Death and Darwinism: A Patristic Approach

It’s all but impossible to overstate the theological importance of the doc­trine of the Fall. Most basically, the Fall is what allows Christian theology to meaningfully draw a distinction between the world’s present state and its proper state, i.e., between how the world is and how it ought to be. Without recourse to the Fall, there are essentially just two interpretations of our world to choose from: nihilism on the one hand (there are no ‘oughts’ in reality; all ‘ought’-claims are therefore mere expressions of pow­er or preference), and dualism on the other (there are two opposite but equal­ly legitimate ‘oughts’ in reality, either of which one may reasonably and ‘ethically’ choose to prefer).[1]

Thanks largely to the ubiquitous influence of Nietzsche on postmodern thought, the former route has been that taken by the majority of prominent 20th century philosophers. As John Milbank and others have argued, this ‘nihilistic’ Nietzschean rejection of metaphysical ought-claims is what unites thinkers as otherwise diverse as Heidegger, Deleuze, Foucault, and Derrida.[2] And, as Mil­bank and others have somewhat more controversially argued, this rejection of metaphysics is itself rooted in a preju­dice which underlies the thought of both Nietzsche and his postmodern heirs: namely, that reality is fundamentally vi­olent and internally conflicted.

It is certainly true, at any rate, that this prejudice gave rise to Nietzsche’s own disdain for metaphysics, which followed directly from his conviction that “the world is the will to power—and nothing else besides!” For Nietzsche, the world is in actuality nothing but a cacophonous play of flux and warfare, and so to think ‘metaphysically’ about the world is really just to conceal whichever its features one finds inexplicable or unpleasant (while dubbing sacred whichever of its features happen to serve one’s interests). The only honest and “yes-saying” way to approach the world, argues Nietzsche, is with a self-deprecating refusal to tame its hid­eous disorder: that is, to refuse to really distinguish good from evil, sacred from profane, prelapsarian from postlapsari­an.

And so Nietzsche’s hatred of Chris­tianity makes perfect sense. By assert­ing that our world exists in a deeply cor­rupted state, Christian theology refuses to attribute ultimate reality to death, ugliness, and evil (which ‘exist’ only as negative parasites upon the original life, beauty, and goodness of creation). It stubbornly insists that, despite all ap­pearances to the contrary, the self-sac­rificial love of Christ is more fundamen­tally true to reality than, say, the egotism of Donald Trump; that the beauty of marital consummation is more funda­mentally real than hideousness of rape; and so forth. But if Nietzsche is correct in deeming violence more real than peace, love, and beauty (or even if he is correct in deeming violence real at all), he is cer­tainly also correct in finding Christianity pathetic and dishonest.

Which brings me back to the sub­ject of the Fall. The Fall is the means by which Christian theology accounts for the disparity between the purported character of God and the tragic state of our world. As David Bentley Hart quite correctly notes, Christianity requires one to stubbornly

see two realities at once, one world (as it were) within another: one the world as we all know it, in all its beauty and terror, grandeur and dreariness, delight and an­guish; and the other the world in its first and ultimate truth, not simply ‘nature’ but ‘creation,’ an endless sea of glory, radiant with the beauty of God in every part, in­nocent of all violence. … Christian thought from the outset, denies that (in themselves) suffering, death, and evil have any ulti­mate value or spiritual meaning at all. It claims that they are cosmic contingencies, ontological shadows, intrinsically devoid of substance or purpose, however much God may—under the conditions of a fallen or­der—make them the occasions for accom­plishing his good ends.[3]

But if reality is not fallen, there is no legitimate way for one to distinguish be­tween the “two realities” Hart describes: the true and false, the good and evil, the original and the damaged. And any the­ology which forfeits (or even fails to prop­erly emphasize) its claim that reality has been really fractured in some way—not by the design of a capricious and ma­nipulative God, but by the abuse of free human agency—is a theology devastated by Nietzsche’s critique. That is, if the cur­rent, death-ridden state of our world is in any sense the true or original or divinely intended state of our world, then Chris­tianity is every bit as cowardly and ridic­ulous as Nietzsche accused it of being.[4]

But there is an at least apparent problem here. Following Darwin, it in­creasingly appears that the world’s strife, death, and corruption in fact have been present and endemic from the world’s beginning, entering the world prior to not only the sin but even the emergence of homo sapiens. And thus, by all appear­ances, Christianity’s account of an origi­nal ‘Fall’ into sin and death is essentially gibberish.

