Death before the Fall?
The Darwin Bicentenary has brought a plethora of films, lectures, articles and books dealing with the implications of evolutionary theory for modern thought and life. Within evangelicalism the anniversary has prompted an important discussion about the relationship between human death and the Fall.
Here, I would like briefly to answer the question: did Christians before the appearance of Darwin’s The Origin of Species in 1859 separate human death from the appearance of human sin in Genesis 3?
The short answer is ‘no’. As far as I know, until around 1750, human death was regarded as a consequence of the Fall. The most noteworthy earlier exception came in the early 5th century, when Theodore (from Mopsuestia in what is today Turkey) regarded the Fall as more-or-less a mythical explanation for the fact that people had always been mortal. This was a large part of what lay behind his heretical Christology (in which he saw Christ as a divinely-inspired man who leads the human race from the age of mortality up to the age of immortality). He bequeathed that understanding of Christ to Nestorius, and both of them were condemned by the church.
In the 19th century, Theodore’s thought was found to be so much like 19th-century evolutionary thought (focusing on the upward progress of man instead of the descent of God to save us), that there was a strong desire to see Theodore and Nestorius as being right. Out of this desire came the ingenious but wrong idea that they were condemned only for political reasons, not for doctrinal error. The way this is normally put today is that the ‘school of Antioch’ was equal to the ‘school of Alexandria’, but it was suppressed incorrectly. In actuality, the ‘school of Antioch’ included only three people (Nestorius, Theodore and Diodore earlier), and all were condemned by the church. The so-called ‘school of Alexandria’ was really the whole church.
Thus, the idea that man was mortal before the Fall is an idea that the church roundly condemned in ancient times, but when it resurfaced in modern times, the church was not ready for it. Instead of exposing the way it undermined the key doctrines of salvation and Christ, the church made it sound as if the issue were just about whether Genesis 1 is compatible with evolutionary thought. Thus, a way was paved for people today to sit more comfortably with the idea of no real Fall, the idea that we have always been mortal and sinful, without recognising the implications of such a belief for Christian doctrine as a whole.
Implications for us?
One can readily see those implications when one looks at the following logical steps:
1. We must affirm that human sin and death are not God’s fault in any way at all.
2. The only way to do this successfully (in my opinion) is to insist that there was an actual time in human history when man was neither sinful nor mortal, and that sin and death are the results of an event early in human history for which God bears no responsibility.
3. Thus, there must have been a literal Adam and Eve, who must have been initially immortal but lost that immortality. We must all be descended from them after they lost that immortality.
4. If we must say points 1-3 above, as I believe, then we should recognise that this is already so far away from the consensus of current anthropology and biology that whether one says we got to the literal Adam and Eve through theistic evolution or individual creation is basically irrelevant to the scientific community. Most people in that community have hung their hats not just on evolution but on chance evolution. What really irks them is not the time period involved, but that God designed the universe and the people who rule it. This is why most of them get just as upset about intelligent design as they do about old-fashioned six-day creationism.
5. Therefore, we have to admit that we aren’t going to be accepted by many in the scientific community, no matter what we say. We cannot accommodate their worldview (one of the major planks of which is that man was always mortal) without compromising major tenets of our own worldview. Therefore, the question should not be how to assimilate Genesis 1-3 to the consensus of modern science, but rather how to interpret these chapters within the historical and theological framework of the Bible as a whole.
Don Fairbairn teaches the history of Christian doctrine at Erskine Theological Seminary in South Carolina, USA. His books include Life in the Trinity: An Introduction to Christian Theology with the Help of the Church Fathers (IVP USA, November 2009).
What follows is a letter written in response to this article and then Don Fairburn’s extended reply to the points raised.
From Bob Allaway, London
Re: Death before the Fall (EN, January 2010, p.24)
Don Fairbairn ignores the plain teaching of Scripture and misrepresents the theological position of the early church.
In Genesis 3.22, God says, ‘The man has become like one of us, knowing good and evil. He must not be allowed to reach out his hand and take also from the tree of life and eat and live for ever’. Hence Adam and Eve were not yet immortal. They died the day they disobeyed (Genesis 2.17) by losing something they would have received, not something they already had.
Since man and woman, as created, were ordered to ‘be fruitful and increase in number’ (Genesis 1.28) and ‘become one flesh’ (Genesis 2.24), the state in which they were created was not the final one God intended for them. Christ himself, in Mark 12.25 and parallels, says our immortal state will be one in which ‘they will neither marry nor be given in marriage; they will be like the angels in heaven’.
Thus Adam did not ‘fall’ from eternal life (a word Scripture nowhere applies to his disobedience, unless Ezekiel 28.11-19 is applied to Adam instead of Satan). He fell short of it, as all human beings have ever since (Romans 3.23).
Nestorius et al were condemned for their Christology, not their view of Adam, which was the general view of the early church. Would Fairbairn question the orthodoxy of Athanasius? He writes in De Incarnatione 3: ‘He brought them into his paradise and gave them a law, so that, if they kept the grace and remained good, they would enjoy the life of paradise, without sorrow, pain or care, in addition to having the promise of immortality in heaven’.
Death in the created world is a consequence of entropy, the fact that all creation is in ‘bondage to decay’ (Romans 8.21). The evidence of the world around (Romans 1.20) is that entropy has been present since the creation of the universe. Scripture, properly interpreted, does not contradict this. God’s Word may be infallible, our interpretations of it are not.
Don Fairburn replies:
At the end of his response to my article, Bob Allaway makes a comment that may indicate he is arguing against something I did not intend to say, and thus it is possible that miscommunication plays a large role in his disagreement with me. His comment is: ‘Death in the created world is a consequence of entropy, the fact that all creation is in “bondage to decay” (Romans 8.21). The evidence of the world around (Romans 1.20) is that entropy has been present since the creation of the universe. Scripture, properly interpreted, does not contradict this.’
