April 11, 2009
Death and Creation
Last week, a friend from Washington sent me a link to a debate between Peter Singer and Dinesh D’Souza. My friend asked me for my opinion on the debate. Oddly enough (or perhaps not), I’d already been considering related issues in pondering the Bible’s view of creation and death in contrast with the creation myth in JRR Tolkien’s Silmarillion. Tolkien gave me an idea (which is almost certainly not new) that I wanted to share.
Peter Singer almost unquestionably won the debate. He did so pretty much with his first statement, as he argued that the real purpose of their meeting was to argue the existence of God. Considering that the title of their debate (as mentioned in the wiki article on Dinesh D’Souza) was “Can there be morality without God?”, Mr. Singer appears to have changed the subject of the debate, but he did so successfully.
His main argument against the existence of the Christian God was a facet of the classical problem of suffering. He argued that the suffering of innocent animals, who are not fallen, morally responsible beings like man, particularly the evidence that this suffering has been going on as long since before the coming of man, proves that if there is a God, he/she/it cannot be a “good” being worthy of worship.
I have two ideas on how to resolve that problem. The first, which is what I was taught when I was young, is that the original creation, before the fall, had no death at all. Animals did not prey on one another, and none suffered. From Genesis, you can make a reasonable case that animals all ate plants originally:
And God said, “Behold, I have given you every plant yielding seed that is on the face of all the earth, and every tree with seed in its fruit. You shall have them for food. And to every beast of the earth and to every bird of the heavens and to everything that creeps on the earth, everything that has the breath of life, I have given every green plant for food.” And it was so. And God saw everything that he had made, and behold, it was very good. And there was evening and there was morning, the sixth day.
Genesis 1:29–31, ESV, emphasis mine
After the Flood, this changed:
And when the Lord smelled the pleasing aroma, the Lord said in his heart, “I will never again curse the ground because of man, for the intention of man’s heart is evil from his youth. Neither will I ever again strike down every living creature as I have done. While the earth remains, seedtime and harvest, cold and heat, summer and winter, day and night, shall not cease.” And God blessed Noah and his sons and said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth. The fear of you and the dread of you shall be upon every beast of the earth and upon every bird of the heavens, upon everything that creeps on the ground and all the fish of the sea. Into your hand they are delivered. Every moving thing that lives shall be food for you. And as I gave you the green plants, I give you everything.”
Genesis 8:21–9:3, ESV, emphasis mine
If this reading of the Bible is correct, animals have not always suffered. Their suffering began after man sinned, and especially after the Flood.
However, the chief thing wrong with this reading is that it doesn’t seem to match the ancient world we dig up and explore. It appears that the death and suffering and decay we see in creation has been going on for as long as life has existed. The iron hand of decay, the fact that all things wear away, the inevitable advance of entropy: all these seem to have been part of the universe since its beginning. I am an old-earth creationist: I have no problem with the universe being circa 14 billion years old. Or at least, this is the most significant problem I have with that view. What’s more, creation seems designed to function this way. If nothing ever died, we would be deluged under rats and rabbits and skin cells, etc. The world appears to be designed for death. Granted, the world could have been radically redesigned and altered by God when man sinned, but we have evidence that animals suffered and died millions of years ago (and no-one I know argues that mankind is millions of years old): and what are fossils but evidence that animals died?
Into my musings on this issue intruded Tolkien. In his universe, mankind is different and separate from all dwarves and elves by the fact that he is mortal. Elves are immortal apart from catastrophe, and both elves and dwarves reincarnate (or so there are hints). But man’s mortality is spoken of as a gift. Men alone are not bound to the world and go beyond it, to the great fear and awe of the other races. But it is men’s fear of their deaths that makes it their doom. Númenor was destroyed because men coveted the immortality of the Elves, fearing their deaths, disdaining the gift of the One.
I personally found this a very powerful idea. And a beautiful one. But I had/have a problem: I’m not sure I can square the idea with the Bible. The Bible says explicitly:
For as by a man came death, by a man has come also the resurrection of the dead. For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive. But each in his own order: Christ the firstfruits, then at his coming those who belong to Christ. Then comes the end, when he delivers the kingdom to God the Father after destroying every rule and every authority and power. For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. The last enemy to be destroyed is death.
