Should we expect that most reasonable people will believe in God?

Q. Apologist and philosopher Dr. Alvin Plantinga is of the opinion that the existence of a caring God is a “properly basic notion,” that is, a notion so basic that it is not dependent on other ideas or arguments, something, he claims, that is obvious to most intelligent people. The Rev. Timothy Keller seems to agree: “I think people in our culture know unavoidably that there is a God, but they are repressing what they know.”—Timothy Keller, The Reason for God (Dutton, 2008), page 146. Do you have an opinion on this matter?

I am inclined to agree with the view of Plantinga and Keller as you describe it. Personally I think that if God did not actually exist, people would not argue about whether God existed. The subject wouldn’t come up.

The Bible teaches that people form a notion of God from creation, from conscience, and from their sense that even though they are finite, they are meant to be connected with something infinite. Appealing to biblical teaching is different from saying that belief in God is a properly basic notion, but this is a blog about the Bible, so I think it is appropriate to mention that the view you are describing seems to have biblical support. “The heavens declare the glory of God, and the sky above proclaims his handiwork.” “Since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made.” “When Gentiles, who do not have the law, do by nature things required by the law, they are a law for themselves, even though they do not have the law. They show that the requirements of the law are written on their hearts.” “God has set eternity in the human heart; yet no one can fathom what God has done from beginning to end.”

Along these lines, Hannah Whitall Smith appeals to the analogy of eagles born and raised in captivity. They have never seen flight, yet they feel a compelling urge to fly. We might say that flight is a properly basic notion for eagles, just as belief in God is a properly basic notion for people. She writes, “Like the captive-born eagle that feels within it the instinct of flight, and chafes and frets at its imprisonment, hardly knowing what it longs for, so do our souls chafe and fret, and cry for freedom. … The wings of the soul carry it up into a spiritual plane of life, into the ‘life hid with Christ in God,’ which is a life … that no cage can imprison and no shackles bind.”

How did the sun, moon, and stars move, according to ancient Hebrew cosmology?

Q. My question is about biblical cosmology, specifically about the relationship between the sun, moon, and stars and the firmament. If we assume that the firmament is a solid dome, and the Bible says the sun, moon, and stars are IN the firmament, then it seems the sun, moon, and stars are somehow embedded in the firmament. But to an ancient Hebrew looking up at the sky, it would have been obvious that the sun, moon, and stars MOVE across the sky. A rotating firmament might seem to fix that problem, except that it also would have been obvious that the sun, moon, and stars—and “wandering star” planets—move across the sky at DIFFERENT speeds. I’m trying to make this cosmology as logically coherent as possible, and this issue bugs me. One solution I have in mind is that the firmament can be defined as both the solid dome and some of the space underneath the dome; thus, the sun, moon, and stars could move in the space just below the dome—just as Genesis say birds fly across the face of the firmament. But does this solution actually accord with the Biblical Hebrew describing the cosmology?

In our book Paradigms on Pilgrimage: Creationism, Paleontology, and Biblical Interpretation, my co-author Stephen J. Godfrey and I note this same problem. This book is now available online as a blog. I will quote from the post in which we discuss this issue. After noting that the sun first appears on the fourth day of the Genesis creation account, even though there is light on the first day, and that the moon sometimes appears during the day, even though it is supposed to “rule the night,” we say:

“But these are not the only ways in which the account of the fourth day confounds our modern cosmological expectations. Perhaps even more important is the effect of a small preposition: in. Genesis tells us that God set the sun, moon and stars in the dome of the sky. We today would instead place them beyond the sky—outside our atmosphere. Even if we grasp the idea that the Genesis author is picturing a solid sky, we might still imagine these lights shining through from the back. But the account says quite clearly that they are in the dome. The particular means by which they are attached is not specified; nor is the means by which they move through the sky. But there can be no doubt about where they are, and it is not where modern cosmology would put them. Nevertheless, it is exactly where they appear to be, to the naïve observer.”

So, even though I co-authored a book that discusses Genesis cosmology, in that book itself I admitted that I did not know precisely how the ancient Hebrews understood the sun, moon, and stars to be moving in the firmament. However, since then I have come across the idea that they were understood to move on tracks on the surface of the firmament. The Bible does not say this specifically, but that explanation may be as good as any. I think that if the sun, moon, and stars had been understood to move just in front of the firmament, then the same expression would have been used for them as for the birds, on the face of the firmament, rather than in the firmament.

I hope this is helpful. You may be interested in reading the entire section of our book that is dedicated to Genesis cosmology, which starts with this post.

