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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What Makes Us Human: Reflections on Genesis and Genetics in West Chester, PA

I’ve been doing quite a bit of speaking on behalf of BioLogos, a Christian organization dedicated to helping Christians and others see the hand of God in the evolutionary process.

Francis Collins

BioLogos was founded by Francis Collins, the evangelical Christian physician and geneticist, who—as head of the Human Genome Project—developed the first comprehensive analysis of the human genetic code.

Collin’s book, The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief (2006), is both a good non-technical introduction to evolution and genomic science and a testimony to his view of the harmony of science and faith.

It was the honest questions that Collins received from the public about the relationship of Christian faith and evolution that led him to found BioLogos in 2007.

Praveen Sethupathy

I’ve now done three joint talks with Praveen Sethupathy, a Christian professor of genetics at Cornell University, who did a post-doc with Francis Collins at the National Human Genome Research Institute.

Both Praveen and I are members of BioLogos Voices, a group of speakers sponsored by BioLogos, who are offering our services to Christian and secular audiences interested in thinking about the relationship of science and faith in non-polarizing ways.

Our Lecture at West Chester University

The most recent talk that Praveen and I did was in West Chester, PA on April 8, 2018. We were invited by Raymond Johnson, the pastor of The Journey Church in West Chester, to give a joint presentation in their Sunday Night Theology series, held at West Chester University.

The title of our talk, to a packed room, was “What Makes Us Human? Lessons from Genetics and Genesis.”

Praveen kicked off the evening by narrating some of his own faith journey and how he understands the intersection of his scientific profession and his Christian faith. He then discussed the various possibilities that scientists have proposed as characteristics that might distinguish humans from other animals, including anatomical, behavioral, cellular, and genetic distinctives. But none of them hold up to sustained scrutiny.

Not Biology, but the Image God

Instead, he suggested that the Bible understands human distinctiveness not in terms of any particular features of Homo sapiens, but in our calling or vocation to image God by how we live (a point on which there is nearly unanimity among contemporary biblical scholars). He introduced the topic by quoting from my own book, The Liberating Image: The Imago Dei in Genesis 1 (p. 27):

“The imago Dei designates the royal office or calling of human beings as God’s representatives and agents in the world, granted authorized power to share in God’s rule or administration of the earth’s resources and creatures.”

After discussing this “functional” human calling to image God and reveal God’s character, Praveen went on to talk about God’s delight in his creation, especially as portrayed in Psalm 104; thus our own ability to delight in God’s world may be an aspect of the image of God, a way in which humans uniquely reflect their Creator.

Along the way, Praveen addressed the paradox that ordered and purposeful outcomes often result from what we might think of as random processes. This is because randomness (such as we find in evolution) is often not purely random, but is impacted by all sorts of chemical and biological constraints that are built into nature. Thus even the supposed randomness of evolution is not inherently contrary to the notion of design in creation.

What Does the Bible Say about Human Distinctiveness?

Praveen then handed things over to me. My task was to develop the biblical materials on what it means to be human.

First, I took the audience through a tour of various Scriptures (in Genesis, the Psalms, and Job) that assumed a commonality or kinship between humans and other animals. I suggested that this commonality can prime us theologically to be open to the idea of common descent.

But the Bible also portrays humans as different from other creatures, in our calling to image God.

It is true that the Bible only rarely refers to humans as created in God’s image (there are only five or six passages that explicitly say this). Does that mean that the idea of the imago Dei is not particularly important in the biblical worldview?

To address this question, I used the following analogy:

Whereas the coherent vision of being human found in the Bible is like a powerful underground river that fertilizes much biblical theology, the explicit statements about our creation in God’s image are those places where the water bubbles to the surface, and the flow becomes visible.

I then fleshed out some of the content of the imago Dei, by examining a variety of biblical texts that articulate aspects of our calling to represent God and manifest his presence by how we live in the world.

This imaging function is clarified by how the ancients thought of images (idols) in temples dedicated to their various gods. Whereas the image/idol was understood as mediating the presence of the deity being worshiped, Scripture affirms that only humans are God’s authorized images in the cosmic temple of creation.

Humans can thus do what idols can’t. They are able to represent God on earth and to mediate God’s presence through their obedient response to God’s will in the full range of earthly life.

The Image of God and Evolution?

I concluded by speculating about how our unique calling to image God (the core of human distinctiveness) might be compatible with human evolution.

To that end, I sketched a possible scenario, wondering whether God may have entered into relationship with a group of Homo sapiens, sometime after the species had emerged and stabilized. This new relationship would have radically transformed human consciousness and thus initiated the imago Dei as the distinctive human response to God’s presence.

Of course, the truth of the Bible, and our calling to image of God, does not depend on this (or any other) imaginative scenario.

Questions, Questions, and More Questions

We then had a substantial time of discussion as people in the audience asked their probing questions and we tried to answer them as best we could.

Some of the questions had to do with scientific issues, but many had to do with the Bible and how we interpreted biblical creation accounts in relation to evolutionary science. We certainly did not get through all the questions the audience had in the time frame allotted, neither did we answer all the questions to everyone’s satisfaction.

Nevertheless, we tried to articulate our trust in the God of the Bible, who is revealed in Jesus Christ, while embodying an openness to science and the humility to acknowledge that we didn’t have all the answers.

Audio Recording of the Presentation

For those interested in the audio recording of the presentation, it is available here, either for online listening or for download.

The audio begins with an introduction by Raymond Johnson.

Praveen’s talk begins at about the 7:56 minute mark. And my talk starts at around 38:10 minutes.

The Q&A time is not part of the posted recording.

 

 

Jesus Is Risen! So What?

As we enter Holy Week, culminating in Easter this coming Sunday, BioLogos is publishing a number of short online articles about the resurrection of Jesus under the general rubric of “Resurrection: Answering the Skeptics.”

Resurrection.” Giovanni Bellini (1479)

I have contributed a couple of these articles, both of which have been published today.

Why Is the Resurrection of Jesus Important?

The first one is called “Why Is the Bodily Resurrection of Jesus Important for Christian Faith?

My approach is to view the resurrection as testimony to God’s valuation of the embodied nature of reality, which is evident in creation, the incarnation, and the new creation. In connection with the new creation, I draw on Paul’s notion of the resurrection of Jesus as the “firstfruits” of a harvest that is to come.

You can read the article here, including the discussion that ensued.

What Do We Do with the Multiple Accounts of Jesus’s Resurrection?

My second piece is called “Why Are There Multiple Accounts of Jesus’s Resurrection in the Bible?” Here I’ve tried to explain why the various accounts of the resurrection in the Gospels (which don’t quite harmonize with each other) isn’t a problem for me, but actually makes them more believable.

Facebook Live Discussion of the Resurrection

These two articles, along with others, are meant to lead up to the Facebook Live event this evening at 7:00 pm EST that BioLogos is hosting. As I explained in my blog posted last week, I will be joining three other Christians (one philosopher and two scientists) to answer questions about the significance of the resurrection.

You can join the discussion by going to the BioLogos Facebook page.

Can a Scientist Believe in the Resurrection?

In preparation for this event, you might be interested in reading some of the other BioLogos articles on the resurrection.

Yesterday BioLogos posted a two-part article called “Can a Scientist Believe in the Resurrection?”

In Part 1 four scientists responded to the following question:

As a scientist, you are trained to be skeptical about extraordinary claims—and the Resurrection is definitely an extraordinary claim. On what basis do you accept this claim as true?

In Part 2 three scientists responded to a related question:

Is belief in the Resurrection unscientific? What would you say to someone who challenges your scientific credentials because you believe that a dead man walked out of the grave?

N. T. Wright on the Resurrection

On the topic of the resurrection, I especially recommend Jim Stump’s “Still Surprised by Easter,” in which he shares what he (the senior editor at BioLogos) learned from reading N. T. Wright’s book The Resurrection of the Son of God over the Lenten season a few years ago.

I myself found Wright’s book extremely helpful when I was working on A New Heaven and a New Earth.

More on Science and the Resurrection

If you want to read a bit more, there is an excellent article on the BioLogos website called “Does Modern Science Make Miracles Impossible?” The author clearly shows that it is entirely coherent to accept that God usually works through natural processes and yet sometimes (as a sign of the coming Kingdom) brings about events that cannot be explained by natural processes.

The implication is that David Hume’s famous argument against the possibility of miracles is not really an argument, but simply a disposition.

This is precisely the thrust of an older, but illuminating article on the BioLogos website by historian Rick Kennedy called “Did David Hume ‘Banish’ Miracles?” I highly recommend this article for anyone (not just philosophers) interested in the topic.

And BioLogos just reprinted a helpful piece from the Huffinton Post called “Does the Resurrection Contradict Science?

I wish you good reading.

And I look forward to interacting with anyone interested tonight on Facebook Live.