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Evolution, Sin, and Death

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November 12, 2010 Tags: Adam, the Fall, and Sin
Evolution, Sin, and Death

Today's entry was written by George Murphy. Please note the views expressed here are those of the author, not necessarily of BioLogos. You can read more about what we believe here.

Dr. Murphy's new scholarly essay, "Human Evolution in Theological Context", can be found here.

We’ve looked at ways in which western and eastern Christians have understood Genesis 2 and 3. The latter view, in which humanity was created in an immature condition and expected to grow, corresponds best to our scientific picture. The earliest human sin was not a fall from perfection but a start along a path that led away from God.

The first humans would have inherited tendencies for selfish behaviors that injured their fellows. Sin has to do with our relationship with God, and didn’t exist before God revealed his will to our ancestors. But when God told them not to harm others, they would have been tempted to ignore him.

Humanity could theoretically have obeyed God, for our behaviors are not hardwired. Sin wasn’t “necessary” but was “inevitable.” Refusing to obey God, humanity turned from God’s intended goal and started on a road to perdition. Science of course supplies further details about early humanity, but we’re concerned here with theology rather than history.

This corresponds to the picture we get from Genesis. The sin of Adam and Eve fractures their relationship with one another and with nature. Cain kills Abel and violence pervades the world. Genesis 1-11 is not an historical narrative but does describe the human condition. We inherit selfish tendencies and are also born and nurtured in cultures estranged from God, taking in idolatrous views and values with our first breaths. Augustine was right about the seriousness of this sinful state, one in which people cannot cooperate with God because they are spiritually dead.

Unregenerate sinners are spiritually dead, but biological death can’t be attributed to sin. The fossil record shows that creatures were dying long before humans came on the scene. There is no scriptural reason to argue otherwise, for texts connecting sin and death have only humanity in view. The notion that God had to create a world with no suffering or death fails to appreciate a theology of the cross. Since God shared in the dying of creatures to bring about his purpose for creation, it shouldn’t surprise us that he created a world in which death plays a role.

What about human death? Paul did say that “all die in Adam” (I Corinthians 15:22). How can we understand this if the earliest humans were mortal?

Genesis doesn’t say whether Adam and Eve would have died if they hadn’t sinned. However, the later Judaism in which Paul was educated had come to see sin as the cause of physical death. When Paul says that death came through Adam he meant biological as well as spiritual death.

But biological death has powerful affects. Suffering, loss, uncertainty about an afterlife, the horror of rotting corpses and regret for unfinished work may all be present. The most serious threat is separation from God. It is finally sin that makes death terrible. Those who live biologically but without God partake of death in an important sense.

Perhaps biological death didn’t have to have all those affects. If humans had not sinned, they might have seen death purely as a transition to a future life. But we look back over history as people who have lived our whole lives in a sinful atmosphere, and see all earth’s dying as something more and worse than physical death. We can’t think of it as a purely biological phenomenon. Sin did not cause death but gives it new meaning.

Paul too saw death as a biological-spiritual whole. He may have been wrong about biological death originating with Adam, just as the writer of Genesis was wrong about the dome of the sky, and the Holy Spirit accommodated revelation to Paul’s culturally conditioned idea. But Paul was right that sin makes death “the last enemy” that can be defeated only by God.

Our discussion so far has been a grim story of sin and of death colored by it. The gospel announces that in Jesus Christ God acted to deal with these threats, reconciling creation and reorienting human history toward himself. That will be our next topic.

George Murphy has been active for many years in helping churches see the relevance of science for faith and to deal with religious issues raised by science and technology. With a Ph.D. in theoretical physics from Johns Hopkins he was for twelve years engaged in research and college teaching. After graduation from Wartburg Seminary and ordination he served as a parish pastor in Lutheran and Episcopal churches for twenty-five years. Now retired from regular parish ministry, he continues to write and speak on issues of science and theology. His most recent books are Pulpit Science Fiction and Models of Atonement: Speaking about Salvation in a Scientific World.

