Death and the Curse in the Garden of Eden—and Beyond

A new online article that I wrote on the topic of death in the Garden of Eden has now been posted to the website of the Carl F. H. Henry Center for Theological Understanding.

Here is a summary of the article:

It has been a common (though not universal) assumption in the history of Christian thought that humans were created immortal, and only lost their immortality with the entrance of death as the consequence for sin. This is, however, a misreading of the biblical data, which suggests that humans were created mortal with the possibility of attaining eternal life—a possibility that was lost through sin and is now realized in Jesus Christ.

Were Humans Mortal before the Fall?

The article is published in an online journal of the Henry Center called Sapientia, in the Areopagite forum (the Aereopagus was the meeting place in Athens where Paul preached in Acts 17).

My piece is the first in a series of blog posts that were invited to respond to the question Were humans mortal before the fall? Each blog post will give a different author’s perspective on this issue.

The Creation Project

I’ve been involved for three years now with the Creation Project of the Henry Center, which has explored the themes of Reading Genesis (2016), the Doctrine of Creation (2017), and Theological Anthropology (2018).

Each summer (in June) the Creation Project has run a conference (called Dabar, Hebrew for “word”) on the topic for the year, held on the site of Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, near Chicago.

At the first two Dabar conferences I gave paper responses, first to a paper on Genesis 1–11 (2016) and then to a paper on God as an Agent (2017).

Death, Immortality, and the Curse

This year (2018) I was invited to write a paper for the conference, which will have two respondents (one by a theologian, the other by a biblical scholar). I’ve been asked to give a brief response to my respondents.

My paper is entitled: “Death, Immortality, and the Curse: Interpreting Genesis 2–3 in the Context of the Biblical Worldview.”

It’s an expansion of the shorter Sapientia article, attempting to connect the discussion of death and mortality (from that article) with the broader “ecological” picture of how humans affect the non-human world for good or ill, which is first articulated by the “curse” on the ground because of human sin (Genesis 3:17).

The shorter article, entitled “Humans Created Mortal, with the Possibility of Eternal Life,” is available online.

My Ambiguous Relationship with Carl Henry

For those interested, you can check out the blog post I wrote in anticipation of attending the first Dabar conference (2016), where I recounted my initial (unpleasant) encounter with Carl Henry over twenty years before.

Luckily, my experience with the Henry Center has been much more positive than that early encounter. In my evaluation of the 2016 conference, I wrote:

“I found the atmosphere of the Dabar conference to be collegial and open. While the presenters, respondents, and other participants did not agree on everything, there was a welcoming hospitality between everyone, regardless of viewpoint.”

I later recounted my experience of the second Dabar conference (2017), where I was a respondent to philosopher Billy Abraham.

I’m very much looking forward to this year’s conference.

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7 thoughts on “Death and the Curse in the Garden of Eden—and Beyond

  1. Excellent treatment of the subject. I’m glad to hear you’re doing an expanded version. Be sure to keep us updated.

    Many people view Gen. 2.7 as Adam receiving a soul or spirit. But if the passage simply teaches that we, like the animals, are made of dust and owe our lives (breath) to God, our Creator, then I wonder about the implications for biblical anthropology. One could make the case that human beings are mere flesh until they are “born from above,” which is when they “cross over from death to life” (John 5:24, cf. 1 John 3:14). And Jesus is obviously re-enacting Gen. 2.7 when he breathes on the disciples and says “receive the Holy Spirit” at the climax of John’s gospel (20:22). On the other hand, nearly two thousand years of tradition and interpretation say that human beings are born with an immortal soul/spirit.

    The topic is almost too radioactive to touch. Which way do you incline?

    • Hi Jay,

      I think of humans a a complex unity, which means I don’t subscribe to any version of Platonic (or Cartesian) substance dualism, in the sense that we are made of material and immaterial “parts.”

      However, I’m uncomfortable thinking of humans as monistic, since we are a complex unity. Though I can subscribe to much of what theorists mean when they speak of nonreductive holism, I really want to maintain both the complexity of human functioning along with our basic unity.

      For a long time I have found Herman Ridderbos’s approach to the complex unity of human nature helpful, in Paul: An Outline of His Theology (Eerdmans, 1975), pp. 114-121. He addresses Pauline usage of body, flesh, nous (mind), heart, soul, and spirit, explaining that Paul can describe human nature from an inner or an outer view, without making this mean we have two “parts.”

      Though not directly based on Ridderbos’s analysis, I did a blog some years ago called “Paul on the ‘Soul’—Not What You Might Think” (https://jrichardmiddleton.wordpress.com/2014/10/23/paul-on-the-soul-not-what-you-might-think/).

