Ask GOE: Are death, suffering, pain and disease ‘very good’?

Does accepting evolution mean death is "very good"? (Photo by Tomas Castelazo, via Wikimedia Commons.)

As my regular readers are no doubt aware, I reject the idea that physical death and pain were impossible in God’s original created order, and arose only as part of the curse that followed the fall of man. And, I reject not only the idea itself, but also the assertion that it’s what the Bible teaches.

Of course, I think the reason the theory of physical death being the result of the fall is so popular within evangelicalism is not because the Bible clearly teaches it; it doesn’t. It’s popular because it provides an easy answer to a very difficult question: the problem of evil.

“Why is there evil in the world, if God is all-powerful and all-knowing and all-good?” “Hey, it’s not God’s fault! God made everything good, and we screwed it up. So blame Adam and Eve!” Badda bing, badda boom. No more thinking required.

My view of scripture doesn’t give me this easy out; nor does the preponderance of evidence that our physical bodies are the product of a long process of biological evolution and that the world is much older than what we might guess by adding up Old Testament genealogies. Which means I must accept that pain, suffering and physical death were part of God’s original plans for this universe. And I do.

How I make sense of that is something I get asked frequently on GOE’s Facebook page and the lively Disqus threads that often follow the posts on this website. One commenter, Rachel, asked me such a question just this morning, and I thought my answer might be of interest to some readers. Here’s what Rachel asked, followed by my comments:

Was suffering always a reality? Things like cancer, gangrene, and meningitis? Certainly they were not ‘very good’…

No, they are not very good, I agree with you. Let me start by saying I think it’s interesting to note that, in Genesis 1, God does not call everything “very good.” We can often forget that, but it’s true. Instead, he only calls what he made “very good.”

Now, I affirm that God is the creator of all, and that he made everything that has been made, as scripture teaches consistently throughout both Testaments. However, the question is, is it possible that God has allowed “not good” things to exist in this universe he has made, in order to facilitate the greatest possible overall “good”? And I say, not only is it possible, but it’s the explanation that makes the most sense of both scripture and observed and experienced reality.

To give a less polarizing example, let’s consider darkness. Darkness is a natural consequence of light. The one could not exist, or at the very least would make no sense, without the other. And we see, even in scripture, that darkness has existed since the beginning: “Now the earth was formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters” (Genesis 1:2).

Light isn’t mentioned until verse 3, and you’ll notice that, in verse 4, God separates the light from darkness, but it is only the light that he calls “good.” Therefore, it would seem that darkness is “not good,” but that God deemed it a necessary evil in order for the goodness of the light to exist and have its meaning.

Scripture is less clear about the origins and purpose of biological death and physical suffering existing in the world, and hence, theologians and philosophers have grappled with the problem of evil for thousands of years. I don’t have the answer for you. But, based on the simple example above, I would submit that, maybe, evil is a natural and necessary consequence of goodness, and death is a natural and necessary consequence of life — at least as far as the created order is currently established.

As Christians, we have two great hopes: One, that God himself is not disconnected from our suffering, but rather that he willfully chose to leave his place of glory and take the form of a man, walking among us and ultimately suffering beside us as no one had ever suffered before. He does not always explain our pain, but we Christians believe in a God whom we know beyond any doubt does understand it and can empathize with us.

And this is where we find our second great hope: That through the completed work of Christ on the cross and faith in his sacrifice, we will one day behold a new order, in which “there will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away” (Revelation 21:4). And we know we are not wrong to place our trust in this promise, because God showed he is capable of delivering on it by raising Christ from the dead as the “firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep.”

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Tyler Francke

  • Will

    Consider that personal identity, like the concept of wealth or any computer file (which can be re-manifest from gold bars to cash or from one device to another, respectively), is multirealizable. In other words, there is no “ghost in the machine” and in this life one is fully manifest through the physical body (all the way down to proteins in the brain and the whole bit), but even so, God can transfer you to some other medium (which only he can observe or perfectly explain) at the moment of physical death.

    The consequence of this (which appears to be the only argument for an afterlife that reconciles with science, as a homunculus most certainly doesn’t) would be that the “new” order is already established. We just have to cross the bridge of physical death in order to reach it.

