Friday, July 20, 2007

The Argument from a Cursed Nature

“Man…trusted God was love indeed
And love Creation’s final law –
Tho’ Nature, red in tooth and claw
With ravine, shrek’d against his creed/”
Tennyson, In Memoriam

Tennyson nailed it. We trust that God is love. But we also believe that God is the creator of the nature, and nature simply does not seem to point to a God of love. Parasites, viruses, bacteria, diseases and cancer kill millions and torment millions more, humans and animals alike. Earthquakes, hurricanes, tsunamis, mudslides and volcanoes do the same. And the animal kingdom is, as Tennyson said, red in tooth in claw. (So is the human kingdom for that matter). The creation looks almost as much like it was created by a cosmic predator (I Pet 5:8) as it does like it was created by an all loving, peaceful, benevolent Creator. There seems to be a “Lucifer Principle” at work in the world, as Howard Bloom noted. “Nature does not abhor evil,” he says. “[S]he embraces it.” (The Lucifer Principle).

In my view, creation looks like it has been influenced by a cosmic predator because for aeons it has been influenced by a cosmic predator. It looks like a war zone because it is a war zone. Throughout its long history the world has reflected both the beauty of an all-good Creator as well as an exceedingly evil cosmic destroyer. I’m calling this the S.I.N. hypothesis (Satan-in-Nature hypothesis).

I’ve previous offered four arguments supporting this thesis. I now offer a fifth. I might call this The Argument from a Cursed Nature.

Genesis 3 gives us an account of the “fall” (or better, the “rebellion”) of humans. In my view, insufficient attention has been paid to how this passage describes nature being affected by this rebellion. Between verses 14 and 19 we learn that because of the fall….

* there will be hostility between snakes and people (vs. 15)
* women will experience pain in child birth (vs. 16)
* the earth will be stubborn in yielding vegetation (vss. 17 & 19)
* vegetation will now contain thorns and thistles (vs. 18)
* humans will die (vs. 19).

There is, of course, an age-long debate over how literal or figurative we should interpret this passage. I’ll return to this at the end of my discussion, but we need not concern ourselves with this now. However one interprets this passage, it clearly teaches that nature has fundamentally changed as a result of the human rebellion. The world we now live in is cursed. This means that the laws of nature that have naturally brought about hostile snakes, pain in childbirth, hard-to-till soil, thorns and thistles and death are not altogether “natural.” They do not conform to God’s creational ideal. They rather reflect a nature that has been cursed.

Something similar is arguably entailed by Jesus’ rebuking of the storm (Mk 4:36-39). As a number of scholars have argued (see my God at War, ch.7), Jesus is here treating the storm as something demonic. The narrative is a reenactment of Yahweh’s battles with the raging seas in the Old Testament (see my earlier blog on “God’s Creational Battles”). This suggests that Jesus is carrying on Yahweh’s age-long battle for creation, which in turn suggests there are demonic forces at work in creation, as we presently find it, that God must battle against.

Jesus’ cursing of the fig tree (when it wasn’t even the season for figs!) also seems to point to the demonically cursed nature of the present creation (Mk 11:12-14). In the apocalyptic worldview of Jesus’ day, barren fig trees were considered cursed by Satan. As NT Wright and many scholars have argued (see my God at War, ch.7), this suggests that Jesus cursed the fig tree as an act of “reversing the curse.” In God’s original creational design, trees would always produce fruit. As Origen, Tatian, Athenagorus and other early church theologians argued, all barrenness, droughts, famines and other “natural” disasters are the effects of demonic powers at work in the world.

Paul also expresses the view of creation as cursed when he says that “ the creation was subjected to frustration” and that “the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time” (Rom. 8:20-22). Whatever else Paul intends by saying creation is subject to “frustration” or “futility” (mataiotais), it certainly includes that fact that everything dies. Yet, death is as natural as anything can be, according to the laws of nature as they presently operate. In fact, the law of entropy (2nd law of thermodynamics) is one of the most fundamental laws of physics. Yet, if Paul (and Genesis) is correct, this law does not reflect the Creator’s creational ideal. According to the author of Hebrews, it rather reflects the anti-creational goals of Satan. Christ came to “break the power of him who holds the power of death – that is, the devil” (Heb. 2:14). Put all this together, and it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that the creation has been subjected to the lord of death, Satan, leading to decay and destruction.

Now, this raises two interesting questions.

First, both in Genesis 3 and in Romans 8 it is God, not Satan, who cursed the earth and subjected creation to frustration. Does this not make God responsible for the sorry state of the present creation and thus undermine the S.I.N. hypothesis as ahelp in explaining natural evil? I don’t see that it does.

Throughout the Old Testament God brought judgment on Israel for its disobedience by simply allowing hostile neighboring nations to do what they wanted to do. For example, in Isaiah 10 God refers to Assyria as his disciplining rod as he leads the Assyrians to raid Israel. Yet, he then turns around and punishes the Assyrians for being the kind of nation who would do such things and for going beyond what Yahweh had intended (Isa 10: 5-7).

So too, I suggest we envision God as cursing creation by allowing Satan to do what he wants to do – namely, curse creation. Had Adam and Eve remained obedient to God, this hostile cosmic power would have been kept at bay. But once the primordial couple allowed themselves to be co-opted by God’s archenemy, they opened the floodgates for Satan and his minions to enter into the realm that humans were supposed to have dominion over. The war that had already been going on “in the heavenlies” was now invited down to earth.

This doesn’t make God responsible for the corruption of nature. The fault lies on Adam and Eve and on Satan and other cosmic powers for freely choosing to go against the will and designs of the Creator. God simply set up the laws that stipulate that disobedience has disastrous consequences.

The second question that confronts us is how we are to reconcile the fact that Genesis 3 locates the origin of the curse with human rebellion with the evidence that the creation had been permeated with violence and suffering for millions of years before humans ever came on the scene.

For young earth creationists, of course, this is no problem. These folks interpret Genesis 1 very literally and thus hold that all forms of life were created roughly contemporary with humans. They reject (or reinterpret) the evidence that the earth is 4.6 billion years old and that life has been brewing and evolving on this planet for almost a billion of them. This is a possible solution to our question, but its hard to take too seriously a view that 99.9% of scientists in the field think is absurd. I’ve read (but not thoroughly studied) on both sides of the debate, and I have to say I side strongly with the scientific consensus on this one.

So, how do we reconcile the Bible with the geological and paleontological evidence of a violent pre-humanoid world? As I noted in a previous blog, I used to account for this with a version of the gap theory (see my God at War and Satan and the Problem of Evil). I still think this perspective is exegetically compelling. The trouble is, there’s no solid scientific evidence for the sort of global judgment the gap theory postulates. So, I’ve decided to go back to the drawing board on this one. I see several possible solutions, but at present none stands out as being preferable to the others. They are all plagued with difficulties.

Still, so far as I can see, the only thing that hangs in the balance on this issue is the question of how literally or figuratively we should interpret Genesis 1-3. As I noted above, this is an issue that has been around for aeons, and it's one that all perspectives have to address. So I don’t see that my S.I.N. hypothesis is particularly threatened by this presently unresolved problem.

There’s (at least) two more arguments to go, so stay tuned.