NPR had a couple of interesting religious stories recently.
One of them was about how more and more evangelicals are deciding that the Genesis story of Adam and Eve simply cannot be true in the light of modern science and how this is tearing the community apart.
Dennis Venema, a biologist at Trinity Western University and a senior fellow at the BioLogos Foundation, and John Schneider who taught theology at Calvin College are just two evangelical Christians who say that “it’s time to face facts: There was no historical Adam and Eve, no serpent, no apple, no fall that toppled man from a state of innocence.”
This is viewed as heresy by the traditionalists who insist that those beliefs form an indispensable part of being Christian.
“From my viewpoint, a historical Adam and Eve is absolutely central to the truth claims of the Christian faith,” says Fazale Rana, vice president of Reasons To Believe, an evangelical think tank that questions evolution. Rana, who has a Ph.D. in biochemistry from Ohio University, readily admits that small details of Scripture could be wrong.
“But if the parts of Scripture that you are claiming to be false, in effect, are responsible for creating the fundamental doctrines of the Christian faith, then you’ve got a problem,” Rana says.
Rana and others believe in a literal, historical Adam and Eve for many reasons. One is that the Genesis account makes man unique, created in the image of God — not a descendant of lower primates. Second, it tells a story of how evil came into the world, and it’s not a story in which God introduced evil through the process of evolution, but one in which Adam and Eve decided to disobey God and eat the forbidden fruit.
Albert Mohler, president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, says that rebellious choice infected all of humankind.
“When Adam sinned, he sinned for us,” Mohler says. “And it’s that very sinfulness that sets up our understanding of our need for a savior.
Mohler says the Adam and Eve story is not just about a fall from paradise: It goes to the heart of Christianity. He notes that the Apostle Paul (in Romans 5 and 1 Corinthians 15) argued that the whole point of Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection was to undo Adam’s original sin.
“Without Adam, the work of Christ makes no sense whatsoever in Paul’s description of the Gospel, which is the classic description of the Gospel we have in the New Testament,” Mohler says.
The other story is a more poignant personal one from a very different religious world, that of ultra-Orthodox Judaism. Sam Katz was a member of such a community in New York who discovered science and lost his faith. What started the slide was when he started going to the library that was next door to his house and started reading secular books for the first time, beginning with Roald Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. And then he went to a Darwin exhibit at the Museum of Natural History and pondered the implications of the story of evolution, saying “I studied God’s law all my life. And you’re a Jewish male. I mean, you’re the pinnacle of creation. And suddenly, you’re not the pinnacle of creation. You’re the endpoint at this moment in time, and something else will happen soon. It’s hard to explain what that was like, but it was beautiful.”
At the age of 16, Katz was sent to a prestigious religious school in Israel where he confided his interest in these secular matters to the dean, who was a respected scholar. Rather than engage with him, the dean responded by trying to isolate him so that he would not corrupt the other students. So Katz left and returned to New York where, with the aid of an organization known as Footsteps, he has managed to break free of the tight embrace of his community and is now a junior in college studying science.
These stories shed an interesting light on the relationship of religious beliefs to knowledge. For example, note that the only things that Rana is willing to give up in the Bible are those things that do not contradict fundamental doctrines. So he is admitting that he first decides what his beliefs should be, and then accepts only the evidence that conforms to it. This is the typical mode of thinking of religious people.
Mohler is right. Without the story of Adam and Eve’s fall from grace, the whole premise of Christianity that Christ died for us as a sacrifice to atone for that original sin falls apart. The original sin doctrine is incoherent anyway but eliminating it makes Christianity inconsistent is a way that even its own tortured logic cannot repair. Mainstream Christians who do not take the Genesis story literally have a real problem explaining why Jesus had to die, because the idea that we are born sinful is central to Christian dogma. If you accept that humans evolved, when did the fall from grace occur that created the evil that Jesus had to atone for? If humans are part of the tree of life, then why is original sin only an issue for humans? Most liberal Christians tend to ignore the question, leaving it as an exercise for theologians.
Mohler and others realize, quite correctly, that once you start accepting the theories of science in your worldview, you are on the road to disbelief. They are holding firmly onto Genesis and feel that “if other Protestants want to accommodate science, fine. But they shouldn’t be surprised if their faith unravels”, because religion and science are ultimately incompatible.
Sam Katz’s dean who tried to isolate him must have also realized that religious views will always lose when confronted with scientific ones. Otherwise why would he fear that one student would corrupt the many others, and not the other way around?