“Therefore, just as through one man
sin entered into the world,
and death through sin,
and so death spread to all men,
because all sinned.” —Romans 5:12
“For the wages of sin
is death….” —Romans 6:23
In this article we are going to consider two lines of reasoning that act as challenges to the cosmic conflict motif. One has to do with how we engage our theology with certain scientific points of data that would seem to contradict some biblical notions that connect death to sin, while the second line of reasoning has to do with certain philosophical challenges.
As the passages of Scripture noted above would indicate, “sin” is the cause of death so it is not a coincidence that this has been the dominant historic construct of Judeo/Christian theology. As we all know, death can come from a number of sources including, old age, violence, accident, and the many events of nature—tornadoes, hurricanes, earthquakes, tsunamis, floods, exposure to temperature extremes, and disease among others.
In a moral universe, it is one thing to accept death as a result of moral failure, where, for example, one becomes the victim of violence—for we have the capacity to logically explain it. We know instinctively that moral failure can result in death. But it is significantly more difficult to account for death at the hands of God’s natural order. Evangelical theologian, Norman Geisler, refers to this as “physical evil”(1). By this he is referring to the many events of the natural world that are destructive to life.
Christian theology has for a long time viewed God as a being of order who created an orderly universe. Meanwhile the seeming disorder found on earth is often attributed to the mar of sin (2). Because we correlate these disordering events to sin and resulting “death,” it is not uncommon to limit these negative features to a sinful planet earth. Yet if we narrow our focus specifically to deaths connected to events of the “natural order” we have the laboratory of cosmology to evaluate this way of thinking. This is where we begin running into problems for cosmology has established quite clearly that the natural order as we find it here on earth is in many ways similar to that which is found in the far reaches of the universe. Additionally, the laws of physics here on earth are the very same laws that govern the entire observable universe. This raises fundamental questions about our capacity for linking death and sin to features of the natural order here on earth.
First of all, if the definition of death is expanded outside the framework of biology, and we think of it simply as the cessation of a natural process, then it is clear that death is a normal constituent of the universe. We find, for example, that stars have a cycle that runs from birth to death, and cosmologists are now regularly cataloguing these deaths in supernova explosions that are observed throughout the universe. We can be certain that any of these supernova events will have an extremely adverse impact upon any planetary systems that may surround it, creating a lot of collateral damage. Add to this the recent observation of a star that is currently being swallowed up by a super-massive black hole, and we quickly realize that the processes of the natural order involving matter and energy can be a very brutal place for anything that is in the wrong place at the wrong time, regardless of location in the universe (3).
Coming back to earth for a moment, there are many natural events we can experience that disrupt life and these include violent storms of all type, volcanic activity and seismic activity—these among a number of others hazards. So we ask the question, “Are these natural events a function of sin?” We have often suspected that they were; yet we now know that these events are not unique to earth. When we observe other planetary systems and/or their satellites we often find evidence of volcanic and seismic activity, of vast and fierce storms that are in fact much more severe than anything we experience on earth.
Another source of danger to earthlings are cosmic objects such as asteroids and comets. There is evidence that earth has been the recipient of such objects on a number of occasions creating widespread devastation to life. So once again the question arises as to whether such events are unique to earth, arising from sin?
The answer, based upon what is known about the laws of gravity, is that there is no reason not to anticipate occasion terrestrial encounters with these heavenly objects throughout the far reaches of the universe. In fact, we know that these types of events occur elsewhere. Not only do we observe the evidence left behind in the form of cratering on other planetary systems and/or their satellites, but also one of these events was actually observed in real time in the recent past when comet Shoemaker-Levy 9 collided with Jupiter in July of 1994. This was the first direct observation of an extraterrestrial object colliding with a planet in our solar system (4).
Now add to this the fact that galaxies sometimes collide with each other, creating the potential of a lot of disruption, not only to star and terrestrial systems but also to any life that may exist near those events (5).
