Evolving–Original Sin and Death

This is the final installation on faith and science, as I've introduced the conversation and looked at what evolutionary science has found in the first blog, and the second blog looked at interpreting Genesis 1-11. I've been looking at some of the main arguments from the book Adam and the Genome by Dennis Venema (PhD in Genetics) and Scot McKnight (PhD in New Testament). Now, I want us to look at original sin, Romans 5, death, and some concluding thoughts.

Original Sin and Romans 5

If Adam and Eve weren’t historical people or weren’t the first human beings, then how then are we to understand the doctrine of original sin, which traditionally has said that human beings inherit a sinful nature that has been passed through the generations because of the disobedience of Adam and Eve as our first parents? McKnight reserves the final chapter of the book for addressing original sin and unpacking Romans 5:12-21, which is the passage St. Augustine used to formulate the doctrine. I include the English Standard Version of this text in full here:

Therefore, just as sin came into the world through one man, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all sinned–for sin indeed was in the world before the law was given, but sin is not counted where there is no law. Yet death reigned from Adam to Moses, even over those whose sinning was not like the transgression of Adam, who was a type of the one who was to come. But the free gift is not like the trespass. For if many died through one man’s trespass, much more have the grace of God and the free gift by the grace of that one man Jesus Christ abounded for many. And the free gift is not like the result of that one mans’ sin. For the judgment following one trespass brought condemnation, but the free gift following many trespasses brought justification. For if, because of one man’s trespass, death reigned through that one man, much more will those who receive the abundance of grace and the free gift of righteousness reign in life through the one man Jesus Christ. Therefore, as one trespass led to condemnation for all men, so one act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all men. For as by the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners, so by the one man’s obedience the many will be made righteous.

McKnight argues that the doctrine of original sin was formed by Augustine, one of the doctors of the church, based on a mistranslation that Jerome made of 5:12. Jerome completed a translation of the Bible from the original Hebrew and Greek into Latin back in the early 400s, which became known as the Vulgate (a Latin word meaning "current" or "regularly used"). Jerome wasn’t always the best with his Greek. Jerome translated 5:12 as saying “in whom all sinned,” while the Greek says “because all sinned.” Notice in verse 12 that death spreads not because we are “in Adam,” but “because all sinned.” McKnight argues that what Paul is highlighting isn’t necessarily a hereditary sinfulness, but a participatory sinfulness. Just as Adam sinned in Genesis and death came into the world in the Genesis narrative, every single human being has followed the moral example of Adam and sinned, which is Paul’s main message in Romans 1-3.

If you assume we inherit sinfulness, then based on the text, with Jesus being set up as the antithesis to Adam, it seems logical to assume universalism as well, that all will inherit salvation. In verses 18-19, it says one act of disobedience led to condemnation for the many (which is a Jewish way of saying everyone), so one act of righteousness leads to justification and life for the many. If we inherit Adam’s act apart from our will, then do we not also inherit Jesus’ act apart from our will? I think pretty much everyone agrees the Bible teaches not everyone will be saved, so it seems natural to interpret this as people not automatically inheriting condemnation because of the passing on of a sin nature. Rather, Adam is put forward as a representative of a disobedient humanity, because all of us sin. We are worthy of condemnation when we follow the example of Adam in Genesis and sin, and we receive grace, righteousness, and life from Jesus when we trust him in faith. These two are set up as examples of two different courses of life–Adam representing the life of disobedience to God (whom all of us follow in some way or another), while Jesus is the means of our salvation and the example of a holy life. Is Adam set up here as a historical person from whom we have inherited a sin nature? I find McKnight’s argument convincing that Paul is putting Adam forward here as an example of moral failure, the archetype and representative of all of us in our sinfulness, and that when we choose to sin, we follow Adam. In short, Paul is not teaching hereditary sinfulness predicated on a historical Adam, but a participatory sinfulness following the example of Adam in Gensis. You can see a briefer version of McKnight’s argument here, but the book is much fuller in detail, and I’m afraid what I’ve written doesn’t fully do McKnight justice. McKnight goes to great lengths to show that Adam was not understood in only one way throughout the history of interpretation. Read the book to get the full scope of his argument!

Death

Unless I didn’t see it, one of the big topics McKnight doesn’t address is death. I think that is a miss in the book. A pervasive biblical teaching is that sin leads to death. If we view Genesis 1-11 as mostly mythological in nature, then it’s tempting to interpret death only as a metaphor. However, I think we must say that the Bible gives a physical/biological dimension to sin and death as well.

Yes, it’s appropriate to give a wider meaning to death than just your heart ceasing to beat and breath no longer filling your lungs: Sin can bring about the death of innocence, the death of trust, the death of relationships. Sin can lead to the death of full personhood and dehumanization. Sin can even lead people to take life. Part of the work of Jesus is that he took the worst people and spirits controlled by sin and the power of death could throw at him. They worked to kill his reputation. They worked to kill his relationships with others–he was betrayed by one of his friends and his disciples fled. They worked to kill his sense of self by shaming, stripping, and mocking him. They worked to kill and disrupt his relationship with God, calling him a heretic, a sinner, and demonic. They worked to kill his comfort and quality of life, beating him and crucifying him. And finally, they physically killed him. The long biblical narrative is that sin brings death in the quality of our lives, our relationships, and our physical bodies. Jesus’ bodily death and bodily resurrection prevents us from interpreting death as only metaphorical or relational. To me, biological death seems inextricably tied up with the biblical picture of what sin and death is. Some aspect of physical death is implied as a consequence of sin and is something Jesus has overcome.

If creatures have been dying long before human beings ever showed up on the scene, then how are we to understand death theologically and biblically? Does the badness of death depend upon a historical Adam and Eve? Is death a natural thing God wove into our existence that he doesn’t prefer, a limitation to being human that God can lead us to overcome? Should we look at a primordial, Satanic fall as the true incursion of the badness of death in the world as some have interpreted Revelation 12:7-12? Is there a moment along the evolutionary timeline where human beings became morally responsible to God and a different significance was given to death? As you can see, I have questions concerning death in particular, and it seems there’s still room for biblical and theological development. If you’re aware of some good reflections on death from a theistic evolutionary perspective, by all means let me know. 

Conclusion

You can read the Bible in a way that makes the science and faith irreconcilable, or you can read it in a way that synchronizes them. Science isn't infallible, but when it's true to its method and has been confirmed repeatedly, we would be wise to heed it. After all, if you still prefer a young earth creation view,  you at least need to acknowledge that you pick and choose how you want science to interface with your worldview. You appreciate the advances in medicine, technology, convenience, conservation, etc. that result from the application of the same method that arrives at the theory of evolution, and yet reject that method when it challenges a particular interpretation you have of Scripture. Can you come up with a  convincing explanation for why you should have it both ways? 

When it comes to origins, I think science is helping us read our Bibles better, leading us to ponder more deeply just how God is at work in our world. As I've said throughout these blogs, I think there are good reasons for Christianity and science to be friends. You may or may not agree with me, and I acknowledge I could be wrong on several counts. But I hope we all will seek truth together and not settle for cheap answers. The faith and science conversation definitely isn’t settled, but I’m excited to see how it progresses as we grow in understanding of God and our world.

Stephen Fincher

Tanner United Methodist Church, 19607 Huntsville Brownsferry Road, Tanner, AL, 35671

Pastor in Tanner, AL with my wife Laura.