Saturday, July 19, 2008

POST #17: Evolution, Red in Tooth and Claw (part 1)

The evidence for common descent and an evolutionary history of life on the earth is beyond question. The majority of Christians in America may still reject evolution, but this can only be due to a general lack of awareness of the evidence, or a mindless determination to hold to Special Creationist schemes despite the overwhelming scientific evidence. It is only a matter of time before evangelical believers come to terms with what many now consider to be undeniable: we are the result of a 3.7 billion year evolutionary process. And when Christians make their peace with evolution, they will immediately encounter a number of thorny theological issues.

That is why Evolutionary Creationists must turn our attention to the theological adjustments made necessary by the truth of evolutionary science. And these adjustments are not limited to the question “What about Adam?” discussed in an
earlier post on this site. Perhaps the most troublesome obstacle for evolutionary Christian theology is related to theodicy, or the problem of evil. Evolution involves untold suffering, bloodshed, and death. As life slowly arose, and took on increasing complexity and diversity, it did so at the expense of an endless stream of predation, pain, and extinction. An estimated 99% of all species that have lived on this planet are now extinct. To many, this seems wasteful and unnecessary, if a divine designing influence is granted. Worse, the entire process (if intended by a Creator) would seem to be the work of a cold, calculating, and sadistic god, one who capriciously unleashes random processes, arbitrarily assigning victim status to the vast majority of living things. In addition, these same random processes bring many malevolent organisms (such as the malaria parasite) which are, in turn, the cause of much suffering and death.

Christian theology once had a handy container for natural evil. All the horrifying rages of Nature, everything from animal predation to tsunamis, were viewed as consequences of the Fall of man. We now understand that this cannot be without a contortion of chronology. Natural evil predates the Fall by billions of years.


I applaud the observations of evolutionary Christians like Francis Collins who extol the virtues of evolution, its amazing ingenuity, remarkable elegance, and intricate mechanisms. But the beauty of evolution comes with a huge price tag of pain and suffering. Life rises up, but not apart from the grim specters of death and extinction.

A recent commenter to this site boldly declared:
“[T]here is NO way that the God of the bible used evolution as a method to create humanity- it is too slow, brutal, random. As Obi Wan would say ‘Nasty thing – not the tool of a Jedi’.”
It is the view of many such atheists that the loving, providential God of the Bible cannot be squared with the evolutionary history of life. Such a God as Christians espouse would never utilize so ruthless a mechanism as evolution for creating life. So the argument goes.

My atheist friend objects to mixing evolution with Christian theism because evolution “is too slow, brutal, and random.” What of those three counts? Too slow? Not a problem to most theists. God, as the Bible and our experience reveal him, is never in a hurry, and he never lacks for time. A day, we are told, is as a thousand years, a thousand years as a day in divine time accounting (Psalm 90:4; 2 Peter 3:8). Too random? Not a problem for Evolutionary Creationists, who accept the necessary role of randomness in the processes of natural selection. (See my review of Richard Colling’s,
Random Designer.) Too brutal? That’s a little harder to dismiss.

A phrase re-popularized by Richard Dawkins in
The Selfish Gene, is often invoked by 1) Christians who object to evolution, and by 2) atheistic evolutionists who object to theism: “Red in tooth and claw”. It speaks of our bloody, predatory ancestry, the fierce and brutal history of evolving life. The phrase actually originated about 170 years ago, in the poetry of Alfred, Lord Tennyson. He introduced it in his seminal work, “In Memoriam: A. H. H.”

Strange. The man who coined the phrase was neither a Christian objecting to evolution, nor was he an atheist. He was a Christian who accepted evolution (which had already gained considerable favor even in those pre-Darwinian days) but who grappled with the problem of evil, especially natural evil. Tennyson was, of course, deeply troubled by the untimely death of his friend, Arthur Henry Hallam, for whom the poem is named. Evolution, and its brutality, was just another of the manifestations of natural evil that profoundly impacted Tennyson, and challenged his faith. At the core of his faith was his undying conviction that love was and is the basis of Christianity; that love was “Creation’s final law,” a law which Nature seems to violate both now and in the ancient past by what he witnessed in the paleontological record ...
Who trusted God was love indeed
And love Creation's final law,
Tho' Nature, red in tooth and claw
With ravine, shriek'd against his creed.
Did Tennyson solve the riddle of Creation’s final law set against the backdrop of nature’s heartless, savage fury? Did he negotiate d├ętente in the apparent strife between a loving God and a brutal Nature?
Are God and Nature then at strife,
That Nature lends such evil dreams?
So careful of the type she seems,
So careless of the single life;
Did he ever come to peace with the blatant lack of economy in nature, with its troubling and excessive wastefulness?
That I, considering everywhere
Her secret meaning in her deeds,
And finding that of fifty seeds
She often brings but one to bear,
Or did he continue to stumble over these phenomena, nearly losing his footing as he sought after God?
I falter where I firmly trod,
And falling with my weight of cares
Upon the great world's altar-stairs
That slope thro' darkness up to God,
The apparent conflict stretched and challenged, but never quenched Tennyson’s faith. He never lost hope that someday, in some way, a harmony would emerge between the ravages of nature and the goodness of God.
I stretch lame hands of faith, and grope,
And gather dust and chaff, and call
To what I feel is Lord of all,
And faintly trust the larger hope.
His trust may have been faint, his hands of faith, lame. But Tennyson was confident the apparent dichotomy would ultimately resolve. I share his optimism. When I approach this problem, Scripture, science, and reason converge upon some fascinating possibilities, some ways in which the puzzle pieces interlock. I will address those possibilities in part 2, but before I do, I’d like to hear from you. Have you sorted the data in a way that satisfies your mind? Or are you content letting the riddle persist, unsolved, glaring though it may be? Or do you take the skeptics road, remaining convinced, with my atheist friend, that no possible solution exists, and the dilemma can only lead to a reasoned denial of God’s existence? I look forward to your comments ...

