/** recent comments widget code */ /** end of recent comments widget code */

Tuesday, 28 October 2008

Christ, Evolution, and Original Sin: A Brief Survey by George Murphy

This is a guest post by George Murphy, and is the second installment in a guest-post series discussing his paper Roads to Paradise and Perdition: Christ, Evolution, and Original Sin. George is a physicist, theologian, and pastor, and has authored numerous articles and books including The Cosmos in the Light of the Cross.

In this brief survey of my article “Roads to Paradise and Perdition: Christ, Evolution, and Original Sin” I focus on some basic concepts related to original sin and the model I suggest for understanding the human condition. Space limitations preclude treatment of two questions that concern many Christians, the historicity of Adam and Eve and the relationship between sin and death. I refer those interested to the original article for fuller discussion, and to Couldn’t God Get It Right? for a discussion of the concept of God’s “accommodation” in scripture.

Sin: The Concept
It’s important at the outset to be clear about some concepts that are involved in a discussion of original sin. First there is sin itself – fundamentally, violation of the First Commandment, worshipping the creature rather than the creator (Romans 1:25). The common biblical terms for sin (Hebrew chata’ and Greek hamartanĊ) have the sense of missing a mark. The same idea can be seen in the Old Testament’s common word for “repent,” shubh, which means to turn back or return. God’s intended goal for creation is threatened if part of it moves away from that goal.

Ephesians 1:10 speaks of God’s “plan for the fullness of time, to gather up all things in [Christ], things in heaven and things on earth.” Creation is for the sake of Christ. Sin means that something has gone wrong with that plan. Atonement – i.e., reconciliation - is needed because creation is alienated from God, an alienation revealed by human sin. In Romans 1 Paul emphasizes that the refusal to acknowledge the true God as creator is the basic human problem.

Sin threatens creation. Pride, the desire of the creature to usurp the place of the creator, was traditionally seen as the basic sin. Recently feminist theologians have emphasized that in their experience resistance to God’s will is often expressed in the opposite way, as failure to be what God intended them to be. We may be tempted to usurp God’s place, but may also be tempted to be not much of anything, refusing the call to represent God in ruling and serving the world. Our failure may be the deadly sin of pride but it can also be the deadly sin of sloth. And it may be falsehood, a willful denial of the truth about God and the world. In all these forms sin contradicts God’s will for creation.

Sin: A Universal Problem
The problem of sin is universal – all people are sinners. This universality of sin is the reason salvation is needed, salvation that is accomplished through Christ. Contrary to the claims of some opponents of evolution and critics of Christianity, an explanation of why all people are sinners is not a sine qua non for belief in Christ as savior. That “why” is an important question to be explored here but the basic law-gospel message does not require that it be answered.

Not only are all people sinners but they are that from the beginnings of their lives. That is the idea of “sin of origin.” Though the two are related, it is not the same as the concept of “original sin,” which has to do with the idea that the sinful human condition began with sin of the first humans at some point in history. That “original sin” (in the Christian tradition described in Genesis 3) contrasts with the “original righteousness” with which the first humans are supposed to have been created. They were in a “state of integrity” in which they could choose not to sin. The original sin and its effects (somehow communicated to all later generations) mean that no one can now avoid sinning.

Sin and Human Evolution
How are we to understand these ideas, and to what extent can we retain their traditional forms, if we believe that God has created humanity through an evolutionary process in which natural selection was a major factor? If that is the case then our prehuman ancestors were members of their species who were most successful in competition with others for survival needs. They were not “sinful” because they killed or deceived their fellows, were sexually promiscuous, and did other things that would be sinful for us. But when the first hominids who somehow were made aware of God and God’s will for them came into being, they would have had strong propensities for the same types of behavior. They would have been powerfully tempted to the basic sin, putting other things ahead of God. Studies of our closest primate relatives show that they do behave in ways that natural selection leads us to expect.

Thus what we know of evolution and primate behavior in particular makes it implausible that the first humans lived in a sinless state of integrity for any period of time. The traditional Christian concept most threatened by evolution is not original sin but original righteousness. How can we deal with this?

The Wrong Road
We focus on those first hominids (without deciding how large that group may have been, or where or when they lived) who had evolved to the point of self-awareness, rational thought and linguistic ability. They can in some way receive and faintly understand God's Word and have some awareness of God's will for them, though we don’t know how it may have come to them. They are at the beginning of a road along which God wants to lead them and their descendants to mature humanity and complete fellowship with God.

They could follow that road but it would not be easy because of inherited traits and learned behaviors that enabled their ancestors to survive and pass on their genes. Those traits predispose them toward selfish behavior and away from the kind of relationships that God intends for them. Sin is not “hardwired” into them but tendencies toward it are strong. They can refuse to trust God and disobey God's will for them.

That is what happened. History shows that from its beginnings humanity has not trusted the God of Israel and has been involved in continual conflict. That historical reality corresponds to the picture of humanity’s gradual departure from God in Genesis 1-11, though the biblical story need not be seen as an accurate historical narrative. The first humans took a wrong road that led away from the goal God intended. They and their descendants had soon lost their way.

This image of “taking the wrong road”, like that of “the fall,” is a metaphor for the human condition, not an historical narrative. It is not the condition of being on a journey that is sinful. The problem is not that we are on a metaphorical evolutionary road, but that we're on a wrong road. Failure to make this distinction may result in the work of Christ being seen only as one phase in the creative process rather than a correction of something that had gone wrong with it – a mistake that, for example, process theology often makes.

Both Nature and Nurture Predispose us to Sin
Humanity is a “symbiosis” of genes and culture. Both help to transmit to each person the essence of humanity, but both can also contribute to deviation from God’s intention for humanity. Our genetic makeup, conditioned by natural selection, predisposes us toward selfish behavior. The cultures in which we are conceived, born and live exacerbate those tendencies. We are born as members of a tribe lost in the woods.

To say that there is a genetic component of original sin does not mean that there is a “gene for sin.” Whether or not an action is sinful generally depends on the context in which it takes place as well as the action itself. Genes may give us tendencies for certain behaviors but do not force us to do those things.

To say that there is a cultural component of original sin means that sin is in part a result of our environment, an effect of “nurture” as well as “nature.” The effects of our environment can be far more pervasive than mere examples, as the analogy of fetal alcohol syndrome due to a uterine environment suggests. They are not things that we freely choose to accept or reject, but influences that we take in “with our mother’s milk.”

Solidarity in Sin
There is solidarity in sin, so that, in a classic Augustinian phrase, people make up a “corrupt mass.” More modern language speaks of “structures of sin” such as racism in human societies. A person born into a racist society is not predestined to be a racist, but it will be very “natural” to do so. Because of both genes and culture, we all start our lives on that wrong road, far from God, and are pointed in the wrong direction. Thus we are “missing the mark” from the start. Our sin of origin truly is sin. As Tillich put it, “Before sin is an act, it is a state.”

Neither strict Augustinians nor determined Pelagians will be satisfied with this model. Unregenerate people are not compelled to sin but all people are sinners and would need the saving grace made available in Christ even if they could theoretically avoid “actual sins.” This approach does preserve the essence of what the western church has insisted upon without theories about human history and the transmission of sin which are now seen to be untenable.

Note: As indicated in the introduction post, comments will be closed for posts #2 to #6 for this series. Post #7 will include George's answers to reader questions. If you have a question for George that you would like included in this post, please send it to me via email.