What Changed with Sin?

Oliver Crisp has been writing on original sin. Here he speaks about the dynamic nature of theology. Theologians have always debated the meaning and origins of humanity’s sinful condition. Here he suggests that original sin could have been gained gradually, in a population, rather than in one momentous act. What would an evolutionary account of original sin look like? In this post, I try my hand at developing a more detailed account of what sin might look like in the sort of gradual acquisition process that Crisp suggests.

Evolution is a tricky theological puzzle. In one sense, nothing essential about Christianity is lost or gained because of it. One can be a perfectly good Christian without it. At the same time, we naturally desire our theology to be coherent with the rest of human knowledge. And once you start thinking about evolution, it is like looking at the night sky through a lens. Nothing has essentially changed, but everything is different. Astronomers had to rearticulate our place in the cosmos due to the telescope. Theologians have to rearticulate our place amongst life due to Darwin.

There are new challenges for how we think about sin in light of evolution. One problem is that many of the actions we might like to describe as sinful are not limited to human beings. Male lions will kill the cubs of rivals. Chimpanzees will deceive each other. Aggressive sexual attacks are common amongst many species. Now, apart from a few theologians,1 most do not think animals are sinning when they do the very same actions that would be sinful for humans to commit.2 Pre-human ancestors would have been involved in many of those behaviours too. Since rape, murder, and deceit are common today amongst humans, it is plausible that behaviour never changed, but the meaning of it did. Can we try to make sense of such an approach? Somehow, the same actions went from amoral in pre-human populations to immoral in human populations. What changed? And how does that affect our theology of sin?

Sin is usually thought about in two different ways. The first concept of sin is that it is a state we live in that adversely affects us, like having a disease or living in strongly polluted air. Every action we do is tainted by sin’s presence just as every lungful of poisoned air destroys our health. The second concept of sin is that it is an action (or purposeful inaction) pursued in contradiction to God’s will and command. God wants us to love one another, but instead we hate and harm one another. This second concept requires more active involvement and cognitive ability than the first. It is sin we “do”.

How does this mesh with evolutionary development? To figure that out, we have to go back to the question of what evolution was for. Let me propose two possibilities: 1) Evolution is God’s method of creating creatures for God’s own enjoyment, as a natural outflowing of love. 2) Evolution is also intended to develop creatures who could—eventually—love God back. I think both are true. The first emphasizes God’s love for all creatures, and the second emphasizes God’s intention for some creatures to become persons-in-love. Allow me, if you will, to run with that second idea for a bit.

God wants created beings to develop, through evolution, the capacity to love. According to much of the Christian tradition (particularly in Aquinas), love has primarily to do with desires. Specifically, love is the combination of the desire for the good of the beloved and the desire for union with the beloved.3 But I do not think these desires, in their full and robust sense, can simply be fabricated out of thin air and planted in the person. Love has to be grown. More than that, love has to be transformed by an act of God in the soul. I like to think that love is like bread. All the natural ingredients we need for bread are found in the natural world. But there are no bread trees. Bread is found only where humans take the trouble to gather, process, combine, knead, and bake. Bread is made up of naturally occurring ingredients, but bread is not quite natural. It is something more.

So it is with love. Love is made up of naturally occurring desires, but it is not reducible to them. Love is something more: those natural desires combined, worked out, transformed by the work of God in the hearts and minds of people.4 Where do those natural desires come from? From evolution. Evolution is good at instilling all sorts of desires in creatures. Animals, if they are to survive, have to desire things like food, security, and reproduction. Many of these are selfish desires: my food, my security, and my offspring. But they will sometimes be expressed altruistically as well: food for cubs or security for the flock. Even care for the sick is present to some extent amongst some species. However, I do not think that robust love—in all its complexity and intentionality—is present in the non-human world; only the various desires of evolutionary process, ripened by millions of years of natural selection.

If this is correct (and I stand to be corrected!), we have the necessary foundation for trying to describe what changed when sin became a possibility: love also became a possibility. Pre-human ancestors had finally developed a matrix of natural desires complex enough that true love could begin to be brewed by God. The desires were potent: they led to all sorts of behaviours, some good, some bad. God saw the ripeness of soul, and began to open up a new way, a path that would lead these pre-humans into being formed into the full image of God through God’s active work. But the call of God to love, and the invitation to participate in God’s transformative action had another consequence: people could ignore the call and turn away from this newly-available path. The actions that were not sinful before, since there was no capacity for love, now became sinful. Sin did not enter the world because a great capacity for moral perfection was lost, but because the possibility of moral perfection was finally offered in the divine invitation to love. The wheat rebelled against the baker’s work and so bread was not made. This is the second sense of sin as act. But wheat that is not used begins to rot. The refusal to transform evolutionary desires into the desires of love leaves us mired in desires gone wrong. No other species devours and destroys the earth quite like we do. This is sin in its first sense of disease. Surrounded by rot we are more prone to rot ourselves.

This account of sin is speculative, to be sure, but it allows for four things: one, a coherent account of sin within an evolutionary history; two, the conservation of human uniqueness amongst other creatures; three, a link with the ancient Christian tradition of sin as misformed desire; and four, a reason why the same behaviours can be understood as sinful for humans but amoral for non-human creatures. I would be glad for readers to help me refine, extend, and (very possibly) correct this view. Theology is meant to be done in community, and from the foundation of a common faith we can pursue a better understanding of things that are still shrouded in mystery.

Notes & References