23 comments:

Steve Martin said...

Have you sorted the data in a way that satisfies your mind?

In a fuzzy sort of way yes. I'll wait for part #2 to comment more.

Or are you content letting the riddle persist, unsolved, glaring though it may be?

Probably yes to this one as well .. although I'm not sure I'd use the adjective glaring anymore.

Or do you take the skeptics road, remaining convinced, with my atheist friend, that no possible solution exists, and the dilemma can only lead to a reasoned denial of God’s existence?

Yes to this one too .... just kidding! An emphatic no to this one.

Stephen Douglas said...

Beautifully written, Cliff.

I have never had many qualms about so-called "natural evil". In fact, I think of the occasional harshness of Nature, from simple pain to death, as simply the cost of being alive, not "evil" per se.

I find it a little odd that atheists are generally able to get along all right with no deity or anyone else to blame, such that they are able to speak almost reverently of Nature and its brutal beauty; why I who believe in God can't follow in their footsteps without calling God on the carpet for something we all recognize as just a fundamental part of existence, I don't know. If it's not morally "evil" for them, why must it be for me? Inconvenient? Of course. Tragic? Oh, Lord, yes, but glorious in its constancy. Many people confuse "good and evil" with their own ideals, but consistently so only rarely: surely they recognize the death of a defender as somehow good, or the pain of childbirth profitable - reportedly, even cathartic in some instances.

Cliff Martin said...

Steve and Stephen,

Apparently this "problem" of the brutality of nature and evolutionary processes has not troubled either of you much. I will admit that I find that strange. But maybe I'm the one who is strange. To be sure, there is some hypocrisy in the atheists railing against a Creator in one breath, and extolling Nature in the next. But I do see their point. As an impersonal, unguided force, Nature is heartless but awe-inspiring. To credit this heartless process to a loving, caring, compassionate Creator is quite a different thing. So I do give weight and validity to their arguments. I am persuaded that they call for an answer.

But I do agree with Stephen that part of that answer is that death and suffering are intrinsic to meaningful life. They give meaning and texture to existence which would be lacking if life were a pampered stroll through a rose garden. And life clearly benefits from struggle. No pain, no gain has broader application than just the gym. And without resistance, without contest, without struggle, life might be bland, weak, insipid. We all know souls whose rich, highly textured life can be credited to the difficulties and trials they have encountered along life's way.

So that is, for me, part of the solution. But I doubt it tells the whole story. It still seems strange to me to postulate a Creator who devises a reality in which he designs experiences of suffering and death because "it will be good for them". Good for what? Must there not be some compelling feature in reality that serves as a backdrop to all the suffering, something that makes the "good" of suffering not only good, put purposeful? Suffering is useful, sure, but to what end? Just so we look good, and develop some qualities of moral character?

It may sound like I'm rambling. But I really am searching for the ultimate purposes for life itself.

AMW said...

I'd say it's fairly obvious from Biblical texts that God doesn't get all that worked up by animal suffering. Just suppose the YEC model is correct. Then we have:

1. God inflicting death and suffering on the innocent animal world in response to the sins of a man and a woman.

2. God wiping out almost every animal on the face of the planet because men had become so wicked.

3. God altering the environtment of the post-flood world so that nearly every species that came off the ark would go extinct.

And with or without assuming the YEC model, we have very clear instructions from God in the OT to slaughter innocent animals to cover the sins of guilty men.

Let's be honest, folks. If we're going to get worked up about natural evil that doesn't affect humans, the Bible is not a place of refuge. Jesus wasn't kidding when he said that, in the eyes of God, "you are worth many sparrows."

Stephen Douglas said...

Cliff,

I don't think evolution lays any greater burden upon those seeking to develop a theodicy than is already there for creationists: why should God have allowed sin in the first place, for instance?

The supposition that our ideas of good and evil exactly mirror God's absolute definitions of them ignores, it seems, the unavoidable distortion of a finite being's view of reality. I'm not saying that death and suffering isn't bad, but that it's not objectively bad in that it is outside God's toolbox.

