My article “On the Fall of Angels and the Fallenness of Nature: An Evangelical Hypothesis Regarding Natural Evil” is now out in the April edition of Evangelical Quarterly. I hope it does not seem self-serving to share about the article on my blog, but a number of people have asked me about it since I referenced it in my correspondence with Doug Wilson on creation issues several weeks back. So I want to give a brief outline of the argument here, in hopes it might be helpful to others, and to try to open up avenues of dialogue around this important issue.
The article advances what I call the “angelic fall hypothesis” (AFH), which is the view that pre-human natural evil is best accounted for by the fall of angels. Many Christians attribute all natural evil to the human fall, but advances in the natural sciences since the early 19th century have increasingly indicated that death and suffering in the animal kingdom did not originate within human history, but vastly pre-date us. Other Christians maintain that death/disease/decay/disorder in the natural order is simply a necessary aspect of God creating a sustainable world: that animal pain and death may be unpleasant, but they are not “evil.” In the body of the article I say a bit about why I think the brutality of “nature red in tooth and claw” needs some kind of explanation, particularly in light of Christian eschatological expectation. (I may say more about this in a forthcoming blog post as well.)
So if nature is fallen and imperfect, and if it seems to be so before Adam and Eve were around to eat the fruit, what do we do with this? In the article I then offer AFH as an alternative to be considered:
“Although sometimes regarded as highly speculative and complex, this view actually benefits from a simple premise, that natural evil began when evil began; or put differently, that nature fell when the first creatures within her fell. It does not deviate from the principle embedded in the more traditional Christian view – that evil corrupts nature – but simply applies this principle to an earlier phase of the history of evil (the earliest). While it falls short of requiring assent on the basis of incontrovertible evidence, this theory nevertheless meets the criteria for a compelling hypothesis: it fits with everything we do know, and explains much of what we do not know.”
The body of the article then precedes in three sections.
1. Why It’s a Problem, and What the Options Are
In the first section, I state the difficulty of the problem, engaging with Anne Dillard’s observations of the animal kingdom in Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, as well as the growing stature of the “problem of natural evil” in contemporary philosophical discussion. I suggest that natural evil presents a challenge to the theist that cannot be lightly brushed aside, and try to clarify where exactly the problem lies:
“The problem involves not just the mere presence of death or suffering in the pre-human animal kingdom, but the seemingly sinister character of a system in which death, suffering, and predation are the driving forces: in which the strong devour the weak, waste and inefficiency predominate, and decay, disease, and disorganization run rampant.”
I then situate AFH in relation to other various responses to this issue. I provide a four-fold taxonomy of responses based upon my research, set against the backdrop of a more basic two-fold distinction of historical approaches to theodicy (Western/Augustinian “fallenness” accounts and Eastern/Irenaean “developmental” models). Included in my summary are views such as:
- Descartes’ idea that animals are mere automata (machines) that do not suffer (1.1)
- Demski’s hypothesis that the effects of the human fall were applied retroactively throughout “backward causation” onto the animal kingdom (2.2)
- Brunner’s view that God created the world as “fallen” in preparation for fallen humanity (2.3)
- Barth’s conception of das Nichtige (3.1)
- John Hick’s “soul-making” theodicy (3.3)
I also survey a whole slew of various creative theodicies, some more orthodox than others, that can be found in the burgeoning literature on this subject over the last 10 years. Some of the more important books include those by Southgate, Murray, Corey, Linzey, Creegan, Osborn, Johnson, Deane-Drummond; and there are some good essays in The Evolution of Evil and Darwin, Creation, and the Fall.
2. The History of This Hypothesis
In the second section of the article, I outline the development of AFH, beginning in 1876 with George Pember and developing up to the present day. In particular, I highlight 5 prominent Christian thinkers of the 20th century who advocate AFH:
- C.S. Lewis
- J.R.R. Tolkien
- Alvin Plantinga
- Thomas Torrance
- Hans Urs von Balthasar
I especially give some attention to C.S. Lewis’ debate with the philosopher C.E.M. Joad regarding AFH, and how it clarifies AFH. I also recount Tolkien’s creation narrative in The Silmarillion as a fictional counterpoint.