1 Corinthians 15:20–26, ESV, emphasis mine
And the sea gave up the dead who were in it, Death and Hades gave up the dead who were in them, and they were judged, each one of them, according to what they had done. Then Death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire. This is the second death, the lake of fire.
Revelation 20:13–14, ESV, emphasis mine
Death is clearly spoken of as an enemy.
As I pondered these things, I turned to creation story in The Silmarillion: “The Music of the Ainur”:
There was Eru, the One, who in Arda is called Ilúvatar ; and he made first the Ainur, the Holy Ones, that were the offspring of his thought, and they were with him before aught else was made. And he spoke to them, propounding to them themes of music ; and they sang before him, and he was glad. But for a long while they sang only each alone, or but few together, while the rest hearkened ; for each comprehended only that part of the mind of Ilúvatar from which he came, and in the understanding of their brethren they grew but slowly. Yet ever as they listened they came to deeper understanding, and increased in unison and harmony.
And it came to pass that Ilúvatar called together all the Ainur and declared to them a mighty theme, unfolding to them things greater and more wonderful than he had yet revealed ; and the glory of its beginning and the splendour of its end amazed the Ainur, so that they bowed before Ilúvatar and were silent.
Then Ilúvatar said to them : ‘Of the theme that I have declared to you, I will now that ye make in harmony together a Great Music. And since I have kindled you with the Flame Imperishable, ye shall show form your powers in adorning this theme, each with his own thoughts and devices if he will. But I will sit and hearken, and be glad that through you great beauty has been wakened into song.’
Then the voices of the Ainur, like unto harps and lutes, and pipes and trumpets, and viols and organs, and like unto countless choirs singing with words, began to fashion the theme of Ilúvatar into a great harmony that passed beyond hearing into the depths and into the heights, and the places of the dwelling of Ilúvatar were willed to overflowing, and the music nd the echo of the music went out into the Void, and it was not void. Never since have the Ainur made any much like to this music, though it has been said that a greater still shall be made before Ilúvatar by the choirs of the Ainur and the Children of Ilúvatar after the end of days. Then the themes of Ilúvatar shall be played aright, and take Being in the moment of their utterance, for all shall then understand fully his intent in their part, and each shall know the comprehension of each, and Ilúvatar shall give to their thoughts the secret fire, being well pleased.
But now Ilúvatar sat and hearkened, and for a great while it seemed good to him, for in the music there were no flaws. but as the theme progressed, it came into the heart of Melkor to interweave matters of his own imagining that were not in accord with the theme of Ilúvatar ; for he sought therein to increase the power and glory of the part assigned to himself. To Melkor among the Ainur had been given the greatest gifts of power and knowledge, and he had a share in all the gifts of his brethren. He had gone often alone into the void places seeking the Imperishable Flame ; for desire grew hot within him to bring into Being things of his own, and it seemed to him that Ilúvatar took no thought for the Void, and he was impatient of its emptiness. yet he found not the Fire, for it is with Ilúvatar. but being alone he had begun to conceive thoughts of his own unlike those of his brethren.
Some of these thoughts he now wove into his music, and straightway discord arose about him, and many that sang nigh him grew despondent, and their thought was disturbed and their music faltered ; but some began to attune their music to his rather than to the thought which they had at first. Then the discord of Melkor spread ever wider, and the melodies which had been heard before foundered in a sea of turbulent sound. But Ilúvatar sat and hearkened until it seemed that about his throne there was a raging storm, as of dark waters that made ware one upon another in an endless wrath that would not be assuaged.
Then Ilúvatar arose, and the Ainur perceived that he smiled ; and he lifted up his left hand, and a new theme began amid the storm, like and yet unlike to the former theme, and it gathered power and had new beauty. But the discord of Melkor rose in uproar and contended with it, and again there was a war of sound more violent than before, until many of the Ainur were dismayed and sang no longer, and Melkor had the mastery. Then again Ilúvatar arose, and the Ainur perceived that his countenance was stern ; and he lifted up his right hand and behold ! a third theme grew amid the confusion, and it was unlike the others. For it seemed at first soft and sweet, a mere rippling of gentle sounds in delicate melodies ; but it could not be quenched, and it took to itself power and profundity. And it seemed at last that there were two musics progressing at one time before the seat of Ilúvatar, and they were utterly at variance. The one was deep and wide and beautiful, but slow and blended with immeasurable sorrow, from which its beauty chiefly came. The other had now achieved a unity of its own ; but it was loud, and vain, and endlessly repeated ; and it had little harmony, but rather a clamorous unison as of many trumpets braying upon a few notes. And it essayed to drown the other music by the violence of its voice, but it seemed that its most triumphant notes were taken by the other and woven into its own solemn patter. In the midst of this strife, whereat the halls of Ilúvatar shook and a tremor ran out into the silences yet unmoved, Ilúvatar arose a third time, and his face was terrible to behold. Then he raised up both his hands, and in one chord, deeper than the Abyss, higher than the Firmament, piercing as the light of the eye of Ilúvatar, the Music ceased.
