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Loren Haarsma | Four Approaches to Original Sin

Loren Haarsma lays out four different approaches in his book, When Did Sin Begin? and talks with us in the episode about the approaches


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Loren Haarsma lays out four different approaches in his book, When Did Sin Begin? and talks with us in the episode about the approaches

Description

There are a range of ways that people have thought about original sin, Adam and Eve, and the spread of sin throughout the world. Scientific knowledge, including the science of human evolution, has contributed to that conversation but science has not identified a definitive position. Loren Haarsma lays out four different approaches in his book, When Did Sin Begin? and talks with us in the episode about the approaches, as well as the benefits and theological challenges of each approach.

  • Originally aired on May 05, 2022
  • With 
    Jim Stump

Before You Read

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Transcript

Haarsma:

I’ve read many books by theologians that I’ve found and by scientists who have been very helpful to me where they say, here’s my understanding of human evolution and the science. Here’s how I think we put our theology with it. Here’s how I think sin entered the story. And they’ve offered a lot of different ideas. In most of the books, the authors sort of say why they think their particular favorite scenario works best. But when you look at the wide range of possibilities, you realize, yeah, the data of science and the data of theology and church tradition actually allows for quite a wide range of possible scenarios, which I would say are still compatible with everything we know about what science is telling us and still compatible with the core doctrine of original sin.

My name is Loren Haarsma. I’m an Associate Professor of physics at Calvin University. And I’ve also spent a lot of time thinking, reading and writing about science and theology topics.

Stump:

Welcome to Language of God. I’m Jim Stump. 

At BioLogos we think that faith and science can go hand in hand, that you can find harmony between science and theology. That doesn’t mean, however, that science and theology will always give you one easy answer for every question that might arise. One place where that becomes especially evident is when trying to work out the details of the doctrine of original sin. Science—and especially the science of human origins and human evolution—has contributed to a conversation about sin and Adam and Eve, but there remains a wide range of possibilities that are still compatible with the Christian faith. 

Loren Haarsma is a physicist by training but he has been thinking, reading and writing about these theological issues for many decades and his most recent book, When Did Sin Begin, lays out several scenarios for answering that question, considering the pros and cons of each, without landing on any one ‘correct’ position. I think it’s fun to talk through these with Loren.

Full disclosure: Loren Haarsma is married to my boss, the president of BioLogos. But I can confirm that she had nothing to do with selecting the guest for this episode and had no input on the contents thereof!

Disclaimer aside, let’s get to the conversation.

Interview Part one

Stump: 

Well, Loren Haarsma, welcome to the podcast, we’re glad to have you here.

Haarsma:

Thank you very much. I’m very happy to be here.

Jim:

You have a new book out recently called When Did Sin Begin. There’s nothing too unusual about us talking to someone with a book like that, but the path by which you yourself came to write such a book is a little unusual. And there are at least two surprising turns in this that I’d like you to talk about. The first is a kid growing up in rural Iowa ends up getting a PhD in physics from Harvard. How did that come about?

Haarsma:

Well, I always loved science. I remember as a kid getting books on astronomy as a high school student going into the public library and finding popular level books on particle physics. And I always liked math puzzles. I was encouraged to study science by my parents, by my school, by my church. So I went off to Calvin College as an undergraduate to study physics and I found many more people like me, Christians who saw science, in general, and physics, in particular, as their calling.

Jim:

Give us just a little overview of the kind of physics that you have specialized in and continue to work on today.

Haarsma:

For my graduate work, I focused on particles, antimatter particles, trapping them, studying them. But then I made a shift into biophysics, studying the electrical activity of molecules called ion channels, which allow electrical information to flow into and out of cells and between cells.

Jim:

So this brings me to the second surprising turn to your story, which is that a professor with a PhD in physics from Harvard and studies things like ion channels, ends up writing a book called When Did Sin Begin? Walk us through a little bit of that part of the story, if you would, as well.

Haarsma:

I grew up going to church and hearing wonderful Calvinist sermons twice each Sunday, and I loved learning systematic theology, even as a kid. I was encouraged also to put them together, I remember, pastors and teachers talking about how we can believe that God feeds the birds of the air and also we can study that scientifically, that God governs the motion of the planets, but we can also learn about gravity. So when I was at college, I learned that when it came to the age of the Earth and interpretations of Genesis, there were multiple different interpretations within the church. I didn’t pay a great deal of attention then. But when I went off to graduate school, I really began to pay attention to the talks on cosmology and geology and to some extent on evolutionary biology. I saw there was really wonderful, cool science going on. I wasn’t too worried about what that meant for God being in charge of everything, because I’d been taught all along that we can have scientific explanations and still see God in charge. But I did need to think a little bit about how to interpret Genesis. So I started reading more theology at that point, of Old Testament scholars who helped me understand interpretations of Genesis. What they said made sense to me, that we could have an evolutionary understanding of creation and still see Scripture as inspired by God and teaching us important things about God’s relationship to the world and our relationship to God.

