Tim Keller on Original Sin, Atonement, and Evolution

on June 15, 2015

Sin and Salvation

Some may respond, “Even though we don’t think there was a literal Adam, we can accept the teaching of Genesis 2 and Romans 5, namely that all human beings have sinned and that through Christ we can be saved. So the basic Biblical teaching is intact, even if we do not accept the historicity of the story of Adam and Eve.” I think that assertion is too simplistic.

The Christian gospel is not good advice, but good news. It is not directions on what we should do to save ourselves but rather an announcement of what has been done to save us. The gospel is that Jesus has done something in history so that, when we are united to him by faith, we get the benefits of his accomplishment, and so we are saved. As a pastor, I often get asked how we can get credit for something that Christ did. The answer does not make much sense to modern people, but it makes perfect sense to ancient people. It is the idea of being in ‘federation’ with someone, in a legal and historical solidarity with a father, or an ancestor, or another family member or a member of your tribe. You are held responsible (or you get credit) for what that other person does. Another way to put it is that you are in a covenant relationship with the person. An example is Achan, whose entire family is punished when he sins (Joshua 7.) The ancient and Biblical understanding is that a person is not ‘what he is’ simply through his personal choices. He becomes ‘what he is’ through his communal and family environment. So if he does a terrible crime—or does a great and noble deed—others who are in federation (or in solidarity, or in covenant with him) are treated as if they had done what he had done.

This is how the gospel salvation of Christ works, according to Paul. When we believe in Jesus, we are ‘in Christ’ (one of Paul’s favorite expressions, and a deeply Biblical one.) We are in covenant with him, not because we are related biologically but through faith. So what he has done in history comes to us.

What has all this to do with Adam? A lot. Paul makes the same point in 1 Corinthians 15 about Adam and Christ that he does in Romans 5:

For since death came through a man, the resurrection of the dead comes also through a man. For as in Adam all die, so in Christ all will be made alive. (1 Cor 15:21-22)

When Paul says we are saved ‘in Christ’ he means that Christians have a covenantal, federal relationship with Christ. What he did in history is laid to our account. But in the same sentence Paul says that all human beings are similarly (he adds the word ‘as’ for emphasis) “in Adam.” In other words, Adam was a covenantal representative for the whole human race. We are in a covenant relationship with him, so what he did in history is laid to our account.

When Paul speaks of being ‘in’ someone he means to be covenantally linked to them so their historical actions are credited to you. It is impossible to be ‘in’ someone who doesn’t historically exist. If Adam doesn’t exist, Paul’s whole argument—that both sin and grace work ‘covenantally’—falls apart. You can’t say that ‘Paul was a man of his time’, but we can accept his basic teaching about Adam. If you don’t believe what he believes about Adam, you are denying the core of Paul’s teaching.

If you don’t believe in the fall of humanity as a single historical event, what is your alternative? You may posit that some human beings began to slowly turn away from God, all exercising their free wills. But then how did sin spread? Was it only by bad example? That has never been the classic teaching of the Christian doctrine of original sin. We do not learn sin from others; we inherit a sin nature. Alan Jacobs’ great book on Original Sin: A Cultural History says that anyone who holds to the classic Augustinian view of original sin must believe that we are ‘hard-wired’ for sin; we didn’t just learn sin from bad examples. The doctrine also teaches that it was not originally in our nature to sin, but that we have fallen from primal innocence.1 Another problem arises if you deny the historicity of the fall. If some human beings began to turn away from God, why couldn’t some human beings resist so that some groupings would be less sinful than others? Alan Jacobs in his book on original sin insists that the equal sinfulness of the entire human race is foundational to the traditional view.

A Model

If Adam and Eve were historical figures could they have been the product of evolutionary biological processes (EBP)? An older, evangelical commentary on Genesis by Derek Kidner provides a model for how that could have been the case. First, he notes that in Job 10:8-9 God is said to have fashioned Job with his ‘hands’, like a potter shaping clay out of the dust of the ground, even though God obviously did this through the natural process of formation in the womb. Kidner asks why the same potter-terminology in Genesis 2:7 could not denote a natural process like evolution.2 Then, Kidner goes on to say that:

Man in Scripture is much more than homo faber, the maker of tools: he is constituted man by God’s image and breath, nothing less….The intelligent beings of a remote past, whose bodily and cultural remains give them the clear status of ‘modern man’ to the anthropologist, may yet have been decisively below the plane of life which was established in the creation of Adam….Nothing requires that the creature into which God breathed human life should not have been of a species prepared in every way for humanity…3

So in this model there was a place in the evolution of human beings when God took one out of the population of tool-makers and endowed him with ‘the image of God’. This would have lifted him up to a whole new ‘plane of life’. On this view, then what happened?

If this…alternative implied any doubt of the unity of mankind it would be of course quite untenable. God…has made all nations ‘from one’ (Acts 17:26)….Yet it is at least conceivable that after the special creation of Eve, which established the first human pair as God’s vice-regents (Gen 1:27,28) and clinched the fact that there is no natural bridge from animal to man, God may have now conferred his image on Adam’s collaterals, to bring them into the same realm of being. Adam’s ‘federal’ headship of humanity extended, if that was the case, outwards to his contemporaries as well as onwards to his offspring, and his disobedience disinherited both alike.4

Here Kidner gets creative. He proposes that the being who became Adam under the hand of God first evolved but Eve did not. Then they were put into the garden of Eden as representatives of the whole human race. Their creation in God’s image and their fall affected not only their offspring, but all other contemporaries. In this telling, Kidner accounts for both the continuity between animals and humans that scientists see, and the discontinuity that the Bible describes. Only human beings are in God’s image, have fallen into sin, and will be saved by grace.

