Long life or eternal life?
If the Cross gives eternal life, then there was biological change at the Fall
Imagine a Christian (let’s call him ‘Annas’) living in about the year AD 40. He knows that Jesus died on the Cross for his sins, but he doesn’t have the New Testament to tell him what it means, so what can he work out from the bare facts?
The first thing he can deduce is that the penalty for sin involves physical death. If the penalty for sin were spiritual death only, then why was Christ’s physical death required to pay for it? The Cross would seem like an exercise in masochism in such a scenario.
The second thing he can deduce is that a death caused by sin does not mean that there were no natural means involved. Jesus died by crucifixion, the same as thousands of other Jews. That means that sin stands behind and causes the physical means, rather than being a separate means by itself.
But does sin stand behind all deaths or only some of them? If sin stands behind only some deaths, then in such cases, the effect of sin is like the effect of an executioner. An execution brings forward what is inevitable in any case. The person’s death was coming anyway.
Despite the fact that the Cross clearly cut short Jesus’ life, Annas can be sure the ‘executioner’ model of sin is wrong. On the executioner model, the Cross in overcoming sin can no more be the basis of eternal life than polio vaccine can be, since it only deals with one source of death. It could only be the source of longer life. It follows then that the Cross can’t impart eternal life unless all mechanisms by which death can come have been dealt with.
So the third thing he can deduce is that sin stands behind all physical, human death. From this it follows that if there were no sin, there would be no physical, human death.
Now if Annas goes to the start of the Torah1 to see what it says, the example of Adam reinforces the same notion. Adam died about 930 years after he sinned, and lived the fourth longest recorded life span. That does not look like premature death. (See Note 1)
If he bumped into Paul, he would work out that Paul thought exactly the same way. He believed that sin was behind all death. Paul is very clear in Romans 5:12 where he says that (human, physical) death entered the world through sin. Also, in 1 Corinthians 15:21 Paul says (human, physical) death came through a man (Adam).
So the Cross, the Old Testament, and the New Testament all declare that sin stands behind all human death. This is the same thing as saying that Adam was able not to die if he didn’t sin. We could shake Adam’s hand today if he hadn’t sinned. This is known as conditional immortality.
The trouble with conditional immortality is that it is biologically impossible in today’s world. Telomeres are a biological mechanism that ensures all people die. They are a piece of DNA that sits on the end of the chromosomes, and they limit the number of times a cell can reproduce. They shorten when they are reproduced, and when they are too short, your cells cannot multiply anymore. So your organs can no longer rejuvenate themselves, and so even if you have top nutrition and manage to avoid all infection and accidents, you still die as your organs wear out.
Telomeres don’t care if you sin or not. You die anyway. They are a guarantee of human death, programmed into our DNA. So following our line of reasoning to this point, it is clear that this telomeric ‘programmed death’ must also be caused by sin. It must be the result of a biological change at the Fall.
But in reality the issue involves much more than telomeres. What about cancer, heart attacks, and lethal strokes? What do you do with venomous snakes? Or man-eating tigers, sharks and the like? Clearly the change from conditional immortality to our current mortality involves many biological changes in the created order to have taken place, and not just in the human realm.
We should remember that Christians in general, including many who assume death has been around for millions of years, and human death for hundreds of thousands of those, think that biological change on this level is not only possible, it is certain. (There will be no death in the new heavens and the new earth.)
But if there were such major biological changes at the Fall, it would mean that the fossil record, which records death, disease, suffering and violence on a grand scale, could not have preceded Adam. So if the fossils are after Adam, then since no-one believes that he was created millions of years ago, they could not be millions of years old.
To avoid having to accept that there were such major biological changes at the Fall, some long-age Christians want to invoke God’s foreknowledge. Because God knew Adam would sin before he died of sin’s consequences, they say, He didn’t need to change biology. On this version, God spent eons preparing the world as a bed of thorns for people because he knew they would sin. But it is incorrect, because, among other things (see Note 2), it means God unjustly punished Adam when he was still innocent.
