How can natural evil, such as natural catastrophes, disease, suffering, predation, and biological death, be reconciled with a good God?
According to the traditional Reformed view of Calvin, Kuyper, and Bavinck, there was initially no natural evil in God’s “very good” creation. All natural evil is a result of Adam’s fall, which brought about a drastic corruption of nature. In the future, Christ will bring about a cosmic reconciliation that will cleanse the world of all evil, whether moral or natural (Rom.8, Col.1). In the traditional view, since Adam’s fall happened probably only a few days after creation, and since animals were originally vegetarian, there was no animal death before Adam’s fall. Thus all animal fossils must post-date Adam’s fall.
The chronology of mainstream science, on the other hand, entails that all forms of natural evil existed already long before Adam’s fall; the world before Adam is allegedly virtually the same as our present world. How, then, can natural evil be linked to Adam's fall?
In a recent paper ("God,natural evil and biological evolution"), Dr Jitse vanderMeer proposes that, before God created the world, He already foreknew Adam would fall. Thus, in anticipation of Adam’s fall, God created the world from the start with natural evil, so that it could serve as a suitable place of punishment. Thus, even though natural evil precedes Adam, Adam’s fall still serves as the reason for natural evil. Millions of years of animal suffering and death are thus attributed to the subsequent fall of Adam. Indeed, since van der Meer holds that Adam lived about 10,000 BC and that culturally and anatomically identical humans already lived before 50,000 BC, this implies that even human suffering and death existed thousands of years before Adam fell.
In van der Meer's opinion, Adam's fall brought about no changes in the world, plants, or animals. Even for humans, the only significant change was that humans could now experience spiritual death. In support of this, van der Meer argues that biological death is fundamental to the current order of creation. If animal death was due to the fall then God would have to so thoroughly revamp creation it would be virtually another creation. Since Scripture speaks of only one creation, van der Meer deduces that there could have been no major change at the fall.
What are we to make of this? First, a minor, biological point. Is biological death indeed fundamental to life on this earth? Biologist Jeffrey Schloss disputes this. Schloss comments,
"At the organismal level, there are no physiological or thermodynamic reasons why death must occur. In fact, there are several unicellular species that are immortal and one advanced multicellular organism (Bristlecone Pine) that has not demonstrated any signs of senescence (i.e., aging). The evolutionary interpretation of senescence is not that it represents biological failure or necessity, but is an adaptation built in to organisms, enhancing fitness by "making room" for progeny." [Jeffrey P. Schloss, "From Evolution to Eschatology", in Resurrection: Theological and Scientific Assessments, T. Peters (ed.), Eerdmans 2002: 83].
It is thus not biologically inconceivable that all natural evil is due to the post-fall corruption of a previously innocent creation that initially contained no suffering, animal death, carnivores, etc. The onus is on van der Meer to prove otherwise. All he gives us is mere assertion.
A second difficulty with van der Meer's proposal is that, even though God knows our future sins, there is no Biblical evidence that God ever punishes sin before its actual occurrence. In the Bible, God always punishes man afterwards, in response to his sin. In particular, in Genesis 3 God explicitly curses the earth after Adam sins.
In the Bible there is solidarity between man and animals, in that animals share in man’s punishment. But why should animals suffer millions of years before any human sin? This contradicts God’s concern for the welfare of animals, as shown in His future covenant with the animals (Hosea 2:18).
The implausibility of vanderMeer’s scheme increases when one includes his acceptance of human evolution. This entails that sinless humans suffered and died thousands of years before Adam fell. Further, VanderMeer considers natural evil to be an essential part of the evolutionary process that produced man. This raises the question: how can the very process that produced man be attributed to man’s future fall? Are we seriously to believe that, as punishment for man’s foreseen fall, God causes him to be produced via an evolutionary process that necessarily contains natural evil? This seems incoherent.
Van der Meer argues that Gen.1-4 gives no hint of a change in the created order. Yet, a close reading shows that the contrary is true. Consider, for example, the following striking contrast: before the fall, “God saw everything that he had made, and behold it was very good” (Gen.1:31); afterwards, “God saw the earth and, behold, it was corrupt, for all flesh had corrupted their way” (Gen.6:12). The context makes clear that “all flesh” includes the animals and that their corruption was associated with violence. The contrast between “very good” and “corrupt” fits in well with the implication that animals were initially herbivores (cf Gen.1:29-30 & Gen.9:3). It also fits in well with Rom.8:19-23, which speaks of the creation groaning in travail and awaiting redemption. Most Reformed commentators of Romans attribute this groaning to have commenced at Adam's fall. How can there be a cosmic redemption, or reconciliation (cf Col.1), if there was no fall from an initially innocent state?