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nedbrek - #40974

November 20th 2010

Bilbo, it seems your hypothesis lacks any moral fault for humanity.  If the Fall is not active rebellion, but rather some act done in ignorance - isn’t God unjust to punish?

George L. Murphy - #40980

November 20th 2010

Bilbo -

This should be my last comment here since my 3d entry is up. 

You’re right, I introduced angels in sketching Anselm’s theory.  My apologies.

Perfection in classical theology meant something like the highest good.  If it’s highest it can’t change to anything higher.

On the question about God’s reason for creating as he did, it might help if I reworded my speculation:  “God wanted a creation with a maximum degree of functional integrity, & that means that life would have to evolve via something like natural selection.”  One problem that I see with your alternative is that it doesn’t suggest why God created this particular kind of imperfect world - i.e., 1 in which life developed by evolution.

On whether God would assume multiple angelic natures - well, how does that work if each individual is a separate species & they don’t reproduce sexually?  We’re already into 2 levels of guessing.  I’m not endorsing the theory I mentioned, just stating that that’s been one theological opinion.  (BTW, the idea of multiple incarnations has come up to explain possible salvation of ETs.  C.S. Lewis didn’t like it.)

beaglelady - a gelpful contribution.

George L. Murphy - #40981

November 20th 2010

“gelpful” = “helpful.  I have to proofread better!

Jon Garvey - #41022

November 21st 2010

@Gregory - #40898

http://www.bio.davidson.edu/people/vecase/behavior/Spring2004/laird/Social Organization.htm

This is an instructive diversion, though I hesitate to comment, being so walled up and all.

George has excluded any interpretation of sin’s origins in near-historic times, and insists it’s at tthe very dawn of humanity, or before. Unlike my original impression that he referred to adaptive behaviours such as violence, promiscuity etc which, with a divinely-endowed moral sense, would be seen as “wrong”, it appears he definitely means behaviours that are instriniscally selfish.

These are not specific: we know virtually nothing of ancient or later hominid behaviour, and our two closest relatives, chimps and bonobos, (which diverged before the hominid line began but are themselves very closely related) exhibit a very different set of behaviours: promiscuity to avoid conflict isn’t relevant - theft is because intrinsically “selfish”. Behaviours of Gorillas, though evolutionarily much more distant, are significant if selfish.

Jon Garvey - #41024

November 21st 2010

(...) It would seem he can only refer to the studies of self/other behaviours in apes (eg theft, lying) that are said to demonstrate the existence of a sense of self in the higher primates. (You’ll be familiar with this with your social sciences background).

So his model doesn’t, in fact, deal with “evolved behaviours that, in the light of a revealed moral sense, acquire the character of selfishness”, but in “evolved self-awareness together with evolved selfishness that, at a certain point in history, acquire the character of sin.”

So a mere dog that steals by instinct differs in kind from an ape that steals from a sense of self. Evolution per se (survival of the fittest) is not in view as intrinsically selfish, but only the higher behaviours of self-aware beings.

In this case it seems hard to see why moral sense needs any specific revelation from God, nor why accountability should not be an emergent quality that makes apes as far down the evolutionary tree as gorillas literally guilty of sin. They do after all, according to scientists, feel a sense of shame. Sin as selfishness therefore is not only pre-historic, nor even pre-Homo sapiens, but pre-hominid.

George L. Murphy - #41048

November 21st 2010

The issue is not “moral sense” but “religious” or “theological sense” - either of which I realize is awkward terminology.  What I mean is that the fundamental question is whether or not God & God’s will come first.  & if “looking out for #1” means looking out for myself rather than God, there’s a problem.  That’s the type of sin that’s pictured in Gen.3 - not committing an act (eating fruit) that would otherwise be considered immoral or even “selfish” but not putting what God desires 1st.  & it’s also consistent with Rom.1.

Now lets move ahead to blog entry 3.  Some of us already have.

Jon Garvey - #41207

November 23rd 2010


To try and address the topic, I remain unsure why your preferred view of the cross is essential to address the evolutionary problem you have posited. If we say that an evolved selfishness won over whatever archaic revelation of God and his will occurred, then lack of faith keeps the race in sin. So much agrees with Genesis as well - they believed a creature rather than the Creator.