Jim:

Why this question in particular then, original sin and the fall, or where does this come into your saying that’s what I really want to focus in on, trying to understand better?

Haarsma:

Yes. So I remembered all those theology lessons growing up and I knew about the doctrine of original sin. I knew if there was one particular topic in all of the science and faith areas having to do with origins where there might be a conflict between the theology I learned and the science I was learning, it would be in human origins, human evolution, and the doctrine of original sin. I just felt called, I think, by God to study that area to read whatever books I could find back in the 1990s. Then in the decades that followed, read as many books as I can and try to work through the implications.

Jim:

Well, very interesting. We will talk very specifically about your book and some of the proposals that you have there in just a second. I’m curious, before we get to that, though, to do a little more what we, in philosophy at least, call the methodology of this. I think, we have here with you, in your work, the very embodiment of the two books metaphor that’s so often referred to in science and religion work. We have the book of God’s word, revealed first in the Bible, the Book of God’s work or God’s world, revealed for us in the world God’s created. I think this is a really interesting and fruitful metaphor on the surface. It’s even embedded in the BioLogos mission statement about God’s word and God’s world. But like any metaphor, it will break down at some point when we start to push on it. So I’m curious here, as you’ve been trained in the sciences formally and have been working for, as you say, several decades here now and in theology, do you see any tensions or have any reservations? I’m just interested in talking a little more generally about how we understand these two different fields of study to come together. How has that worked for you? And what do you make of this two books metaphor?

Haarsma:

As you say, I find it a useful metaphor. But it’s, I find it’s helpful to think about the proper methods in each discipline, when it comes to studying theology and hermeneutics of Scripture. What are the best methods that we have learned throughout the centuries for that, and then as we do science, what are the best methods there. And there are certain natural questions which are answered easily in one discipline, and not so easily or at all in the other. So it takes a little overarching work to put them together. I’m encouraged to do this, by my view of God’s sovereignty. Just as biblical scholars say, you know, if two passages of Scripture at first seem to teach contradictory things you should dig into them, because we don’t think God would actually teach contradictory things, but we may have to work at it a bit. And as scientists, we sometimes have theories, which at first seem to make contradictory predictions, but we trust there’s a deeper underlying theory that unites them all. So I feel the same thing for sort of all of truth. If at first glance, Scripture and science seem to be pointing towards different ideas that are hard to reconcile, I trust there is an underlying truth, but I need to sort of follow the best methods of each discipline, to try and go deeper in each.

Jim:

Let me, I want to push a little deeper into this method—into the metaphor and this methodology. I think it’s really important for understanding the kind of work that you’ve done in the book here. The first explicit illusion that I’ve found to the created world as another book from God goes all the way back to the fourth century John Chrysostom who said, “if God had given instruction by means of books and letters, he who knows letters would have learned what was written, but the illiterate man would have gone away without receiving any benefit. This, however, cannot be said with respect to the heavens. Upon this volume, the unlearned as well as the wise man shall be able to look and wherever anyone may chance to come, they’re looking upwards towards the heaven, he’ll receive a sufficient lesson from the view of them.” I think there’s a couple interesting things about this I’d like to get you to comment on in first is that there’s a reversal in the accessibility or at least the perceived accessibility of these two books today, because back in the fourth century, it was the minority who could read the book of God’s word, right? Most people were illiterate. So there was a priestly class who had to interpret that for us. But everyone, says Chrysostom, could look at the heavens and get a sufficient lesson there of God’s instruction. Now, however, I think that’s reversed. Most all of us can read, but how many people can look at the heavens or nature in general and understand what they’re seeing? And so we have the scientists as a new kind of priestly class to interpret the world for us. Is there anything interesting or important about this reversal? In accessibility of which of these books can lie more open to our view or to the view of the general public? Do you see anything interesting in there? Or is this just me?

Haarsma:

It is interesting. Part of it is I think that when we look at the natural world, the part that is accessible to everybody, and doesn’t require detailed scientific knowledge, is also somewhat general in what it says about God. As a scientist, I’m sensitive to the fact that when you have a limited set of data, your theories can—it can fit a lot of different theories. And so I think it is with the natural world. It points us to God. But if we only had the natural world to learn about God, it’d be very easy to draw wrong conclusions. So fortunately, God has given us special revelation. And I believe that theologians throughout the centuries have said that, certainly the main message of Scripture when it’s explained or when it’s read, should be pretty easily accessible. But they’ve also insisted that it’s easy to get things wrong if you just approach scripture naively. So I think both in nature and in studying scripture, there are parts which are very easily accessible. But if you really want to dig into some hard, detailed questions, you need the help of specialists and a whole community to help you sort through the ideas.