By the way, did you catch the dialog between Mike Beidler and I at the end of the comments on his Indiana Jones post? We touch a bit on this topic.

God may be full of love and compassion, but this not only can but must coexist with that which is itself less than perfect. His love and compassion necessitates but outweighs the potential for less-than-ideal circumstances of reality. For Him to create anything apart from Himself, He would necessarily have had to make it imperfect and subject to decay, corruption. It's just a short distance from accepting this premise to the realization that our intentional and purposeful God would not simply tolerate the imperfection innate in His creation, but would sovereignly make use of it to carry out His plans. That's where we get evolution, IMHO.

Tom said...

Good topic, Cliff.

I am surprised by the comments by Stephen. After all, this does get at the heart of a theology, I would think -- this general impression of who God is, what kind of a universe He created (through evolution), and His and our roles. You might dub it "natural" instead of evil, but tragic, natural events happen and if you assume a God, they happen for a reason even if its for the grander scheme.

These comments are similar to this link here that contains this excerpt:
After all, it is not hard to see why Christians would be uncomfortable with a modern understanding of evolution. Biologist George Williams expressed the basic problem well in his book Plan and Purpose in Nature:
"With what other than condemnation is a person with any moral sense supposed to respond to a system in which the ultimate purpose in life is to be better than your neighbor at getting genes into future generations, in which those successful genes provide the message that instructs the development of the next generation, in which that message is always “exploit your environment, including your friends and relatives, so as to maximize our (genes') success,” in which the closest thing to a golden rule is “don't cheat, unless it is likely to provide a net benefit.” "
This, for me, is the fundamental difficulty that a theology of evolution must address.


I think one needs to consider another spin on evolution that is frequently overlooked by the selfish, dog-eat-dog presentation of evolution as survival of the fittest -- cooperation. Evolution is stupid. It just tries things and if something proves beneficial for reproducing, then it keeps employing it. Yes, there is an element of selfishness there, but there is also a realization that elements have to work together. Molecular machines could not have really evolved without teamwork.

Stephen Douglas said...

If I believed in a cosmic teddy bear, a doting, protective mother sort of deity, I assure you that I would be much more troubled by evolution. AS it is, I as a father watch and encourage my son to do things such as climbing a tree that I know have the potential or even inevitability of causing him pain, and I do this not only in spite of, but in some sense because of that pain. I would expect God, who is called our Father, to have infinitely better reasons for doing and allowing the things He does.

"Exploit" is a morally charged word for "use"; it's no good getting indignant and attacking theism over exploitation without a moral standard not provided by the alternative. Besides, as Tom just pointed out, evolution is not the beast it is sometimes made out to be. I think you would find that evolution in the daily lives of the vast majority of species favors survival over domination. Between populations, any species whose goal in predation exceeds sustenance would eventually exhaust any and every source of food it turns to and then itself become extinct. Within a population, domination is generally negotiated and determined in a way that does not result in loss of life for any but the contenders.

Domination seems to be more of a by-product of survival, defined more on the diachronic level than synchronically. For instance, no bear decides that he is going to be at the top of the food chain in the forest. Rather, the selective advantages accumulated through the history of his genus and species have put him there: his domination is not a result of vicious, morally reprehensible ambition but of his simply being a bear. Doing the best we can in every circumstance of life and passing down the advantages (such as teamwork) that brought us to where we are is hardly a blemish on our Creator's character.

I simply can't see how evolution poses more of a problem for theodicy than the existence of things Christian call "evil". Making death and suffering an absolute evil is simply not Christian, so why should Christians be stuck defending something they don't believe? The atheist demands that the Christian concept of God account for "evil", but yet they subjectively define evil themselves and don't permit the system they are critiquing to offer its own solution. It's like the old "When did you stop beating your wife?" question to which they demand a simplistic answer that is impossible to formulate given the presupposition of the question. The atheist cannot point his finger at the Christian God without standing in the ring with the Christian; he cannot hold God accountable for a standard he has subjectively set up in his own mind. Without objective, absolute good and evil, the Christian God can only be judged by the framework of the Christian faith. The Christian conception of evil is defined by the standards of our God: the death of a rat at the paws of a cat is not an abomination in God's sight because He has never defined "good" in the opposite way. I don't mean to say that good and evil is completely arbitrary on God's part, but that it doesn't necessarily intersect with our own ideals; life is still a primary good, but not an altogether inviolable principle. As someone said to me once, "Life is sacred, not invaluable."

So Tom, whether you buy it or not, maybe now at least you can see where I'm coming from.

Cliff Martin said...

I was hoping a skeptic, like Tom, would step in to challenge Stephen, even though I'm not yet sure whether I agree or disagree with Stephen's thesis. So, thank you, Tom. I wanted to make the point that no skeptic would buy Stephen's analysis, and you made it for me. On the other hand, Stephen has clearly given this some thought, and challenged my own thinking.

