And death shall have no dominion.
Dead men naked they shall be one
With the man in the wind and the west moon;
When their bones are picked clean and the clean bones gone,
They shall have stars at elbow and foot;
Though they go mad they shall be sane,
Though they sink through the sea they shall rise again;
Though lovers be lost love shall not;
And death shall have no dominion.
Dylan Thomas, “And Death Shall Have No Dominion”
“The origin of animal suffering,” writes C.S. Lewis in The Problem of Pain, “could be traced, by earlier generations, to the Fall of man—the whole world was infected by the uncreating rebellion of Adam. This is now impossible, for…animals existed long before men” (138). Here is the problem of evolutionary theodicy in a nutshell: humanity—traditionally the cause of the “the groaning of creation”—is no longer apparently guilty of wrecking the cosmos in a primordial act of rebellion. The world before us was one of predation, destruction, and death, just as it is now. Evolutionary history, then, raises significant questions about theodicy—about God’s goodness in overseeing history, and the role of death and suffering in both creation and human life. The apparent priority of death to sin is an enormous challenge to theological doctrine, and Orthodox theology in particular. However, despite these fearsome challenges, Orthodoxy also brings to bear some unique tools to deal with the problem.
Many of the most prominent writers on this problem have found it necessary to jettison the Fall as a core doctrine, finding no way to harmonize it with natural history—it is a drastic move, but necessary for those who make it. For Keith Ward, attributing the world’s violence to the Fall “must seem a very unrealistic view to anyone who accepts some form of evolutionary theory” (Rational Theology and the Creativity of God, 203). For Christopher Southgate, “[I]nvestigation of evolutionary theodicy is hobbled by an insistence on relying on fall language” (The Groaning of Creation, 34). Likewise, Elizabeth Johnson: “[C]onsidered in an evolutionary framework, pain, suffering, and death in the natural world do not fit into the common theological explanations offered” (Ask the Beasts, 184-85).
Bethany Sollereder takes up the same approach in God, Evolution, and Animal Suffering, whose subtitle encapsulates its thesis: Theodicy Without a Fall. For her, “Using the fall as an explanation is…no longer a plausible way forward.” Evolution, whether at a biochemical level or at a macro, organismal level, cannot happen without death—“evolutionary evidence suggests that the world was only free from death and competition when it was also free from life” (4).
For all these authors, there is no place for the Fall from a kind of Edenic paradise—in history, theology, or theodicy. Usually, it must be clarified, they argue for a kenotic understanding of creation—that is, that God in Christ suffers with and for creation (and is not just cold and aloof), though this raises questions about the attribute of divine impassibility and whether it can be maintained, as it traditionally has.
Whether Orthodoxy can abide the elimination of the Fall, and therefore the institution of death as central to creation, is another question. Recall the paschal troparion: Χριστὸς ἀνέστη ἐκ νεκρῶν, θανάτῳ θάνατον πατήσας—Christ is risen from the dead, trampling down death by death. Death does not feature in the liturgy as a necessary element of creation, overcome by a God who reluctantly created through it. It is an alien, fundamental enemy that will be “the last to be destroyed” (1 Cor 15:26). As David Bentley Hart writes, death is God’s “ancient enemy,” and its final defeat in the eschaton will show that all its entire existence was for “nothing” (The Doors of the Sea, 66, 104). Kallistos Ware writes that the rebellion of Adam against God was an “unnatural condition” that “led to an inevitable disintegration of their being and ultimately to physical death.” For Ware, death is abnormal and, through Adam, “all humankind became subject to mortality” (The Orthodox Church, 216). Consider also Maximus the Confessor, who writes that the punishment for Adam’s sin “was death.” As Jacob Archambault has argued, Maximus sees pleasure and pain, life and death, sexual reproduction and generation, as all bound up intimately with fallen life (“Nature, Will, and the Fall in Augustine and Maximus the Confessor,” 14).
The problem becomes especially acute when one considers the frequent Orthodox inversion of the Sin → Death formula, which sometimes reads the reverse—in which sin is caused by death, and not vice versa. As Andrew Louth reads Athanasius’ On the Incarnation, “[I]t seems to me to be suggested that it is not so much sin that causes death, as death that causes sin” (Introducing Eastern Orthodox Theology, 71). According to John Meyendorff, the Greek Fathers were in unison on this point—“[I]t is this death which makes sin inevitable” (Byzantine Theology, 145). Meyendorff follows the Greek reading of Romans 5:12, where Paul says, “…and because of death, all men have sinned.” Similarly, the author of Hebrews states “that through death [Christ] might destroy him that had the power of death, that is, the devil; and deliver them who through fear of death were all their lifetime subject to bondage” (2:14).
