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.
In this and a second post, I will be interacting with the previous posts of Joseph Bankard, Celia Deane-Drummond, and George Murphy. All three see biological evolution raising significant questions about various aspects of atonement theology. As Deane-Drummond puts it, “The evolutionary story as we have come to understand it raises important questions about the scope of atonement and redemption.” Murphy asks, “What meaning can concepts of original sin have if, as genetic studies now indicate, present day humanity has not descended from a single male-female couple?” Bankard argues that “macroevolution calls the Fall and the doctrine of original sin into question” and thus “poses a significant challenge to substitutionary atonement.”
I will be offering some responses as an evangelical theologian, taking as my primary and normative source the Scriptures. However, I also accept the natural world as God’s “Second Book”, and affirm with BioLogos the value of seeing “the harmony between science and biblical faith.” For the purposes of these posts, I will respond within the framework of evolutionary creationism. I do so, not as one who affirms evolutionary creationism; I lack the scientific expertise to evaluate the evidence and neither affirm or deny its interpretation of the natural world. But I do believe it possible to affirm at least some understandings of evolutionary creationism and still see harmony between it and biblical teaching, including teaching on the atonement and associated topics.
The limited length of these posts prevents me from interacting with all the issues raised by their insightful, provocative, and stimulating comments. In this first post, I want to deal with some of their questions concerning the Fall and original sin; and then in the second post, I will address issues connected to the atonement, especially its nature and scope.
The Fall and Original Sin
All three of my conversation partners see evolution as raising numerous questions about traditional understandings of a historical fall and original sin. Rather than review their questions and interact with them one by one, in view of the limits of this post, I will offer an alternative understanding of the Fall and original sin, suggesting along the way where it posits a response to some of the questions raised.
First, I do regard the reality of a historical Fall as an essential element of biblical teaching. It is true that the event of the Fall is mentioned explicitly in Scripture relatively few times (Gen. 3, Rom. 5, I Tim. 2), but Henri Blocher argues that there are “echoes throughout Scripture” and “many relevant passages.” Even more impressive to me than the direct biblical support are the questions left unanswered in the absence of a historical Fall. Most would agree that humans today manifest an amazing proclivity to doing things they themselves would say are wrong. Moreover, while it certainly varies in degree, this proclivity does seem to be universal. Such a situation cries out for an explanation. Why are we all this way? Did God create us with such a bent? If so, how can acting out our created nature be wrong or sinful in any meaningful way? Why does Scripture see humans as in need of being made anew (John 3:3; II Cor. 5:17), or the image of God in us in need of renewal (Col. 3:10), or our final state as one in which our spirits are perfected (Heb. 12:23)?
The positing of a historical Fall also seems linked to the evil and suffering in the natural world, noted especially by Celia Deane-Drummond. The cursing of the ground in Genesis 3:17 is connected to the Fall of Adam; the liberation of creation from its subjugation to “frustration” is connected to the redemption of humans (Rom. 8:19-24).
Thus, a historical Fall seems to be the assumption of the whole of Scripture. If we had no account of such an event, we would need to postulate one to make sense of the biblical narrative. But can such a historical Fall be understood in a way that is consistent with evolutionary creationism? I think so.
First of all, a historical Fall does not require a literal interpretation of Genesis 1-3. As Blocher helpfully puts it, “The real issue when we try to interpret Genesis 2-3 is not whether we have a historical account of the Fall, but whether or not we may read it as the account of a historical Fall.” In other words, Genesis 2-3 may not conform to modern western notions of historical writing; it is, after all, an ancient Near Eastern account and may bear the marks of its time and culture. But that does not mean it cannot convey a true account of a historical event. And if, as argued above, there are cogent reasons for seeing the notion of a historical Fall as explicit in numerous other places in Scripture—as implicit in the whole of Scripture—and necessary to make theological sense of numerous questions, it seems unnecessary to disallow a historical Fall because we cannot affirm a literal interpretation of the early chapters of Genesis. The one does not require the other.