Clearly there is benefit in the risk of pain, and in the very pain itself. I concede that point. I also get Stephen's argument about imposing our values back upon God, as though our sense of right and wrong is superior to his. Agreed. Granted also, "natural evil" in history is no more damning than observable "natural evil' today. But that does not completely absolve the matter for me. I'll give it more thought ...

Tom said...

Stephen, I don't see where you are coming from. You need to clarify. Let me start with some word-mincing so you see my confusion.

Making death and suffering an absolute evil is simply not Christian, so why should Christians be stuck defending something they don't believe? ... Without objective, absolute good and evil, the Christian God can only be judged by the framework of the Christian faith.

This seems rather circular to me. The faith is build on the theology of a God construct that includes a "good" and an "evil". I think you're the first Christian I've heard suggest that God does not equal absolute truth. This absence of absolute truth is what scares most Christians from the relativist road of evolution.

The atheist demands that the Christian concept of God account for "evil", but yet they subjectively define evil themselves and don't permit the system they are critiquing to offer its own solution.

What is its own solution?

The atheist cannot point his finger at the Christian God without standing in the ring with the Christian;

If I believed in Leprechauns (Psi's example), what does it mean for you to be "in the ring" with me?

Stephen Douglas said...

Hey, Tom.

This seems rather circular to me. The faith is build on the theology of a God construct that includes a "good" and an "evil".

You're really saying what I'm saying: you must first posit good and evil before you have anything to accuse God with. I do believe in objective good and evil. My statement was that the absolute of every concept is not defined by any particular human's demands: we hate death, but that doesn't mean that God was required to make death an absolute evil.

What is its own solution?

That's what I've been talking about: absolute good and evil is defined by God, not our opinions, and as such may not always be clear except by observation of His behavior and His mandates for our behavior. "No pain" is a perfectly good goal to strive for as a human, but "no pain" itself is not an inviolable "good" even for humans, since getting an inoculation - another good - requires it. Good and evil is, respectively, that which is consistent or not consistent with God's purpose and character.

If I believed in Leprechauns (Psi's example), what does it mean for you to be "in the ring" with me?

I would have to accept all your premises on your terms in order to see if your system was internally consistent. My point is that you cannot use externally defined standards as a basis to declare that a system is internally inconsistent if that system defines those standards itself.

Tom said...

Stephen said,
Good and evil is, respectively, that which is consistent or not consistent with God's purpose and character.

Two problems: 1) This is highly subjective. My idea of God's absolute purpose and character might be quite different from yours. (Herman who?)

2) The assumption that there is an absolute truth really is counter to evolution. To me, absolute truth compares to constancy -- either immobility, or robotic, sequential patterning. Either way, once "truth" is attained, the universe becomes automated.

What will heaven be like? Will it be the endless quest for truth, the purpose and character of God? It's gotta be or else eternity is a long time to be bored! But what does that mean, to be in God's presence, us in perhaps a non-bodily and spiritual-only form, forever seeking this absolute truth?

Evolution accepts and makes "truth" subjective, relative, and dynamic. Through the use of material, there is a transcendence that emerges where these molecules organize themselves into bodies that can come up with ideas of truth, good, evil, and even imagine supernatural. There is a pattern: Molecules aggregate into these bodies that grow, interact, reproduce, and die. These bodies have organized themselves into social orders and cultures, and different cultures interface, borrow, and steal from each other to evolve civilization. It's obviously amazing, but still keeps "truth" relative and dynamic.

So, back to the issue of a Christian wrestling with evolution and God's employment of it. There is an assumption that absolute truth is God. Throwing evolution into the mix, we can see that truth is relative and dynamic, but for all the grief that it may give, would we really want it any other way? If I accept evolution, then in a sense, I can say that I disagree with this nonsense of absolute truth that I'd probably rather not try and reconcile anyway. In which case, we come back to the question in front of Adam. Why do we need God?

Steve Douglas said...

1) This is highly subjective. My idea of God's absolute purpose and character might be quite different from yours. (Herman who?)

All our knowledge of objective truth is subjective; that's the way of it. That said, this was, perhaps, the most important reason for the Incarnation. That's what Jesus meant when he said, "If you have seen me, you have seen the Father." Jesus' nature and character is well understood because of his legacy.

The assumption that there is an absolute truth really is counter to evolution. To me, absolute truth compares to constancy -- either immobility, or robotic, sequential patterning. Either way, once "truth" is attained, the universe becomes automated.

What you're apparently referring to is morality, not absolute (1+1=2) truth. I agree that morality as social order is hardwired into the system, was inevitable in evolutionary terms, and permits variation. I'm not sure how this challenges the claim that God has His own standards that do not wholly coincide with ours; in fact, this is what necessitates Christianity. God is not done evolving humanity, and He has chosen Christianity, just like He used Judaism, to do so.

What will heaven be like? Will it be the endless quest for truth, the purpose and character of God? It's gotta be or else eternity is a long time to be bored! But what does that mean, to be in God's presence, us in perhaps a non-bodily and spiritual-only form, forever seeking this absolute truth?