There are a number of possible solu­tions to this problem offered (indirectly) by the Greek fathers, who set about in­terpreting the Fall and its consequences in various creative and daring ways. It’s obviously beyond the scope of my knowl­edge and space to present their views at length, but I hope, in the remainder of this essay, to gesture toward several pos­sible approaches to Darwinism that lie within the bounds of patristic orthodoxy. I’ll do so by briefly presenting four sur­prisingly relevant insights we find in the fathers regarding creation and its Fall.

First, according to many of the church’s fathers, the precise nature of the Fall’s occurrence is not something about which we can speak with much theolog­ical or dogmatic certainty. We know that “sin entered the world through one man, and death through sin,” but very few fa­thers purport to know exactly how this occurred (Rom. 5:12). To offer just a few examples: Gregory of Nyssa explicitly prefaces his speculations about the Fall’s consequences with an acknowledgement that they are only “conjectures and simil­itudes”; this being the case, he urges his readers to not receive them “authorita­tively.”[5] Similarly, Maximus the Confes­sor offers “two possible explanations of how [the Fall] came about,”[6] leaving these two, mutually incompatible explanations open to orthodox belief. In the West, Au­gustine pondered a number of theories regarding the Fall’s occurrence over the course of his vast theological career, but never settled conclusively on any one of them. And so forth. This open lack of cer­titude among the fathers regarding the precise ‘how’ of the Fall must be kept in mind as we think through the Fall’s rela­tion to Darwinism and death.

Second, several of the fathers explic­itly suggest that due to the Fall’s cosmic and epistemic consequences, we cannot in any adequate way know or compre­hend what came ‘before’ its occurrence. As Augustine puts it, the redeemed mind “recalls its Lord” and knows that it for­merly fell from grace, but “has totally for­gotten” and “cannot even be reminded” of the Edenic happiness it knew before somehow falling in Adam.[7] Gregory of Nyssa heavily implies a similar disjunc­tion between pre- and postlapsarian re­ality throughout books 16-18 of On the Making of Man (and really, throughout the entirety of his corpus). And the poetic theology of Ephrem the Syrian, perhaps most forcefully of all, not only involves but logically requires a radical epistemic distance between our world and Paradise. This is because for Ephrem, as Sebastian Brock notes, “Paradise was not to be sit­uated in time or space; rather, it belonged to a different order of reality.”[8] Thus, in Ephrem’s words, “The tongue cannot relate the description of innermost Par­adise, nor indeed does it suffice for the beauties of the outer part; for even the simple adornments by the Garden’s fence cannot be related in an adequate way.”[9] And while Ephrem grants that we can speak in figurative and analogous lan­guage of our Edenic home, he frequent­ly points out that we can only do even this much because Paradise graciously “[clothes] itself in terms that our akin to [us].”[10] Sergius Bulgakov is therefore adopting one quite viable patristic (not modernist) approach when he writes that

neither the past of the world when man was without sin nor the new heaven and new earth of the future age can be known from the life of the present age, for they are separated from the present age by a cer­tain transcensus. From this point of view it becomes understandable and natural that, on our earth, no traces of Eden or of the edenic original state of man can be found. They are in fact not found in our world, al­though this does not mean that there were no such traces in the past or even that they do not exist even now —in the depths of the world’s being if not in its empirical re­ality. Adam’s fall was a catastrophe that changed the fate of the world. It was an impenetrable wall that separated his origi­nal state from his later state, so that in the later state one can no longer find traces of the original state (except in obscure anam­nesis, slumbering in the human soul).[11]

