Monkey Killing Monkey — Accounting for Sin in an Evolutionary World

A number of prominent pastors will absolutely insist that we consider Adam to be historical; however, evolution precludes the existence of a historical Adam. Many Christians find this problematic for the doctrine of Original Sin, wherein sin enters the world through Adam’s sin in Genesis 3: if there were no historical fall of man, how is it that sin enters the world? In fact, many will insist that Adam had to exist for this very reason. This, however, is not true, and there are at least a few different ways to go about thinking about sin while accepting evolution. I intend to offer two.

The first is far more simple than the second. The thing is, we know that there is sin, because no one is perfect, and we know that there is evolution. However God actually introduced sin may well be beyond our grasp. In a sense, we may accept them both in the manner of brute facts. Their coexistence may remain a theological mystery, but we can move on with our lives. This argument has more force than you might think. To the people who demand a historical Adam we can say, “I don’t have a theological explanation for you, but it’s just not true.”

The evidence for evolution is overwhelming, despite what we may have heard from certain Christian apologists (more on them in a later post, perhaps). That may mean that we have to throw out entire systems of theology built on the historical understanding of Adam, but so be it; if what I am suggesting here is true, we cannot half-heartedly accept it. I believe, though, that we may say more than just that “this is the way things are — get over it.” In fact, I believe we can throw out a historical reading of Genesis 2-3 long before introducing evolution into the picture.

Consider Adam in the Garden. Seeing the fruit which Eve offered him, something about who he was made this into an enticing offer. In his own being, there already existed a desire for this fruit. In acting on this desire, Adam introduced sin into the world. But what was his sin in the first place? What was the desire which led to his fall? The fruit came from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. But it is not merely that they learned good and evil that led to their sin; rather, they took it upon themselves to be like God in discerning good and evil. This is an act of pride and of greed. Unspoken here, though, is the alternative action which they could have taken. We cannot only look to this story for what that might be, so we look elsewhere.

Much of the Old Testament, especially the first five books, gives us a story where God casts down those who attempt to make a name for themselves, whereas He lifts up those who have faith in Him. For example, in the story of the Tower of Babel, God curses the people because they intend to make a name for themselves. Tower to Heaven notwithstanding, God hated their pride more than their constructions. But to Abram, who had faith in God, he gave a new name: Abraham. Abraham did not try to forge his own destiny, but in submission to God, he received what God gave, and God lifted him up above all nations to be the father of God’s chosen people.

When we turn back to the story of the fall with this in mind, we see that Adam is a type — he represents those who try to make names for themselves instead of receiving them from God. If he had instead submitted himself in faith to God, then God would have lifted him up and given him a new name. Yet there was something about Adam’s internal nature which led him against God to make himself great, and God cursed him as a result. Sin comes into the world because there is something in us which seeks to make a name for ourselves. When we act on this, we open the floodgates to all other sin, and our actions are no longer pure.

It is not that Adam sinned, thereby causing us to sin, because Adam is a type — a representation — of all mankind. Mankind, by virtue of what it is, is a prideful species, and our pride causes our fall. This fall introduces spiritual death, for which Christ came to give us life.

Evolution, then, fits into this model very easily, though only in an accidental fashion. The Bible certainly does not teach evolution as a central doctrine, but evolution emphasizes that we are a certain kind of thing with inherited traits. Merely in being born, we inherit a nature of pride, and we each fall as a result. Now it is not as though there is a literal “pride” gene, but however our fall manifests biologically, it is clear that we are all less than perfect.

Whatever else this may mean for theology, it is not true that there cannot be a consistent theological system which accounts for the fall and allows for evolution. In fact, the view shown here actually manages to account for a good deal more of the Old Testament than does viewing sin as a result of a historical fall through the literal sin of Adam. The one who insists that you must believe in a historical Adam to be an orthodox Christian is either lying or deceived, himself.


About Chris Attaway

Raised in the digital wilderness of the pre-Internet 2.0 era, Chris Attaway is a true gamer and Internet citizen. After a stint studying computer science, his life got flipped turned upside down, and he ended up studying philosophy to help him sort out his life. Now the black sheep in a family of engineers, he has set out to get his footing in the world of freelance journalism. With interests ranging from gaming and technology to LGBT rights, race and politics, Chris is a diverse and skilled writer who always tries to give a fair shake to his subjects.
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9 Responses to Monkey Killing Monkey — Accounting for Sin in an Evolutionary World

  1. shon says:

    It is just as dangerous to declare that there is no historic Adam as to use Genesis to try to claim evidence of evolution is flat out wrong because of Genesis. If God is a supreme being then he is fully capable of lining up the evidence for the evolution process without having it take place, while the Adam story could still take place. It is dangerous to try to put God into a box.

    • I’m all for unboxing God, as that is part of my aim through this blog as a whole. That said, I don’t want to be so open as to lose my ability to exercise good judgment. I really don’t think that the sort of literature which we find in Genesis 2-5 is of the sort that we should expect it to be literal history. Is it possible? Well, maybe, but then we would expect some different evolutionary results (a much more recent last common ancestor, among them).

      • You’re absolutely right Chris. It is far more problematic to believe in a God that wants us to believe X while planting enormous amounts of evidence for Y instead.

        If we’re not going to approach faith rationally, we might as well just admit that while it is almost certainly not true, we believe it anyway.

      • shon says:

        It depends on understanding his motive which would require you to understand everything he knows. It could just be to help us understand biology better. He does have a tendency to put things in helpful places, like the moon being just the right size and distance from the Earth to allow us during Solar Eclipses to study the Sun’s corona.

      • Well, that is certainly an approach God could take, but I would say it appears he didn’t do so in this case. We would end up spending a lot of time justifying Adam and Eve from a scientific standpoint, much more time than we would save assuming their existence and looking for biological answers.

      • shon says:

        I am suggesting that if Adam and Eve did happen there would be little to more to learn from a scientific standpoint that could be useful. Being able to study the evolutionary history can be useful for better understanding creatures. So might God not have had Adam and Eve and also left fossils behind for our scientific use?

      • I’m not entirely sure where you’re heading, here. As far as we know, Adam and Eve didn’t exist. There’s no reason, other than a very particular interpretation of the Bible, to believe that they did. Are you suggesting that we could learn by assuming their existence?

      • shon says:

        I am suggesting possible God intentions, Adam and Eve could still have happened but he left the evolutionary trail because that would prove more scientifically beneficial for understanding biology. If we did prove Adam and Eve’s existence would there be any practical benefit in having done so compared to studying evolutionary history?

  2. Steve says:

    Chris I think your second option is largely correct. Something very similar to it was first suggested by Irenaeus in the second century which is pretty amazing when considering that he wasn’t prompted by modern science to think along these lines.

    This view basically posits that there was no fall or original sin. We are simply all in the process of being made into perfection.

    Whereas our physical development might be complete, our moral development is still on-going. That moral development necessarily involves us having an experience of this life and an experience of the freedom to either partake in or refrain from evil.

    The story of Adam is a metaphor for how we all choose to rebel and it clearly outlines the consequences and effects of that.

    That tendency to choose evil and opt for selfish decisions pre-dates humanity – we see this behaviour in non-human primates. God simply calls us to overcome this and become increasingly like him, which thanks to his mercy and the act of atonement, we will one day attain.

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