Were Adam and Eve historical, and if so, does this require a young earth?

Q. Do you believe in a historical Adam and Eve? If one does, do they need to believe in a young earth?

Please see this post for my thoughts on whether Adam was necessarily a historical individual. In that post I observe, among other things, that “the Hebrew word ‘adam is used in an intriguing variety of ways in the book of Genesis, where it figures prominently in the opening narratives. Sometimes it seems indeed to be the name of a single historical individual, as in this statement: ‘When Adam had lived 130 years, he had a son in his own likeness, in his own image; and he named him Seth.’ But in other contexts (in fact, in the immediately preceding statement), the term refers more generally to humanity as created in the image of God. Note how ‘adam in that statement takes both singular and plural pronouns, and embraces both male and female: ‘When God created ‘adam, he made him in the likeness of God. Male and female he created them, and he blessed them and named them ‘adam when they were created.'”

In light of such considerations, I conclude that the Genesis narrative, and other Scriptures such as Paul’s arguments in 1 Corinthians and Romans about humanity being “in” Adam—the passages I address specifically in that other post, do not “require Adam to have been a historical individual. We need to make our mind up about that question on different grounds, and I think it’s fair and reasonable to bring scientific accounts of human origins into conversation with the Bible as we do so.”

But does someone who does conclude that Adam and Eve were historical individuals also have to believe in a young earth? I’m perhaps not the best person to offer a judgment about that, so let me just say that I know some people who do consider them to have been actual individuals but who do not believe in a young earth. Rather, these people I know are intrigued by the findings of anthropological genetic research that suggest that all modern humans are descended from a single female—someone scientists refer to informally as “Eve.” This does not mean that this woman was the only female human in existence at the time when she lived; the scientific perspective would be rather that her offspring survived while the lines descended from other early women died out. But these people I know suggest that God chose this “Eve” in some way to be the first bearer of the divine image, and so she was the first human “created in the image of God.”

Apparently all modern humans are also descended from the same man, although he didn’t necessarily live at the same time as “Eve.” Rather, once again, the lines descended from other early men would have died off while his offspring survived. I have no expertise in this field and for all I know the findings may have been updated since I last heard about them, so I would encourage you to search more about this topic if you’re interested. But the bottom line for our purposes here is that while I personally don’t feel that the Bible requires us to consider Adam and Eve to have been historical individuals, even if we do, that doesn’t necessarily commit us to a young earth.

(If you are interested in how issues of biblical interpretation relate to questions of the age of the earth and of the origins of humanity, you can also have a look at another blog of mine, Paradigms on Pilgrimage: Creationism, Paleontology, and Biblical Interpretation.)


Why doesn’t God make it unambiguously clear that He exists?

Q. I have a good friend who is a non-believer. I’ve been speaking to him, on and off, for many years, but he still questions God’s existence. During a recent email exchange, here is what he wrote. How would you answer his question?

“And then I say to myself, if there is a God, why wouldn’t he make his existence clear to all mankind in the present day? … What reason could there be to not show himself to mankind now in some unambiguous way??? A way that is not subject to a few individual reporters misstating facts or creating fiction?”

Actually, according to the Bible, God already has made His existence unambiguously clear. God has done this, for one thing, by imprinting evidence of his reality and character onto his creation: “Since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that people are without excuse.” God has also made His existence clear by imprinting His moral laws on the human conscience. The Bible says, for example, that when people who do not have the law (that is, the Scriptures) “do by nature things required by the law, they are a law for themselves, even though they do not have the law. They show that the requirements of the law are written on their hearts, their consciences also bearing witness, and their thoughts sometimes accusing them and at other times even defending them.”

However, it is true that the witness of creation and conscience are not sufficient to convince a person of the existence of God if that person is relying on reason and empirical observation alone. The Bible says that “without faith it is impossible to please God, because anyone who comes to him must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who earnestly seek him.” Faith is a capacity for knowing that requires trust. (The same Greek word is actually translated both as faith and trust in English New Testaments, depending on context.) I think God wants us to come to him by faith because He doesn’t just want us to affirm mentally that He is real; He wants us to enter into a relationship of trust with him. So God requires the first step to be something that will lead in the right direction. Gaining knowledge, by itself, can lead to pride, which leads us away from God; coming to understand through trust leads us towards God.