This is certainly true, and I did not mean to imply that there was no death of any creatures before the Fall, or that human beings before the Fall were naturally immortal (and thus not subject to entropy). On the contrary, what I meant was that if Adam and Eve had remained obedient, God would have sustained their physical and spiritual lives by grace. Indeed, a large part of my argument is that initially, by grace, God gave fellowship with himself to humanity, and by grace he would have sustained that fellowship (and the immortality that went with it) if humanity had remained obedient. This is not a contradiction of the modern understanding of entropy; it is an assertion that by his grace God created and would have sustained humanity in ways beyond the natural capacities of created beings. Then, when Adam and Eve sinned, God removed (or perhaps lessened) his sustaining activity, making them subject to the natural deterioration relating to age, and eventually to death. In fact, in the very chapter of Athanasius’s On the Incarnation that Allaway quotes (in part) against me (chapter 3), Athanasius makes this very point. Naturally, man was subject to corruption, but because of grace God would have sustained him in immortality if he had remained faithful. When man fell, however, Athanasius writes that man became subject to his natural corruption. In other words, man lost the grace that was enabling him to live above his nature while he was obedient.
Likewise, when Allaway claims that life in the garden was not the final condition of humanity, he again seems to be arguing against something I did not intend to say. I did not mean to imply that the Edenic condition was identical to the final condition. It was not. Nevertheless, there is a basic similarity between the created condition and the final condition of believers, a similarity that is captured by the striking parallelism between Genesis 1-2 and Revelation 21-22. Adam and Eve before the Fall were, and the redeemed in eternity will be, in fellowship with God, sharing in the Son’s relationship to the Father, and participating by grace in the immortality that characterises God by nature. On these two points, I apologise for being insufficiently clear, and thus giving Allaway (and presumably others as well) the wrong impression about what I meant.
Regarding Allaway’s larger point (that immortality was something humanity was supposed to achieve rather than something that was given to humanity at creation), there are several things that I can say in response. First, I should point out that Jewish interpreters in the early Christian period did not interpret Genesis 3 as a primordial event affecting the entire subsequent history of the human race. Rather, the rabbis interpreted that account as one example of covenant breaking. However, the church fathers were compelled to disagree with Jewish interpretation here, and the reason they were so compelled was the presence of Romans 5.12-21 in the Christian Bible. This locus classicus, in their opinion and in mine, forces one to argue that death came into the world because of Adam’s sin. As a result, Genesis 3 must be interpreted in a different way than the way the rabbis interpreted it.
I give a fairly lengthy interpretation of Genesis 3 in chapter 5 of my book Life in the Trinity (IVP Academic, 2009), but for now perhaps a brief summary will suffice. Allaway’s reading of Genesis 3.22 in his response to my article assumes that Adam and Eve had not previously been eating from the tree of life, and that God wanted to make sure they never did eat from it. But is this assumption correct? Considering that God had said in chapter 2 that they could eat from ALL of the trees except for the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, it is perhaps better to assume that they had been eating from the tree of life all along. Indeed, one could speculate that eating from the tree of life was the means by which God sustained him (the means by which he overcame the effects of entropy in their lives) while they were obedient. But when they sinned, they alienated themselves from God, and the curses of chapter 3 indicate that God not only cursed them, but transformed ‘natural’ processes as a result of sin. (Childbearing would be accompanied by pain, and only through painful work would the ground now yield fruit for food.) In the light of all that, I suggest that Genesis 3.22 should be read as an act of mercy on God’s part. If they kept eating of the tree of life now that they were alienated from him, they would live forever in that state of separation from God. Expelling them from the garden, and thus forcing them to stop eating from the tree of life, was God’s way of setting in motion the chain of events that would lead to redemption. They, and we, must be restored to fellowship with God through Christ before immortality can again become a blessing rather than a condemnation. Indeed, in the New Testament, the Greek phrase that we translated ‘eternal life’ does not mean ‘living forever’. It means ‘life of the age’, and it is referring to a particular kind of life, the life that characterises God and will characterise the eternal age he will bring about. Life of the age is a blessing; living forever can be either a blessing or a condemnation, depending on the condition in which one lives forever. In Genesis 3.22, I believe, God was protecting the human race from living forever in condemnation by removing Adam’s and Eve’s access to the tree of life that would have sustained them in the alienated condition they were then in.
As for Allaway’s assertion that I am misreading the church fathers, here it will probably be sufficient simply to note that I disagree with him. He claims that there is little connection between Nestorius’s view of the Fall and his view of Christ, and that he was condemned for the latter, not the former. There have been many patristics scholars in the 19th and 20th centuries who have argued this, but I do not think they are right, and a growing number of more recent patristic scholars are saying the same thing I am. I argue at great length in Grace and Christology in the Early Church (OUP, 2003) that, in the early church, one’s picture of Christ was intimately connected to one’s picture of salvation history as a whole. Those who (like Nestorius) saw Christ as a divinely-inspired man did so because they believed that humanity was able to rise up to God on its own and did not need God the Son himself to come down to save them. This view was closely related to the idea that there was no literal fall, that humanity simply did not achieve its purpose initially. However, such people were a small minority in the early church, and the majority understood Genesis as implying a literal and drastic fall, and saw Christ as God the Son himself who came down to restore us to the fellowship with God that we had lost.
Again, I do not know to what degree Allaway’s criticisms of my article stem from an actual disagreement and to what degree they result simply from a miscommunication on my part about the two points I mentioned above. I apologise again for giving the wrong impression on these two points, and I do hope that this response helps to clarify what I meant and why I hold to that position.