Paul and the Fall: What’s It Really About?

| By and (guest author) on Reading the Book of Nature

Introduction (by Ted Davis)

Christians have usually constructed a doctrine of the Fall with one eye on Genesis and the other eye on Romans, especially chapter five. However, in the opinion of Robin Collins, “it is primarily in Romans 1, not in Romans 5, that Paul gives his account of the ‘Fall’ of human beings.”

Original sin and the Fall of Adam and Eve pose major challenges to proponents of Evolutionary Creation, both at the level of theology and also at the level of biblical interpretation. BioLogos does not endorse any one response to those challenges: our view is that the church deserves a serious, pluralistic conversation about evolution and original sin. In an effort to help foster that conversation, we already provide numerous resources, among them these:

Further resources are being developed by some recipients of The BioLogos Foundation’s Evolution & Christian Faith program.

This series offers yet another perspective, as we serialize a paper by philosopher Robin Collins, entitled “Evolution and Original Sin.” Previously, Collins explained his Historical/Ideal view of Adam & Eve in general, and also how it applies to Romans chapter 1. Here we see how he applies it to Romans chapter 5—traditionally seen as the place where Paul defined original sin.

Paul the apostle (foreground), from Albrecht Dürer, The Four Apostles (1526), Alte Pinakothek, Munich

Romans 5: 15 -19

We will now turn to Romans 5:15-19, the locus classicus of the doctrine of original sin. In several places in Romans 5 (verses 15, 17, 18, and 19), the Apostle Paul refers to Adam as a single individual. In Romans 5:15, for instance, Paul states that “if the many died through one man’s trespass, much more surely have the free gift and the grace of one man, Jesus Christ, abounded to the many.” So, doesn’t this show that the New Testament teaches that Adam is a single individual and, contrary to the HI view, that such an individual was the source of sin? Here we can invoke a distinction that the philosopher Richard Swinburne makes between the statement or assertion of a speaker when he or she utters a sentence and the presuppositions of the statement. According to Swinburne, “The statement [a speaker makes] is whatever the speaker, by public criteria, is seeking to add to the existing beliefs of the hearers.” Revelation: From Analogy to Metaphor, pp. 28-33, quoting p. 33) In contrast, the presuppositions of an utterance can be thought of as the set of assumptions that the speaker and hearer hold in common, and which form the context in which the statement is framed.

This distinction is important for trying to understand what theological truths Scripture “teaches” or points to. Assuming that revelation takes the form of God’s opening individuals and communities to new and truer understandings of the world as briefly discussed in a previous column, at both a conscious and a subconscious level, we would not expect revelation to extend to the text’s presupposition. The reason for this is that God’s revelation to communities or individuals did not involve God’s showing them the entire truth about reality, such as the scientific nature of the cosmos. Thus, in expressing the revelation given to them by God, they would naturally use many of the pre-scientific concepts and beliefs of the time as vehicles for this revelation.

Further, even if God explicitly directed the writing of the text, in general we would not expect God to override the widely held cultural beliefs in delivering divine revelation unless those beliefs were particularly harmful. One reason for this is that, as philosopher Peter van Inwagen has pointed out, using a culture’s own belief system is often the most effective way of conveying some truth. Van Inwagen presents the analogy of trying to teach Amazonian natives some basic techniques of hygiene necessary for midwives. One method is to teach them modern germ theory. As van Inwagen points out, however, such a method, even if understood, might quickly be forgotten in their culture since it has no model or precedent, and there are no educational institutions to sustain this knowledge. He then suggests that a more effective technique might be to refine and purify the existing medical lore of the natives. So, for instance, if the natives believed that childhood fever was caused by demons, then “why not teach them that the demons must make their way into bodies of new mothers via the hands of midwives, and that this path could be blocked by scrupulous rituals of washing before delivery?” (God, Knowledge, and Mystery: Essays in Philosophical Theology, pp. 141-142) Unless the belief in demons was particularly harmful, it seems that such a method would be preferred since it would likely be much more effective to achieve the immediate goal of preventing childbirth fever. Perhaps, with a further development of their cultures, the natives would come to understand that the demons were not to be taken literally, but merely represented germs.