My take on this, offhand, is that we seek truth because we know that complete truth will satisfy us, but in our existence the incomplete truth we discover only leads to more questions; when we know all truth as it is with no more questions, we will be utterly satisfied. Spending eternity utterly satisfied sounds like heaven to me! ;-)

Cliff Martin said...

Stephen,

“Making death and suffering an absolute evil is simply not Christian”

My original post only mentions “evil” in the context of “natural evil”. Natural evil is not the same as moral evil (see the Wikipedia definition of natural evil). I do not consider a Creator who employs a process “red in tooth and claw” to be a perpetrator of moral evil. I do not consider death to be what you call “an absolute evil”. But death in the creation seems to be a concession of sorts, something God both allows and uses for a time to accomplish some purpose, but not a part of his highest and best intentions.

How, otherwise, are we to understand the New Testament references to death in which we learn that,

1) Death is an enemy to be vanquished (1 Cor 15)
2) Death is a tool in the hands of the devil (Heb 2:14)
3) Death is ultimately destroyed (Rev 20:14)
4) Death, along with pain, is part of a temporary, soon to be “old” order (Rev 21:4)

The biblical notion of a perfect utopia does not include death or suffering. So it seems to me to be a reasonable question: why would a Creator employ a mechanism that is, by his own definition, less than perfect. When I speak of evil, in the context of theodicy and natural evil, I am referring to that which is not consonant with God’s ideal reality.

Cliff Martin said...

Tom,

While, like Stephen, I think I could accept an existence in which I was at all times fully satisfied, I'm not sure I ever will know such an existence. God (as I conceive him) is infinite. If this is true, an eternity of time will never exhaust an exploration of him.

I am still exploring and discovering wonderful new things about my wife of 37 years. Alas, she is finite and surely after a few hundred years, perhaps, I might know her perfectly. But will I ever know God perfectly? I often project myself forward, say, 30 billion years where I fantasize a discussion with, say, my friend Tom (I'm pretty sure you'll be there!). "Hey Tom, guess what I just found out about the Father yesterday ..." after which you will, with equal enthusiasm, tell me of you most recent discovery. Is this all that eternity is about? Probably not. But God is an inexhaustible source of wisdom and knowledge, his character infinitely fascinating. To even mention the word "boredom" in conjunction with hanging out with such a Being is to display a very incomplete view of him (which of course, is the view we all share!).

Stephen Douglas said...

Cliff,

Regarding your questions about death, the death of Adam reversed by Christ's work was never considered physical death, or else God never carried out His warning, "The day you eat you will certainly die." In the story, Adam lived to a ripe old age and died of natural causes. The writers of Genesis could never have thought that the "death" referred to here was physical death.

Moreover, my take on "death" dovetails seamlessly into my eschatology. All those passages on "death" that you mentioned were not speaking of physical, but spiritual death. "Death" is used as a metaphor for separation from God; it died with Christ's return and the Resurrection of the Dead, which was the redemption of those saints who slept in Sheol until Christ's work was complete. Physical death and suffering was always a part of the plan. In fact, in Revelation 14:13 we see that even in the eschaton, physical death continues: "Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord from now on...they shall rest from their labor, for their deeds will follow them." This is in contrast to the time before the Resurrection of the Dead, in which the deeds of the righteous did not "follow them", and in fact righteous men such as David pleaded with God to rescue them from death so that they be spared from Sheol; now that Sheol has been eliminated, we partake of "eternal life" immediately upon death.

Anyway, that's my take (with which I'm fairly sure you'll disagree!).

Cliff Martin said...

Stephen,

Of course Adam’s death on the day he partook of the forbidden fruit was spiritual. No argument there. But ...

How can you take Hebrews 2:14-15 as a reference to spiritual death? Does Satan exercise power over mankind because of man’s fear of spiritual death? I don’t know many people who walk in fear of spiritual death. Do you? I do know of plenty who are scared to die physically. Does Satan have the power to inflict spiritual death? Was it Jesus’ spiritual death that destroyed the devil?

Revelation 21:4 offers a list of things belonging to the old order. Does not physical death fit more naturally into a list including mourning, crying and pain then does spiritual death?

1 Corinthians 15:55 quotes Hosea 13:14 where the parallel of death is sheol. Are you suggesting that Hosea was referring to spiritual death? What of all the talk in the preceding verses of the natural body being sown perishable (42), not all sleeping (51), the dead being raised imperishable (52), mortal being clothed with immortality (53-54), are these all references to spiritual death? And if you agree with me that they must refer to physical death, are you suggesting that Paul switches gears mid-sentence in verse 54 and changes the subject to spiritual death?

From what you wrote, I presume that you view 1 Corinthians 15 as a fait accompli. The dramatic and sweeping descriptions of the end of death, of the glory of resurrection all happened in 70 AD??? And what of verse 18? How can this verse make any sense if, in this chapter, Paul is describing spiritual death and spiritual resurrection? What is the “this life” of verse 19? If I try to read 1 Corinthians 15 as a treatise of spiritual death and spiritual resurrection, it makes no sense to me.

