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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  • arcseconds

    O I don’t know, I think I’m in favour of more inchoate thinking in podcasts!

    While there’s a lot to be said to be tabling a finished magnum opus where everything’s well thought through, such works always obscure the fact that there was a lot of inchoate thinking going on to get there. I’m not sure that concealing that’s always a good idea — it can mean people have a distorted view of the process, and come to suppose that God gave it to the author on Mt. Sinai or in a dream about snakes eating themselves, or by causing an apple to fall on their head, or by making the author an inscrutable genius, or other myths like that.

    It also, I think, discourages people from trying.

    I was going to finish this off with a joke about how I don’t practice what I preach, because obviously every post of mine is a polished work, a perfect blending of art and science.

    Then I thought, well, actually, I think I tend to post only when I have something reasonably coherent to say, and not when I have six contradictory thoughts and ten half-formed ones, so maybe I could make a joke about how actually what I post is my disorganised stream-of-consciousness.

    Then it occurred to me that people might tend to see this as skiting rather than irony…

  • Baby_Raptor

    Going on with the idea that nothing would ever die pre-sin, I’d like to ask someone who believes this a question: What was the plan for over-population? Was nothing supposed to reproduce in this utopia? Or did God have an idea to make the Earth a giant, ever-expanding ball to hold all of the people/animals?

  • “So he (Seldon) created his Foundations according to the laws of psychohistory, but who knew better than he that even these laws were relative. He never created a finished product. Finished products are for decadent minds. His was an evolving mechanism and the Second Foundation was the instrument of that evolution.”

    This writeup reminded me of that.

    Also, incidentally, while we’re on the subject of sin, curses, etc….

    It is sometimes quoted that “the wages of sin is death”, which is supposed to have been cancelled by “you shall not surely die” which is interpreted to mean Jesus Christ took on all humanity’s sins for himself and died.

    When I used to believe in all this the problem I always had was that it seemed like a bit of a rotten letdown to have Jesus do all this, and then people still die even after that supposedly momentous act.

    If we still die, then clearly, the wages of sin will still be death and no escape clause applies.

  • arcseconds

    As it happens, I was just thinking about that myself.

    I guess seeing as there’s no death, nothing that consumes another creature in today’s environment needs to eat.

    So every creature that’s a heterotroph (i.e. everything except plants, algae and cyanobacteria, roughly speaking) today, pre-Fall must have been norished in a way that seems miraculous to us now.

    Which presumably means that bacteria are always in ideal growth conditions.

    Assume God creates a single bacterium that takes up a 5 µm^3 cube and has a time between generations of 10 minutes on midday on the 5th day. By the time God comes back to create Human midday on the 6th day, the volume of it and its descendents will be greater than the volume of the planet.

    By my calculations at least. someone want to check? I was never much good at arithmetic.

  • stly92

    And right there comes the world of ambiguity the church marinates in. Specifically, that God tells Adam and Eve to procreate immediately,* but they don’t actually get around to procreating until after they are kicked out of the garden. In such cases, I’ve seen pastors suggest that Adam and Even have had kids if they remained sinless. (That’s the usual deal I get. Ask a hard question, and the person will suggest an answer without giving a solid one. that would always frustruate me.)

    *Going by evangelical reading that Gen 1 and 2 are the same story, details be damned!

  • stly92

    Very very rarely, I have seen Christians use this exact corollary to discount that literal death is what Genesis was talking about. That, since Jesus saves you from “spiritual death,” (ie going to hell when you die,) so too Genesis was also talking about spiritual death. As in, had Adam and Eve remained sinless, their bodies still would have died, but they’d have gone straight to heaven, no complications. What few Christians have advanced this notion I’ve seen though get jeered out of the church for “compromising with the evolutionists.”

  • Could “death” there be taken to be in the sense of humans killing, rather than death from natural causes? That would make more sense, with murder being one of the proscribees of the Ten Commandments. But the original Hebrew and Greek words might have more specific meanings that rule that out.

  • Carstonio

    Is this particular reading of Romans the basis for the creationist claim that no animals ate meat before the Fall?

  • arcseconds

    Of course, creationists never do really think through the consequences of their ‘scientific’ beliefs.

    This is one of the top things that distinguish them from actual scientists.

