C. S. Lewis and the Fall: Must Death Always be Evil?

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“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).

6323e74aa5a6bdb1c25890cf0c97e200.jpg~originalMalacandra 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.

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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)

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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: “If suffering and carnivorousness were unnecessary to evolution’s path towards creating humans, 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.”

I return to my original question: Must death always be evil?

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19 Responses to C. S. Lewis and the Fall: Must Death Always be Evil?

  1. Robert Fortuin says:

    I find Gregory of Nyssa’s cosmology of a double creation the most persuasive in grappling with this very issue. Creation in actuality (the ‘second’ creation in contrast to the ‘first’ and ideal creation) is based on God’s foreknowledge of the fall. Consequently reproduction, bisexuality, death, etc. are integral to second creation however aberrant to the ideal.

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  2. The Psalms praise animal predation as part of the glory off God’s handiwork. Therefore the idea that death in the animal kingdom has no foundation in Scripture.

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  3. Mike H says:

    Wow. Great post. Great question.

    I really like the hneraki illustration. Echoes of Leviathan / Rahab from the OT – though these guys are presented more like primordial agents of chaos that are tamed and overcome than a hneraki which reads like a combination of enemy and beloved necessary for the thrill of the hunt. But wow. How far we are from the world of the hrossa in the Lewis story! Been a long time since I’ve read it. Was there no suffering?

    Up to a point, I get the focus on the very earthy nature of eschatology as resurrection (not resuscitation!) and a renewed creation (per folks like NT Wright) vs. a sort of escapist mentality that characterizes “going to heaven” – going somewhere else far away, a perfect spirit realm perhaps. Someplace without the corruption of stuff. I get that.

    But it’s not really a matter of geography when you get down to it.

    The thing is, a world without the laws of entropy and decay, of death leading to new life (plant and animal life, even dying skin cells, etc.) would be so radically different from the one in which we have our being that it might as well be somewhere else.

    I think the world is far weirder than we will ever know. But I don’t think there was any era within history that we can point to that is absent this sacrificial principle, nothing untainted that we can stand above and observe & study as though we aren’t part of this world. The world feeds on itself in order to survive. It just does. And whatever echoes of a primordial bliss that we think we hear, I don’t think we hear them because we had it and lost it, all the death and suffering laid at the feet of human volition. I think that’s theologically significant. What is a “very good” creation anyways?

    It’s also true that new life emerges from all that death apart from our willing it to be that way, and the resurrection of Christ points to a completely different order of things that is our telos. So as much as I see a connection between protology and eschatology, I don’t think our origins fully define or limit thattelos. At the same time, I want to be cautious and sober about those origins.

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  4. Robertson Gramling says:

    I’m not sure how Ms. Sollerider can write, “I can’t find any Scriptural merit for the idea that the natural world has been deeply corrupted by evil demonic powers.” I mean in the gospels, especially John, the dichotomy between Kingdom and (the fallen) world (which isn’t to deny creations primordial goodness) is there, and the extension of the fall to the natural world seems pretty strongly present in Isaiah and Revelation. I don’t even think that’s that controversial.

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  5. Ryan says:

    A few points to add to the overall conversation.

    Old Earth creationists generally argue that human death, not animal/plant death, was a result of the Fall. They believe God used millions of years of animal/plant death to optimize ecosystems and to produce the raw materials necessary in preparation for the advent of the human species and its subsequent launching of global civilization.

    William Dembski, a scientist who is a proponent of intelligent design, has written a book called ‘The End of Christianity: finding a good God in an evil world’. In it, he proposes the hypothesis that the effects (as it pertains to millions of years of animal/plant death) of the Fall were retroactive in time, much like the effects of Christ’s act of redemption worked backward (and forward) in time.

    And on the early church fathers front, I have read that Clement of Alexandria and Theodore of Mopsuestia espoused the view that death was part of God’s plan from the very beginning of time, not a result of the Fall. You guys can read around to double check.

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    • Robert Fortuin says:

      Nyssa, Clement and Theodore espoused variations of double creation cosmology, which is not to say that death was part of God’s (original) plan. A very important distinction!

      Nyssa’s ‘On the Making of Man’ is required reading in regards to cosmology/anthropology.

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  6. Seems quite easy to challenge Sollerider’s assertion: natural predation may only seem “necessary” in light of a post-rebellion. If Satan is in control of the world and evolution (and even matter and organic life) AS SUCH, then a corruption could have occurred far further back (methaphysically) than she realizes.

