“For God is life, and the privation of life is death,” writes St Basil the Great. “Therefore Adam prepared death for himself through his withdrawal from God, in accord with what is written, ‘Behold, those who remove themselves from you are destroyed’ [Ps 72.27]. Thus God did not create death, but we brought it upon ourselves by a wicked intention” (Homily Explaining that God is Not the Cause of Evil 7). Here is a basic truth of the Christian revelation: death is evil and God is not its cause. But how do we explicate this truth in light of what we now know about the development of life on our planet? Animals were living and dying millions of years before the first human beings appeared. The Church has traditionally taught that the presence of death in the animal kingdom is a consequence of the Adamic Fall, yet given present scientific knowledge—knowledge that was unavailable to the inspired biblical writers and the Church Fathers—this teaching requires reconsideration and nuancing.
Must we think of physical death as inherently evil and productive of evil?
During Bright Week I re-read C. S. Lewis’s wonderful space travel fantasy Out of the Silent Planet. I do not know how many times I have read this novel (perhaps two or three), but it’s been well over a decade since I last read it. In the story the protagonist, Dr Elwin Ransom, is abducted by two men and transported in a spaceship to the planet Malacandra (Mars).
Malacandra is inhabited by three species possessing rational consciousness—hrossa, séroni, and pfifltriggi. Each species differs from the others in significant and interesting ways: the hrossa are farmers and poets; the séroni are intellectuals and inventors; the pfifltriggi are engineers, miners, and artists. Each lives peaceably with members of its own species, as well as with the other two, under the global governance of a mysterious being known as Oyarsa, who speaks in the name and authority of Maleldil, the Creator of the universe. Oyarsa in fact belongs to a class of immortal beings called eldila (sg. eldil). The eldila dwell in the heavens yet are able, without leaving their place in the heavens, to appear to and communicate with the inhabitants of the planet. Violence, war, and crime are unheard of in Malacandra. The three races do not envy the natural gifts and wealth of others but instead appreciate and benefit from their diversity.
Ransom is taken in by a community of hrossa and begins to learn their language and customs. He is surprised by their natural monogamy and continence. In a converstion with Hyoi, the first hross with whom he becomes acquainted, Ransom asks about “love in a bent life.” Hyoi expresses surprise: “How could the life of a hnau [rational being] be bent?”
“Do you say, Hyoi, that there are no bent hrossa?”
Hyoi reflected. “I have heard,” he said at last, “of something like what you mean. It is said that sometimes here and there a cub of certain age gets strange twists in him. I have heard of one that wanted to eat earth; there might, perhaps, be somewhere a hross likewise that wanted to have the years of love prolonged. I have not heard of it, but it might be. I have heard of something stranger. There is a poem about a hross who lived long ago, in another handramit, who saw things all made two—two suns in the sky, two heads on a neck; and last of all they say that he fell into such a frenzy that he desired two mates. I do not ask you to believe it, but that is the story: that he loved two hressni.”
Ransom eventually realizes that the three rational species are unfallen and live in unperturbed communion with Maleldil and with each other. Unlike human beings, they are not intrinsically “bent.” They have not inherited disordered desires and passions. Yet they are mortal. They die at their appointed time and do not fear it. Not only do they acknowledge and accept their personal mortality, but they also know that their races and planet will not endure forever. As a wise sorn tells Ransom: “But a world is not made to last for ever, much less a race; that is not Maleldil’s way.” In the postscript Ransom describes the funeral ceremony of the hrossa that he witnessed. It was time for three hrossa to go to Meldilorn, the island home of the Oyarsa, to die:
For in that world, except for some few whom the hnakra gets, no one dies before his time. All live out the full span allotted to their kind, and a death which is as predictable as a birth with us. The whole village has known has known that those three will die this year, this month; it was an easy guess that they would die even this week. And now they are off, to receive the last counsel of Oyarsa, to die, and to be by him ‘unbodied.’ The corpses, as corpses, will exist only for a few minutes: there are no coffins in Malacandra, no sextons, churchyards, or undertakers. The valley is solemn at their departure, but I see no signs of passionate grief. They do not doubt their immortality, and friends of the same generation are not torn apart. You leave the world, as you entered it, with the ‘men of your own years.’ Death is not preceded by dread nor followed by corruption.
But all is not tranquil on Malacandra. One predatory species exists, the hnéraki, a dangerous aquatic species that seems to be a cross between a shark and a crocodile—perhaps something like the Kronosaurus of the early Cretaceous period. Whereas Ransom sees the hnéraki as evidence that Maleldil has created evil, the hrossa view it quite differently. They rejoice in the hunt and honor the hnéraki as their adversary, as Hyoi explains:
“I long to kill this hnakra as he also longs to kill me. I hope that my ship will be the first and I first in my ship with my straight spear when the black jaws snap. And if he kills me, my people will mourn and my brothers will desire still more to kill him. They they will not wish that there were no hnéraki; nor do I. How can I make you understand, when you do not understand the poets? The hnakra is our enemy, but he is also our beloved. We feel in our hearts his joy as he looks down from the mountain of water in the north where he was born; we leap with him when he jumps down the falls; and when winter comes, and the lake smokes higher than our heads, it is with his eyes that we see it and know that his roaming time is come. We hang images of him in our houses, and the sign of all the hrossa is a hnakra. In him the spirit of the valley lives; and our young play at being hnéraki as soon as they can splash in the shallow.”
“And then he kills them?”
