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Death Before the Fall: A Review


Despite our differences, I have always liked Ron Osborn, still do, and I hope we can get together in San Antonio. I can relate to his struggle, but from the opposite side: anger at how my whole young life I was dogmatically taught as true something, i.e., Darwinian evolution, that I now see as false. He says the same thing, only from the perspective of rejecting the creationism that he had been dogmatically taught in his young life.

But his book, “Death Before the Fall” (IVP Academic; 2014), is just one more doomed attempt to meld evolution with Genesis.

Venting Sessions
For starters, he should have called it My Beef with Those Narrow-Minded Fundamentalists. He goes page after page, lambasting the ignorance, the shallowness, the fear, the intellectual vacuity, the rigidness, the lack of self-criticism,  “the spirit of censure,” the intolerance, the irrationality, the “foreclosed identities,” et cetera and et cetera that he claims characterize conservative creationists.  He applied some psychology on us as well (surprised we didn’t get a Freudian, Jungian, or Adlerian scan to boot).  He wrote an imaginative chapter conjuring up parallels (“Anxiety,” “Alienation and Suspicion,” “Nostalgia,”  “Elitism,” “Salvation by Knowledge,”  “Surrealism,”  “Authoritarianism and Absolutism”) between creationists and the gnostic heretics of antiquity.
With all due respect, his philippic on the motives, character and intellect of creationists sounded more like venting sessions than serious debate. Let’s hope Ron at least felt better afterwards.

The Creation: A Plain Reading
He titled his first chapter “The Creation: A Plain Reading.”  He must have found the Nagelian “view from nowhere,” which enabled him to read the texts “plainly.” In fact, he assures us that “My interpretation of Genesis . . . is strictly textual and in no sense dependent upon modern scientific models . . .”

Yet the “modern scientific” model of evolution dominates everything in this work.

Early on he writes: “The key refrain Let—‘Let there be,’ ‘Let the waters,’ ‘Let the earth’— should serve as a clarion signal that God’s way of bringing order out of chaos involves not only directly fashioning or controlling but also granting, permitting and delegating . . .. Rather than simply dominating the world, in the very act of bringing the world into existence God is in a certain sense already withdrawing himself from it— or perhaps better, limiting himself within it— in order for it to be free.”

The word “free” is theistic evolutionary Newspeak for rocks, germs, lions, all the earth, animate and inanimate, given the freedom to evolve, without divine intervention.  According to Osborn’s “plain” reading of the text, the phrase “Let the earth bring forth living creatures” conveys “a strong impression or organic emergence.”  Read: millions of years of evolution. 

Yet he faces an exegetical problem with the Hebrew jussive “let.” Though acknowledging that it appear in Genesis 1:3 (“Let there be light”), which means God’s total control as opposed to allowing the light “freedom,” he focuses only on the few verses with the jussive (Gen. 1:11, 20) that he thinks makes his point, while ignoring its use in Genesis 1:6, 9, 14, 15, which clearly doesn’t. 

Each of his “lets” is also followed by the refrain, “and there was evening, and there was morning, day” one, three and so forth. How a “plain” reading of these phrases fits his evolutionary interpretation, he doesn’t say.

Osborn’s incorporates into Genesis one the violence, predation and death central to the “modern scientific” model of evolution, and one way he tries is through the phrase tob meod, “very good” (Gen. 1:31). He argues that “very good” might not be as “good” as we have traditionally thought.  He picks a few places in Scripture where the phrase, or those similar to it, are used in anything but perfect situations.  But biblical words or phrases must be interpreted in context, and to take for instance a use of tob (“good”) from Ecclesiastes (as he does) and read it back into Genesis 1:31 does nothing for his case.

He claimed that other Hebrew words “closer to the English sense of  ‘perfect’” could have been used, such from the root tmm, meaning “finished, completed,” as well “perfect” along with other terms. Again, we have to be careful when reading the sense of a word as it appears in one context back into a different one. At the same time, when Jacob (Genesis 25:27) is depicted as tam, he might be better off sticking with tob meod to make his point for a less than perfect original creation.

Modern Science
Why turn the biblical paradise into a Darwinian jungle?  Because, despite his assurance that he’s not “dependent upon modern scientific models,” that’s precisely what he’s dependent upon.  Even with his railing against creationist foundationalism, he’s guilty of his own version—foundationalism grounded in “modern science.” Only problem? One hundred and twenty years ago they were doing “modern science” too, even if much of that science has been discarded today. And if time should last another 120 years, much of the “modern science” so foundational to his hermeneutics will be discarded as well.

