Chances are, if you’ve passed any time among evangelical Bible teachers, you’ve heard a summary of the Bible’s plotline that goes something like this: In the first chapter of God’s metanarrative, God created the world in a state of pristine beauty and peace and gave to human beings the role of stewards. In the next chapter, tragedy ensues as humanity flouts its divine commission and thereby overturns the harmony of God’s originally good creation, unleashing sin and death into the world. In the story’s third movement, however, God in Christ achieves redemption, canceling and triumphing over sin and death through Jesus’ death and resurrection. And this redemption will be wrapped up in a fourth and final chapter when Jesus returns to consummate God’s reign and usher in a tearless, deathless new creation.
This way of narrating the Bible’s unity has won wide support in many quarters of the church, not only among evangelicals (though they, probably more than many others, are responsible for popularizing it—see, for instance, the wonderfully accessible biblical theology that has come out of Moore Theological College in Sydney, Australia for many decades). And it’s easy to see why. Not only is it a memorable way of distilling a basic narrative arc out of the Bible’s bewildering literary diversity, but it also takes its cue from certain hints that the Bible itself provides. When some Pharisees ask Jesus’ opinions on divorce and remarriage, for instance, Jesus points to three differing “moments” in the biblical timeline. There is, he says, the time of “the beginning,” when God “made them male and female” (Matt. 19:3-12, quoting Gen. 1:27 and 2:24); there is a subsequent time when people became “hard-hearted,” languishing in spiritual insensitivity in sharp contrast to how things were designed to be “from the beginning” (Matt. 19:8); and then, finally, there is the time of “the kingdom of heaven” (19:12), the long-awaited era of God’s restorative justice, forgiveness, and empowerment for new life.
By framing things in this way, Jesus himself seems to provide a warrant for the evangelical schema: The Bible tells the story of a glorious beginning (creation), a human rebellion (fall), a divine rescue (redemption), and a fulsome future wholeness (restoration). And, thereby, Jesus delivers a rubric for engaging a whole host of ethical and theological questions—questions resembling, but not limited to, the Pharisees’ one about divorce: How should Christians think about drone warfare, or cosmetic surgery, or hydraulic fracking, or Paleo dieting, or skoliosexuality? The answer to those questions (if the evangelical summarizing instinct is correct) is to ask another: How do these areas of human activity and confusion look in light of creation (“Where, after all,” asks the theologian Robert Jenson, “should [Christians] turn for wisdom in these matters, if not to the peculiar logics of Genesis 1 and 2, and to these chapters’ narrative of the ‘beginning’?”), fall, redemption and restoration? What God discloses in creation is his original design for human flourishing—a flourishing that is finally secured, in spite of the fall’s ravages, in the new creation God eschatologically brings about in Christ.
As with any schematic framework like this, though, a closer look uncovers some complications. Those complications are, in large measure, the focus of Ephraim Radner’s meditative, haunting, and in some ways frustratingly elusive recent book A Time to Keep: Theology, Mortality, and the Shape of a Human Life.
Consider, for instance, the story that Radner selects as a leitmotif for the book as a whole, the story of God’s clothing of Adam and Eve with “garments of skins” (Gen. 3:21) after their disobedience had left them newly mindful of their nakedness. Following this gracious gesture, God drives the man and woman into exile, in an effort to keep them from eating the fruit of the tree of life and thus attaining immortality (3:22-24).
At first blush, this looks coldly punitive. But if the alternative is for the man and woman to remain in Eden, satiating themselves on a fruit that will prolong their lives precisely in their sin and fallen misery, then in a strange way God’s decree of exile begins to look pitying as well as penal. Barring Adam and Eve from access to immortality and thus guaranteeing their eventual demise, God offers them mortality as a gift : they no longer need to fear the terror of living forever in a state of rebellion and curse. “Death,” as the parody Twitter account Werner Twertzog recently quipped, presumably not intending to summarize Genesis 3 as neatly as it did, “is proof that God loves us and wants us to be happy.”
Or consider the way the New Testament discusses the reality of death—the second movement in the creation-fall-redemption-restoration schema. On the one hand, death is described as the “last enemy to be destroyed” (1 Cor. 15:26). It is a result of Adam’s transgression, a usurping intruder into God’s good creation and one that will be permanently banished at the final consummation of God’s reign (Rev. 20:14). And yet, it is death—a particular, first-century death, outside the gates of Jerusalem—where, Christians confess, God is known most fully and definitively. Jesus’ taste of human death is part of an elaborate theological choreography whereby our Adamic suffering becomes his so that his life may become ours. And, if that weren’t confusing enough, it turns out that the way we come to participate in his life is “by becoming like him in his death” (Phil. 3:10).
