Do We Need an Alternative to the Traditional View of the Fall?

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

Introduction (by Ted Davis)

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.”

When this series began last fall, Collins introduced us to what he calls the “historical/ideal” view of Adam and Eve. If you haven’t been following along very closely, then I recommend reading that column carefully before going further. Collins then applied his approach to the biblical texts most frequently cited in reference to original sin: Romans 1Romans 5, and Genesis 1-4. Separate sections dealt with biblical inspiration and Paul’s overall view ofAdam.

Now we reach the climax of Collins’ essay, in which he compares his HI view with five other views before concluding with a final theological reflection. I’ve divided this part of the essay into three columns, the first of which compares the HI with just one alternative: the traditional view, which Collins calls the “historical/literal” interpretation. Happy reading!

Woodcut of Adam and Eve, from Hartmann Schedel, Nuremberg Chronicle (1493). The magnificent illustrations in this famous book are from the workshop of Michael Wohlgemut and his stepson Wilhelm Pleydenwurff.

Comparing the Historical/Ideal View with the Historical/Literal Interpretation

The traditional interpretation of the Fall, which is sometimes called the historical/literal interpretation, subscribes to a literal Adam and Eve who were in a literal paradise in which they were in fellowship with God. By disobeying God’s command to eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, this first couple violated their relationship with God and fell into a state of condemnation and bondage to sin.This fallen state was passed on to all Adam and Eve’s descendants.

This interpretation usually takes two versions. In one version, the Fall of Adam and Eve is responsible for all the death and suffering throughout creation. In a second version, the Fall affected only Adam and Eve and their descendants and did not directly affect the rest of creation.

This cartoon from the creationist ministry Answers in Genesis illustrates the belief that there was no animal death prior to the Fall. A central tenet of young-earth creationism; it’s one of the driving forces behind the rejection of evidence for an “old” earth.


The first version is highly implausible on two grounds. To begin with, it is committed to young-Earth creationism, since if one believes in an old earth then clearly death and suffering have been around long before Adam and Eve. Second, this version runs into problems when we consider animal death and suffering. Much of the death and suffering in the world is a result of the way creatures are constructed. It is not the result of some corruption of the creature’s original design. The tiger, for instance, has instincts, teeth, and a digestive system intricately well designed to catch and eat prey; various bacteria and viruses are well constructed to cause illness and sickness; and grass is constructed to grow and then die in order to make room for other grass. Thus, this version implies that the Fall somehow reconstructed, or redesigned various organisms on earth. But, the only way this could have happened is through some intelligence. One is thus left with claiming either: (1) that some evil power reconstructed the organisms, in which case God would no longer be the creator of present-day animals and plants; (2) that God redesigned the organisms; or (3) that God created some “redesign program” that got activated by the fall.

Clearly the claim (1) is unacceptable. Thus, one is left with the claim (2) or (3), which, however, are not much better than (1) since they end up hypothesizing a second re-creation, either by God or through the redesign program, of animals and plants after the creation recounted in Genesis 1 and 2. Such a hypothesis has no basis in Scripture and runs contrary to any natural reading of Genesis 1 and 2: Genesis 1, for instance, clearly indicates that God created the creatures we have today before the Fall, not in response to the Fall.

To avoid these problems, advocates of a literal Adam and Eve often claim that the Fall affected only Adam and Eve and their descendants and did not directly affect the rest of creation. According to one version of this view, Adam and Eve were supernaturally protected from illness, suffering, and death by their perfect relationship with God. Because of the Fall, however, they and their descendants became subject to these things.

Even though this second version is more plausible than the first, it also runs into severe problems insofar as it ascribes to a literal reading of Genesis 2-4, which is what typically motivates its advocates. Besides the textual implausibilities in interpreting Genesis 2-4 literally, as recounted above, there are serious scientific problems with taking this approach. The major problem is that the anthropological evidence we have overwhelmingly points to the worldwide existence of modern humans for at least 40,000 years. Further, these “humans” were culturally fairly advanced, as advanced as many tribal societies throughout the world: as Davis Young remarks, “they buried their dead in ritualistic ways indicative of religious impulses and possibly some conception of an afterlife, engaged in toolmaking, and produced cave art and a variety of beautiful art objects.” They also used fire, produced ornamentation, and made simple musical instruments, such as a bone flutes (see pp. 390 & 395 in the article listed below).

