Once Again: Immortality is a Divine Gift! (RJS)

Once Again: Immortality is a Divine Gift! (RJS) February 13, 2014

The picture to the right is of a hawk that landed with its fresh caught meal outside the window on campus a couple of weeks ago. It was mesmerizing to watch (I’ve got some video clips as well). I was quite distracted from my meeting. Theology did not enter my mind at the time, but it does raise a question: Is this a consequence of the fall? There must be death for the hawk to eat. It is designed as a predator, whether through natural process, divine creation, or both (evolutionary creation).

Death is a big issue for many people when confronted by the evidence for an old earth and evolutionary creation. It was the biggest issue raised by Ken Ham in his recent debate with Bill Nye. I’ve received a number of e-mails from people wrestling with this issue over the years. Death seems a natural part of creation. Yet Paul tells us that “sin entered the world through one man, and death through sin” and “for as in Adam all die, so in Christ all will be made alive.” Clearly death is an intruder into God’s good creation. In fact, could anything be more clear?

I’ve posted on this in the past, but it seems worth looking at again, especially after the Great Debate. Today’s post is a lightly edited repost from a couple years back.

In a clip in From The Dust Terry Mortenson of Answers in Genesis makes the point directly when speaking to an audience at the Creation Museum:

(5:38) The conflict over the age of the earth is not a conflict over time, it is not that God somehow doesn’t like millions or billions, its what the evolutionists say happened in that time. you see it is a conflict over two histories of death. In the bible death is an enemy. It is a temporary part of history. It is an intrusion into history. And one day it will be removed. But in the evolutionary view as long as there’s been life, there’s been death, as long as there will be life, there will be death.

In a post several years ago, Immortality is a Divine Gift, I described why I think this view is wrong. Immortality was not an intrinsic part of God’s original creation. Immortality was and is a divine gift from God. This is not a position I take because of science, to reconcile science with Christianity, forcing the faith to yield to an external onslaught. It is a position I take because of scripture – and it is a position that many, including John Calvin, have taken throughout church history. Now we need to nuance this a bit – Calvin certainly thought that the earth was young, and he thought that Adam became sick and subject to decay because of his sin, and he thought that this was passed on to his descendants. But Calvin did not think all death was alien to the Garden, nor did he think Adam and Eve would have escaped disease and decay save by the gift of God, or that they would have lived in the Garden forever.

From Calvin’s Commentary on Genesis ch3 v19:

‘Why God should pronounce, that he who was taken from the dust should return to it.’ For as soon as he had been raised to a dignity so great, that the glory of the Divine Image shone in him, the terrestrial origin of his body was almost obliterated. Now, however, after he had been despoiled of his divine and heavenly excellence, what remains but that by his very departure out of life, he should recognize himself to be earth? Hence it is that we dread death, because dissolution, which is contrary to nature, cannot naturally be desired. Truly the first man would have passed to a better life, had he remained upright; but there would have been no separation of the soul from the body, no corruption, no kind of destruction, and, in short, no violent change. (p. 97)

I don’t think a view should be accepted simply because it was presented by some respected church father. And I do not think Calvin was right in every conclusion he drew, concerning Genesis 3 or any other part of scripture. I don’t consider myself a Calvinist. But I do think it is profoundly significant that Calvin presented this view based on scripture and his understanding of scripture. Evolution and scientific evidence for the age of the earth played no role in his reasoning. The version of young earth creationism presented by Mortenson and so many others, is rooted in an understanding of life and death that has not been such a common view in church history.

According to John Calvin immortality was a divine gift. Adam was immortal because of the glory of the Divine Image that shone in him. Left to himself he was dust of the earth. Not only this – his life in the Garden was never intended to be ever-lasting. Adam would have passed to a better life … in the age to come. Our hope is also to pass to a better life in the age to come, the resurrection.

1QIsa_b, image from wikipedia

But what about the new creation?  New Creation is a topic of some confusion and controversy. It is a concept that seems to be used in different ways in different parts of scripture. Today I would like to look briefly at New Creation in Isaiah.

Isaiah is a book touching on themes of judgment, exile, redemption, and return from exile. Many passages have explicit and implicit messianic undertones. In Isaiah 11 we read (NIV):

A shoot will come up from the stump of Jesse; from his roots a Branch will bear fruit.

and a few verses later (6-9):

The wolf will live with the lamb,
the leopard will lie down with the goat,
the calf and the lion and the yearling together;
and a little child will lead them.
The cow will feed with the bear,
their young will lie down together,
and the lion will eat straw like the ox.
The infant will play near the cobra’s den,
and the young child will put its hand into the viper’s nest.
They will neither harm nor destroy
on all my holy mountain,
for the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the Lord
as the waters cover the sea.

