The groaning of creation (Science and faith, Part 2)
Sermon by guest preacher Jonathan Boston on 24 June 2018
Readings were Genesis 3: 1-24 and Romans 8: 18-27
This sermon is the second in a series on science and faith. As Stuart outlined in his sermon several weeks ago, we have a responsibility as Christians to take both the book of Scripture and the book of Nature seriously, that is, both the words and works of God. After all, the same God is responsible for both revelation and reason, for spiritual and moral truth on the one hand, and scientific discovery and knowledge on the other. Accordingly, we should expect the findings of science and the claims of faith to be broadly consistent and to cohere.
Yet on several important matters they appear to conflict. This is perhaps most evident regarding the origins of evil, suffering, and death. For instance, the findings of contemporary science run counter to several long-standing Christian beliefs, in particular the traditional doctrines of the ‘Fall’ of humanity and original sin – especially as interpreted by Saint Augustine and many Protestant theologians. In what follows, I will focus on the nature and origins of evil and suggest how the traditional doctrines might be reframed in a manner consistent with current scientific evidence. This includes giving proper attention to the ‘groaning of creation’, as discussed by the Apostle Paul in Romans 8, reinterpreting the references to death in Genesis 3 and several Pauline letters, and re-conceptualizing the idea of original sin.
The territory traversed here is complex and controversial. In a single sermon I can address only a few of the relevant theological and scientific issues and merely sketch a possible way forward. As Stuart highlighted in his sermon, it is easy to be fearful when embarking on such a journey. Indeed, fear has driven many Christian responses to scientific ideas and theories over the centuries, not least those pertaining to cosmology and evolutionary biology. Some Christians fear that abandoning the notion of a historical Fall – especially one with significant biophysical or even cosmic consequences – will threaten core elements of the Christian faith, leaving it weakened and impoverished. In particular, they argue that without the Fall, traditional understandings of the Incarnation, Atonement and Resurrection – whereby God in Christ conquers sin and death and rescues humanity from its fallen and sinful state – may no longer be plausible. And without such doctrines, they claim, the whole case for Christianity collapses. Why, and from what, does humanity need to be saved, they might ask, if suffering, biological death and various other ‘imperfections’ are integral to God’s creation and thus intended by God from the beginning of time rather than the product of Adam’s sin? Likewise, if humanity’s evil desires and behaviours, including the propensity for selfishness, greed and vindictiveness, are simply a function of Homo sapiens’ evolutionary origins and inherited genetic drivers, then with whom does the responsibility for this state of affairs rest – with God or humanity? Presumably, the answer must be God. But, if so, in what sense is God good and just? And on what grounds can creation be judged as ‘very good’, as the account in Genesis 1 proclaims? Moreover, if evil and suffering are natural phenomena, is there not a risk that the entire Christian conception of God and salvation, humanity and creation, will fall apart?
These are important questions and they need careful and prayerful attention. In my view, there are theologically convincing answers which both respect the integrity of the Scriptures and the findings of science. The following discussion relies heavily on the contributions of many Christian scholars. I am particularly indebted to Philip Pattemore, Christopher Southgate and Richard Swinburne.
The problem of evil, pain and death
The biological world exhibits great suffering – whether it be pain from accidents, disease and hunger, the process of ageing, or the death of loved ones. Equally, the process of predation – that is, animals devouring and killing each other in order to live – involves massive and continuous suffering, as does the related competitive process of natural selection or the survival of the fittest (see Southgate, 2008).
Many creatures face a nasty, brutish and short existence, as do whole species. Reflecting on this state of affairs, the poet Alfred Lord Tennyson spoke of ‘nature red in tooth and claw’. Likewise, the 19th biologist Charles Darwin, remarking in 1857 on the process of natural selection commented: ‘what a book a devil’s chaplain might write on the clumsy, wasteful, blundering, low and horridly cruel works of nature’.