Second, does a historical Fall demand that humans originated solely with one male-female couple and that all persons have inherited from them an original sin that is the reason for the atonement? In short, no. This question really is two. The first is that of an original couple; the second is the transmission of their sin to their descendants. As to the idea that humanity originated from one couple, Murphy does seem to express a growing view that studies in genetics indicate that humanity began with a population numbering perhaps in the thousands, rather than a single couple. Murphy also notes some proposals that God could have chosen one couple from that group, “endowing them with souls and original righteousness to make them the ancestors of humanity.” He allows that such a solution “gives the appearance of accepting an evolutionary picture but voids it of any theological significance.” I am not so sure that he is accurate here.
On the one hand, I find the idea of a historical Adam and Eve another essential element of biblical teaching. I understand that some evolutionary creation advocates, such as Denis Lamoureux, disagree with me on this point, but I see nothing in evolutionary creation per se that requires the denial of a historical Adam and Eve and see much in Scripture that demands it. Perhaps the mention of Adam and Eve in Genesis 1-3 does not settle matters; I have allowed above that those chapters may not be historical, as modern Westerners understand it. Some would argue that the Hebrew word adam in Genesis is used in a collective or representative sense. Carl Henry would affirm these two senses, but also an individual sense. But aside from Genesis, we have Adam referenced in genealogies, in both the Old Testament (I Chron. 1:1) and New Testament (Luke 3:38), where anything other than a historical individual seems hard to understand. Further, Paul refers to Adam in ways that some would say require him to be historical (Rom. 5:12-21 and I Cor. 15:45-49); and Paul refers to the sin of Adam and Eve in a way that assumes both their existence and the order of their sinning to be historical (I Tim. 2:13-14).
But a historical Adam and Eve do not require that humanity originate solely from them. Long before geneticists were arguing for an original group, there were suggestions that Adam and Eve may not have been alone. In 1967, Derek Kidner suggested that Adam could have been shaped by the process of evolution, and became “the first true man”: when God breathed human life into him. He would have had “as contemporaries many creatures of comparable intelligence, widely distributed over the world,” and genetically, they would be “of a single stock.” Kidner does affirm the special creation of Eve, but says that afterward, “God may have conferred His image on Adam’s collaterals, to bring them into the same realm of being.” He concludes, “Adam’s ‘federal’ headship of humanity extended . . . outward to his contemporaries as well as onwards to his offspring, and his disobedience disinherited both alike.” More recently, John Collins has affirmed a very similar view, specifically in response to the claims of geneticists.
Still another challenge to such an understanding of the Fall and original sin from evolution could be that we find no evidence in the evolutionary record of an abrupt Fall, with cataclysmic effects on the natural order. George Murphy argues that the idea that “the first humans were without sin or tendencies to sin . . . 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.” But the evolutionary record concerning natural selection and our primate relatives do not relate to sin, as the Bible understands it, for sin is possible only for image-bearers of God, and the creatures prior to and apart from Adam were not human in that sense. As the first ones granted the image of God, Adam and Even lived for a time in innocence, if not actual righteousness. But how long that lasted we are not told. And if Adam and Eve were part of a larger population, they may very well have lived apart from them during that time. It would have been after their sin that the image of God was conferred on Adam and Eve’s contemporaries. But by that time, the sin of Adam and Eve had been imputed to all humanity. Those others would never experience a time as human image bearers of God when they were without sin or tendencies to sin. Thus, I am not sure we should look for evidence of original sin in the evolutionary record.
Finally, Deane-Drummond is troubled by the long record of evil and suffering in the evolutionary record. Animals may not exactly sin, but she sees the depth and extent of suffering in the natural world as raising questions for the traditional view of the Fall and original sin. She says, “The point is that the ‘Fall’ reaches backward into the evolutionary history of the world, as well as pointing forward as a shadow on human history.” But how can this be, if the Fall is identified with the sin of a historical Adam that came relatively late in evolutionary history? William Dembski has suggested what I see as a cogent possibility. He argues that, just as the death of Christ applies forward to all who are to come and backward to all who lived before him, so the effects of the Fall of Adam and Eve extended backward before them as well as forward after them. Thus, all the ‘natural’ suffering and evil in the world, from the beginning, results from the Fall. The question of whether or not the atonement of Christ is intended to heal all the effects of the Fall in the non-human world leads into the question of the scope of the atonement, which is one of the questions I will address in the second post.