Philosophy can be used to drive theology past God’s revelation—for example, by asking questions which revelation does not answer. Has that happened here? Are we right when we say that since the Cross offers eternal life, sin is the cause of all death, and that if sin is the cause of all death, then biological change is required? True, the Scriptures are not a science (biology) textbook. But the Bible unavoidably makes biological assertions, even biologically ‘impossible’ ones such as someone rising from the dead.
So, if philosophy is not permitted to outrun revelation, there must be some textual support for the proposition that biology changed at the Fall. Indeed there is:
- The Curse is replete with biological change: death, labour pains, thorns and thistles all come from the Fall.
- Genesis 1:30 says that creatures before the Fall were all herbivores, but we know that is not the case now. And, accordingly, allusions to animals in association with the future restoration of creation, (in which both death and the Genesis Curse will be no more—Revelation 21:4, 22:3), point away from carnivory, toward Edenic visions of universal herbivory and peace.
- Genesis 1 tells us the creation was originally good, good, very good, but that it is now groaning under a bondage to decay/corruption (Romans 8:18–21).
Note that naturalistic biologists have no trouble with the concept of major biological change over time, and with whole new amazing abilities such as sonar and consciousness appearing and disappearing. But the idea that conditional immortality is historical reality is repugnant to them, because death is central to their story of life. Whereas death is an intruder on the Bible’s story of life. In fact, Paul calls it “the last enemy” to be defeated in God’s restorative plan (1 Corinthians 15:26).
So we have a trilemma in preaching how the Cross deals with death. Either we have no Cross (sin only causes spiritual death), no eternal life (sin only causes some death), or no respectability in the eyes of the world (sin caused a change in biology). I recommend choosing the last option because, uncomfortably, 1 Corinthians 1 is still true when it says that the Cross is foolishness to unsaved wisdom.
In those chapters, God warns Adam that if he eats of the forbidden fruit, he will certainly die. (“Dying, you shall surely die.”) When he pronounces judgment on him, he declares that he will die (return to the dust), and when Adam is 930 years old, he dies.
This can’t be interpreted as God merely cutting short his otherwise mortal life because of sin because:
- The text does not say early death when it gives the threat, the judgment and the execution. It says death.
- A death threat to be carried out in 930 years is hollow if death is going to happen anyway from other causes.
- It didn’t happen. Adam lived the third longest life recorded in Scripture, and almost all of it after the Fall, after God had judged him for eating the forbidden fruit. If God meant shortened life as the penalty from sin, then surely Adam would have died shortly after the judgment? To do otherwise is to invite misunderstanding.
- It is not what Annas would have observed around him. He would have seen that Romans were just as likely to outlive their three score years plus ten as the Jews, despite a lifetime of idolatry.
- If sin is only one cause of death, and stands behind the physical means, Annas doesn’t have any way to tell if a particular death is caused by sin or not.
- Shorter is a comparative. But there is no way of knowing the benchmark, so we can’t say how much shorter. The term is practically content-free. Annas can’t prioritize based on a shorter life because he doesn’t know if the shortening is measured in milliseconds, or decades.
There are several problems with the foreknowledge position. See The ‘problem’ of evil and the supremacy of Scripture. Consider also:
- It means Adam was being punished when he was innocent.
- Did God create Adam with a sin nature?
- The Apostle Peter preached about the coming restoration of all things (Acts 3:21), and notes that it is a theme of Old Testament promises. What on earth are we going to be restored to? A world full of cancer, carnivory, violence and suffering?
- It says that Adam’s death was always inevitable. If death is inevitable, how can it be the result of sin? All agree that the natural causes of death are ethically blind and often work across species (eg bird flu). On a long-age view, they have been at work killing for millions of years before Adam came. All agree that eating a piece of fruit does not trigger death on today’s biology. To say that these natural killers are caused by a later event which never is observed to trigger them is tenuous at best. In short, if there had been millions of years of death across the entire biosphere, could there be any stronger demonstration that sin is not the cause of death than this?
- This is not the way the Bible does theology. Theology is built on history. If the history is bunk, the theology is worse (I Corinthians 15). If history says death was inevitable before sin entered the world, then we should not believe any theology that says that it wasn’t.
References and notes
- The Jewish term for the five books of Moses, the first five books of the Bible. Return to text.