  • Jim Cole

    Great points, Tyler. I agree that the Bible does not support the idea of human sin causing all evil. Some have proposed that an “angelic fall” (ie, Satan’s fall) occurred much earlier. The darkness reference may be related, but although he must have fallen before humans, it’s not really specified when. There are a number of hints in Scripture of creation having been less than perfect before the fall. To me, the description of “very good” pictures God’s activities to restore a broken creation, and the language seems to support that other activity (such as Satan’s) besides His might have been at work. So it’s not that He created evil per se, but that He’s redeeming creation from it, and in the process using it for His purposes. Kinda like evolution uses the unfortunate existence of death and disease, to bring about increasingly more complex life. 🙂

    • Hey Jim! Great thoughts — thanks for sharing! I love the parallel between God redeeming creation from evil and evolution bringing new life and complexity from death and disease and destruction. It’s an analogy I’ye made before as well. I agree with most of what you say here, but I must admit it’s a bit messy theologically. Even with the points I made: If God didn’t “make” evil, but only allows it to exist, then where did evil come from?

      I know some Christians have been persuaded to the idea that Genesis 1 describes creation ex materia (from pre-existing material) rather than creation ex nihilo (out of nothing). I think such a view would go part of the way toward answering the question. It still doesn’t explain where evil comes from, but it does explain how it could exist without being a product of God or man. Your idea about the “angelic fall” could help as well, but there’s just so little information about it in scripture that I’m reluctant to speculate.

  • Mark

    It’s popular because it provides an easy answer to a very difficult question: the problem of evil.

    I would go one step further and say that evolution does not create the problem of God being logically culpable for evil, it just re-frames it. All Christians–whether they be evolutionary or young earth creationists–have to deal with the problem of believing in a loving, sovereign, all knowing God and a world that is corrupted by evil.

    A historical understanding of the fall doesn’t eliminate the problem. Is an all-powerful God any less culpable creating people knowing that they would reject him and corrupt His creation? After all, couldn’t God have created Adam and Eve in such a way that they could have complete freedom and freely choose Him? We need only look at heaven to see an example of a world where people have complete freedom to accept God and do so. If we affirm God’s sovereignty, then we believe He could have just created that from the beginning– there would be no fall and no need for a redeemer, just creatures existing in free and perfect relationship with their Creator. But God didn’t do this. And how this reality meshes with the revealed character of God is a mystery that does not get any more understandable by taking a historical view of the first few chapters of Genesis.

    Both the YEC and EC views show how God uses a corrupt creation and corrupt creatures to bring about the redemption of both. (See 2 Corinthians 5:11-21.) I would simply argue that an EC understanding, because it better reflects the complete revelation of God, provides us with the better framework to grapple with these issues.

    • Very well said, thank you! I completely agree: The problem of evil is a problem for all Christians, not just those who don’t read Genesis 1-3 literally.

  • PNG
  • Sam Haylor

    And I reject your rejection! 🙂

    The Bible is actually clear and straightforward about death being the consequence of sin. Your rejection of what the Bible makes plain is due to the necessity of death in the theory of evolution. The Bible never, ever suggests that physical death occurred before Adam sinned.

    More specifically, physical death as a consequence of sin lies at the very heart of the Gospel. The physical death of Jesus Christ was necessary because of our sin. This is the theme that stretches all the way from Genesis 3:15 to Revelation 13:8 and is clearly understood in passages such as Hebrews 9:22, 2 Cor. 5:14-22, 1 Cor. 15:3, 1 Pet. 2:24, just to list a few.

    In other words, Christ’s sacrifice on the cross is substitutionary because it perfectly met the demand of God’s wrath. His physical death paid the wages of our sins. It would be needless of Him to die physically if physical death was not the wages of sin (Rom. 6:23). Christ did not die spiritually and therefore could not have paid the wages of our sin if those wages were only spiritual death.

    • The Bible is actually clear and straightforward about death being the consequence of sin.

      No it isn’t. (See? I can assert things too!) Yes, Romans 5:12 says death came into the world through sin, and Romans 6:23 says the wages of sin is death. But what death means in these passages is not as clear and straightforward as you claim, since Paul, more than once in that same book, describes himself as having been dead before he knew Christ. In fact, in many, perhaps most, of Paul’s letters, he makes reference to death in such a way that he must mean spiritual death, since he is talking about either himself, or other people that are clearly alive, physically.

      The Bible never, ever suggests that physical death occurred before Adam sinned.

      Yes it does. The existence of the tree of life, God’s command to be “fruitful and multiply” on an earth that has finite space and resources, the fact that God’s warning about Adam dying in Genesis 2:17 needed no further explanation of what death is, the fact that Adam and Eve did not physically die the day they ate of the fruit, the fact that Adam named his wife “mother of all the living” immediately after she had supposedly just helped corrupt the entire universe with death and God’s offering of “green” (i.e., alive) plants as food all seem to suggest quite strongly that physical death was part of the original created order prior to the fall of man.

