Sin, Suffering, and the Fall

We had some excellent conversations last week centered on my post Houston, Here’s the Situation and T’s post The Credibility of Our Christian Faith. A regular reader commented on both of these posts suggesting that we should refocus the conversation and consider the key theological issue involved in the creation story as the origin of sin and evil rather than the age of the earth. He has a point. So today I am going to highlight his comments, make a few observations, and open it up for discussion.

On “Houston, Here’s the Situation” (from comment #105)

But it is not rhetoric when I say the meaning of the fall is being altered when one accepts TE. I honestly believe that. Obviously most here disagree, but the solid connection between sin and death is clearly altered in the TE view, which I think is at the heart of Mohler’s address and is certainly vital to most YEC apologists. Death is not an enemy to be vanquished if TE is true, rather death is part of God’s method of creation. The meaning of suffering and evil change. One of the central reasons I am a Christian would melt away. The Christianity I have believed for decades would be changed into something radically different, because the origin of suffering would be attributable to God rather than to the fall. The answer to the question “why do we suffer” changes.

There is a cost to TE. And I think it is unnecessary because I think the high level of faith folks here place in naturalistic science is completely unwarranted when it comes to origins.

This is a good point – and leads to the question to consider today.

What is the theological cost of an old earth, even more an evolutionary understanding of creation?

This commenter came back with the same point from a slightly different angle on “The Credibility of Our Christian Faith” (from comment #5)

The issue really isn’t age – it is the question of evil. If I could rephrase the question: “How likely is it that the man who has been healed of a deadly tumor or blindness via the prayer of Christians is going to stop being a Theist because he comes to believe evil, death, tumors and blindness are part of God’s design and not the result of sin?”

The question is similar to the central implication of the Calvinist/Arminian debate. Is God the author of suffering and death?

The second question almost equal is “How likely is it that a man who trusts the reliability of the apostolic testimony about the resurrection and virgin birth will lose his confidence in that testimony by becoming convinced Paul, Peter and Jesus were factually wrong about the historicity of Adam and the relationship between sin and death.”

The age of the earth is a non-essential in that it is not a doctrine that affects salvation or our understanding of the nature of God. The question of evil is directly related to the nature of God and the meaning of redemption. The reliability of the apostolic witness also is important because a major argument in Paul’s theology is based on the relationship between sin and death, and if he is wrong on this point it necessarily erodes confidence in the reliability of the rest of the New Testament witness. If Paul is wrong about the problem, can he be right about the solution?

If this discussion focuses on those issues rather than the age issue, it will be more informative and productive.

Both of these comments thoughtfully highlight a significant issue as we wrestle with the nature of God and the nature of our faith, considering both the gospel and the Christian hope of new creation. Does acceptance of an evolutionary creation change the meaning of suffering and does it mean that evil, death, tumors and blindness are part of God’s design? Does this have a significant theological impact?

There are a number of important questions here. As we think through the issues I would like to pose a thought experiment.These are the kinds of things that I think about while considering the theological significance of an evolutionary creation.

God’s creation was good and Adam and Eve were placed on earth as part of the mission of God in his creation. They were to cultivate the earth (Genesis 2) and rule over all the creatures of the earth (Genesis 1).

God blessed them; and God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth, and subdue it; and rule over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the sky and over every living thing that moves on the earth.” Gen 1:28

They were not commanded to sit around enjoying a garden. They had work to do and a future to look toward.

Now, what is the nature of suffering that entered the world with the Fall? To get a grip on this we need to consider not only what we see around us, but the original intent and course of creation without a fall. If Eve had told the serpent to get lost and Adam and Eve had remained true to God’s command would Eve have suffered any pain in childbirth?  Could little Cain have tripped, gashed his knee and run to his mom in pain for comfort?  Could Seth have climbed a tree, fallen from a branch and broken his leg? Or his neck? Could Adam have been careless and accidentally injured one of his children? Would a toddler who wandered away and fell in a pool be drowned?

None of the above involve sin, none involve human evil, none involve disease or natural disaster. But all involve suffering – both emotional and physical suffering.  When God said creation was very good – did he mean no accidents, no mistakes, no carelessness? If we could have accidents and carelessness does that make God the author of suffering?

Some will dismiss this as a stupid game. But if we take Genesis seriously (and I do) then we must envision a creation with Adam and Eve given a mission, and we must envision a creation where it was theoretically possible that they would not sin. It seems to me that the view we develop must be consistent both with what is and with what could have been.

I do not see how we can read Genesis 1-3 as literal history and come up with a vision that attributes all pain and suffering of all sorts to the sin of Adam.  This view simply doesn’t seem self-consistent within the text, even if we leave science and the age of the earth out of the discussion.

Now, this thought experiment doesn’t answer all of the questions – certainly it does not address the issue of disease and cancer. There are still serious theological questions. But I think it helps us start the conversation at a more reasonable place. We need to probe the corners, nooks, and crannies of our view of creation and the mission of God in connection with the Genesis story.

Genesis is truthful, and Paul had the problem right and the solution right. I certainly think Genesis is truthful, although it must be read with literary intelligence. We are all fallen – and this is the consequence of our rebellion from God. And Paul had the problem dead on right. The problem is sin, and the wages of sin are death. Sin entered and affects each and every one of us – for all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. Sin leads to the whole world groaning. I trust Paul as he explains the problem, and as he proclaims the gospel of Jesus Christ as solution.  But I don’t think that any of this necessarily rests on a literary historical reading of Genesis 1-3. I take the fall seriously – humans have rebelled and fallen from God. What could have been was not – and we are responsible. The good news of Jesus Christ is that through the life, death and resurrection God has done for us what we could not do for ourselves, enabling and inaugurating the now, but not yet, Kingdom of God. Jesus was faithful as Adam was not, as Israel was not, as no one was or could be. He died for our sins and was raised for our justification.

I am not going to say that Adam was a fiction. There are a number of possible scenarios that leave us with a historical Adam and rebellion entering through the sin of one man. I am undecided on this issue. But, I don’t think that the problems introduced by an evolutionary creation undermine the impact of the story of Genesis 3 or the teaching of Paul, his identification of problem and solution. I do think they may change some of our ideas about sin, evil, and suffering.

No doubt many here disagree and have other takes on these issues. Let us continue the conversation.

Does the idea of an evolutionary creation undermine our theology of God or our understanding of the responsibility and just condemnation of mankind?

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