Eden, Death, Evolution and the Fall

Many progressive, liberal Christians are perfectly contented to accept the reigning biological consensus regarding the evolutionary origins of Homo sapiens

Of course, how one reconciles theism and evolution varies widely, from intelligent design to theistic evolution, but beyond the specifics of those accounts there is a general problem in how an evolutionary account handles Eden, death and the fall. 

Specifically, an evolutionary account implies that death predates human origins. More, there wouldn't have been any Edenic situation that was free of death. Lastly, it could even be argued that death isn't a wholly evil force as the creative force of evolution requires differential reproductive survival. 

So, how can an evolutionary account of human origins make sense of death as presented in the opening chapters of Genesis?

Now, I've not done a lot of reading or research on this topic, so I'm likely reinventing the wheel or stumbling into errors by sharing random thoughts off the top of my head. But here are some highly speculative thoughts on the subject. Experimental theology follows. Reader beware.

The beginning of salvation history starts with "the fall." Critical to this moment is Adam and Eve coming to acquire the "knowledge of good and evil." In eating the fruit of this tree their "eyes are opened" and they come to experience shame. From an evolutionary perspective, many have observed that this account in Genesis can easily been viewed as the emergence of a qualitative change in human consciousness. There are gradations of consciousness, from a mouse to a dog to a chimpanzee to a human being. We can assume gradations of consciousness between us and our hominid ancestors. At some point in our evolutionary history, a critical reflective capacity was reached. This moment could even have been rapid and discontinuous, a radical qualitative break, a "phase transition" where at a certain critical threshold of increasing complexity a rapid, qualitative shift in consciousness occurred within our species. And if you don't want to reduce this to wholly naturalistic processes, you can even imagine a moment where God inserted a soul into the human creature, a clean ontological break with the past. Either way, at some point in our evolutionary history a threshold is crossed, qualitative change in human consciousness emerges, and Homo sapiens (Latin for "wise man") enters into history. 

Critical to the entrance of this consciousness, according to Genesis, is morality, the knowledge of good and evil, the capacity for great evil and heroic, sacrificial love. And with the dawning of this capacity the moral history of the cosmos begins. A new kind of relationship with the Creator emerges, a uniquely moral relationship. The Bible shares the narrative drama of this relationship. 

These observations have been made by others, how increasing capacities of consciousness have made us a uniquely moral species in contrast to other animals. Sure, maybe it's a difference of degree rather than of kind, but still, most animals are not haunted by guilt, shame, and regret. 

But what does this dawning moral sensibility have to due with death? 

What's interesting in the Genesis story is how death is linked to the knowledge of good and evil. Once their eyes are opened Adam and Eve are cursed to die. 

Read literally, death would have been introduced into history at this moment, as the consequence and curse of sin. But an evolutionary account is denied this option. So how could an evolutionary approach read the story?

Well, I think it goes back to the dawning of a particular sort of consciousness. The same capacities that make us moral creatures are the same that make us existential creatures. Also unique among animals, we know we are going to die. Death haunts us. So in a very real sense, death is "introduced" into history via consciousness. Our existential drama with death begins alongside our moral drama. There are two trees in the Garden, the Tree of Life stands next to the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. Death and sin go hand in hand. 

And that connection goes even deeper. It's not just a timing issue, that our relationship with sin and death began at the same time. Death and sin interact. As I describe in The Slavery of Death, existential anxiety undermines morality. As it says in Hebrews 2.14-15 our slavery to "the fear of death" is "the power of the devil" in our lives. As preached by the Orthodox, the curse we inherit from Adam and Eve isn't moral depravity and degeneracy. What we inherit is a death-saturated existence, an existence that makes goodness difficult. As St. Paul laments in Romans concerning his moral wretchedness, "Who will rescue me from this body that is subject to death?" 

Given this relationship, it's an easy step in an evolutionary account to view his "death-saturation" as less about the biological world than about human consciousness. That is to say, to have a moral consciousness, a human consciousness, is to have a death-saturated consciousness. Again, it's very clear in Genesis that an awareness of death and sin are wrapped up together. Package deal. 

In light of this relationship, especially how our slavery to the fear of death undermines our ability to love, salvation must be about both sin and death. Again, the Orthodox are good on this point. To state the point succinctly, sacrificial love only makes sense with a metaphysics of resurrection. Similar to the symbiotic relationship between sin and death, love and resurrection go hand in hand. 

All this is to suggest how death is experienced as both "intruder" and "enemy" in human experience. At some point in our evolutionary past both death and sin intruded upon us, and we found ourselves expelled from Edenic innocence and existence. With that expulsion a new sort of creature stepped into history, requiring a new sort of relationship with the Creator God.

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