This approach would explain perennially difficult Biblical questions such as–who were the people that Cain feared would slay him in revenge for the murder of Abel (Gen 4:14)? Who was Cain’s wife, and how could Cain have built a city filled with inhabitants (Gen 4:17)? We might even ask why Genesis 2:20 hints that Adam went on a search to ‘find’ a spouse if there were only animals around? In Kidner’s approach, Adam and Eve were not alone in the world, and that answers all these questions.

But there is another question that looms over the others. In this model, how could there have been suffering and death before the fall? Some answer may be in the second verse of the Bible, where we are told that ‘the earth was without form’ and was filled with darkness and chaos. Most traditional interpreters believe that God initially made the world in this ‘formless’ state and then proceeded to subdue the disorder through the creative process of separation, elaboration, and development depicted in Genesis 1.5 However, even this traditional interpretation means that there was not perfect order and peace in creation from the first moment. Also, Satan seems to have been present in the world before the Fall. What makes us think that Satan and demons were not in the world before the moment the serpent appears? One of the biggest unanswered (and unanswerable) theological questions is—what was Satan doing there? By definition, if Satan was somewhere in the world, it was not all a perfect place.

Traditional theology has never believed that humanity and the world in Genesis 2-3 was in a glorified, perfect state. Augustine taught that Adam and Eve were posse non peccare (able not to sin) but they fell into the state ofnon posse non peccare (not able not to sin). In our final state of full salvation, however, we will be non posse peccare (not capable of sinning.) Eden was not the consummated world of the future. Some have pointed out that in the Garden of Eden that there would have had to be some kind of death and decay or fruit would not have been edible.

It could be that Adam and Eve were given conditional immortality and, in the Garden, a foretaste of what life in the world would be like with humans in the image of God living in perfect harmony with God and his creation. It was offered to them to work with God to ‘subdue’ the earth (Genesis 1:28.) On any view, the idea of ‘having dominion’ and ‘subduing’ the earth meant that creation was at least highly undeveloped. Even before the Fall, the world was not yet in the shape God wanted it to be. Human beings were to work with God to cultivate and develop it.

The result of the Fall, however, was ‘spiritual death’, something that no being in the world had known, because no one had ever been in the image of God. Human beings became, at the same time, capable of far greater and far worse things than any other creatures. We now die eternally when we die physically. And since we are now alienated from God, the world is under the power of the forces of darkness in a way that would not have occurred without the fall. The physical world now ‘groans’ under disintegration because human beings have failed to be God’s stewards of creation. Greater ‘natural evil’ is combined with human, moral evil to create a dark, chaotic world indeed. The world will finally be renewed, and become all it was designed to be (Romans 8:19-23), only when we finally become all we should be through the work of the Second Adam (1 Cor 15:42-45.)

Other Models

Is this the only model possible for those who believe in an historical Fall yet who believe God used evolution to bring about life on earth? No. Some believe in theistic evolution—that both Adam and Eve were the products of evolution and given the image and breath of God.6 Others think it makes more sense theologically and philosophically to believe in ‘progressive creation’ that while God used evolution in general to bring about life, he created both Adam and Eve through a special act, and that the thesis of common ancestry with other animals is completely false.7 Kidner’s model is a kind of hybrid between theistic evolution and old-earth, progressive creationism. Whatever one’s ‘model’ for working out the relationship of the Bible to science, however, Kidner insists:

What is quite clear from these chapters in the light of other scriptures is their doctrine that mankind is a unity, created in God’s image, and fallen in Adam by one act of disobedience; and these things are as strongly asserted in this understanding of God’s Word as on any other.8

Concluding Thoughts

How do we correlate the data of science with the teaching of Scripture? The simplest answer for scientists would probably be to say ‘who cares about Scripture and theology?’ but that fails to do justice to authority of the Bible, which Jesus himself took with utmost seriousness. The simplest answer for theologians would probably be to say ‘who cares about science?’ but that does not give nature its proper importance as the creation of God. Psalm 19 and Romans 1 teach that God’s glory is revealed as we study his creation, yet in the end both of those passages say that it is only Scripture which is the ‘perfect’ revelation of God’s mind (Psalm 19:7). We must interpret the book of nature by the book of God. “It cannot be said too strongly that Scripture is the perfect vehicle for God’s revelation…its bold selectiveness, like that of a great painting, is its power. To read it with one eye on any other account is to blur its image and miss its wisdom.”9

My conclusion is that Christians who are seeking to correlate Scripture and science must be a ‘bigger tent’ than either the anti-scientific religionists or the anti-religious scientists. Even though in this paper I argue for the importance of belief in a literal Adam and Eve, I have shown here that there are several ways to hold that and still believe in God using EBP.10

When Derek Kidner concluded his account of human origins, he said that his view was an “exploratory suggestion…only tentative, and it is a personal view. It invites correction and a better synthesis.”11 That is the right attitude for all of us working in this area.


Notes & References


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Tim Keller
About the Author

Tim Keller

Timothy Keller is the founding pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City, and a best-selling author of books like The Reason for God and Jesus the King. Now he is the Chairman and co-Founder of Redeemer City to City, which trains pastors for ministry in global cities.