This post is part 6 of a series The Fall and Sin After Darwin. We’ve been looking at the essays in a book Theology After Darwin centered around a simple question: What are the implications for Christian theology if Darwin was right? In conjunction with this we are also looking at three articles in the recent theme issue of the ASA Journal Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith (v. 62 no. 3 2010) Reading Genesis: The Historicity of Adam and Eve, Genomics, and Evolutionary Science.
One of the important issues in any discussion of the Fall is the problem of theodicy – the vindication of the divine attributes, particularly holiness and justice, in establishing or allowing the existence of physical and moral evil (Dictionary.Com) or the defense of God’s goodness and omnipotence in view of the existence of evil (Merriam Webster). This issue comes up in John Schneider’s article and, less directly, in C. John Collins’s article as a significant contribution to the argument for a historical fall.
The traditional Augustinian view suggests that God originally created humans in an idyllic spiritual and moral condition with a plan for the world and his good creation. These humans fell from this initial state of purity so that they and their descendants became enslaved from birth to (un)natural desire, disobedience, disease and death. The doctrine of the fall explains the human state and, supposedly, answers the charge that God is responsible for our current state. This answer, however, is far from the last word on the subject. It is hard to see how the fall absolves God of responsibility for sin and evil. The evidence for common descent and evolutionary biology also causes a problem for this traditional view and sets up the question for discussion today.
Did God create us – through evolution or otherwise – with sin inevitable?
John Schneider summarizes some of the reasons for the conflict between evolution, common descent, and the traditional view of sin and the fall as he sets up his main argument in his article in PSCF.
The main point is that recent phylogenetic or cladistic analysis convinces many genetic experts that these detailed similarities of self-serving behaviors can hardly be coincidental—they look like a genetic legacy that has been passed on from one species to the next, including to our own. Domning endorses this as, by far, the best explanation: “The selfish acts of humans are homologous; that is, similar because derived from a common source.” And in any event (so we add, lest one resist that explanation), the traits are genetically common to every individual in all animal species. As members of a species, we are programmed, as it were, or powerfully disposed, to engage in our own genetic self-interest and advantage. We need not endorse the theory of common ancestry in order to respect the force of all this evidence and to begin pondering its implications for theology.
The bottom line is that if the first human beings evolved genetically this way, then it is very hard to see how they could have originated in conditions of original righteousness, as required by Augustinian theology, for they would have inherited powerful natural dispositions toward selfish actions. Moral freedom and the will to resist or redirect those dispositions toward unselfish actions surely presupposes time for cultivating a nascent moral awareness, and for building character through a history of personal and social discipline. (p. 202)
The argument, as Dr. Schneider outlines, and as many others suggest, is that if God used evolutionary mechanisms to create humans in his image then it appears that much of our sinful nature is inherent in our very being. This is not a hermeneutical problem – a matter of interpretation, nor is it a scientific problem. It is a significant theological problem. The answer will not be found in a return to a simple “innocent” interpretation of Genesis, nor will the answer be found in a rational or philosophical argument for free will (or not this alone).
Dr. Collins tackles the free will rationalization in his article when he brings up the issue of pain and suffering in connection with the historical nature of the Fall (p. 154-155). In a section where he is disagreeing with contemporary theologians who see evil as inherent in a creation involving rational beings with a free will he comments:
A number of theological motivations lie behind these contemporary efforts, and each scholar has his own subset of this group of motivations. One motive is to defend the reality of human freedom; another is to address the existence of pain and suffering in a world that God is supposed to have made.
No one can avoid these big questions, it is true, … If we say that being prone to sin is inherent in being human with a free will, then we must say the Bible writers were wrong in describing atonement as they did, and we must also say that Jesus was wrong to describe his own death in these terms (e.g.,Mark 10:45). Further, we have now made nonsense of the joyful expectation of Christians to live one day in a glorified world from which sin and death have been banished (Rev. 21:1–8). Do these theologians mean to imply that those who dwell in a glorified world will be less human because they no longer sin?
Nor do these attempts let God off the hook for pain and suffering; or if they succeed in doing so, then the price is sickeningly high. Did God know about evil before he made the world? Most believers would say yes, and they trust that he had his reasons for “allowing” it. But these recent efforts seem to imply that somehow God just could not help himself; the only world he could make was one in which people commit evil. At least in the traditional understanding, humans are to blame for the evil they do and the pain they inflict; here, we can only blame God. This is not the biblical view of God, whose very power and moral purity provokes such perplexity among his faithful (cf. Hab. 1:12–13). Neither does the modern approach give us any reason to hope that God will be able to succeed in achieving his final victory.