Jim:

Good. Expertise in both fields are a good thing, right? Well, that brings me to the second point that I was going to ask you about here related to this quote from John Chrysostom, which is the specialization of science. And whether that has, I don’t know, maybe undermined to some degree the general population’s ability to look at the natural world and see the lesson Christendom, and we could say, the apostle Paul, in Romans one, mentions as well that you can take from the natural world. Has the sort of specialization or the detailed view of scientists looking at the world, has that disenchanted the world to some degree such that the rest of us are just kind of conditioned to see the world as so many mechanisms and gears and levers? Or what is the lesson that people can get from nature today?

Haarsma: 

So I would start with the lessons that were accessible from nature, way back 2000 to 3000 years ago, when Psalm 19 was written. Those are just as accessible as ever. Now, a lot of the detailed knowledge and specialization in science doesn’t have a lot of obvious theological impact. Some of it does. It falls to the scientists and the philosophers of science and the theologians who learn some science and philosophy of science to sort of help the church in general say, and analyze these new discoveries and say, which of these do have implications and how do we sort through the the reasonable Christian understanding of these findings as opposed to some other religious or atheistic worldview spins that other people might put on those findings? So again, I think it’s part of the community. It’s part of the job of some specialists to help the general church community understand these implications at a level they can understand.

Jim:

One more kind of question in this general methodology level of things, and then we’ll get more specifically to your book. We in this business quite often talk about how these two disciplines influencing each other in this way. And I think, for many people, there’s a kind of worry that most of the influence flows just in one direction, that science makes some new discovery. And theology has to adjust itself to that reality that science gets to say, this is the way the world really is. And then theology is scrambling to try to reinvent itself to some degree to fit with that. What’s wrong with that picture? And maybe can you give any examples of that direction of influence flowing the other way of theology actually influencing science or our understanding of science in some way.

Haarsma:

There are at least two really big examples of how theology has a huge impact on our study of the natural world, and the things we learn by doing science. The first is that Christian theology has had an influence in the very foundational ideas of science. historians of science like to write about, sort of the foundational ideas that helped get science going a few centuries ago, ideas about the regular repeatability and understandability of cause and effect, and how the world isn’t full of nature, spirits that have to be manipulated by ritual, and some foundational assumptions, which all scientists today share and can really trace the roots in many of the original scientists to their Christian theological beliefs. So science owes a huge debt to Christian theology for some of its foundational beliefs and practices. Another really important thing, I’d say this is perhaps the most common expression of theologies influence on the way Christians look at scientific results is, it’s very often the case that there’s a result in science that allows for multiple different worldview or philosophical or religious interpretations. So for example, I can tell you that the sun is running a nuclear fusion and it has enough fuel to last for a few billion years, and it’ll burn out. Okay, scientists of many different religious views can agree about that. But what are the implications? Now there you can run into many different interpretations, some of which are compatible with Christian theology, and some of which are not. So on a whole host of scientific results where scientists have consensus, there are many different philosophical, theological spins you can put on it. And there, for Christians, a good theology is very, very helpful in sort of saying, what are the range of Christian theological interpretations that makes sense?

Jim:

That’s fascinating. Well, good. There’s some degree of that going on here in your book now, where you’re taking some if we, if we may say data points from the natural world and data points from Scripture in the Christian tradition, trying to then like stake out the territory or define the edges of possibility space within which we might still give an explanation for when sin entered God’s good world, how it came to infect the rest of creation. So you mentioned earlier that the data typically you didn’t use this phrase, but the philosophers say, the data under determines any theory we bring to it, right? So there are several kinds of possibilities here. Is this a fair one sentence description of your project? Or would you like to give it a more proper introduction of what you’re trying to accomplish in the book?

Haarsma:

That’s a very good summary. I’ve read many books by theologians that I’ve found and by scientists who have been very helpful to me where they say, here’s my understanding of human evolution and the science. Here’s how I think we put our theology with it. Here’s how I think sin entered the story. They’ve offered a lot of different ideas. In most of the books, the authors sort of say why they think their particular favorite scenario works best. But when you look at the wide range of possibilities, you realize, yeah, the data of science and the data of theology and church tradition actually allows for quite a wide range of possible scenarios, which I would say are still compatible with everything we know about what science is telling us and still compatible with the core doctrine of original sin. So a big part of my book was trying to sort of lay out that range and talk about what are some of the pros and cons of various possibilities.

Jim:

Good. So you’ve, you’ve settled on or distilled down to four different scenarios that you mentioned as the main options for answering the question. When did sin begin? And how did it, what were the implications of that? So let’s walk through these briefly noting some of the pros and cons of each of these as you see them. So the first to appeal to Adam and Eve as real historical individuals. But they’re not quite as the flannel graph from Sunday school may have portrayed them right? The first two people created by God six or ten thousand years ago, from whom all of humanity descends uniquely. What’s wrong with that story, and what has to be done to save the core of that story at least?