Further, the evidence that the humans who did these things existed for at least 40,000 years does not rely on a single method of dating, but on a whole multiplicity of methods: for example, Carbon-14, potassium-argon dating, Uranium track dating, amino acid racemization, paleomagnetic, electron spin, thermonuclesis, and methods involving looking at the plant and animal life contemporaneous with the fossils. Moreover, it is based on a large number of fossil finds. [In addition to the article by Davis Young, see James Hurd, “The Fossil Hominid Record,” in Perspectives on an Evolving Creation. Actual examples of this abundance of fossils and different dating methods can be obtained by a search of a general science index under “Dating of hominid fossils.”] The only way around this evidence seems to be to adopt a young-Earth creationist position. Yet, as even leading defenders of young-Earth creationism such as Paul Nelson and John Mark Reynolds admit, “Natural science at the moment seems to overwhelmingly point to an old cosmos” (Three Views of Creation and Evolution, p. 49).

If we interpret Genesis literally, however, then it would be very implausible to push the time of Adam and Eve to 40,000 years. Although even literalists accept that the genealogies in Genesis have gaps in them, few find it plausible to stretch them much beyond 10,000 B.C. For instance, Gleason Archer, who defends Genesis 2-4 as literal history, claims that “However the statistics of Genesis 5 [and the genealogies in general] may be handled, they can hardly end up with a date for Adam much before 10,000 B.C.” (The Encyclopedia of Bible Difficulties, p. 64). Taken literally, the genealogy of Genesis implies that Adam and Eve, and their descendants, were farmers and lived in settlements. Genesis 4:4, for instance, refers to Abel as tending a flock, and Genesis 4:17 refers to Cain as building a city. The extensive archeological and anthropological evidence we have, however, implies that humans did not start tending flocks and building settlements until around 10,000 B.C. (See Davis Young.) Thus, combined with this anthropological and archeological data, a historically literal interpretation of the early chapters of Genesis implies that Adam and Eve could not have existed much earlier than 10,000 B.C. This means they could not have been the first humans, contrary to what a literal historical interpretation seems to imply.

Davis Young presents an excellent review of the four major responses those who wish to defend a literal view of Genesis could give to the above problem, and concludes that they all face serious difficulties (though we do not have space to further discuss these issues). [Here Collins has a lengthy footnote: One such response is to deny that Adam and Eve were the first humans and instead claim that they were merely “representative” humans. Among other problems, this view seems to conflict with the “plain” literal-historical reading of Genesis that this response is being advanced to save, particularly Genesis 3:20 which says that Eve was the “mother of all the living.” (A related view in which Adam and Eve are seen as mythical humans that symbolically represent each human being is advanced by those who do not believe in a literal Adam and Eve, particularly by advocates of what I call the existential view—discussed in the next excerpt.)] In light of these difficulties, I think that we have very good, though not definitive, scientific reasons to reject an historically literal interpretation of the early chapters of Genesis. Notice, however, that these difficulties have nothing to do with the theory of evolution per se, but merely the evidence from archeology and anthropology.

Few authors have done more than Davis Young to advance our understanding of the history of Christianity and science. Son of E. J. Young, a leading conservative biblical scholar, Dave has written many excellent books and articles combining scientific, historical, and biblical information. In his first book, written while he was a Concordist, heopposed young-Earth creationism at a crucial moment. Subsequent works on the age of the earth and John Calvin's understanding of nature have been no less important. The consistently high quality of his work led The Geological Society of America to name him recipient of the Mary C. Rabbitt History of Geology Award in 2009.

