Day: June 29, 2010

when did death come into the world?

I’d like to fly a theological kite (which I definitely wouldn’t go to the stake for):

The Apostle Paul famously declares that ‘sin came into the world through one man, and death came through sin’ (Rom 5.12).

But I have to admit that I struggle to think of the second law of thermodynamics as simply the result of the Fall. Death — of a sort — seems to play an inextricable role in the life cycle of every cell of pretty much every known organism. Which seems hard to square with the suggestion (implied in the popular reading of Romans 5.12) that death was originally absent from the creation, only invading it later — and consequently becoming entangled with life at its most basic level.

Now, none of this would be in the least decisive if I didn’t have exegetical warrant for doubting the popular reading of Paul’s statement. In his book, The Garden of Eden and the Hope of Immortality, James Barr helpfully highlights the significant — though often overlooked — stratum of Old Testament testimony to the naturalness of death as a matter of creaturely limitation. EvenĀ if I’m not quite ready to admit death’s naturalness, I’m more inclined to accept that there are things worse than death (just as there are illegitimate ways to oppose death).

Of course, this must also be set alongside other biblical strata that testify to the dehumanising and adversarial aspect of death — not simply as a matter of natural creaturely limitation but rather as the fearful implement of destruction wielded by one opposed to the living God. (Interestingly, it’s this aspect of death that seems most prominent in what follows immediately from Paul’s statement in Romans 5.)

In order to maintain these perspectives in an appropriately constructive tension I wonder if some sort of distinction between death and perishing might help. E.g.,:

Only man dies. The animal perishes. It has death neither ahead of itself nor behind it. (Martin Heidegger, ‘The Thing’ in Poetry, Language, Thought, p 178)

Or am I barking up the wrong tree?