While acknowledging the majority of traditional orthodox theological interpretations until the past two centuries, how can the validity of the Bible’s claim that physical death came into the world through sin (including the suffering of both humans and animals) be maintained since death is an integral part of the universe (according to common sense observation and today’s scientific community in paleontology, evolutionary biology, embryology, cell biology, botany, astronomy, astrophysics, geology, geography and math)? And if this classic Judeo-Christian belief has become untenable, the entire doctrine of the atonement falls apart and salvation from damnation is not needed because it is clear that the universe (made by God) has always operated within the parameters we understand now. In recent centuries, growing scientific knowledge about the ages of things like galaxies and rocks and species has forced many Christian theologians to develop other explanations in which death of some or all sorts existed before sin. But, these viewpoints make it much harder to defend God’s goodness, given that natural evils for nonhuman animal suffering and humans are then recognized as being apparently congruent with the original divine plan, with or without sin.
This link presents a one page list of modern science’s understanding of how death is natural and generative. It’s possible that there was spiritual or relational “death” that appeared after the first major rebellion against God and continues today when people resist healthy forms of relationship with Her/Him, fellow humans and/or the rest of nature. But, this spiritual, ethical, psychological and/or physical damage creates a finite need for salvation from specific circumstances and/or temporal conditions, not a cosmic dilemma that requires an eternal solution.
“…it is clear that the universe (made by God) has always operated within the parameters we understand now.”
I don’t see how that’s clear. Clear how? Your conclusion is clear if we approach it with that presumption (which is what scientific method has to do).
Not surprisingly that which claims to be a supernatural event is not explainable by scientific method which can only demonstrate the natural and which MUST assume that ONLY the natural can take place. That is what you call ‘common sense observation.’
As a personal example (and speaking as a scientist), I believe in the virgin-birth of Christ: science tells me that if I gathered together a million virgins and isolated them from human contact that precisely ZERO percent of them would get pregnant. Does that mean Christ wasn’t virgin-born? I guess I have to conclude that scientific method may have some limitations when it comes to explaining supernatural phenomena.
Thanks for your reply, Duncan. I was reminded because of what you wrote that I needed to add a section to the post, which I did earlier today.
This link presents a one page list of modern science’s understanding of how death is natural and generative:
However, I think there may have been spiritual or relational “death” that appeared after the first major rebellion against God and continues today when people resist healthy forms of relationship with Her/Him, fellow humans and/or the rest of nature.
Your further thoughts?
Thanks for the further info, a significant proportion of what is on the list with regard to death being natural is not in any conflict with a literal understanding of Creation followed by Fall – extinction of species would fit right into that. (Evolutionary theory of man’s origins, on the other hand, seems not to fit with the Creation account at all)
What I think is worthy of note is the references to such things as programmed cell-death being necessary for life to form and I have no reason to doubt that this an elegant and extremely precisely designed system (which we still don’t fully understand) has been in place since man was created. But is that really ‘death’ as is communicated by Romans 5 (“just as sin came into the world by one man, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all sinned” [v12])?
I think there is a distinction between whether Adam as a being could have died before sin entered and (just for example) whether a deer could shed its antlers before sin. Both require ‘death’ in some manner of speaking, but you could hardly say they were equivalent. Sometimes you do hear Creationists use the argument that there was no law of entropy (‘everything tends towards disorder’) before the Fall, but what you have pointed out demonstrates that to be a (at least partly) bogus claim, but I don’t think it debunks the idea that there was no death.
I am curious that though you are refuting many things which Christianity holds to, you still seem to have a place for and respect for (some of) the Bible. Am I fair in saying this? If so, how do you determine the bits that are to be accepted and the bits which are to be rejected?
Thanks for posting and discussing!
I just uploaded a post, “Did God Always Behave Virtuously In The Bible?”, that attempts to explain some answers to some of what you wrote. I actually composed it a few days ago because I’ve been talking about these things a lot with people lately (and really for the past sixteen years!).
I copied it below.
Where does ultimate morality come from? Is there a higher standard by which we can hold God accountable for “sins” and “abuses” against the creatures of the universe? Or are all of God’s actions automatically and perfectly wise, fair and best?
My view is that true, deep morality is contained in some combination of religious texts, humane philosophy, biological history/operation, careful evaluation of spiritual experience, individual conscience and what can be observed of what practices/beliefs are effective in protecting and encouraging flourishment for people and the rest of the natural world. I don’t know how much of the Bible is “God-breathed”, but I do think I know what basic morality is and how the history of spirituality has (imperfectly) revealed more and more to universal human consciousness. There is a common negative reaction that people have to several actions that God takes in the Bible, such as genocide, punishing people eternally for finite sins, misogyny, slavery, seasonal and colonial warfare, theocracy, animal sacrifice, etc. It is unsurprising, natural and fair for people to respond this way. If God did not want us to confront these atrocities from an ethical standpoint, then what was the point of giving us a deep sense of conscience and then inviting humanity to “come, let us reason together” (Isaiah 1:18)?
