Is there a natural death?
I have had numerous requests for my ‘Issues in Theology Paper’ – a paper I wrote when at theological college. I really wanted to think through the intersection of the theory and evolution and the Bible. This project was too large to do in 2,000 words, so I focused on a really crucial topic – death.
The title was: Is there a natural death? Can death be a natural part of a ‘good’ creation?
I thought I would publish it here to facilitate intelligent and reasonable discussion on this most important topic.
Is there a natural death? Can death form a natural part of a good creation? Many theologians claim ‘no’ but our experience of the world mediated through the natural sciences says ‘yes’. This impasse raises several theological issues. First, how the theologian should respond when our experience appears to conflict with the biblical witness. Secondly, and most importantly, how to understand the nature of the relationship between sin and creation, particularly in light of Romans 5:12 and the curse outlined in Genesis 3. This essay attempts a resolution to this impasse by suggesting that we may have misunderstood the biblical texts. The biblical evidence is reassessed, initially for animals, and four theological connections are made, which indicate there is a natural death for animals. Then the evidence for human death is reappraised and human death is determined as natural only in that we possess a mortal constitution; but unnatural in that we were intended to be in relationship with God. Therefore this paper argues that there is a natural death. Death can form a natural part of a good creation.
Is there a natural death? Can death be a natural part of a ‘good’ creation?
Is there a natural death?
‘No’ claim many theologians, but ‘yes’ says our experience of the world, mediated through the natural sciences. In resolving this impasse several theological issues arise. First, how the theologian should respond to the results of scientific enquiry, particularly where these results appear in conflict with the biblical witness. Secondly, and most importantly, how to understand the nature of the relationship between sin and creation, particularly in light of Romans 5:12 and the curse outlined in Genesis 3: does the entry of sin mean creation is still good? And could God ever allow death in a good creation? We will examine how various theologians have approached these questions, reassess the biblical evidence, and then draw several theological conclusions stemming from the view that there is indeed a natural death.
Firstly, some definitions: by natural we mean something naturally intended as a consequence of an object’s purpose. By good we reflect on Genesis 1:31: ‘God saw all that he had made, and it was very good.’ Good primarily draws attention to an object’s quality and fitness for its purpose. Creation is good as it conforms to God’s purposes. God’s purposes are, initially, to create aesthetic beauty; ‘it [creation] was lovely, pleasing, beautiful.’
But is there death?
Many thoughtful Christians, past and present, answer this in the negative. They claim death could not form a part of God’s good world. J.C. Ryle wrote ‘[c]an we think he who made all things “very good” made humanity to needlessly sicken and die’. Calvin suggested it was ‘most unfitting for God to be made the author of death’. They see the entry of sin as a corrupting force (outlined in Romans 5:12) which precipitated death across the globe, ‘Sin is the original cause of all the sickness, and disease, and pain, and suffering, which permeate the earth.’ The entry of death is seen as part of the curse of Genesis 3. Kulikovsky suggests ‘[i]n sinning against their Creator, Adam and Eve not only brought the curse of death upon themselves and their descendants but also upon the animal kingdom’. These theologians claim there is no natural death; all death is imposed on creation as a curse in response to sin.
However a difficulty arises as these claims of the creation differ from our experience of the world and modern scientific opinion. Modern science observes the fossil record as evidence of a history of death.
How should we respond to this scientific opinion? Oppose it as invalid science? Advocate separation between theology and science? Or engage with these observations?
Engagement is the response advocated, for in this issue, theological claims of a rupture in creation do intersect with scientific enquiry. Further, it is also assumed that the author of the Scriptures and creation are the same hence we should expect the Scriptures to conform with our experience of the world. Yet, this raises the important issue concerning the relationship between experience and exegesis. To what extent should experience shape exegesis?
We need to let the Scriptures speak, but importantly, we must remember that cultural and historical presuppositions can dramatically affect exegesis. Thus we must be careful of assuming the text speaks the way we think it should be interpreted. For example, recent archaeological discoveries have steadily eroded the historicity of the United Monarchy. However Athas suggests that presuppositions of how a ‘United Monarchy’ should look have been coloured by modern European understandings when the biblical texts do not press for such an understanding. He concludes, ‘We have, therefore, been misunderstanding the biblical texts or have trained our sights too high’
Could the same conclusion be drawn when understanding the history of death? Could our experience facilitate a better understanding of the biblical texts?
Before answering this question, two traps should be avoided:
(1) A moral category ought not be created where not required. Death must not be proposed as a moral good, particularly with the animal kingdom.
(2) We need to be careful not to impose our understanding of what God’s goodness should look like.
A closer examination of the biblical evidence reveals that there is indeed a natural death. We come to this conclusion through four observations on the nature of sin, creation’s order, the curse, and eschatology.
