With science having conclusively proved that we did not evolve from a single original pair of humans (much less in some non-existent garden of Eden), some scientifically-literate Christians are struggling to reconcile that with the Bible’s concept of original sin. Loren Haarsma says Christians should accept “multiple theories of original sin.”
In the last two centuries, the scientific study of God’s world allowed us to discover things about our ancestors that were unknown throughout most of the church’s history. Genetic and other evidence strongly indicate common ancestry between humans and animals, most closely with other primates. Hundreds of hominid fossils have been discovered which show a history of gradual changes over the last several million years, leading to the oldest Homo sapiens fossils found in Africa and dating to more than 150,000 years ago. Genetic diversity in the human population is not consistent with what we would expect if all humans had descended from a single pair of individuals, but instead implies that during the last million years or more, our ancestral population was never less than a few thousand individuals. Homo sapiens spread from Africa into Asia, Europe, and Australia more than 50,000 years ago, reaching the Americas more than 15,000 years ago. Some Homo sapiens interbred with Homo neanderthalensis and other similar populations already living in Europe and Asia along the way.
A variety of scenarios are being proposed by Christian scholars today for how we might understand the Adam and Eve of Genesis 2, and their disobedience in Genesis 3, in light of modern science. Some scenarios propose Adam and Eve as two individuals living in Mesopotamia just a few thousand years ago, acting not as ancestors but as recent representatives of all humanity. As our representatives, their disobedience caused all of humanity to fall into sin. Other scenarios propose Adam and Eve as two individuals, or as literary representations of a small group of ancient representative-ancestors, selected out of a larger population, living in Africa over 100,000 years ago at the dawn of humanity; they were ancestors—but not the sole ancestors—of all humans today; they fell into disobedience against God over a relatively short period of time with a fairly distinct “before” and “after.” Other scenarios propose that Adam and Eve’s disobedience in Genesis 3 is a symbolic retelling of the story of every human who, over our long history, became aware of God’s claims on how they ought to live, and then disobeyed.
It’s tempting to think that the church needs to decide quickly which of these scenarios is right, and which ones must be wrong. I believe the church is better served by taking its time, holding several different scenarios in tension for a while as we think through the implications of each.
Just as scripture uses multiple images for atonement, it uses multiple images for sin and the damage caused by sin, including disobedience to law, broken fellowship, enslavement of the will, and corrupted desires. Ancient and medieval theologians—including Irenaeus of Lyons, Origen, Augustine, Anselm of Canterbury, Thomas Aquinas, and Martin Luther—while agreeing on core teachings about original sin and the need for Christ’s atonement, have proposed somewhat different theories about how human nature was damaged by sin and how sin is passed from generation to generation. They wrestled with certain questions repeatedly without always agreeing. For example: how intellectually and morally advanced were the first humans who sinned? Did some humans live for a time in a state of fully developed moral righteousness, or is this a potential state that humans might have grown into through obedience over time? Does sinful disobedience require an explicit command to have been violated, or does violating the promptings of conscience count as well? Was human sin unavoidable? Did human disobedience damage human nature all in a single disobedient act (or pair of acts), or was it through accumulation of many disobedient acts over a longer period of time? How is humanity’s sinful nature passed to each generation?
As we consider the competing scenarios, long-standing theological questions will shape the discussion. For instance, some scholars argue in favor of recent representatives models in part because these scenarios seem most easily compatible with the ideas that the first humans must have started in a state of fully developed moral righteousness, and that human sin must have been avoidable. However, such scenarios require an explanation for the universality of sin: why would the sinful choices two individuals in Mesopotamia, who are not the ancestors of all humans, have such dire consequences for thousands around the world who could not have known about or participated in their choices? Alternatively, some scholars argue in favor of symbolic scenarios in part because these scenarios seem most easily compatible with the ideas that the promptings of conscience count as revelation from God even without explicit commands, and that the damage caused by sin accumulates over time. However, in such scenarios, humanity’s creation and humanity’s fall into sin—while theologically distinct ideas—both happen gradually over time with no clear “before” and “after” at a specific point in history.
If we do our job carefully, the church will be well served by the time spent working through the theological implications of these differing scenarios. If the problem of sin is so vast that it requires such an astonishing solution as the Atonement, perhaps we will also need multiple theories of original sin. Some theories of will be discarded as being inconsistent with God’s revelation in scripture. Those that remain should deepen our understanding and our appreciation of God’s grace and the immensity of the rescue God undertook through Jesus Christ.
That’s a long, meandering, illogical way of trying to continue to believe in something that the evidence does not support. Far better to just recognize, as Haarsma clearly has on some level, that there’s a conflict between his beliefs and the facts. If you have to try that hard to shoehorn your beliefs into reality, maybe you should stop.