Did life spring from physical death or is death an “unnatural” interruption of life?

Every explanation of life’s origins is a version of one of the following two ideologies: either life springs from death or death is an interruption of life.  We, 21st century human beings who live in an ever-more secular world, must decide for ourselves whether we believe life comes from death or that death is an unnatural interruption of life.

Since the 19th century, Western culture has become more and more convinced that life is simply a result of “natural” processes dependent upon death.

Charles Darwin. 1 negative : glass ; 5 x 7 in....

Charles Darwin. 1 negative : glass ; 5 x 7 in. or smaller. From a photograph by Elliott & Fry. According to Gene Kritsky, maintainer of an archive of Darwin photographs, this was from a photography session at Darwin’s home, Down House, and on another photograph from that session Darwin wrote “1879” on the back. It was later widely sold and distributed on heavy card stock by Elliott & Fry, with a caption dating it “Circa 1880”. It was later reproduced in a wide range of Darwiniana. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Charles Darwin proposed in the conclusion of On the Origin of Species that death along biological lines has brought life on earth to its current form, “Thus, from the war of nature, from famine and death, the most exalted object which we are capable of conceiving, namely, the production of the higher animals, directly follows.”  In other words life as we now see it is a product of millions and millions of years of death.

Those who believe that God Elohim is the Creator of the universe teach  that life came before death and therefore hold that death is an unnatural interruption to life.  On the fifth day of creation, God Elohim filled the sea and skies with “living creatures” (נֶ֣פֶשׁ חַיָּ֑ה).  He filled the dry land with living creatures on the sixth day, capping off His creation with human beings who were created in His Image.  These living creatures were blessed so that they could fill the new planet with biological life of all forms.

How do Christians reconcile these two competing ideas?  Some interpret the opening chapters of the Bible in light of science, favoring the secular explanation of origins to the Biblical account for a variety of reasons.  Others hold to the creation account and look for ways to interpret scientific findings in light of the scriptures.  In both cases, what you presuppose is true (either life from death or death from life) will color how you interpret what you discover in the scriptures and observe in the physical realm.

Recognizing this—what you presuppose to be true about the origin of life determines how you will interpret every fact or theory regarding life as it now exists—is the first step towards understanding why you think the way you do about your life.  Everyone who embraces the “life springs from death” mentality will be more likely to think along secular lines about life, ethics, even God and eternity.  Those who presuppose that physical death is an “unnatural” interruption to life will be much more open to what God proposes in the scriptures.

It takes special insight and great courage to hold to the Truth of human origins as recorded in the scriptures.  Jesus Himself said such knowledge is a supernatural gift.  “Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven” (Matthew 16:17 ESV).

Christians have been blessed with faith to see God at work in creation, in Christ and through His Church.  But this greatest blessing can become a curse if we look down upon others who think differently than us or fail to share Christ’s love and forgiveness with those who are different from us.  Instead, we should live humbly among our neighbors while speaking confidently of our faith so that God can draw others to Himself through us.  This is how Christians bring others from spiritual death to life in Christ!  

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4 thoughts on “Did life spring from physical death or is death an “unnatural” interruption of life?

  1. Whitney Rice June 25, 2013 at 10:20 pm Reply

    Hi, Dan! Thanks for a thought-provoking piece. Could it be that life and death are not diametrically opposed because neither can separate us from God? Perhaps the true opposition is union with God vs. separation from God, a dynamic which is not affected by whether we are alive or dead but whether we accept or reject God and God’s salvific love. Thanks again for a great piece!

    • pastorlepley June 26, 2013 at 9:35 am Reply

      I appreciate your comments Whitney! I think that when it comes to spiritual life, we are only alive so long as we are connected to God’s love through Christ. All life comes from Him as is seen in the creation account of Genesis, especially when viewed in light of John 1. Yet many voices within and outside of Christianity teach that in the biological and physical realm the opposite is true (death births life). I question why many in the Church view it necessary for Christians to embrace a death-from-life view of the physical/biological realm and a life-from-death view of the spiritual realm when “In the beginning God created” by bringing into existence what didn’t exist before and then breathed His own life into His creation. In short, according to Genesis life preceded death in both the physical and spiritual realm. Granted, God now uses death to bring us to life, but in the beginning, this was not necessary because there was only life.

  2. JB June 27, 2013 at 11:07 am Reply

    The topic of creation is a difficult one for me. At present I do not know what I believe about the Genesis account. On one hand, I believe the Bible is the Word of God and therefore trust the account that was given by God. On the other hand, as a scientist I have a natural tendency to make conclusions based only on physical evidence. If I expect to see something in the data and I fully believe it is there, I have biased my experiment and cannot fully trust the results.

    Taking a literal account of creation appears to conflict with much of the scientific data we have collected. For example, carbon dating suggests that the earth is far older than a literal reading of the Bible suggests. My naive interpretation of this would be that the creation account was not meant to be taken literally, but rather suggests the structure of the creation of the earth and all life upon it. Personally, I do not think this demeans the Word at all, but rather is a clarification of what we once believed to be the case. Perhaps God did not describe the full creation account because it would be impossible for ancient Hebrews to understand. As we grow in understanding (we have much stronger powers of reason than our ancestors), it is possible to better understand the Word.

    1 Corinthians 13:11
    When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put the ways of childhood behind me.

    Based on this interpretation, it is natural to assume that death must have existed before humans existed on the earth. All of the dinosaurs died long before humans inhabited the earth. In this sense, the idea that the daily struggle to avoid death naturally drives life to adapt to better survive in such an environment. Perhaps God intended this to happen with humans as well and used evolution to make a being in his image. Perhaps the creation of humans was a supernatural event unlike the rest of creation in which man was not intended
    to die.

    Let me make clear, I admire and respect people who cleave to a literal interpretation of the Word. Such trust in God is truly something to which we should all aspire. I on the other hand believe that God gave me the gift of my vocation to investigate His creation to the best of my ability and perhaps use such knowledge to understand His Word in a new light.

    Perhaps you can convince me otherwise. I am certainly open to better understanding!

    I always feel like a heretic when I discuss this topic, which is probably why I usually keep my mouth shut. It took quite a few moments of indecision before I could hit the “post comment” button… But, the goal of this blog is the interplay of faith and science, so I felt it would be useful to at least make such points. I think they are fairly common among people of my profession.

    • pastorlepley June 28, 2013 at 12:21 pm Reply

      JB,
      I appreciate your integrity and interest in this subject! I hear an honest desire to seek truth. I also hear the voice of a reasoned faith in your comment. I especially appreciate your willingness to admit that God may have done things differently than you currently imagine.
      I wrote On Our Origins as a bit of a thought experiment. I seek to remain faithful to a literal interpretation of Genesis 1 and 2 mindful of recent scientific discoveries in an attempt to learn from both.
      I think we would be foolish to suggest that we already have the workings of the universe already figured out or are even close to doing so. But I do believe that our scientific exploration of the physical realm is bringing us closer to knowing how things actually work. You have inspired me to post an excerpt of my book that acknowledges where our culture is in the search for our origin. I will also be posting, in the very near future, more of Luther’s writings about the interplay between theology and science.
      This is a conversation that needs to continue because each of us will decide for ourselves where we think we’ve come from. The answer we are led to will determine who we become…

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