Adam, Sin, and Death, … Oh My 1 (RJS)

Several weeks ago (here) I posted on the book by Karl Giberson and Francis Collins The Language of Science and Faith: Straight Answers to Genuine Questions and posed a few questions… specifically What arguments against evolution do you find convincing? Why? and What arguments would you like to see discussed on this blog (in future posts)? A number of comments asked questions and made requests for future posts.

The questions raised could be grouped into two general categories – theological questions and scientific questions. The theological questions centered primarily on sin, death, and what it means to be human.  These are not scientific arguments against evolution. In fact evidence for or against evolution is purely secondary in the discussion.

If death was a part of the evolutionary process from the very beginning, how do Xians reconcile the biblical account that death (at least as it relates to homo sapiens) is a result of the [choice] against God and not for Him.

I’ve heard responses that the consequence of the fall was a spiritual death and separation and nowhere in the creation narrative is there necessarily any promise of eternal physical human life. But that seems purely theoretical.

Any suggestions?

And a related question:

I’m open to an evolutionary theory of species origins, but a few theological issues arise for me: the fall of humankind (who actually set the stage for us to be born in sin?) and the subsequent “groaning” of creation (I was taught growing up that human sin affected this world causing earthquakes, etc.). So this would be my vote for an added discussion for the future.

The two who posted the comments above are asking serious questions with an openness for conversation to explore the possibilities. These are not new questions, but they are questions that must be dealt with seriously. If evolution is true (and I think the scientific evidence is quite clear on the matter) then some aspects of our theology, anthropology, and understanding of scripture may need to be rethought and approached from a slightly different angle. Some of the things we thought we knew and understood from scripture must be wrong.

When is it appropriate to let our observation of the nature of the world influence our understanding of theological ideas?

When is it dangerous?

One of the key issues here is the approach to theological questions. As Christians we are taught what to think about key questions and doctrines. We are taught this in sermons, in books, in lectures, and in classes … by experts and authorities we trust. But we are seldom taught why these positions are taken and almost never taught how to think through hard questions. The average Christian in the pew expects answers and timeless truths, not explanations, questions, and puzzles. To an outsider it appears that even seminary education emphasizes the right answers more than the right approach. As a scientist I must admit that most in the church seem to have little idea how to approach a new problem that challenges what they were taught, … other than holding tightly to “truth” and dismissing or fighting the challenge.

Don’t get me wrong – at times it is very important to hold on to what we believe. Statements and affirmations are important. The Apostle’s Creed, distilled from scripture, passed down from the beginning of the church provides a good example.

I believe in God the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth.

And in Jesus Christ his only Son our Lord; who was conceived by the Holy Ghost, born of the Virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, dead, and buried; he descended into hell; the third day he rose again from the dead; he ascended into heaven, and sitteth on the right hand of God the Father Almighty; from thence he shall come to judge the quick and the dead.

I believe in the Holy Ghost; the holy catholic Church; the communion of saints; the forgiveness of sins; the resurrection of the body; and the life everlasting. AMEN.

Even here though we need to know why as much as what. Why is this creed a central affirmation of the church? Life, both in the church and outside the church, isn’t answers and prescriptions, it is process and progress. Each generation wrestles afresh in a new context and surrounding. It often appears that what we are taught to think is incompatible with our increasing knowledge of creation, of scripture, of human history and being. In this case learning how to think as a Christian is as important and perhaps more important than learning precisely what to think as a Christian.

The questions raised by scientific evidence for the method of God’s creation provide an excellent case study to explore how to think as a Christian in the context of why we believe what we believe.  For example, here are two possible approaches to the question of the age of the earth and the presence of death in deep time.

  • The world is ca. 4.5 billion years old, animal death, earthquakes and tsunamis existed long before man. Therefore the death referred to in Genesis 3 and Romans 5 cannot be biological death and sin did not introduce natural disaster and disease to God’s creation. We must dig into scripture and wrestle with God’s revelation.