If death itself is the cause of sin, and death is built into the fabric of creation, is God not then sin’s author? The evolutionary picture of a species’ slow development through eons, gradually departing from its cousins and their common ancestors, eventually arising in humanity after many millions of years of the shuffling off of mortal coils, evinces no trace of Edenic paradise or of harmonious life. Even the rocks cry out, as the Psalmist says, but they cry out as much about the violence and ignoble ends of all creatures as they do the grandeur and wonder of the cosmos. As Darwin writes, “What a book a devil’s chaplain might write about the clumsy, wasteful, blundering, low, and horribly cruel works of nature!” If death is the great enemy, whom Paul taunted—“O Death, where is your sting?” (1 Cor 15:55)—then why did God create through evolution? If the end of Christianity is the proclamation that “death shall have no dominion,” then why has its dominion seemingly been writ into the foundations of the earth?
We find ourselves then caught in a nexus of three truths that seem irreconcilable: the intuitive reality of the Fall—as Chesterton once quipped, “Certain new theologians dispute original sin, which is the only part of Christian theology which can really be proved” (Orthodoxy, 4); the unanimous consent of scientists on the reality of evolutionary history—as Theodosius Dobzhansky (legendary geneticist and Russian Orthodox layman) stated forcefully, “Nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution”; and lastly, the unchanging goodness of God. Seemingly, only two of these three can be affirmed at any one time.
So, considering all this, then, what tools can Orthodox theology offer to deal with the problem? Space precludes an in-depth discussion, but I would like to sketch out three things to keep in mind while considering the issue. First, what the Fathers might tell us; second, what the contemporary interest in Sergei Bulgakov might offer; and third, the importance to Orthodoxy of mystery. Though this topic covers science and theology, I am neither a scientist nor a theologian. Rather, as a historian, I hope to highlight some avenues for engagement with this issue, while still maintaining a stance of healthy agnosticism about the best path forward.
The Fathers offer some useful hermeneutical tools and ideas for interpreting Genesis in a way that may preserve God’s goodness, the reality of the Fall and sin, as well as evolutionary history. It is well known that there is a wide chasm between the hermeneutical methods of, say, St. Basil of Caesarea or St. Gregory of Nyssa and a 20th-century fundamentalist like Henry M. Morris. This is helpful in revisiting Genesis, because it frees us from the constraints of contemporary fundamentalist readings, which have been almost exclusively young Earth creationist—this is, however, a more recent phenomenon: early anti-evolutionists were mostly old Earthers who held to the “gap theory” or “day-age theory” (young Earth views developed first in the Adventist writings of Ellen White and George McCready Price, and then grew in popularity after the 1960s through the efforts of Henry Morris, Ken Ham, and others; Fr. Seraphim Rose, after all, was influenced to a great extent by Morris) (Ronald Numbers, The Creationists; Rose, Genesis, Creation, and Early Man).
There have been several scholars who have analyzed the Fathers in light of evolution and the old Earth. For instance, Paul M. Blowers and Christopher Southgate have written on the way Maximus sees an in-built teleology in the form of his concept of the logoi (though Blowers cautions that one should not see the cross as “ontologically necessary,” and he is skeptical of whether the Fall can be preserved) (“Unfinished Creative Business”).
Following a similar line of thinking, regarding “seminal reasons,” Alister McGrath has written on Augustine and Darwin, likewise drawing attention to Augustine’s treatment of creation by bringing forth “seeds”—in a developmental view of life (Darwinism and the Divine, 222-30).
And Elena Ene D-Vasilescu discusses evolution and Gregory of Nyssa, drawing attention to the ways apokatastasis, epektasy, and “seminal reasons” may be applied to evolutionary history. (“Gregory of Nyssa on Evolutionism”).
As Blowers noted regarding Maximus, but it can be extended to the other Fathers as well, none of these ideas offer a definitive, one-size-fits-all way of dealing with the issue of evolution and the Fall, but individually they suggest plausible concepts that may help integrating the two more completely. For an interesting case study of this kind of melding of a modern theology that includes both evolution and the Fall, one can turn—tentatively—to the writings of Sergei Bulgakov.
Bulgakov, though highly controversial for his writings on the Divine Sophia, nevertheless offers some potential insight into creation, evolution, and theodicy. His solution is the Fall that is inscrutable historically but is real ontologically, taking place above, outside, and alongside the temporal universe. This supratemporal Fall is described most extensively in The Bride of the Lamb, his magnum opus. “It goes without saying,” he writes on Genesis, “that the Six Days are only a schema of creation” (67). Even so, the concept of the Fall must be preserved even if its mediation to us through Scripture is primarily poetic. Creation, in his view, is not simply a “beginning in time,” as such a framing would lead to the logically incoherent idea that there was a sort of pre-existent time—as he writes, “An absolute beginning is something inconceivable or simply an illusion.” Bulgakov’s alternate is the “beginningless beginning,” the view that creation was created “supratemporally, or, more precisely, from all eternity” (78). And it is not creation alone that must be understood this way, but the Fall with it—as a supratemporal reality.
