What is the result on the doctrine of Original Sin if we accept theistic evolution?
First, let me just say I love your website. It is one of the few Christian websites I know of that answers such difficult questions and so many of them. To the heart of the matter: I understand you are a theistic evolutionist and I am wondering how the Doctrine of Original Sin fits in with this. As I am a devout evangelical (but willing to dialogue). I have always thought that Original Sin had to exist. Otherwise, there would have been no reason for Jesus to come and die. What is your position on Original Sin and how does Jesus’ death relate to it? Even skeptics like Richard Dawkins have said Adam and Eve “must” have been literal, Original Sin as well. Otherwise, Jesus’ death was for nothing. Skeptics like Dawkins continue to assert that Christianity is not consistent without Original Sin, and evolution is not compatible with the traditional Christian faith. How do we respond to Dawkins and like-minded skeptics? Thank you and keep up the good work.
This is a really profound question which needs careful consideration. I believe that much of the debate over the age of the earth, evolution and the origin of mankind in Christian circles has been subtly influenced by presuppositions about the doctrine of Original Sin. Let me list a few presuppositions which have been passed along within evangelical Christianity which are the result of Reformed/Calvinist theology:
1. Humans are born guilty of “Original Sin.” We inherit this sin from Adam by a sort of spiritual genetic process.
2. Before the fall of Adam and Eve they were physically immortal.
3. Physical death is evil and was not part of God’s original plan for humans or for other life forms.
4. Physical death for both humans and animals was one of the results of the fall of Adam and Eve.
5. Before the fall, lions and other present-day carnivores did not kill their prey (the wolf lay down with the lamb…).
One can see why, if we accept these presuppositions, believers would be prone to not being open to scientific claims about the age of the earth, about evolution and, more specifically, about common descent of species. Let me give a first response to this:
1. We need to question some of the presuppositions of Reformed Theology as listed above. Are these really solidly based biblical teachings, are are they overreaching extrapolations–more a matter of interpretation than part of the core of biblical teaching?
2. One thing we can say for sure is that the scientific evidence will not support the implications of some of these presuppositions.
All this raises a lot of questions about how much of Genesis 1-4 is metaphorical and how much is literal. I do not propose to settle this question in this brief response. Let it suffice to say that I believe there IS historical content in the first four chapters of Genesis. I believe that there was a time when people had not sinned. I believe that there was a first couple who rebelled against God and changed the future of humanity. Whether Adam and Eve were created ex nihilo of were evolved intelligent primates into whom God imparted a soul, spirit, conscience–the image of God, I cannot say.
However, I am quite skeptical of the presupposition that God intended Adam and Eve to be physically immortal. Where does the Bible teach this? I believe that God all along intended a better kind of bodies for us. God did not intend the first humans with his image to live in our mortal bodies forever.
Furthermore, I believe that death is NOT evil. Death is part of the natural world and it is not evidence that God is uncaring and unloving. What is evil is sin. Death is not evil. It is not evil that birds eat insects and lions eat antelopes. Of course, it is sad to us humans when people die. We are sad when our pets die as well, but this is not a tragedy to God. What is tragic to God is when we, like Adam and Eve, use our free will to rebel–to sin–and lose our intimate relationship with God. Thankfully, God provided a way to renew that relationship through Jesus Christ.
Let me list a couple of reflections on typical Reformed/Calvinist doctrines.
1. Human beings are not guilty before God for Adam’s sin. I will not take the time now to defend this conclusion (Ezekiel 18 comes to mind), but I have quite a bit of material on predestination and Original Sin at the website.
2. Human beings do have free will and are able to choose whether or not to accept God’s love and grace. I find Thomas Aquinas’ formulation on this to be helpful. Again, I have quite a bit of biblical material on this at the web site, but will not provide scriptural support here for this conclusion.
3. Something happened when Adam and Eve sinned. Exactly what happened I am not sure. It is clear that human beings have a sinful nature–we are incapable of living a life without sin and the Bible implies that this fact is the result of Adam and Eve’s sin. However, we are not guilty of Adam’s sin and we are not predestined before birth to heaven or hell.
4. Death of animals and of humans is not evil. Lions killed antelope, killer whales killed seals, and tyrannasaurus rex ate other dinosaurs for millions of years before humans came on the scene, and this was not evil. It was part of God’s plan. Nature is beautiful. Life declares the glory of God. Death is needed for life to evolve. This is all part of God’s plan and, despite the criticisms of skeptics, it is not evil.
5. The science appears conclusive that animals have been killing one another for hundreds of millions of years and that human beings have been involved in this activity from the earliest time of our existence as well. Common descent is all but proved from genomic studies. The genetic relationship of human beings to common ancestors is essentially proved by scientific evidence as well. Any interpretation of Genesis must come to terms with this.
My conclusion on all of this is that if we interpret Genesis 1-4 in a balanced way, not over-literalizing or imposing a Western world view, then there is no unresolvable conflict between what is implied by science and is implied by biblical teaching and theology. The problem arises for the Christian view if we tie ourselves to the classical Reformed/Calvinist theology–a theology which I believe is not biblical. If we accept the Calvinist total depravity and Original sin, and if we accept the Calvinist view of the Fall, then we are in a cul de sac without escape with regards to the scientific evidence. However, if we do not carry any Calvinist presuppositions–either to biblical teaching and theology or to science, then we can arrive at a coherent world view which is in concord with science and scripture.
Where does this leave the doctrine of Original Sin? To be honest, I am not completely sure. I believe that there was a fall, that the fall had effects which were carried along to subsequent human lives, and that what was lost when Adam and Eve sinned is repaired by the death and resurrection of Jesus, but I still struggle to outline precisely the nature of that fall. Perhaps I must leave this as a mystery.
As for Dawkins, I do not feel any need to respond to his interpretation of scripture or of Christian doctrine. When it comes to Christianity and the Bible he is almost completely ignorant. He is clearly an expert on the science, and I am more than willing to concede his expertise in this area. However, his shallow caricatures of Christianity are not helpful and really do not require a response. However, I will have to say that his statement is not wholly without merit. I do not agree that Christianity stands or falls on Calvin’s interpretation of Original Sin (the one, more or less, Dawkins is referring to), but clearly, the Bible gives the view that humans are sinful by nature and that, as a whole, we need salvation. I will grant Dawkins this much, but I will not allow him to tell me exactly what the true biblical doctrine of the fall is. Personally, I prefer to call this “the fall” rather than Original Sin because the latter term has a lot of theological baggage and it is not a biblical phrase.
If we will reconsider the precise nature of the fall of mankind, using the Bible as a guide, then Dawkins is wrong. Christian theology and evolutionary data are not irrevocably in conflict.
Please forgive this too-brief response and especially the fact that I am not defending most of my statements with careful biblical analysis. I am prepared to do so if you like. Let me know.