The Cross, we’d all agree, is the final answer. Fiduciary influence is a neat way of tying the necessary faith directly to the Cross, but as you’ve agreed other models require faith, and explain God as its source, if less clearly. But the net result is that through the Cross, the necessary faith comes.

Yet the fact that saving faith existed prior to Christ, vide Heb 11, in the absence of a clear vision of Christ crucified, suggests that the Cross provides more than faith, ie that other aspects of atonement are as vital. Abraham is saved through the work of Christ, though he could never have appreciated the effect of his sin on the incarnate Son of God.

Jon Garvey - #41208

November 23rd 2010

Further, if the work of Christ, without a clear vision of the cross, was sufficient to save these OT saints, then can it regarded as proven that our first ancestors, given an evolutionary selfish heritage and some revelation from God, were “inevitably” going to sin (which has been my theological problem from the start of this series)?Arising from that revelation, but before the first sin, might one not have expected sufficient faith for God to “reckon it as righteousness”?

After all the Genesis account leaves room for all kinds of behaviours to be overlooked, the one important thing being the single command from God which requires faith that God speaks more truth than the snake. Had such faith been established, rather than overturned, why could not God’s grace have provided for a very different history?

I fail to see why that would do any injustice to evolutionary discoveries, and yet it avoids having to reformulate theology so radically.

Trevor K. - #42273

December 2nd 2010

For those seeking a different, more holistic picture instead of worshipping the atheistic god of evolution [blobs-to-biologists type] , read here: http://creation.com/lennox-design-and-suffering.

Really, if you want to believe in God via the bible you have to accept everything it says, including Genesis 1 thru 11. You can’t pick and choose what you want and reject that which clashes with your firm belief in atheistic evolutionary worship.

Bryan - #42942

December 8th 2010

@ Trever K

This is true, that if you want to believe in God via the Bible you have to accept everything it says.  Another important aspect of belief in God is that it should dictate your actions.  In other words, actions always follow belief.  Faith comes by hearing the Word, hearing the Word of Christ.  We also know that faith without works is dead.  I say all of this to say, if you want to believe in God you must believe the Bible is true as well as let Him dictate your actions. 

Yes- we must believe that the entire Bible is true, not just pick and choose what we like.  But also, we must not pick and choose what we will or will not obey.  So, we’re not only to believe in the whole Bible, we are to let the whole Bible define our whole life.

William Mayor - #49433

January 28th 2011

I would wish to argue about both Sin being an essential part of being human, and that Genesis 1-11 portrays a gradual movement away from God.  I find that Sin is essentially becoming unhuman, denying the uniqueness that is human, and that Genesis 1-11 merely presents some of the consequences of denying humanity’s uniqueness. 

In repsonce to the 4th blog on being in the image of God I suggested an objective idea as to what this means, and noted that the denial of this objective concept is a psychiatric reality, and that it is Sin.  It is not a gradual process but an abrupt one, either one is in a state of Sin or one is not.  However, what is essential to my approach is to change one’s view of the world.  I would have to look to be certain of the quote and reference, but it has been noted to the effect that if you do not have a correct understanding of the world, you will not have a correct understanding of God.  Let us us science to guide our understanding, and our faith to allow us to take the undesireable path suggested by science, and learn that theology is actually so simple a child can understand.

terralynnquarry - #74157

November 5th 2012

if death is not the wages of sin (as Romans 3:23 clearly says) then what are the consequences of sin? If death is not the result of sin, what need is there for us to be saved, if death occurs anyway? By accepting death before the fall, you devalue Christ’s redemptive work.

Also, what kind of perfect God would choose to use such an imperfect (and wasteful) means as evolution? You come very close to implying that God is not perfect, because He couldn’t get it right the first time and needed millions of years to create us.

I am a firm believer in literal 24 hour day/6 day creationism. I believe the evidence fits that model best. I suggest you take a look at what Answers in Genesis says, because by trying to mix Christianity and evolution you are undermining our faith and making it harder for us to stand up for what we know is right.

Praying for you.

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