Then Ilúvatar spoke, and he said : ‘Mighty are the Ainur, and mightiest among them is Melkor ; but that he may know, and all the Ainur, that I am Ilúvatar, those things that ye have sung, I will show them forth,that ye may see what ye have done. And thou, Melkor, shalt see that no theme may be played that hath not its uttermost source in me, nor can any alter the music in my despite. For he that attempteth this shall prove but mine instrument in the devising of things more wonderful, which he himself hath not imagined.’
Now to water had that Ainu whom the Elves call Ulmo turned his thought, and of all most deeply was he instructed by Ilúvatar in music.
And Ilúvatar spoke to Ulmo, and said : ‘Seest thou not how here in this little realm in the deeps of Time Melkor hath made war upon thy province? He hat bethought him of bitter cold immoderate, and yet hath not destroyed the beauty of thy fountains, nor of they clear pools. Behold the snow, and the cunning work of frost ! Melkor hath devised heats and fire without restraint, and hat not dried up thy desire nor utterly quelled the music of the sea. Behold rather the height and glory of the clouds, and the everchanging mists ; and listen to the fall of rain upon the Earth ! And in these clouds thou art drawn nearest to Manwë, thy friend, whom thou lovest.’
Then Ulmo answered : ‘truly, Water is become now fairer than my heart imagined, neither had my secret thought conceived the snowflake, nor in all my music was contained the falling of the rain.
The Silmarillion, by JRR Tolkien, pp. 15–17, 19. Emphasis mine. Sorry for such a long quote, but it’s really marvelous stuff and germane to my point.
The thought occurred to me: what if death in this world is an insertion of the enemy, in the way that Melkor wove things into the song of the Ainur that were not part of the original plan? The Bible doesn’t make any mention of the sort of “participatory” creation that Tolkien has for his own world, but it doesn’t seem beyond possibility. And what do you think the Enemy might have been doing for all those years before the coming of man? But in the same way that Melkor’s insertions could not defeat the music of God, neither does the existence of death and predators and suffering defeat the purpose of God. I, together with God, would still call creation “good”, even if wolves always ate deer. Because life goes on. The design of the universe is not defeated by death. It is not utterly unraveled: indeed, there are some poignancies that the impermanence of our lives make possible. Indeed, in a fallen world, death is a gift.
Another interesting thing that occurred to me today was the fact that the Bible seems to have two creation stories at the beginning of Genesis. The first is the creation of the world, and the second could be called the creation of man or the creation of the garden of Eden. Could it be that one reason God created the garden of Eden was that outside the Garden was suffering and death? That here, in the Garden, where God placed Adam and Even, things were as God had originally intended them? A place where no-one died? Where animals conversed with him (Eve doesn’t seem totally shocked that the serpent spoke to her). That, if our human parents had not sinned, part of their work might have been restoring the world outside the Garden? I dunno.
Thoughts, as always, are welcome.
The most serious objection I can see is that Genesis explicitly says after each day of creation that “God saw that it was good.” And at the end, when God creates human beings, He says that it is very good. As I’ve indicated before, I still find creation good, even with death and suffering. But it’s a point.
And we’re never told that any other than God had a voice in fashioning the world.
Though Paul does say:
For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us. For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God. For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of him who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to corruption and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. For we know that the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now. And not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies. For in this hope we were saved.
Romans 8:18-24, ESV, emphasis mine
I’m not 100% sure who “him” refers to in this verse: “For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of him who subjected it.” But it’s clear from this passage that the Bible agrees with the observation that creation has been subjected to futility, that it is in pain and does suffer. However, this will not go on forever. Creation itself will be freed from the futility to which it is now subjected.