Immortality is a Divine Gift (RJS)

Immortality is a Divine Gift (RJS) August 30, 2011

Death is natural – immortality is a divine gift. This isn’t true because of the fall – it was true from the beginning of creation. This statement will seem off-base, and seriously in error for some. It will seem completely reasonable to others. I would like to open this idea up for conversation in the post today.

The issue of death and the role of death and suffering in creation is a major question in the interaction between science and the Christian faith. If we have a big bang, an old earth, and evolution –  then explosions, asteroid impacts, earthquakes, tsunamis, death, and competition in the animal world are all part of God’s good creation. But this is contrary to the view of creation taught in much of our church. I’ve received a number of e-mails concerning the discussions we’ve been having about Adam, Eve, and the writings of Paul. A comment quoted below brought up exactly this issue:

I believe in theistic evolution and I am an evangelical Christian. For the most part, I am OK theologically with believing that Adam was not a literal man. However, I have problems with an issue that no one really seemed to address … I embrace the view expressed by some Eastern Orthodox theologians and N.T. Wright, among others, that non-human evil entered the world through the Fall. What I mean by non-human evil is death and decay in creation that does not result directly from poor decisions made by humans after the Fall. …

From an evolutionary perspective, before humans ever existed there was suffering in creation caused by disease and natural disaster. I stand by Wright in the idea that God will eventually renew both us and creation, restoring it to what it was meant to be before the Fall. However, I have just realized that it is very difficult for me to explain non-human evil without the literal account of creation found in Genesis. This leads me to a faith crisis. Suffering in the natural world, caused by things like cancer and earthquakes, must be explained if God is good and his creation was created good.

The conflict here doesn’t arise from an overly literal view of the Bible, but from a struggle to understand what scripture teaches and what this means for our theology. The issues brought up here are among the major issues that keeps many intelligent Christians like Dr. Mohler and like some of the commenters on this blog holding to a young earth and special creation in the face of all of the scientific evidence to the contrary. I’ve given a hint of my opinion in the opening line of the post, and I will begin to develop it further in the after the jump, but to start the conversation consider the question introduced by this letter writer and many others.

What is natural evil – is this a meaningful concept?

Is death, all animal death, an alien intruder in God’s good creation?

What kind of death is referred to in Genesis 2-3; Romans 5, and 1 Corinthians 15?

What does it mean when we say that God will restore all creation in Romans 8?

The questions opened up by the e-mail above will take more than one post (and likely more than one series of posts) to address in their entirety. I would like to start today with some reflections on the first three questions – the concepts of natural evil and death. This involves some discussion of new creation, but further consideration of new creation and NT Wright’s commentary on Romans 8 will provide the grounds for the next post on this topic.

Here is my thinking at this time – all of it, of course, being put up for discussion and potential refutation.

Natural “evil” is a natural part of God’s creation. Evil is a concept that requires moral accountability.  Natural disaster is evil only in the impact that it has on people. There is no indication in scripture that death was alien to God’s good creation. There is no clear indication that death – apart from human death – is evil. Even cancer, from the point of view of evolution, is a natural byproduct of a creation that creates itself.

The key scriptural passages here that appear to teach otherwise are Genesis 1 where God declares creation good and very good, Genesis 2-3, Romans 5, especially 5:12 Therefore, just as through one man sin entered into the world, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men, because all sinned and statements like that of Paul in 1 Corinthians 15:54-57

But when this perishable will have put on the imperishable, and this mortal will have put on immortality, then will come about the saying that is written, “DEATH IS SWALLOWED UP in victory. O DEATH, WHERE IS YOUR VICTORY? O DEATH, WHERE IS YOUR STING?” The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law;  but thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.

The victory over death and the hope for new creation is further expanded on in the Revelation of John.

The beginning and the end. Many take these passages to mean that God’s initial creation did not include death, at least it did not include animal suffering and death. God’s original creation was a peaceful idyllic paradise. The new creation is a return to the idyllic original creation God always intended. But I don’t think this is the way we should be reading Genesis, Paul, and Revelation. The new creation is not a return to an idyllic original creation and death was not foreign to the original creation.

The dynamic, developing, growing creation we see around us is and was part of the original creation declared good.  In Genesis 1 both animals and humans are given a charge. Following the creation of animals of the sea and sky we are told that God blessed them, saying, “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the waters in the seas, and let birds multiply on the earth.” Likewise after the creation of land animals and humans God blessed them [the humans]; and God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth, and subdue it; and rule over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the sky and over every living thing that moves on the earth.”

There is a mission begun in Genesis 1 that involves life, change, and growth. It involves, of necessity, death of animals, insects, and bacteria to name just a few. There is no indication of inherent immortality. God did not produce mosquitoes, black widow spiders, lions and tigers, and plate tectonics as a response to the Fall.

The new creation is a consummation to God’s original goal not a return to his starting point. I think that this is the appropriate reading of scripture whether one holds to a young earth or an old earth. Death is the enemy over which Christ has won the victory, but this is not because death, even animal death, was in every way foreign to God’s original creation.

Immortality is and was a divine gift. In Genesis 2-3 we read about death and immortality. In the garden there were two special trees.

Out of the ground the LORD God caused to grow every tree that is pleasing to the sight and good for food; the tree of life also in the midst of the garden, and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. (Gen 2:9)

The LORD God commanded the man, saying, “From any tree of the garden you may eat freely; but from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat from it you will surely die.” (Gen 2:16-17)

Then the LORD God said, “Behold, the man has become like one of Us, knowing good and evil; and now, he might stretch out his hand, and take also from the tree of life, and eat, and live forever”— therefore the LORD God sent him out from the garden of Eden, to cultivate the ground from which he was taken. (Gen 3:22-23)

Immortality, even in the Garden, whether we read the text literally or metaphorically, was a gift from God through the tree of life. Here we see that death was not foreign to God’s creation, but was always a part of God’s creation. Immortality and perfect communion with God are intimately related ideas. When Adam and Eve sinned God removed the gift of immortality, expelled them from the garden. For dust you are, and to dust you will return.

Death entered human experience through sin. I think that the death that entered through sin was both physical and spiritual – but it was physical because of the disruption of innocence and communion with God. When, where, how, and who – this is lost in the mists of antiquity. We don’t need to know. Whether you hold that is was a unique couple, a community, or a representative pair just plain doesn’t matter. On our own we cannot be faithful, even the very first humans as morally accountable agents could not be faithful, and God had to know this before creation. But God is faithful.

When I say, as I did in the post last week, that Christ is the beginning of the Gospel it is because Christ is the faithful one and through his faithfulness we are restored to union with God. This was the plan from the beginning: incarnation, reconciliation, faithfulness. Our perishable selves will put on the imperishable, and this mortal will have put on immortality through the gift of God through Christ.

The questions of Adam and evolution are secondary because they do not change the essential Gospel of Jesus Christ. We are not returning to the beginning but moving on to the goal – and the goal did not change because of sin.

I will look a bit more at New Creation in the next post in this short series. I haven’t done justice to the entire question posed by the letter writer. But this post is already too long. Let me stop here and open it up for questions and comment.

What do you think – was immortality a natural part of God’s good creation? Why or why not?

Is natural “evil”  intrinsically evil?

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