This is an image of an eventual return from exile and communion with God as it was meant to be. This imagery is repeated in a more extensive passage on new creation found in Isaiah 65: 17-25 where this is what the Lord God says:

See, I will create
new heavens and a new earth.
The former things will not be remembered,
nor will they come to mind.
But be glad and rejoice forever
in what I will create,
for I will create Jerusalem to be a delight
and its people a joy.
I will rejoice over Jerusalem
and take delight in my people;
the sound of weeping and of crying
will be heard in it no more.

Never again will there be in it
an infant who lives but a few days,
or an old man who does not live out his years;
the one who dies at a hundred
will be thought a mere child;
the one who fails to reach a hundred
will be considered accursed.
They will build houses and dwell in them;
they will plant vineyards and eat their fruit.
No longer will they build houses and others live in them,
or plant and others eat.
For as the days of a tree,
so will be the days of my people;
my chosen ones will long enjoy
the work of their hands.
They will not labor in vain,
nor will they bear children doomed to misfortune;
for they will be a people blessed by the Lord,
they and their descendants with them.
Before they call I will answer;
while they are still speaking I will hear.
The wolf and the lamb will feed together,
and the lion will eat straw like the ox,
and dust will be the serpent’s food.
They will neither harm nor destroy
on all my holy mountain,”
says the Lord.

There is an interesting feature in this view of the new heavens and new earth the Lord will create. Mankind is not immortal. There is birth and death, death of a sort anyway. The difference is that all will live out their years to a hundred or more. A man who lives to a hundred will be thought a mere child – but not accursed. This despite the fact that a hundred doesn’t come close to the ages of Genesis 1-11 (which may lead us to wonder how those at the time of Isaiah interpreted the ages given in the primeval history of Genesis).

They will bear children, but not children doomed to misfortune. They will build and plant and have descendants.

The new heavens and new earth of Isaiah 65 is not the ultimate consummation, or so it seems. But it is a return in a sense to the Garden, to the way things were meant to be when Adam and Eve were told to be fruitful and multiply. Death is a part of this creation.

John Calvin comments on Isaiah 65:20 in much the same vein as he does on Genesis 3. One of the most interesting features of Calvin’s commentaries are the views he argues against, and his reasons for holding his position. This gives a feel for the range of opinion on the various topics at play in the church of Calvin’s day. In this case he notes (p. 318-319):

Others suppose it to mean that there will no longer be any distinction of age; because, where life is eternal, no line is drawn between the child and the old man.

But I interpret the words of the Prophet in this manner, “Whether they are children or old men, they shall arrive at mature age so as to be always vigorous, like persons in the prime of life; and, in short, they shall always be healthful and robust;” for it is on account of our sins that we grow old and lose our strength.

And a little later:

… the citizens of the Church shall be long-lived, so that no one shall be taken out of the world till he has reached mature age and fully completed his course, he likewise adds that, even in old age, they shall be robust.

and later still:

To our sins, therefore, it ought to be imputed, that we are liable to diseases, pains, old age, and other inconveniences; for we do not permit Christ to possess us fully, and have not advanced so far in newness of life as to lay aside all that is old.

Apparently there was a line of thought in Calvin’s day that read this passage in terms of eternal life. But it wasn’t a universal position, and it wasn’t the position that Calvin took. He returns to the view he gave in Genesis 3 – that immortality is a divine gift, that it is only union with Christ that can preserve the natural man from the normal decay processes of a man of dust, and that in any case the citizens of the Church will eventually be taken out of this world.

As I said above, I don’t necessarily agree with Calvin. But the contrast of Calvin’s view of creation and the immortality of man and the view of the new earth in Isaiah 65:17-25 with the young earth view of natural biological processes in God’s good creation is striking. And it is important to note that Calvin was not responding to scientific challenges to the story of Adam and the origin of life. He was reading and interpreting scripture.

This doesn’t answer all the questions concerning the role of death in evolutionary creation. And it doesn’t begin to address the issues of human inclinations toward sinful behavior. But it does appear that the biblical view of death isn’t as simple or as clear as Answers in Genesis, Ken Ham, and Terry Mortenson would have us believe.

How do you view new creation in Isaiah 65? What is Isaiah talking about?

What does this tell us about the nature of human mortality and immortality?

Is it theologically troubling to consider death a part of God’s good creation?

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

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