Humanity “co-participates with God in [their] own creation or, more precisely, God includes this creation in His own act.” “What is essential here,” for Bulgakov concerning creation, “is that although this is not a temporal and historical act but a supratemporal and supra-empirical one, it nevertheless constitutes the premise, the basis, of all our being” (97). Bulgakov specifies that Adam, in his reading, is to be understood in the word’s literal sense as humanity, and not necessarily as an individual person—the “integral Adam,” in which all of us participate. Human generations and individuals appear in time, but only because of our supratemporal creation—this is not, Bulgakov assures us, “a doctrine of the pre-existence of souls or reincarnation…for here there is no ‘pre’ which would belong to a temporal succession.” Bulgakov, for his part, specifies that this creation of “Adam” is instead “accomplished by God not in time but for time, supratemporally” (113). And because freedom is the supratemporal basis of our being, so also is it the basis of the Fall.
“Such a personal fall,” Bulgakov writes, “did not take place within the limits of this world. It took place outside this world, or, more correctly, at the threshold of our entry into the world.” For this reason, historical evidence of this event is forever shrouded behind an ontological veil. “This reality,” he writes, “which differs from the present reality, cannot be expressed or described in the same language of history” (169). Bulgakov states that the supratemporal Fall permeated the cosmos to its foundations throughout all of time, but that “we can no longer find traces of the original state (except in obscure anamnesis, slumbering in the human soul)” (172).
In fact, this flickering ancestral memory of how-things-ought-to-be may itself be an adumbration of the eschatological hope we have not yet encountered (a part of history that is “already, but not yet”), as Gayle Woloschak argues (“Ecology, Evolution, and Bulgakov,” 58-61). Under this view, evolution can be integrated into the narrative of fallen humanity and the travails and pains of history—for evolution, according to Bulgakov, “within its proper limits also presupposes its relative imperfection” (173). The legacy of the supratemporal Fall is that the world persists in a state of bondage—even antecedent to us and all life. Writes Charles Andrew Gottschall (whose entire essay on this subject is well worth reading):
Humanity, in a single, supra-temporal determination of its existence, which had the force of fate for the whole natural world, forsook ‘the tree of life’ for the forbidden tree and fell into error and fragmentation, and thereby subjected the world to futility. (“Sergius Bulgakov on Evolution and the Fall,” see on Father Aidan Kimel’s Eclectic Orthodoxy)
The Fall is then an ontological reality, and death its consequence; history depicts its legacy from the inception of the universe until now—before us, with us, and after us.
Bulgakov’s reading of the Fall is difficult and somewhat obscure, and much of his insight has been overshadowed by the controversy concerning Sophia; I have deliberately avoided using explicit sophiological language so as to mitigate this a bit. But even so, these speculations on doctrine and history must necessarily be tentative and cautious, and we must always be aware of the vast chasms of ignorance that underlay our inquiries into theology as well as science.
Ultimately, and this is something Orthodoxy has prepared its flock perhaps more readily than other denominations, the answer to this question may lie beyond our ability to grasp. Why would God create through evolution? What is the place of Eden in the history of the cosmos? In its future? Job famously charged that God should have written a book explaining everything (31:35), but then when he finally saw God, he was met with a bewildering vision of the cosmos from a perspective he could not fathom. “Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth?” (38:4). Is God present in, with, and under the suffering of all things from the dawn of history and into the horizon of the future? Have the lambs joined the Lamb in being slain from the foundation of the world? The hesychasts have long testified that God’s uncreated essence cannot truly be apprehended in this life or the next, and that the ineffable experience of God can be described only obliquely and apophatically. We know that God is not the author of evil—that the divine essence is goodness as such—and that death is a violation of creation’s purpose, even if we are unsure how to read that knowledge onto nature “red in tooth and claw.” As Charles Kinbote comments in Pale Fire (227):
St. Augustine said, “One can know what God is not; one cannot know what He is.” I think I know what He is not: He is not despair, He is not terror, He is not the Earth in one’s rattling throat, not the black hum in one’s ears fading to nothing in nothing. I know also that the world could not have occurred fortuitously and that somehow Mind is involved as a main factor in the making of the universe.
And even if the dark cloud of mystery is where all our theological inquiries must conclude, we must also nevertheless not forget the promise attached to it: that Revelation states “all things will be made new,” that death is not necessary but will one day vanish from the cosmos, and that, in the words of John Donne:
Thou art slave to fate, chance, kings, and desperate men,
And dost with poison, war, and sickness dwell,
And poppy or charms can make us sleep as well
And better than thy stroke; why swell’st thou then?
One short sleep past, we wake eternally
And death shall be no more; Death, thou shalt die.
Christopher Howell is a catechumen in the Orthodox Church and PhD candidate at Duke University in Durham NC, working on a dissertation on the history of anti-Darwinism in America. He holds an MTS from Duke Divinity School and a BA in history from the University of California in Riverside. When not reading and writing, he wastes too much time watching baseball. Follow him on Twitter.