Haarsma:

Well, there we have learned a lot of information about human origins and how God created human beings through a long process. And that process appears from all the data, from many independent lines of data, to include common ancestry with animals, and a population which was always many more than two individuals and fossils going back hundreds of thousands and millions of years. So a number of people have looked at that data and said, well, that doesn’t mean we can’t have some sort of historical Adam and Eve, but they would have to be part of a larger population. They could have been particular individuals chosen by God, given a particular revelation. There was a particular important theological event. Sin entered the world through, for the first time, through their disobedience. But they weren’t the sole ancestors of human beings, they were a part of a larger population and their descendants then mixed with others who were alive at the time. So they were particularly important theologically. Biologically, however, they’re part of a larger population. And we today are descended from them, but also from many others. And the genetic information in the fossil information, all sort of points to the idea that our human ancestral population was always much larger than two individuals.

Jim:

So then give some possible dates here of the way this could work for Adam and Eve appearing in actual history, along with the kind of context or environment they would have found themselves in, and how the important parts theologically of this story could have played out. And everybody knows we’re speculating here, right? We’re extrapolating beyond what the data is forcing us to, but we’re trying to imagine possibility space here. So give us a couple of these ways that Adam and Eve could have been real people, in a real space time in our ancestry, and how sin from them would have transmitted to the rest of us.

Haarsma:

So there’s a lot of questions you can ask and dozens of different scenarios you can imagine. But I’ll focus on two questions you asked. One is the when question. Some people like to push that back quite a long ways, hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions of years. Back when our ancestors were living in small groups, with simple stone tools, but self consciousness, self awareness was just beginning to really take hold in human understanding. When it first became possible for our ancestors to think of themselves as persons and think of the person next to them as a person and realize that they had a choice of helping or hurting that person next to them, and that there would be consequences. So that’s sort of one extreme, you could sort of say, as early as humans began to have a certain level—and it’s hard to define exactly what level but it could have been, you know, a few million years ago—a certain level of self awareness and moral awareness, that also became possible to be spiritual awareness and awareness of consequences beyond the immediate good or bad I do to myself and the people around me.

Jim:

Just to clarify there, when you’re using the term ‘human’, several million years ago, we’re not talking about Homo sapiens. Is there anything significant in that? Do we lose something by Adam and Eve not being the same species that we are?

Haarsma:

I don’t think so. I think there’s a continuity if we trace our ancestors back through Homo erectus, possibly back to Homo habilis, even because of the continuity of culture as well as genes, because what each generation passes on to the next isn’t just genes. It’s also culture and practices and understanding and upbringing that there is from whenever sin entered the world. And if it entered a very long time ago, there’s a continuity to us today. Now there is another extreme to the when question.

Jim:

Yeah, give us the other one.

Haarsma:

Yeah, we could imagine that our ancestors were living in groups and developing technology and living through the Neolithic and even beginning to develop agriculture, even beginning to develop reading and writing. And at some point, maybe fairly recently, I don’t know perhaps 10,000 years ago, by then humans, Homo sapiens, were spread all over the earth. But maybe, from God’s point of view, people were sometimes being nice to each other and sometimes be nasty to each other, but God didn’t count it as sin because God hadn’t yet given a particular type of special revelation, which would be necessary for God to count it as sin and hold people accountable. So perhaps somewhat recently, a few thousand years ago, there were particular individuals chosen by God given a very particular special revelation. And at that point, clear disobedience to God’s commands is what made it possible for us to say, now there’s disobedience, now there is sin. Now, between those two extremes of a few million years ago, and a few, and 10,000 years ago, there’s a lot of possibilities. And there are good books advocating for a variety of options in between.

Jim:

So, understanding Adam and Eve in these ways doesn’t contradict anything science has shown about history. I guess I’m curious if they preserve enough to be recognizably the Adam and Eve of Scripture that we’re hoping to hold on to. I’ve talked to some people who think these kinds of efforts to save a historical Adam and Eve are starting to feel a little bit like epicycles, put on an earth-centered cosmos in order to save that understanding. Is that an unfair comparison, you think?

Haarsma:

The way I like to approach these different possibilities, the ways of seeing Adam and Eve as historical individuals out of a larger population, or alternatively, seeing Adam and Eve as more literary or symbolic figures, representing many individuals, is that there’s pros and cons to each of these possibilities.For some people, people whose books I’ve read, and people I’ve talked to at conferences, they see too many theological difficulties with seeing Adam and Eve as symbolic or literary characters. They understand that there are some theological challenges to having Adam and Eve as historical characters as part of a larger population. But they see some theological strengths to that point of view. So it’s almost a matter of preferences, which strengths and weaknesses do you feel are more important than others.

[musical interlude]

BioLogos:

Hi listeners! On this podcast we hear a lot of stories of young people who consider leaving the church because of the tensions they find between science and faith. It doesn’t have to be that way. That’s why we developed Integrate, a teaching resource, designed for classroom teachers and home educators. It seeks to equip the next generation of Christian leaders to be faithful, informed, and gracious voices engaging with the hard questions raised by science. To learn more just go to biologos dot org slash integrate. Alright, back to the conversation. 