In one episode of the television series Bones, the character of Dr. Brennan, who is a skeptic, insists, “Faith is the irrational belief in something that is logically impossible.” Actually, faith is just the opposite. It is the reasonable belief in something that is quite possibly true, but which can’t be proved  through reason and observation alone. It is reasonable to believe in God; I would argue that it’s actually more reasonable than to deny the existence of God: All of our experience tells us that things don’t come from nowhere, they come from somewhere. Then where did we and the universe we live in come from? So God’s existence is certainly possible and it’s arguably reasonable. But it can’t be demonstrated the way we would demonstrate a natural phenomenon scientifically.

Nevertheless, faith is indeed a way of knowing. How, for example, can I be sure that my mother loves me? She fed and clothed me right from the time I was a baby—but maybe she just didn’t want to go to jail for child neglect. She says that she loves me—but maybe that’s because that’s just what mothers are supposed to say. The fact can’t be demonstrated empirically. But because I know my mother personally, I know that I can trust that these things truly are signs of a genuine love.

It’s the same way with God. Once we begin to approach Him through trust, we discover more and more that this trust is warranted. In fact, the trust itself is a gift from God to us to enable us to get to know Him: “We know  that the Son of God has come and has given us understanding, so that we may know him who is true.

So the next time you speak with your friend, you might suggest to him that faith is a way of knowing that will allow him to recognize that God already has made His existence clear, but that God has done this in a way that requires people to approach him through trust. Your friend might counter that God ought to reveal Himself in a way that is accessible to reason and observation, because that is what people can be sure of. However, to claim that there is nothing that can be known certainly apart from what reason and observation can reveal is itself a faith statement. It’s like claiming that there is no light beyond the visible spectrum because we can’t see anything beyond the visible spectrum with our eyes. Logically there still could be—and with more powerfully instruments it has been show that there is—light beyond that spectrum that we simply can’t see with our eyes. Similarly, logically there could be realities in the spiritual world that reason alone could not be confident of, but which could be (and indeed are) accessible to us when we use the faculty and gift of faith that God intends to be part of the way each of us knows, and trusts, and knows.

Review of John Walton’s book The Lost World of Genesis One

A reader of another of my blogs, Paradigms on Pilgrimage: Creationism, Paleontology, and Biblical Interpretation, has asked how the interpretation offered there of the Genesis creation account compares with the one in John Walton’s book The Lost World of Genesis One. In response, I have offered a review of Walton’s book in a series of posts that begins here. I’d like to invite readers of this blog to read the review as well, since it deals with many “good questions” about the Bible.

How does Christian faith promote scientific endeavor?

Last Saturday (April 22, 2017) I participated in the March for Science. You can see in the picture above what my sign said.

Lots of people took photos of it. Several engaged me in conversation. One person looked at the sign in near disbelief and asked, “Is that all true?” “Yes,” I replied, “I support science, and I have a Ph.D. in theology.” “Well,” she responded, “it sounds like you and I could have a great philosophical discussion some day. But in the meantime, thanks for being here.” I told her I’d felt it was important for me to be there.

Our local NPR station had a reporter covering the event. When she spotted my sign, she took my picture (that’s her photo above) and interviewed me along the route. I shared the coverage on Facebook and one person commented, “You should post an article on your blog about how exactly your theology leads you to support modern science.” I thought that was a great idea. So here goes!

As George Harrison said in the movie Help!, “I don’t want to knock anyone’s religion,” but faiths such as Buddhism teach that the material world is an illusion. We need to look past it and escape from it in order to find enlightenment and truth. The Judeo-Christian world view, by contrast, is that the material creation is a genuine reality with positive spiritual import. It was created intentionally by a good God (not by mistake by a bad demigod, as the Gnostics taught) and declared to be “very good.”

In fact, the Bible holds that creation itself can speak to us about God. “The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands,” Psalm 19 says. Paul writes in Romans that “since the creation of the world, God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made.” So Christian faith gives us confidence that when we observe the world around us, in effect, we can trust our eyes—what we’re seeing is not a spiritual illusion.

Beyond this, the Judeo-Christian world view is that the created world is orderly and harmonious. It’s not hopelessly swirling about in confusion and chaos. Of course the Bible, since it comes from a pre-scientific era, doesn’t say specifically that the universe is governed by rules and laws such as the Law of Gravity or the Law of Thermodynamics. (When it comes to this view of the universe, which is no longer the state of the art but which has made indispensable contributions to our understanding, we may quote Alexander Pope’s intended epitaph for Isaac Newton: “Nature and Nature’s laws lay hid in night: God said, ‘Let Newton be!’ and all was light.”) But the Bible does portray the creation as intentionally well-organized and regular, allowing observations of phenomena to be made today that will still be valid tomorrow, and permitting conclusions drawn in one area to be applied in other areas. If all were chaos instead, we couldn’t make sense of out anything.

