We recently had a great discussion with some good friends whose first grade son is just becoming exposed to the differences between the Old Earth (OE) and Young Earth (YE) Creationism. This is not an easy topic to confront with a first grader, but parents must be prepared and equipped to face it. Talking about it reminded me of one of my favorite books so I thought I’d try to summarize a thorny issue.
At its core, the OE/YE debate is about how we view the relationship between science and theology. There is a methodical way to think about that relationship that I have discussed elsewhere but here I’d like to address an internal, theological aspect of the OE/YE debate: “Death before the Fall” of Adam and Eve. I want to say that even though I hold a different view, I greatly respect the YE stridency on this topic because it is vitally important. It strikes at the heart of the entire plan of salvation.
At the center of this issue is the answer to the question about what God meant when He declared His creation “very good” in Genesis 1:31. On the YE view, there is no room for interpretation of this phrase. YE proponents insist that the OE view violates a central doctrine of the Christian faith. They reason that if there was already death in the world God created, that would negate the very reason that Christ died on the cross. As I said, I have great empathy for their concern here.
These are serious issues and they deserve to be answered. I applaud and accept the challenge of the YE side on this because I fully understand their reluctance to accept the obvious OE implication that if the Earth had been around for a few billion years before Adam and Eve showed up, there would have been a whole lot of “death before the fall.” If the YE view is correct about the meaning of “very good” and the implications of death before the fall, the OE view would necessarily be false. We need to be very clear, and very careful, about how we approach this issue.
In order to do that, I want to first lay out a summary of what the YE position entails. I owe this to Mark Whorton‘s outstanding book, Peril in Paradise (p. 25-26), a book I would highly recommend to anyone who takes the OE/YE controversy seriously and wants to do a fair assessment of the issues. There are five basic tenets to what Mark calls “The Perfect Paradise Paradigm”:
- When God declared His finished creation “very good,” He meant that it was perfect in every conceivable way.
- Eden was the embodiment of the Creator’s ideal intent for His creation.
- Man’s sin thwarted God’s plan, shattered His ideal intent, and ruined all of His perfect creation.
- God introduced the physical death of man and animals as a punishment for sin.
- God instituted the plan of redemption to reverse the effects of Adam’s sin and restore all things back to their original intent.
So, with these in mind, I want to look at a few of the main aspects of this.
First, let me say that the first point (above) is obviously false. I say this for several reasons …
- Satan was in the garden
- The garden contained the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil
- 1 Corinthians 2:9 tells us that: “No eye has seen, no ear has heard, no mind has conceived what God has prepared for those who love him.”
- Adam and Eve saw and experienced the Garden of Eden.
- This entails that whatever God has in store for us is better than what Adam and Eve saw, heard, or conceived …
- Therefore, the Garden of Eden could not have been “perfect.”
- Adam was always required to tend to the Garden — the fall did not impose that work on him, it just made it more difficult.
- The curse on Eve did not originate the pain of childbirth, it increased the pain she would experience.
Folks, these are indicators that the place could not have represented “absolute perfection.” Satan, and evil, and pain cannot exist in any place that God says is “perfect.” But there is an even more obvious problem with this notion of “very good” — so obvious, it is hard to imagine why we would even have to talk about it — and it is this:
“Very Good” does not equal “perfect.”
The Hebrew phrase used here is meod tob. This phrase is used elsewhere in various circumstances but Genesis 1:31 is the only place in Scripture where some have interpreted it to mean “absolute perfection.” Why would that be?
Because it is being improperly forced to fit the Young Earth paradigm.
I don’t know how else to put it.
It is also obvious that the Garden was a unique and specially protected place that defies our imagination. But the flaw in the Perfect Paradise Paradigm is that it assumes these conditions also existed outside the Garden. But think about that for a second. Why would the Garden need to be specially protected if the whole creation was “perfect?” Secondly, where is the Scriptural evidence to support this idea? It is nowhere to be found in the text.
There are several other logical difficulties that stem from this idea … and they are not trivial. For instance:
Animals cursed by death: The YE view’s demand that there was no animal death before the fall stands in part on the notion that God imposed death on them as a result of the fall. But, once again, this idea is foreign to the text. Romans 5:12 tells us specifically that death was imposed on “all men.” Animals are never mentioned. [On a side note, it is interesting that, when addressing this issue in their book, Old Earth Creationism on Trial, the authors quote the beginning part of this verse to make their point that “there was absolutely no death before Adam sinned. Romans 5:12 states, ‘Therefore, just as through one man sin entered the world, and death through sin …'”. Notice that they conveniently leave out the remainder of the verse which states that “… and in this way death came to all men.”]
