When I was writing my dissertation on H. Richard Niebuhr, I was confused by his use of the terms “creation” and “fall.” At times he seemed to distinguish them as separate events, while elsewhere he seemed to run them together. My confusion was clarified when Langdon Gilkey published a book on Richard’s brother, Reinhold Niebuhr. In this book, On Niebuhr, Gilkey explains that Reinhold Niebuhr also talked as if creation and fall were historical events, even though he didn’t think they actually were.
Gilkey describes this conversation between Niebuhr and Tillich. Niebuhr had rightly accused Tillich of “ontologizing the historical” (taking creation and fall as descriptions of being rather than historical events), when Tillich turned the tables on his friend. Gilkey writes: “Tillich smiled, sighed, and looked at his watch: ‘Tell me, Reinnie, when was it, this good creation, and how long did it last? Five minutes, an hour or two, a day? When was it? And if there is no time for your good creation, then can you speak simply of a ‘story’? Do you not have to speak of a ‘broken myth’—and are you not then in some mode of ontology, of a discussion of essential nature and its corruption?’ Niebuhr knew perfectly well that he had been bested” (p. 94).
Gilkey explains that Niebuhr’s elimination of a historically good creation arises in part from his belief in evolution. He explains: “Niebuhr clearly accepts the evolutionary view of nature’s and of humanity’s past; he knows from biological and from anthropological science that there was no beginning of all things and no first human pair some six thousand years ago. But like most neo-orthodox theologians he hardly ever refers to the scientific sources of much of his own thinking” (p. 93). Later Gilkey writes, “Every important theologian in the twentieth century accepted this scientific, evolutionary understanding of the past without question, however much most of them studiously avoided referring to it” (p. 233).
This admission from a mainstream theologian should give pause to evangelical theologians. Is it possible to accept the major tenets of theistic evolution and still do justice to the biblical narrative? Specifically, how to account for human death? Is death a consequence of a cataclysmic fall, or is this part of God’s design for the world? Is death natural, or is it an evil intruder? How we answer this question goes a long way toward governing our view of Scripture (not only what it means but also what authority it carries). And if we’re honest, it must also determine how we minister to people who are dying.