There is a kind of “superimposition” here, as the Pauline scholar Morna Hooker has called it, whereby Christ in the New Testament is depicted as moving into the realm of human death so that believers’ mortality can become not simply their share in Adam’s fall but rather, through baptism, their share in Christ’s share in Adam’s fall. All of this is makes it necessary to speak, as Radner has written elsewhere, of a mixed-up—as opposed to strictly linear—Christological chronology. Things aren’t as tidy as the creation-fall-redemption-restoration schema might suggest. What does it mean, then, to treat death as an enemy that is also a gift, a usurper that is also a mercy, insofar as it is the way we share in Christ’s own sufferings and escape the misery of what Tolkien once called the endless circles of the world?
For Radner, it isn’t enough, when asking about the meaning of human life in the present, to go back to Genesis 1-2 and the story of creation. We must also see the subsequent story of the “fall,” and the entrance of death into the human story, as disclosing what it means to be human today under God’s providential care. “[T]he tendency in commentary” and much of the Christian theological tradition, Radner notes, “has been to bracket out Genesis 3-4 [with their treatments of death and genealogy] as incapable of providing positive illumination on human existence and instead to use them only as contrastive coloring, over and against which the ‘true’ meaning of human life is given in the preceding chapters.”
Against this tendency, and in line with his career-long interest in allegorical or “figural” reading of the Bible, Radner proposes that the “garments of skins” that enable Adam and Eve’s sojourn east of Eden—the animal skins that God uses to cover their shame—are just as crucial for understanding human life in the present as the primal affirmation that the man and woman are made in God’s image. Not only our glorious imaging of God but also our toil-bound directedness toward eventual death: these realities together comprise the space, as it were, within which to engage questions about any present dimension of human life, whether it be marriage and singleness, work and productivity, eating, or end-of-life care, to name only a few that Radner’s wide-ranging book discusses in depth. As we trace the “figure” of the mortal human creature through Scripture—a figure that wends its way from Eden to Jericho to Babylon to, eventually and climactically, a hill outside Jerusalem and a garden tomb—we see the “shape” of human life disclosed. More specifically, we see the capital-H Human life, the shape of the life of Christ himself, who takes Adam’s (and Abel’s, and David’s, and Jeremiah’s) nature to himself, the life to which we too are called to be conformed, rendered in this unfolding story of humanity’s “traversal,” as Radner calls it, of the time from birth to death.
How does this differ from other theological approaches? Radner takes care to distinguish his project from theologies which, in his judgment, look at “‘the human’ in purely eschatological terms, as if the perfection of a transformed ‘new creation’ is the benchmark of our self-understanding.” Theologians on the so-called right and left are in the habit, Radner thinks, of “introjecting [sic] that futuristic understanding of human perfection into present political reconceptions of human flourishing.” Progressive advocates for same-sex marriage, for example, point to the non-procreative future kingdom of God and use it to sanction the basic goodness of non-procreative marriages now. Mirroring their error, conservatives often advert, as in some iterations of the so-called “theology of the body,” to an Edenic picture of procreation’s place in marriage—substituting a fixation on protology for a utopian obsession with eschatology—without reckoning in depth with how the death-directed trajectory of present human existence must of necessity reshape that picture (cf. Luke 20:34-36).
In both cases, Radner argues, something crucial has been forgotten. “Whatever transformations we may think are promised to us in some future divine gift,” he writes, “cannot be ones that in any way subvert the integrity of this present.” Or as he puts it in what he calls the book’s “central argument,” “To have a body and deploy it is bound up with the fact that we are born and we die within a short span of years. And this being born and dying is itself—in all its biology of connection, memory, and hope—a mirror of and vehicle for the truth of God’s life as our creator.” If we want to know what it is to be human, in other words, we must rediscover how to “number our days” (Psalm 90:12), not just hark back—or anticipate—a time when there is no need for such numbering. We will never know how to answer the questions that plague our own era—questions concerning sexuality and fertility, capitalistic consumption, or what makes for humane work—unless we face the fact that our mortality is what God now gives us as the bounded context of our present lives in Christ.
In the endorsement I wrote for the back cover of this book, I compared it to now-classic works on human sexuality by Pope St. John Paul II and the 20th century’s greatest Reformed theologian Karl Barth, and I don’t rescind that high praise. What Radner has given us is nothing less than a theology of human personhood that tries to be accountable to the whole of Scripture. It is, as I wrote, “an indispensable touchstone for ongoing Christian reflection on the meaning of our embodied, procreative, and variously fruitful vocations as creatures of God.”