Or:

  • Genesis and Romans teach that death, disease, and disaster entered into creation through the sin of Adam. This is a foundational doctrine of Christianity. Therefore, the evidence not withstanding, an old earth, ancient disasters, and evolution must be illusory. We must wrestle with the science and search for evidence consistent with our understanding of scripture.

These approaches and variations on them represent those taken by many people in the conversation, both scientists and theologians. The are not exhaustive of all possibilities, nor are they intended to be. But I would like to use them to start a conversation. The first approach starts with science and seeks to conform theology and doctrine to the science. The second approach starts with a doctrine, and understanding of the faith, and holds tight to that understanding.

Which approach outlined above seems more appropriate? Why?

Is there some other approach you would suggest?

What is your starting point when asking questions and searching for answers?

What questions are fair game?

If you wish to contact me directly you may do so at rjs4mail[at]att.net

If interested you can subscribe to a full text feed of my posts at Musings on Science and Theology.

  • Fred

    What I am curious about, to start things off, are the dating methods used to come up with the 4.5 billion figure. If this is accurate, does it not put the ‘lie’ to the second statement (at least part of it)?

  • http://pjwalk.blogspot.com/ PJ Lincoln

    These are all excellent questions, some of which kept me from a relationship with Christ for many years.

    Though I am very new in my studies of the Bible and Christianity, I do not find the theory of evolution and the Biblical account of creation to be inconsistent. Genesis says that we are created in god’s image … it does not specify that he created homo sapiens.

    The fossil evidence that humans and other animals have evolved over the centuries seems clear to me. If you need proof of evolution, you can certainly look to people living right now. It’s no secret that people who have lived closer to the equator have darker skin and that the further away you get from it, people have lighter skin and and hair. It’s proof of physical adaption to the environment.

    IMO, science and faith are not mutually exclusive. I think as our understanding of certain processes and the universe around grows, it will ultimately bring us closer to God, not farther away.

  • http://www.livingspirituality.org Greg Laughery

    RJS,
    First, thanks so much for continuing to probe into this crucial topic. Perhaps, this is indeed a defining moment for the Christian faith.

    Second, I think that the theological and scientific approaches have to be context driven and in dialogue. That is, there will be places where they’re related to each other, but other places where they’re distinct. The dialogical formulations and interpretations, therefore, will have to be open to staying the same, being modified, or left behind.

  • RD

    I think the greatest concern most evangelicals have when confronting evolution as a viable truth is for its impact on the long-held understandings of original sin. Albert Mohler seems intent on making this point over and over. Mohler has cautioned, basically, that if the Church concedes the fact that all life developed by way of some type of evolutionary process, it means the theological demise of the traditional Christian message. So, I think this has to be to central focus for Christians as we confront the realities and truths of scientific discovery. Have we somehow misunderstood the 2000+ year old notion of original sin?

  • Josh T.

    Very briefly, I have thought about the implications of some of those questions before, so I’ll throw out my 2 cents on a few…

    Re: death before the fall. I think this issue helps us to remember that Adam and Eve are not created as immortal beings; they were, however, intended to live forever within God’s plan. There is a difference between those two concepts. I think Genesis 3:22 is quite clear in that the “Tree of Life” was to be the source of our ancestors’ eternal life.

    Re: “Natural evil” prior to the fall… I know other folks have taken different views on this (C.S. Lewis posited something about corruption of creation prior to humans–I think–in the Problem of Pain). I can’t speak to that issue, but the Bible seems to indicate that the garden of the story (which may represent the Promised Land according to certain commentators) is certainly limited in geographical scope. It was part of the human vocation to fill the earth and “subdue” it. I take that to mean that they were supposed to spread the garden worldwide as bearers of God’s image. When they get kicked out of the protection of the garden, they see how wild a place the world really can be. I don’t think the creation was so much changed as it was wild to begin with. And I think the reason that creation groans as it waits for the sons of God to be revealed is because a) the vocation was never properly engaged in the first place, and b) the echoes of the original vocation to fill and subdue still show up as destructive parodies in many cases (fill, take for granted, destroy).

    Now, I think these ideas are relevant even in an evolution-based history of humankind. How they apply and how the fall happened within that history is not something I can properly speculate about, but I think it’s something we can still affirm without being overly literalistic about the details of the creation/fall.

