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Dec 10 2013

Evolution and ‘Multiple Theories of Original Sin’

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.[4] 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.

36 comments

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  1. 1
    Hercules Grytpype-Thynne

    “I’ll take ‘Angels dancing on pinheads’ for $1000, Alex.”

  2. 2
    eric

    A variety of scenarios are being proposed by Christian scholars today for how we might understand the Adam and Eve of Genesis 2

    Because “we understand it as a human-invented origins myth” is right out of the question.

  3. 3
    Chiroptera

    Well, so much for that “sophisticated theology” that is supposed to be the real meaning of religious belief and which we atheists are supposed to respect.

    Or is this an example of “sophisticated theology”? ‘Cause, in that case “sophisticated theology” is nonsensical whereas before I thought it was merely meaningless.

  4. 4
    tbell

    At least they’re trying to shoehorn their beliefs into reality and not vice versa.

    Baby steps…

  5. 5
    cheesynougats

    Waitaminute… We already know that Adam and Eve weren’t the only people around. Cain’s wife was not related to him directly. Haarsma apparently hasn’t read Genesis carefully enough.

  6. 6
    Al Dente

    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.

    They have to decide if the emperor is wearing a tuxedo or jeans and t-shirt. Sophistimacated theologists need to consider carefully what they’re going to pull out of their collective asses.

  7. 7
    Sastra

    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.

    “The church is better served” doesn’t seem to have much connection to a disinterested search for truth, does it? This is like reading an 8 year old with a passionate new interest in aerodynamics and a passionate old interest in Santa’s sled and reindeer. That is, it would feel like a similar experience if there was any realistic hope that the Christian apologists were just on the verge of putting 2 and 2 together. The precocious 8 year old is about to have one of those “a-ha” moments.

    The “theories” are likely to seek harmonious coexistence in an ecumenical mutually-assured-destruction pact. Such is our modern age.

  8. 8
    richardelguru

    and anyway everyone know that the original sin was an ape bonking Miss Piggy… Or have I misunderstood MFAP hypothesis??

  9. 9
    Crip Dyke, Right Reverend Feminist FuckToy of Death & Her Handmaiden

    @eric:

    “we understand it as a human-invented origins myth” is right out of the question.

    Of course it is. People who aren’t followers of the Abrahamic religions have only proposed that one interpretation. Christian, Jewish & Muslim scholars have proposed literally thousands of other interpretations.

    Therefore we know by the laws of statistics (Picture Florence Nightingale holding aloft a slide rule and booming: “By the Power of Galton!”) that the chance the Garden of Eden story is just a myth is less than 1 in 1000!

  10. 10
    raven

    Waitaminute… We already know that Adam and Eve weren’t the only people around. Cain’s wife was not related to him directly. Haarsma apparently hasn’t read Genesis carefully enough.

    Not to mention that the humans in Genesis were partially angel human hybrids.

    The sons of god bred with the daughters of man to make the Niphilim.

    wikipedia Niphilim:

    Now it came about, when men began to multiply on the face of the land, and daughters were born to them, that the sons of God saw that the daughters of men were beautiful; and they took wives for themselves, whomever they chose. Then the LORD said, “My Spirit shall not strive with man forever, because he also is flesh; nevertheless his days shall be one hundred and twenty years.” The Nephilim were on the earth in those days, and also afterward, when the sons of God came in to the daughters of men, and they bore children to them. Those were the mighty men who were of old, men of renown.

    So we are part angels. No one is too sure what the Niphilim were. They just had a walkon part in the bible. It’s too bad, they look like some of the more interesting characters. I could see a reality TV show easily.

  11. 11
    Reginald Selkirk

    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.

    I don’t recall voting for them.

    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.

    That’s backwards, because they couldn’t know that what they were doing was wrong until they ate the fruit from the tree of knowledge of good and evil.

    It’s tempting to think that the church needs to decide quickly which of these scenarios is right, and which ones must be wrong.

    The first step would be acknowledging that you got it wrong from the very beginning. And if this church is not in tune with God’s intentions, why should anyone stick with it? It’s obviously a false cause.

    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…

    Yeah, those are some of the mothufackahs who got it wrong. Good luck with your case that we shouldn’t throw out everything they had to say based on false premises.

    Just as scripture uses multiple images for atonement, it uses multiple images for sin and the damage caused by sin, including disobedience to law…

    What about disobediance to unjust law?

  12. 12
    raven

    I never quite got that Original sin mythology.

    1. It isn’t in the bible. Like many xian beliefs it was invented long after by St. Augustine in the 4th century.

    2. It doesn’t make sense. Why should the sin of two naive humans follow down through the generations. This is punishing the distant descendants for what someone else did 6,000 years ago.

    Even we humans don’t do stuff like that. Which means we are better than our imaginary god and admittedly it is still a low bar here.

