Review: Death Before the Fall — Ronald E. Osborn
by Jack Hoehn
By Jack Hoehn, March 3, 2014
Death Before the Fall: Biblical Literalism and the Problem of Animal Suffering, By Ronald E. Osborn
InterVarsity Press, 2014
ISBN: 978-0-8308-4046-5 print
ISBN: 978-0-8308-4046-3 digital
Ronald E. Osborn is an Adventist voice many people are listening to. Reviewer praise from Fuller Theological, Columbia Theological, Westmont College, Northwest Nazarene, Woodstock Theological, Claremont School of Theology, and the theology department of the University of Notre Dame adorn his new book. John H. Walton, Old Testament scholar at Wheaton College and author of the bestselling,i “The Lost World of Genesis One” writes the introduction to the book.
Osborn does not hide his Adventist roots, and in fact admits he is writing his book to counter the literalism of Young-Earth Creationism that captivates our present SDA administration and a certain influential wedge of their approved theologians trying to add to the Bible text words that aren’t there, but they think should be, such as “recent,” “literal days,” “a week as we experience it today.” (The curse of Revelation 22:18 seems to have escaped their attention?)
So should Adventists pay any attention to one of our own who is getting such a large hearing in the non-Adventist world? After all, shouldn’t the remnant be worried “when all men speak well of you”? There are several reasons—beside the fact that he is a Sabbath-keeping, Adventist-educated, son of SDA missionaries—that Adventists too might wish to listen to him.
Firstly, Osborn remains a Creationist. He believes in the Bible. And he is writing to those trying to understand the Bible, instead of ditching the Bible.
Secondly, as mentioned he is a Sabbath-keeper. In fact the last chapter of his book is about the “thrilling romance” of Sabbath observance. He reminds his readers that “the Sabbath marks the first full day of the human pair’s existence in the Genesis narratives” and that “God does not give humans rest…after they earned it…. He gives it to them ‘on arrival’. He then expands the weekly Sabbath as including care for animals, “thy ox and thy ass,” as Sabbatarian concerns. And from there to the Sabbatical year as an economic policy, and there to the Sabbath of Sabbaths, the 50th year of Jubilee as the height of social justice.
Thirdly, he is still an Adventist. “To Christianly keep the Sabbath is to eagerly await the Second Coming.”
So why should Young Earth Creationists in Adventism and their millions of adherents to our foundational doctrine of recent creation outside of Adventismii fear this book? Because the first half of his book is devoted to showing the weakness of faith and the danger to truth of the “Biblical literalism” advocated by Young Earth Creationists with their 6 x 24-hour days and mountain-topping global Noah's flood.
Who Made the Predators, and When?
This review is a simplification of a very scholarly book, but Ron Osborn starts with the observation that all can understand: natural life appears to be a combination of beauty, grace, design, and bloody predation. The Lion of the Tribe of Judah has teeth. So Osborn takes us to Zimbabwe’s Mana Pools and relives his own African childhood experience of “lions feasting on the carcass…panting heavily as they tore into its body, their chests and muzzles soaked in blood…”
He later pulls Jesus into the carnage quoting John 1:3 to us, “All things were made by Him; and without Him was not anything made that was made.” Osborn then reminds us that the Lord boasts to Job (39:27,29,30) that vultures are commanded by Him to “make her nest on high” from where “she seeketh the prey” so that “her young ones also suck up blood…” As if this were not enough, he names Job’s Behemoth as a crocodile, listed (Job 40:15-34) as “the chief of God’s works, made to be tyrant over his peers; for he takes the cattle of the hills for his prey and in his jaws he crunches all wild beasts.”
Again he goes back to Africa to enhance the focus of this claim, traveling north from Zimbabwe’s lions to the crocodiles in Kenya’s Mara River. “I have seen crocodiles on the riverbanks…near the end of the wildebeest migrations, their bellies distended from feasting…they continue to kill even after they are engorged, without any interest in eating their prey…by early November desiccated carcasses litter the banks…one can smell this open graveyard…from some distance…Calves sometimes manage to cross the river only to find themselves trapped by its steep banks. They drown in exhaustion amid the bellowing of thousands of their kind preparing to plunge after them into the murky water.” And God claims that these massive carnivores are “the chief of His works?”
In Job 38 God doesn’t date his creation of these predators from after Adam’s fall, but back to the beginning, “when I laid the earth’s foundations…while the morning stars sang together and all the angels shouted for joy” behold Behemoth!
Uncle Arthur Doesn’t Agree
Osborn admits, “Like millions of Christians, I was raised to believe that God created all of earth’s creatures in six literal days in the relatively recent past. In the beginning there was no mortality and no predation of any kind…this was radically altered as a result of Adam and Eve’s decision.” But who altered the creation? Fallen men and women were hardly able to do it. Was the cursed serpent responsible? But who let the serpent do it? So in the last analysis, “God himself was responsible for the transformation of all of nature in what amounted to a hostile second creation after…(the)fall.”