Of course, despite these archeological and anthropological findings, one could hold the view that there was a first couple, Adam and Eve, who were the common ancestors of all humans and who lived in a paradisal state before they fell, but disassociate this from a literal interpretation of Genesis. Although such a view is certainly possible, it becomes largely unmotivated, at least apart from Church tradition. If Genesis is not taken literally, why should we feel a need to believe in a literal Adam and Eve? The only scriptural motivation that I can think of is that associated with the doctrine of original sin and the related Pauline statements, which we dealt with [in previous excerpts].

Moreover, unless one believes in some form of special creation of Adam and Eve—which does not fit well with the evidence for hominid evolution—one runs into a further problem: namely, God’s bringing these first humans into a paradisal state seems unmotivated. In the traditional young-Earth creationist account of Adam and Eve, one could make sense of why God would create them in such a state: God is a perfect God, and hence God would create a perfect world, including a perfect human couple in a perfect relationship with him. Within this scenario, the imperfections, suffering, and death of the world are the result of God’s perfect gift of free will. Once one admits that humans evolved from ancestral hominids, however, then the scenario looks much different. God would have had to take creatures with imperfect physiologies, imperfect brain structures, and imperfect instincts, and somehow brought them into perfect fellowship with himself, knowing full well that they would fall again in a short amount of time because of the frailty of their own nature. What purpose could God have in doing this? It seems unmotivated, some game that God plays with these first humans.

[Collins has a two-paragraph footnote that I’ve put here.] One could attempt to reply to the above argument by adopting the increasingly popular “open view” of God which claims that God does not know with certainly the future free acts of human beings, and hence would not have known with certainty that Adam and Eve would fall. This reply, however, still runs into the further problem of why God allowed the sin of Adam and Eve to infect their descendants. The usual answer is that it was practically inevitable that humans would eventually fall, if not Adam and Eve, then one of their descendants. So, the only way God could prevent humans from becoming fallen was continually to perform miracles to restore individuals to their unfallen state or not let them infect others, which would arguably have negative consequences for human community and mutual interdependence. This answer, however, reintroduces our original problem in a modified form: Why would God put humans into an uncorrupted state knowing that it was practically inevitable that they would eventually fall?

One might wonder if the HI view runs into a similar problem by hypothesizing an original state of unclouded awareness of God. I would argue that it does not, since God’s being present (immanent) with creation flows from God’s relational nature. In the case of self-conscious creatures, this immanence would naturally involve them being aware of God, unless something intervenes to obscure that awareness. Thus, under the HI view, there is a clear theological motivation, flowing from God’s nature, for God’s bringing about this postulated state of unclouded moral and spiritual awareness among the first self-conscious hominids.

Finally, the literal view runs into the following theological problem: If this fellowship was perfect, what could possibly be the motive for disobeying God? Thus, I conclude that although one could follow Church tradition and defend a literal Adam and Eve living in an original state of justice and holiness, it faces significant scriptural, theological, and scientific problems. Accordingly, we have good reason to look for an alternative.

Looking Ahead

When the series resumes in a couple weeks, Collins compares the HI view with four additional views. Opportunities to delve into these issues at this level, with a Christian scholar as qualified as Collins, do not come along every day. We are pleased to bring these ideas out of the “ivory tower” and into your busy lives, and we hope you find them sufficiently interesting to stay with us for the last two excerpts.




Collins, Robin. "Do We Need an Alternative to the Traditional View of the Fall?" N.p., 18 Mar. 2015. Web. 23 February 2018.


Collins, R. (2015, March 18). Do We Need an Alternative to the Traditional View of the Fall?
Retrieved February 23, 2018, from /blogs/ted-davis-reading-the-book-of-nature/do-we-need-an-alternative-to-the-traditional-view-of-the-fall

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.

One of the sources cited by Collins is especially important for anyone interested in this topic: Davis Young, “The Antiquity and Unity of the Human Race Revisited,” Christian Scholars Review 24 (May 1995): 380-396. For more information about radioactive dating methods in general, see Roger C. Wiens, “Radiometric Dating: A Christian Perspective.”

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