And ultimately I would argue that Christian faith actually encourages us to go out and explore the created world. As I told the reporter along the march, I believe that science answers questions of what, when, and how, while religion answers questions of who and why. The two are not in competition because they’re answering different questions. Science intentionally limits itself to what can be observed and measured, so it does not properly get into metaphysics. (Saying that there is nothing beyond what can be observed and measured, for example, is not a scientific statement!) Similarly, the Bible was not written to give us comprehensive information about the natural world. Instead, I believe it pushes us out into that world to find the information out for ourselves.

Let me advocate for this, in conclusion, by quoting some relevant thoughts from the book Paradigms on Pilgrimage: Creationism, Paleontology, and Biblical Interpretation, which I co-authored with my brother-in-law Stephen Godfrey, who is curator of paleontology at the Calvert Marine Museum. (We have now put this book online as a series of blog posts, followed by a question-and-answer forum.)

“It is the glory of God to conceal a matter; it is the glory of kings to search out a matter.” King Solomon, who wrote these words, was noted for his natural-scientific investigations: “He described plant life, from the cedar of Lebanon to the hyssop that grows out of walls. He also taught about animals and birds, reptiles and fish.” In these days when many of us enjoy the kind of leisure for cultural, artistic and scientific pursuits that only kings formerly enjoyed, we may paraphrase Solomon’s words in this way: “God has hidden countless fascinating and wonderful things in his creation, and he wants us to delight in discovering them.” When we do, we bring him pleasure by fulfilling his purposes. So all those who are called to scientific enterprise should pursue that calling without fear or doubt, but rather with joy and enthusiasm. There is no script that you need to follow, no predetermined conclusion that your results need to square with. If there were, God would not really have “hidden” these treasures for us to find. They’re out there – go get them!

Should we try to reason with unreasonable Christians?

Q. In conversations with the average Christian, it appears that they are quite prone to “conspiracy-theory” type reasoning and that distrust of science is fairly ubiquitous. There is an uncanny ability to “explain away” anything that challenges their views by claiming it is caused by the corrosive effects of secularism, demon activity, atheism, hedonism, the fallibility of human reasoning, the effects of the fall on rationality, the “tentative nature” of science, etc. Do you know of a good way to reason with these types, and in the end, is it even worth it?

First, I sincerely hope that what you say is not actually true of the “average Christian.”  I’d like to think that the average or typical Christian is someone who takes seriously Jesus’ admonition to love God with heart, soul, mind, and strength, and who emulates the Bereans, whom the New Testament praises for “searching the Scriptures daily to see whether these things were so.” (That is, rather than uncritically accepting dogmatic teaching.)  I see this as the norm, and feel that taking an open-minded, logical, inquisitive stance is perfectly compatible with being a person of faith.

That much said, I have to admit that over the years I’ve encountered people who’ve appealed to all of the various considerations you list to explain away beliefs different from the ones they were holding at the time.  So what’s to be done when people clearly are not open-minded, and perhaps not even rational, in the way they engage other beliefs that are nevertheless within the spectrum of Christian orthodoxy?

One question I find helpful to ask is, “What do they think is at stake in the issue?”  For example, people are sometimes encouraged to believe that if God didn’t actually create the universe in six 24-hour days about 6,000 years ago, then nothing the Bible says about anything is trustworthy.  (The old “if you can’t trust what it says on the first page, you can’t trust anything else in the book” argument.)  And I personally would be very resistant to any claim whose implications I thought were that I couldn’t trust anything in the Bible. This is because I know for a fact that I can trust everything in the Bible, so long as I understand and interpret it properly.

The key is to make sure that I’m doing that.  But this already shifts the issue from the Bible’s reliability and trustworthiness to its interpretation.  Maybe the person I’m speaking with isn’t prepared to make that shift.  Maybe they think its trustworthiness is truly at stake.  In that case, I find it helpful to suggest that there are many things that Christians of good will, equally committed to the authority of the Scriptures, can disagree about, and to demonstrate that Christians have in fact disagreed about such things over the whole course of church history.  (Long before the corrosive effects of secular humanism set in, that is.)

For example, I might observe that we can find a disagreement in the 4th century between Ambrose and Augustine as to whether the “days” in Genesis are literal 24-hour periods.  (Ambrose said they were, while Augustine maintained they weren’t.)