The question traditional Adventism has not yet answered asks, was it “very good” of God to permit or engineer this even after Eve and Adam’s fall? Is creation, imperfect as it now is, very bad or is it still good? God who brags of feeding the lions their meat, and helping vulture babies suck blood, and asking our humility before the ferocity of His crocodiles and killer whales, is this the same God revealed in Jesus?
I get the idea that it is perhaps okay with Adventists if this reign of animal suffering is for a very short time, but if God allowed this for deep time, for millions of years instead of a few thousand years, it would speak badly of His character. Really? Would it be okay for Hitler to permit the premeditated and intelligently designed murder of Jews for one month, but not for 5 years?
So Osborn is suggesting that the problem of innocent animals suffering for sins they have not committed is not really solved by a dogged holding onto a short creation chronology (in the face of much evidence that the world has always looked much like it does today from the Cambrian Explosion on down for the millions of years the evidence requires). And he does this by literally reading Genesis, not the imaginative Uncle Arthur version, but really reading what Genesis 1 and 2 say to us about God’s creation.
Reading Genesis again could surprise us.
Ron Osborn reads Genesis about creation, and it doesn’t come out in six 24-hour days a few thousand years ago, and it doesn’t come out a perfect world, it comes out a good world, but quite like the one we live in now. For example, in Genesis 1 light is created out of nothing, but plants are created out of the chemicals of the earth (verse 11): “let the earth bring forth…” “Earth itself participates as an obedient servant to God in the creation process/event…a strong impression of organic emergence.” Plants don’t come out of nothing, plants come out of earth. “The earth brought forth vegetation.”
Also in verse 22, it is not by magic that the earth is to be filled, “but animals themselves through procreative processes…are commanded by God to ‘Be fruitful, and multiply,’ to ‘fill the waters in the seas’ and to ‘multiply in the earth’… We are left entirely free to think that the Creator might be delighted to see His creation multiplying not only in number but also in kind.”
The verbs of God’s actions in Genesis 1 and 2 are not one word. This suggests much more than sleight of hand with God quickly pulling rabbits out of the earth, ta dah! In a hurry so he can make man, plant Eden, put man in there, and hurriedly bring him all the animals to name at 5 seconds/animal, so he can learn that unlike the animals he has no mate, feel lonely, have surgery, awake to Eve, fall in love and be married, all in 12 to 24 hours before sundown on the first Sabbath?
Please read the verbs of the true Creation record: creates, moves, says, separated, calls, makes, gathers, places, blesses, gives, completed, sends, breathes, forms, plants, causes, commands, brings, takes, closed, fashions, and rests.
Osborn suggests this shows that Freedom is one of the things that God creates. “But the only way that freedom can be created is by opening a space in which freedom occurs or unfolds. 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… granting, permitting and delegating.”
Would Adam and Eve be Asked to Subdue a Perfect Planet?
Osborn then reads us Genesis 1:28. “Adam is told to kabash or “subdue” the earth. Elsewhere in the Hebrew Bible, the word kabash is used almost exclusively to refer to one thing: violent military conquest…The implication, then, is that there is a difficult…task for humanity in relation to the rest of the creation. Adam must literally ‘dominate,’ ‘subjugate’ or ‘conquer’ the rest of creation.” If earth were an Uncle Arthur paradise of tame herbivores outside of Eden, why were Adam and his helper before their fall required to militarily conquer it?
“As unsettling as it may be for some readers to discover, nowhere in Genesis is the creation described as ‘perfect.’ God declares his work to be ‘good’… at each stage and finally ‘very good’… at its end.” “God declares the creation to be ‘very good’ rather than ‘perfect’…. Because in an important sense, it is not entirely God’s work…animals, humans, and the earth itself have a God-given role to play as His coworkers. There is also a strong sense that while the creation is in one sense ‘complete’ at the end of the narrative, it is not yet ‘finished.’”
Isn’t Osborn just opening the door to some kind of Evolution?
Yes. “Such a reading of Genesis clearly opens the door to the possibility of ‘theistic evolution’—or better, process creation…” He then quotes John Stott. “It is most unfortunate that some who debate this issue begin by assuming that the words ‘creation’ and ‘evolution’ are mutually exclusive…. This naïve alternative…is false…both [the words ‘creation’ and ‘evolution’] have a wide range of meanings…which are being freshly discussed today.”
Ronald Osborn is clearly not supporting Darwinian evolution of all life coming out of competition and chaotic chance of random mutations. But after reading all 195 pages of his book, it is not completely clear to me exactly what kind of “process creation” he imagines, especially when he lumps “Creation Science” and “Intelligent Design” together several places in the book.