Interview Part Two

Jim:

Okay, we want to get to talking to some of those non-historical options you have here. But let me make sure we’re tracking with your four different options. You keep coming back to here, because the first two of these have Adam and Eve as particular historical individuals. But you don’t then separate these according to the time periods in which Adam and Eve lived, but the method by which sin was transmitted to the rest of us, right? So talk a little bit about the difference there, and these two different possibilities in particular?

Haarsma:

Yes, in early stages of writing this book, I wondered if I should make a grid laying out hundreds of possibilities. And I rejected that idea in favor of summarizing four. But then I had to make some choices as to which questions I thought carried the most theological weight in terms of separating different groups of possibilities. And so on these historical ones, one group of possibilities I said was, Adam and Eve were representatives of humanity. And as soon as these particular historical individuals sinned, because they acted as representatives in a spiritual sense that the rest of humanity was then declared to be okay, we’re all in this together, we are now all sinners, because our representatives failed to obey God. And so…

Jim:

Let’s hash that one out a little bit more. So let’s say this is 10,000 years ago, Adam and Eve are in the Middle East somewhere and sin. But as you said before Homo sapiens are already all over the planet. So at that moment, there are groups of people living in South America that all the sudden realize this, or they don’t necessarily realize that something drastic has happened. What do you imagine, how do you imagine that working exactly?

Haarsma:

That is, I would classify that as the hardest most challenging question for this particular group of scenarios. Those authors who have advocated this way of talking, this way of thinking about the entrance of sin, point to examples in the Old Testament where you know, one person acts and the whole community suffers, that may or may not be a satisfying theological answer for everybody. They point to the fact that everybody leading up till that point, had the benefits of general revelation and that people knew when they were being nice and when they were being nasty. Everybody was already doing combinations of niceness and nastiness, but God wasn’t necessarily holding them accountable. You might quote a line from the Apostle Paul about sin being in the world but not being held to account until the law was given. So I still think there’s real serious theological challenges to this view. But one could defend this idea with that sort of approach and saying, there was already rebellion against God’s general revelation. But now once Adam and Eve disobeyed God’s special revelation, now God sees all of humanity in this new way, and we’re all in this new relationship to God.

Jim:

So the rebellion against general revelation, in your view, you’re not counting as sin.

Haarsma:

Some would say, my own reformed background puts pretty strong emphasis on general revelation. So I personally find this particular view challenging. But there are those who write and say, in order for it to count as sin that is held to account by God, some kind of special revelation must come somewhere into the story.

Jim:

And maybe this representative way works better if we put Adam and Eve in the much more distant past where we haven’t spread all across the globe. Or maybe there’s a bottleneck of a few thousand people where the representation seems a little bit more like it would have an effect immediately on everybody.

Haarsma:

Indeed, there are some who write that way. And that I tend to agree, the theological difficulties, queasiness you might feel, about this first scenario, this representative scenario, if you make Adam and Eve very late in the story seem easier if you do it earlier in the story of humanity.

Jim:

Okay, moved to number two then. Sin spread through culture or genealogy. How does this work?

Haarsma:

The idea here is that, well, let’s do the cultural one, that knowledge and understanding of sin requires some sort of knowledge and understanding of God and knowledge and understanding of who other people, thinking about who other people are in certain ways. This information can spread quite quickly. So not over the whole world in a decade or so but from group to group, from individual to individual over time. We all know that sin, in our day, spreads from group to group and person to person, through culture, through contact, through behavior. My sinful choices prompt other people to behave sinfully. And on and on it goes. So the idea here is that from the first sinners, Adam and Eve, knowledge of God and knowledge of their rebellion against God, then began to spread culturally, to the rest of humanity so that after a few hundreds or thousands of years, that knowledge has spread to the rest of the population.

Jim:

So what do we do with those people during those few hundred our thousands of years before that had spread to their populations, what is their theological status?

Haarsma:

That I would identify as one of the hardest questions for the second set of scenarios. [laughter] You’re putting your finger right on it. In my book, I try to point this out. Part of my job in this book is to point out to advocates of particular scenarios, are you aware of these really hard questions that your favorite scenario raises? I would call that one of the hardest ones. What is the status of those individuals while sin is spreading? Why should some be held accountable and some not? Now we can always say, we are not the judges. An advocate of this scenario can say, this is an old question, what is the status of people who live good lives but never particularly had a chance to hear the gospel of Christ? Well, we’re not the judges. Christ is the one who is the advocate for humanity and who will—God is the judge of these situations. We don’t know how God makes these judgments precisely. So we can leave that in God’s hands. But it is a hard theological question. It’s worth puzzling over I think, trying to come up with as satisfying as possible answers.

Jim:

Fair enough. Let’s keep moving through your options here. So we get to all of them with giving sufficient attention here. So your third one is Adam and Eve is a highly compressed history. What do you mean by that?