But why is the world like this? Why is there such widespread and incessant suffering? Why is there physical or biological death? Why is there such grief, sorrow and misery? Why are about 98% of all the species that have ever existed on Earth now extinct? Why such extraordinary waste and destruction?
In order to answer such questions it is important to distinguish between two types of evil – moral and natural (see Swinburne, 1989, 1998). Moral evil includes the bad desires and actions of human beings, those things for which they can be rightly blamed, such as self-seeking, lying, deceit, injustice, hate, cruelty and wilful destruction of the environment. Natural evil, by contrast, refers to all manner of afflictions that arise from natural, rather than human, causes. This includes: suffering due to bacteria and viruses; the acute pain and fear generated when our nervous system responds to particular stimuli; the vast death and destruction caused by natural disasters such as earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, storms, fires and floods; and the suffering caused by natural processes such as predation and biological evolution, not least the extinction of entire species.
The classical Christian explanation of natural and moral evil
Christians over the centuries, drawing upon the Scriptures, have explained the origins of moral and natural evil in various ways. The so-called ‘classical’ approach, generally attributed to the 4th century theologian Saint Augustine (354-430 AD), maintains that God created a good, if not perfect or idyllic world, and certainly one without human suffering or death (see Cavanaugh and Smith, 2017; Swinburne, 1998). In our original state, according to Augustine, humanity was ‘exempted from all physical evils, and endowed with immortal youth and health which could not be touched by the taint of sickness or the creeping debility of old age’ (quoted in Swinburne, 1998, p.39). But then at a specific moment in space and time the first human beings disobeyed God – they were tempted, succumbed to an evil desire and went their own way. This historical Fall into sin, it is argued, had profound and lasting consequences – for humanity and for God.
First, it led God to punish humanity with physical toil, more painful child-birth and biological death, as outlined in Genesis 3. What was originally perfect and immortal became imperfect and mortal. Moral innocence was replaced with a full knowledge and experience of evil. Guilty and shame entered the world.
Second, and equally serious, humanity’s condition of sinlessness or perfection was replaced with a condition of sinfulness; original righteousness was exchanged for what theologians have called ‘original sin’. From an Augustinian perspective, original sin involves a deep and abiding sinfulness, an marked intensification of bad desires and inclinations, and a greatly magnified proneness to do what is wrong. According to Augustine, this proneness is transmitted down the generations, and the transmission process is by nature (via reproduction) rather than nurture. That is, original sin is genetically conveyed from generation to generation. It occurs from the very moment of conception. It is thus immutable and inescapable. Accordingly, all humanity shares in Adam’s sin and guilt. There is a deep, abiding and inherent solidarity across the ages.
Third, original sin also involves a situation in which humanity no longer enjoys a (libertarian) free will. In effect, we have no choice but to sin. We are enslaved. We need God’s gracious help to overcome temptation. Without this, sin is inevitable. (Note that in the view of some of the Reformers of the 16th century, such as Martin Luther, humanity’s nature is totally depraved.)
Fourth, as a result of the Fall humanity became estranged from God, from each other, and from all other creaturely life.
Finally, in order to rescue humanity and repair the damage wrought by Adam’s disobedience, God intervened in the person of Jesus Christ, atoned for humanity’s sins, and began the long process of healing and restoration. In due course, Christ will come again in glory, and establish a new heaven and a new earth.
According to this classical view, therefore, life on earth has been characterized by specific temporal sequence, namely, Creation, Fall, Incarnation, and Redemption. Eventually, there will be the Consummation of all things. Alternatively, we can think in terms of a ‘U’ shaped curve: an original, primordial paradise, then paradise lost, and finally the restoration of the original paradise.
This sequence of events, it is claimed, explains the origins of both natural and moral evil: both are due to humanity’s radical disobedience and a specific, historical Fall from grace. Such evil is not what God intended; nor is God morally responsible. Nevertheless, God has taken ‘remedial responsibility’ (see below) by overcoming human sin and its tragic consequence, namely death. To quote St Paul: ‘For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord’ (Romans 6.23); ‘For as in Adam all die, so in Christ all will be made alive’ (1 Corinthians 15:22); ‘through the trespass of one human, death reigned through that one human’ (Romans 5:17); and ‘the result of one trespass was condemnation for all’ (Romans 5: 18).