Richard Swinburne (left), Howard Robinson, and Peter van Inwagen (right) enjoying a moment at a conference on metaphysics in 2001. Swinburne and van Inwagen, both cited by Collins in this excerpt, are key contributors to the revival of Christian philosophy that has taken place in recent decades. Photograph by David Chalmers can be found here.

Now, it is often argued that in Romans 5 Paul is not trying to inform his hearers that Adam and Eve are literal individuals; rather, it is claimed, Paul’s real interest in this passage is about Christ. (See, for example, Paul Ricoeur, The Symbolism of Evil, pp. 238-239.) Following this line of reasoning, Paul’s talk of sin coming into the world through one man, Adam, can plausibly be considered a presupposition of the text— it is the common cultural framework of belief that Paul and his hearers share, and which Paul uses to make his theological points about Christ. This is particularly suggested by Paul’s repeated use of the phrase “just as” (and similar phrases) such as in verse 18: “Therefore just as one man’s trespass led to condemnation for all, so one man’s act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all.”

As an analogy, compare what Paul says with the following fictitious statement that one could imagine being in a contemporary editorial: “Just as Dr. Frankenstein could not see the grave consequences of his action in creating his ‘monster,’ we must be very careful before undertaking any sort of human genetic engineering.” Surely, we would not take the editorialist as asserting that Frankenstein really existed, but rather as using the well-known story of Frankenstein as a vehicle to make a point about the dangers of genetic engineering. Or, suppose that in one of the epistles Paul made a statement such as “just as the Prodigal Son had to experience the depths of suffering among the pigs before coming to his senses, we must all ....” Surely, we would not take Paul as asserting that there was a real Prodigal Son, but rather we would immediately understand that Paul was using Jesus’ parable of the Prodigal Son as a vehicle to make a theological point.

Similarly, one could argue, we should not take Paul to be asserting that Adam really existed, even if Paul himself believed in a literal Adam. [Here Collins has a footnote: As Swinburne notes (Revelation: From Analogy to Metaphor, p. 29), since the presupposition of a statement is not itself the information that the speaker intends to convey to his hearers but just a vehicle for something else, its status as a presupposition does not depend on whether the speaker believes it.] As New Testament scholar J. D. Dunn writes in his commentary on Romans 5, “an act in mythic history can be parallel to an act in living history without the point of comparison being lost. So long as the story of Adam as the initiator of the sad tale of human failure was well known, which we may assume (the brevity of Paul’s presentation presupposes such a knowledge), such a comparison was meaningful” (Word Bible Commentary, Vol. 38A, p. 289).

Although I find it plausible that Paul’s reference to Adam as a single individual is a presupposition of the text, I nonetheless feel uncomfortable with entirely dismissing Paul’s discussion of Adam as theologically superfluous. For, arguably, Paul is also trying to say something about Adam, namely that there is an analogy between the way Christ’s redemption works and the way we got into our state of bondage to sin, though admittedly Paul’s discussion of Adam is of secondary theological importance.

So, what theological truth about the source of our bondage to sin, if any, might Paul be expressing here? Since around the time of St. Augustine, Paul has been interpreted in these passages as saying that our nature is fallen, that original sin involves an inherited change in our nature. Is this really what Paul is claiming? As many exegetes have pointed out, if we carefully look at the relevant passages, Paul nowhere claims or presupposes that our natures became corrupted through Adam.

Sandro Botticelli, Saint Augustine in His Study (1480),Chiesa di Ognissanti, Florence. No theologian of the first millennium has been more influential on Christianity than Augustine. Most Christians in the Western (i.e., non-Greek) churches, whether Protestant or Catholic, have followed his interpretation of Pauline texts on many crucial topics, including original sin. However, because Augustine read biblical manuscripts mostly in Latin, not in Greek, he misunderstood Rom. 5:12. Therefore, instead of teaching that “death spread to all because all have sinned,” he taught that “death spread to all men in whom [i.e., Adam] all men sinned.” Robin Collins’ view, which differs from Augustine’s, is based on the correct translation.