Regarding how I interpret the value of specific biblical teachings, please see my post, “Should Christianity Be Abandoned?”:
I’m always interested in going further with these subjects, so feel free to keep up the feedback. I learn a lot from these interactions and I really enjoy the process (even though it can be frustrating, periodically, to face such gigantic questions and have to invest so much immense effort to even begin finding satisfying answers……and sometimes that is not possible, at least in my experience. I think the hard work and the hard conversations are worthwhile, however.).
I appreciate your engagement on the “death through sin” issue, especially since you are a scientist. I don’t have a strong science background, but I have been diligently studying old earth creationism, intelligent design, theistic evolution and naturalistic evolution during the past three years. I love nature. I’m learning to love scientific knowledge as well, even though it’s much harder for me to learn………compared to my God-given strengths in philosophy, theology, art, writing, music, acting, comedy…..liberal arts, social and creative stuff…….I have lots of music, poetry and art online if you’re interested, by the way. 🙂 Not that I would self-promote all of a sudden like this!
There’s quite a lot to interact with here, but I think I’m going to linger on what stands out most to me. I am genuinely a bit puzzled by your approach to the Bible. If Paul makes the claim that ‘all Scripture is God-breathed’, then we should try and establish what he means by ‘Scripture’. Now just doing this quickly, the claims the Bible makes for itself as being God-breathed explicitly include the books of Moses (Exodus 4:11-12) and the writings of David (2 Samuel 23:1-2) and most certainly the Old Testament Prophets (e.g. Jeremiah 1:9; 30:1-2 & 2 Peter 1:19-21) as well as the Gospel of Luke (quoted as ‘Scripture’ in 1 Timothy 5:17-18) and the writings of Paul (Peter calls them ‘Scripture’ in 2 Peter 3:15-16). That’s not to say that the rest of the Bible is not ‘Scripture’ but just to show the explicit claim of the Bible about itself as being ‘Scripture’ and thus breathed out by God.
If this is the case, then is it really an option to say (in effect and for example), ‘I like the stuff on morality but I don’t like the teaching on original sin’. I would put it to you that if the Bible is unreliable on the issue of ‘original sin’ or the nature of God then how can you trust it for any religious principles? I think that we need to ask why God has given us His written word – after all, surely God has no need of human language, but has chosen to reveal to us Himself in human words (and in Christ, in human form) – some of those things revealed may be difficult to understand, but to write it off because we don’t like it is to elevate ourselves to the position of being arbiter on what parts of ‘Scripture’ are God’s thoughts and which parts are not. Whilst the whole time ‘Scripture’ tells us that ‘all Scripture’ has come from the mouth (and therefore mind) of God.
This part from one of the posts I mentioned covers part of your question:
I now think that Christianity should be abandoned as a functioning religion, but many of the positive and realistic principles should be salvaged, in the same way that many ideas and metaphors should be appreciated from other religions and philosophies, even as we recognize that not every aspect in their systems are useful and healthy. The benefits of keeping Christianity up and running do not outweigh the costs (please see my other posts for much more background on this point). People often need spiritual community, moral instruction, etc., but there are better ways to provide this (examples: twelve step programs, Unitarian Universalism, explicitly humanistic spiritual systems or other similar organizations/approaches). Many of the wisdom teachings of the Bible and Christianity are very helpful and inspiring. However, their repeatedly interwoven obsession with spiritual warfare, the doctrine of original sin and the need for salvation from a condition we are born with…….are incredibly misguided……and are tremendously harmful distractions away from living in full and honest reality.
The main issue that I see most religions and philosophies not addressing much and keeping at the forefront is fulfillment/flourishing for humans and all non-human parts of nature. Sam Harris makes the point, in “Letters to a Christian Nation”, one of my favorite books, that religion often disconnects the goal of alleviating human/animal suffering from theocratic morality. So, in the Bible, there are many instances where God and his followers appear completely indifferent or cruel toward the struggles and pain of individuals because their sin or someone else’s sin must be dealt with.
Regarding the general issue of “Morality: Is There an Ought?”, recent Christian thinkers such as Paul Copan, C.S. Lewis and William Lane Craig have posited that there can be no objective morality without a lawgiving (or even law-creating) ultimate being. I watched a video debate on the same subject between William Lane Craig and Harris, where the later person offered a pretty strong case for a rational/natural foundation for objective morality. We can evaluate ways to substantially relieve suffering and encourage/support flourishing of all beings.
