the evolution of death

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.



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13 responses to “the evolution of death”

  1. George Brainard

    If, as the theistic evolutionist imply, God – or a god – created then left everything to random chance … why would he give such explicit instructions to this creation? To Adam and Eve, Abraham, Moses, Joshua and others. Their god is, in the words of J. B. Phillips, “Too small.”
    Doesn’t the theistic evolutionist have a bit of a challenge with the orderliness and predictability of the vast universe? They may deny the validity and veracity of scripture – but doesn’t that give them gnarly questions unanswered?

  2. jimmiedon

    The above provides a very good insight into Niebuhr and Tillich, and the result of evolution’s influence upon them. Add that to Social Darwinism and the Nazi concentration camps, the holocaust, and the mass exterminations of millions in the Soviet Union and in Red China as well as other places, and you have one of the horrendous ideas whose time came more powerful than all the armies of the world in the 20th century. The results were well over 100,000,000 deaths, and now we have the New Atheists trying to convert us to the closed circuit world of naturalism, using twisted principles of extrapolation in order to make the whole affair appear scientific. All I can say is well summed up in one word of disgust. Bah! If we did not have the establishment, bent on maintain control, set to maintain evolution with financial support (and it is life support), the teaching of evolution would soon be buried under an utterly overwhelming weight of evidence. Instead we see scientists who have their careers in science and academia ruined, if they step out of line in the united front of so-called scientifically proven evolution. What a proverbial waste of time, money, and effort.

  3. Jonathan Shelley


    Is it fair to assume that you are not advocating for a simple fiedistic faith, wherein we reject anything doesn’t agree with a prima facie reading of Scripture? Rather, that you are arguing that we need to incorporate scientific discoveries into, and interpret them in light of, the eternal truths that God has revealed to us? In other words, we do not approach science and Scripture with an “either/or” mentality but with the understanding that all knowledge comes from God and therefore is always complementary.

  4. Dave Conrads

    Some further questions: Could we be missing the point when we read the Scriptures through the lens of science as some “young earthers”, “theistic evolutionists”, and “atheistic evolutionists” do? Could the greater questions answered by the creation (and fall) narratives be about answering the questions of the nature of God, human nature, and about our relationship to the world…and the cause of our present state of brokenness, rather than about a scientific explanation of origins? And, finally, and perhaps more controversial, must a narrative be literally true to be true? (I can’t believe I’m sharing a Borgian thought, but I think it’s one of his worth asking.)

  5. jimmiedon

    Forty some years ago, when I was working on my M.A. in American Social & Intellectual History, I came across a real problem with the scientific method. I found out that it was ill-equipped to handle a thesis of apparently contradictory ideas, the if the hypothesis was true and the null hypothesis was also true, the method as it was then was inapplicable. Fast Forward to about 2008. I happened to mention this to the Director of Science Education for a county school system who was working on her Doctorate in Science Education, and she was dumbfounded. She asked, “How did you know this?” Like it was something that only the theoreticians and practitioners of science would know. A dumb preacher surely could not have known such things. However, having attended 10 different colleges and universities, taught in three, earned five degrees with work on number 6, along with delivering a lecture in an afternoon lecture series at an Ivy League school, I had picked up quite a bit of knowledge about the inner workings of America’s educational and scientific academia. It is not that we would want to dismiss or surrender the scientific method (Why should we? The christian faith gave birth to the method, such as it is). Most people are totally unaware of the intellectual depths of the Bible. During that period back in the late 60s, I remember thinking, “If the Bible is inspired by Omniscience, then ought to reflect a profundity of wisdom commensurate with the fact of its inspiration.” Years of research have convinced me that such is the case, and that our biggest problem in understanding and grasping such a subtle work springs from its clarity or, as the said some centuries ago, its perspicuity. Talking like that leaves most folks in the dark; they have no conception of the intellectual depth of the written word of God or how it really impacts and effects human behavior and thinking , its behavioral, cognitive, and affective impact. In the years since, I stumbled over how it works to make a believer balanced, flexible, creative, constant, and magnetic. It does such things by setting up tensions in the human mind, tensions which enable the believer to adjuxt to living situations in a manner appropriate to the circumstances without feeling like one must forsake the principles one holds.

    The nice thing about so much education is that one gets to meet so many scholars and scientists, to view all kinds of approaches to various problems and situations. A nuclear physicist once told me, “Is it not strange that all of rock out of which the bones come that are suppose to be so old are all about 10-12,000 years by radioactive dating/” Duh?

