Ross Douthat quotes one of his readers on the physical order and Darwin and the Fall who brings in the view of J.R.R. Tolkien’s mythos:
Tolkien says that Morgoth – the original Satanic figure responsible for the fall of the elves and (implicitly and off camera) the fall of humans – imbued the physical world with a large part of his evil essence: “Just as Sauron concentrated his power in the One Ring, Morgoth dispersed his power into the very matter of Arda, thus ‘the whole of Middle-Earth was Morgoth’s Ring’.” This explains why, from the elvish point of view, death is the “gift of men” because it gives them a ticket out of the fallen, Morgoth-tainted world. The problem with this from a orthodox Christian perspective is that death is supposed to be the punishment for the Fall and not part of the solution for the Fall. Tolkien was very much troubled by this deviation from orthodoxy and justified it by saying his mythology was just the elves’ imperfect understanding about how things worked. But I find Tolkien’s mythology/theology to make more sense, and it certainly fits better with the idea that evolution “red in tooth and claw” is part of the residue of the Fall.
Since it’s Lent, I’ll bite.
Morgoth’s dispersal of his power into the fabric of creation mirrors Satan’s corruption of the world into what Protestants term total depravity. Now all that preceded Christ’s death received this fact. The tenet can easily slip into Platonic idealism, which rejects the realm of matter for the world of pure idea, of the ‘forms’. There is another way it can go: the centrepiece of the Homeric deeds in the Iliad is glorious death and life lived by the way of death, though the shade of dead Achilles in the Odyssey tells the living Odysseus that any earthly existence is better than the underworld in which he now drifts as a wraith.
In the pagan world, exemplified by Tolkien’s Arda (though on the larger scale it fits with the Christian cosmology, Tolkien is a Christian making the greatest pagan world that he can), there is no such thing as redemption of the corrupted, evil order. The recourse is twofold: for elves, departure to the Undying Lands, which are separated from Middle-Earth by a great ocean; for men, death. There is in both the bitter taste of decay, even when physically absent from the senses. Yet this is the natural, indeed only, way in the pre-Christian cosmos to deal with the deathly life of corrupted Creation: to die, albeit in the glorious light of an epic poem to be, or to leave this Middle-Earth and go somewhere else, either to immaterial world or to another world from which we shall never return – Confucius stays out of this discussion entirely.
The Pagan View Unsatisfactory for Redemption
When found in Christianity, however, this tendency generally falls under the category of Gnosticism. The ‘Christian’ equivalent of these solutions is the hope for escape into a heaven unconnected to earth except by conversion on earth to the gospel of escape. The deliverance, under this interpretation, is implicitly a recognition of Morgoth’s victory, of his right to dominion over Middle-Earth. No one should accept this as anything but God’s lame attempt to fight back at Satan: surrendering territory.
Death as a Mitigating Factor
Douthat wants to say that death, though not quite solving the problem, mitigates it: ‘After Adam and Eve have taken the forbidden fruit, God declares that Man is to be banished from Eden “lest he put forth his hand, and take also of the tree of life, and eat, and live for ever,” which could be read as a suggestion that the only thing worse than a life corrupted by sin is an eternal life corrupted by sin.’ C.S. Lewis, as he notes, agrees with the last notion, that corruption extended into eternity is hell, and writes this into The Magician’s Nephew:
Jadis, Queen of Charn (and the future White Witch) consume[s] the Narnian equivalent of the fruit of the tree of life, which comes equipped with the warning that anyone who eats of it under the wrong circumstances “will find their heart’s desire and find despair.” When Aslan is asked, later on, about the fruit’s effect, he answers: “She has won her heart’s desire; she has unwearying strength and endless days like a goddess. But length of days with an evil heart is only length of misery.”
I, too, can accept the notion that eternity in corruption is worse than being annihilated, but I believe the tree of life is not relevant to that discussion. Instead, in Revelation 22.1–2, the tree of life yields its fruit, and its leaves are for the healing of the nations: the tree, far from worsening corruption, heals people from it. The Narnian tree, then, cannot be read simply as the tree of life: even with Lewis, death per se no more mitigates the problem than with Homer.
A Real Solution: Christus Victor
If mitigation is all that God has to offer, he is not God. For now, I shall leave you with only the word eucatastrophe.