Carnivores: According to the YE Perfect Paradise, there could not have been carnivorous behavior before the fall. All those animals that we recognize as carnivores now, must have only been herbivorous before. The claim is that they simply changed their “behavior” by “degenerating” into herbivores after the fall. “Carnivorous digestive systems are fundamentally distinct from herbivore systems … herbivores are able to digest the cellulose that forms the cell walls of plant while carnivores are not … carnivores can survive without a stomach. Herbivores cannot. Carnivores can survive without microorganisms, Herbivores cannot. Carnivores can survive without plant food. Herbivores cannot.” A carnivore like a lion is a finely-tuned eating machine that depends on specific instinct, musculature, anatomy, physiology, and biochemical makeup. These are fundamentally different animals than the creatures that would have existed prior to the fall under the Perfect Paradise formula.
Defense Mechanisms: Creatures like the bombardier beetle have always been favorites of creationists (of all stripes) because of the incredible design they exhibit in their ability to defend themselves. But why would such a creature need to defend itself before the fall if there was no death or violence to threaten them? Did a porcupine not have quills? Did a skunk not spray? Did sea urchins not have spines? Did snakes not have venom and fangs? The list of preposterous suggestions goes on and on.
Immune Systems: According to the YE paradigm, there would be no need for immunity because there was nothing to that could threaten living things with death through disease. Yet, these are sophisticated systems depend on a specific physiological makeup and use the energy resources of the body in a very integrated way.
Extreme Habitats: There are countless examples of organisms of all kinds that are specially adapted to the environments in which they live. Not only so, but these are parts of larger eco-systems that are also specially designed to support their inhabitants and the food chains they support. In a non-threatening, perfect paradise this makes absolutely no sense.
The Negative Implications of the Perfect Paradise Toward God’s Character
There are more examples and these are fatal flaws for the YE/Perfect Paradise Paradigm — but they are not the most troubling. To me, the most harmful part of the paradigm is the implication it gives regarding the character of God, His sovereignty, and His omniscience.
This view implies that God created what He thought was the perfect world for humanity to enjoy, but His intent was undermined by free will humans who shattered what God had set up and thereby forced Him to institute a new plan of redemption to restore the creation to the way He actually intended it to be. This implies that humans thwarted God’s intended purpose for the creation.
I don’t think so.
The OE view adheres to what can be called The Perfect Purpose Paradigm. On this view, even as we accept the special status of the Garden of Eden, we also recognize that its very existence as a protected habitat implies that there was a much greater area outside it and infers that there was a reason it needed to be protected. On this view, the incredibly integrated design we see in nature today was not the result of some Plan ‘B’ reaction on God’s part that caused Him to completely alter His original creation. Instead, in His perfect omniscience and foreknowledge, He designed the world this way, knowing exactly how He would use it to serve His purposes when the time came. Where the YE view insists that suffering and evil defy God’s purpose and are only the undesirable result of man’s sin, the OE view recognizes that suffering and evil are only here for a little while (as compared to eternity) and lead to accomplishing God’s eternal purpose. This is the model we see throughout the Bible in the lives of Job, Moses, Pharaoh, Abraham, Isaac, Joseph, the nation of Israel, Paul and, yes, even Jesus.
Under the Perfect Purpose Paradigm, God’s labeling the creation “very good” is a value judgment that should be seen in light of an end which is much greater than our enjoyment of this life alone. Instead, it was meant to employ His image bearers to conquer darkness/evil and thereby achieve our real purpose: to glorify Him forever. In this light, God’s plan of redemption is not a Plan ‘B’ that was instituted in reaction to our unforeseen rebellion. Instead it was the plan from before the beginning of time. Suffering and evil are here for a little while but serve only to lead us to a part of accomplishing the eternal purpose that God has always intended. If we insist on putting something perfect on it, “very good” means “perfectly suited to the purpose for which God intended it.”
Ironically, the YE claim that the OE view negates the reason for Jesus’ sacrificial death is turned on its head. If a “perfect” Eden was the chief end of the creation, there would be no need for a Redeemer. On the OE view, the chief end for all of us is yet to be seen New Heavens and a New Earth. That is a paradigm to live for.
You can order Peril in Paradise directly from Amazon.com here: