Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Billions of years

This past week I saw a story about the recent discovery of the world's oldest tools, dating around 3.3 million years old. Which got me thinking again about the big picture of the evolution of life. How many generations of life are simply gone forever? They may have left behind hints and traces of their existence--or not. In either case, what are we to make of our relationship to them?

When people ask about God and Darwinian evolution, they are usually given one of three answers: atheism, creationism, and compatibilism. These are all characterized by being straightforward: the first picks Darwin over God, the second picks God over Darwin, and the third asks why we can't simply have both.

If the first two responses are too absolutist, the third response strikes me as far too easy. The question that concerns me most is not so much the interpretation of Scripture--which is theologically varied enough already, without having to worry about scientific questions. Rather, what bothers me is the basic existential question: did all of those humans (to say nothing of other creatures) live and die for nothing? Or if it was for something, is it something we can appreciate?

Christianity in many ways promotes a hatred of death. God is the God of the living, not the dead. Christ's resurrection is said to defeat death, and one day his followers believe they will also be free to death. It is only in the paradoxical way that Christ taught--that those who love their life will lose it, while those who hate their life for his sake will find it for eternity--that Christians can be reconciled to death. Only with the promise of emerging victorious over death do Christians face it willingly.

But doesn't this promise of victory over death come a little late in the development of human beings? And what about other creatures? Is there any promise for them?

It would be one thing if we could take the Christian story of the Fall quite literally. By that I don't mean word for word out of Genesis 2 and 3. I simply mean that, at a given time in history, the earth was really a paradise, that human beings could eat of the tree of life and not die, that everything was in harmony. Then by an act of disobedience against God we humans, God's chosen guardians of the earth, destroyed that harmony and lost our chance to live eternally. Then the story of redemption playing out through Israel and then through Jesus Christ would answer that. Even if one might raise legitimate doubts about this redemption story, it would be plausible.

Yet if there was no such paradise, and if there was no such cataclysmic moment that literally occurred in history, if death was always part of the natural cycle of life, then what? Are there are truly Christian answers that can be given?

These billions of years really do loom large over the Christian consciousness. Certainly one need not be a biblical literalist to feel the pressure.

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