Natural evil is one of theology’s greatest challenges, but I have long thought it has a simple solution. Let me express it in four propositions: First, Satan is a fallen angel, which is indicated, however obliquely, by the so-called gap between Genesis 1:1 and 1:2. Second, that cosmological event makes the world the site of a great struggle between good and evil. Evolution (not the theory, but the actual process), with its gambling on chance and seductive appeal to self-interest, is the product of that struggle. Third, the Garden of Eden was a real, localized place, regardless of how hard it is to plot its spatial and temporal coordinates. Fourth, there must have been something dividing the Garden from the rest of the world, something protecting it from Satan, even if this protection ultimately failed with the entrance of the serpent. That protective barrier is in fact the firmament, which is depicted in Gen. 1:6-8.
These propositions, however, are not the point of my essay. I’ve developed them in a book that virtually nobody has read, so I’ve given up on promoting them. What I want to write about instead is that my propositions are almost identical to Karl Barth’s reading of Genesis. Don’t read my fanciful and speculative theory. Just read him.
The opinion is frequently stated that Karl Barth took the Genesis story as saga or legend and that he did not think that theology and Darwinism had anything useful to say to each other. Those observations are only half true at best and barely scratch the surface of Barth’s deeply cosmological interpretation of Genesis in Church Dogmatics III/1. There is a geopolitical theology in Barth, a geo-hydro-theology that, coupled with his radical (and anti-immaterial) analysis of God and space, has barely been noticed by Barthians to this day. (It is rivaled only by Carl Schmitt’s ideology of land and sea and is developed in contemporary theology only by Catherine Keller.)
First, Barth does not think that the waste and void of 1:2 is a matter of a careless Hebrew writer borrowing, mangling, and then trying to hide a pagan myth. Why go to so much effort? Besides, the Hebrews were not victims of Freudian ambivalence. He also rejects the idea that the waste is the primeval matter that God tamed and ordered. Formless (or prime) matter was a Greek, not a Hebrew category. Instead, the verse gives the chaos that follows the initial act of creation its due without drawing too much needless attention to it. (Barth always thought that evil should not be talked about directly and he thought he learned this from the Bible.) His conclusion: “Thus the condition of the earth depicted in v. 2 is identical with the whole horror of the final judgment” (p. 108). The waste, like Satan himself, is permitted only in the form of something already absolutely judged. Or, as he also said, the waste is the world without the Word.
Second, Barth clearly thinks the firmament is the fundamental feature of the creation account. “The first thing—and it is on this that the saga lays all its emphasis—is the firmament which restrains and limits the menacing intermediate waters.” It functions as a spatial correlate to the temporal gap. In other words, the firmament is God’s response to whatever it was that happened in the gap between Gen. 1:1 and 1:2. To create is to separate, Barth repeatedly states, and he takes seriously the hard reality of the firmament and the waters it holds back. The waters are the primal flood of chaos (and not clouds and atmospheric gases as Calvin postulated). The firmament itself is a dome of sorts and not simply the sky as some commentators assume. It is “the creaturely guarantee of the continuance of the lower universe.” The dome also protects us from God’s wrath (the heavens that were created above the earth). It will become superfluous only when the heavenly waters are transformed into a crystal sea (Rev. 4:6 and 15:2) and the cosmos will witness “a complete liberation of the earth from the sea.” So what is the firmament doing if it is not protecting the Garden of Eden?
Third, evil for Barth is dependent on the good in the sense that it is a deceptive force that tries to mock the creator. Indeed, it “plays at creation,” which is as wonderful an image of what Darwinians think random mutation is capable of doing that I have ever read. Barth criticized theists for making a deity of evolution, but he also refused to equate evolution with evil. He says of chaos that “it cannot prevent the cosmos into which it is integrated from being the cosmos,” suggesting that evil in turn is used by God in a way that deceives the deceiver. It is God, in the end, who brings true order out of randomness. Satan is a mime, for Barth, and mimicry is destructive, not creative.
True, I have drawn some lines here that Barth leaves sketchy. He was held back in being as bold as I have developed him by his unfortunate and misguided speculation on the nothingness of evil, and it is that speculation that led him, in III/3, to belittle the idea that Satan fell before Adam. The idea that evil is nothing is metaphysical mythologizing at its worst, since it makes evil even more obscure than the story of a fallen angel. Indeed, in Barth’s rhetorically powerful hands, nothingness is not nothing: His dialectical description of its powerful impotence stages a conceptual drama that distracts us from facing evil’s personal reality. Trying to prevent theodical speculations with the metaphysics of nothingness is like pouring gas on a fire set by a bunch of pyrotechnies. Take it away, and you end up with the dots as I’ve connected them.
That leaves us with a final question. Why has Barth’s daring treatment of Genesis been so studiously avoided in the mainstream secondary literature? Many contemporary Barthians have been so influenced by the narrative school of theology (especially Hans Frei’s version) that they make of Barth’s dogmatics a beautiful story unrelated to anything going on in the secular world. They especially do not think that Genesis has anything left to say to the modern mind. And evolution’s relation to evil? They think there’s nothing there.
Stephen H. Webb is a columnist for First Things. He is the author of The Dome of Eden: A New Solution to the Problem of Creation and Evolution and, forthcoming, Mormon Christianity.