All living things reproduce and die and this is an essential part of evolution right from the early single cell organisms to complex life today, but the Bible says that human death entered the world through sin – how do we reconcile these two statements?
Based on our scientific knowledge to date, evolution is the best understanding of how God created man and all living things, although we do not yet know it in all its minutiae. It is a magnificent process and produces a fantastic variety of life revealing God’s sheer extravagance. But when you look at what life is like it can be harsh – things get injured, ill, feel pain, die, and get eaten - ‘nature is red in tooth and claw’ as the saying goes. And this certainly doesn’t appear to be to do with human sin - pain and physical death were clearly part of God’s creation before humans evolved.
How does this then fit with St Paul writing in his letter to the Romans ‘It was through one man that sin entered the world, and through sin, death, and thus death pervaded the whole human race, inasmuch as all have sinned’ (Rom 5 v12)? He is linking Adam and Eve’s sin in the Genesis account, early in the human species existence, say around 200,000 years ago, to death entering the human race. It could be viewed, of course, as death in a spiritual sense that he is talking about as it’s a result of sin (i.e. going our own way rather than God’s), and if understood to mean this Paul’s writing remains true. But… is it only on this level?
I would like to explore whether it can include the physical - Paul will almost certainly, based on the Genesis account, have believed that physical death too started as a consequence of human sin. Must we alter what he meant to fit our current scientific understanding? Or…is it conceivable that the very existence of physical death, and the pain and finality we feel with it, is provided as a sign to us of the more important spiritual life or death question that faces us? And also, that physical death is still our responsibility? I suggest the answers to these questions can be a ‘Yes’, as long as we understand what God is like and what He can do.
God, of course, knows all things, and not only before all time and now but in the future too. And, He can use that knowledge in His creation if He chooses. He will have known before creation, therefore, that man would decide to exercise his free will and decide to go his own way, breaking the loving relationship with Him. And so He therefore chose to fashion the whole of the created order to reveal the major impact of that to Him and man – by including physical death from the start. St Paul expressed it this way - ‘The created universe……was made subject to frustration, not of its own choice but by the will of him who subjected it, yet with the hope that the universe itself is to be freed from the shackles of mortality and is to enter upon the glorious liberty of the children of God’ (Rom 8 v19-21). The ‘first man’ Adam evolved and was able to make his own choices. At that point he was able to make the choice to have a loving relationship of dependence with his creator, but chose, as God foreknew he would, to go his own way not in relationship with God, leading to a subsequent breakdown in all human and earthly relationships as well. And, just as we are responsible for our actions, Adam was too – so the responsibility for the breakdown and therefore physical death, the ‘shackle of mortality’, in all creation was his.
Understood like this, St Paul’s statement ‘It was through one man that sin entered the world, and through sin, death’ can be true both physically and spiritually, and there is no conflict between Evolution and the Christian faith. The existence of physical death in the evolutionary process actually urges us to look and examine a more serious concern, our possible spiritual death due to the sin which entered the human race through Adam.
There are further fascinating implications from this too. Firstly what this says about the relationship between God and man is truly astonishing – the relationship is so important to God that He chose the very form of His creation to reflect a future breakdown and need for reconciliation. The world is subject to ‘frustration’ and the ‘shackles of mortality’, and man and his choice to go his own way was central to that design of the universe.
The second is what it says about future physical change - the created order is to be changed, to be freed from the ‘shackles of mortality’ i.e.death. And it will be a new freedom that the ‘children of God’, i.e. redeemed mankind, already have. So it’s linked again to the man to God relationship – man is central to God’s activity. Although we cannot conceive of or know how to construct this in a physical sense, we can know something of it now because we have had a first contact with this new creation in the person (man) of the resurrected Jesus Christ. He died and yet came back alive afterwards, and met with as many as 500 of his followers including all his closest friends. He was clearly a physical being as they talked with him, he ate with them and they touched him. Yet he was different. He had certainly not just been resuscitated (would have needed serious medical attention), he could appear behind locked doors, and be taken from sight when he wished as well – this new creation beyond death was good, powerful, and a source of joy to all those who saw him. It changed their lives and the world. It was certainly different, at times perplexing, but powerful and fully alive. The glorious liberty that Paul talks of for all of us will be like this in some way (he too says we cannot know what it will look like in 1 Cor 15 v35-44). Although it is not here yet, we do know that this future created order is linked to the new reconciled relationship between man and God that Jesus revealed and that Paul wrote about. We as a species are clearly of paramount importance to God.
What does all this show us? First, the good news is that although we will die physically, we do not have to die in the real sense - spiritually. There is a way to be alive, fully and for ever, and God wants us to see the need for it and find it. So much so he has designed the universe to make us ask about it and look for it. But second it is that we need to be reconciled to God – we, and not just Adam and our parents, have chosen our own way and we know all is not well. When we have faced ourselves and our responsibility for our part in the problem - that sin has entered the world through us - and we want things restored and put right, we are ready to hear there is good news; God, the one who created the whole way the world works to show the problem to us, is also the one who offers to free us from our shackles and give us his ‘glorious liberty’ which works in this life and the next. And when we respond to Him, we can find it for ourselves.
Some questions –
- How do you feel about God foreknowing our human response and choosing to fashion creation in a certain way as a result? Does it feel true or a cop out?
- I have not read this idea anywhere else - has anyone else suggested this before?
- Do you agree this still fits with God ‘s first creation being ‘very good’?
- Do you think that as Adam evolved in the ‘red in tooth and claw’ natural order, that this would have made it unfair to expect him to live in a perfect relationship with God?
- Do you think my assertion reasonable that Paul will almost certainly, based on the Genesis account, have believed that physical death started as a consequence of human sin?
- I have written it assuming a personal Adam, but believe the argument works as well with assuming a larger population group approach too. Do you agree?