Volume 17 - Issue 1

Readers’ Responses: What on earth was the result of the fall?

by Michael B. Roberts

Steve Bishop (‘Green theology and deep ecology’, 16.3, April–May 1991) has given us a theology for the environment which is as topical as it is important, as New-Agers and panentheists, who are strong on creation, weak on the fall, and weaker still on atonement, are providing a high-profile alternative. His ‘salvation history’ approach of creation—fall—redemption—new earth needs to be stressed, as this gives the only framework for a Christian understanding of the environment. However, I have one question about his paper: What on earth was the result of the fall?

Steve writes on the fall: ‘The whole of creation was disrupted. The shalom that existed in the Garden between God, humanity and nature was disrupted. It is in the fall that the roots of our ecological crisis lie.’

I agree with the last statement, and this is spelt out in Ron Elsdon’s Bent World (IVP, 1981). The first part I cannot accept, as Steve holds that the fall introduced suffering and death into a world where they were previously absent.

Until the geologists came along with their hammers in about 1800, most would have agreed with Steve that Adam’s sin brought death and suffering into the world. This is expounded poetically by Milton in Paradise Lost:

Of Man’s first disobedience, and the fruit

Of that forbidden tree, whose mortal last,

Brought death into the world, and all our war,

With loss of Eden.

(Book i. l. 1)

Beast now with beast gan war, and fowl with fowl,

And fish with fish; to graze the herb all leaving,

Devour’il each other.

(x, II, 710–712)

and prosaically by commentators, for example Calvin. (Predacity prior to the fall was accepted by some, e.g. Matthew Poole, but that was a minority view.)

This outlook was challenged by geologists, who ‘stretched’ Genesis with their long ages, and from fossil evidence were claiming that animals were dying and eating each other long before man appeared. Even before Darwin was out of nappies this was accepted by all geologists and many Christians, Thomas Chalmers being one of the first. When The Origin was published all opponents of Darwin, including Wilberforce, took this for granted. In the latter part of the nineteenth century almost all evangelicals accepted that animal suffering came in long before man. Contemporary palaeontology continues to claim this, with evidence of death from 3,500 million years ago and even a pair of dinosaurs fossilized while locked in mortal combat some 100 million years ago (see D. Livingstone, Darwin’s Forgotten Defenders, 1987; my paper on ‘A History of the Effects of the Fall’, C. S Annual Conference, 1990; E.C. Lucas, Themelios 12.2 (1987) on the fall).

In his discussion of the fall Steve Bishop makes his conclusion clear: the fall affected the whole of the natural world. Would he agree with St Bernard, who claimed ‘a wild spot is in a state of Original Sin’, and regard the Welshman who in 1686 reckoned Snowdon was a Paradise to be in theological error?

The so-called evolutionary picture with its myriads of ages is well known. If it is correct, then Calvin was wrong to say that sin ‘perverted the whole order of nature’, resulting in ‘fleas, caterpillars [butterflies?] and other noxious insects’ (Commentary on Gn. 2:2). That view can be acceptable only if the earth is very young, i.e. some 10,000 years old. If that is the case then all geology is fatally flawed.

It is too glib to say that ‘The approach we take seems to depend on whether or not we take scientific issues into account when we interpret the Scriptures’. It is impossible not to. There are the old issues raised by Copernicus and Galileo over astronomy, which were so beautifully resolved in anticipation by the geocentric Calvin in his Commentary, and aided by his principle of accommodation. If we use archaeology to help in the interpretation of a text, then we are taking scientific issues into account. If it is permissible to use archaeology as an aid to biblical interpretation, then so can geology be used to aid our interpretation of the fall. After all, the historical methods used by both sciences are identical, so that if geology is wrong, then so is archaeology.

Most commentaries on Genesis take scientific issues into account, be they Calvin, Patrick, Gill, or Morris and Kidner. Theology is not carried out in a vacuum. As Lucas very rightly pointed out, scientific issues must be taken into account. That is not the same as lething science dictate our theology (it is here I disagree almost violently with contemporary panentheism), but it will affect our interpretation of the fall. If the geological/evolutionary picture is correct (I’ll come clean, I hold it to be so), then we must argue, and argue forcibly, that ‘there is little [I would say no] evidence that nature has been altered in a fundamental way’. To hold any other view is factually wrong and, as it is not dealing with ‘the way the world is’, then conclusions drawn from it are liable to be wrong.

Perhaps to some I am nit-picking, but it is a fundamental point. Steve rejects various pantheistic and Whiteheadean approaches. Whatever their faults theologically, which are legion, they have one virtue: they address the world as it is and has been for 4,600 million years. As a result they have a certain plausibility. Steve’s otherwise excellent article has one major fault: it addresses the world as it is not and never has been. The fall did not result in a disruption of creation—death, predacity, volcanoes, earthquakes. They were there from the beginning.

The article requires only to accept that the fall was limited in its effects to humanity to become a very valuable argument for a Christian approach to the environment, and a healthy antidote to New Age ecoism and other non-biblical approaches.

Michael B. Roberts

Secretary of History and Philosophy of Science Group (Christians in Science) and OU tutor in Religion in Victorian Britain