This will not persuade the person who believes that the truth of the entire Bible rests on one answer to this question.  But in this conversation and others, I may be giving them an island to step onto if, at some time in the future, their ship starts leaking and taking on water. This, I think, is much better than leaving them no option other than having their entire faith go down with the ship (the current dogmatic package) if it ever sinks.

And if I maintain good will (that is, if I don’t lose my cool) and approach the question humbly and open-mindedly, searching the Scriptures with them, then I’m actually demonstrating how Christians of good will, with equal commitments to the authority of the Bible, can disagree on questions like this.  That makes things a little less high-stakes.

Don’t underestimate the value that such a demonstration will have on anyone else who might be watching the two of you talk, listening to your conversation.  You will likely have an audience larger than one.  And the discussion can also help you be more “fully persuaded in your own mind.”  It never hurts for us to have our own ideas challenged and to have the occasion to ground them even more firmly on a reasonable basis, at least to our own satisfaction.

So, as I said, if your goal is to persuade on the spot, that isn’t going to happen in the face of irrationality and conspiracy theory.  But if your goal is to provide the person with information and tools that may be useful to them farther down the road, then I think you have every chance of doing that.  I suspect that many of us start out holding our beliefs more dogmatically when we first become Christians, because we know we have received a “great salvation” and we simply don’t find anything credible that we think undermines it.  But then, hopefully, we will discover how great that salvation truly is, how many different perspectives it accommodates and even requires if we are even to begin to understand everything God is and all that God has done.  And then the adventure begins.

Saints Augustine and Ambrose, detail from a tempera painting by Fra Filippo Lippi (public domain). These two great 4th-century theologians model respectful debate over biblical and theological questions. (Ambrose was Augustine's mentor and friend.)
Saints Augustine and Ambrose, detail from a tempera painting by Fra Filippo Lippi (public domain). These two great 4th-century theologians model respectful debate over biblical and theological questions. (Ambrose was Augustine’s mentor and friend.)

A Conversation with a Young-earth Creationist

Here is a second question from the reader whose first question I addressed in my last post. This one is in response to my book Paradigms on Pilgrimage: Creationism, Paleontology, and Biblical Interpretation, which I co-authored with Dr. Stephen J. Godfrey.  (The book is now available free online through the link provided.) The question has several parts, which I’ll take up separately. It has been edited for length.

• Do you believe that holding to “apparent age” (rather than real age) intimates that God is deceitful?

This question addresses the possibility that God created the world only recently, but gave it the appearance of great age.  I’ve heard this argument advanced by young-earth creationists to account for why scientific investigation in fields such as geology, astronomy, etc. concludes that the earth is billions of years old:  it  looks that way, for some reason, by God’s design.  After all, the argument continues, Adam and Eve each appeared, at the moment of their being freshly created, as if they had grown to adulthood over a period of many years.  I’ve even heard it said, in an extreme form of this argument that I recognize you are not suggesting, that God made the world look old so that those who chose not to believe the Scriptures (which are assumed to teach a literal six-day creation about 6,000 years ago) would be deceived by what their eyes and eventual scientific instruments saw, and they would suffer the ironic punishment of thinking they knew the truth while all the time they were believing a lie.

Let me state very plainly that this is not the kind of God I believe in.  As my co-author and I say in Paradigms on Pilgrimage, God has filled creation with marvelous things for us humans to explore, and we can do this without ever having to wonder whether we can really trust what our eyes are seeing and our instruments are detecting.  So yes, I would say that the “apparent age” position does imply, at least to me, that God is deceitful.

• In Christianity and the Age of the Earth, Davis A. Young asserts that “in spite of frequent interpretations of Genesis 1 that departed from the rigidly literal, the almost universal view of the Christian world until the eighteenth century was that the Earth was only a few thousand years old.” Do you think these many followers of Christ were “deceived” by Scripture into believing a young-earth view?

The reason why people universally believed in a young earth before the 18th century was that until that time, they were limited to the same observational world view and cosmology as the biblical authors.  And so it wasn’t a matter of scientific or pre-scientific investigations saying one thing and the Bible saying something else (and so “deceiving” people).

What’s far more important is that, by Young’s own account, Christian interpreters of Genesis made “frequent” departures from a “literal” view.  Young-earth creationism is inextricably linked to a literal view of Genesis.  But insisting on this view is the modern innovation.  The Christian tradition offers a rich variety of non-literal interpretations, along with evidence of literal ones.

Augustine, for example, argues in The City of God that the works of creation “are recorded to have been completed in six days (the same day being six times repeated) because six is a perfect number—not because God required a protracted time, as if He could not at once create all things . . . but because the perfection of the works was signified by the number six.”  Augustine also argues that time had to have been created simultaneously with the world whose creation is measured by time, a paradox that leads him to conclude, “What kind of days these were it is extremely difficult, or perhaps impossible for us to conceive, and how much more to say!”