1. The link between sin and death is drawn only for humans. Romans 5:12 is popularly used to link the entry of death generally into the world with the entry of sin. Yet the often overlooked second half of verse 12 links the spread of death with the spread of sin ‘and in this way death came to all men, because all sinned’ (italics mine). Only humans sin because sin is linked to law (v.13). Law exclusively applies to humans—animals have no law. Blocher points out that condemnation for sins can only apply when there is a law to be broken. He also proposes that ‘the role of Adam and his sin in Romans 5 is to make possible the imputation, the judicial treatment, of human sins’. Thus the link drawn between sin and death in Romans 5:12 is made exclusively for humans.
By extension this also acknowledges salvation as also exclusively human. The representative death of Jesus precipitates only humans being saved from their sins (Matt 1:21). Sin and salvation are exclusively human conditions.
2. A very good creation incorporates death as part of its order. Job 38-41 outlines God’s sovereignty as creator and moral governor of the world. God speaks about his wisdom in establishing the earth, initially with the inanimate creation (the seasons and the heavenly bodies) then the animate creation (Job 38:39ff). As God speaks about his very good creation, created in his wisdom, there is death. The lion hunts prey for the lioness (Job 38:39) and the eagle’s young ‘feast on blood’ (Job 39:27-30). These carnivorous animals are designed to kill: this is how they accomplish their purpose in God’s wisdom.
However Kulikovsky objects and suggests this is God’s continued provision after the fall; creation is cursed, God has not abandoned it. However Job is silent on any fall, curse, or disruption. The text flows naturally from how God established the cosmos and the earth in its seasons. A natural reading suggests this as the way God established the earth in his wisdom. Moreover if providential care was the purpose of death, then no theological reason is given why God now providentially cares for his creatures through death; if pre-fall providential care did not involve death—why death now? This objection ultimately accepts death as part of God’s goodness. Therefore predation and death form part of God’s wisdom and order of creation.
3. The curse (Gen. 3:17-19) is relational and not ontological. Many propose the curse’s effects were ontological—it brought a fundamental change to the earth, including the introduction of death. Calvin proposed the earth will now bring forth, ‘briers and noxious plants’ which are ‘corruptions which originate from sin’. The world begins to degenerate and this is evidenced by ‘the existence of fleas, caterpillars and other noxious insects’. Yet it is unclear, exegetically, how these far reaching conclusions can be drawn from ‘cursing of the ground’. Indeed Augustine wisely warned that ‘we should not jump to the conclusion that it was only then that these plants came forth from the earth’. Augustine noted the relational emphases of the curse, particularly the emphasis on ‘bring forth to you’; ‘they will now begin to come forth in such a way as to add to your labour, whereas formerly they came forth only as a food for other living creatures’.
Furthermore, the use of ‘ground’ in Genesis 2-3 also emphasises the curse’s relational nature. God noticed there was no man to work the ground (Gen 2:5), so he formed Adam from the ground (Gen 2:7), whose job was to work the ground (Gen 2:15). But now the ground is cursed—his livelihood and vocation is cursed. The man’s relationship with the ground, which previously happy and harmonious, is shattered; so much so that he will ultimately return to the dust (3:19). The curse is part of God’s judgement on humanity—life will be frustrating. The curse does not advocate a change in creation, but a change in humanity’s relationship with creation.
4. Eschatological reordering looks primarily to renewed relational order under the Messiah not an ontological change. Some claim Isaiah 11:6-10 (c.f. 65:17-25) outlines an ontological change to the physical order. Yet such a reading overlooks the metaphorical language present (e.g. 65:25c) and the purpose of the passage, which is to outline a figurative description of the peaceful reign brought in by the Messiah. C.S. Lewis’ conclusion is apt, ‘If the earthly lion could read the prophecy of that day and when he shall eat hay like an ox, he would regard it as a description not of heaven, but of hell.’
Some also propose Romans 8:19-22 describing an ontological change, yet a relational reordering is the focus. Here, creation (8:20) constitutes all sub-human creation; both animate and inanimate and the frustration (8:20) relates to the way this creation is not presently ordered by God’s vice-regent—humanity. Cranfield observes, ‘Creation is prevented from being fully that which they were created to be, so long as man’s part is missing, just as all the other players in a concerto would be frustrated of their purpose if the soloist were to fail to play his part’. Hence all of creation is longing for the proper relational order of creation to be restored—the revealing of the sons of God (8:19) and the redemption of our bodies (8:23). The future hope revolves around all creation being set free from bondage to decay; from the transitoriness and finitude in which it was created. Thus God’s creation, good and conforming to his purposes, is ultimately dynamic, pointing forwards to his ultimate eschatological purposes, to bring things to their fulfilment, all things in heaven and earth under Christ (Eph 1:10). God’s subjection of creation anticipates the ultimate re-ordering of creation where God’s true vice-regent, Jesus Christ rules.
