The Cost of Existence and the God of Love (RJS)

The Cost of Existence and the God of Love (RJS) January 15, 2019

We have been slowly working through Denis Alexander’s new book Is There Purpose in Biology and come now to the final chapter – where he digs into the topic introduced by his subtitle. Evolution causes problems for a number of people because it uses, in fact requires, death to create life. Predation and parasitism are a normal part of the nature world. Tigers are excellent hunters, the dart frog is highly toxic, and so-called flesh eating bacteria lend an element of risk to swimming in natural waters or clean-up after a flood.

When we consider evolution and natural selection we often think of it in terms of survival of the fittest. The vision is of competition and bloody fight, of victors and vanquished. But while there are predators and parasites – these creatures fill niches in the natural world and simply live their lives. The food chain is a complex web. In evolutionary biology fitness has little to do with competition and victory in the local specific situation. Rather the fittest are those who raise most offspring, nothing more, nothing less. In the long run a variant with greater fitness will survive and dominate the population, but in the short term many will coexist. Evolution does require a natural cycle and process of life and death with successive generations. But this need be no more violent or wasteful than the world we see around us today. Each succeeding generation fulfills a role in the process of the unfolding of creation.

A larger problem is raised by the mechanisms of mutation producing variation and providing the landscape through which evolution operates. Without the possibility of mutation change would be impossible, yet this same propensity for mutation that enables the evolution of diversity and adaptation to conditions results in genetic diseases and in cancer. Apparently a cousin of mine suffered a spontaneous mutation that resulted in birth defects and disability for her sons and a premature death for herself.   Cancer is far more common. We all know of someone who has suffered and died of cancer. And it isn’t just a disease of age, I can think of six I’ve known over the last decade who left behind young children growing up without one parent.

Denis Alexander brings his personal experience with cancer four years ago into the discussion to make it real. This isn’t simply an abstract philosophical discussion. How is evolution to be reconciled with the creative activity of a God of love? Denis doesn’t agree with the extremes of meticulous determinism or deism, or even the middle range idea of a God who voluntarily steps away and allows freedom in his created order (John Polkinghorne is an example of this last view). “Freedom” he suggests “makes sense as a term applied to human decision-making, but it makes no sense as a way of describing the material world around us.” (p. 224) The idea of freedom also fails to take God off the hook. Genes don’t decide to mutate any more than a car careening downhill decides to strike a pedestrian. If I take my hands off the wheel to give the car its freedom – I am responsible for the damage and injuries that result. I am the decision maker not the car, even when my decision is to let go. (Denis uses this general example in his discussion.)

Where does this leave us?If the position here is maintained, that God is really omnipotent and God is really omniscient, and therefore that God’s intentions and purposes really are being fulfilled in the created order, and that therefore God is really ultimately responsible for all the “biologically evils” of the world (but not the moral evils arising from human free will), then the discussion can really begin.” (pp. 227-228)

Creation declares God’s glory and majesty, but it is not a mirror to reveal his character. Psalms, Proverbs, and Job all reflect on God as creator declaring that creation is through his wisdom of God. More than this, in Psalm 104 the Psalmist writes that “the lions roar for their prey and seek their food from God.” In fact, all creatures look to God for their food and rely on him for their very life and breath. In wisdom God made them all. He is their source and sustainer. God has a purpose for creation – but it is not to reveal his character in its details … as the lion tears apart its prey (supplied by God).

