We are currently running a series featuring different perspectives on how to integrate Christian theology with evolutionary science—particularly in regards to the doctrine of the "atonement." As Jim Stump expressed in the introductory post to the series, we are trying to feature a wide diversity of approaches to evolution and the atonement. Just as Christian tradition reveals a rich dialogue about the meaning of the atonement, BioLogos also wants to foster constructive dialogue about these important matters; especially seen in light of natural revelation. The theological questions stimulated by modern scientific discoveries are complex and difficult, and as we like to say, the Church deserves a robust, diverse debate on how faith and science can together be integrated and understood.
To this point we have not included scientific developments of recent centuries in our discussion. These considerations come into play when we start thinking about the problem of sin in an evolutionary context, and it is the traditional Christian teaching about original sin that is under question.
Two preliminary comments are needed before we get into that discussion. First, the difficulty that evolution poses is not just to the idea of original sin but to “original righteousness,” the belief that the first humans were without sin or tendencies to sin. This clashes both with what we can infer theoretically about tendencies resulting from evolution through natural selection and with observations of our closest surviving primate relatives.
Secondly, I have already alluded to the fact that the term “original sin” does not refer only to a putative sin at the beginning of human history. That is “original sin as originating” (peccatum originale originans). But it can also mean “original sin as originated” (peccatum originale originatum) a sinful condition in which each person begins life.1 While the two phrases have been connected in the tradition, the situation described by the second is really independent of the way an historical origin of sin may be understood. And it is really this second idea which is most important for discussions of atonement, because it expresses what is said in biblical texts like Romans 3:9-20, that all people without exception are sinners. This is the fundamental difference between the Augustinian and the Pelagian traditions, in spite of the attention given to the figure of Adam in their debates.
Many people balk at this claim especially when it is applied to infants. How can children who have not reached “the age of responsibility” be sinful? But this fails to understand that sin is not, first of all, doing bad things but failure to trust in God. The objection to infants receiving a “baptism for the forgiveness of sins” on the grounds that they can’t have faith assumes a purely intellectual concept of faith. The crucial aspect of faith, however, is trust, fiducia. Anyone with experience of babies knows that they are capable of that.
We can say with Paul Tillich that “Before sin is an act, it is a state” without any reference to an historically first sin.2 But if we are to think about the full scope of God’s work with the world and to see salvation truly as “new creation,” we do need to think about what may have happened at the dawn of humanity.
One serious challenge to the traditional western idea of an historical original sin comes from recent genetic studies. It now seems that the smallest population of our species that has ever existed must have numbered in the thousands. Thus the picture of descent from a single Adam and Eve is not plausible.
We’ve already noted that any original righteousness that the earliest humans possessed would have been quite limited. They did not have to sin but natural selection would have conferred on them tendencies for behaviors that favored passing on of their genes. Competition for resources and breeding opportunities would have led to behaviors that, for moral agents, would be sinful. When they were first somehow made aware of God and God’s will for them, a call to trust and obey God would have been in tension with their instincts. Sin, to use Reinhold Niebuhr’s distinction, would have been “inevitable,” though not “necessary.”3
Thus the idea that our condition is due to an abrupt historical “Fall” from perfection and that all people today have somehow inherited a sin committed by a single human is virtually impossible to maintain. Proposals that God chose one couple from a larger population and “cleaned them up,” endowing them with souls and original righteousness to make them the ancestors of humanity, gives the appearance of accepting an evolutionary picture but voids it of any theological significance.
The idea of an abrupt fall from perfection has been widely held in the western church. The tradition represented in today’s Orthodox churches is rather different. There Adam and Eve are pictured as having been created in an immature state and expected to grow. Irenaeus thought that Adam was a young child, intellectually immature, while Athanasius saw our first ancestors as being at the beginning of a history which, with divine guidance, would lead them to full communion with God. While this is not biological evolution in today’s sense, it is a dynamic picture of development toward the fulfillment of God’s purpose rather than one of an already achieved condition which was forfeited.
However, this idea of an initially childlike condition of humanity also tends toward a downplaying of the seriousness of the human condition. It is one thing to say that the first humans should not be judged too harshly because of their spiritual immaturity and another not to recognize the extent of the alienation from God that would result from that in later generations.
The Reorientation of Creation
Chapters 3 through 11 of Genesis picture not so much an abrupt fall as a gradual process of falling. The model that I have suggested is one of humanity taking the wrong road. Instead of following the path the Creator intended that would lead to union with God, the earliest humans (we need not decide how many individuals or groups there were or when or where this happened) took a path leading in another direction, away from God. Succeeding generations grew up in a toxic atmosphere of alienation from God, a culture of sinfulness. Both this culture and their biological inclinations exacerbated the condition of humans and contributed to passing it on.
In other words, both biology and culture contributed to the transmission of a common sinfulness of origin. The biological factor is not a direct transmission of sin as Augustine thought—there is no gene for sin. And the cultural factor is not a matter of simply following a bad example, as Pelagius held, but the effect of a poisonous atmosphere that we take in automatically.
So, to pursue the model, humanity was soon “lost in the woods”—hopelessly astray as far as human possibilities are concerned. (Which is simply to say that we can’t save ourselves.) Creation was becoming more and more corrupt. If God’s purpose was to be reached, the spiritual course of the world would have to be reoriented. If I want to go from Akron to Cleveland, I can take I-77 north. If I’m not paying attention and get on that interstate going south, I won’t get there by continuing to drive in the wrong direction. I need to turn around and start going back toward my destination.
This process of getting us turned back toward the goal is God’s work of new creation. In the biblical story it begins in Genesis 12 with the call of Abram. The grand purpose of this is for his people to become a blessing to all the families of the earth. The whole course of the history of his descendants from that point on through the Old Testament is a continual calling to people to turn away from the road that leads to destruction and to “return to the LORD, your God” (Joel 2:12-13). The word there for “return,” shubh, is the common Hebrew one meaning “repent.” Not just individuals but the whole of humanity is implored to stop moving away from God and get pointed back in the right direction.
Finally, “When the fullness of time had come, God sent his Son” (Galatians
4:4) for the decisive work of reorientation. Given the usual fate of people who challenge idols, we can’t imagine that either the Father or the Son didn’t know that something like the cross lay ahead. It wouldn’t even require divine foreknowledge. Nevertheless, this wasn’t a matter of “divine child abuse,” as atonement is sometimes caricatured. It was a matter of the Father willingly giving up his Son and the Son of God accepting suffering and death in order not only to save sinners but to reorient creation toward its goal.
I have already described how the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ can be effective in rescuing sinners from their lost condition, emptying idols of their power and creating trust in the true God. An old hymn puts it this way:
Jesus sought me when a stranger, wand’ring from the fold of God;
he, to rescue me from danger, interposed his precious blood.4
And on a cosmic scale there is the closing verse of a much older hymn, Colossians 1:20: “Through him [Christ] God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross.”