And Hart elaborates upon this same patristic sentiment: “The fall of rational creation and the subjection of the cos­mos to death is something that appears to us nowhere within the unbroken time of nature or history … it belongs to an­other frame of time, another kind of time, one more real than the time of death.”[12] The Christian is by no means obliged to take as strong a stance here as do Hart or Bulgakov, but the stance they represent is evidently patristic in its pedigree and hence available as an orthodox option.

Third, and somewhat more crucial­ly, according to certain patristic accounts of the Fall, God’s foreknowledge of sin allowed certain consequences of Adam’s sin to sequentially precede the sin itself. As Conor Cunningham puts it, “Creation was intended to be perfect, and this eter­nal intention is its true nature; but God’s foreknowledge of man’s sin eschatologi­cally ordered creation toward Christ and thus to perfection.”[13]

Perhaps the most profound elucida­tion of this view is offered by Gregory of Nyssa in books 16-18 of his On the Mak­ing of Man.[14] Having raised the question of how God, who is utterly impassible and neither male nor female, is aptly imaged by passible and gendered humans, Greg­ory suggests that the “creation of our [hu­man] nature is in a sense two-fold: one made like to God, one divided according to this distinction [of sex]” (16.8). In other words, as Cunningham summarizes, “be­cause God knew of man’s future sin, and that it would lead to death, he bestowed on man the ability to procreate, thus sav­ing him from extinction.”[15] Gregory spells this out clearly:

perceiving beforehand by His power of foreknowledge what, in a state of indepen­dence and freedom, is the tendency of the motion of man’s will He devised for His image the distinction of male and female, which has no reference to the Divine Ar­chetype. (16.14)

The division of humanity into sexes is thus not part of what Gregory calls God’s eternally intended “first creation” (which will exist only in God’s creative intention until its eschatological actualization), but of God’s “second” creation (which God brought into actual existence in light of His foreknowledge of human history and sin). Gregory goes even further: God im­planted not only the division of sexes into humans in light of His foreknowledge of sin, but also the “animal and irrational mode [of procreation] by which [humans] now succeed one another” (17.4). And the various passions which incline us to sin, Gregory asserts, “issue as from a spring” from the “animal mode of generation” im­planted in us from the beginning (18.1-2).[16]

To a large degree, Maximus follows Gregory in these speculations. While he is happy, like Gregory, to speak at times of Adam falling from a paradisal state and into corruption, he makes clear in his Ambiguum 8 that he does not under­stand such a fall to have necessarily hap­pened in a literally sequential fashion. In addressing the question of how man fell into a state of passibility and corruption, he raises “two possible explanations of how this came about,” the latter of which is quite similar to that of Gregory:

One possibility is that God, at the very moment humanity fell, blended our soul together with our body on account of the transgression, and endowed it with the ca­pacity to undergo change, just as he gave the body the capacity to suffer, undergo corruption, and be wholly dissolved. The other possibility is that from the beginning God, in his foreknowledge, formed the soul in the aforesaid way because he foresaw the coming transgression, so that by suffering and experiencing evil on its own, the soul would come to an awareness of itself and its proper dignity, and even gladly embrace detachment with respect to the body.[17]

What we find in both Maximus and Gregory, then, is a willingness to sequen­tially place various effects of the Fall pri­or to their cause. One is free to find this line of speculation uncompelling, but it cannot be called foreign to patristic tra­dition.[18] And while, admittedly, Gregory and Maximus never extend their specu­lations quite far enough to accommodate today’s Darwinian data, it seems obvious that they open the door for post-Darwin­ian Christians to do so responsibly. Once literalism regarding the sequence of the Fall and its consequences is understood as non-crucial, there is ample room for theology to understand itself in light of evidence of prelapsarian death.

