Evolution and the “Original Sins”

Today’s Bifurcated Discussions

From early in the church’s history Christians have discussed “theories of the atonement,” understandings of how the life, death, and resurrection of Christ deal with the problem of human sin and reconcile God and humanity.  Numerous models have been proposed—the work of Christ as sacrifice, ransom, victory, satisfaction, payment of a penalty, the supreme example of God’s love, and others.

Atonement is not an isolated topic.  Consideration of how the work of Christ solves the problem of sin requires some understanding of sin itself and of ideas labelled “original sin” in particular.  Treatment of these topics has always been a task of theologians, but at some times atonement and related matters have become hot topics among them.  This is such a time, but discussions are now significantly different from those of the past.

One important difference is that dialogue is taking place on two fronts, with different sets of concerns, and those interested in one set may pay little attention to the other.  On the one hand there are theologians who are involved with more or less traditional discussions of atonement, though broadened now by the participation in theological discussions of women and those outside the cultures of Europe and North America.  This has brought new insights challenging some conventional ideas about sin and the meaning of the cross.

On the other hand, developments in science, and especially biological evolution, have raised serious questions about issues related to the atonement. 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?  How should we speak about sin and salvation in view of the fact that human history, in some ways, seems to be a matter of cultural and ethical improvement instead of reflecting a “fallen” condition?  And can we speak meaningfully of Christ’s work being effective not just for humans but for intelligent beings who may have evolved elsewhere in the universe?

In its mission statement, BioLogos “invites the church and the world to see the harmony between science and biblical faith as we present an evolutionary understanding of God’s creation,” so it shouldn’t surprise anyone that I will address that second area of concern.  But it is important to be aware of the wider range of our topics, and of the fact that those participating in one group of discussions sometimes seem unaware of, or unconcerned about, issues debated by the other.

Many theologians dealing with traditional questions realize that there are serious questions about the historicity of the early chapters of Genesis, but they may continue to refer to “Adam” and “the Fall.”  Their discussions of atonement may make no reference to evolution and the questions it raises.  At the same time, those who are trying to deal with challenges presented by scientific developments are sometimes so focused on them that they seem unaware of the broader scope of the theological tradition.  They may concentrate entirely on the difficulties involved in making sense of the concept of an historically first sin as if that were all that the term “original sin” referred to.

Sin and Salvation Today

The primitive Christian tradition that Paul received from the Jerusalem disciples and passed on to the Corinthians begins with “Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures” (1 Corinthians 15:3).  Somehow the death and resurrection of Christ to which this tradition testifies are effective in overcoming the separation between humanity and God brought about by sin.  The work of Christ accomplishes the reconciliation between God and humanity that Paul speaks of in 2 Corinthians 5:16-21.  Or to use a word that Tyndale coined in his 1525 translation of this passage, it was a work of atonement.

That earliest tradition gives no explanation of how the cross and resurrection of Christ bring about reconciliation. In the following centuries theologians developed various theories of the atonement, using passages of Scripture and reasoning that seemed convincing in their cultures, to explain this.  These theories provide images that can be effective in communicating the work of Christ.  But they can also obscure the fact that what reconciles sinners to God is the death by crucifixion of Jesus of Nazareth “under Pontius Pilate” and his resurrection “on the third day.”  What we must be concerned with is, in the words of Gerhard Forde, “actual atonement,” not just satisfaction of some theory’s requirements.

In setting out an understanding of atonement I will be guided by Forde’s approach.  But first I should take note of the uneasiness that some readers may be feeling.  “I thought this was going to deal with the realities of evolution and how they affect our talk about atonement,” you may be thinking.  “When do we get to that?”

Because Christians believe that the world which science describes and of which they are part is God’s creation, it is indeed important that theology—the work of “faith in search of understanding”—take seriously what science says about the world.  This means that theological statements about human origins should be consistent with what we can infer about those origins from our knowledge of evolution.

But the importance of human origins and whether or not Genesis 1-3 is an accurate account of an historical “Fall” of the first human couple has been greatly exaggerated by some people—both atheists who think that evolution disproves the need for a savior and fundamentalists who think our need for a savior rules out evolution.  In spite of the remarkable agreement between those two groups who can’t agree about much else, the argument is really quite silly.  From a Christian standpoint, a savior is needed because everyone is a sinner.  It’s that simple.  When the panicked pagan jailer at Philippi asked Paul and Silas, “What must I do to be saved?” they told him, not about a primordial sin that we all inherit, but about how he should “Believe on the Lord Jesus and you will be saved” (Acts 16:30-31).