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  7. Iain Lovejoy says:

    I have been looking at Genesis 3:16 recently, and I know a little Hebrew, and I have noticed that the last phrase, usually rendered something like “and your desire shall be for your husband, and he shall rule over you.” is appended to the rest of the verse without a conjunction, which, as I understand it, is frequently the sign of a circumstantial clause in Hebrew. If so, the latter half of the verse should really be rendered something like “in pain you shall bring forth children when you desire your husband or he shall have his way with you.”
    If this is right it suggests that childbirth also is a product of the fall: that you cannot have birth without death and that the whole birth / death cycle is God’s substitute for an individual eternal immortality that is impossible indeed inconceivable for those in sin. (Consider the horror of truly unending – and unendable – life trapped forever in our current state of sin.)
    The cycle of birth and death would then be the product of sin, but not in itself inherently evil, since it is God’s providence for our salvation in (and from) our current state of sin: Jesus is a child of Eve, and his incarnation impossible without it.
    This would tie in with the understanding that the birth / death cycle was necessary in evolutionary terms to produce mankind, and therefore ultimately to procure salvation for the world via Jesus. The new heaven and the new earth are (or will be) the final end product of this long cycle of birth and death which procures our salvation.
    I think Paul may be hinting the same thing in 1 Timothy 2:15, where he says: “Yet she will be saved through the bearing of children, provided they continue in faith and love and holiness, with modesty.”
    Although this is often thought to refer to women being saved in childbearing if they themselves are faithful etc, this does not fit what is said. The child-bearer is singular whilst the ones being faithful etc are plural, so they can’t be the same people. I think Paul is saying Eve, although (and indeed because) mortal, will be saved by her children, which is what I hope I am getting at above.

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  8. Dante Alighieri says:

    This is a very interesting post. Although not double creation per se, I think that natural evil and death could be seen as part of the in-built tendency and independent agencies of created, non-eternal matter, kind of like Origen’s notion of some primordial cooling off or falling away of souls from the uncreated Creator, except not talking about souls. There is a sense in Scripture, amplified in early Jewish extra-canonical literature, that all sorts of created things have their own volition, their own relationship with God. God is envisioned as a conductor over a symphony. Without the conductor, the instrumentation falls apart and have a natural tendency, like thermodynamics, to clash. So one of my favorite epithets of God in Job 25:2, “Dominion and Fear are with Him/He makes peace in high places.” The heavenly bodies follow his direction, but, left to their own devices, they fall apart. David J. Halperin in his “Faces of the Chariot” made an interesting suggestion too about the mythological pre-history of the hayyot, the “living creatures” bearing the throne, in Ezekiel 1, namely that the chariot-bearers were actually akin to the primordial, albeit created monsters that rise out of the sea in Daniel, that God “tamed” them like Leviathan or Behemoth in Job. This appears again in the extra-canonical Apocalypse of Abraham (Ch. 18, G.H. Box’s translation, PDF) wherein the passage in Job 25 is applied to the hayyot, with “Dominion” and “Fear” as their names. Symbolically, and literally at least in a textual sense, God is the charioteer of the universe, the universe as the horse can move around, with its volition, although God has the reins. In a very cool way, too, the Apocalypse is very much like J.R.R. Tolkein’s version of creation in the Silmarillion insofar as the angel Yahoel, really a stand-in for God, reconciles the discordant beasts of the chariot with an eternal hymn. God has tamed the Sea in Ezekiel 1 by freezing the primordial waters of the heavens, and, in Revelations, the glass “Sea” disappears. Contrary to Jon Levenson, I don’t think the waters are actually evil in themselves, they’re just there, unruly, like Sea-child that God delivers from the womb. Teilhard de Chardin once suggested, like I think the “double creation” suggestion above, Genesis 6, and the fall of the angels, should take priority when understanding a cosmic fall, and I think he’s right to some degree, although I also think he drove too much of a wedge between Genesis 6 and Genesis 3-4. The Garden of Eden, given its location on the cosmic mountain and located in heaven itself in apocalyptic and early Christian literature, seems to me to be symbolically the same location. Yet I also think the angelic fall of Genesis 6 should be prefaced with this kind of pre-fall volition of creation, that creation in a sense is not complete until the symbolic “sea” disappears in Revelations. I am hesitant to say fallen angels should be used to explain natural evil and death since, quite frankly, that sounds a little Gnostic to me, that the devil should have so much power over creation, but I would say there is a sense in which the angelic fall, and the human fall, are both subsets of at least the possibility latent within created matter to fall into dissolution. Since Adam was created outside of Eden, and then brought into Eden, maybe this suggests Adam would have died naturally outside of Eden and was subsequently raised up?