The fourth and final point to keep in mind is perhaps the most important of all, inasmuch as it demonstrates that even if one is committed to a literally se­quential Fall into sin and death, there is nevertheless still room for Darwinism in patristic theology. For a sizable majority of the fathers, it was not from an actual state of immortality that Adam fell, but a merely potential one. According to one venerable Greek patristic tradition, man was created “between mortality and im­mortality,” as the bridge between animal and angelic creation. This notion runs at least as far back as Irenaeus, who thought Adam and Eve to have been cre­ated as naturally mortal spiritual chil­dren en route to immortality. In ‘falling,’ Adam turned away from this upward tra­jectory and toward his “naturally” mortal trajectory of sin and death.[19] As Athana­sius writes in On the Incarnation, “[God] gave [human beings] a law, so that if they guarded the grace and remained good, they might have the life of paradise … be­sides having the promise of their incor­ruptibility in heaven.”[20] Similarly, John of Damascus avers that God gave Adam the commandment in Eden “with the prom­ise that should he let reason prevail, rec­ognizing his creator and observing his Creator’s ordinance … then he would become stronger than death and would live forever.”[21] Conversely, if Adam failed to observe the commandment, “then he would be subject to death and corrup­tion.”[22] Damascene finishes by explain­ing that “it was not profitable for [man] to attain incorruptibility while yet untried and untested”[23] as did the angels (since this would result in his being eternally trapped in sin after the Fall).

The significance of this common­place patristic teaching—that “[God] did not make [man] mortal, nor did He fash­ion him as immortal”[24]—lies in the fact that it leaves wide open the possibility, perhaps even probability, that the an­imal creation below humanity was not graced with immortality upon the world’s creation. After all, for most of the Greek fathers, animalistic passions were inex­tricably tied to mortality and sexual pro­creation. If animals procreated sexually prior to Adam’s fall, there is every logi­cal reason to think that they died or at least were mortal before it as well (though Augustine’s conjecture that prelapsarian animals died in a less predatory way than they now do remains plausible). And if animals were mortal before the Fall, there is no inherent problem with the sugges­tion that homo sapiens arrived at the end of a naturally mortal hominid chain with the potential for immortality—a potential that homo sapiens lost when it tended to­ward matter rather than God.[25]

The foregoing ought to indicate that Darwinism poses no necessary threat to patristic theology, even if one is commit­ted to a sequential reading of the Fall and its consequences. The fathers’ thought is more than capacious enough to accom­modate whatever biology, geology, and prehistory tell us about our lineage. And while this essay has necessarily only presented the thought of the fathers on the Fall in a cursory way, it has hope­fully succeeded in opening up vistas for meaningful conversation between con­temporary Darwinism and patristic the­ology. Such conversation serves not only to help us better understand the natu­ral world we inhabit, but also the theo­logical vision passed down to us by the fathers—a vision which we are called to both preserve and keep vibrantly alive from age to age.



1 And really, even this form of dualism ap­pears to be little more than a sheltered and subtle variation of nihilism. To postulate, as the Manicheans did, that two coeternal, co­existent, and equally ‘real’ forces exist along­side one another — one ‘good,’ the other ‘evil’ — is really just to deny that either force truly transcends the immanent frame of finite re­ality. These warring forces may function as two big and powerful beings among littler and less powerful beings, but neither is ‘real’ in a unique or self-subsistent way. As such, these forces can conceivably exist only within an ontological frame larger and therefore ‘more real’ than themselves, a frame which exists beyond and hence transcends them both. And this commits dualism to belief in a nihilistic, fundamental plane of reality beyond both good and evil.

2 See John Milbank, Theology and Social Theory: Beyond Secular Reason (Oxford: Ba­sil Blackwell, 1990), as well as David Bentley Hart, The Beauty of the Infinite: The Aesthetics of Christian Truth (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2003).

