Was There Suffering and Death Before the Fall? (III.C Reconciling Contemporary Science and the Doctrine of Original Sin)
Scientific evidence indicates that there was death and physical pain before the fall (approximately 200,000 years ago).
We have evidence of microbial death dating back 3.5 billion years, and there were certainly vertebrates with a central nervous system capable of feeling pain) during the Jurassic period 230 million years ago. Recall what was said before by Pope Pius XII in Divino Afflante Spiritu about the purpose of the bible – to give sacred truths necessary for salvation, but not necessarily to give accurate scientific descriptions and explanations of our physical universe.
How does this affect the idea that death and suffering came into the world because of the sin of Adam? We cannot interpret it in a way that will contradict the clear fossil evidence showing that death and physical pain was present on the earth prior to 200,000 years ago. Indeed there is no need to do so.
As noted above, all microbial, plant, and animal life – including that of higher primates, and the progenitors of Homo sapiens – experienced physical pain and death before the arrival of our first parents (200,000 years ago). The arrival of our first parents coincides with the infusion of a transphysical soul within them, giving them an exemption from bodily death.
Since their transphysical soul was the dominant form of their body, they had this exemption for a little while prior to the fall. However, when they sinned against God by desiring autonomy and separation from Him, they lost that exemption – and their bodies would suffer the same corruption as their progenitors (though their souls would live on after bodily death).
The 2 Kinds of Suffering
What about suffering? There are two kinds of suffering:
- The feeling of physical pain and some kinds of emotional pain (which some animals share in common with human beings), and
- Reflective Suffering – which comes from awareness that “I” am the one who is suffering. Humans alone have this experience because of their self-reflective transphysical soul.
Dogs experience physical and some kinds of emotional pain, but human beings can grow depressed thinking about the ongoing nature of that pain – or the seeming meaninglessness of that pain – or the potential for that pain to increase, etc.
Self-reflectivity also heightens emotional pain. A dog can feel sad (and whimper) when his master leaves the home, but human beings can reflect upon the pain of abandonment or loss, and feel depressed because of it. Thus we see that self-reflectivity engenders a whole new height – or perhaps better, depth — of both physical and emotional pain.
Human beings also have a further kind of reflective suffering arising out of their capacity for conceptual ideas. We can anticipate future pain – which is beyond the scope of higher primates – and above all – anticipate death. Even those with great faith must face this most challenging form of what might be called “reflective conceptual suffering.” Heidegger called it “being toward death” which he believed to be the entire context through which we live.
Suffering… and Suffering
So what is the point here? As the old cliché goes – “There is suffering – and then there is suffering!” There is the physical and emotional pain of animals, which is no doubt quite real, but then there is the very significantly heightened physical, emotional, and conceptual pain of self-reflective human beings – which is categorically different from that of animals.
By now it will be clear that this kind of suffering has its origins in self-consciousness, which in turn, has its origins in our transphysical soul (see the rationale for this in the fourth topic above—human versus artificial and animal intelligence). When God infused a transphysical soul into our first parents, he gave them potential to suffer reflectively—to combine their powers of anticipation, self-awareness, and the above twelve capacities with physical and emotional pain.
Why only the potential for this categorically different suffering? When human beings were closely united to God in their inner experience and they enjoyed an exemption from death (before original sin) their self-reflective acts on physical pain would have been interpreted in the light of God’s presence—along with the meaning and trust coming from Him.
Further, there would be no death to anticipate because their sense of eternal life would have been quite palpable in light of God’s presence.
Suffering & Reflection
By separating themselves from God in the first sin (obeying the evil spirit’s suggestion that they could be gods and that God had unjustly withheld this from them), the light and grace of His presence was partially withdrawn—and without it the reflection process focused on the bodily death they would surely experience, the sense of emptiness, alienation, and loneliness coming from His absence, and the absence of meaning and light to guide and fill their reflection process.
If God had withdrawn completely they would have collapsed into a total abyss of emptiness, loneliness, alienation, death anxiety, guilt and intellectual darkness—a reflective emotional and conceptual nightmare.
But God did not do this—He gave them what they wanted—only insofar as it would not destroy their free will, emotional stability, rational capacity, capacity for love and capacity for moral reflection.
At this point their suffering would be intensified by their reflectivity and conceptual capacity, but it would not be utterly daunting and vexing. And so we might say a new kind of suffering came into the world with original sin—a categorically different heightened kind of suffering produced by self-reflectivity not fully illumined by the wisdom, presence and grace of God.
This brings our topic — Free Will and Original Sin — to a close.
Check back later this week for the start of a brand new topic!