Stephen Douglas said...

How can you take Hebrews 2:14-15 as a reference to spiritual death? Does Satan exercise power over mankind because of man’s fear of spiritual death? I don’t know many people who walk in fear of spiritual death. Do you? I do know of plenty who are scared to die physically. Does Satan have the power to inflict spiritual death? Was it Jesus’ spiritual death that destroyed the devil?

Even righteous Hebrews feared physical death because for them it was the end of their whole existence (physical and spiritual). If you believed that your spirit was going to be taken care of, you would not have cause to fear for your body's demise (that's not to say that fears aren't present, but that they are false fears). David and other pre-Christian saints did not have the reassurance of the immortal soul in heavenly bliss, so their fear of the grave - Sheol - was justified.

It could definitely be argued that the most definitive aspect for Jesus' death and resurrection was his entry into Sheol (separation from God, the "death" of his spirit) and his triumphal exit and restoration into fellowship with God (Resurrection).

Revelation 21:4 offers a list of things belonging to the old order. Does not physical death fit more naturally into a list including mourning, crying and pain then does spiritual death?

For the Jew, being outside of covenant was viewed as the worst thing imaginable; in covenant life, there was a community to help you deal with heartache of every kinds, but most importantly there was the reassurance that your calamity wasn't a result of God's disfavor with you (which is what they would have assumed otherwise).

It's tempting to read all this language outside of its OT context, because we have been raised to read Rev 21.4 literalistically; it's as though Christianity can't be true unless everything about it is "that than which nothing greater can be conceived". This is what has led charismatics to insist that physical healing was provided for in the Atonement. If our ideal eternity is a house made with and stocked full of gumdrops, well, that darned well must be what heaven's like.

Please read Isaiah 25-27, which prophesies the return from captivity. Note especially 25.8, 26.19-21, and finally 27.12-13. You'll see that the prophetic dictionary of sorts provided in Isaiah simply doesn't allow for literalistic interpretations of the same words and phrases in the NT. Yes, if you try really hard, you can make Isaiah's language simply typological for a literal future fulfillment - but do you really think that's what Isaiah and Paul meant? Are we really supposed to believe that, just because we have been raised to expect a literal future fulfillment of this stuff, despite having the testimony of the prophets to inform us?

1 Corinthians 15:55 quotes Hosea 13:14 where the parallel of death is sheol. Are you suggesting that Hosea was referring to spiritual death? What of all the talk in the preceding verses of the natural body being sown perishable (42), not all sleeping (51), the dead being raised imperishable (52), mortal being clothed with immortality (53-54), are these all references to spiritual death? And if you agree with me that they must refer to physical death, are you suggesting that Paul switches gears mid-sentence in verse 54 and changes the subject to spiritual death?

I'm not saying that Paul isn't referring to post-mortem existence. I simply don't think he's talking about the physical aspect of death in contradistinction from the spiritual aspect. See, the Hebrews didn't bifurcate physical and spiritual existence: it was simply existence. But Paul is straddling this fence: on one hand, he assumes as would his audience that what happens to the physical body (e.g., death) is tied in with what happens to the essence of the person (soul/spirit) and vice versa, but on the other hand he seems intent on making a distinction on what happens at the Resurrection. What could have possibly been his point when he states emphatically that the seed that goes into the ground isn't the same thing that comes up? that there are different kinds of bodies, etc. Verse 44 says, "...it is sown a natural body [not just "physical", but pertaining to natural life], but raised a spiritual body [an entirely new existence on the spiritual plane]."

From what you wrote, I presume that you view 1 Corinthians 15 as a fait accompli. The dramatic and sweeping descriptions of the end of death, of the glory of resurrection all happened in 70 AD???

It seems most Christians read 1 Cor 15 through verse 55, "Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?" and close the book. But the next verse frames the whole discussion: "The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law." Does the Law still have power over Christians? In what respect does Torah hold the power of sin over us, stinging us with death? Answer: it doesn't! The fulfillment of the Mosaic Covenant as implemented by the dissolution of the Judaic system in AD 70 saw to that. The conquering of Death coincided with the defeat of Torah's stranglehold on the conscience that Paul talks about in Romans 3-7. The Law could only condemn, not justify: the saints of old were not justified until the work of Christ was appropriated to them (Heb 9.15); the Judgment was this event, resulting in the Resurrection from Sheol for all those gone before (John 5.27-29). Sheol (Gk. Hades) has been cast into the Lake of Fire and troubles us no more.

In fact, it's funny that most futurists assume instant heaven after death when the Scripture is clear that this is the whole point of the Resurrection of the Dead, which they see as yet future. Paul says that being "with the Lord" doesn't happen until the coming of the Lord and the (simultaneous) Resurrection of the Dead (1 Thes 4.17). Those still alive and those who believe afterwards are participants in the presence of (i.e., restored fellowship with) God in a way not realized before, even while we still live, because we now no longer live in fear of falling away that Hebrews mentions for Christians (e.g., 10.26-39).