    3. If you try to make sense out of xianity, you can’t do it. It’s all incoherent to modern eyes.

  13. 13
    Reginald Selkirk

    eric #2: Because “we understand it as a human-invented origins myth” is right out of the question.

    In the same vein: LDS church explains past ban on black priests

    The statement, posted Friday, says the ban was put into place during an era of great racial divide that influenced early teachings of the church.

    In other words: Mormon beliefs are a human construct. It’s mighty white* of them to admit it, but they may not realize the full significance of the admission.

    * Consider the context.

  14. 14
    eric

    Raven @12

    2. It doesn’t make sense. Why should the sin of two naive humans follow down through the generations. This is punishing the distant descendants for what someone else did 6,000 years ago.

    Even we humans don’t do stuff like that.

    Collective punishment is pretty prevalent in human history – we do and have done stuff at least somewhat analogous to that. Moreover, the OT is full of stories of God meting out or ordering collective punishment, so this interpretation of Gen 1 and 2 is pretty consistent with how Yahweh behaves throughout the rest of the pentateuch.

    It makes perfect sense to me that a bronze-age author or storyteller would attribute to God the type of punitive behavior he sees around him in his society, or which he sees as acceptable.

  15. 15
    Daryl Carpenter

    Christians: making virtue of necessity for 2000 years.*

    *especially the last 200 years, when Darwin and evolution inadvertently destroyed the main premise for the existence of their bullshit religion.

  16. 16
    Al Dente

    eric @14

    Yahweh was a big believer in collective punishment and also had no concerns about “collateral damage.”

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oWqMaTYRcCA

  17. 17
    Reginald Selkirk

    Moreover, the OT is full of stories of God meting out or ordering collective punishment

    God was playing both sides of the net on that issue.

  18. 18
    suttkus

    I’ve also heard fundamentalists say that Caine married his sister. After all, God didn’t forbid incest until Deuteronomy, so it wasn’t a sin before that! See? It all makes perfect sense.

  19. 19
    Hercules Grytpype-Thynne

    @raven #12:

    Paul certainly hints at it in Romans:

    Wherefore, as by one man sin entered into the world, and death by sin; and so death passed upon all men, for that all have sinned:

    and 1st Corinthians:

    For since by man came death, by man came also the resurrection of the dead. For as in Adam all die, even so in Christ shall all be made alive.

  20. 20
    Hercules Grytpype-Thynne

    The real answer to the “Cain’s wife” conundrum.

  21. 21
    Daryl Carpenter

    Most Jews 2000 years ago (and today, for that matter) didn’t see original sin as the original point of the story. Only very late Jewish thought (the inter-sentimental period) began to view Genesis 3 as the original fall of humans, tempted by Satan, etc. Paul, and later Augustine, took this concept and ran with it.

    Also, I believe most Jews saw the shenanigans of Genisis 6 and the behaviour of the ‘sons of God’ with human women as the moment when humanity really jumped the tracks and veered off into utter depravity, hence Yahweh’s wish to then wipe everyone out with the Flood.

  22. 22
    raven

    Yahweh was a big believer in collective punishment and also had no concerns about “collateral damage.”

    True.

    And humans occasionally pursue collective punishment as well. But not that often. And these days, the consensus is that collective punishment is wrong. That something is wrong doesn’t mean we stop doing it but that we punish it when we can and stop it when we can.

    But this Original Sin isn’t even collective punishment. It’s punishing the children for the crimes of the parents. And their children ad infinitum. And while that happens these days, it is rare. It isn’t something done in any civilized country that I’m aware of including the USA. We would consider that wrong also.

    Also, I believe most Jews saw the shenanigans of Genisis 6 and the behaviour of the ‘sons of God’ with human women as the moment when humanity really jumped the tracks and veered off into utter depravity.

    The angel human breeding frenzy isn’t really explained in Genesis. It doesn’t have much to do with the chapter and just sort of hangs there. My guess is it was left over after someone revised Genesis and threw out a bunch of stuff.

    Which means the religions can play their favorite game. Let’s make some more stuff up!!!

    1. A common fundie xian claim is that the sons of god that slummed down on earth were fallen angels. This is an invention. It says no such thing in the bible as I copied above in 10. In fact, it implies the opposite. The Nephilim are described as might men and heroes, “men of renown”.

    Sounds like they stole that claim from the Jews.

    2. AFAIK, the Jews, whose holy book the Torah/Old Testament was and is first, don’t believe in Original Sin. Paul just said death entered the world with Adam and Eve. Well, it could have been worse. Without the Apple Incident, the entire human population would be two immortal idiots. The text implies that sex and childbirth also entered with the Fall.

  23. 23
    Daryl Carpenter

    If original sin is not the point of Genesis 3, it doesn’t mean God’s against punishing people for the sins of others. Exodus 20:5:

    “Ithe Lord thy God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generation.”

