The notion of animal death before the fall is anathema to some Christians. This tends to have the effect of producing rather unusual—even fantastic—theories about the prelapsarian state. I don’t have any special problem with unusual or even fantastical theories, because our own credulity is not a good measure of truth. But I am concerned with whether these views are actually read out of Scripture, or whether they are read into it on behalf of other intuitions or beliefs.
Needless to say, constructing weird and wonderful theological models is only worth doing if they are actually true—and if they are false, that’s not only a problem in terms of our obligation to biblical fidelity, but also in terms of apologetics. There’s no sense at all in wasting energy defending nonsense; and there’s a lot of damage that can be done by Christians who promote nonsense.
My cards on the table
For some years I was fairly convinced of the “standard” YEC narrative of a peaceful prelapsarian paradise, which you will not be able to say five times fast. I am now very skeptical of that narrative, but not because I have come to be persuaded by the evidence for evolution or an old earth. I am very unconvinced that the earth is ancient; and even if it is, I don’t think life would have arisen by a process that much resembles the standard evolutionary narrative.
I still consider myself a young earth creationist, broadly speaking. My reasons for doubting the standard YEC narrative are due to what can be deduced from Scripture and the deliverances of reason, as the Westminster divines would have said—not due to any evolutionary concerns.
All that said, when I speak of “creationists” in this series, I am meaning those Christians who hold the standard “3P” YEC view of a peaceful prelapsarian paradise. When I speak of people like me who still think the earth was created recently, deny theistic evolution, but nonetheless think that animal death preceded the fall, I will use the term “predationists”. Because if I cannot be whimsical on my own blog, what is the point, I ask you.
I’m going to start assessing the evidence—creationism versus predationism—by considering what the phrase “very good” in Genesis implies.
The creationist appeal is simple: it is not “very good” for God to create a world in which animals suffer and die.
Not all creationists take this approach—but I wouldn’t start with it if it weren’t common. It is certainly the first place that lay creationists tend to go in a discussion—I suppose as a shortcut for undercutting predationism through an appeal to intuition.
I’ll discuss the notion of animal suffering itself in a later installment of this series; here I want to make a couple of related points about what “very good” does and does not mean, and why this shortcut reflects poorly on creationists’ ability to exegete the texts they rely on.
1. Very good with respect to what?
God’s declarations of goodness in Genesis 1 all come following his creative activities. Now the continual, inexorable emphasis of those activities is his ordering of the world into a functional habitat for man (see ‘How would a Hebrew have pictured Genesis 1?’ for more discussion). In other words, each time God declares something good, he is declaring that it fits the purpose for which he created it. That it serves its function well.
This is obvious when you look at the first example in Genesis—the declaration about light:
And God said, “Let there be light,” and there was light. And God saw that the light was good. And God separated the light from the darkness. Genesis 1:3-4
The light is not morally good. That makes no sense. Certainly this imagery is appropriated by John to represent moral categories, but the light itself is simply light—photonic energy. The reason it is good is because it serves the purpose of letting us see, and it serves it well. God was pleased to set this as a goal, and he is pleased with the way light achieves it.
So when Genesis says that God saw that a part of creation was good, we should read that not as something like:
God saw that it was morally right
…but rather more like:
God saw that it was doing a good job
Now obviously you can’t reject prelapsarian predation by asserting that it cannot do a good job. What would that even mean? There are some goals which predation achieves exceptionally well. Indeed, as I’ll argue in a later installment, it is very plausible, given our knowledge of the intricate balance of both plant and animal death in ecological systems, that predation is the only viable way to create a self-sustaining natural world that even remotely resembles ours. So the lamentably common creationist appeal to the phrase “very good” begs the question. The salient response is simple:
- “Very good” in Genesis 1 is an assessment with respect to achieving a functional goal rather than a moral ideal
- Predation is very good at achieving certain functional goals
- Therefore, to assert that predation is not “very good” requires arguing against those goals being God’s original plan for creation, rather than asserting that it violates some moral intuition
In other words, the typical creationist approach here assumes exactly what it needs to prove. That’s not a great way to start building a doctrine.
2. “Very good” is not perfect
The second argument I encounter plenty often, usually to bolster the first, is an immoderate exaggeration of what Genesis claims about the goodness of creation. I’ve often been told, for example, that death has no place in a perfect creation, or that God made the world as good as it could be. Aside from the obvious conflation of moral and functional goodness, addressed above, the fact is that Genesis simply does not say the creation was perfect. It does not even say it was as good as it could be. God is surprisingly measured in his description of creation’s goodness.
If he had wanted to say creation was perfect, he would have used the Hebrew word tamim. Yet he did not. If he had wanted to say it was superlatively good, he would have used the Hebrew phrase towb m’od m’od—very, very good, as in Numbers 14:7. Yet he did not. He used towb, “good”, with respect to individual creative acts, and towb m’od, “very good”, with respect to their culmination, the completed creation. Clearly God was pleased with the creation; it was functioning exactly as he wished—yet he did not go so far as to say it was “very very good”, let alone “perfect”.
This might seem like a minor point, but I am not inclined to let mishandling of Scripture slide. It is indicative of an incautious mindset. People who do not handle the text carefully, and are quick to go beyond what it says—often without noticing—are not reliable guides to what the text means.