“Not often them. The hrossa would be bent hrossa if they let him get so near. Long before he had come down so far we should have sought him out. No, Hmān, it is not a few deaths roving the world around him that make a hnau miserable. It is a bent hnau that would blacken the world. And I say also this. I do not think the forest would be so bright, nor the water so warm, nor love so sweet, if there were no danger in the lakes.”
Yet there is a joy greater than the killing of the hnakra, Hyoi tells Ransom: “Death itself in the day I drink it and go to Maleldil.” Clearly this is a very different understanding, and experience, of death. Even violence takes on a different meaning:
The hrossa, like the other rational species, have no fear of death, but the mortal danger associated with the pursuit of the hnakra seems to heighten the joys of life on this side of the grave. In this instance we are asked to consider a form of violence between man and beast that originates not from fear or indifference but from a primordial bond that transcends the division between rational and irrational animals and manifests their mutual respect and common destiny as finite beings. … It is difficult to sort out the various strands of the hunting scene and its seemingly conflicting implications. The main difficulty is that the unfallen rational hrossa are engaged in a form of violence that cannot be dismissed as the consequence of an unnatural rupture of creation’s original order. Translated into terrestrial terms, the relationship between hrossa and hnakra elicits memories (or fantasies) of an ancient kinship between man and beast that acknowledges our common animal ancestry and a shared instinct for mutual challenge. (Sanford Schwartz, C. S. Lewis on the Final Frontier, pp. 38-39)
In Meldilorn Ransom learns that each of the planets of the Solar System are governed by an eldil. The Oyarsa (oyarsa=title of rulership) explains that the Oyéresu once freely conversed with each other in the heavens; but there came a time when the Oyarsa of Earth (let us call him by his proper Thulcandrian name, Lucifer) became bent and reached out beyond his domain to the mortal races of Malacandra. He sought to make them as humans beings are now—“wise enough to see the death of their kind approaching but not wise enough to endure it.” Oyarsa cured many of those whose minds had been corrupted by Lucifer. Those he could not cure he unbodied. Here seems to be the key difference between humanity and the races of Malacandra: human beings have been taught by Lucifer to fear death, thus leading to “murder and rebellion.” “The weakest of my people,” Oyarsa tells the evil Weston, “does not fear death. It is the Bent One, the lord of your world, who wastes your lives and befouls them with flying from what you know will overtake you in the end. If you were subjects of Maleldil you would have peace.” One might appropriately describe the narrative of Out of the Silent Planet as the curing of Ransom’s fear.
Can the story of Malacandra assist us with the question: “Must death always be evil?” Might we envision the possibility of an unfallen universe in which death has a constructive, perhaps even deifying, role? In The Problem of Pain Lewis proposes that animal suffering and death may in some mysterious way be tied up with the angelic Fall:
The origin of animal suffering could be traced, by earlier generations, to the Fall of man—the whole world was infected by the uncreating rebellion of Adam. This is now impossible, for we have good reason to believe that animals existed long before men. Carnivorousness, with all that it entails, is older than humanity. Now it is impossible at this point not to remember a certain sacred story which, though never included in the creeds, has been widely believed in the Church and seems to be implied in several Dominical, Pauline, and Johannine utterances—I mean the story that man was not the first creature to rebel against the Creator, but that some older and mightier being long since became apostate and is now the emperor of darkness and (significantly) the Lord of this world. …
It seems to me, therefore, a reasonable supposition, that some mighty created power had already been at work for ill on the material universe, or the solar system, or, at least, the planet Earth, before ever man came on the scene: and that when man fell, someone had, indeed, tempted him. This hypothesis is not introduced as a general “explanation of evil”: it only gives a wider application to the principle that evil comes from the abuse of free-will. If there is such a power, as I myself believe, it may well have corrupted the animal creation before man appeared. The intrinsic evil of the animal world lies in the fact that animals, or some animals, live by destroying each other. That plants do the same I will not admit to be an evil. The Satanic corruption of the beasts would therefore be analogous, in one respect, with the Satanic corruption of man. For one result of man’s fall was that his animality fell back from the humanity into which it had been taken up but which could no longer rule it. In the same way, animality may have been encouraged to slip back into behaviour proper to vegetables. It is, of course, true that the immense mortality occasioned by the fact that many beasts live on beasts is balanced, in nature, by an immense birth-rate, and it might seem, that if all animals had been herbivorous and healthy, they would mostly starve as a result of their own multiplication. But I take the fecundity and the death-rate to be correlative phenomena. There was, perhaps, no necessity for such an excess of the sexual impulse: the Lord of this world thought of it as a response to carnivorousness—a double scheme for securing the maximum amount of torture. If it offends less, you may say that the “life-force” is corrupted, where I say that living creatures were corrupted by an evil angelic being. We mean the same thing: but I find it easier to believe in a myth of gods and demons than in one of hypostatised abstract nouns. And after all, our mythology may be much nearer to literal truth, than we suppose. Let us not forget that Our Lord, on one occasion, attributes human disease not to God’s wrath, nor to nature, but quite explicitly to Satan. (chap. 9)
Bethany Sollereder, however, does not find the appeal to a Satanic corruption of the animal kingdom persuasive. “If suffering and carnivorousness were unnecessary to evolution’s path towards creating humans,” she writes, “then Lewis’s argument could work. But the scientific evidence seems to point towards it being impossible that evolution’s natural process should have developed creatures like humans without our ancestors having been meat eaters.” In the absence of predation, human beings not only would not have survived in the world, but they would not have developed the kind of brain capable of advanced cognition. Sollerider concludes: “But the scientific evidence seems to point towards it being impossible that evolution’s natural process should have developed creatures like humans without our ancestors having been meat eaters.”
I return to my original question: Must death always be evil?