Did Jesus die because of how God made us?
Adding long ages to the Bible affects our understanding of the Cross
Published: 18 November 2014 (GMT+10)
The Western story of death is that nature caused death. In this story, death has been around for many millions of years, almost as long as life itself. It helps maintain ecological balance. In evolutionary models, it helps drive ‘improvements’. It is a natural, biological process, and no other cause is necessary to explain it.
The biblical story of death is that sin caused death—i.e. ‘sin death’. In this story, death is an enemy which comes into the world after creation is complete, through sin. The entrance of sin into the world is so important to Christian thinking that we believers have invented jargon to easily and unambiguously refer to it. We call it ‘the Fall’. The Bible blames death on people rather than on God (1 Corinthians 15:21).
When the Bible says that death is sin–caused, it doesn’t mean that no biological processes were involved. Jesus died on the Cross of biological causes. But behind that death stands sin. Paul tells us that death spread to all men because all sinned (Romans 5:12). So the biblical story of death is still death through biological processes, but these were triggered by sin, leading to the entry of death into the world at the Fall (Romans 5:12). Since death today is from biological causes, there must have been biological changes at the Fall.
But if the true history of the world is one of long ages, then most of history happened before the Fall, and it was a time filled with animal bloodshed. The processes that sin is meant to stand behind were at work for many millions of years before sin, affecting all the other species in exactly the same way as they affect people. And since these processes would have been working in the absence of sin, it seems sin does not stand behind them at all, and there was no biological change at the Fall.
The biblical story of death is therefore not very credible if the true history of the world is one of long ages. The Western story of death would be a much better match to the historical record. Since the Western story is so widespread and so convincingly presented, it is not surprising that many have tried to make the biblical story fit the Western one somehow. But this requires the addition of some ‘just so’ elements. One of these is to arbitrarily restrict the biblical story so that ‘sin death’ only applies to people.1 (Another way to marry the two stories, though perhaps not very convincing to most, is by saying that God knew that people would sin before they died, so He created the world the way it is now. This sin–death history can now look just like the Western version.2)
‘Human death but not animal death was caused by sin’ is an arbitrary distinction that is very hard to see as the intended teaching of Scripture, to put it mildly. It is arbitrary because people have bodies, so in that sense people are animals too. (They are obviously neither plants nor minerals.) Our bodies die in exactly the same way as the other animals. For instance, humans die of old age because death is programmed into their DNA, as it is for animals. Is the same process triggered in one instance by man’s vileness and in the other instance by God’s creative genius? In the 2004 tsunami, were only the tonnes of water that killed people caused ultimately by sin, but not the rest of the wave that killed animals and destroyed property?
These problems are not dealt with by long–age theologians because animal death is (perhaps of necessity?) regarded as a ‘side issue’. They urge us to focus on more central issues. After all, good theology is done from the centre out, and the Bible focuses on people from the second chapter onwards.
The word ‘redemption’—and the Cross
If we are right in thus contrasting the Western story of death and the biblical one, then the way the Bible describes the Cross must be incompatible with the Western story of death. And it is. One of the key terms the Bible uses to describe what happened on the Cross is redemption.
Dr Leon Morris, in one of his main contributions to biblical scholarship, pointed out that the New Testament uses the word ‘redemption’ in a much more narrow and precise way than we use it. We use it almost as a synonym for religious deliverance. The New Testament uses it to highlight paying a price as a way of setting free.3
There are many deliverances that are not redemption. For instance, in Luke 8:22–25, the disciples were caught in a storm on the Lake of Galilee which was causing their boat to sink. Jesus delivered them from the situation by rebuking the wind and the waves. This was not redemption because there was no price–paying by Jesus. And indeed that is the point. He delivered them by mere speech.
Now given that deliverance can be achieved without redemption, why would you redeem something? The reason that God redeems us in the process of salvation is so that He can be both just and justifier (Romans 3:26). He delivers us while still dealing with sin fairly. It is the presence of sin that means we need redemption as the form of deliverance. So whenever you see salvation described as redemption, the author is highlighting release from sin or the effects of sin. This is one of the three essential features of redemption that Dr Morris highlighted in his doctoral thesis.
Another essential feature of redemption is price–paying. The time Jesus paid the price was at the Cross. Christ’s work at His second coming is not another redemption, because He does not pay a price then. For instance, in Revelation 19, Jesus, called Faithful and True, rides forth with the armies of heaven, and is opposed by the armies of His enemies. But He slays the enemy armies by the sword that comes out of His mouth, His word, just as He did on Lake Galilee. There is no second redemption there. As Dr Morris explains: “The New Testament consistently bases our redemption on the payment of the price in the death on Calvary.”4 He explains that even when redemption is used to refer to its completion at the return of our Lord, this is simply an outworking of the price paid at Calvary.4 So when we see our salvation described as redemption, the author is highlighting what Christ achieved on the Cross.