  • DanS

    I do not think the two statements can be reconciled without significantly revising one or the other. I personally do not link sin and death to an “old earth” and I wish that had not been included in statement 2. I do think there are alternatives that are not lock step with AIG or ICR.

    But for me the statement that “the death referred to in Genesis 3 and Romans 5 cannot be biological death” would mean huge swaths of New Testament teaching regarding Christ conquering death have to get spiritualized. And the interpreted meaning of scripture would be so far removed from the text as to significantly undercut the concept of scripture having authority. Science would become the ultimate authority. The Christianity that is left standing at that point fails to adequately answer central questions regarding death evil and suffering. Just doesn’t work for me.

  • http://psychoyouthmin.blogspot.com Jason

    RJS,

    I’ve actually heard another arguement against evolution. Rather than questioning the matter of death and original sin, some evangelical Christians I hang with would say that to question the creation narrative is to question the entirety of the scriptures.

    But the truth is, your first option for how to engage evolution is the way we should probably engage everything when it comes to the scriptures. We (and I include myself in that we regrettably) do such a poor job of wrestling with our faith. As you mentioned in the post, we’re too accustomed to having the answers just given to us, and so we have this aversion to looking deep into our scriptures to find the answers. I think that needs to change, and I think deep questions like the ones you’ve raised here are a great start!

    Godspeed,

    Jason

  • http://www.virtuphill.blospot.com phil_style

    Reading through Leron Shultz’s “Christology and Science”, it became abundantly clear that Greek philosophy from the classical period was immensely influential in the development of early Christian doctrine. Doctrinal ideas such as hypo-static union (trinity etc..) and perhaps “original sin” were developed out of scripture being interpreted in light of Greco-Roman assumptions. The church has ALWAYS had to interpret scripture in light of the “facts” of the world around her. I don’t see why we shouldn’t at least explore the interpretive/theological implications of scripture in light of our modern understanding of the world, particularly as our modern understanding has the added robustness of evidential testability that greco-roman philosophy did not.

  • http://www.virtuphill.blospot.com phil_style

    Jason #7, if you’ll permit me the chance I’d like to take one of your scentances to help explain where I come from on this issue:

    your quote:
    “we’re too accustomed to having the answers just given to us, and so we have this aversion to looking deep into our scriptures to find the answers”

    I don’t see the bible (well, the NT at least) as a book of “answers”, but rather as a light unto the path, a pathfinder to christ. Particularly because the bible seems to offer such a variety of voices, for me it does not provide final “answers” but rather it is guide towards the kinds of questions that are important.

  • rjs

    Jason,

    I’ve certainly heard the position that to question the historicity of the creation narrative is to question scripture, the very bedrock of our faith. This is part of the reason I wanted to frame the conversation today around the question of how to think Christianly.

    I have a very high view of scripture as a gift from God for us … but it is a lamp and a light, it is not the bedrock of our faith. God and His work through Christ is the bedrock on which we stand.

    So I think learning how to think as a Christian involves thinking deeply about how we read and understand scripture. Scripture is always interpreted in a context, and some of those interpretations may very well be wrong. This should not rock the depths of our faith. Yet for those who have been taught only what to think it often does.

  • John W Frye

    While very eager and open for this discussion, I feel jumpy (like DanS) about separating biological death for humans from spiritual death and linking *only* spiritual death to the Fall of mankind. Jesus suffered both biological death and spiritual death, it seems, in order to liberate us from both. My proposal would be that in the evolutionary process of human origins God did, what?, select, imprint at some point in the process *homo sapiens* with God’s image. A real and vital relationship between humans and God came into being. The author of Genesis (and I think Moses could very well be the author) scoops up both biological death (which could have been occurring prior to the imprint of imago dei) into the biblical story of creation and fall. That is, biological death is now framed within the biblical story of origins and not just the evolutionary process of origins. Added to biological death is spiritual death. Both are redeemed along with all creation in Jesus’ redemptive work. I have no problem with Jesus or Paul referring to Adam as a key player in the biblical creation-fall story as I have no problem finding truth in Jesus’ *stories* (parables). What do you think?