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    • Robert Fortuin says:

      The problem, it seems to me, with these and other such construals is that death is normalized in one way or another as a regular and intended feature of the way things function. It does not adequately account for the logoi of destruction, death, decomposition, etc.

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  9. Matthew Hryniewicz says:

    Thanks for the thought-provoking question. My initial reaction is that if we limit ourselves to speaking of physical death then I don’t see why death need be viewed as intrinsically evil. It could be seen as a sort of liberation or a doorway to a higher existence. However, physical death, as we experience it, very often if not always, involves suffering, violence and loss (at least for those left behind). It seems to me that physical death in our present context is entangled with certain evils that render it at best a mixed bag. Some of it would be mitigated if we were able to see beyond the veil and know for sure the glory that awaits at the “end of all endings” as I believe DBH once put it.

    I find Lewis’ notion that the angelic fall had something to do with animal death prior to the creation of man to be a reasonable conjecture that should serve at least as a defense against attacks on the goodness of God. It effectively pushes the conversation into the well-trodden territory of free-will defenses against arguments from evil. Whether or not it is ultimately the solution to the problem of pre-adamic animal suffering doesn’t change that.

    I find Sollerider’s position interesting, but not devastating to Lewis’. I see no reason to think that “suffering and carnivorousness” or even evolution itself are absolutely necessary for the creation of humanity as such. On what grounds can we say that there was no other way to create that which is essentially human? Clearly, much of the particularities of what we currently are were formed in this way, but it is a leap to say that the essence of humanity needed to be created by this particular evolutionary path. It would require more argumentation.

    If death is taken as a turning away from God, as St. Basil seems to be saying, then I see no way to call it anything but evil.

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    • Matthew Hryniewicz says:

      I thinking about this a little more, I recalled what I should have though of immediately, namely that the last enemy to be destroyed is death. So death, in whatever sense was intended by Paul, is clearly considered an evil to be overcome. Yet I wonder why it is saved for last. What might this tell us if we take it at face value?

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      • Robert Fortuin says:

        Death’s death completes creation, when God will be all in all.

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        • Matthew Hryniewicz says:

          If death can be defined as a turning away or separation from God, then it must be the final enemy. After all, what is left to be overcome once all creatures are oriented properly and have no distance between them and their creator?

          This may be a silly question, but is that more or less the traditional definition of death?

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          • Robert Fortuin says:

            Hi Matthew,

            Yes, more or less. Among the Fathers their is a broad consensus that death is in one way or another a fall or a return to non-being, a scandalous rupture in time as a result of the misuse of creaturely will. It as such a departure from God’s intent, a mortal wound which only God in the flesh can heal. Details do vary, and what may be the final end, there’s quite a bit of difference in patristic literature.

            So to the question, ‘Must death always be evil?’ it seems to me that although God uses death to destroy death (and in this qualified sense it is ‘useful’), death is always evil because it is devoid of ‘logos’ without rational principle, and thus the anti-Logos, the anti-Christ. Death was trampled, not subsumed.

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  10. Matthew Hryniewicz says:

    David Bentley Hart – An End to All Endings

    I’m not sure if the title is actually a line anywhere in the talk, but it fits.

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  11. Two quick points.

    1. It is not a consensual doctrinal Tradition that animals were immortal before the fall, so biological death at least is not theologically problematic. Vertebrate pain is where difficulties begin, IMO, and where the speculation of CSL, which had the approval of Mascall as well, becomes useful.

    2. Satanic corruption of nature could consist largely of the withdrawal of an ideally/originally intended guidance which was to use those angels as instruments, just as Original Sin is firstly the loss of the supernatural grace of Original Righteousness. In that case, it may be that Nature was not designed ideally to evolve without such supernatural grace, such that the unfallen counterfactual history would not need to be explicable merely naturalistically.

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  12. Fr Aidan Kimel says:

    Another article by Dr Sollereder to push along the conversation: “Did God Intend Death?

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