So an appeal to the earlier Christian tradition does not reveal a long line of people who chose to believe in a literal reading of Genesis despite the evidence of science.  Rather, it introduces us to an ongoing conversation about that book among faithful people who held a variety of positions on how literally its details should be taken.

• Jesus, speaking of himself in the third person, said, “At the beginning the Creator ‘made them male and female.’” At the beginning—not 4.6 billion years later. Was Jesus being “deceitful”? He, the Creator, was there.

Actually, in this passage, Jesus is not appealing to his own firsthand knowledge of the events of creation, but to the Scriptural account of creation, by quoting from Genesis.  He says to the Pharisees who have come to test him on the question of divorce, “Have you not read that at the beginning the Creator ‘made them male and female’?”  The main point of this passage is to teach about the permanence of marriage in God’s design, not about the age of the earth.  Any inferences we draw about that latter question must be secondary.  And even so, we should take Jesus’ reference as applying to the beginning of the human race, the time when marriage was instituted, not to the original creation of the physical world.  So the issue of how long the world was around before humans were is not really relevant to this passage.

• I believe also that the Lord gave the Ten Commandments to Moses. The “six days” of Creation are related to sabbath observance (“the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God, on it you shall not do any work . . . for in six days the Lord made the heavens and the earth“). It is obvious that God did not intend for Jews to work for six thousand or million years and then rest for one thousand or million years. Creation chronology parallels sabbath chronology.

I think it’s more accurate to say that, at least according to the book of Exodus, sabbath chronology is intended to parallel creation chronology.  There are to be six days of work, and then a day of rest, because that’s how God did it, according to Genesis.  It is quite clear that Moses has literal days in mind for the Israelites to work and then rest.  But this is not dependent on the days of creation also being 24 hours long. The sabbath commandment echoes the phrasing of the Genesis creation account in several places, so it is clearly intending to draw an analogy there.  All we need to know is that there are six “days” of some sort in that account, followed by a “day” of rest, in order to draw an analogy to literal days in human living.  The Genesis days aren’t required to be literal days in God’s activity as well for the analogy to work.

We should also note that the sabbath commandment has a different rationale in Deuteronomy:  “Observe the Sabbath day by keeping it holy, as the Lord your God has commanded you. . . . Remember that you were slaves in Egypt and that the Lord your God brought you out of there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm.”  So the biblical grounds for “sabbath chronology” are not exclusively “creation chronology.”  The sabbath is observed for reasons that grow in variety and richness as God’s redemptive purposes continue to unfold.  By the time of the New Testament, the sabbath can even be observed by “honoring all days alike” just as much as by “considering one day more sacred than another.”

Thank you very much for your interesting questions!

Jan Brueghel the Elder, “The Creation of the World.” Brueghel portrays God as creating everything at once, as Augustine suggests God may actually have done.

Was there physical death in God’s creation before the fall of humanity?

Q. I’ve heard people claim on the basis of Paul’s statement in Romans–“sin entered the world through one man, and death through sin“–that physical death only entered the created world after the fall.  But others counter that Paul is merely referring to spiritual death, and that certainly plants and microscopic organisms had to have died before the fall. Would you say that Paul’s statement should be taken to refer to physical death?

This is another question (like this one) that is taken up at the end of the book I co-authored with Stephen J. Godfrey, Paradigms on Pilgrimage: Creationism, Paleontology, and Biblical Interpretation.  The passage I will quote from the book here is somewhat lengthy and it begins with a discussion of Genesis, so if you want to read just the part about Paul’s statements in Romans, you can start here. This is what we have to say.

Note: The format of this blog is not to use artificial chapter and verse divisions, but to reference the Scriptures instead by content and context, and by hyperlinks to the text on Bible Gateway (as above).  However, Paradigms on Pilgrimage has already been in print for ten years with chapter and verse references, so I have not changed this format below.

We may next take up the question of how death could have been active within the evolutionary process for billions of years before there were any people, if the Bible teaches that death first entered the world through the disobedience of humans. Our first response to this question must be to establish whether the Bible indeed teaches this.   When we study the Genesis account, we discover that it actually does not teach that no creature could have died, or that no creature actually did die, before the fall of humanity. It rather suggests just the opposite.