Unfortunately, a crucial aspect of this theological approach, most notably the idea of a Fall with catastrophic and irreversible biophysical consequences, is difficult to reconcile with the findings of modern science. To quote the physicist and theologian John Polkinghorne: ‘the major Christian doctrine that I find most difficult to reconcile with scientific thought’ is the idea of the Fall. According to Polkinghorne (1991 p.99), in relation to death, suffering and impermanence, ‘the universe is everywhere ‘fallen’ and it has always been so’. Similarly, the biochemist and theologian Arthur Peacocke argues as follows:
The traditional interpretation of the third Chapter of Genesis that there was a historical ‘Fall’, an action by our human progenitors that is the explanation of biological death, has to be rejected … There was no golden age, no perfect past, no individuals, ‘Adam or Eve’ from whom all human beings have descended and declined and who were perfect in their relationships and behaviour (quoted in Southgate, 2008, p.29).
Yet if the traditional understanding to the Fall, especially as advanced by Augustine, is problematic, what are the implications for various related Christian doctrines, such as the idea of original sin and the atoning work of Christ?
It should be noted that the Augustinian interpretation of the Fall and original sin has been much debated by Christians over the centuries. There are many other conceptualizations and theodicies, some of which predate Augustine, such as those of the early Christian theologians Origen (c. 184-253) and Irenaeus (c. 130-200). According to Irenaeus, for instance, humanity was created in an immature state, rather like a child. There was no original perfection. Natural evil was certainly present from the beginning; it offers the opportunity for moral development. As I understand it, the views of Irenaeus have had a larger influence on the Eastern traditions of Christianity than those of Augustine (Swinburne, 1998).
Why the traditional understanding of the Fall is problematic
There are at least five reasons for questioning the classical understanding of the Fall.
The first is essentially moral. There are strong moral objections to the idea that a single, sinful act by one human being in the distant past should have such profoundly bad and irreversible consequences for the entire human race and all remaining history. Why would God create a world in which one action in pre-history could have such catastrophic, enduring and irreversible implications? Could it possibly have served some greater and higher good? If so, it is hard to see what this good purpose might be.
Second, a related ethical argument has been advanced by several Christian philosophers, such as John Hick and Richard Swinburne. They maintain that if human beings are to make free and informed ethical decisions and if they are to develop morally, they must be aware of the consequences of their decisions. Such knowledge must be based on their actual experience – that is, it must be learned from the first-hand experience of causing pain or suffering and encountering natural evil. Our knowledge of pain prompts action to reduce it – to care for other human beings, ourselves and other creaturely life. If the original condition of the world was one in which God protected human beings from any kind of harm (i.e. assuming that they did not sin), there would have been no scope for ethical learning, genuine moral development or the building of character – including resilience, perseverance, and so forth. This implies that the basic conditions and structures of the created order must be stable, constant and predictable, and that such conditions must have been (more or less) identical both before and after any initial sin by Homo sapiens. It might be objected that God could have implanted the necessary moral knowledge within primordial humanity so that first-hand experience of the consequences of evil was unnecessary for the exercise of free moral choice. But such an objection simply begs further questions. Why, for instance, would God wish to implant this kind of knowledge when it could readily be learned? How would feelings of compassion, sympathy and love arise in a world where God shielded humanity from any kind of suffering? For love to be genuinely valuable and authentic, it must surely be generated internally and be freely chosen; it must not be implanted or imposed from without.