Of course, there is much else in Gen.1-11 that rules out human evolution. For example, “and there was not found a helper fit for him” (Gen.2: 20) shows that there were no other humans around when Adam was created. Further, if God had created Adam through a long process of evolution, as van der Meer would have us believe, then it seems strange that God created Eve miraculously from Adam’s side (Gen.2:22, cf 1 Tim.2:13).
Also, if Adam lived about 10,000 BC, as van der Meer presumes, then, today’s Australian aborigines cannot be descendents of Adam since, according to mainstream science, they have lived continuously in Australia for the last 50,000 years. So, does original sin apply to them? or not? Are they saved through Christ? or not?
In an earlier paper ("Humankind: the image of God and animal ancestry") van der Meer suggests that Adam may have represented other humans living at his time, so that Adam's sin was imputed to his contemporaries, in much the same way as Christ's obedience is imputed to us. But this analogy is flawed: God, in His mercy, can impute undeserved grace, whereas God, in His justice, cannot impute undeserved punishment. If God is the direct cause of original sin in non-descedents of Adam then God makes men into sinners. Van der Meer claims that, in the traditional view, no biological inheritance is involved in the propagation of original sin. The confessions, on the other hand, describe original sin as a hereditary disease (Belgic Con.15, Canons 3&4:1) propagated by man; God created man good.
Dr van der Meer acknowledges that there is a conflict between Gen.1-4 and mainstream, evolutionary science. He argues that the two must agree, because God is the author of both Scripture and nature. To resolve the conflict he simply dismisses the details of Gen.1-4 on the dubious grounds that biblical scholars cannot agree on its interpretation. Moreover, he asserts, the intent of Gen.1-4 is not to satisfy the requirements of modern historical and scientific scholarship. His final conclusion is, “From an exegetical point of view we can, therefore, accept the history of life on earth as reconstructed in biology, paleontology and paleo-anthropology.”
Note the asymmetry here. According to van der Meer, there are various interpretations of the Bible, so almost anything goes, but only one valid interpretation of nature--the Grand Evolutionary Scenario, which van der Meer elevates to divine truth. It seems that Dr van der Meer is not so much interested in submitting to the Bible as in deconstructing its opposition to mainstream science.
It should be clear by now that much more is at stake than mere details of Genesis 1-11. The doctrine of original sin and the relationship between human sin and suffering & death are crucial theological issues.
As Dr van der Meer aptly demonstrates, discarding the historicity of the Bible inevitably undermines its theological content.
Would it then not be much wiser for us to humbly accept God at His word and to adapt our fallible scientific explanations accordingly?
Hi Dr. Byl,
I have always found the hardest thing to fit with evolution is the fall into sin. I have read Holmes Rolston III on this during my MA studies (I wrote a paper on his theistic evolution, and he posits that the Fall occured when human beings evolved a moral consciousness--the Fall happened when humanity reached an appropriate evolutionary development.
I could never work it out myself. I don't know the science behind these things--I tackle it from theological and philosophical foundations. To assume evil and death before the Fall seems to deny much of God's good creation work.
Thanks for your thoughts on these matters.
Thanks for your comments. Have you published your paper anywhere?
Thanks for this article.
I also find deep philosophical problems with the notion of evolution by natural selection of "pre-humans" (and where the line is drawn between human and pre-human is of course arbitrary, since there is a sequence of infinitesimal evolutionary steps between the two).
In an evolutionary context, I see no way to define evil, and I thereby see no way to declare foreknowledge of a fall into sin.
An example that comes to mind is Abel's murder at the hands of Cain (or is this account an "accommodation" to ancient mythology as well?). Assuming that humankind existed before the declaration of human sinfulness, and assuming that they evolved from non-human progenitors by natural selection, it follows that the actions of Cain that we now declare 'sinful' ( murder, covetousness ...) must have, at one time, simply been accepted practice by our ancestors, since we find no limitation of these in the evolutionary theories. Or should we suppose that from primordial soup to humanity there was some pure strain of living organisms that somehow satisfied the second half of the table of the Law?
So then, to continue the train of thought, at one time the Creator God uses natural selection to procure a species which he then confines with moral laws that contradict the evolutionary processes from which they arose. This is fundamentally contradictory.
If I had more time to explain this (not just in a blog comment) I think I could make it more clear. But suffice it to say that the biggest problems I see with any form of evolution and common descent of man (theistic or atheistic) has deep philosophical contradictions.
It seems to me that people who uphold these views are either inconsistent (they apply/utilize moral concepts that are denied in their philosophical foundations) or are amoral. I hope most of them are inconsistent.
Oops, major typo above; in the second-last paragraph, it should read
"But suffice it to say that I think any form of evolution and common descent of man (theistic or atheistic) has deep philosophical contradictions."
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