    It’s a little odd, because it’s not like they’re lacking in imagination altogether. They can be quite creative — the whole flood sorting fossils, changing the rates of radioactive decay, etc. But it’s always in service of particular aims and isn’t ultimately allowed to stray too far.

  • Carstonio

    I had assumed that the creationist model didn’t have reproduction either, but had the same creatures existing for eternity like the characters in Gilligan’s Island reruns.

  • Rae

    Oh, god, Miracle Day… there were some interesting ideas. But, I think if nothing else, my primary source of entertainment came from marvelling at the fact that they actually managed to make something even *more* dark and messed-up than Children of Earth.

    But, that’s also interesting: Was there reproduction? If so, wouldn’t the world have been overpopulated by things at the bottom of the food chain in a couple weeks? Like, would algae in the bodies of water just continue to reproduce, unchecked?

  • Saddle up the dinosaurs, this is Ken Ham territory.

    Isn’t that exactly the point though? Any notion of biblical literalism immediately escalates to riding on dinosaurs & is the Loch Ness Monster Leviathan & such.

  • Duckbilled dinosaurs, breathing fire!

  • Yeah, I’m in favor of rambling chaotic podcasts, too, but I think that just points to a problem of audiences & speaking “ex cathedra” as it were.

  • This belief comes from Genesis 1:29-30: Then God said, “I give you every seed-bearing plant on the face of the whole earth and every tree that has fruit with seed in it. They will be yours for food. And to all the beasts of the earth and all the birds in the sky and all the creatures that move along the ground–everything that has the breath of life in it–I give every green plant for food.” And it was so.

  • Kirala

    What gets me angry whenever I see this interpretation of Romans 5 is that it implies that Christianity is a cheat. If the first Adam brought death into the world, and the second Adam brought life, and the death referred to is concerned with physical death, then Christians should not physically die.

    Even when I was a diehard young-earther, I thought this interpretation was sketch. How can thinking people uphold this doctrine? Especially without bothering to “explain” its “literal” meaning the way they do with other strange readings!

  • GDwarf

    But, *all* death would include plants, so what did these fruit flies eat? All living things depend on the death of others to live, barring a handful of very specialized exceptions. Did humans have green skin and photosynthesize? What of the nutrients in soil that come from the death of other things? Did God put those in there? Is this another omphalos problem?

    Even if we restrict it to just death for animals, what of microbes? Viruses? What of parasitic wasps that can only reproduce by killing other living things? What happens if something is crushed or burned or drowned? Do they just end up like Looney Tunes and get back up?

    I’m now tempted to combine this with genetic sin, somehow, but I can’t quite make the two gel properly.

  • GDwarf

    But, *all* death would include plants, so what did these fruit flies eat? All living things depend on the death of others to live, barring a handful of very specialized exceptions. Did humans have green skin and photosynthesize? What of the nutrients in soil that come from the death of other things? Did God put those in there? Is this another omphalos problem?

    Even if we restrict it to just death for animals, what of microbes? Viruses? What of parasitic wasps that can only reproduce by killing other living things? What happens if something is crushed or burned or drowned? Do they just end up like Looney Tunes and get back up?

    I’m now tempted to combine this with genetic sin, somehow, but I can’t quite make the two gel properly.

  • Carstonio

    Thanks – I didn’t realize that the verse didn’t mention meat-eating. So have Jews then and now interpreted this the way that Christian creationists do?

  • go_4_tli

    Not to mention that death is sometimes used *as a natural function of life*. Apoptosis is basically cell-death-by-remote-control. Basically, cells are equipped with an automatic “countdown timer” that gets turned off if other cells determine that they should live. And that’s all fascinating by itself.
    But where this turns out to be *useful* is in how organisms develop. For example, we humans have webbing in between our digits that is (usually) killed off later to allow free fingers and toes. We have nerve cells that branch every which way, but only the strands that manage to connect where they’re supposed to are allowed to live. And so on.
    So how would animals develop if cell apoptosis were not a thing?
    Not to mention that “nothing dies” would prevent even *plant cells* from dying. So how, exactly, do animals digest?
    This whole notion that there was no *physical* death prior to a literal Adam’s literal snack creates *far* more problems than it solves. (Actually, does it solve any problems?)

