Review: Death Before the Fall: Biblical Literalism and the Problem of Animal Suffering

Death Before the Fall: Biblical Literalism and the Problem of Animal Suffering
Death Before the Fall: Biblical Literalism and the Problem of Animal Suffering by Ronald E. Osborn
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

The problem of predation, animal suffering and death has always posed a theological challenge to those believing in a good God. Those who believe in a literal six day creation and young earth believe the problem is solved by attributing it to the curse following human sin. But this poses the question of why should animals be cursed for what humans did, and may not be supportable in the Genesis text. Likewise, for those who believe in some form of old earth creation or theistic evolution, the problem is that this assumes animal predation, suffering, and death prior to human sin and the question is how can it be argued that God and his creation are “good” if these things occur even before sin entered the picture?

This latter problem is the focus of Osburn’s book, or at least part of the focus. The surprise is that most of his treatment of this question is in the last third of the book. The prior two thirds are devoted to the problem of biblical literalism and our attempts to reconcile biblical accounts of beginnings with what scientific research has uncovered.

He begins by showing that a plain reading of Genesis in its ancient near east context does not require the young earth, scientific creationist reading. The next four chapters are devoted to why this reading is so problematic in terms of hermeneutics, science and reason. He basically contends that the “scientific creationism” movement unwittingly cedes too much to modernism and foundationalist assumptions in its attempt to prove Genesis with science.

He then looks at the sub-culture behind these readings describing them in the next two chapters as a gnostic enclave. He observes the “circle the wagons” and “purge ourselves of those who disagree” tendencies along with a tendency to assume a “knowledge for the pure few” stance that regards others as inferior–a kind of gnosticism. While I’ve observed some examples of this, I felt this section “over the top” and not helpful to his argument. He concludes the first section by citing Barth, Calvin, Augustine, and Maimonides as non-literalist interpreters and argued for a post-foundationalist reading of Genesis with the rest of scripture seeing a “web” of truth.

The second part of the book first critiques the position of animal suffering only being post-fall under the categories of “stasis”, “curse”, and “deception.” He then considers the cosmic conflict position of C.S. Lewis but thinks this gives Satan too much credit. He argues for a position based on Job 38-42 that somehow in a way that is unanswered, this suffering is part of God’s good creation. He cites Kathryn Schifferdecker in concluding this chapter: “But submission to God…means learning to “learning to live in the untamed, dangerous, but stunningly beautiful world that is God’s creation'” (p. 156).

He also argues that it is Christ’s kenotic suffering that closes the circle of the six days of creation as he suffers and dies on sabbath eve bringing true sabbath rest to creation. As an Adventist, Osburn argues for the continuing relevance of sabbath in the church’s practice and that this includes concern for needless animal suffering.

This interesting proposal was marred, in my view, by raising at points the question of whether there was a literal Adam, and calling into question the idea of substitutionary atonement, something that seems a trend among “progressive evangelicals.” He also launches at the end of the penultimate chapter on the evils of “late capitalism” and the question of whether our existence as a species is justified in light of our destructiveness.

Osburn writes with eloquence and elegance about all these matters, but I believe also out of the pain of his own church roots. I felt he distracted at points from good argument with tendentious statements. In the hotly contended area of origins, if one is to write irenically, it seems necessary to choose battles very carefully. My sense is that this book took on too many battles that rendered it less helpful than it could be. I wish the author would have focused more on the title theme and gone into greater depth on these issues.

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2 thoughts on “Review: Death Before the Fall: Biblical Literalism and the Problem of Animal Suffering

  1. I read about this book when it first came out. Thanks for your review. From all the issues/topics you touched on in the review (wow – so much in one book!), it seems this is an accurate appraisal: “My sense is that this book took on too many battles that rendered it less helpful than it could be.”

  2. Pingback: The Month in Reviews: November 2014 « Bob on Books

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