Haarsma:

Well, there’s many parts in early Genesis you could call highly compressed history. You know, languages spread throughout the whole world over a very long period of time. But we have a compressed theological story in the Tower of Babel. Agriculture and musical instruments and iron smelting occurred in human history over tens of thousands of years, widely dispersed regions. But in Genesis four, it’s all highly compressed. So we could imagine that Genesis two and three is an inspired story to tell the story of many human rebellions against God over a long period of time. The idea here is that from time to time in human history, we don’t know exactly when it started, God began to make himself more fully known to particular individuals who are ready for it. Each one of these instances held the possibility of greater obedience and greater disobedience. These ancestors again and again and again, chose disobedience. Every act of disobedience pushed themselves and then all the people around them further and further away from God. So yeah, there may have been a first particular historical sin. But the important theological point is the accumulation of disobedience and the effect of disobedience of many individuals and the impact they had on everyone else over a long period of time. Until at some point, we arrive at the point where all of humanity is now in this state, we call being in a state of original sin where no one can be righteous.

Jim:

So we may press into that a little bit further here. But I’d like first for you to distinguish that from your fourth option, which you call Adam and Eve as symbolic figures. What’s the difference between taking the Adam and Eve story as a compressed history, versus taking Adam and Eve as symbolic figures?

Haarsma:

It’s a little hard to distinguish the third and fourth scenario, but in my mind, there’s two important differences I had in mind. For the fourth scenario, I was thinking about all of humanity together. So not particular individuals receiving some particular revelation, but all of us in this together. So in the third scenario, I have a much stronger emphasis on some sorts of special revelation coming to particular individuals. Whereas in that fourth set of scenarios, I’m thinking about general revelation, and to a certain extent, special revelation, but everybody being responsible for whatever level of revelation they have received.

Jim:

So in the third, though, you’re not saying that there was a historical Adam and Eve that were the recipients of some of that special Revelation?

Haarsma:

I’m saying it’s not theologically important in that third scenario to try and pick out particular individuals at particular points in time. That there is a special role for special revelation when it comes to rebellion against God. But it was, you know, spread out over many individuals over time and an accumulation of events. Whereas with the fourth scenario it’s more of an emphasis on everybody’s rebel rebellion against God for whatever level of general or special revelation they may have received in their lives, and it’s all of our ancestors together.

Jim:

So what do you make of special revelation in that fourth scenario?

Haarsma:

Well, it happens. Special revelation happens. I don’t know when the first special revelation happened, before Moses, before Abraham, how far back and what form it took. Special revelation can come in many forms, from a burning bush to a still small voice, to the word of a teacher whom God is using to prompt us to the voice of conscience within our mind, the Holy Spirit acting in a particularly forceful way, in our thoughts at a particular time. I don’t know what sorts of forms the first special revelation happened, but it did happen. So it’s part of the story. In the fourth scenario, what I emphasize is that general revelation also is something that everybody has at some level, and that is certainly enough to make people accountable.

Jim:

So let me see if I can put my finger on the hard problems here. There may be a couple of worries. Some people worry that the gospel might itself fall apart without a historical Adam and Eve who have seemed to have this place in the Bible. I actually don’t think that’s the hard question, though. I think that question can be answered by noting that, look, all human sin needs to be saved. We don’t have to know the origin of something to recognize its present state and realize that something needs to be done about it. But rather, the harder problem to my mind is pushing further to ask about the origin of sin with respect to the conviction that God created a good world. How does this come into play at all? If God has made this good world and it’s not coming down to a specific decision of two people, the way the flannel graph version of the story tells, how does sin come to infect God’s very good creation in the first place?

Haarsma:

Yes, I agree. These theological questions are some of the hardest. I think there are hermeneutical questions that people want to answer. What do you make of Paul’s saying sin entered through one man Adam? What do you make of Paul’s and other writers’ connection between death and sin? These are hermeneutical questions. And I think advocates of these scenarios three and four have answers for them. But some of the hardest theological questions are what you identify as, what do we say about sin entering the world and not making God responsible? A lot of the doctrine of original sin is trying to avoid two extremes. One is just to say, okay, so God made us sinners and God, you know, that’s just it. God created us as sinners. We want to avoid that. God is not the author of sin. We want to avoid another extreme, and St. Augustine was worried about this one, the extreme of saying, well, okay, so in theory, it’s possible for somebody to be righteous without Christ, that sin is just a particular choice that any individual makes. It’s not a condition which humans suffer; it’s just choices. So maybe somebody could choose rightly their whole life. Well, we want to avoid that extreme, too. We want to acknowledge that sin is a condition in which we are all in. And none of us can be righteous apart from Christ. Now, how did we arrive at this situation? Saint Augustine offered one possibility, other theologians have offered other possibilities. How do we make that work? How do we avoid those extremes? In scenarios like scenarios three and four, where we view Adam and Eve as representative or symbolic of many individuals, I think we can still emphasize revelation and choice for any particular individual at any particular time. There are choices that an individual makes, and this would have been true of our ancestors too, that they chose rebellion again and again. And God honored those choices by letting them live out the consequences of that rebellion, and that the consequences of rebellion were passed on then to the people around them and to their descendants. And so now we are in a situation in a culture in a spiritual state where none of us can be righteous apart from God, apart from Christ’s redemption. That’s an accumulated effect of all of the rebellions made by our ancestors.

