Death Before the Fall

Ronald Osborne begins the book with a vivid account of his experience growing up as a child of missionary parents in Zimbabwe. He recalls family excursions by car into a wilderness, and coming upon a pride of lions that had just killed a Cape buffalo. Osborne never forgot the scene of “beautiful carnage,” which typifies “the central riddle of the book.” Whence this “doubleness to all of animal existence”—beauty and carnage—in a world designed by God (13)?

The “doubleness” poses a “grave theological and moral dilemma” to Christians:

This world is one in which the harrowing suffering of innocent creatures through the violence of other creatures appears at once fraught with terrible savageness and at the same time part of an order that is delicately balanced, achingly beautiful, and finely tuned to sustain the tremendous diversity of life. If there is a rationally discernible “intelligent design” to the natural world as some believers claim, should we not conclude that the design reveals a pitilessly indifferent if not malevolent intelligence? Why is it that creationists who read “design” from the surface of nature never rhapsodize about the wondrous, irreducible complexity of AIDS viruses, or tapeworms, or serrated shark teeth tiered five rows deep? “It is as if the entire cosmos were somehow predatory,” writes Eastern Orthodox theologian David Hart, “a single organism nourishing itself upon the death of everything to which it gives birth, creating and devouring all things with a terrible and impassive majesty” (15).

At this point, Osborne does not go directly into solutions to the “riddle” of animal pain, but instead devotes the entire first (and longest) part of the book to a critique of “wooden literalism” on Genesis. Osborne believes that such literalism blocks believers off from plausible solutions (25–121). After the critique of literalism, he discusses the available solutions (126–79). This way of organizing the book will make it useful mainly to Christians who are struggling with how to read Genesis in the context of evolutionary science. It does, however, create some clumsiness in the flow of the book.

Osborne maintains that a woodenly literal reading of Genesis binds us to believe that violence and death in the animal realm is the consequence of a fall by Adam and Eve in Paradise. As he grew older and learned more, this solution became unacceptable:

This is why lions now killed Cape buffalo in Mana Pools and why there were crocodiles and bilharzia parasites in the Zambezi and Limpopo rivers. But of course no human action could have produced such an instantaneous change, not simply in the instincts but also in the anatomical structures of countless creatures. The idea that the lions in Eden were docile vegetarians with dagger-sharp claws originally designed by God for tearing the bark off trees appeared downright silly. Somehow those massive canine teeth and retractable claws for taking down living prey had got there. This seemingly left only one possibility: God himself was responsible for the transformation of all of nature in what amounted to a hostile second creation after Adam and Eve’s fall (16).

Osborne came to think that that the explanation is not just “silly,” but also implicates God himself in extreme injustice. “The vexing question of the justice of such an act—of why God would inflict death and suffering on innocent creatures—did not enter my mind” (16). Osborne concludes, then, that we must abandon wooden literalism as we look for answers.

Besides (and here is the long detour), such literalism forces Christians into a tragic dilemma. After examining the evidence, many educated people conclude that one or the other is false: the Bible or science (19). Neither alternative is a good one.

In chapter 1, Osborne argues that such literalism and the conflict it creates with science is unnecessary. He does this by suggesting alternate readings that leave room for Christians to be open to science. Some readers may find his attempt to render Genesis open to evolution strained. For instance, he tries to keep Genesis open to belief that predation was part of nature’s original design (33). Genesis pretty clearly is not open to that belief. Also: Eve’s pain in childbirth is “multiplied,” not introduced for the first time (36–37).I believe readers should supplement this chapter by works that are better at opening Genesis to science by means of historical biblical studies (such as those by Peter Enns, Daniel Harlow, and Denis Lamoureax). It would be a shame if skeptical readers stopped reading because of suspicion raised in the first chapter.

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