  • http://www.virtuphill.blospot.com phil_style

    John #11,

    “Jesus suffered both biological death and spiritual death, it seems, in order to liberate us from both.” – It seems to me that needing liberation from these things does not necessitate that these things were not part of our origin. Indeed your suggestion that there might have been a point where “imago dei” became part of our identity leans also in favour of this interpretation.

    Now, this is PURELY speculative, so don’t be afraid to criticise it because I have no emotional investment in these ideas…..If as suggested by some, identity is relational and if the imago dei is defined by the fact that God chose to be relational to humans then the time at which we assumed that identity is related to the time when we entered into relationality with the divine. One can understand “sin” in light of relationality too. Sin doesn’t “cause” death, sin is, essentially death. It’s the death of our imago dei, the rejection of that identity and the reversion to our primitive state that (like a fish or a potato)has no desire for the divine.

  • Rodney

    Death is a big word in the Bible; yet a small word in science.

  • http://LostCodex.com DRT

    It seems clear to me that the word death is being used as something other than physical death. God did not physically kill Adam and Eve, then we have Paul explain that the wages of sin is death. Clearly these are not physical.

  • http://LostCodex.com DRT

    Sorry for the terse statement. I understand that the another position does state that it is physical, but the text does not say that it is physical and it is left to interpretation. Given that god’s creation clearly indicates a non-physical form, it seems quite convincing to me.

  • AHH

    In terms of a “starting point“, I endorse the concept of complementarity. Reality is a unified whole, but science and Scripture offer us complementary perspectives on reality, like pictures taken from different angles.
    For the most part, the two answer different categories of questions; science for questions about the “internal affairs” of the physical universe (like how long ago did the Earth form) and Scripture about the “who” and “why” questions (like who is ultimately responsible for creating the Earth and why are we put there).

    Of course there are areas where the categories may overlap, such as the question of the origin of human sinfulness. Those areas require careful consideration that respects both the inspiration of Scripture (while recognizing that our interpretation is fallible and that the writing was in a situated context different from ours) and the evidence in God’s creation (while recognizing that our interpretation of that evidence is fallible).

    But I think many problems in this area vanish if we just take an approach of complementarity — don’t ask Scripture scientific questions it is not trying to answer and don’t ask science questions about ultimate meanings that it is not capable of answering.

  • John W Frye

    Phil (#12),
    Because I, too, understand this is a speculative conversation and not a doctrinal stance, I wonder if humanoids evolved into the *imago dei* –becoming the creatures referenced in Genesis–a point at which they began to relate to God? Yet, the story seems a clear demarcation and action of God “Let us make humans in our (two specific Hebrew terms–”image” and likeness”–something new physically is going on. The *imago dei* cannot just be relational. The terms are too earthy for that. All human fear death–physical death–the last great enemy (Hebrews) even those who don’t believe in spiritual death. I don’t think we can rule out physical death as being incorporated into the biblical framework of creation and fall as related to sin (rebellion).

  • http://www.virtuphill.blospot.com phil_style

    John, 17, interesting thoughts, I’m happy to push the speculation also – so long as we recognise it as such ;)

    I think that if we view the imago dei as relational there is much more than just an articulatino of humans evolving into it. Certainly the capacity for relationality can be an evolutionary development, however I would posit that the bestowal of the specific imago dei, i.e. the identification of/with the divine comes by divine providence alone, in that God chose to relate to humans/ humanity.

    This is where (once again) I pay reference to Elizabeths post at WiT: http://witheology.wordpress.com/2011/04/17/follow-up-intellectual-disability-and-my-own-two-cents/ in particular this notion (paraphrasing Hans Reinders) ” [the] distinction rests on God choosing to be covenantally in relationship with humanity in a distinctive way that isn’t based on anything we think we can say with certainty about what humans are already like”. i.e. that humans carry the imago dei, because God has chosen to love/relate to us, not because we have some particular set of attributes that makes a person a person.

  • Rich

    #5 Josh: Really, really, well said… Your perspective is well-thought out and helpful. Thanks.