Jim:

Let me ask the same sort of question this way, which I think I wonder if lies at the, is kind of an assumption here at all of these different scenarios and asking when does sin begin. I remember being at a conference in Chicago that was talking about science and the Bible, you may have been there too, and a charge of concordism came up. For our listeners unfamiliar with that term, it’s usually understood as the attempt to mesh scientific theories with what the Bible is saying. So that, say, the days of Genesis one, for example, correspond to or are in concordance with what science says about the history of the universe. Anyway, there was one fairly prominent scholar there who said he’s not a scientific concordist with respect to the Bible. But he is a historical concordist with respect to the Bible. I’m curious what you make of that distinction. And whether your project, When Did Sin Begin, assumes a historical concordism, with the primeval history of Genesis 1 through 11? Or whether there has to be a first sin in the world? Is that the kind of—are we making a category mistake when we ask, when did the first sin begin? Or does it have to be a punctiliar event of some sort? What do you think about that?

Haarsma:

Well, for scenarios in which Adam and Eve are historical individuals, one can certainly point to a time before and a time after, if you like, the sort of the fourth scenario where sin enters that where Adam and Eve are symbolic of all of our ancestors, one can still say that, presumably there is a time before sin is part of the story. But you have to go a long way back. I’m presuming here that animals don’t sin. And therefore, at some point, our ancestors who may have been just as nasty and nice to each other as we sometimes see in the animal kingdom, that it wasn’t counted as obedience or disobedience to God. At some point, our ancestors began to understand that what they were doing had moral consequences and spiritual consequences for the relationship to God. I don’t know exactly when that happened. So even in this sort of forth scenario where Adam and Eve are symbolic of all of our ancestors, there is an entrance of sin into the story. It’s diffuse. It’s spread out. And that raises some theological questions. But I still think it’s fair to say, that’s the beginning of sin.

Jim:

So what could we say the same thing of any person growing up any individual growing up today? There, they had their first sin?

Haarsma:

Yes, I sometimes give this analogy to audiences I’m talking to. Little babies are very self focused. We don’t call that sin. But at some point, we see a toddler do something naughty, and we look at, we see the look in their eye, and we say, yeah, that was willful sin. But where was the first willful sin? What was the nature of that first willful sin of that individual? I do not know. I probably missed the point at which it happened. God presumably knows when it happened, and what its nature was. But I don’t. But I do know it happened at some point.

Jim:

So I guess what I’m asking is whether evolution has rendered this problematic in the sense of, can we ask when was the first Homo sapiens? I mean, there’s definitely a time before there were Homo sapiens. And there’s definitely a time now. But this sort of evolutionary thinking has made that something of a category mistake to try to pinpoint. And here’s the first one. As though a non Homo sapiens gave birth to a Homo sapiens, right? That’s just not how it works biologically. And so given that our biology is so fundamental to who we are, is there a sense in which to that, say, the doctrine of original sin, the way Augustine formulated it at least, seems like it’s fairly dependent on that kind of historical punctilinear time that maybe if we were, if we had just the data points today without that tradition of Augustine understanding of the doctrine of original sin, say of when did sin begin, would we be asking the question differently? Or have we painted ourselves into a corner here conceptually, somehow that our history and traditions here have done for us?

Haarsma:

I think we’ve opened up some possibilities here. I think we can think, and we are invited by the data to think of the possibility that maybe the entrance of sin into the human story is a much more gradual thing, and is analogous to what you talk about in a growing child, that very first sin, can we identify exactly when the first sin was of a child? And is it even necessary to do? Is it important to do so? That is certainly a possibility. If we were trying to develop the doctrine of original sin today, in light of what we know about human evolution, that is an approach we can and should consider deeply. Of course, in my book, I also offer the other possibilities where it was a peculiar event, for particular, historical individuals. But that, as you mentioned earlier, raises other hard questions. So whichever way you go here, there’s some hard theological questions, and you sort of pick which ones you find the most intriguing to make possibility for progress.

Jim:

So can we pin you down and ask, all right, you’ve done all this study and organized these things and these different scenarios, which one do you find most compelling?

