Why the Church Needs Multiple Theories of Original Sin
When Christians examine the evidence that God used evolution to create human beings, some of the first questions asked are: What about Adam and Eve? If God used evolution, do we have to give up the idea that humanity fell into sin? Then what about Christ’s redemption? These are important questions. Scripture teaches us to take sin seriously. Sin breaks our proper relationship with God. Sin would keep us away from God eternally without God’s rescue.
God’s shocking answer to the problem of sin was the incarnation, life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. During Lent, especially, we contemplate what Christ suffered for our atonement. The Word of God, “begotten from the Father before all ages,” and “being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant.” He became an infant. He grew and lived as we do. He did not sin, but he suffered the terrible consequences of our sins—including denial and betrayal by friends, mob hatred, unjust condemnation by religious and secular authorities, and death by torture. His resurrection and ascension completed and vindicated his work on earth. Consider how vast the problem of sin must be, if God would do all that to solve it.
The church has developed multiple “theories of atonement” which seek to explain how Christ’s work solved the problem of sin. Not every proposed theory of atonement has been accepted; many were debated and rejected. But many competing theories remain—still studied, preached, and compared with each other centuries after they were proposed. This is because scripture itself uses numerous images for Christ’s work: victory over evil, ransom to free us from slavery, covenantal sacrifice, substitutionary bearing the penalty of sin, an example for us to imitate, and more. Indeed, how could a single human theory fully describe Christ’s work? By holding in tension multiple theories of atonement, each with its basis in scripture and each recognized as incomplete, we do more justice to the magnitude and the mystery of Christ’s atonement than any single theory could.
How did we find ourselves in need of such divine rescue? God created us. God is good. God loves us. So why aren’t we sinless? That’s the question of original sin.
Following scripture, theologians over the centuries developed the doctrine of original sin by tracing it to our first human ancestors sinfully disobeying God’s revealed will. The Western church, both Catholic and Protestant, has largely followed Augustine’s formulation: God created the first humans holy and righteous; they chose to sin and this damaged them; the guilt of sin and disordered wills were passed by inheritance to all their descendants.
Just as theologians before Galileo understandably assumed that the earth was fixed and didn’t move, so Augustine and most ancient and medieval theologians who followed him understandably assumed that those first humans—from whom we all descended—were a single pair who lived in Mesopotamia a few thousand years ago.
In the last two centuries, the scientific study of God’s world allowed us to discover things about our ancestors that were unknown throughout most of the church’s history. Genetic and other evidence strongly indicate common ancestry between humans and animals, most closely with other primates. Hundreds of hominid fossils have been discovered which show a history of gradual changes over the last several million years, leading to the oldest Homo sapiens fossils found in Africa and dating to more than 150,000 years ago. Genetic diversity in the human population is not consistent with what we would expect if all humans had descended from a single pair of individuals, but instead implies that during the last million years or more, our ancestral population was never less than a few thousand individuals. Homo sapiens spread from Africa into Asia, Europe, and Australia more than 50,000 years ago, reaching the Americas more than 15,000 years ago. Some Homo sapiens interbred with Homo neanderthalensis and other similar populations already living in Europe and Asia along the way.
A variety of scenarios are being proposed by Christian scholars today for how we might understand the Adam and Eve of Genesis 2, and their disobedience in Genesis 3, in light of modern science. Some scenarios propose Adam and Eve as two individuals living in Mesopotamia just a few thousand years ago, acting not as ancestors but as recent representatives of all humanity. As our representatives, their disobedience caused all of humanity to fall into sin. Other scenarios propose Adam and Eve as two individuals, or as literary representations of a small group of ancient representative-ancestors, selected out of a larger population, living in Africa over 100,000 years ago at the dawn of humanity; they were ancestors—but not the sole ancestors—of all humans today; they fell into disobedience against God over a relatively short period of time with a fairly distinct “before” and “after.” Other scenarios propose that Adam and Eve’s disobedience in Genesis 3 is a symbolic retelling of the story of every human who, over our long history, became aware of God’s claims on how they ought to live, and then disobeyed.
It’s tempting to think that the church needs to decide quickly which of these scenarios is right, and which ones must be wrong. I believe the church is better served by taking its time, holding several different scenarios in tension for a while as we think through the implications of each.
Just as scripture uses multiple images for atonement, it uses multiple images for sin and the damage caused by sin, including disobedience to law, broken fellowship, enslavement of the will, and corrupted desires. Ancient and medieval theologians—including Irenaeus of Lyons, Origen, Augustine, Anselm of Canterbury, Thomas Aquinas, and Martin Luther—while agreeing on core teachings about original sin and the need for Christ’s atonement, have proposed somewhat different theories about how human nature was damaged by sin and how sin is passed from generation to generation. They wrestled with certain questions repeatedly without always agreeing. For example: how intellectually and morally advanced were the first humans who sinned? Did some humans live for a time in a state of fully developed moral righteousness, or is this a potential state that humans might have grown into through obedience over time? Does sinful disobedience require an explicit command to have been violated, or does violating the promptings of conscience count as well? Was human sin unavoidable? Did human disobedience damage human nature all in a single disobedient act (or pair of acts), or was it through accumulation of many disobedient acts over a longer period of time? How is humanity’s sinful nature passed to each generation?
As we consider the competing scenarios, long-standing theological questions will shape the discussion. For instance, some scholars argue in favor of recent representatives models in part because these scenarios seem most easily compatible with the ideas that the first humans must have started in a state of fully developed moral righteousness, and that human sin must have been avoidable. However, such scenarios require an explanation for the universality of sin: why would the sinful choices two individuals in Mesopotamia, who are not the ancestors of all humans, have such dire consequences for thousands around the world who could not have known about or participated in their choices? Alternatively, some scholars argue in favor of symbolic scenarios in part because these scenarios seem most easily compatible with the ideas that the promptings of conscience count as revelation from God even without explicit commands, and that the damage caused by sin accumulates over time. However, in such scenarios, humanity’s creation and humanity’s fall into sin—while theologically distinct ideas—both happen gradually over time with no clear “before” and “after” at a specific point in history.
If we do our job carefully, the church will be well served by the time spent working through the theological implications of these differing scenarios. If the problem of sin is so vast that it requires such an astonishing solution as the Atonement, perhaps we will also need multiple theories of original sin. Some theories of will be discarded as being inconsistent with God’s revelation in scripture. Those that remain should deepen our understanding and our appreciation of God’s grace and the immensity of the rescue God undertook through Jesus Christ.
- Nicene Creed; Greek translation taken from Ecumenical Creeds and Reformed Confessions (Grand Rapids, MI: CRC Publications, 1988) [return to body text]
- Phil. 2:6-7, Today’s New International Version [return to body text]
- There are numerous summaries of different Theories of Atonement. One recent study is: Peter Schmiechen, Saving Power: Theories of Atonement and Forms of the Church (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2005). A lecture by Dr. Suzanne McDonald, What about the cross? [direct audio link] (Calvin College, 2011 April 28), gives a helpful summary in the context of discussions about human origins. [return to body text]
- Three excellent books providing an overview of models of original sin and atonement: [return to body text]
- Tatha Wiley, Original Sin: Origins, Developments, Contemporary Meanings (New York: Paulist Press, 2002).
- Ian McFarland, In Adam’s Fall: A Meditation on the Christian Doctrine of Original Sin (Chichester, West Sussex, United Kingdom: Wiley & Sons Ltd., 2010).
- George L. Murphy, Models of Atonement: Speaking about Salvation in a Scientific World (Minneapolis, MN: Lutheran University Press, 2013).