Osborn fulminated against “creation science” and “intelligent design” but said nothing about the epistemological problems with science in general.  I just came across an oft-cited article by a Stanford epidemiologist named John P. A. Ioannidis titled “Why Most Published Research Findings are False.” And Ioannidis was dealing with research about what’s alive and kicking now, as opposed to what happened supposedly 250 million years ago when—in its God-given freedom to work out “its inner principles according to its kind”— the Coelurosauravus evolved a pair of wings before vanishing into the Paleozoic ether.  Nevertheless, so sure of his highly speculative evolutionary model, Ron has no choice but to try to fit it into the Genesis account.

Why?  Because when the world’s greatest thinkers, the best and brightest, the feted experts, the Nobel Laureates in biology, chemistry, economics, physics, literature, and medicine; when the most educated, knowledgeable and informed among us, the PhDs, the fellows, the postdocs, the Rhodes scholars, the renowned, the famous, the brilliant—when all they believe in evolution, teach evolution, promote evolution, and just assume evolution, Christians like Osborn think that they must do the same.

Why don’t theistic evolutionists (or, as they now call themselves, “progressive creationists”) just say what they really think? We respect the Genesis account as the traditional means of expressing to the ancients God’s creative power—but given modern science—the Genesis account is useless for teaching us about human origins.  Wouldn’t that be more honest than these futile attempts to jerry-rig billions of years of evolution into the biblical six-day creation?

The Fall
Despite the title, Death Before the Fall, Osborn doesn’t have much to say about his own views on the “fall.” Maybe, given his model, there’s not much to say. If death, suffering and predation were part of allowing creation the “freedom of its own being,” where’s the need for the fall? 

In the chapter “Creation & Kenosis,” he argues the following: “The creation was never a static golden age but always an unfolding story with an eschatological horizon.” And this: “One can be a strict literalist on Genesis without possessing a trinitarian understanding of the divine nature and without any reference to the God who walked among us, whose power and glory are paradoxically revealed in his weakness and agony.” And this: “God’s way of creating, in this understanding, cannot be separated from God’s way of redeeming and never could be separated from the beginning. God creates as he redeems and redeems as he creates so that the two are always part of the same act . . .”

If I am reading him right, he’s saying that an unfallen creation would have given us a Christ only as Creator, not Redeemer. A perfect, pristine, sinless world would have revealed an incomplete picture of God.  Therefore, the need for redemption in a suffering Saviour on the cross was built into the creation from “In the beginning.” And what better vehicle for that end than the Neo-Darwinian synthesis, but only with God stepping back and allowing “free processes within a divinely ordered but not rigidly deterministic framework”?

If that’s what he is saying, then Osborn’s approach differs greatly from fellow traveler Des Ford, whose new book, despite the title—Genesis Versus Darwinism (Des Ford; 2014)—attempts to meld evolution and creation.  Desperate to keep the fall in his paradigm, Ford argues that the Adam of Genesis 1-3:24 is a different man—separated by thousands of years—from the Adam in Genesis 4:1 onward (even if both Adams have wives named Eve!). Way too sophisticated to go that route in order to retain the fall, Ron just seems to ignore it instead. 

In his most powerful chapter (“Stasis, Deception, Curse”), Osborn admits “that there are no tidy answers to the theodicy dilemma of animal suffering.” I agree. In fact, some issues raised in this chapter could, arguably, be answered easier by his evolutionary model than by the one I hold.  Doesn’t mean that he’s right, or that his arguments are defeaters; it mean only that even we literalists have to admit that our view of creation doesn’t come problem free, either.

Yet to argue that suffering, even animal suffering, is better explained as part of how God created our world from the start, as opposed to this suffering being one result of the fall, still doesn’t make God look so good.  How does that view answer the difficult question of animal suffering any better than a creationist model does?

And though quoting everyone from Maimonides, to Slavoj Žižek, to Wendell Berry, he never quoted Ellen White, who, in one depiction of the earth right after the fall, presents a picture antithetical to Ron’s death-before-sin model:  “As they witnessed in drooping flower and falling leaf the first signs of decay, Adam and his companion mourned more deeply than men now mourn over their dead. The death of the frail, delicate flowers was indeed a cause of sorrow; but when the goodly trees cast off their leaves, the scene brought vividly to mind the stern fact that death is the portion of every living thing.” 

Yes, “death is the portion of every living thing,” not because death was built into the creation as Osborn’s book (given the model he’s working from) must teach.  Instead, death, including animal death, arose because of the fall of a being made “in the image of God” on the sixth day of creation (Genesis 1:31), an event later fleshed out like this: “And the Lord God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul” (Genesis 2:7).  And this living soul, according to Genesis 3 (Romans 5; 1 Corinthians 15:22), fell into sin.   

Isn’t that as “plain” a reading as one could get?


See Also: “Biblical Literalism and the Problem of Animal Suffering: A Review of Ron Osborn’s New Book,” published in February, 2014.


Clifford Goldstein is Editor of the Adult Bible Study Guide. The views expressed in this article are his own.

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