Denis suggests that “it is coherent existence itself which is the overriding good, including the existence of living creatures, and most especially the existence of creatures like ourselves with the capacity to respond freely to God’s love.” (p. 231) There are two sides to the properties of the created order. The mutations that enable beautiful diversity, include the individuality in which we flourish also result in diseases.  Eating provides sustenance and produces free radicals that can lead to mutations and cancer. Bacteria are necessary for our well being, but they also kill. Pain is an essential part of life for higher organisms. Denis notes that “brain complexity, awareness of the environment, and pain appear to increase in parallel.” (p. 235)

The age to come will be different. Today we live in phase one of God’s creative plan. Phase two will avoid the pain and death that plague us. Why then did God not skip phase one and advance straight to phase two?  Denis speculates:

One obvious answer to the question might be: “Because carbon-based life is the only way in which creatures can come into being with genuine free will and moral responsibility, equipped to enter into a saving relationship with God as a result of the atoning death and resurrection of Christ.” Now that really does provide a Purpose for biology. … The God of love will never force people into his kingdom, and love is predicated on genuine freedom. (p. 243)

The pros and cons of the so-called natural world are the cost of existence for the development of creatures capable of free and loving relationship with God. Biology, in its beauty and in predation and disease serves the greater purpose of God in bringing to fruition his coming kingdom.  If we look only at biology, death is the ultimate end for all – as individuals each one dies. When the sun dies life itself will vanish from the planet. But the Christian message of Purpose sees more than this. As Christians “we see the doorway into a new creation that God is preparing for all those who put their faith in him through Christ. And we realize that life is going somewhere very good indeed – albeit through a tough and rocky road for us at present – when ultimately the whole present cosmos for which Christ dies will be finally expressed and fully realized in the new heavens and the new earth.” (p. 247)

The best response is one of faith and hope. God’s creation will serve his Purpose. And it is very good.

Is it reasonable to trust the wisdom of God and conclude that this world, including death, pain and suffering, is the best way to achieve his ultimate Purpose? 

Is this consistent with the message of the Bible?

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

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What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • Jason Middlekauff

    I’ve enjoyed your examinations of Alexander’s book. I find his “cost of existence” argument intellectually satisfying to a degree (I’m reminded of some of Dillard’s musings in A Pilgrim at Tinker Creek), but I have to admit that emotionally it leaves me cold. It does remind me, though, why I can’t bring myself to advocate a Christus Victor atonement theory despite finding many things to recommend it theologically. In CV, Christ’s death and resurrection defeated death and the devil, redeeming humans from their power. But such a few requires one to view death as evil, as unnatural, not as part of a natural cycle that’s existed since the first organisms, right? Or have I misunderstood CV?

  • Rod Bristol

    I’m with you. However, I see the argument consistent with Christus Victor, which is one facet of redemption, not the whole story. As Victor, Christ has already demonstrated what we anticipate. The creation groans in anticipation of what will be revealed at last. That groaning and our groaning over death and decay are not evil, but anticipatory. (Romans 8:18-25) Our knowledge of good and evil validates our pursuit of God while it frustrates our aspiration to be one with God. (Genesis 3:22 and Hebrews 5:14, in context.)

  • Jason Middlekauff

    Thanks, Rod. I agree that any one atonement theory (or even all of them) isn’t adequate. I understand the anticipatory element too. Whether CV or another theory, traditional Christian thought views death as a consequence of sin. I don’t think I articulated my point well initially, but what I was trying to get at is that the sin/death cause and effect relationship doesn’t seem to work given that death existed long before people even arrived on the scene to sin. I’ve heard Greg Boyd argue along the lines that Satan’s rebellion (and his minions) created disorder in the cosmos which man’s sin has exacerbated. As someone who doesn’t hold an especially robust view of Satan (and I concede perhaps mistakenly so), I find it hard to adopt Boyd’s view.

  • Rod Bristol

    Again, I’m right with you, FWIW. Deeply ingrained theology can be tragically wrong, when it points away from the Lord or raises barriers to believing him. With you, I also question the notion of “The Fall.” Such language is foreign to scripture. The proof texts used to justify it actually don’t. It is a philosophical response to some difficult questions, but intellectual or emotional comfort is not Truth.

  • Patrick

    Agree with this view.

    A lot of what I thought was valid theology turns out to be not so valid once I studied w/o the idea I needed to prove X view was accurate.

