13 June 2013

φθορα and Creation

phthora1A few days ago, on The Life Scientific (BBC Radio 4), there was a discussion on biological ageing. Professor Jim Al-Khalili said this:

Ageing is one of the biggest mysteries in science. We still don’t understand what makes our bodies age.

He was interviewing Linda Partridge who has conducted work on fruit flies and other simple organisms to try to understand the genetic basis for the ageing process. In the course of the programme, she highlighted the fact that ageing is an extraordinarily complicated process and yet, as she explained, it is a process that is seen in all organisms in a surprisingly similar way.

Many mechanisms are extraordinarily similar…You can take a human gene and place it in a yeast cell and it works extraordinarily well.

This fact highlights to me again the connection between humans and the rest of the creation. Often, in interpreting Genesis 1, the emphasis is placed on humans as separate from the rest of creation, due to men and women being made ‘as the image of God’, without any balance provided from the fact that humans are made ‘from the earth’ in the same way as other life. They are also the product of the same creative impetus that gives rise to the rest of the cosmos. Humans belong within the cosmos. Humans belong with other creatures. The incredible connection between humans and other life is seen in the functioning of human genes in yeast cells and in the fact that 80% of genes in mice and humans are like-for-like. When you consider only classes of genes, then humans and mice are 99% similar. The uniqueness of humans doesn’t consist in our being made of a different ‘stuff’ to other life.

When it comes to ageing, we also share this with other life. Ageing is part of the natural processes that are seen in the Genesis narrative even before the Fall of humanity. Plants are created with seed, so that they can reproduce fruit and other plants. The cycle of the seasons, where life ebbs and flows is part of the created cosmos. The cycle of life and death amongst animals is eulogised as part of the glory of God’s works (indeed, of the glory of God himself) in Psalm 104:27-30. And yet, Genesis 1 is clear: death is not God’s intention for humans. The Tree of Life in the garden represents God’s design for human life uninterrupted by death. After the sin of Adam and Eve, the way to that Tree is forbidden.  John Walton points out in his commentary on Genesis that the processes of ageing are fundamental to the human body itself, with skin being a product of the ageing process in cells. But he sees in the Tree of Life the presence of something only available to humans, something which counters the process of ageing and death which is present in all life – something that rejuvenates and restores. The idea to be derived from Genesis 1-3 is that the ageing process is part of the created order, operating in all creatures, including humans, but that in humans God’s design is for an on-going renewal of human life that counters this. But this renewal has been removed because of human sin. Humans are now subject to decline into death in the same way as other creatures.

The Apostle Paul addresses the ageing process, and its inevitable result in death in his letters. The Greek word that comes close to the idea of ageing is φθορα (phthora). Phthora is the corruption of something, whether food that gradually rots, or bodies that decay. In 1 Corinthians 15:42, the present human body is susceptible to phthora, but the resurrection body of humans will be raised aphtharsia, that is, not susceptible to phthora. It is released from phthora as part of inheriting a renewed creation that is itself aphtharsia (1C15:50). This idea of a creation released from phthora is explicit in Romans 8:21. Jesus Christ is the pioneer. In his resurrection, he has been released from death into that aphtharsia existence. As the divine man, he is the forerunner – the first-fruits of those who have died. Paul also describes the aphtharsia human body as pneumatikov (1C15:44). It is a body fundamentally reconnected to the creative, life giving power of the Holy Spirit who hovered over the chaotic cosmos at the beginning. Our reconciliation to the Creator is redemptive of body as well as soul.

In writing this way of the release of the cosmos from phthora, Paul is responding to Genesis 3, not only in terms of human death and God’s redemptive response to it in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, but also to the effect of the fall on the environment (G3:17-18). A renewed creation, freed from phthora, will not eliminate the wonderful life-cycles and ecosystems which so delight the psalmist and bring glory to God in Psalm 104. But it will fundamentally alter the relationship of humans with their environment. There will be a removal of the damage and despoiling that has come by our hands, a stop to habitat-loss and extinctions. The balance of the earth will be restored as humans discover what it means to live as the Image of God in Jesus Christ. And when scientists predict the extinction of all life on earth in 5 billion years because of the life-cycle of our sun, they are not accounting for the removal of phthora from the cosmos through the divine, restorative intervention of the creator-Christ, who holds all things together.

(Picture Credit: Erin Davies)