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Nature, Red in Tooth & Claw, Part 1

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In this short video, you will see two lions stalking, and then one of them killing, a zebra. The two zebras are caught by surprise; but one got away unharmed. The photographer then seems to have edited the incident to show a somewhat later confrontation between one of the lions and the unharmed zebra over the downed and dying zebra. Eventually that zebra runs off when it is apparent its partner isn’t getting up. Now let’s see how your interpretation of the opening chapters of Genesis will influence your understanding of what you see in the video.

How does “Nature, red in tooth and claw,” fit into God’s plan? Tennyson wrestled with this question his 1850 poem, In Memoriam. Under the influence of geologists like Charles Lyell, there was a growing acceptance of uniformatarianism over catastrophism in Victorian England. Uniformatarianism suggested the earth’s geologic processes in the past acted with essentially the same intensity as they do in the present. Catastrophism held that the earth originated through supernatural means; while a series of catastrophic events, such as the biblical Flood, formed what geologists saw in rock formations and anthropologists found in fossils.

The acceptance of long, geologic periods of time in uniformatarianism challenged the belief originating with Bishop Ussher that the age of the earth was around 6,000 years old. See “Crumbling Pillars?” and “The Fall of the Chronology of Ussher” for more on Ussher. However, catastrophism fits with a younger view of the age of the earth. Belief in the truth of the Bible seemed to be undermined by this new geologic theory. “After the discoveries of Charles Lyell, and other geologists, discoveries which undermined the literal truth of the Bible, could one retain one’s faith in Christianity?”

A better way of stating the above dilemma would be that the discoveries of Lyell and others undermined a literal interpretation of biblical passages that had been used to support a younger age for the earth. An older earth was at odds with interpreting Genesis 1 to mean God accomplished his creative works in the space of six consecutive twenty-four hour days. A variety of approaches to interpret the creation days in Genesis 1 have been suggested, as Vern Poythress reviewed in his booklet, Christian Interpretations of Genesis 1. Some of the approaches are: the mature-creation theory, the gap theory, the intermittent-day theory, the analogical days theory and the day-age theory. See the link for a free pdf of the booklet and a description of the various approaches noted here.

Young earth creationists, like Answers in Genesis (AiG), will argue that all death, human and animal, was the result of the Fall. Writing for AiG, Simon Turpin said in Did Death of Any Kind Exist Before the Fall?, “Human physical and spiritual death, together with the death of animals, came about through the disobedience of one man.” That man, of course, was Adam. Turpin laid out biblical support for linking human and animal death as the result of the Fall by looking at nine “key passages” from Genesis 1, 2 and 3 through Revelation 21-22. Although he gave the impression that he has thoroughly researched and exegeted the issue, I have serious reservations with his discussion of the evidence and his conclusions.

For example, he gave the standard AiG argument for why the days of creation in Genesis must be understood as 24-hour days and should not be understood in any other sense. The genre of Genesis 1:1-2:3 is not poetic, according to Turpin. Genesis 1-11 is historical narrative in the same way Genesis 12-50 is: “There is no transition from non-historical to historical and it is not treated as a separate literary category from Genesis 12–50.” Additionally, “The days of Genesis 1 are six literal 24-hour days (Exodus 20:11) which occurred around 6,000–10,000 years ago.” This is the crux of the AiG argument against old earth creation and their rejection of animal death before the Fall. See “Does Anybody Really Know What Time Is?,” “What’s In A Day?” and “Genealogies In Genesis” for challenges and alternatives to an AiG position on Genesis 1 and the age of the earth.

If Genesis is interpreted through the lens of uniformitarian geology then the fossil record documents that millions of years of earth’s history are filled with death, mutations, disease, suffering, bloodshed, and violence. However, if the days of creation in Genesis 1 were only 24 hours long then there is no room for the millions of years of death, struggle, and disease to have taken place before Adam disobeyed God.

A second given reason by Turbin and AiG that Genesis 1 suggested there was no death before Adam’s Fall was “the vegetarian diet prescribed to both man and animals in Genesis 1:29-30 ruling out any carnivorous behavior before the Fall.” In his commentary on Genesis 1-4, C. John Collins pointed out that while Genesis 1:29-30 does say humans and animals were given plants to eat, “it does not say they ate nothing else.” Moreover, if we take the passage to mean a vegetarian diet for these animals, it only applies to creatures living on the land. “It says nothing about anything that lives in the water, many of which are carnivorous.”