3. Reasons to Be Open-Minded to Healthy Speculation
In the third section, I offer 5 initial biblical and theological considerations that commend AFH for further evaluation. I examine how AFH squares with Genesis 1, its relation to atonement theology, and precursors to it in earlier church history. I also explore the Bible’s portrayal of the relationship of the demonic to material creation, drawing from a number of the insights of Aquinas’ Summa Theologica.
I also appeal for open-mindedness and a “healthy speculation” in approaching the question. In my experience, some Christians scoff at AFH as a bizarre, fantastical, weird idea. I hope that tracing out the articulation of AFH among prominent Christian writers, and situating it in relation to the larger philosophical discussion, might encourage some people to give it more serious consideration. To my mind, it is one of those theories that initially can seem a bit strange, but starts to make more and more sense the longer you look at it.
If nothing else, I hope that talking about AFH will generate further reflection on the whole issue of natural evil, particularly among evangelicals, who in general are way behind philosophers of religion in exploring this issue.
I reproduce here, to finish this post, my appeal for open-mindedness from the article:
“The most common objection to AFH is that it is speculative and fanciful. And it must be granted that the adjustment it brings into our vision of the history of the material universe can feel sharply counter-intuitive, especially to those coming from a young-earth creationist paradigm. The story of creation-fall-redemption envisioned by AFH is not pristine and simple like a picture of the Garden of Eden in a children’s Bible; it is cryptic, rough, and inviting, like one of the genealogies at the end of The Lord of the Rings. But while it can be uncomfortable to embrace a more complex, layered account of the history of good and evil, there are substantive reasons for being open-minded to this change. In the first place, while AFH does involve speculation, it is a guided and principled speculation, rather than unrestrained, wild speculation. In fact, all of the building blocks of AFH are drawn from the data of revealed Christian theology. AFH really advances no new theological principles: it simply applies classical theological principles – for example, that some angels fell, or that evil spoils nature – into a new combination with one another. Moreover, AFH makes this move only because all other avenues are blocked; its speculative elements are those of a necessary speculation that is compelled to ponder new complexities because old simplicities have proven out-dated.
At this point it is worthwhile to recall the Sherlock Holmesian dictum that when you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth. If natural evil simply cannot be confined to the last 5,000-10,000 years, then Sherlock Holmes would invite us to consider more creative, imaginative explanations. It would not be the first time that scientific discovery has compelled new, counter-intuitive ways of thinking. In the 16th century, for instance, embracing heliocentrism was highly counter-intuitive – it involved abandoning age-old assumptions and stepping into a vastly larger and more complicated world. But of course that is how truth often advances.
Furthermore, it is worth observing that all efforts at resolving the challenge of natural evil have difficulties. The young-earth-creationist who posits that predatory fish (like sharks) and birds (like falcons), created on day 5 in a world of vegetarian bliss, suddenly obtained carnivorous teeth and meat-digesting internal organs on day 6 when human sin entered the world – such a supposition has its own kind of counter-intuition. Nor is Gen. 1–3 an exhaustive account of history for any interpreter (if it were, where did the serpent come from before he suddenly shows up in chapter 3?) The question is not whether we must embrace nuance, live with tension, and open ourselves to creative ways of filling in the gaps – the question is where we are willing to do so. And while the world envisioned by AFH is more complicated than either the cold materialism of Richard Dawkins or the pristine warmth of a young earth, it can also be argued that it is more interesting and evocative than either of these. Instead of collapsing all of created reality in terms of its relevance to human history, it invites us into a story that is bigger and older than we could have imagined, a story in which all of human history is but one late chapter in a long, unfolding saga.
And why, after all, should we be surprised to discover elements in the history of our world that we never could have guessed? Everyone who loves children’s’ stories knows that the origins of things are often far more complex than they initially appear. Consider the origin of evil in C. S. Lewis’ The Magician’s Nephew as a fictional counterpoint. Try to explain how evil got into Narnia and you find yourself talking about Uncle Andrew, magic rings, world travel, a stolen chunk of lamppost, an evil Queen from the ruined world of Charn, two children from England, a chance grabbing of hair, and so forth. In fact, trying to explain the history of literally any material object is invariably more complex than could be guessed. Every acorn, person, coin, or molecule in the world has been preceded by an unimaginably complex concatenation of previous events. Why, then, should the history of evil itself not be complex, un-guessable? Why should the story of reality not have unexpected turns and twists, like the stories we invent?”
You can purchase a hard copy of the journal, if you are interested, here.