  6. mikewittmer

    The main issue that I am trying to raise is the problem of death. I am not interested in playing science against Scripture (since they are both God’s revelation they must ultimately agree) and neither do I want to defend a literal interpretation where that is not required. I do think there are theological issues with evolution, and these have not yet been satisfactorily addressed.

  7. I am more and more disturbed by the assumption of “survival of the fittest” as the mechanism for evolutionary process. The logical, though perhaps not necessary end, is “Let’s advance the evolutionary process by cleansing the gene pool…” In a materialistic secular view of life and the cosmos, such a cleansing can and has at times come to be seen as a virtue or greater good or whatever. I also see “survival of the fittest”, as the mechanism of evolution, being the Achilles heel of theistic evolution. I have not seen anyone come up with an alternate conceptual mechanism of evolution that does not involve death, and is consistent with the pre-fall view of creation in Genesis… As long as survival of the fittest is held to be the working mechanism of evolution, theistic or secular, death is not an enemy but a necessary part of a “normal” natural order. But then how can the Bible speak of death as an enemy? I have no confidence in the mental and exegetical gymnastics it would take to say death was part of a natural created order, and did not become an “enemy until after the fall. How is that consistent with the Genesis narrative?

  8. jimmiedon

    I was listening to Ken Hovind tonight on NRB, and he provided materials showing that Haeckle’s ontogeny recaps. phylogeny had been proven to be a fraud in a German Court of Law, and Haeckel more or less admitted as much. Now for a 130 years books on evolution repeat that big fraud is still being cited in text books and taught to our children as the truth. Looks like they would have the decency to remove such bare faced errors. And there is more. Like the rate of deposition of Stalactites and Stalagmites. Interestingly enough, the Creation Research Quarterly, circa. 1971 had a picture on it of a bat’s body preserved in a stalagmite which suggested that the rate was rapid. Since then various creationists have provided instances of evidence proving that deposition can be quite rapid. There is more, but my brief research into the area of evidences suggest that the case is so weak for evolution, that it requires a lot of money and brainwashing to hold it in place, that there are people who profit by this view point. And, of course, evolution reaped a real harvest in over a 100,000,000 people put to death by dictators in the 20th century who justified their atrocities on the grounds of evolutionary necessity, of getting rid of the problem of over population, of ridding us of inferior beings, ad nauseam

  9. It seems the only options are

    1) God created the world with sin already present;
    2) God created a good world, which had an historic fall; OR
    3) There’s no such thing as ‘sin’.

    The first option makes God the author of evil. The second has difficulty squaring with current genetic and archaeological evidence. The third is unthinkable.

  10. Jonathan Shelley


    So are you advocating for a “least of three evils” doctrine of Creation?

    On a slightly more serious note, I would weakly disagree that the logical implication of (1) is that God is the author of evil.

  11. Dave Conrads

    The creation and fall narratives of Genesis 2 and 3 leave many modern questions unanswered. What was the nature of things outside of the Garden? What was the influence of the serpent upon other creatures? Could there have been “corruption” of the creatures’ original state outside of the Garden? And if there could have been, then how long might have that corruption been occurring? Lots of unanswered questions…that apparently the Author didn’t think necessary to elucidate…and I’m okay with that (or had better be!).

  12. jimmiedon

    The problem is that of trying to judge a being who possesses the attributes of eternity, omniscience, omnipotence, omnipresence, transcendence, immutablity, sovereignty, holiness, invisibility, spirituality, infinity, justice, wrath, and love. From limited perspectives such judgment can never be made. Besides, when those who want to put God to the test, put Him in the dock, judge his actions, etc.,they find that when He makes His presence evident it is rather overwhelming. Before my conversion, I said how can there be a god and let little children suffer? When He showed up, I never even thought of the question. Job wanted to have a serious question with God, but when God revealed Himself it blew all of Job’s questions into a cocked hat. He couldn’t even think in such awesome presence. Our questions are rather puerile in the face of such magnificence.of Being. Alfred North Whitehead found the development or formation of science came from the medieval insistence on the rationality of God. Even faith in the possibility of science was generated prior to the development of the modern scientific theory, and it is an unconscious derivative from medieval theology (Science and the Modern World,1925,pp.17,18)

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