And speaking of Hebrews, I think 12.7-13 shows that suffering on the part of believers is a good thing, meant for discipline; I see no expiration date implied.

Tom said...

Herman who?

Stephen/Cliff, I'm thoroughly confused now, but then again, I haven't wrestled with this particular square peg and round hole you guys are discussing. It seems to be a good example, however, of the ways you can twist scripture to fit a stance. No wonder many believers throw up their hands at hermaneutics and accept on faith that the Bible must implicitly support their ideologies.

Kyle said...

Does thinking more at the level of ecosystems rather than individuals help us out at all? Consider that we have cells that die all the time that we don't even notice, much less grieve over, yet the entire system (a human being) retains good health. Similarly, while individual creatures eventually die, sometimes quite violently, the general tendency is for continued health of the ecosystem (the predators get to eat while the less successful of the prey are killed, making the rest of the herd more capable of continued survival). As a Christian, I find magnificent beauty in what I believe to be the God-reflecting (if not necessarily caused directly by God) balance/equilibrium found in such natural systems (and hence why I find profound aesthetic as well as scientific significance for the evolutionary processes whereby such equilibria are continually re-established). Death is necessarily part of that beautiful system, just as the death of certain of my own cells is vital to my own continued existence. I see little biblical justification for why we should pay attention to the pain/death of individual isolated creatures but completely ignore the pain/death of individual isolated cells. Both the individual creature and the individual cell can be analyzed in isolation, but they both would be unable to survive very long if they weren't enmeshed in a dense web of other organisms or cells. (On the other hand, I think the problem of evil argument potentially (but not by necessity) gains some traction if it is related to human beings specifically, because there is some sense of biblical priority given to humans, and the value of individual humans is expressed at many points throughout the Bible.)

Anonymous said...

"The evidence for common descent and an evolutionary history of life on the earth is beyond question."

Not so, my friend. Common descent is still an inductive inference to the best explanation, meaning that it is a theory built on a collection of facts. But so is gravity and relativity, so what is the difference between gravity and common descent? The difference is that the former has been subjected to crucial experiments and passed the test, as has relativity.

Common descent has not been subjected to a crucial experiment because of time requirements and other limitations.

It is a good theory; it just has not been demonstrably proven.
-God Bless your Wife.

Edward T. Babinski said...

TENNYSON'S BELIEFS

From 1855 till the 1890s when he died, one can trace Tennyson's movement away from orthodoxy. His life reflects a common concern among Victorian writers in being troubled by the apparent conflict between religious faith and scientific discoveries. His "religious beliefs... defied convention, leaning towards agnosticism and pandeism."

He wrote in 'In Memoriam': "There lives more faith in honest doubt, believe me, than in half the creeds."

In Maud, 1855, he wrote: "The churches have killed their Christ."

In 'Locksley Hall Sixty Years After,' Tennyson wrote: "Christian
love among the churches look'd the twin of heathen hate."

In his play, Becket, he wrote: "We are self-uncertain creatures, and we may, Yea, even when we know not, mix our spites and private hates with our defense of Heaven."

Tennyson recorded in his Diary: "I believe in Pantheism of a sort."
His son's biography confirms that Tennyson was not Christian, noting that Tennyson praised Giordano Bruno and Spinoza on his deathbed, saying of Bruno: "His view of God is in some ways mine."

Cliff Martin said...

Anonymous,

Thank you for your comment. Yes, you are correct, and I am guilty of overstating the certainty of common descent. But the fact remains, few biologists today find any reason to doubt common descent. And if we leave the slightest crack of doubt in the argument, there are those who will find a way to drive a semi truck through the crevice. So I tend to make strong categorical claims about common descent to, perhaps, dislodge those who believe otherwise.

Edward,

Welcome to OutsideTheBox. I have enjoyed reading your comments on several other blogs. Thank you for the biographical background on Tennyson’s faith. It is interesting to me that, as I follow the progression of quotes you cite, I find myself agreeing with all but the very last one. Does this mean I’m on a course leading to pantheism? At any rate, the point I was making in the original post is that Tennyson did not abandon hope and faith in the context of this poem. That he may have done so later in life is another matter.

Edward T. Babinski said...

Hi Cliff,

Thanks for noticing!

Speaking of pantheism what do you think of the suspicions of Robert Anton Wilson? We all have "suspicions" in his opinion, not definitive conclusions. And even if he's wrong, I have difficulty believing or imagining a God of love and perfection simply giving up on anything that that God really loved, and giving up on it for all eternity. I likewise find it difficult to conceive of that God not finding a way to communicate love such every creature would eventually recognize what the truth really was compared with error and demonstrating that all error had an unreal aspect to it, in that it can't really exist in a universe created directly out of the will and power of a perfect being, neither can error exist eternally beside that being in a place called "hell." Such concepts as "eternal hell" make little sense to me. I thought most people born into this world of ignorance, waves of emotional change, and so many types of suffering, had enough to contend with without adding "eternal hell" into the bargain. So even if Wilson's "suspicions" are wrong below, I can't imagine a God who would damn him eternally for etertaining them.

