggling with how to align that with a literalistic reading of the Bible, which is a non-negotiable requirement of his theology.

I appreciate Piper’s dilemma, but evolution and biblical literalism cannot be reconciled. At some point I feel Piper will have to step over the line, one way or the other. He can’t have it both ways. In the meantime, podcasting inchoate thinking runs the risk of being taken by his listeners as a fully formed position. This does justice neither to the matter of evolution and Christianity, nor to the spiritual formation of those who follow his teachings.

Enns also summarizes what Piper calls four “stumbling blocks” that trip him into denying what we know about evolution — the first of which is astonishing. This is Enns’ summary of Piper’s objection:

Death as a curse – both in Genesis and Romans – does not refer simply to human death but to all death. Hence, the Bible’s view of the origin of death and evolution are incompatible.

The reference to Romans there, presumably, is to Paul’s statement that “sin came into the world through one man, and death came through sin” (Romans 5:12). I think Paul would be surprised — and rather angry — to learn that later Christians were attempting to twist that into a statement about biology, but that is what Piper is suggesting. Piper is saying that Romans teaches that nothing died before humans sinned.

This creates a serious incompatibility — not between the Bible and evolution, but between Piper’s understanding of Romans and the book of Genesis. Here is Genesis 1:20-23:

And God said, “Let the waters bring forth swarms of living creatures, and let birds fly above the earth across the dome of the sky.” So God created the great sea monsters and every living creature that moves, of every kind, with which the waters swarm, and every winged bird of every kind. And God saw that it was good. God blessed them, saying, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the waters in the seas, and let birds multiply on the earth.” And there was evening and there was morning, the fifth day.

So that’s Day 5 in the first creation story of Genesis — the day God creates flying creatures and swimming creatures. If we’re going with Piper’s literal reading of Genesis, then Day 5 is when God created the drosophila* and gastrorichs.

See where we’re going with this?

In that first creation story in Genesis, the humans aren’t created until the sixth day. That first story doesn’t mention Adam and Eve, by the way, just humankind — plural, males and females and, apparently, plenty of them. But since we’re sticking with Piper’s “literal” reading here, we’ll play along as he pretends this first story from Genesis is compatible with the second story — the one with Adam and Eve and Eden and sin.

This “harmonizing” of the two stories really doesn’t work — the first story takes seven days, the second takes one day; in the first story it’s plants, then people, in the second story it’s people, then plants, etc. But let’s play along.

Here’s our story:

Day 5: God creates “every living creature that moves, of every kind, with which the waters swarm.”

Day 6: God creates humankind.

Day 7: God rests.

Day 8: The first generation of gastrotrichs dies.

Don’t be sad — three days is a good, long life for a gastrotrich, and I’m sure they were as happy as any microscopic invertebrate could be, swimming about in the river that flowed out from Eden to become the Pishon, the Gihon, the Tigris and the Euphrates.

But wait, John Piper says, the biology textbook in Romans 5 says that’s impossible. When Paul says “death came through sin” it doesn’t just mean human death but all death. Before Adam sinned, nothing died — not even the teeny pseudocoelomate creatures or the fruit flies or the Ephemeroptera.

Hmmm. I suppose if we stick with Piper’s reading, then Adam wouldn’t have named them that. Since the whole naming-all-the-animals story comes before the forbidden-fruit story, then, as Piper would have it, even the mayflies of Eden would not have been ephemeral.

Piper has several different options here for dealing with the problem of short-lived species in a world without death. He can have Adam and Eve make a beeline directly for the forbidden fruit, thus putting the Fall somewhere early in the morning of the eighth day. Or he can argue that these early, Edenic fruit flies and microscopic animals were tiny little invertebrate Methuselahs. Or …

Well, you get the idea. As an imaginative exercise in world-building, it’s fascinating to ponder the various ramifications of this idea of a world without death — a world in which every cell of every creature is immortal. It’s fun to think about — in just the same way that Torchwood: Miracle Day was fun to think about (if not as much fun to watch).

But while this idea of a world without death makes for an entertaining mental puzzle, it quickly creates an avalanche of absurdities and contradictions that prevent us from thinking of it as anything else.

Piper’s insistence on reading Romans 5 as a biology textbook does not make him theologically “conservative,” only theologically absurd. Saddle up the dinosaurs, this is Ken Ham territory.

– – – – – – – – – – – –

* Update: Fixed spelling here and in the title. Oops.


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  • This is generally around the point when the fundie starts uttering phrases like “A plain reading of the literal text” and “Satan blinds you, but faith would let you see” and “Bless your heart.”

  • I think you win an Internet.

    Beg question, are you the rev at the CEC? o.o I’ve been wondering where I’d have to go if I wanted to attend one of your services.

  • Vegetarian velociraptors!

  • Triceratops as nature’s bulldozer!

  • ReverendRef

    Wow . . . never won an internet before. Thanks.