[Here Collins has a lengthy footnote, as follows.] Neither does any other Scripture in the New Testament state that human nature was distorted. Ephesians 2:2 comes closest, asserting that we are “by nature children of wrath.” But even here, many commentators interpret the word “nature” as referring to ingrained habit, not something intrinsic to us. (Bernard Ramm, Offense to Reason, p. 47.) Rather, in accordance with the HI view, Scripture predominately speaks of us being cut off from the life of God, being under spiritual darkness (Eph. 4:17-18), being slaves to sin (Romans 6), and being subject to the powers of darkness (Eph. 2:1-3; Col 2:15). Further, insofar as Paul speaks of the “flesh” (e.g., Rom. 8:6), we need not interpret it as an inherited distortion of our nature stemming from Adam, but as those desires that have been inherited from our evolutionary past and which are one of the prime sources of sinful temptation.

Rather, Paul presupposes that Adam is responsible for the entrance of sin into the world; it is the continuing sin of the human race, however, that brings death: “Therefore, just as sin came into the world through one man, and death came through sin, and so death spread to all because all have sinned” (Rom. 5:12). As for the condemnation of all people resulting from Adam’s sin (verse 18), this could have simply resulted from everyone becoming sinners, and as a result being under condemnation, in the same way that (spiritual) death “has spread to all because all have sinned” (verse 12).

[I’ve inserted another lengthy footnote.] Following Augustine, this condemnation has traditionally been interpreted as involving every person being guilty for Adam’s sin. At least in part, however, Augustine based this doctrine on a faulty Old Latin translation of Rom. 5:12, which read “death spread to all men in whom [i.e., Adam] all men sinned,” instead of the correct translation which reads, “death spread through all men because all men sinned” (Paul Blowers, “Original Sin,” in Encyclopedia of early Christianity, 2nd edition, p. 839). Further, as Blowers notes (p. 839), “there is little evidence among the Greek fathers for a notion of inherited guilt or physically transmitted sinfulness.” Thus, Augustine went contrary to the tradition at the time.

Further, it should be noted, the story of the Fall in Genesis 2-3 never says or even suggests that Adam’s and Eve’s nature was distorted. Rather, the punishment is banishment from Eden and thus banishment from the uninhibited relationship with God that Eden symbolized. Thus in accordance with the HI view, the Fall story seems to be about how we came to lose the state of direct awareness of and fellowship with God.

Looking Ahead

The next excerpt presents Robin Collins’ overall analysis of Paul’s view of Adam—which lies at the heart of the Christian view of sin and redemption. Be sure not to miss it.




Collins, Robin. "Paul and the Fall: What’s It Really About?" N.p., 21 Jan. 2015. Web. 23 August 2017.


Collins, R. (2015, January 21). Paul and the Fall: What’s It Really About?
Retrieved August 23, 2017, from

References & Credits

Robin Collins’ chapter from Perspectives on an Evolving Creation, ed. Keith B. Miller (Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2003), is reproduced by kind permission of the author and the Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company. We gratefully acknowledge their cooperation in bringing this material to our readers.

All Scripture quotations in this paper are from the NRSV translation.

About the Authors

Ted Davis

Ted Davis is Fellow of the History of Science for the BioLogos Foundation and Professor of the History of Science at Messiah College. A former high school science teacher, Ted studied history and philosophy of science at Indiana University, where his mentor was the late Richard S. Westfall, author of the definitive biography of Isaac Newton. With the English historian Michael Hunter, Ted edited The Works of Robert Boyle, 14 vols. (London: Pickering & Chatto, 1999-2000), but his interests include the whole 2000-year interaction of Christianity and science. Author of dozens of scholarly articles and essays, Ted is one of few historians who have written extensively about both the Scientific Revolution and modern America. He and his wife Kathy enjoy theater, music, and traveling to new places.

More posts by Ted Davis

Robin Collins

Professor Robin Collins, Ph.D., is Distinguished Professor of Philosophy and Chair of the Department of Philosophy. He specializes in philosophy of science, philosophy of religion, metaphysics, and philosophical theology. He is well-versed in issues relating to science and religion, with graduate-level training in theoretical physics. He has written almost forty substantial articles and book chapters in these areas with some of the leading academic presses, such as Oxford University Press, Cambridge University Press, Blackwell, and Routledge. He has also spoken on issues relating to God and the cosmos at many colleges and universities (including Oxford University, Cambridge University, Yale University, and Stanford University) and has appeared in the popular Christian and secular media – for example, in Christianity Today, Lee Strobel’s Case for the Creator, and Robert Kuhn’s PBS series Closer to the Truth.

More posts by Robin Collins