Furthermore, Christ’s physical resurrection vindicates the present creation implying an ontological eschatological stability; ‘the very act of God which ushers in his kingdom is the resurrection of Christ from the dead, the reaffirmation of creation’.
Therefore the Scriptures appear to support the concept of a natural animal death. Sin corrupted the relationship between humanity and creation, but did not alter the very fabric of the universe itself. Augustine made the same conclusions; ‘one may ask why brute beasts inflict injury on one another […] The answer, of course, is that one animal is the nourishment of another. To wish that it were otherwise would not be reasonable.’
There is a natural animal death, but what of human death? Is human death natural?
Human death is natural only in that it reflects our mortal constitution. Humanity was created mortal; we were created from the same substance as the animals (Gen 2:7, 19). Adam’s immortality was derived; he needed to eat from the tree of life to live forever. Augustine correctly observes; ‘He [Adam] was mortal, therefore, by the constitution of his natural body, and he was immortal by the gift of his creator’.
However human death is unnatural within God’s good creation because humans were created to be in relationship with God.Adam’s sin ruptured this relationship and the punishment was expulsion from the Garden; separation from God and his provision of immortality. The punishment, separation, exposed Adam’s mortal constitution and he died. As humans were intended to be in relationship with God, ‘Death [for humans] is never merely a natural process.’
The most unnatural remedy is required to resolve the human predicament: the death of Christ—the death of God himself. Christ died not because of a mortal nature, nor because of his sin. He died because he willingly separated himself from the source of life: ‘My God my God why have you forsaken me!’ (Mark 15:34). He died to save his people from their sins (Matt 1:21).
In conclusion, we propose that there is a natural death. Death forms a part of God’s good creation and creation’s goodness is not impinged by the presence of death. Christ’s resurrection reaffirms the present creation, which God created good and to be received with thanksgiving (1 Tim 4:4). Creation is still good.
The impact of sin on creation is primarily relational. Humans were created to rule the world and be in proper relationship with God. Yet sin brings failure in both areas. But there is hope. There is hope of a dynamic reordering of creation where creation is finally ruled in power by God’s vice-regent. There is also the hope of salvation for humanity where separation from God and his good provision is overcome. This is brought about through the unnatural death of God himself, enabling God to dwell with his people where there will be no more death, suffering or pain (Rev 21:4).
It appears our experience of the world has led us to a greater appreciation of the biblical message: there is a natural death. Death does form a natural part of God’s good creation.
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_______, ‘Correspondence: A Cosmic Fall?’ Science and Christian Belief. 19/1 (2007):78-80.
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__________, A Commentary on Genesis. London: Banner of Truth, 1965.
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Hammond, T.C. In Understanding be Men: A Handbook of Christian Doctrine. Leicester: Inter-Varsity Press, 1968.
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O’Donovan, Oliver. Resurrection and Moral Order: An Outline for Evangelical Ethics. 2nd Edition; Leicster: Apollos; Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1994.
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Ryle, J.C. Sickness. Edited and updated by Gordon Cheng; Kingsford: Matthias Media, 2005.
Steele, Dominic. Introducing God: Meeting the God who loves us. Annandale, NSW: Media Bible Fellowship, 2006.
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Wenham, G.J. Genesis 1-15. Word Bible Commentary; Waco Tx.: Word, 1987.
Williamson, Paul. ‘Theophany, Repentance, & Restoration: Job 38-42’. Moore College Lecture, 2008.
Young, Davis A. & Stearley, Ralph F. The Bible, Rocks and Time: Geological Evidence for the Age of the Earth. Downers Grove Ill.: InterVarsity Press, 2008.
 G.J. Wenham, Genesis 1-15, (Word Bible Commentary; Waco Tx.: Word, 1987), 18.; See also R.J. Berry, ‘This Cursed Earth: Is ‘the Fall’ Credible?’, Science and Christian Belief, 11/1 (1999), 42.; R.J. Berry, ‘Correspondence: A Cosmic Fall?’, Science and Christian Belief 19/1 (2007), 79.
 W. Brueggemann, Genesis, (Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1982), 37.; See also R.J. Berry, ‘Correspondence: A Cosmic Fall?’, 79.
 J.C. Ryle, Sickness, (edited and updated by Gordon Cheng; Kingsford: Matthias Media, 2005), 6.
 John Calvin, The Institutes of the Christian Religion, 2.1.6.
 Ryle, Sickness, 6. Italics mine.
