According to his website, https://ronaldosborn.com/, Dr. Osborn is Executive Director of the John Weidner Foundation as well as an independent scholar interested in violence, moral theory, human rights, and religion. He has authored Humanism and the Death of God: Searching for the Good After Darwin, Marx, and Nietzsche (Oxford University Press, 2017), as well as the book, Death Before the Fall, under review here.
Osborn’s academic credentials are impressive. He is clearly a smart man who is able to move in powerful academic circles as demonstrated by the significant theologians who endorsed his book. But if Death Before the Fall is an accurate indication of his mature thought and perspective, Osborne is clearly a conflicted man as well.
As the book title and subheading suggests, Osborn uses the question of the origins of animal death as a means to discuss the relationship of science and the bible. For those outside of conservative evangelicalism, the question may seem strange, if not altogether weird. Permit me to explain. Many Christians believe that before Adam and Eve sinned in the Garden, there was no animal death. Adam and Eve were vegetarians as were the animals that shared the land with them. Predation, they argue, only started after Adam and Eve sinned, also known theologically as the Fall. Where this argument gets interesting is how the argument is used against evolution. Since evolution says that animals lived and died millennia before humans even emerged, Christians holding to the “no death before the Fall” argument, deny the validity of evolution. It’s a classic case of faith versus science.
Osborn will have none of this. He argues that Christians who deny evolution are: 1. reading the bible too literally and 2. wrongly using creationism as a litmus test for orthodoxy. The rejection of literalism explains why John H. Walton endorsed the book. Walton has argued for years that the early chapters of Genesis should be read as poetic and more about the who and the why of creation rather than the how. Osborn’s argument is less exegetical than Tremper Longman III’s back cover endorsement insinuates and certainly less than Walton’s. Instead, Osborn’s approach is perspectival. He assumes contemporary science is true and then reads (or misreads depending on your point of view) Genesis to see how it holds up against scientific scrutiny. Unsurprisingly, he finds that literal readings of Genesis have some cracks in its coherence, such as the problems in the descriptions of Genesis 1 and 2. Readers should know that Osborn has not done very much study of how some of the alleged problems with the literal reading account have been addressed. For example, on pp. 55-6, Osborn asks how could Adam have named all the animals on the earth within 24 hours. Of course, Adam couldn’t. But reading in context, couldn’t it be understood that the passage meant to say that Adam named all the animals in the Garden, rather than the planet? (Read Gen 2:19 in light of Gen 2:15).
Osborn spends more time focussing on how biblical literalists (also called fundamentalists) have used the their reading of Genesis as a test for Christian orthodoxy. The vehemence and constant attention to this issue, primarily through the first half of the book, is so strident that I came to see this book more as a personal defense and self-justification for the author’s position. A sort of printed catharsis, where he could demean people who he had felt demeaned him. That he even felt that his criticisms were harsh is supported by his final chapter, Conclusion, where he admits that the pro-evolution side also may have some specks in their eyes. I don’t like the use of psycho-analysis to disparage and explain away belief of people. But Osborn’s criticisms lacked sufficient nuance and used fundamentalist labels (without explaining the difference between intellectual fundamentalism and cultural fundamentalism see George M. Marsden’s classic Fundamentalism and American Culture) as a way to marginalize and demean people rather than engage in the substance of their arguments.
Having believed that the literal reading of the creation narratives has been properly destroyed, Osborn in Part 2, engages the remaining question of why God would allow innocent animals to suffer pain and predation. The issue falls on the same line as why do humans suffer? If God is all good, all powerful, why would he allow animals to suffer. After debunking the arguments biblical literalists use to defend God’s moral character, he reviews other solutions. Osborn respects but does not wholly endorse C.S. Lewis’ claim that animals have sentience but not consciousness as well as the suggestion that animal suffering has demonic origins. Osborn then turns to Job’s encounter with God in the whirlwind. I think Osborn’s point was to emphasize that chaos is part of creation and we may not know the final answer. Next Osborn tries to use Kenosis theology to address the problem of animal pain. Christ will ultimately save the cosmos, including animals. I should note that Osborn’s claim (pp.160-1) that penal substitutionary atonement is not an ancient doctrine is likely wrong (see https://www.tms.edu/blog/penal-substitution-in-church-history/). Unfortunately, Osborn’s approach hint’s towards an Open Theism view, though he does not state this. Certainly his comments condemning Reformed views of God’s sovereignty suggest an idea that God either willingly neglects control (Arminian view) or is unable to control (Open Theist view). Regardless, it appears to me that Osborn has not considered the consequences of his view for Christian faith.
Animal suffering is a valid question for Christians to consider. Unfortunately, Osborn’s investigation is hindered by 1. his repeated ad hominem attacks on his opponents and 2. his lack of biblical and theological training. The first problem is distracting for readers and also shows his own blind spot to the problems with his perspective. The second problem is he doesn’t understand the implications of his beliefs on Christian faith to an extent needed. In addition, his lack of training meant he didn’t read widely enough. For example, he didn’t consider Meredith G. Kline’s view that before the Fall, death served humanity. After the Fall, the situation reversed. Thus animal death and suffering is not a moral problem. If he or readers of this review think that Isaiah will save the day here, I would suggest reading Hillary Marlow’s Biblical Prophets & Contemporary Environmental Ethics and my book, Dominion over Wildlife? An Environmental-Theology of Human-Wildlife Relations.
Stephen M. Vantassel, Ph.D. Trinity Theological Seminary, Newburgh, IN, is a tutor of theology at King’s Evangelical Divinity School, Broadstairs, UK. He is a member of the Evangelical Theological Society and the Society for Christian Ethics. His research interests include, ethics, particularly questions on human-wildlife relations, doctrine of creation, environment, and war. Stephen has used his vast experience in the field of wildlife control to inform his understanding of ethics related to humanity’s use of the environment as presented in his articles and his dissertation. His interest center of ethics, particularly questions on human-wildlife relations, doctrine of creation, environment, and war. Stephen is also the assistant editor and book review editor for the Evangelical Review of Society and Politics. Stephen is available for presentations, debates, panel discussions, and preaching. He can be contacted at [email protected]