Haarsma:

I do have a favorite. And I will tell you in private conversation. In my book, I deliberately don’t. Here’s why: one of the primary messages of my book is that there’s a range of possibilities. Therefore, you Christians don’t have to be afraid of this topic. It’s not that there’s just one type, one possible answer and if you don’t like it, then you’re in trouble one way or another. There’s actually, there’s something comforting in finding that, when we look at all the science, when we look at church tradition and theology, we find that there’s quite a wide range of possibilities. You can probably find some that you find intriguing and plausible and I want to leave it there, at least in regards to my book.

Jim:

Okay. This is an exciting time to be a theologian that’s engaging with science. In this regard. I wonder, though, whether you can project the future, and surmise at least whether these possibilities will be narrowed down for us in some way, or they’re going to be, can we even think of what kinds of discoveries that could be made that would start to close down some of these options and get us to get us to converge on on one of these scenarios?

Haarsma:

It’s certainly possible. In science, it often happens that we have a set of data, which under determines the theory, as you say, and later discoveries close down certain options, and maybe open a few more. But eventually, you sort of narrow down. And theological history has similar possibilities, similar stories, if you think about the development of the doctrine of the Trinity, for example, that took a while and there was a lot of options on the table. But the church kind of settled through reflection through the leading of the Holy Spirit, to a fairly a much narrower range of options on the Trinity, then there were in the very early church. So it’s possible that this will narrow down. 

Now there’s another possibility if you think about the doctrine of the Atonement, there’s quite a few theories of the Atonement out there. And the church, many parts of the church, and many theologians are saying, you know, we need multiple theories of the Atonement. The Atonement is such a huge event, such a huge action by God that it really doesn’t make sense that one human analogy would capture every element of it. And Scripture speaks of it using multiple analogies. So probably we’re never going to settle on one theory of atonement for the whole church. So it may be with the doctrine of original sin. If you think of everything God had to do, to deal with a problem of sin with the incarnation, and Christ’s life, and Christ’s suffering and death and resurrection, all of that, in order to deal with the problem of sin, maybe we will find ultimately that we need multiple possibilities, multiple analogies, multiple theories to deal with this very big topic of sin, and will have a range of possibilities, but we won’t be able to narrow it down. Because no one theory, no one analogy can capture everything about it.

Jim:

Yeah, I think that’s a really interesting way of understanding theology and pushes toward what some in my discipline in philosophy, philosophy of science, question, you know, realism in a direct sense that, perhaps our theories—and we have to remember that theology is our attempt to make sense of what God has done and revealed to us—that perhaps our theories are limited, and we’re not going to be able to give the exact literal realistic description of how all of this works. Well, we, as the church, have been at this for a good long time. And you and I, here now we’ve been at it for almost an hour, our time is about gone. What are the next topics you think you might apply yourself to in trying to understand here in the space of science and religion?

Haarsma:

I might want to spend more time with people who have written books or reading articles on this particular topic and really try to pin them down. What is your favorite scenario for the entrance of sin? And why? And have you thought through all the pros and cons? But there’s another possibility I’m thinking about and that has to do with the last long chapter of my book, ‘Whose Fault Is It?’ is the title of the chapter. And it has to do with God’s self revelation in Christ as being particularly a self revelation, of self-giving love. I think there’s really strong connections, which is why I wrote a whole chapter on this, between the entrance of sin into the world and God’s revelation in Christ, of self-giving love being a particular part of what God wants us to understand. And particular connections to how God created the world, this vast world, using natural processes, in which beings like us evolve, who are capable of understanding, self-giving love. So I might choose to spend more time in that particular topic, that particular area of understanding the connections between what we see in the natural world and how God created the world, and God’s self revelation as someone who gives sacrificially to his creatures.

Jim:

Well, I look forward to it. The current book, though, is again, When Did Sin Begin: Human Evolution and the Doctrine of Original Sin found wherever good books are sold. And this has been a fun conversation, Loren. Thanks for talking.

Haarsma:

Thank you very much, Jim.

Credits

BioLogos:

Language of God is produced by BioLogos. It has been funded in part by the John Templeton Foundation, the Fetzer Institute and by individual donors who contribute to BioLogos. Language of God is produced and mixed by Colin Hoogerwerf. That’s me. Nate Mulder is our assistant producer. Our theme song is by Breakmaster Cylinder. 

BioLogos offices are located in Grand Rapids, Michigan in the Grand River watershed. If you have questions or want to join in a conversation about this episode find a link in the show notes for the BioLogos forum or visit our website, biologos.org, where you  will find articles, videos and other resources on faith and science. Thanks for listening.


Featured guest

Loren Haarsma

Loren Haarsma

Loren Haarsma earned a Ph.D. in physics from Harvard University and did five years of postdoctoral research in neuroscience in Boston and in Philadelphia. He began teaching physics at Calvin College in 1999. His current scientific research is studying the activity of ion channels in nerve cells and other cell types, and computer modeling of self-organized complexity in biology and in economics. He studies and writes on topics at the intersection of science and faith, and co-authored Origins: Christian Perspectives on Creation, Evolution, and Intelligent Design with his wife, Deborah.

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