  • go_4_tli

    It just occurred to me. Maybe Adam didn’t bring death into the world by sinning; he brought death into the world by *eating*. He killed plant cells, and the world knew death for the first time. (That’s why what he did was a sin. What people were *supposed* to do was live for eternity with hunger pangs.)

  • The_L1985

    AiG notes that the Hebrews didn’t consider plants to be alive, since they don’t breathe the way that animals do. Thus, every creature was a vegetarian, and plant deaths don’t count.

    This is a fairly obvious cop-out, and ignores that there are more classifications than Plantae or Animalia, and have been for decades. (I am still very angry that I was taught 2-kingdom biology in the 90’s.)

  • The_L1985

    Ancient Jews? Possibly.

    Modern Jews? Hel no!

  • I’ve encountered certain strains of creationist thinking that maintain that plants don’t actually qualify as being alive.

  • GDwarf

    Erm, then what are they? A type of mineral?

  • No, they’re just plants. The way I’ve seen the idea presented is…well, it’s strange, though that’s hardly surprising.
    It seems to be some sort of “common sense” approach to defining things that I can’t claim to understand. I guess my sense isn’t quite common enough.
    Essentially, if you look at, say, a dog – assuming that it’s not dead, at any rate – you can see that it’s alive, and there’s no confusing it with something like, say, a fern.
    It’s just a really shallow, surface appearance-based argument.
    Again, I don’t really get it, but I have seen the idea put forward when defending the idea that there was no death in the world before sin even though Adam, Eve, and the animals did actually eat plants.
    I suppose that’s part of it, too. If people/animals ate plants, as they must have, and there was no death before sin, then obviously plants aren’t alive, because the Bible.

  • He can have Adam and Eve make a beeline directly for the forbidden fruit …

    I see what you did there.

  • GDwarf

    I kinda figured it was some sort of post-hoc reasoning.

    I’d imagine viruses, fungi, venus fly traps, walking trees, and such give them nightmares, though. Or would, if they knew anything about them.

  • So, wait. We can apply ancient Hebrew understanding to biology when it comes to concepts of death, even though it violates our current biological understanding; but when it comes to concepts of taxonomy, we must accept their descriptions as scientifically accurate and apply them to our biological understanding directly? WTF?

  • J_Enigma32

    Biological death from cell apoptosis is a purely biomechanical process, although it has numerous complex causes since there are multiple types of biological death (mitochondria-triggered positive-feedback cycles (a heart attack), death from telomere shortening (one type of old age death), death from cell over-reproduction (cancer), etc). When treated as a purely biomechanical process, it can be *defeated*, just like any other biomechanical process (i.e., cancer, an infection, etc).

    Consider: there is a species of Jellyfish which literally does not die of old age. It is effectively, what biologists call, “biologically immortal.” It’s even called “the immortal jellyfish.” Death is little more than a quirk of evolution; not all species have to have it (as the jellyfish shows). Now, said jellyfish can still *die* – they do all the time. They get eaten, or killed by external forces. But biological death is not a problem they experience. There could be an alien species out there that does not experience biological death.

    What’s more, by studying the jellyfish, and by examining the different ways in which humans die, we may be able to prevent biological death *within ourselves*. We are on the verge of figuring out the steps taken in aging so we can reverse them – before this century is over with, rejuvenation treatments and longevity treatments will be available. By the middle of the next century, we may have biological immortality (but not *true* immortality; if you play the odds long enough, you’ll run afoul something that will kill you. It’s just how it works. Now, how long you stay dead is determined by the nature of the medicine when you die) as a species. I’d *love* to see Biblical literalists try and explain that.

    In the long run, permanent defeat of death may be more common through digital uploading and downloading. There’s a whole host of philosophical issues with that, thought, so I don’t know if I consider that true immortality so much as copies of the self living on after the original has died.

    Biblical literalists are so desperate to justify their views that they don’t think their claims through enough to see what they’re doing is creating more problems than they solve, and when presented with it, they run away rather than deal with the fact that what they believe is wrong. When we attain biological immortality, it’ll be another hit their back-asswards philosophy takes. After all, biological death is sin. Defeating biological death means we defeated sin, especially when medical science is so advanced it can repair lethal wounds (decapitation, bisection, etc) and revive the dead (we can revive the dead already so long as they haven’t been dead for too long. And advanced medical science like that could happen within 50 years or 500 years; but it *will* happen, so long as humans don’t blow themselves up first). God doesn’t look very strong now, does he?