  • normbv

    If we follow along somewhat with Walton’s idea about “functional creation” and apply it also to Adam being created from the “dust” then perhaps we might be getting closer to the author’s intent, especially since Adam returned to the dust when he was expelled from the Garden. Could it be that being created and placed in the Garden signifies then and only then a relation with God endowing the characteristic of immortal life?

    Gen 3:22 ESV Then the LORD God said, “Behold, the man has become like one of us in knowing good and evil. Now, lest he reach out his hand and take also of the tree of life and eat, and live forever–” therefore the LORD God sent him out from the garden of Eden to work the ground from which he was taken.

    Through Christ we are no longer bound by Adam’s approach of working the ground [the works of the flesh] and so dispensationally we are free to walk with God in the Garden again. This all sounds like the new Kingdom of Christ in which we reclaim fully the “image of God” instead of the limited Image of Adam.

    If Adam is truly a functional creation account of the beginning of faith with God which matures into Israel and then blooms into true Israel as the Body of Christ then perhaps all this worrying about the biological is neither here nor there ultimately. It seems that biblically man by nature is assumed to be in need of God.

    Adam’s creation was from a dry wilderness without rain which is simply bible speak denoting the condition of man devoid of God. Paul illustrates for us this dead nature of those outside of God’s people from whom Adam was created from.

    Eph 2:1-3 ESV And YOU WERE DEAD IN THE TRESPASSES AND SINS (2) in which you once walked, following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience– (3) AMONG WHOM WE ALL ONCE LIVED IN THE PASSIONS OF OUR FLESH, carrying out the desires of the body and the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, LIKE THE REST OF MANKIND.

    12 remember that you were at that time separated from Christ, alienated from the commonwealth of Israel and strangers to the covenants of promise, HAVING NO HOPE AND WITHOUT GOD IN THE WORLD.

    Essentially the bible is about the faith people of God and how they were moved out of their original inclination to find God through “works” that produced sin [Rom 7:9-10] and have been rescued from that original endeavor. It’s therefore not about the creation of humanity biologically but humanity in the Image of God through Christ. We have simply hijacked the true intention of these stories over the centuries and these physical applications have been passed down as dogmatic doctrine by people with good intentions but who lacked the skills to get to the bottom of Genesis original purpose.

  • Edward Vos

    These questions are as critical to our understanding of the Bible and theology as Coperincus’ book De revolutionibus orbium coelestium and his discovery that the Sun was the center of the solar system.

    Science as we all know tests and re-tests all the various hypotheses that is can to arrive at the conclusion of how something works. Science then postulates an answer based on the test results that can be independently verified.

    This being the case it makes understanding the Bible that much more difficult when what is written doesn’t match up with the physical evidence insofar as the age of the earth, universe, and death of dinosaurs are concerned. We can’t in good conscience dismiss the evidence. We can however, keep studying to see how our scientific models work to verify again and again where we might be in error. It seems to be that we need to do the same with scripture.

    The problem with testing scripture and our creeds/theology, is that we can’t test them like we do science. It always comes down to an issue of faith which can’t be measured like water temperature. Hence the question of death and what kind of death it maybe can never be fully resolved when matching up scientific evidence with scriptural stories and Biblical truths.

    I for one have been wondering about this for a long time. My brother-in-law is a Christian who as an astronomer with the Hubble Telescope faces this issue head on in his church and with family every day he goes to work. Either all his findings as he studied to get his Doctorate are false or we don’t understand the Biblical message correctly.

    The key seems to be that Genesis and much of the Bible was written in a time where science, math, and physics were not part of the Biblical writers understanding and hence could not write the Bible with that kind of clarity. It doesn’t mean the Bible is incorrect in the truths that it proclaims. It just means that much of the Bible like the Narnia Chronicles has truths inside of stories. The stories paint a picture of a saving God with truths about our human nature and the image that He made us in.

    So in light of understanding how and when the Bible was written, void of scientific influence, we must conclude that our view of scripture and it’s proclamations about death and the origins of our creation must be re-thought.