      Similar to your assertion, as you and I have discussed before, the Bible also never says that human physical death was impossible before the fall (in fact, as I point out above, it seems to indicate quite the opposite), nor does it ever say that animal death is a result of human sin. Because we’ve talked about this before, I know you see this as an “argument from silence,” but I don’t think that argument applies where the silence in question is so inexplicably conspicuous. If the curse in Genesis 3 is so specific that it mentions thistles and thorns, then it seems it should also mention the advent of so cosmic a change as animals suddenly becoming capable of dying. If Adam is solely responsible for humans being capable of death, then that fact should be referenced repeatedly throughout scripture, especially in places where the existence of death is explicitly lamented, like in Ecclesiastes.

      More specifically, physical death as a consequence of sin lies at the very heart of the Gospel. The physical death of Jesus Christ was necessary because of our sin. This is the theme that stretches all the way from Genesis 3:15 to Revelation 13:8 and is clearly understood in passages such as Hebrews 9:22, 2 Cor. 5:14-22, 1 Cor. 15:3, 1 Pet. 2:24, just to list a few.

      Scripture explicitly declares that Christ’s sacrifice was necessary to atone for our sins and offer us new life in him; however, it does not clearly say why this was or how it works. Christian theologians have been debating this for as long as there has been such a thing as Christian theologians, and there are many different biblically based theories. There are, in fact, a number of metaphors and explanations in scripture, not all of them precisely in line with each other. For example, Galatians 3:13 indicates that Christ’s death on the cross was needed to redeem us from the curse of Deut. 27:26. This leads me to believe there are a number of reasons Christ’s physical death was necessary, not just one.

      In other words, Christ’s sacrifice on the cross is substitutionary because it perfectly met the demand of God’s wrath. His physical death paid the wages of our sins. It would be needless of Him to die physically if physical death was not the wages of sin (Rom. 6:23).

      If Christ’s physical death was about the removal of physical death from us, then why are Christians still dying? On the cross, Christ said his work was finished. He had done what he needed to do to give us new life, as the New Testament clearly teaches. And yet, we die. In fact, passages like 1 Corinthians 15, which you cited in part yourself, seem to indicate that it is Christ’s resurrection (not his death) that began the work that will destroy physical death, and it is his second coming that will complete it.

      • Sam Haylor

        Yes it does. The existence of the tree of life, God’s command to be “fruitful and multiply” on an earth that has finite space and resources, the fact that God’s warning about Adam dying in Genesis 2:17 needed no further explanation of what death is, the fact that Adam and Eve did not physically die the day they ate of the fruit, the fact that Adam named his wife “mother of all the living” immediately after she had supposedly just helped corrupt the entire universe with death and God’s offering of “green” (i.e., alive) plants as food all seem to suggest quite strongly that physical death was part of the original created order prior to the fall of man.

        I would argue that these things seem to suggest that to you because you have already assumed it to be so. None of the things you’ve listed inherently demand physical death to have already existed. The fact that the Tree of Life appears once again in the new earth (where there is neither death nor the possibility of death) proves it has another purpose than to counteract death’s effect. Adam didn’t need to see or experience death in order to comprehend it; we deal in abstracts all the time and he was far more intelligent than any of us. Adam and Eve not falling down dead the same day they ate of the fruit, while admittedly being “hard to understand” (to borrow from Peter), is not without explanation, my previous attempts only having scratched the surface. Adam naming his wife Eve and God offering green plants are, well, quite a stretch. Also, “green plant” is not a metaphor for “living plant”, but in fact means greenery as in herbs, garden plants, leafy greens, etc. God uses a couple of perfectly good words for “living” right in the same chapter (and even the same verse). There is simply no reason for it to be metaphorical.

        But I have a couple of greater problems with your arguments here. First, every one of them presupposes a literal, historical account for them to make any sense as arguments for death existing before those things happened. But since you don’t believe the garden, or the Tree, or Adam or Eve were actual historical places and people then they are merely symbols of truth and can’t be used to argue the chronology of death and the first sin. And as I’ve argued above, they do not demand from the “literal” reader that death existed before Adam sinned.

        Second, two of your arguments contradict each other. First you say Adam understood God’s warning that he would die physically because physical death already existed, but then you say that Adam and Eve didn’t die physically which means God was warning them about spiritual death, not physical. So, did spiritual death exist prior to Adam’s sin? If not, how could he possibly have understood it? And if God was warning them about spiritual death then the warning does not suggest anything about physical death.

        • I would argue that these things seem to suggest that to you because you have already assumed it to be so.

          Sure, and I would argue you ignore them so easily because you have already assumed the antithesis.