All of this, of course, underscores that natural processes occurring on earth are not hazards unique to earth, and therefore cannot be tied to sin. The brutality of nature to biological processes appears at this juncture to be universal. This forces us to grapple with common assumptions that the natural order has been corrupted by the taint of sin giving it the capacity to neutralize life, because if this were the case we should expect the natural order to be observed as differentiated in other parts of the universe from that of sinful earth, yet we do not.
The following points then are some of the issues raised by these scientific observations.
- The seeming universal hazard posed by the natural order tends to compromise any idea that would attribute its negative aspects to the fall.
- It calls into question the capacity of material beings to have ever been free of death due to unfortunate encounters with the natural order, which has interesting parallels to the evidence of the fossil record.
- We are presented with a paradox of reconciling a loving God who would create sentient beings to experience loss, sorrow, and death due to unfortunate encounters with the natural order, and this, seemingly irrespective of sin.
It is some of these points that have led a number of Adventists to question the viability of the cosmic conflict theme. The seeming universal pervasiveness of how the natural order operates and its risks to biology raises serious questions about the correlation between sin and death. Perhaps all of this is explainable, but at this juncture it does not seem to be obvious.
So, this brings us to a crossroads of sorts regarding the cosmic conflict motif, at least as currently understood by most people. This crossroad can be characterized by the several different paths that can be pursued—we can commit to superstition and dismiss out-of-hand all data that runs against this master narrative; we can conclude that the data overturns the narrative and move on; or we can continue searching for ways to integrate the data with an otherwise seemingly useful narrative. But at the very least some of these scientific realities should give us pause to perhaps reexamine some of our operating assumptions.
The typical Adventist response to this whole line of discussion would likely be a degree of discomfort, yet these sorts of issues do present themselves to our operating paradigm and therefore do seem to be legitimate points of reflection. While we desire definitive answers, the reality is that they elude us. At this time, there do not seem to be adequate responses for some of these issues and we are forced to live with ambiguity.
In the face of some of these problems it should not be difficult to understand why some choose the path of Charles Templeton (6). Certainly the seemingly ubiquitous nature of risks to biological processes posed by the natural order, and the ongoing drumbeat of tragedy complicates any response.
However, when we consider the chain of seemingly improbable sequences necessary in order for us to be here, there is room for faith. Starting from the Big Bang and working our way forward to the point that we have a world that has evolved into a habitable spot in the universe is amazing enough. But add to that the whole line of improbabilities necessary in order for any of us to be reading this article—it calls for wonderment.
Can we attribute this all to a loving supernatural intelligence? The cosmic conflict theme attempts to answer this in the affirmative, but we now must recognize that this approach comes with its own set of problems.
Unfortunately, this series winds down without satisfying solutions for some the darker aspects of ontological reality. Yet, as beings born to hope and love and with an unquenchable need for meaning in life, we must stay engaged. To do so is an acknowledgement that we choose to rise above superstition and remain connected to reality to the extent possible, and so the quest goes on.
—Jan M. Long, J.D., M.H.A., works for the County of Riverside, California.
1. See Norman L. Geisler, Baker Encyclopedia of Christian Apologetics (1999), p. 222, where his use of the term “physical evil” is also sometimes known as “natural evil.” In discussing this, Geisler has in mind natural disasters of all kind—earthquakes, tornadoes, hurricanes, etc. that Christians assume came on the scene after the fall.
2. From the perspective of physics, events of the natural order that produce disorder from the human frame of reference, paradoxically have an underlying order, with the capacity to be explained in rational terms. An asteroid striking the earth can be explained rationally and thus there is an order about it, but the event itself can create a lot of chaos and disorder in terms of disruption to life.
5. See for example, http://www.haydenplanetarium.org/resources/ava/galaxies/G0601andmilwy; see also http://blogs.villagevoice.com/runninscared/2011/08/collision_of_ga.php; see also http://cas.sdss.org/dr3/en/proj/basic/galaxies/collisions.asp
6. He was mentioned in the previous installment.
Read the other two installments in this series:
This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at http://spectrummagazine.org/node/3478