Wednesday, 3 December 2008

Evolution and the Biblical understanding of death (Creation or evolution, chapter 11)

The next few chapters of the book are in my opinion particularly significant, and worth reading especially for any wavering creationist who wonders if he's making too much fuss over the origins issue. In these chapters, Dr. Alexander spells out the theological implications of his "evolutionary creationism" view. Accommodating one's interpretation of the Bible to Darwinism comes at a price, and in these chapters DA spells out just what that price is, with commendable candidness. From an orthodox evangelical point of view, the concessions that have to be made are much too great.

The organisation of the book could have done with a little more work in this bit, because in fact a significant part of the discussion is contained in the next chapter, "Evolution and the Fall". As "by one man sin entered into the world, and death by sin" (Romans 5:12), as God had promised (Genesis 2:17), you can't really discuss the Biblical doctrine of death without discussing the Fall. DA, though, does appear to think otherwise. As he presents these matters, this chapter is intended to be a "complete" (page 253) summary of the Bible's teaching on death, and the Fall is something that we can better understand after (not as part of) getting this "complete" understanding. This is not simply a matter of presentation. DA's doctrine of death and the Fall really does depend on this separation.

DA presents death in three parts - physical death, spiritual death, and the "second death". That in itself is OK - until you realise the hermetic sealing existing between the first and second of those (except in the case where God sends physical death as a particular judgment). That's how the Fall doesn't need to be discussed in this chapter at all - there is no reference whatsoever to Genesis 2-3 or to Romans 5 - because these two kinds of death are quite independent.

What, then, of physical death? First it's good to ask what Darwinian orthodoxy would require us to believe here, because if you've read this far in the book you'll know that that will be precisely what the Bible will end up being found to teach, or at least be "compatible" with. According to the long-ages dating DA adheres to, and the placing of the various evolutionary dates on that scale, anatomically modern, intelligent, cultured humans were around for plenty of time before Adam and Eve, who had human ancestors (though, DA adds, they would not have had any knowledge of God). Physical death is an essential part of the evolutionary engine, including in producing humanity. It cannot be an evil intruder, but has been the normal course of events for the 99.99(etc.)% of history before the Bible's timeline begins. What this means is, that you can't have the orthodox Darwinian scheme, and believe that death invaded the human race in a terrible way as a result of Adam eating the forbidden fruit.

So it is, then, that we find DA writing such heterodox untruths as "Nowhere in the Old Testament is there the slightest uggestion [sic] that the physical death of either animals or humans, after a reasonable span of years, is anything other than the normal pattern ordained by God for this earth" and "the Old Testament ideal is a long and useful life obeying God's will, followed by death." DA follows a consistent pattern throughout the book. He does not interpret Old Testament texts using the light of New Testament revelation; he instead follows the modernist error of treating them in isolation (though in this case I think even with that treatment you shouldn't go as far wrong as this). Hebrews 2:14-15 states that "Jesus... [came] that through death he might destroy him that had the power of death, that is, the devil; and deliver them who through fear of death were all their lifetime subject to bondage." What does this mean? Jesus destroyed death through his physical death. Death cannot be cut up into neat "physical" and "spiritual" portions in DA's fashion, and then the portions utterly divorced from each other - the apostles' inspired explanations forbid it. Distinguished, yes - separated and divorced, no. DA writes (page 245, emphases mine) "Although there are hints of the possibility of resurrection in the later books of the Old Testament, there is no developed resurrection teaching within the old covenant". Jesus, though, thought differently, and severely rebuked the Sadducees, who only believed the first five books of the Bible, for "erring", "not knowing the scriptures, nor the power of God", for not understanding that the teaching of the resurrection was clearly stated in the second book of the Bible, in Exodus chapter 3 (Matthew 22:29-32).

DA emphasises the normality of death in the Old Testament, but because this is entirely without any discussion of the Fall - i.e. the event which brought death in - it's a totally out of context discussion. Yes, of course death is normal - that's because the first father of the human race rebelled against God, and we inherited his sin and punishment (Romans 5:12ff)! DA, though, manages to give a "complete" discussion of the Biblical doctrine of death without mentioning the fall, and ends up concluding - just as orthodox Darwinism required him to do - that death is totally natural, and part of God's design for life on this earth. In this context, it then makes no sense (though DA never addresses this tension - is he aware of it?) when DA proceeds to the New Testament to talk about liberation from death, and that "Physical death has no place in the fulfilled kingdom of God", quoting the verses about tears being wiped away, etc. (p249). He speaks of physical death being "an enemy to be overcome", but we have no idea how this can be seeing as it was perfectly natural and necessary for our upward progress out of the sludge. DA's answer seems to be that it's just by contrast with the wonderful kingdom of Jesus - such a glorious thing that it makes death seem dark by comparison. DA ends up with the answer that the reason for physical death is that it is necessary for us to inherit the kingdom of God via the resurrection bodies, which could not have been done otherwise - though DA then grants that in fact this is not necessary because those who are alive when Jesus returns will inherit the kingdom without physical death. Confused? He certainly is. (As someone with a systematic bent, this leaves me wondering what DA supposes would have happened to Adam if he had passed the test of the tree, and been admitted into life - would God have killed him anyway so that he could then have been resurrected?) What we have here in DA's theology is not the apostles showing how the Christ event fulfilled the Old Testament Scriptures. Rather, they rewrite them - death, which was nice and natural before, suddenly becomes an enemy because of newly revealed future resurrection which the Old Testament believer would never have known about. Having the New Testament rewrite the Old in this way instead of fulfilling it makes us feel sympathetic for the Jews who rejected Jesus - it seems that they were correct about him not being the promised Messiah of Scripture after all, and for teaching different truths to the ones they found in their Bibles!

DA's faithfulness to whatever most contemporary scientists think is most likely concerning the past is very admirable. The price, though, is a corresponding loss of faithfulness in believing what God has actually testified about the past, and a resulting mangling of the Bible that has to take place in order to bring these things into line. I am indeed grateful to Dr. Alexander for spelling out some of the implications for Christians who seek to fold evolution into their systems of belief. DA isn't one for compromising when it comes to doing that, and he shows us exactly what price you're going to have to pay if you're going to be consistent instead of picking and choosing the bits you like. I hope that discerning readers will read this section of the book and respond with a resounding "No thanks".

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