For example, at the very end of the story of creation and the fall we read, “Then the Lord God said, ‘See, the man has become like one of us, knowing good and evil; and now, lest he put forth his hand and take also of the tree of life, and eat, and live forever’ – therefore the Lord God sent him forth from the garden of Eden” (Gen. 3:22-23). If God’s concern was that the man might eat of the tree of life after the fall and live forever, and took steps to prevent this, the clear implication is that if he did not eat of the tree of life, he would not live forever. But this would have been true whether or not he had fallen. In other words, not dying is shown here to be something that does not follow directly from having been created. It requires something further: eating of the tree of life. According to this account, therefore, it appears that if the humans had not eaten of this tree, they would have died, even in an unfallen state.

The fact that the food that humans and animals were to eat is specified in Genesis 1:29-30 also implies that they were not created immortal. Why would creatures have to eat, if they could not die? The clear implication is that this food was to sustain them and keep them alive, and that they would die of starvation if they did not eat. (For that matter, do we suppose that if Adam, when innocent, had fallen forty feet out of tree and broken his neck, he would not have died?) While we have Genesis 1:29-30 in view we should also specify that the fact that humans were not permitted to eat animals does not mean that the only way an animal could have died was if a human had killed it in order to eat it.

A further consideration is that the plants that humans and animals ate died when they were uprooted and consumed. If we are going to argue that there was no death before the fall, then it cannot have been the case that any living thing ceased to live before the fall. But the Bible itself describes the opposite. It suggests that innumerable plants not only died but were “killed” by people and animals for food in the Garden of Eden. It is sometimes argued that since vegetation is “insentient,” its “death” before the fall is not really significant. But this is to introduce a definition of death as “the cessation of consciousness,” and this would actually allow a great deal of the evolutionary process to have taken place without “death.” There will be varying understandings of where on the scale of complexity we should locate the least complex “sentient” beings, but it is doubtful that all animal life should be considered sentient. Thus creationists themselves would have to allow for the death before the fall of worms and spiders and perhaps even dinosaurs if they wish to discount the death of plants before the fall.

A final consideration from the Genesis account is this: the warning that God gave to the first pair of humans about the tree of the knowledge of good and evil – “in the day that you eat of it, you shall surely die” – would have been incomprehensible and therefore useless if death were an entirely unknown thing in the pre-fall world. Here the biblical account itself therefore suggests that death was part of the human experiential knowledge base even before the fall. In other words, humans were able to understand what God meant by “death” because they had already seen other creatures die.

• • • • •

In light of all of these considerations, we must recognize that the objection we are discussing here comes much more from the book of Romans than from the book of Genesis. It is there that we find such statements, frequently quoted by creationists, as, “Sin came into the world through one man, and death came through sin, and so death spread to all” (Rom. 5:12). This would seem to imply that before the fall of man there was no death in the world. But we must pay careful attention to the kind of “death” that is actually in view in chapters 5 and 6 of Romans.

It is probably most accurate to say that it is a spiritual death (separation from relationship with God) that leads, among other things, to physical death. This, we should note, is precisely the definition of death that literalist interpreters use to explain how it was that Adam did not die physically “in the day” that he ate of the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. He died spiritually that day, they insist, and physically as an eventual result. (Otherwise, we would need to appeal to a “day-age” theory to explain Genesis 2:17!)

Recognizing that Romans 5 and 6 is speaking of a spiritual death with eventual physical consequences enables us to make the best sense of its teaching. For example, Romans 5:14 says, “Death exercised dominion from Adam to Moses, even over those whose sins were not like the transgression of Adam.” What is in view here is clearly the reign of spiritual death over those who sin, that is, over morally responsible beings – humans. This is not a discussion of the progress of physical death throughout the created world.

That spiritual death, not physical death, is in view here becomes even clearer when we recognize that in the course of this argument, Paul restates what he says in Rom. 5:12 two different ways. This first statement is, “Just as sin came into the world through one man, and death came through sin, and so death spread to all because all have sinned . . .” (Rom. 5:12). But this is later restated, “Just as one man’s trespass led to condemnation for all, so one man’s act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all” (Rom. 5:18). And then Paul expresses his meaning another way: “Just as by the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners, so by the one man’s obedience the many will be made righteous” (Rom. 5: 19). We see from these parallels that coming under the reign of death is equivalent to being condemned and to being made a sinner. The death in view, in other words, is the spiritual death of separation from God.

We find final confirmation of this understanding in the exhortation Paul gives as the argument of these chapters reaches its culmination: “Present yourselves to God as those who have been brought from death to life” (Rom. 6:13). We see here that the “death” Paul has been talking about is a state we can be in even as we are physically alive, and which we can leave without being resurrected from physical death. It is thus, once again, the spiritual death of being under the power of sin, alienated from God.