While free will is an important part of the understanding of human behavior, or so I think, the argument here outlined by Dr. Collins has also entered into my thinking. God chose to create a world where humans, created in his image, are free to obey or to rebel. But to claim that this is a necessary component of the world, that God could do nothing else, seems to set the question up in the wrong fashion and to cut adrift any serious consideration of the age to come and the final victory or consummation.
There are two (or more) directions to go from this point – one is to address the implications for incarnation and atonement in God’s creation. The other is the issue of theodicy and the roles for divine and human responsibility for the mess we are in today. I want to save the issue of atonement for a future post, and concentrate on the issues of sin, fall and theodicy today.
The world we see around us today is not plan B following some derailed plan A for God’s creation. This is an important point – however creation came about God’s plan for creation included both fall and redemption. Such a conclusion is required by all but the most naive view of God. Both Dr. Collins and Dr. Schneider agree on this count. God knew about evil before he made the world. He had his reasons for doing so – but all is part of his divine plan. Dr. Collins makes the argument that the biblical story of creation, fall, redemption, and new creation requires some form of a historical fall. While Genesis may not be a historical description of the fall it describes a historical fall. Humans of their own free will, at the very headwaters of the species, disobeyed God. This disobedience was not written into their biology, but it happened. God foreknew the sin, but he did not implant the sin or the sin nature, or allow it to be implanted.
Dr. Schneider takes a different approach. He looks at the book of Job, at Isaiah, at the Psalms, at Paul, and finds no logical rational easy answer explanation for the state of the world. The world is as it is because this is what God deems best, and God is in control. Looking at the book of Job and its unresolved questions:
Job does not get (nor do we get) an explanation for why God has done these unfair things to him. He also gets no explanation as to how God might put these evils right, “defeat” them, as it were, by integrating them in all their disorder and ugliness into a perfectly ordered and beautiful plan (although this eventual victory of God is still embedded in the tradition the poet shapes). What Job does “see” is that God is in complete command and mastery—he sees in a “second-person” sense what cannot be explained to him in “third-person” terms, apparently. He is able to see now with his own eyes (as it were) that God has “rightfully,” or “justly,” and not immorally or amorally, decided to make and to shape the world (and in microcosm, his own life) in this unexpected, undeserved, and painful way, including inexplicably great violence, disorder, suffering, and injustice. He sees in this nondidactic way that God is the sort of Being who knows exactly what he is doing and why, and that despite appearances, God is completely in control of the otherwise uncontrollable, chaotic situation. Seeing things thus, Job requires no further explanation, he “repents,” and withdraws his bitter accusations, satisfied that they have been resolved.
Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Romans 9 provide the same picture – not a double predestination where God has created some people for salvation and others for eternal damnation – but a picture of God as an artist who is executing a perfect plan and who are we to stand up and cry foul? The image of the potter and the clay from Is 29:16; 45:9; 64:8; Jer 18:6, Rom 9:20-21 is part and parcel with the theology of Job. Schneider concludes:
Whatever all this comes to, it cannot very well be captured by the metaphysics embedded in the phrase, “not the way it’s supposed to be.” When all is said and done, our experience of God and the world is not “Plan B,” or “Plan C,” or some amended bureaucratic form of a botched original plan. Our experience of God and the world is on the whole exactly what God planned from the beginning. “Blessed is the Lamb, slain from the very foundations of the world” (Rev. 13:8). …
Paul offers no logical explanation of God’s actions. Instead, even if somewhat obscurely (Paul was no poet), Paul, like Isaiah (whose poetic instincts were better), turns instinctively to aesthetics and to the nature of art. God’s actions in history are better understood in the analogy of artistic or aesthetic preferences than in analogies of logical perfection (pace Leibniz) and the moral utility of a “best possible world.” In Paul’s terms, they are choices that simply pleased God. They pleased God in a manner compatible with perfect moral goodness, understood as universal grace to be extended to everyone. (p. 208)
The Fall – the reality of the rebelliousness of mankind – may be written into our being as the biology suggests. But this is not a call to question the way we have been made. The clay does not address the potter in such a fashion.
This is a long post – I do not purport to answer the deep questions that are raised. Nor do I fully agree with either Dr. Collins or Dr. Schneider. Dr. Schneider’s approach seems a little too fatalistic. Dr. Collins insistence on a historical fall altering the state of humanity does not put to rest any of the significant questions. A pristine utopia demolished by the sin of Adam and Eve does not absolve God or answer the question of theodicy, at least I’ve never understood how it can. Rather than answers, or any strong opinion, I put these ideas up for discussion as we consider the text of scripture – not just Genesis 2-3 but the entirety of scripture.
Did God create us – through evolution or otherwise – with sin inevitable?
What implication does this have for our understanding of creation, fall and the interaction between science and faith?
If you wish to contact me directly you may do so at rjs4mail[at]att.net