    I just don’t know how, other than to say God touched us at some point in our being created. This then leaves wide open the issue of our fall into sin and the crux of the Bible’s narrative to be restored to what God truly intended for us. Science can’t answer that, but just because it can’t doesn’t mean that evolution is false, the evidence is too great for that. On the other hand we can’t dismiss the human testimonial evidence for Christ and His saving work either. I struggle with how the Bible and Science are compatible, yet I take it on faith that they are.

  • Jeff

    Q1.Which approach outlined above seems more appropriate? Why? A: Your first approach is the only reasonable answer because (2 of many answers) to do otherwise is to shape
    science into a paradigm which renders it useless (arguably far more extreme and damaging than what Lysenko did to Genetics in the Soviet Union). Additionally, it completely removes Genesis from its original context. Insisting that we conform science to Scripture is dishonest and tarnishes the credibility of Christians (in general), as the secular world loves to stereotype us together (my opinion)). If the natural world neatly aligned with Scripture (Genesis), than harmonization might be possible, but it does not align (at least in a literal and historical sense).

    Q2. Is there some other approach you would suggest? A: not off the top of my head.

    Q3. What is your starting point when asking questions and searching for answers? A: The Cross.

    Q4. What questions are fair game? A: All questions are fair game if we are going to be honest about issues of faith. If we aren’t willing to ask them, the secular world will, and if we haven’t honestly faced the issue we will be called out for it by them and we will lose credibility in their eyes. If we aren’t willing to ask the hard questions about our faith, we shouldn’t ask people of other faith’s to ask questions about their own faith, either.

  • John W Frye

    Phil (#18),
    That was a fascinating post by Elizabeth at WIT. I was struck by the idea that God’s relationship with us (as humans) is not limited to our ability (cognitive, rational, relational) to be in relationship to God. He can relate to us in covenantal love apart from our ability to related to God ( due to Downs Syndrome or other incapacity).

    The reason I asked if humans evolved into the *imago dei* is due to the idea that an act of divine providence by some may be seen as an intrusion on the evolutionary process that God set in motion. I tend to lean toward a supernatural in-breaking of God in the process that specifically creates human beings-as-image-of-God-bearers. That is where the biblical story supercedes science in a matter of faith.

  • JHM

    Lately I’ve been wondering about the meaning of the Tree of Life in relation to the story of the Fall and biological death.

    Growing up, the assumption was always that Adam an Eve were created in a state of sinless perfection that implied that they were inherently immortal. Therefore, death only arrived at the Fall and Eden was essentially identical to Heaven.

    However, I wonder if the Tree of Life might give a clue to another reading. To me the presence of the Tree of Life may imply that Adam and Eve were not inherently immortal but that death was kept away only by being dependent on the Tree of Life (and by extension, God). It seems to me then, that the Fall could indeed introduce both spiritual and physical death to Adam and Eve, while not introducing physical death to all creation.

    I think the bigger question is the historicity and identity (single couple, figurative community, etc.) of Adam and Eve.

  • Edward Vos

    I feel the first approach is best or science becomes a hobby without a supporting factual basis to rely on. Where evidence based on critical testing is thrown out for irrational / religious reasons.

    The starting point should be that science is a tool that God gave us to read the blue print of His creation. We may however, not understand all the specifications or the bill of materials for how it all works. But that shouldn’t stop us from testing and experimenting to help us understand the blue print of life and the universe better.

    All questions are fair and should not be dismissed as heretical thinking. The most critical of all questions then becomes what kind of death was created by our disobedience to God in light of the fact that death occurred in the natural world before we were created in His image? The next critical question then becomes what is the image of God that we were created in, is it spiritual or physical, or both, or are we evolving into God’s image, and does that mean perfection? The last question then is the story of Adam & Eve, fact or fiction? What is the moral truth in the Adam & Eve narrative as it relates to the whole salvation story of the Bible?

  • Unapologetic Catholic

    Great observations and questions!

    Has there ever been a time when our observation of the nature of the world incorrectly influenced our understanding of theological ideas?

    I’m not aware of any time that has happened. So, perhaps it is seldom dangerous to do so.


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