Tuesday, April 11, 2006

Been Thinking about Genesis

My Christian brothers who are Young Earth Creationists (YEC) generally argue that there was no death before the fall. Interesting yet hypothetical questions about the result of an elephant stepping on an ant are often considered impertinent. Still we wonder: would the ant be impervious to any injury, or would it sustain catastrophic damage and yet survive? Or would God intervene to divert the ant before the pachydermial stomp?

Musings aside, we examine one of the more famous passages in scripture:
16 And the LORD God commanded the man, saying, "You may surely eat of every tree of the garden, 17 but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die." (Gen 2:16:17)
This is, in part, the basis for assuming that there was no death prior to the fall. But of course if it does refer to physical death, it would really argue, by its narrow focus, that animals already died, unless you think animal death was introduced after human death, which seems absurd.

YEC problem 1: The pain of death threat in Gen. 2:17 appears to apply only to humans.

Another problem is that the carrying out of the death sentence appears to be scheduled for the very day of the infraction. If this is physical death, how many ways can we explain the fact that Adam did not drop dead on the day he sinned? I can think of some:
  1. God changed his mind.
  2. Adam did not die, but the process of death began.
  3. A day is a thousand years (1 Pet. 3:8) and Adam did die within 1000 years.
  4. The death being referred to is not physical but spiritual death.
Solution one is unthinkable. Although various passages, for example those describing Moses' pleading with God to spare the Jews, seem to depict God as changing his mind, scholars have generally accepted that these are anthropomorphisms. God, being immutable, didn't actually change his mind, but his dialog with finite humans requires certain accommodations.

Solution two is common among YECs, but in my opinion it does great violence to the text. God did not say that Adam would surely start dying, but rather he would surely die.

Solution three was one offered by some early church fathers. The problem here, for YECs, is that if a day does not mean a literal day in Genesis 2, perhaps it doesn't mean a literal day in Genesis 1. Indeed, some early Christians using this reasoning to explain Genesis 2:17 arrived at the conclusion that that the creation account of Genesis 1 spans six thousand years, not six literal days. (They also decided it was not an essential issue. The elevation of six day creation to, in the eyes of some, a test for orthodoxy is a modern development.)

Personally I believe in solution four. Adam died spiritually, the death spoken of in Eph. 2:1, the moment he sinned--on the very day. Adam was at that instant dead to sin and in need of a savior.

YEC problem 2: The day in Gen. 2:17 appears to be something other than a day, or else God changed his mind, or else we must, in spite of the plain text, interpret it to mean "the process of death" began.

That leads to an interesting question. Had they not sinned, would Adam and Eve have lived forever? Most Christians say yes. Personally I do not think so. If Gen. 2:17 applies to spiritual death, then there is no passage (with one exception, which I'll get to) that can be said to demonstrate that man would never die physically. (In this view, Romans 5 is also speaking of spiritual death entering the world through Adam.)

As a purely practical aside, we all know that God instructed Adam and Eve to be fruitful. About 10% of everyone who ever lived is alive today. All things being equal, if nobody ever died, then the population of earth would be, today, at least 60 billion. But that must be a serious underestimate, for many of the dead never lived long enough to reproduce. The world would be unfallen, but it would also be crowded.

Let us consider what the serpent says to Eve:
4 But the serpent said to the woman, "You will not surely die. 5 For God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil." (Gen 3:4-5)
It is often said that the serpent lied. But did he? Certainly if day means day and death means physical death, then Adam in Eve surely did not die, and the sepent, at least superficially, told the truth. What about the second part of the serpent's discourse, about knowing good and evil? Jumping ahead to God's response to Adam's sin, we read:
22Then the LORD God said, "Behold, the man has become like one of us in knowing good and evil. Now, lest he reach out his hand and take also of the tree of life and eat, and live forever—"23 therefore the LORD God sent him out from the garden of Eden to work the ground from which he was taken. (Gen 3:22-23)

In fact, God says exactly what the serpent promised! That man became like God, knowing good and evil. The serpent did not lie! He did, however, impugn God's motives. God withheld something for man's good—the serpent implied it was because of God's selfishness.

However, Gen. 3:22-23 is one of the most puzzling passages in all of scripture. It states there is a tree of life in the garden, and that God exiled Adam and Eve so that they would not eat of it and live forever. So that is a reasonable (fatal, perhaps)argument against my contention that unfallen Adam and Eve would have grown old and (peacefully and painlessly) died, only to move on to an even better paradise. However, it raises more questions than it answers. What are these trees, and why does it appear they (especially the tree of life) have magic properties? As for the forbidden tree, we can rationalize that it wasn't really magic, that the disobedience resulted in death and not anything innate to the fruit itself. But the tree of life? It appears, on a plain reading, that God wants Adam and Eve out of the Garden because he has sentenced them to death and he is concerned that if they eat of the tree of life the sentence would be avoided. How do we explain that? If the tree were imbued with special properties, could God not simply change it? Or remove it?

Very puzzling.

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