    If you wanted to attend a service at my place, you would go here:

  • You’re actually closer than I thought! I had the right denomination, right name, wrong area. There’s a Reverend Todd Young in Montana I thought might be you. He heads the Christ Episcopal Church in Sheridan. :p

    (Then again, there’s a Sheridan in every state… maybe there’s a ReverendRef in every state? Rev, have you ever had a skin sample taken on dubious premises?)

  • An answer for everything. :|

  • ReverendRef

    There’s a Reverend Todd Young in Montana I thought might be you. He heads the Christ Episcopal Church in Sheridan. :p

    Um . . . That’s me. I served there from 7/2004 to 11/2010.

  • :O


    Well! Nice to know my stalking prowess hasn’t gotten any rustier. :P

    (In all seriousness, I had vague recollection of you mentioning the Pacific Northwest and I was trying to find out if your church was in Seattle. I’m not far outside the Sea-Tac area myself.)

  • arcseconds

    I hope these are not also people who want to claim that God unfolding the heavens like a tent is a reference to space expanding.

    The Bible, eh? You either need to interpret it as talking about contemporary physics, because it’s written by God, or about ancient categories because it was written by people a long time ago, or figuratively because there clearly isn’t a dome with water above it, or literally because obviously the universe really was created in six days.

    Y’know, whatever sticks.

  • By my calculations, it’s a little over 100 thousand times the volume of the planet.

  • The_L1985

    Actually, a lot of them do. They then explain that these means that there wasn’t a Big Bang. They also think of the Big Bang as being like a conventional explosion.

  • The_L1985

    So–that scene in the Simpsons version where Homer pulls bacon out of a pig is actually based on real theology?

  • The_L1985

    They believe that fungi are plants.

  • I don’t think the actual rennaisance and medieval bible scholars imagined it that way specifically (My example was based on the Simpsons bit, not on a specific reference), but in principle? Yeah.

  • Mary

    One of the strange things about that view is that for this to work you would have to have a major reconstruction of the digestive systems of carnivores after the flood. In fact when you look at pure carnivores their whole bodies are designed for killing. What purpose would there be for the claws and teeth of a lion before the flood if it didn’t eat meat? In fact even as humans there is certainly evidence that we have adaptations for meat eating, such as “canine” teeth.

  • Mary

    It is amazing the lengths that people will go to to deny reality. I don’t think that all YEC’s are stupid, but they will contort the facts to fit their need to cling to their belief system. They are motivated my fear, not logic.

  • A lot of fundamentalists are happy to admit that some limited form of evolution occurs in nature, although they have serious issues with understanding the scale of time required to produce drastic changes in a species. In this case, I think they’d just chalk it up to “they changed to have what they needed and I don’t need to explain the details because God and sin and shut up.”

    It’s mostly the concept of evolution across billions of years that seems to get them. They look at the end product and can’t imagine how we could get diversity like this from a limited number of original species, much less from single-celled organisms. Wolves to dogs, okay. Miacoidea to wolves to dogs, absolutely not. Microbes to miacoidea to wolves to dogs, “Bless your heart, but this conversation is over, Satanist.”

  • Mary

    I believe the argument is that no creature ate meat until after the flood.

  • Anonymus

    [Eve] engages herself in many foolish things:
    among others, trying to study out why the animals called lions and
    tigers live on grass and flowers, when, as she says, the sort of
    teeth they wear would indicate that they were intended to eat each
    other. This is foolish, because to do that would be to kill each
    other, and that would introduce what, as I understand it, is called
    “death;” and death, as I have been told, has not yet entered the
    Park. Which is a pity, on some accounts.

    –Mark Twain, Extracts from Adam’s Diary

  • Mary

    That may be true, but it still isn’t a good argument. Crystals do not breathe and they do not metabilize energy like a plant does.

  • Rix

    Can’t they explain it with the old “Spiritual Death” dodge? That’s when you point out to them that God told Adam he would die the day he ate the fruit but Adam lived to a hundred and thirty. The usual response is, God meat spiritual death.

  • Ah, but to God, “a day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years is like a day” (2 Peter 3:8), so God clearly meant it would be within a thousand years — later that day. :p

  • So a man said to God, “What’s a million years to you?”
    And God said to man, But a second.
    And the man said to God, “What’s a million dollars to you?”
    And God said to man, But a penny
    So the man said to God, “May I please have a penny?”
    And God said to man, Yes you can

    In a second.

  • I’d ask for a line of credit, but the APR is terrifying.

  • Well, back in the garden, remember, the snake walked upright. Could well be that the carnivores only grew those big claws and teeth after the fall.

  • SkyknightXi

    I wouldn’t call it “growth” so much as “ionic alignment”, anyway.

  • Josh

    Reminds me of your Long March of the Koala post a while back, you do a great job of reducing YEC/biblical literalism to absurdity.