  • Carstonio

    Carrot juice is murder! Won’t somebody think of the roots?!

  • J_Enigma32

    Correction: “Their God doesn’t look very strong now, does he?”

    As if the bully ever looked strong in the first place.

  • The_L1985

    Give peas a chance!

  • The_L1985

    It may be a case of th A Beka science books being written by old people who didn’t trust that new-tangled Kingdom Monera, but yes. I was taught that fungi were part of Plantae, that Protista were divided between the two kingdoms, and that bacteria were still under debate. And I’m sure they were–in the 1950’s.

  • P J Evans

    These are people who have seen plants grow, I would think. Do they really believe non-living stuff grows and changes? (What about flowers and fruits? Don’t they see those, ever?)

  • JustoneK

    Granted, I would want to adhere to any theory that has humans riding dinosaurs. Cowboy hats are an extra fifty points.

  • I look at that poster and think “Time flies like an arrow, fruit flies like a banana.”

  • Riding cowboy hats turns out to be disappointing. With you on the dinosaurs, though.

  • JustoneK

    _Wheeled_ cowboy hats. :D

  • Do they really believe non-living stuff grows and changes?

    Crystals do, in the right conditions.

  • Going by Augustine, apparently the idea was that humanity would never reproduce on its own. He blames sexual reproduction on Adam’s sin.

  • On the other hand, Romans 5 makes it clear that even a sinless person will still die, because it’s not their sin which causes them to do so.

  • One of the things I learned in, I think, rennaisance history, was that there is a strong scholarly tradition of interpretation that holds that prelapsarian animals could somehow draw sustainance from plants and other animals without harming them. Like pigs would shed bacon or something.

    It would be in keeping with a lot of the traditional interpretation of original sin that until the fall, nothing reproduced either. There was a time in my teens where I became enamored of the idea that the punishment that fell on creation for the original sin was entropy, and that before the fall, the world was anentropic. (I have since come to see that position as too neoplatonist for my tastes, but it’s still sort of logically attractive)

  • Lunch Meat

    If there was no reproduction, how could there be fruit in the garden?

  • That’s asexual reproduction clearly engineered by God. As long as tab A doesn’t go in slot B, it’s not sinful. </fundie>

  • Lunch Meat

    Clearly then, God had already invented death and reproduction, before God knew that Adam and Eve would sin and that they would be needed. The concepts and processes of death and reproduction are the same in plants, even if the “male” and “female” sexual organs are on the same plants.

  • Original Lee

    This is the interpretation I was taught in Sunday School. I didn’t know about the vegetarian option until I read Mark Twain’s Adam and Eve stories. I don’t think even Mark Twain addressed the mechanics of how tigers went from eating strawberries to baby antelope, though. I have wondered, off and on, since then about when the exact moment came that the carnivores stopped being vegetarian. I would think God would have noticed the bloodshed long before he noticed Adam and Eve were trying to hide from Him. Logically, then, God must have passed a miracle and changed digestive systems globally as part of casting Adam and Eve out of Eden. Why didn’t he chastise Adam and Eve about this?

  • Jay

    Piper’s problem here is that he’s committed to the idea of Heaven, which is supposed to be a world without death. Christian theologians have long compared Eden and Heaven, with the idea that Heaven will be what Eden was supposed to be. To allow death into Eden is tantamount to allowing death in to Heaven.

  • ReverendRef

    The problem with the whole “No death before Adam sinned” thing lies directly in Genesis itself. Paul talks about Adam bringing sin into the world and death coming through sin etc. etc. etc., and people jump on this to somehow prove that there was no death in the Garden.

    However, Genesis 3:22 states: The the Lord God said, “See, the man has become like one of us, knowing good and evil; and now, he might reach out his hand and take also from the tree of life, and eat, AND LIVE FOREVER.”

    It’s right there in Genesis, people: Even in the Garden story, humans weren’t designed to live forever. God kicked them out of the Garden before they did something even more stupid and eat something that gave them immortality.

    This is not that complicated.

  • Naturally. God is omniscient. But that doesn’t mean humans don’t have free will; he just knows and has them do everything they do. Freely. Of their own will. *Head asplode*