      In the recent work I’ve done for BioLogos (talks and blogs) I’ve been saying that in the Bible “soul” (=organism) is what we have in common with animals, while the image of God is the distinctive human calling or vocation. This is the basic point that I made in a joint presentation last month with Praveen Sethupathy, a Christian geneticist. While he explored the various ways science has tried to distinguish humans from other animals, without success, I did an analysis of ways the Bible portrays our similarity and kinship with animals. We we both agreed that it is our calling to image God that sets humans apart. I blogged on the talk here, with a link to an audio recording (https://jrichardmiddleton.wordpress.com/2018/04/27/what-makes-us-human-reflections-on-genesis-and-genetics-in-west-chester-pa/).

      • Thanks for the Ridderbos reference. I’d bookmarked your “Paul on the Soul” post some time ago, but thanks for reminding me of it. You should make a list of your “greatest hits” from the blog and post it one day. (Or have a student do it for you! Perks of professorship. haha) I think I’m in the same ballpark as you in rejecting flesh and spirit as two distinct “parts” of a person. When I said that people were “mere flesh” until they are born by the Spirit, I was implying that humans are not flesh+spirit by nature, but only flesh, like the animals. I wouldn’t have thought of describing our humanness as a “complex unity.” Makes sense. Well put.

        Another reason that monism makes me uncomfortable is the question of what happens between death and the resurrection? It is easy to comprehend an intermediate state if we are composed of soul and body. The body is in the grave, while the other part — the part that presumably contains our consciousness — is “in heaven” with Jesus. But, if we conceive of human beings as a unity, exactly which aspect of that complex unity is “present with the Lord” until being reunited with the body in the resurrection? My brain hurts just thinking about it.

      • Sorry to double up. Pass along a message to Praveen for me. If he wants an illustration of the ever-changing definition of “man,” a good one is 2001: A Space Odyssey. The opening sequence is meant to illustrate Leakey’s definition of “human” as the tool-making species. An apelike creature discovers that a bone can be used as a tool to smash things, and he soon enough is smashing skulls with it. I’ll spare you my interpretation of the rest of the movie, but it is a graphic representation of the idea.

  2. If by “greatest hits” you mean which posts have got the most views, the top post would be one I wrote in June 2014 called “Does Tom Wright Believe in the Second Coming?”

    My most viewed posts are those about Tom Wright and/or eschatology. But that particular post has had over 5,000 views so far (it currently averages almost 1,400 views per year, and this year is shaping up to be no different.

    On the intermediate state, my own view is that if we die in the Lord, we go straight to the resurrection. In A New Heaven and a New Earth I addressed (in chap. 10) every NT text usually cited about the intermediate state and argued that none of them unambiguously teaches any such thing.

    One of the primary such texts, 2 Corinthians 5, speaks about being absent from the body and present with the Lord. I have come to believe that it is actually (if read in context) about being present with the Lord at the resurrection (so it is about being absent from specifically the mortal body). I argued this in a blog post, which I think is actually a bit clearer than my section on this in the book: https://jrichardmiddleton.wordpress.com/2014/11/09/what-about-the-intermediate-state-in-2-corinthians-56-8-problem-texts-for-holistic-eschatology-part-4/

    If you follow my exegesis of this passage, your head might still hurt, but for a different reason.

    • I’m not surprised Tom Wright is your top draw. NT scholars are quarterbacks; OT guys are the offensive line. “Greatest Hits” was a poor choice on my part. I was thinking of something more subjective, such as your personal Top 10, by any criteria you choose. People love lists.

      On my headache, it’s feeling a little better, thanks. My views on the image of God and biblical anthropology were fairly traditional (think Anthony Hoekema) until recently, primarily because I had no reason to re-think things that seemed, at the time, fairly straightforward. When I began to do a little research and think through the implications of an evolutionary view, I reached the same conclusion on Gen. 2.7 that you did in your essay. The only thing that bothered me was the intermediate state. It didn’t make sense, but since it is somewhat of a tangent for me at the moment, I haven’t pursued it.

      I haven’t read New Heaven and New Earth yet. I know you’re deeply disappointed in me (haha), but for some reason, that has always been my eschatological view. Even when I was “caught up” in the silliness of Hal Lindsey’s dispensationalism in the 70s-80s, I still envisioned the resurrection as an embodied existence on a renewed earth. Frankly, almost all the “theology” that I read for the first decades of my Christian life was end-times trash that contributed nothing to my spiritual growth. I burned out on the topic, but I will make an exception (eventually) for you. Your work has had the opposite effect on me.

      I thank the Lord for the gifts that he has given you, and for your own hard work and dedication in putting those gifts to use. Lord Jesus, please put this man in charge of 10 cities!

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