The fundamental human problem is failure to trust in God above anything else —to obey the First Commandment.  Paul sets this out clearly in Romans 1, where refusal to honor and give thanks to God as the Creator—Sin with a capital “S”—has as its consequence all the small “s” sins that corrupt relationships among people.  It is idolatry—“worship[ing] and serv[ing] the creature rather than the Creator” (Romans 1:25)—that is the root sin.  The apostolic message is that people “should turn from these worthless things”—idols, false gods—“to the living God, who made the heaven and the earth and the sea and all that is in them” (Acts 14:15).

So what is needed for atonement to take place is elimination of trust in false gods and creation of trust in the true God.  That immediately highlights a serious defect of most approaches to atonement.  They may speak about Christ’s death as a ransom, as satisfaction of God’s honor, or as payment of a penalty or victory, but say little or nothing about people’s faith being turned from idols to the true God.  That happens after the supposed atoning work has taken place.  For example Anselm, after describing the way in which he thinks the death of Christ restores God’s honor, pictures God inviting a sinner to accept the benefits of this work by faith.  But that work apparently has no role in bringing about such faith.  

We should begin by attending to the gospel accounts of the things that Jesus did and said and their consequences.  This means starting not with the cross but with what has been called his “active obedience.”  We can then begin to see how his life, death, and resurrection were salvific.

In his hometown Jesus described his calling in prophetic terms as “to bring good news to the poor…proclaim release to the captives…recovery of sight to the blind [and] to let the oppressed go free” (Luke 4:18).  Such language, together with his announcement that the kingdom of God was near, posed a threat to those who held political and social power, starting with the  Roman authorities.  His announcement of forgiveness to sinners and acceptance of people like tax collectors and prostitutes challenged religious authorities and the self-appointed morality police.  A person who tells people to give away their wealth and disrupts a respectable currency exchange is a danger to those with economic interests.  Even those without much power or wealth want more security than the promise that “those who lose their life will save it.”     

Jesus invited people to put complete trust in the God of Israel, the one he called Father.  But the sinful human condition is one of trusting in other things—power, wealth, security, pleasure, piety, and legal righteousness.  “Mortal,” God told Ezekiel, “These men have taken their idols into their hearts” (Ezekiel 14:2).

So our representatives, Pilate and Caiaphas, get rid of him.  It is not just “they” who “crucified my Lord” but people very much like ourselves, with the same kinds of desires, goals, and idols.  Even Jesus’ closest friends, with their pledges of undying loyalty, run away to save their skins.  Our collective idols orchestrate his death. 

Then the one who bears the marks of the cross comes back to those who abandoned him and says, “Peace be with you” (John 20:19, 21).  If he really is risen beyond the power of death then he indeed speaks for God—and somehow is God.  If that is true, then our idolatry has tried to destroy the source of our life.  Our false gods are unmasked, shown to bring death instead of life.  But since the one who speaks for God says “Peace be with you,” God is worthy of our trust above all things.  He remains faithful even if we are faithless.  When we are brought to abandon our idols and place our faith in the true God, we are reconciled with God.  Atonement has taken place.

But that will happen only if we hear the message of the cross and resurrection, not if it remains in the past.  Crucial to this work is the Spirit-empowered proclamation that Paul called (in Tyndale’s 1526 translation) “the preachinge of the attonement” (2 Corinthians 5:19).  “So faith comes from what is heard, and what is heard comes through the word of Christ” (Romans 10:17).

We can see from this brief description that this approach puts bringing people to faith in the true God in a central position.  That should recommend it to those who hold that such faith is critical for salvation.  We also see how not only the cross but also the resurrection of the crucified one plays an essential role.  This contrasts with the surprising lack of Easter emphasis in some other models of atonement.

Original Sins

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.”

Dear BioLogos reader ...

In the escalating vitriol in our culture, “science” and “faith” have found each other on opposite sides of a polarized divide. Truth and community are under attack.

If there is one thing the pandemic has shown us, it is what science can and cannot do. Scientists and doctors have done amazing things during the pandemic—identified the virus, treated the disease, and developed safe vaccines that work.

But in these polarized times, science can’t reduce anger, forgive sins, build mutual respect, or fill us with compassion for others.

Science alone can’t give us hope. Faith can. Join BioLogos today in reaching a world desperate for hope. Your tax-deductible donation will be the difference between someone encountering misinformation, or a thoughtful, truthful, and hopeful Christian perspective that shows faith and science working hand in hand.

Give Now

George Murphy
About the Author

George Murphy

George Murphy has been active for many years in helping churches see the relevance of science for faith and to deal with religious issues raised by science and technology. With a Ph.D. in theoretical physics from Johns Hopkins, he taught college science courses for twelve years. Now retired from regular parish ministry, he continues to write and speak on issues of science and theology and is an adjunct faculty member at Trinity Lutheran Seminary in Columbus. His most recent books are Pulpit Science Fiction and The Cosmos in the Light of the Cross.