    Jeremiah, a later document, explicitly argues against this:

    “In those days they shall say no more, The fathers have eaten a sour grape, and the children’s teeth are set on edge. But every one shall die for his own iniquity.”*

    Jeremiah 3:29-30

    That bible, eh? A consistent message all the way thorough.

    *sorry for not block-quoting. Kindle Fires are damn fiddly.

  24. 24
    raven

    If original sin is not the point of Genesis 3, it doesn’t mean God’s against punishing people for the sins of others. Exodus 20:5:

    Well no.

    It just means the bible god is an idiot and monster. But we already knew that.

    His main achievement in Genesis is inventing genocide and killing 99%+ of the world’s population, including babies. A record that we humans haven’t yet equaled.

  25. 25
    Matt G

    When Adam and Eve ate the fruit, why didn’t He just slay them on the spot and be done with it? He’s killed others for less than that! He clearly fucked up the first time and should have just given it another go.

  26. 26
    peterh

    Doesn’t Haarsma realize Lucy is at least 20 times as old as the claim of “… leading to the oldest Homo sapiens fossils found in Africa and dating to more than 150,000 years ago”?

  27. 27
    reasonbe

    So many words wasted by Haarsma on such bullshit. Awful to think these people have nothing better to do. Makes my life look magnificent.

  28. 28
    raven

    When Adam and Eve ate the fruit, why didn’t He just slay them on the spot and be done with it?

    LOL. Yeah, he has tried to fix his mistakes several times. They always fail. Even sacrificing himself to himself as jesus didn’t work very well.

    Putting on my Sophisticated Theology hat (it’s made of tinfoil found in a Catholic shrine) and Making Stuff Up.

    1. We were made by the Perfect Being in His image. Maybe we are the best he can do. He is stuck with us and vice versa. If he genocided us again, what would he do to fill up his time?

    2. Alternatively, and this seems more likely, god has gotten bored with us. Reports are he is now communing with his new chosen creatures, giant squids swimming in methane seas on Kpax IV, 50 million light years away from here.

    He has learned a little bit. The magic Seaweed of Life and Seaweed of Knowledge are located light years away from Kpax IV and the Walking, Talking snake was told to go play somewhere else.

  29. 29
    cjcolucci

    When I was religious, I found the notion of Original Sin troubling. Now that I’m not, it’s one of the few religious ideas I don’t find troubling. Stripped of its storybook origin tale and the implications for the afterlife of dead, blameless babies, it means we’re all assholes on this bus. (With apologies to the Firesign Theater). And I’m fine with that.

  30. 30
    hunter

    They just don’t get it — the most repellent part of Christianity is the whole concept of “original sin.”

  31. 31
    macallan

    Waitaminute… We already know that Adam and Eve weren’t the only people around. Cain’s wife was not related to him directly. Haarsma apparently hasn’t read Genesis carefully enough.

    Must have been a neanderthal then.

    HOLY SHIT NEANDERTHALS AND INTERBREEDING WITH THEM HAS BEEN IN THE BIBLE ALL ALONG!!!!ELEVEN!!!
    Checkmate, athiests!

  32. 32
    democommie

    Multiple fantasies, all of them wrong.

  33. 33
    typecaster

    Just because nobody’s mentioned it yet, and it goes against the whole root justification for original sin (and yes, repellant is the mildest word that should be used for it), I recommend taking a look at Ezekiel 18. It’s an impassioned statement of individual accountability, and (if the author is to be believed – FWIW, I don’t), in God’s own voice. I remember running across it at some point, and being struck by the sheer incongruity of the idea being expressed.

    There’s lots of examples, but it boiled down to “The soul that sinneth, it shall die. The son shall not bear the iniquity of the father, neither shall the father bear the iniquity of the son: the righteousness of the righteous shall be upon him, and the wickedness of the wicked shall be upon him.”.

    This doesn’t excuse all of the other examples of collective and generational vengeance, of course. It’s more of an example of how even a blind squirrel finds a nut from time to time. But I’ve never yet heard an apologist try to reconcile this bit with the whole ‘sins of the fathers are visited on the sons’ idea.

  34. 34
    felidae

    Further proof of my theory that the role of the theologian is to spin horseshit into gold

  35. 35
    lofgren

    “Original sin” means that it is wrong to take the word of a peer over the word of a parent even when the parent lied to you.

    Parent: Don’t look at Playboy. You’ll get hairy palms and go blind.
    Peer: You won’t get hairy palms and go blind. You’ll just get horny.
    Parent: Did you look at Playboy? Now I’m going to have to punish you. Also, I’m putting a child lock on the adult Pay-Per-View channels because if you see those you’ll be just as depraved as I am.

    Genesis 3 in a nutshell.

  36. 36
    Nemo

    @peterh #26: Lucy was Australopithecus afarensis, not Homo sapiens.

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