 Andrew S. Kulikovsky, Creation, Fall, Restoration: A Biblical Theology of Creation, (Fearn, Scotland: Mentor, 2009), 206.
 See John C. Munday, ‘Creature Mortality: From Creation or the Fall?’, Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society, 35/1 (March 1992), 67.; T.C. Hammond, In Understanding Be Men: A Handbook of Christian Doctrine, (Leicester: Inter-Varsity Press, 1968), 73.; Francisco J. Ayala, ‘The Evolution of Life: An Overview’ in Evolutionary and Molecular Biology: Scientific Perspectives on Divine Action, (Robert John Russell, William R. Stoeger, Francisco J. Ayala (eds.); Vatican: Vatican Observatory Foundation; Berkeley, Calif.: Center for Theology and the Natural Sciences, 1998), 21-58, part. 30.; Davis A. Young & Ralph F. Stearley, The Bible, Rocks and Time: Geological Evidence for the Age of the Earth, (Downers Grove Ill.: InterVarsity Press, 2008).
 Framework courtesy of John F. Haught, God after Darwin: A Theology of Evolution, (2nd Ed.; Boulder, Co.: Westview Press, 2008), 27-47.
 As many young-earth creationists do, for example Jonathan Wells, Icons of Evolution: Science or myth? Why much of what we teach about evolution is wrong, (Washington, D.C.: Regenery, 2000); Duane T. Gish, Evolution: the Fossils still say no! (El Cajon, Calif.: Institute for Creation Research, 1995); Don DeYoung, Thousands… not Billions: Challenging an Icon of Evolution: Questioning the Age of the Earth, (Green Forest, Ar.: Master Books, 2005); Henry Morris, Scientific Creationism, (San Diego: Creation Life Publishers, 1974).
 Most famously advocated by Stephen Jay Gould, Rocks of Ages: Science and Religion in the Fullness of Life, (New York: Ballantine Publishing, 1999).; See also Dominic Steele, Introducing God: Meeting the God who loves us, (Annandale, NSW: Media Bible Fellowship, 2006), 26.
 Richard C. Gamble, ‘The Relationship between Biblical Theology and Systematic Theology’, in Always Reforming: Explorations in Systematic Theology (Leicester: Apollos, 2006), 232-234.
 George Athas, The Tel Dan Inscription: A Reappraisal and a New Interpretation, (JSOT 360; Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 2003), 318. Italics mine.
 Henri Blocher, Original Sin: Illuminating the Riddle, (Grand Rapids Mich.: Eerdmans, 1999), 77.
 Paul Williamson, ‘Theophany, Repentance, & Restoration: Job 38-42’, (Moore College Lecture, 2008), 60.
 A similar pattern is seen in the ‘creation hymn’ of Psalm 104:21; ‘young lions roar for their prey seeking their food from God’. Munday, 67.
 Kulikovsky, Creation, Fall, Restoration, 211.
 John Calvin, A Commentary on Genesis, (London: Banner of Truth, 1965), 174.
 Calvin, Commentary on Genesis p104.
 Augustine, The Literal Meaning of Genesis, 6.18.
 Augustine, The Literal Meaning of Genesis, 6.18.
 J.A. Motyer, The Prophecy of Isaiah, (Leicester: IVP, 1993), 124.
 John J. Bimson, ‘Reconsidering a Cosmic Fall’, Science and Christian Belief, 18/1 (2006): 69.
 John Collins, Science and Faith: Friends or Foes? (Wheaton, Ill.: Crossway Books, 2003), 157.; See also Bimson, 70.
 C.S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain, (London: Centenary Press, 1940), 130.
 Barnett writes, ‘Adam’s sin brought death, not only to himself but also to the created world’. Paul W. Barnett, Romans, (Fearn, Scotland: Christian Focus, 2003), 193. See also F.F. Bruce, The Letter of Paul to the Romans: An Introduction and Commentary, (Leicester: Inter-Varsity Press; Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1985), 160-1.
 C.E.B. Cranfield, ‘Some Observations on Romans 8:19-21’ in Reconciliation and Hope: New Testament Essays on Atonement and Eschatology, presented to L.L. Morris on his 60th Birthday, (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1974), 225.
 Cranfield, ‘Some Observations on Romans 8:19-21’, 227.
 Oliver O’Donovan, Resurrection and Moral Order: An Outline for Evangelical Ethics, (2nd Ed.; Leicster: Apollos; Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1994), 15.
 Augustine, The Literal Meaning of Genesis, 3.16
 See also Hammond, In Understanding Be Men, 73.
 Augustine, The Literal Meaning of Genesis, 6.25.
 Karl Rahner, On the Theology of Death, (Frieburg: Herder, 1961), 46.