We should therefore make no more appeal to the book of Romans than to the book of Genesis to argue that physical death only entered the world after the fall of humanity. Both books describe a spiritual death from which physical death necessarily resulted, but neither thereby excludes there having been physical death beforehand, from other causes.

The entire text of Paradigms on Pilgrimage is now available free online.

Does Paul’s argument that we are “in Adam” prove that Adam was a real historical individual?

Q. Tim Keller makes the argument that when Paul says we are “in Christ” or “in Adam,” he is talking about being in federation or covenant with them, meaning that their actions are essentially attributed to us. He then asks how we could be in federation with someone who never existed, and he concludes that Adam and Eve must have been real historical figures.  What do you think of this?

Let me say first that I have tremendous respect for Tim Keller as biblical interpreter, teacher, and pastor, so I hope that nothing I write here will be taken to disparage his excellent ministry in any way.

Personally, however, I do not believe it is necessary to conclude from Paul’s arguments in 1 Corinthians (“as in Adam all die, so in Christ will all be made alive”) and Romans (“as through the disobedience of the one man the many were made sinners, so also through the obedience of the one man the many will be made righteous”) that the human race must have begun with a single, directly created individual named Adam.  And I believe I can say this on biblical grounds.

It could well be argued that in 1 Corinthians and Romans, Paul is indeed envisioning Adam as a specific historical individual.  I believe that to understand the Bible’s meaning, we must carefully consider the immediate context first, and the larger canonical context only second.  But once we do place Paul’s comments about Adam and Christ within the framework of the entire Scriptures, I think we can justifiably understand the phrase “in Adam” to mean “member of the human race,” rather than limiting it to “descendant of this named individual.”

This is because the Hebrew word ‘adam is used in an intriguing variety of ways in the book of Genesis, where it figures prominently in the opening narratives.  Sometimes it seems indeed to be the name of a single historical individual, as in this statement:  “When Adam had lived 130 years, he had a son in his own likeness, in his own image; and he named him Seth.”  But in other contexts (in fact, in the immediately preceding statement), the term refers more generally to humanity as created in the image of God.  Note how ‘adam in this case takes both singular and plural pronouns, and embraces both male and female:

“When God created ‘adam, he made him in the likeness of God. Male and female he created them, and he blessed them and named them ‘adam when they were created.”

Elsewhere in the book of Genesis, the term ‘adam refers to the growing human race.  The statement translated in the NIV as “when human beings began to increase in number on the earth” is more literally in Hebrew “when the ‘adam began to be numerous upon the face of the ground.”

So in light of the use of the term in the book of Genesis, I understand ‘adam to mean essentially the human race, at whatever stage of its expansion may be in view.  By putting Paul’s comments in 1 Corinthians and Romans in conversation with the Genesis narratives, I understand his phrase “in Adam” to mean being a member of the human race.

I feel that I can do this fairly because I don’t think Paul’s argument depends on Adam being an individual who performed certain actions that are then attributed to us.  At least as I understand the way covenants work in the Bible, if A has a covenant with B, and C is “in” B (in covenant terms), then all of the rights, privileges, and responsibilities that B has with respect to A also extend to C.  But it is not considered that C has personally done for A everything that B has.

For example, David took care of Mephibosheth because he was the son of Jonathan, with whom David had a covenant of friendship, protection, and provision that extended to all of their descendants.  But it was not considered that Mephibosheth had personally performed all of the acts of friendship and kindness for David that Jonathan himself had.  Mephibosheth was rather the extended beneficiary of David’s response to those actions.

In the same way, as members of the human race, we are alienated from God because of the disobedience of our race.  Mercifully, I am reconciled to God through the work of Jesus Christ, the Son of God, if I join through faith in his covenant relationship with the Father.  But even then it is not considered that I have personally lived a sinless life and died on a cross for the sins of the world.  Jesus alone did those things.  Rather, I am included in the rights, privileges, and responsibilities that come with my covenant identification with Jesus, which include both forgiveness of sin and reconciliation to God, and a duty to offer the same kind of loving obedience that Jesus did.

So, in short, I do not believe that Paul’s arguments in 1 Corinthians and Romans require Adam to have been a historical individual.  We need to make our mind up about that question on different grounds, and I think it’s fair and reasonable to bring scientific accounts of human origins into conversation with the Bible as we do so.  As I’ve tried to explain here, I think the language of the Bible can accommodate this.