We were once immortal. Not that we possessed the independent or self-generated ability to live forever. Only the triune God enjoys that honor. As human creatures, we are always dependent on God—in him we live and move and have our being.
If not for his providential hand, our lives would be snuffed out in a flash. The point is that God created us dependent on him but also with the real possibility of living forever, genuinely immortal. Then sin came into the world and death entered the human experience. Physical death itself is a symptom of a more sinister, spiritual separation from God, the result of the first sin in Eden.
Roughly—and with some notable exceptions—that’s the traditional picture. Until relatively recently, it was widely affirmed by both Protestants and Catholics. But for many modern people, it is a picture that has virtually lost all credibility. Death is the stuff of life, according to the standard biological account. Human life would not be possibleWas there an original couple? Did God create them directly or did they evolve from some ancestral line? Was there an actual fall, and how should we even characterize such an event? without the death and dying of organisms. Life comes from death; the seed must perish so the oak can live. Biological death was necessary in order for humanity to evolve. Death is no foreign intruder; it was there from the beginning.
This clash of perspectives prompts our second Areopagite installment, and here is the target question: Were humans mortal before the fall? On one level, you might think it’s a simple question, but already it raises a host of additional questions. Was there an original couple? Did God create them directly or did they evolve from some ancestral line? Was there an actual fall, and how should we even characterize such an event? And so on. In the present intellectual climate, even to ask such questions is to invite ridicule or baffled shaking of heads. Oh dear, there they go again . . . Do evangelicals really believe such obsolete theological ideas? When will they realize that any Christian theology worthy of the name must be chastened by our best insights from the natural sciences? God is not only the Author of Scripture; he is also the Author of Creation. He has written “two books,” and they cannot contradict each other.
These points are well taken. Those who doggedly cling to the received tradition of Adam and Eve’s original immortality are doomed to a “cross-pressured” life, holding onto beliefs that obviously violate prevailing plausibility structures.For the notion of “cross pressures,” see Charles Taylor, A Secular Age (Cambridge: Belknap, 2007), 594-617. Nevertheless, the debate still has relevance for today; the theological meaning of death remains a salient concern for Christians who want to stand in some continuity with holy writ and catholic tradition.
To help us clarify what is at stake, we have posed the question to a group of experts:
Richard Middleton (PhD Free University Amsterdam) is professor of of Biblical Worldview and Exegesis at Northeastern Seminary, Rochester, NY. He is the author of A New Heaven and a New Earth: Reclaiming Biblical Eschatology (Baker, 2014) and The Liberating Image: The Imago Dei in Genesis 1 (Brazos, 2005). Among future projects is a book called Good and Evil in the Garden of Eden (Cascade).
Andrew McCoy (PhD University of St Andrews) is Assistant Professor of Ministry Studies and director of the Center for Ministry Studies at Hope College in Holland, MI. His most recent publication is “The Irenaean Approach to Original Sin through Christ’s Redemption,” in Finding Ourselves after Darwin: Conversations on the Image of God, Original Sin, and the Problem of Evil (Baker, forthcoming).
C. John “Jack” Collins (PhD University of Liverpool) is Professor of Old Testament at Covenant Theological Seminary, and was a Senior Research Fellow for The Creation Project. He was Old Testament Chairman for the English Standard Version of the Bible, and is author of Reading Genesis Well: Navigating History, Poetry, Science, and Truth in Genesis 1-11 (Zondervan, forthcoming), Did Adam and Eve Really Exist?: Who They Were and Why You Should Care (Crossway, 201 1), and Science and Faith: Friends or Foes? (Crossway 2003).
Todd S. Beall (PhD The Catholic University of America) is Adjunct Professor of Old Testament at Liberty University School of Divinity and The Master’s Seminary. He has taught Old Testament and Hebrew on the seminary level for over 40 years. He is the author of various books, chapters, and articles on the Old Testament, the Dead Sea Scrolls, and Creation Studies, including “Contemporary Hermeneutical Approaches to Genesis 1–11,” in Coming to Grips with Genesis (Master, 2008).
Joshua J. Van Ee (PhD University of California, San Diego) is Associate Professor of Hebrew and Old Testament at Westminster Seminary California. His most recent publication is “Wolf and Lamb as Hyperbolic Blessing: Reassessing Creational Connections in Isaiah 11:6-8,” forthcoming JBL.
Gijsbert van den Brink (PhD Utrecht University) holds a University Research Chair in Theology and Science at the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam (the Netherlands). He is also Head of Department at the Faculty of Religion and Theology and a member of the Abraham Kuyper Center at the same university. Along with his colleague Cornelis van der Kooi he wrote a one-volume introduction to Christian Dogmatics (Eerdmans, 2017).
Their perspectives are quite different, but they all take the question very seriously. And as you can see from their credentials above, it will be worth your time to eavesdrop on this lively dialogue.