Does the absence of a Fall make God responsible for human and natural evil?
Does the presence of a Fall remove the criticism that God is the author of evil?
Mark Harris’s book The Nature of Creation: Examining the Bible and Science explores these questions in a chapter entitled “Suffering and Evil.” He has argued that human fallenness is an indisputable fact, attested to in both the Old and New Testaments and in human experience, but The Fall, a definitive once-and-for-all act of the first couple, finds much less support in the canonical texts of Scripture. Many of us also struggle with the idea that the presence of a Fall preserves the goodness of God – after all God could have created humans incapable of sin. Couldn’t he?
Evolutionary creation poses a larger problem, however, because it makes natural “evil,” earthquakes, mutations, and disease, part of the good creation of Genesis 1. More importantly, it makes the human tendencies for evil – our propensity for selfishness, lust, conquest, greed, and hate – a natural part of human nature from the very beginning. An evolutionary view of the development of humans reveals that both altruism and hate developed before and alongside any human moral sense. “Such a view jeopardizes the goodness of God, for it suggests that God intended to make humans this way, with original sin and inevitable part of our evolutionary makeup.” (p. 150) This isn’t quite the same as the claim that God creates humans with the freedom to make decisions, including the decision to obey or disobey God’s commands.
Harris runs through a number of attempts that have made to develop an evolutionary theology of creation, but while they provide insights none of them are fully satisfactory. He turns instead in a different direction:
Therefore, the difficulties of developing an evolutionary theology are best solved by recourse to the theological future, which is, in any case, the approach of the New Testament. We must recognize that there is a divine work of perfection still to be finished, of which we know little and understand even less. Any adequate evolutionary theology must recognize this fact and underscore its own provisionality. And this is not a new realization: it was originally made by Irenaeus some 1800 years ago. (p. 155)
Now Harris is not claiming that Irenaeus knew anything about evolutionary biology or had any inkling that the earth is billions of years old. Rather he is pointing out that the eschatological perspective has ancient roots. It has been recognized by many that the divine plan of God involved progress from the garden to the age to come. We live in a world immersed in time and space. The humans created in God’s image were given a task, “God blessed them and said to them, “Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it.” (Gen 1:28a) John Calvin recognized this in his commentary on Genesis. It is not a new idea, driven by science. The age to come is not, and was never intended to be, a stasis in the garden or a return to the garden
Where does Irenaeus come into the picture? In Against Heresies Book 4, Ch. 38, Irenaeus (130-202 AD) addresses the question: Why was man not made perfect from the beginning?
If, however, any one say, “What then? Could not God have exhibited man as perfect from beginning?” let him know that, inasmuch as God is indeed always the same and unbegotten as respects Himself, all things are possible to Him. But created things must be inferior to Him who created them, from the very fact of their later origin; for it was not possible for things recently created to have been uncreated. But inasmuch as they are not uncreated, for this very reason do they come short of the perfect.
Because humans are created beings not uncreated (i.e. eternal) beings, we will come short of perfection. We are immature in the nature of our creation.
With God there are simultaneously exhibited power, wisdom, and goodness. His power and goodness [appear] in this, that of His own will He called into being and fashioned things having no previous existence; His wisdom [is shown] in His having made created things parts of one harmonious and consistent whole; and those things which, through His super-eminent kindness, receive growth and a long period of existence, do reflect the glory of the uncreated One, of that God who bestows what is good ungrudgingly. … Now it was necessary that man should in the first instance be created; and having been created, should receive growth; and having received growth, should be strengthened; and having been strengthened, should abound; and having abounded, should recover [from the disease of sin]; and having recovered, should be glorified; and being glorified, should see his Lord. For God is He who is yet to be seen, and the beholding of God is productive of immortality, but immortality renders one nigh unto God.
There is more in this passage from Irenaeus (equally hard to follow), and there is no need to think that Irenaeus got everything right. But here are the roots of an eschatological perspective on creation where the divine purpose for created beings always moves from immaturity to maturity, from imperfection to perfection. Atonement from sin is an important part of this, but it is not necessary to postulate a specific unique Fall from God’s plan for the world. Harris comments on this:
God’s plan was that humans would grow into maturity and perfection, as children grow into adults. But like children, Adam and Eve were easily led astray in the garden, disobeying God. For Irenaeus, this is not so much a fall as a “failure to ascend.” Through the work of Christ and the Spirit, Irenaeus believes that humans can recover from sin and grow toward perfection in God. (p. 155-156)
If we assume, with Irenaeus, that the original creation was not meant to be perfect, but to grow towards God through Christ who completes (“recapitulates”) all things in himself, then we have no need to preserve a historical Fall at all costs, nor to insist on the initial perfection of creation, in order to preserve God’s goodness. Creation will be perfect, and will reflect God’s perfect goodness, but it will be so at the end of the process not the beginning. (p. 156)
The Augustinian perspective on sin and death is not the only possible perspective. It is becoming less persuasive for many of us as we learn more about the nature of God’s creation. The eschatological perspective offers an alternative approach. (I’ll also note that John Walton offers a similar perspective in The Lost World of Adam and Eve.) This eschatological perspective doesn’t mean that we are not “fallen.” It is self-evident that we are. It does not mean that we can achieve perfection on our own. We most certainly cannot. The grace of God and the incarnation, the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus God’s Messiah, are essential parts of God’s eschatological plan. Christ died for our sins.
Because this view of the nature and plan for creation emphasizes the importance of the future – the age to come – the Bible’s eschatological texts provide a necessary framework to understand the hope in which we live. To these Harris will turn next.
Does an eschatological perspective on creation seem consistent with Scripture?
What problems might it raise? What issues need to be addressed?
If you wish to contact me directly you may do so at rjs4mail[at]att.net