Collins also said it was a mistake to read Genesis 2:17 as implying that physical death did not effect the creation before the Fall. He thought the focus of this death was spiritual death, addressed to Adam alone (the “you” is masculine singular); and is then appropriated by the woman in Genesis 3:2-3. “It applies to human beings and says nothing about the animals.”

From all of this we may conclude that Genesis does say that changes have come into human nature as a result of the fall—pain in childbearing, other afflictions of body and soul, death, frustration in ruling creation—but it does not follow that nonhuman nature is affected in the same way.

Turbin also cited Geerhardus Vos’s seminal book, Biblical Theology a couple of times in support of his assertions. Vos’s discussion in the passage both quotes by Turpin were taken was from was a section where Vos addressed “the principle of death symbolized by the dissolution of the body.” Vos was countering the view that human death preceded the Fall and had nothing to say about animal death. We could go on, but my intention was to illustrate how there are alternate possible interpretations of the passages cited by Turbin and other views of the six creation days of Genesis 1 that can fit with a biblical sense of the text. The AiG way to interpret Genesis 1-11 is not the only biblically legitimate way.

Ted Davis wrote a provocatively titled article for BioLogos, “Does Death Before the Fall Make God a Liar?” He addressed the same young earth creationist (YEC) and AiG claim that animal death was a direct result of the Fall. Davis reflected on a critique of a special issue of the Christian Research Journal devoted to the question, “Where Do We Come From?” The author of the AiG article, “Compromised Creation,” said she appreciated how the articles demonstrated “the impossibility of Darwinian evolution and the bankruptcy of theistic evolution.” But she found the issue dangerously compromised since many of the authors accepted an old earth. There was a general assumption of millions of years of living and dying.

There can be no argument that the fossil record is a graveyard full of evidence of disease, violence, carnivory, suffering, and death. To assume (as many authors implicitly do in this journal) that such miseries were all part of God’s “very good” creation (so named by God in Genesis 1:31) is to impugn God’s character. If God had called a world already full of bloodshed and death “very good,” then He either had a cruel sense of irony or didn’t know what He was talking about, or worse, He is a liar.

Davis pointed to Psalm 104, which praises God for the many wonders in creation; including the young lions who “roar for their prey, seeking their food from God.” There is the sea, which teams with innumerable creatures, both small and great. “These all look to you, to give them their food in due season. When you give it to them, they gather it up; when you open your hand, they are filled with good things” (Psalm 104:27-28). Davis said he doesn’t see how to reconcile this Psalm with YEC theodicy.

In A Biblical Case for an Old Earth, David Snoke said if you conceded that the Bible teaches that animals died before the Fall, many of the objections to an old earth fade away. “The whole point of an old-earth view is to say that things are as they appear, and the earth is full of fossils and fossil matter such as coral and limestone.” He thought that from a scientific standpoint, either the earth was old, or simply appeared old. However, there are theological problems in the mature creation or appearance of age view for both science and YEC/AiG.

In Redeeming Science (pp. 116ff; a pdf copy is linked here) Vern Poythress noted several different objections to the appearance of age view. First, a mature creation view implies that God has deceived us. Second, it makes scientific investigation illegitimate. Thirdly, from an AiG perspective, it would falsely imply that death preceded the Fall. Lastly, again causing problems for the YEC and AiG understanding of the Flood, it would undermine their understanding of the biblical teaching of Noah’s flood.

Dr. Snoke presented what he saw as two valid interpretive options on the age of the earth from a scientific viewpoint, meaning he accepted that scientific evidence in both would suggest an old earth. Vern Poythress then showed how a consistent mature creation view of creation could lead into both theological and scientific problems for a young earth that only give the appearance of being old.

So it seems the “nature, red in tooth and claw” illustrated in the opening video can fit within an interpretation of Genesis 1 consistent with an old earth view. Attempting to combine the origins of human and animal death in the manner done by YEC and AiG is both scientifically and theologically invalid. Look for more discussion on this issue in Part 2 of this article.