    Right within that Romans 8 passage is a little hint that when God “created”, He added “mataiotes” into creation. Not sure what all that meant from Paul’s view, but, it flies in the face of the “God made the world perfect and sin ruined it all and Jesus came to fix that”.

    Sin didn’t do that, God did that.

    Jesus fixed everything that needed fixing, but, we’ve grown so used to these ideas and some are not necessarily biblical ideas.

  • Realist1234

    The problem I have with this understanding is that it appears from Jesus’ attitude towards disease and illness that He always healed it, if people were willing to be healed by Him. Whilst He clearly accepted it as part of life, His actions tend to lead us to conclude that disease is not part of God’s ‘plan’. Rather He negated its effect on human beings and restored them to their proper functioning. Although I tend to believe evolution does explain development of life on earth, this is one of the problems I have in reconciling it to Christian beliefs about God, the reality of a ‘fallen’ world etc.

    Comments?

  • RJS4DQ

    Denis Alexander digs into this very question in the chapter. To summarize a much longer discussion in a couple of sentences: The healing ministry of Jesus indicates that disease is not part of the age to come when the kingdom of God is fully realized. Healing in the current age is temporary – even if a given ailment is cured, everyone of those healed died eventually of something.

  • Realist1234

    So disease, pain, suffering and death were always part of God’s ‘good’ plan for this age? Why then does Paul view death as the last enemy?

  • Realist1234

    So why did Jesus heal people without fail? And resurrected Lazarus? Was He contradicting Himself?

  • Realist1234

    I think it’s unfair to say the ‘fall’ is foreign to Scripture. The text indicates that there were serious consequences to mankind’s disobedience to God’s command, a very minor command given all that He had provided. ‘Adam’s’ disobedience, according to Paul, led directly to ‘sin’ and death, but through Jesus, these have and will be dealt with.

    I just dont see how you can come to the conclusions you have.

  • Realist1234

    If death isnt ‘evil’ or ‘unnatural’ why does Paul view it as the last ‘enemy’?

  • Jason Middlekauff

    I don’t know, Realist1234. I don’t know. Can death be the enemy from humans’ perspective yet still be a part of God’s design–or a consequence of His design–for the cosmos? Is death a result of evil spiritual forces attempting to foil God’s creation (see my explanation of Greg Boyd’s idea a couple posts below)? I don’t know. But to me, an understanding of physical death beginning as a result of man’s sin does not square with the fact that organisms were already dying for epochs prior to the first humans, which is something Paul could not have known given scientific knowledge of his age. Honestly, I doubt I’m ever going to find that anyone’s explanation appeals logically and still manages to sit well emotionally.

  • Patrick

    Obviously not.

    All I say is repeat what Paul said in Romans 8. God “made the creation” with mataiotes baked into it. I don’t even know exactly how to apply that word in modern English, but, it sure doesn’t fit the traditional EX Nihilo view of our faith.

    Maybe it just means the creation can’t fix itself, maybe that’s what Paul was getting out, I can’t say.

    BTW, I share the view of the theologians now days that Genesis 1-3 is NOT about ex nihilo creation anyway. They say God did create ex nihilo, that’s just not what the bible narrative is about is their point.

    It’s about a point in time where God acted again and Adam and Eve would be the first “elect” people God used at least in the narrative.

    It’s about a series of events way more recent than original creation. There are way too many people in Cain’s life to have all been kids of Eve and Adam for 1 quick example.

    Let’s assume just for discussion that view is closer to accurate than the traditional view.

    That when the ancient author used the verb “to create”, they meant closer to what we would call “to make functional”. That’s John Walton’s view and Michael Heiser’s. 2 good OT theologians that have put some work in on this issue.

    IF that is a more accurate understanding of Genesis 1-3, then that could explain the problem between Romans 8 mataiotes and how Jesus seems to eliminate disease and death as precursors to the eschaton and elimination of what we both believe is “God’s Enemy”. God ain’t God’s enemy in that scenario.