The third element always in view when the word is used is the resulting freedom. To redeem something is to set it free. This implies that the price paid must be adequate for the purchase. Otherwise the substitution (usually money for the item redeemed) is ineffective. The redeemed would not be free but only on lay–by. So when we see salvation described as redemption, the author is highlighting the liberty won.
According to Paul, our redemption includes redemption of our bodies (Romans 8:23.) This aspect of our salvation happens at the Second Coming, when our bodies are changed so that they don’t die any more, that is, they are freed from death.5
Strictly speaking, the redemption of our bodies is not redemption from sin itself, but rather from the effects of sin. Bodies, in and of themselves, can’t sin.
Since deliverance from death comes through redemption, then we know we are talking about what Christ achieved on the Cross,6 and that sin must therefore be the cause of human death (e.g. Romans 6:23). If redemption is sufficient to purchase our freedom (and it must be, to be a redemption) then sin must be the only cause of human death. Otherwise, the other causes would still kill us, and dealing with the effects of sin would not free us from death. This freedom aspect of our redemption rules out any idea that natural or biological causes are a sufficient cause of death. Sin stands behind all human death, otherwise redemption could not free us from death. This conclusion is in keeping with the rest of Paul’s writings. It is clear that the Apostle Paul believed that all sin leads to death, and all death comes from sin. (Let us grant for the discussion that this refers primarily to human death, though we’ve seen already that the distinction is arbitrary.)
Now if the fixing of our bodies, their redemption, involves physical change, then clearly sin must have had a physical effect. But how deep is the effect? The answer is right down to our DNA. People die of old age because of our DNA programming. Our DNA is sin–marred. Freedom from death thus requires our DNA to be changed.
Now if a long–age story, either the Western story of death or one of the ‘hybrid’ (compromise?) stories of death is correct, and there was no biological change at the Fall (like the start of death and the bondage to decay), then our bodies needed redemption before there was any sin in the world. Since our bodies are an integral part of us, we needed redemption before we sinned. The physical change that redemption brings is therefore not undoing the effects of sin, it is correcting the way God made us.
Can you see how changing the story of death has changed the Gospel? If any long–age story of death is true, then the Bible tells us that Jesus died because of the way God made us. We were created needing redemption. The worst people can do by sinning is add to the already existing need for redemption. And how can we know that people’s behaviour is not also because of the way God made them? After all, if all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God, you would expect that to be nature not nurture. At best, then, this is a ‘sin plus’ explanation of the need for salvation: Jesus died because of our sins plus because of what God made. How can you repent of the way you were made? This is obviously not the Gospel that Paul preached, and Paul is crystal clear that Christian liberty does not include it (Galatians 1:8,9).
At Dr Leon Morris’s doctoral dissertation, his examiners granted him his PhD grudgingly. They said to him, “We don’t agree with you but the apostle Paul does”. In this debate the long–age Christians find themselves in the same position as the examiners.
Many Western Christians prefer to use their culture’s story of death because the Western story has the imprimatur of ‘science’, so is accepted as proven. A wiser course in the face of an apparent conflict between science and the Bible would be to examine more closely what is coming out of the test tubes and what is coming out of the preconceptions, particularly when ‘science’ has wandered from its field of expertise and is talking about history. You could then see that the conflict is not between science and the Bible, but between Western cultural preconceptions and biblical ones.
References and notes
- E.g. the ‘bad world, good garden’ notions people such as Bernard Ramm which were popular around the middle of last century. In these, creatures are bleeding and dying, suffering cancer and infections, while in the pre–Fall garden, humans and their creaturely companions never succumb to such things. Return to text.
- The most interesting recent example is William Dembski’s The End of Christianity: Finding a Good God in an Evil World. For a review see The ‘problem’ of evil and the supremacy of scripture. Dembski acknowledges that natural evil is the result of the Fall, but to make it work with long ages, he proposes that actions work ‘transtemporally’ or backwards in time. This leaves him in the position of arguing that nothing does something. For billions of years, non–existent People are thus allegedly the cause of havoc on God’s creation, generating mass extinctions and untold misery, even though they don’t even exist. Return to text.
- Morris, L., The Apostolic preaching of the Cross, 3rd edition, Eerdmans, Grand Rapids, Michigan, 1965, p. 11. This was originally Dr Morris’s doctoral dissertation. Return to text.
- Ref. 3, p. 48 Return to text.
- For instance, in his commentary on Romans 8:23, Calvin explains the phrase ‘redemption of our bodies’ by saying: “For the price of our redemption was paid by Christ so that death should not hold us tied by its chains, even though we carry it within us; it hence follows, that the sacrifice of the death of Christ would be in vain and fruitless, except its fruit appeared in our heavenly renovation.” Notice how strongly he sees in this phrase the cross of Christ as the cause of the end of physical death through bodily change. Return to text.
- Ref. 3, p.61. Return to text.