3 David Bentley Hart, The Doors of the Sea: Where Was God in the Tsunami? (Grand Rap­ids: W.B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2005), 60-61.

4 I happily acknowledge that this claim (if cor­rect) rules out the possibility of any extreme brand of Calvinism being true. For if, as Calvin claimed in Book III of his Institutes, God coer­cively foreordained the Fall for his own “plea­sure” and eventual “glory” — and thereby also ordained all the deaths, rapes, disasters, and infant-damnations which are its consequenc­es — then the Christian saga of creation, fall, and redemption is really just one, hideously enormous fiction (i.e., fantasy), and the divine and human actions which occur within it are really just instances of one, hideously enor­mous act of divine self-gratification.

5 Gregory, On the Making of Man, 16.15

6 Maximus, Ambiguum 8. This short work can be found in its entirety on pgs. 75-78 of On the Cosmic Mystery of Jesus Christ: Selected Writ­ings of St. Maximus the Confessor, trans. Paul M. Blowers and Robert Louis Wilken (Crest­wood, N.Y.: St. Vladmir’s Seminary Press, 2003).

7 Augustine, On the Trinity, XIV, 21, trans. Ed­mund Hill.

8 St. Ephrem the Syrian: Hymns on Paradise, trans. Sebastian Brock (Crestwood, N.Y.: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1997), 51. Empha­sis added.

9 Ibid., 99-100. Emphases added.

10 Ibid., 156.

11 Sergius Bulgakov, The Bride of the Lamb, trans. Boris Jakim (Grand Rapids: W.B. Eerd­mans Publishing Co., 2002), 171-172.

12 Hart, The Doors of the Sea, 102.

13 Conor Cunningham, Darwin’s Pious Idea: Why the Ultra-Darwinists and the Creationists Both Get It Wrong (Grand Rapids: W.B. Eerd­mans Publishing Co., 2010), 399.

14 Unless otherwise noted, parenthetical cita­tions below are to this text.

15 Cunningham, Darwin’s Pious Idea, 391.

16 The perplexing question this raises, ob­viously, is whether Gregory’s view does not somehow implicate God in the Fall. Gregory and Maximus both wrestled indefinitely with this question, but, as far as I’m aware, arrived at no final answer. See On the Cosmic Mystery of Jesus Christ, 75n.

17 Maximus, On the Cosmic Mystery of Jesus Christ, 76.

18 Space didn’t allow for another example in the paper, but John of Damascus speculates further along these lines in On the Orthodox Faith II, 30. Troublingly, but importantly for our purposes here, he suggests that Eve was created due to God’s foreknowledge of the Fall.

19 See Cunningham, Darwin’s Pious Idea, 379-380, as well as M.C. Steenberg, Irenaeus on Creation: The Cosmic Christ and the Saga of Redemption (Leiden: Brill Academic, 2008), 121-123, 126.

20 Athanasius, On the Incarnation: Saint Atha­nasius, trans. John Behr (Crestwood, N.Y.: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2011), 52. Empha­sis added.

21 John of Damascus, On the Orthodox Faith, II, 30. Emphases added.

22 Ibid.

23 Ibid. Emphasis added.

24 Ephrem the Syrian, Commentary on Gene­sis, II, 17. Quoted on pg. 59 of Hymns on Par­adise.

25 Again, see John of Damascus, On the Or­thodox Faith, II, 30. There is also every reason to think, in light of both Romans 8:19-22 and the cosmically-geared theology of Maximus, that humans had the potential (and now, in Christ, again have the potential) to lead not only themselves but ultimately all creation into deification and immortality. Their fall re­sulted in a gradual corruption of both their own race and the cosmos (cf. Gen. 3-11, as well as Athanasius’ elegant narration of the Fall in the early chapters of De incarnatione), but the second Adam has come and re-opened the door that the first Adam failed to enter.


Death and DarwinismImage: Katherine Tsen – UC Berkeley TAUG, Spring 2014.

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,