    The bible simply is not about the history of all creative activity of God in this view. That’s would be why there are no pre historic animals, etc.

    Here is a small writeup about the issue of a really close, careful study on Genesis 1-3, which doesn’t include comparative literature of the pagans like Dr. Walton does:

    http://drmsh.com/genesis-13-face-compatible-genome-research/

  • Rod Bristol

    Scripture frequently is read to be consistent with various doctrines, including The Fall. However, again, the language of The Fall is absent, so the idea is somehow derived or supported by reading scripture with a particular mind set. The rhetoric of the New Testament is more foreign to us than we suppose and we easily draw conclusions that are skewed by our perspectives. Paul often used allegorical rhetoric and he invoked Adam allegorically to say that all who are in Adam die in sin, but that all who are in Christ live in hope. The story of Adam is allegorical on its face. This is apparent from it’s “factual” incompatibility with Genesis 1 and from the stated characteristics of the tempter in Genesis 3. Genesis 3:22 is contrary to the doctrine of The Fall. More details of these points are available at readfresh.pub/ReadGenesis .

  • Realist1234

    The problem is that according to Paul’s thinking, death is the enemy of God, not just mankind, according to 1 Corinthians. Some have tried to argue he is not referring to physical death, rather ‘spiritual’ but I see little evidence of that. Or at the very least he is talking about both.

    I strongly suspect we simply cannot reconcile the likes of Paul’s teaching with modern views on the universe, this earth and life. Paul lived in a different era when he, like everyone else then, understood very little about the realities of the creation. He believed the Scriptures, which for him were the Old Testament, which is precisely why he believed that sin came into the world through one man, Adam, and this brought all the consequences that Paul saw around him and which we see today. I see little evidence that Paul viewed Adam in some allegorical way. No, he compared and contrasted Christ, a real single human being, with Adam, the first man and ‘father’ of all mankind, and taught that Jesus has brought us reconciliation to God, needed due to the consequences of Adam’s and our sin.

    So I think it is pretty pointless in trying to reconcile modern views with Paul’s or indeed with any biblical writer. They are two different worlds.

  • Realist1234

    I see little evidence that Paul viewed Adam ‘allegorically’. I find it odd, if that is the case, that he would contrast Jesus with Adam if he also did not view Adam as a single human being, the ‘father’ of all mankind, as taught in the Old Testament – the Jewish line of patriarchs is traced right back to Adam in the Gospels. There was nothing allegorical about him to first century Jews, and the only reason you think so is because of modern understandings of earth’s history.

    As I said to Jason above, I think we need to accept we simply cannot reconcile the likes of Paul’s understanding with our own modern version.

  • Rod Bristol

    Genesis 1, 2, and 3 convince me that the story of Adam is allegory. Paul’s citations are completely consistent with its allegorical character. Completely beside that point, modern understandings of earth’s history may be more accurate than first century understandings.

  • Realist1234

    From what I can see there is no indication that God created with ‘mataiotes’ (frustration/futility or however you want to translate it) built into the original design. If anything the text of Romans 8 strongly alludes to the consequences of Adam’s and Eve’s disobedience –

    “For the creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope 21 that[h] the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the freedom and glory of the children of God.”

    Note that Paul says the creation was ‘subjected to ‘frustration” by God. That implies the creation already existed, not that God created it with the frustration/futility already there. That fits well with the Genesis narrative that Paul knew well.

    There isnt a hint in Genesis that the ‘good’ creation was already in bondage to decay before man’s disobedience. I think Paul uses ‘mataiotes’ in describing the effects of God’s ‘curses’ on mankind and the earth following their disobedience, and this understanding is further supported by the next verse in Romans 8 –

    “We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time.”

    – ‘pains of childbirth’ sound familiar? The consequences for Eve due to her disobedience? Hardly a coincidence in language.