I view all religions from a creation or earth-centered context. In other words, all scriptures, Judeo-Christian or otherwise, were developed and “revealed” or “received” within the natural world. The Bible, for instance did not create the universe. Instead, it was largely molded and directed by and through the cultural forms available to the Ancient Near East (ANE). It makes far more sense to explain away the extreme patriarchal and often brutally harsh leanings contained in the Bible by pointing to the human mindsets of those wrote lived then/there and wrote it. This doesn’t necessarily mean that a real God didn’t provide actual divine/supernatural/special revelation in the Bible or in any other holy book. But, unless we are expected to believe in “automatic writing” or that God forced every word through the brains and wills of the authors, we must acknowledge the obvious origins of the slants repeatedly present in these texts. For example, the themes of kingship, hero worship, revered militarism, constant physical/spiritual/psychological warfare, genocide, misogyny, slavery and animal/human sacrifice were all very common in the ANE. Why didn’t the Bible spend more time talking about the doctrine of creation, the female aspect of God, the equality of women, basic human rights, animal rights, freedom of speech, environmental care, peace movements, high-technology (medicine, biology, engineering, physics, etc.) and democracy? Because either God was unwilling to communicate this to the Jews and early Christians or the people weren’t ready for this kind of “full truth” from God’s ultimate wisdom or God’s cruelty and indifference prevented complete moral disclosure or God didn’t yet know what a truly humane society should look like.
A four part You Tube video series (almost fourty minutes in total), “Biblical Evidence Proving That God is Evil“, demonstrates the details of this field of data. I think the information there is sometimes overstated or misguided, but for the most part I agree with it’s basic concerns and challenges to traditional Christianity. I believe that God is both good and evil to different degrees, as the world contains both good and evil in such deep ways that are clearly beyond the capacities of humans to affect it (such as natural evils and the weaknesses/proclivities/ignorance humans are born with…..starting with Adam and Eve and remaining on through our current state, even if these elements have gotten worse through negative human decisions in generation after generation).
Lastly, I firmly believe that the key aspect of a full critique of any philosophical or theological viewpoint must be from what I call the “Descriptive and Conceptual Dynamics Of Femininity and Masculinity“. I compiled the chart on that linked post through many years of trying to understand the parameters of the largest possible paradigm that could accurately incorporate both the impersonal and personal parts of God, humanity and non-human nature. It’s my best attempt at a “theory of everything”.
“I guess I have to conclude that scientific method may have some limitations when it comes to explaining supernatural phenomena.”
Do we actually see supernatural phenomena these days?
Firstly, I should point out that the issue was about trying to demonstrate past supernatural events (like the creation of something out of nothing) by using scientific method. Because scientific method (rightly) has no choice but to assume that the natural laws which are at work just now in our world have always been so, then it shows its limitations. Speaking as a Christian the Bible tells me that God cursed the world (Genesis 3), that he judged the world (Genesis 6-8). So even just taking these two descriptions of Divine intervention in the course of this world I’m told that in actual fact the natural laws around us have not always behaved just as they are at this time, but that something supernatural took place at specific points in history.
Obviously I don’t know what background you are coming from Wayne, but as to whether supernatural phenomena occur today I would have to say that as a Christian that is why I pray, because supernatural phenomena can and do still occur today. None greater than forgiveness of sins and spiritual rebirth.
[with apologies to Andy for using his blog space for this discussion!]
Duncan, you are welcome to use my blog space for this kind of discussion. This is exactly why I started this blog! 🙂 The more the better.
What “supernatural phenomena can and do still occur today”? Can you cite specific instances? Have you actually seen any? How do you determine if an event is supernatural or not?
How do you know that supernatural events took place at specific points in the past? Do you mean that everything in the Bible is literally true, and not just metaphor here and there?
I make that six questions without an opinion expressed yet – but I’m sure it will come.
Let me do this in reverse order. I know that supernatural events took place in the past because things happened which cannot be explained by natural processes. Namely, the bringing into existence of something (the earth and rest of the universe) when before there was nothing. Also, the laws of biogenesis tell me that life can only come from life and so the introduction of living beings to the earth when before there was non-living matter is also a supernatural event. Or even take the overwhelming evidence for the resurrection of Christ – demonstrates very convincingly that it happened, but no science could tell us how. Something beyond nature caused it. Whether you take ‘everything’ in the Bible as literally true or as a metaphor ‘here and there’ these points seem self-evident.
[As an aside, it is a bit of a caricature to say that someone believes EVERYTHING in the Bible to be literally true, because of the very many Christians I know, I don’t know one who would hold to that – even the most hard-line! Rather, it’s more the case that the PRINCIPLE of interpretation is to take something as literal in the Bible when there’s no apparent reason to do otherwise. Therefore the mention of the red dragon in Revelation or the little horn in Daniel etc etc would be taken literally by no Biblical interpreter, but be recognised as symbolic]
I can cite instances of supernatural phenomena today, before I do, anyone who knows me would confirm that I am not the kind of guy who sees miracles on every corner and am somewhat cynical about miraculous claims, but I cannot deny that such things do and are still happening. I can give you examples of medically inexplicable healing, or examples of the power of drug addiction broken in an instant, of otherwise unknowable needs being revealed to someone that they might intervene. And, as I mentioned last time, there is the miracle of having sins forgiven by faith in Christ and of being made spiritually alive by the presence of God’s Spirit within – it doesn’t get any more miraculous than that!