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Death Before the Fall: Biblical Literalism and the Problem of Animal Suffering
Our Rating
3½ Stars - Good
Book Title
Death Before the Fall: Biblical Literalism and the Problem of Animal Suffering
Author
Publisher
IVP Academic
Release Date
February 6, 2014
Pages
197
Price
$19.95

As a boy Ronald Osborn took camping trips to the Mana Pools, in Zimbabwe, with his missionary parents. There he saw the splendor of untamed nature, which included the sight of lions gorging on their bloody prey. In Death Before the Fall, he writes: "All around us was a world that was deeply mysterious, untamed, dangerous, beautiful and good, waiting to be explored. And the danger was part of its goodness and beauty.... Mana Pools was very good—its lions, jackals, leopards, fish eagles and cobras included." (pg.13)

This intuitive understanding of creation is quite at odds with the understanding of Genesis that Osborn learned in his young-earth-creationist Seventh Day Adventist church. There he was told that no death existed in the Garden of Eden; death and predation resulted from Adam's sin. Not only were death and predation not intrinsic to the creation, they were evil, reflecting God's curse.

In an evolutionary scenario, death and predation are intrinsic to creation—there could be no development of new species without them. Osborn quotes one Adventist official as saying that those following evolutionary thinking, "don't worship the God of the Bible, for that God didn't use a long, protracted, and vicious dog-eat-dog, survival-of-the-fittest paradigm—one that goes against everything He has taught us about love and self-sacrifice...." (17)

With this conflict in view as to the nature of nature, Osborn launches into a full-bore, unflinching assault on literalism in biblical interpretation, particularly in regard to the first chapters in Genesis. His is not a liberal critique, but an orthodox, Bible-centered one. Osborn contends that fundamentalist, young-earth creationists fail to honor the Bible, in their insistence that it fit into their pre-existing, unbiblical philosophy. He makes this case mainly and most effectively by a careful reading of biblical texts. He does not major on the incompatibility of young-earth creationism with scientific findings—though this does come up. Nor does Osborn say much about more figurative understandings of Genesis, such as John Walton's. Instead he tries to show that literalistic readings of the text are not actually true to Scripture, creating as many theological and interpretational problems as they claim to solve. What they impose on the text, he argues, is a view closely associated with the same Enlightenment paradigm of scientism that animates God's most impassioned critics.

Though his childhood experiences at Mana Pools make no scriptural critique, his raising them does make a related point. Must a certain reading of Scripture compel us to read nature in a way that is unnatural? Must the lion's fierceness, so close to its essential being, be understood as a curse? Is this really what the Bible teaches, or is it actually a forced interpretation trying to cram the facts into a closely guarded framework?

Osborn returns to this theme when he takes up the book of Job. God's answer to Job's question about his suffering "is nothing other than the creation itself in all of its stupendous, intricate, frightening, free and often incomprehensible forms. In one sense this is not an answer to the problem of suffering at all—certainly not Job's personal sufferings. But in another it is the only answer possible. The creation, with its suffering and death included, is very good because it is God's creation.... The God of Job is not a God who glories in defanged lions, which is to say, unlions." (152, 154)

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