    No, Paul is speaking from his own world-view, which is quite different from our own. Trying to reconcile his understanding and modern scientific findings is pointless.

    Ill comment briefly on your other points:

    ‘ex-nihilo’ – I think we can be pretty sure that to Jews like Paul in the first century, the initial creation was ex-nihilo, “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth”. Most commentators agree ‘In the beginning’ implies a definite beginning to the creation which did not exist before, and that is how Jews understood Genesis. Indeed Im not aware that Jews understood the creation to be eternal in nature, rather only God is.

    The writer of Genesis did use 2 different Hebrew words which have both been typically translated as ‘create’ and one may imply functionality, but the other does not. It seems to me the standard Jewish understanding of Genesis was that God created everything we see (what we would call the universe) out of nothing (ie it did not come into existence until God made it come into existence). The narrative naturally concentrates on the earth where we humans live, and everything described there would be understood by people living 3,500 years ago. Hence the view that the seas of water were full of chaos, but God tamed it and brought order. People didnt know about the existence of dinosaurs, hence no dinosaurs. There is little doubt that the Genesis creation story was primarily written as a polemic against other Near Eastern creation stories, thus the emphasis that the sun and moon simply had functions and were not ‘gods’ to be worshipped unlike in other cultures etc.

  • Realist1234

    I think the only reason you believe that Adam is allegorical due to Genesis is precisely because of your modern understanding. But Paul and other Jews then simply did not have that understanding and would have viewed Genesis as historical. Our own world-views whether ancient or modern inevitably affect how we understand how things are.

  • Jason Middlekauff

    I largely agree with your assessment of Paul’s view. I came across this piece today on the topic. You may find it of interest: https://biologos.org/blogs/guest/evolution-sin-and-death

  • Rod Bristol

    Think again. I believe Adam is allegorical because I have read Genesis carefully, noting the inconsistencies that make historical reading of the text unreasonable, and noting the artfully non-factual description of the tempter. Genesis 1, 2, and 3 represent no more physical, historical reality than Psalm 23.

  • Realist1234

    But are the inconsistencies you have found inconsistent based on your own modern knowledge? Would Paul, a first century Jew, have seen those inconsistencies given his limited knowledge of reality?

    You say the tempter is described ‘non-factually’. How so? Remember the OT contains an account of a donkey talking (like in Shrek!) – was that non-factual?

  • Realist1234

    I did a response but for some reason it hasnt been posted.

  • Rod Bristol

    The inconsistencies are within the text. Modern thought has nothing to do with that. When you force Genesis 1, 2, and 3 into a historical paradigm, you force it to flatly contradict itself. You may be so accustomed to your view of it that you don’t see the contradictions inherent in your interpretation, yet they are there. One of those is that Genesis 2:4 says creation was done in a day. The Hebrew word for day is the same word used for the six days of Genesis one. (NIV smooths that over by using the English ‘when’ in 2:4.) Another is that the sequence of creation in chapter two is not only different from the sequence of chapter one, but two explains the reason for its alternative sequence. Other inconsistencies include the vocation and domain of humanity. It’s wrong to ignore these or insist on some inconsistent scheme of reading to get around them. Respect for scripture demands respecting its literary character, not forcing it to answer our questions. You can’t get blood from a turnip or geology from Genesis.

    Balaam’s donkey was something like a puppet of God or his angel, contrary to its nature. The text of Genesis three (“Now the serpent was more crafty than any other beast of the field that the LORD God had made. He said…”) is contrary to the idea.that the tempter is a puppet of Satan or the devil in disguise. Another pointer to the symbolic character of the text is that snakes, unlike earthworms, don’t eat dirt, as posited in 3:14. Both the apostles Paul (2 Corinthians 11:3) and John (Revelation 12:9) treat the serpent allegorically (of course!). We have no business warping the story to our liking.

    More details of these points are available at readfresh.pub/ReadGenesis .