          The fact that the Tree of Life appears once again in the new earth (where there is neither death nor the possibility of death) proves it has another purpose than to counteract death’s effect.

          Yeah, or it proves that it’s a metaphor.

          Adam didn’t need to see or experience death in order to comprehend it; we deal in abstracts all the time and he was far more intelligent than any of us.

          I see this claim about Adam and Eve’s superior intelligence a lot. What possible biblical basis is there for such an idea? Scripture does not describe their intelligence or mental capabilities, and from what is recorded about them, the most reasonable inference would appear to be that they were actually quite simple-minded and naive.

          Also, “green plant” is not a metaphor for “living plant”, but in fact means greenery as in herbs, garden plants, leafy greens, etc.

          Plants generally aren’t green unless they’re alive. The point is that plants are living things, and they don’t survive being eaten any more than animals do. Ergo, God’s allowance of plants being eaten means that physical death was possible in some capacity before the fall.

          But since you don’t believe the garden, or the Tree, or Adam or Eve were actual historical places and people then they are merely symbols of truth and can’t be used to argue the chronology of death and the first sin.

          That is correct. I believe the passage is primarily metaphorical and symbolic, and was not meant to offer an accurate historical record of what the world was like before the appearance of man. However, for the sake of argument, I sometimes adopt the literal interpretation in order to demonstrate what I believe to be inconsistencies, weaknesses and logical failings on the part of the literal view.

          So, did spiritual death exist prior to Adam’s sin?

          I understand “Adam’s sin” as the first time a souled human being rejected communion with God and instead sought to be his or her own God. To answer your question, no, I do not believe spiritual death existed before the existence of souled, reasoning beings capable of sin, disobedience and rebellion.

          • Sam Haylor

            However, for the sake of argument, I sometimes adopt the literal interpretation in order to demonstrate what I believe to be inconsistencies, weaknesses and logical failings on the part of the literal view

            Except that’s not what you did above. You used them as evidence of death’s existence prior to Adam’s sin, which is only valid if they are in fact historical accounts. So which is it, they suggest death existed before Adam or they are symbolic? Both cannot be true.

          • I adopted the literal interpretation to demonstrate that, even if you take the text literally, it doesn’t say physical death was impossible in the prelapsarian world. In fact, it implies quite the opposite.

            Personally, I do not believe this particular text was intended to be read as literal history, hence, I don’t think it offers historically reliable information about what the prehistoric world was like. That is not what Genesis 1-3 was meant to teach. Thus, I believe there is no reason to reject what the scientific evidence clearly shows regarding our origins and our planet’s ancient history.

            However, either way, the point is that the Bible doesn’t teach physical death was impossible in the original created order, or that all the physical death, pain and suffering that has ever happened throughout the whole universe are the result of a single act of disobedience.

  • Chris

    Sorry for the double post I did not see this article when I replied on the other one, and it seems to fit better here.

    However, the question is, is it possible that God has allowed “not good” things to exist in this universe he has made, in order to facilitate the greatest possible overall “good”? And I say, not only is it possible, but it’s the explanation that makes the most sense of both scripture and observed and experienced reality.

    John 1:3 says “All things were made by him; and without him was not any thing made that was made.” That certainly appears to say no, that God made it all, it’s just our inability to distinguish the real and not that lead to fallacies like no physical death before the fall.

    To give a less polarizing example, let’s consider darkness. Darkness is a natural consequence of light. The one could not exist, or at the very least would make no sense, without the other. And we see, even in scripture, that darkness has existed since the beginning

    There is no such “thing” as darkness, its perceived existence is an illusion. It is just the absence of light (photons). Just as there is no such “thing” as silence, cold, or a pothole. Only a lack of sound waves, heat energy, or a piece of the road.

    Death is just the absence of life, not a different “thing” altogether. God made it, and to imply that man’s sin, or Satan himself, or anything else but God made it a thing is to ascribe God’s powers to a created being, which is the problem YECers seem to ignore when they call any aspect of his creation anything but “very good”. And yes, that includes actual created “things” like cancer, gangrene, and meningitis.

    • Carl Jones

      “Darkness is a natural consequence of light. The one could not exist, or at the very least would make no sense, without the other.”

      That’s completely stupid, light does not need darkness to exist, and darkness does not need light to exist. Darkness is the absence or absorption of visible light, and light is just a ray of energy.

      You are misconstruing analogies that make no scene. The color black is the absence of light: Yes, Death is the absence of life. Uhh DUH.

  • Dylan Cook

    Death is very important to an ecosystem. Without it, it would be crowded.