You are hereFirst things and last things
First things and last things
by Stephen Douglas
I have not tried to find a reason to disagree with the majority when it comes to my theological positions. Any reader of this blog will recognize that this has nevertheless happened on occasion. Chiefly, theistic evolution puts me at odds with most evangelicals and full preterism puts me at odds with most believers. In other words, I hold a minority position on protology (the doctrine of first things) and eschatology (the doctrine of last things). From what I know, only a handful of Christians who accept full preterism also accept the scientific consensus on origins; likewise, only a few believers who accept the scientific consensus on origins accept full preterism. I am amazed by this because of how well the two fit together. I’ve been meaning to write a post such as this for some time, so here goes.I have not tried to find a reason to disagree with the majority when it comes to my theological positions. Any reader of this blog will recognize that this has nevertheless happened on occasion. Chiefly, theistic evolution puts me at odds with most evangelicals and full preterism puts me at odds with most believers. In other words, I hold a minority position on protology (the doctrine of first things) and eschatology (the doctrine of last things). From what I know, only a handful of Christians who accept full preterism also accept the scientific consensus on origins; likewise, only a few believers who accept the scientific consensus on origins accept full preterism. I am amazed by this because of how well the two fit together. I’ve been meaning to write a post such as this for some time, so here goes.Evolutionary origins and death
The issue of biological death preceding sin is among the most troubling to special creationists. And not just to them: there are evolutionary creationists I know who feel that theodicy is given a more pronounced challenge since billions of years of evolutionary history - including suffering, death, and extinction - occurred without any sin to blame. I’m not at all convinced that humanity must blame anyone or anything for death any more than they feel the need to blame someone for photosynthesis. Death and suffering are not objective, absolute evils but are only recognized as evil in the eye of the beholder; because no other species even recognizes such ideas as absolute good and evil, over 13 billion years of natural history occurred before anyone found any need to blame anyone for what would seem to most observers from an ant colony to simply be the processes of life.
That Christians of today would hold a somewhat dualistic understanding of life and death is not really surprising given that, for the majority of our lives, life and death are certainly on the opposite poles of desirability: self-preservational instincts, emotional attachments, and a sense of social justice are wonderful things and the only practical way of living life as humans, but these considerations do not entail an absolute basis for those preferences. In actuality, no one really behaves as though death were an absolute evil: some are sensible enough to limit it to human death (who wouldn’t have termites exterminated?) but even those would likely admit to times in which taking the life of another human would be justified (e.g., self defense). Death and suffering are not objective evils; human agency intentionally causing them often is - but that’s the subject of another blog post.
But even most of the Christians who are willing to entertain the idea that death and suffering are evils that are in some way necessary assume that the focus of eschatology is the elimination of these things. It’s the notion that the events brought about by eschatology must function by the standard of “that than which nothing greater can be conceived,” where we are the ones who decide the standard of great and greater, and since we avoid death at all costs, well, that’s got to be included in the deal! But this inaccurate view of eschatology is bolstered by a misunderstanding of the nature of the death that Christ’s work was intended to deliver us from.
FP position on the curse and the death of Adam
Full preterists point out that God promised Adam in Gen. 2.17 that “in the day that you eat of it, you will surely die.” Some translations try to lessen the force of this, including the NIV (”when you eat of it you will surely die”, where “when” translates “on the day”) and the NRSV (”in the day that you eat of it you will die”, where “surely” is inexplicably omitted). Did Adam or Eve “surely” physically die “in the day” they sinned?
There are various ways to explain this. Some who are not committed to inerrancy might speculate that the author got something mixed up. But the documentary hypothesis doesn’t have much of an argument here either; it’s not as though one author wrote the threat and another author didn’t follow through, given that the name “LORD God” was used throughout the narrative, of both the threat and the banishment. It also beggars belief that the redactors didn’t catch the major incongruity between the threat and the result although positioned mere sentences apart from each other.
The more conservative Christian is likelier to follow the tack of translating the text word-for-word as “dying you shall die” rather than “you shall surely die” to the effect that physical death - deterioration, corruption, decay - began that day and was not completed until later. The Hebrew does not support this at all, and in fact, it insists upon the opposite. This proposed reading is a classic misunderstanding of the Hebrew syntax. The construction here is “[infinitive absolute] you shall [finite verb]“; in Biblical Hebrew, if the verbs are of the same root and the infinitive absolute precedes the finite verb, the construction signifies an emphatic construction (”surely”). This is the same expression seen in Gen. 2:16 (”eating you may eat freely” → “you may certainly eat freely”) and 15:13 (”knowing you must know” → “know for certain”). If the infinitive follows the finite verb, it’s progressive (e.g. 1 Sam 6:12). A correct, emphatic reading of this passage seems at pains to yield almost the exact opposite of the progressive reading: “You will die that day, make no mistake.” In fact, the Hebrew translators of the Septuagint chose to render it in Greek as emphatic rather than as progressive as well (lit. “on that day . . . by death you will die”).
God followed through on His warning: on the day they ate, they died. But obviously not biologically. Rather, this story, produced well before the concept of the Resurrection of the Dead was revealed to the prophets, sought to emphasize the magnitude of being separated from God within this life: everyone ends up in the grave, but banishment from the covenant for disobedience is living death. The Resurrection of the Dead was the late breaking hope that by God’s grace our personhood need not pass away after death, but the Hebrews never thought it was incumbent upon God to deliver humanity at any future time from the inevitability of physical death.
The upshot is that full preterists see physical death not as the adverse result of sin or anything else but as the original state of affairs. The elimination of physical death on earth was never an eschatological expectation. The death of Adam and Eve was the death of separation from God and loss of covenant fellowship. The institution of the New Covenant that accompanied the fulfillment of the Old eliminated the threat of disobedience from those in covenant: unlike the situation of the participants in the Mosaic Covenant, those in covenant with God and adopted as His sons need not fear being banished for the failure to meet a dizzying number of ritual obligations, any more than a father disowns his child when he disobeys. This, not the abolition of physical mortality, is the benefit of the New Covenant! Biological death - not evil, but always a part of the universe God constructed. We do not like death, and should rightly avoid it until its appointed time comes, but no more so than a child should try to avoid going to the dentist. God’s plan for us extends after death - and it gets better.