This Books Most Serious Defect
This is my greatest disappointment in this most welcome and useful Adventist alternative look at creation. Both Ronald Osborn and his introducer John Walton in his own book sadly and seriously underestimate the scientific validity and the potential spiritual energy of the Intelligent Design movement. No doubt influenced by the theistic evolutionary scientists they are surrounded with, they both accept the lie that lumps the weak and often falsified “Creation Science” and “Flood Geology” with Intelligent Design. The theistic evolutionists that Osborn and Walton seem to be cozying up with often repeat the same tired misunderstandings of Intelligent Design. ID is NOT a “god of the gaps” argument. ID is NOT “Creationism by another name.” The prevalent mischaracterization of ID by its dogmatic opponents is a cheap rhetorical device designed to prevent serious consideration of the scientific evidence harmful to their own theories of origins and causation. They stick their fingers into their ears and cry, “I can’t hear what you’re saying, because you’re just a Creationist, la,la,la,la,la….”
That so called Creation Science including our own Adventist Geo-Science Institute (as presently managed by the General Conference and the opinions of its current administrators) is a pseudo-science that grabs little bits and pieces, quotes and misquotes, to support a religious belief against the weight of the evidence is clear to the careful observer.
That Intelligent Design is a scientific interpretation of the available data that does not require the God of Genesis or the rest of the Bible to support it or deny it, is sadly not well understood by many like Walton and Osborn who have been poorly informed. One sadly gets the feeling that they are critiquing ID without seriously studying it.iii The data that evolutionists use to support a random, chance, unguided development of life, has a different scientific interpretation available that is not faith based, but evidence based, this is the science pointing to Intelligent Design. ID says nothing about the age of the earth, and by intention is agnostic about the designer, it understands very well that things evolve, it just finds limits on the power of evolution that materialistic and theistic evolutionists have not yet openly admitted. That faith can use the scientific understandings of ID to remain both faithful and honest should be of great interest to all Bible students including Ronald Osborn.
Why You Should Buy Your Own Copy of This Book
You need to read more. You need to study “the enthusiasm to use the story of Noah’s flood.” You should absorb that the arguments for “apparent age” are disrespectful of the Creator’s integrity. Did you realize that the Gnostic heresy of early Christianity is being recycled by Biblical Literalists, and that making your interpretation of the Bible the arbiter of truth outside of the Bible is to create a “paper pope?” The evidence that great Bible students of all ages have had a different interpretation of Genesis than six short days a short time ago, can help you become more open and flexible to alternative interpretations of the creation story required by the evidence. And I already told you the last chapter is a wonderful meaning of the Sabbath expansion.
My personal favorite chapter is chapter 11, where he gives a fair and sympathetic hearing to C.S. Lewis (and by unnoted extension the Adventist Great Controversy doctrine) as an explanation of animal death before Adam and Eve’s fall, coming from the controversy of Christ with Satan beginning before the creation of earth. I have written my own Adventist version of this theoryiv. Although Osborn does not fully accept this theory suggested by Lewis, he explains it fairly clearly, and does linger over its attractions.
Ron Osborn opens his heart for our church most deeply on page 115, where you can almost hear the tears in his voice as he writes,
There comes a point at which the leaders of highly conservative faith communities must ask themselves how many more of their sons and daughters they are prepared to see walk out of the doors of their churches never to return again because these young people find no room for intellectual growth, intellectual honesty or openness to new ways of thinking within their community walls.
And I know he is still very connected with Adventism when he adds the following so sad but so accurate analysis of Adventist leadership today:
In the meantime the elders continue to respond to all outside challenges with the tactic of circling the wagons and fixing their foundationalist bayonets (rusted with age, dull as butter knives from overuse.)
And you may have read it first in Adventist Today. Now go buy your own copy. It’s in a Kindle edition as well as Paperback.
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i “The Lost World of Genesis One” by John H. Walton is Amazon’s number one selling book on “Creation ;” #4 best seller on “Old Testament;” and # 8th best seller on “Science and Religion.”
ii Most people now recognize the chain of influence from Ellen White to George McCready Price to American Fundamentalism’s literalism on creation. The 20th century’s Creation Science enterprise appears to be an offspring of Adventism even though it may not yet admit it.
iii See Casey Luskin February 2014, for more on this topic. https://www.evolutionnews.org/2014/02/why_do_theistic082421.html
iv Jack’s article is in the hands of the publishers of Adventist Today print magazine and should be coming out in a subsequent issue. It presents an Adventist way of looking at this Old Earth, using the Great Controversy as a new way of looking at the creation week. Although written before Ronald Osborn’s book was published their new understanding of the Creation story and having an open chronology of creation is sympathetic with each other. Ronald Osborn on page 119 quotes “Every human community shares and cherishes certain assumptions, traditions, expectations , and anxieties.. which encourage its members to construe reality in particular ways, and which create contexts within which certain kinds of statements are perceived as making sense.” Jack’s article is very much in this vein, putting the possibility of an “Old Earth-Creationism” into Adventist language and traditions, to keep it well within the SDA context. As Ron noted there may soon be 40 million people living in that context.