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Romans 5:12-21 proves to be one of the key texts in any discussion of science and faith these days, and the problem hits full force with v. 12:

Therefore, just as through one man sin entered into the world, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men, because all sinned– (Ro 5:12 NASB)

The issue of course is death – what is this death spread to all men through the sin of Genesis 3?

Our scientific understanding of the world leads us to conclude that the earth is old – some 4.6 billion years and the universe older still (ca. 14 billion years). We are impressed with dinosaurs that lived and died long before mankind appeared on the scene. There is an massive array of evidence for an evolutionary mechanism for creation that relies on time and the cycle of life.  How does this reconcile with Romans 5?  For the next several posts we will look at NT Wright’s commentary on Romans, specifically Romans 5:12-21 in The New Interpreter’s Bible : Acts – First Corinthians (Volume 10)
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For the wages of sin is death – but what is the nature of this death?

The nature of death referred to in Romans 5 is a key issue.  The sin of Adam (whether  Gen 3 is literal-historical or mytho-historical)  resulted in death for all.  But this need not encompass all biological death – and did not entail a timeless primeval paradise. 

One of the interesting insights from John Calvin’s commentary on Genesis 3 is that he apparently did not think that the man and woman were intended for eternal earthly existence.

For dust thou art. Since what God here declares belongs to man’s nature, not to his crime or fault, it might seem that death was not superadded as adventitious to him. And therefore some understand what was before said, ‘Thou shalt die,’ in a spiritual sense; thinking that, even if Adam had not sinned, his body must still have been separated from his soul. But, since the declaration of Paul is clear, that ‘all die in Adam as they shall rise again in Christ,’ (1 Corinthians 15:22,) this wound also was inflicted by sin. Nor truly is the solution of the question difficult, — ‘Why God should pronounce, that he who was taken from the dust should return to it.’ For as soon as he had been raised to a dignity so great, that the glory of the Divine Image shone in him, the terrestrial origin of his body was almost obliterated. Now, however, after he had been despoiled of his divine and heavenly excellence, what remains but that by his very departure out of life, he should recognize himself to be earth? Hence it is that we dread death, because dissolution, which is contrary to nature, cannot naturally be desired. Truly the first man would have passed to a better life, had he remained upright; but there would have been no separation of the soul from the body, no corruption, no kind of destruction, and, in short, no violent change. (Gen 3:19 from Commentary on Genesis – Vol. 1, emphasis mine)

In his commentary on Romans 5:12 NT Wright reflects on Adam and Eve and the original sin:

Our knowledge of early anthropology is of course sketchy, to put it mildly.  Each time another very early skull is dug up the newspapers exclaim over the discovery of the first human beings; we have consigned Adam and Eve entirely to the world of mythology, but we are still looking for their replacements. What “sin” would have meant in the early dawn of the human race it is impossible to say; but the turning away from open and obedient relationship with the loving creator and turining instead toward that which, though beautiful and enticing, is not God, is such a many-sided phenomenon that it is not hard to envisage it at any stage of anthropoid development.  (p. 526)

This view of the original sin is consistent with the essence of Calvin’s …  something else was put in place of God. The Fall was real. Wright also reflects on the nature of death – the consequence of the sin:

One potentially helpful way of understanding the entry of death into the world through the first human sin is to see “death” here as more than simply the natural decay and corruption of all the created order. The good creation was nevertheless transient: evening and morning, the decay and new life of autumn and spring, pointed on to  future, a purpose, which Genesis implies it was the job of the human race to bring about.  All that lived in God’s original world would decay and perish, but “death” in that sense carried no sting. The primal pair were, however, threatened with a different sort of thing altogether: a “death” that would result from sin, and involve expulsion from the garden (Gen 2:17). This death is a darker force, opposed to creation itself, unmaking that which was good, always threatening to drag the world back toward chaos. Thus, when humans turned away in sin from the creator as the one whose image they were called to bear, what might have been a natural sleep acquired a sense of shame and threat. (p. 526, emphasis mine)

Both of these men advance a variation of a view here that is not commonly taught in our churches, at least not in my experience – but an interesting view to consider.  The death of Genesis 3 and Romans 5 is not a limiting of earthly existence, but a change in the nature of the end and the entrance into eternity.  And entry into eternity – following sin and the introduction of “death” – is through Jesus Christ, through his life, death, and resurrection. In neither view – Calvin’s or Wright’s – does it appear that the “death” following the primal sin entails the introduction of biological death into the animal world, this already was part of the picture. 

If this seems strange, consider the words of Jesus in Mt 22. Adam and Eve were “given in marriage” and commanded to be
fruitful and multiply, yet we are told in Mt 22:30 (parallels in Lk 20,
Mk 12) “For in the resurrection they neither marry nor are given in
marriage, but are like angels in heaven.”  The resurrection, the age to come, does not seem to be a reproduction of Eden – it is something else, the next step in God’s plan.  The creeds, the scripture, affirm a bodily resurrection – to what would have been.

Does this make sense? What is the nature of the death of Genesis 3 and Romans 5?

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