Here are Robert Anton Wilson's suspicions:

I don't believe anything, but I have many suspicions.

I strongly suspect that a world "external to," or at least independent of, my senses exists in some sense.

I also suspect that this world shows signs of intelligent design, and I suspect that such intelligence acts via feedback from all parts to all parts and without centralized sovereignity, like Internet; and that it does not function hierarchically, in the style an Oriental despotism, an American corporation or Christian theology.

I somewhat suspect that Theism and Atheism both fail to account for such decentralized intelligence, rich in circular-causal feedback.

I more-than-half suspect that all "good" writing, or all prose and poetry that one wants to read more than once, proceeds from a kind of "alteration in consciousness," i.e. a kind of controlled schizophrenia. [Don't become alarmed -- I think good acting comes from the same place.]

I sometimes suspect that what Blake called Poetic Imagination expresses this exact thought in the language of his age, and that visits by"angels" and "gods" states it an even more archaic argot.

These suspicions have grown over 72years, but as a rather slow and stupid fellow I do not have the chutzpah to proclaim any of them as certitudes. Give me another 72 years and maybe I'll arrive at firmer conclusions.

http://www.rawilson.com/prethought.shtml

See also

http://en.wikiquote.org/wiki/Robert_Anton_Wilson

Below are some of my favorite R. A. Wilson quotations from a letter he sent me:

An evangelical Christian once told me, “Only Jesus Christ can save man and restore him to his lost state of peace with God, himself and others.” Yeah, sure, and only new Pepsi can make you feel really happy, and only our brand is better than the competition, and only our country is the best country. It is truly amazing to me that people can utter such arrogant nonsense with no humor, no sense of how offensive they are to others, no doubt or trepidation, and no suspicion that they sound exactly like advertisers, con-men and other swindlers. It is really hard to understand such child-like prattling. If I were especially conceited about something (a state I try to avoid, but if I fell into it...), if for instance I decided I had the best garden or the handsomest face in Ireland, I would still retain enough common sense to suspect that I would sound like a conceited fool if I went around telling everybody those opinions. I would have enough tact left, I hope, to satisfy my conceit by dreaming that other people would notice on their own that my garden and/or my face were especially lovely. People who go around innocently and blithely announcing that they belong to the Master Race or the Best Country Club or have the One True Religion seem to have never gotten beyond the kindergarten level of ego-display. Do they have no modesty, no tact, no shame, no adult common sense at all? Do they have any suspicion how silly their conceit sounds to the majority of the nonwhite non-Christian men and women of the world? To me, they seem like little children wearing daddy’s clothes and going around shouting, “Look how grown-up I am! Look at me, me, me!”

There are more amusing things than ego-games, conceit and one-upmanship.Really, there are. I suspect that people stay on that childish level because they have never discovered how interesting and exciting the adult world is.
If one must play ego-games, I still think it would be more polite, and more adult, to play them in the privacy of one’s head. In fact, despite my efforts to be a kind of Buddhist, I do relapse into such ego-games on occasion; but I have enough respect for human intelligence to keep such thoughts to myself. I don’t go around announcing that I have painted the greatest painting of our time; I hope that people will notice that by themselves. Why do the people whose ego-games consist of day-dreaming about being part of the Master Race or the One True Religion not keep that precious secret to themselves, also, and wait for the rest of the human race to notice their blinding superiority?

And Wilson quotes from the web:

The experts on Heaven disagree about which conglomeration of religious believers will qualify, but they always seem to think that they personally belong to that elite group.An eternity with people that conceited seems intolerable to me...

An idea, which has terrified millions, claims that some of us will go to a place called Hell, where we will suffer eternal torture. This does not scare me because, when I try to imagine a Mind behind this universe, I cannot conceive that Mind, usually called “God,” as totally mad. I mean, guys, compare that “God” with the worst monsters you can think of--Adolph Hitler, Joe Stalin, that sort of guy. None of them ever inflicted more than finite pain on their victims. Even de Sade, in his sado-masochistic fantasy novels, never devised an unlimited torture. The idea that the Mind of Creation (if such exists) wants to torture some of its critters for endless infinities of infinities seems too absurd to take seriously. Such a deranged Mind could not create a mud hut, much less the exquisitely mathematical universe around us.
If such a monster-God did exist, the sane attitude would consist of practicing the Buddhist virtue of compassion. Don’t give way to hatred: try to understand and forgive him. Maybe He will recover his wits some day.

Robert Anton Wilson, “Cheerful Reflections on Death and Dying,” Gnoware, February 1999

By the way, I just listened on tape to two fascinating books,

Karen Armstrong's A SHORT HISTORY OF MYTH (also her big book on THE AGE OF TRANSFORMATION is great).

Mary Roach's SPOOK: SCIENCE TACKLES THE AFTERLIFE

Great listening pleasure!