Third, there are difficulties with the idea that a specific human action in the distant past might have twisted and distorted some fundamental aspects of God’s creation – such as the cycle of life and death – while leaving other fundamental aspects, including natural laws like thermodynamics or gravity, fully intact. Put simply, a theology that regards some crucial parts of the cosmos as disordered while other crucial parts are ordered is problematic. Why might Adam’s sin have affected certain biophysical properties (e.g. the process of ageing or the manner of childbirth) and not others (e.g. our basic genetic make-up)? Why is not the whole world disordered? Why should we regard some of the facts of the cosmos as gifts of God and then view all those which seem morally questionable or ambiguous – such as volcanic eruptions, earthquakes, predation, creaturely suffering, biological death and species extinction – as the result of Adam’s Fall, and hence not God’s responsibility? Are not the so-called ‘ordered’ and ‘disordered’ aspects interconnected? To quote the theologian Clark Pinnock:
‘… natural evils are an inherent part of the natural order and are required for life’. Some of them ‘may arise from the randomness that underlies creativity and be a by-product of the orderly natural processes that sustain life.’ (quoted in Southgate, 2008, p.33)
Fourth, and related to this, there is evidence that life on Earth began nearly four billion years ago. Hence, the cycle of life and death, at least in this small corner of the cosmos, has a very long history. Likewise, sentient beings – that is, those creatures which feel pain – have existed for hundreds of millions of years, far exceeding the earliest evidence of human life. This means that natural evil, notably in the form of intense suffering and violent biological death, has existed for an extremely long time. If God is the creator of the cosmos, as Christians maintain, then God, not humanity, must be responsible for such phenomena. That is to say, God designed the universe and its natural laws in such a way that suffering, death and species loss are intrinsic and fundamental features of the created order. They are not aberrations, anomalies, or mistakes. Rather, they are as God intended and they serve important purposes. The flourishing of creation through the development of new and more complex species, including ultimately a self-conscious being with the capacity to make free and independent moral choices, would not be possible without powerful competitive processes or an inherent, yet often selfish, instinct to survive (see Southgate, 2008, especially Chapter 2). Natural evil, in other words, is an inevitable feature of evolutionary processes.
Fifth, and related to this, evolutionary biologists believe that the species we know as human beings – or Homo sapiens – first appeared about 200,000 years ago in the Rift Valley in Africa. Homo sapiens are the direct descendants of Homo heidelbergensis, who in turn evolved over millions of years from other species that can be traced back to the great ape and beyond. Accordingly, humanity was never physically immortal or created in ready-made perfection. From the outset, as with our ancestors, Homo sapiens were mortal beings. Biological death, in other words, was and remains an integral and inevitable part of human life. Likewise, from the very beginning humanity must have experienced disease, ageing, fear, distress, loss and pain.
Similarly, from an evolutionary perspective, Homo sapiens did not emerge in Africa in an ethical vacuum or cultivated, garden-like paradise. Rather, from very early in humanity’s long evolutionary journey, men and women would have exhibited a powerful survival instinct, experienced selfish desires, thoughts and motives, and exhibited greed, cruelty, and lust – alongside, no doubt, many positive qualities, such as instinctive parental nurturing and care, and the beginnings of friendship, generosity, loyalty, fidelity, honesty and sacrificial love.
On this reading of evolutionary history, therefore, there has been no dramatic or abrupt Fall from perfection into imperfection, no single defining historical ‘original sin’. And certainly there has been no unique immoral act that fundamentally and irreversibly altered humanity’s physiology, genetic code or innate character; nor an act which changed the biochemistry of other species or the physics of the cosmos.
In short, the idea that a single act of wilful and wicked disobedience by early Homo sapiens brought about far-reaching biophysical changes is incompatible with contemporary scientific understandings of the cosmos and human origins. To be sure, sinful actions cause harm and damage our relationships, not least with God, but they do not alter natural laws or modify fundamental biophysical properties.
Having said this, various modern technologies now enable humanity to have big impacts on biophysical systems, including the climate system. Indeed, these impacts are now so large that geologists believe our planet has entered a new geological epoch, namely the Anthropocene, in which human beings are the largest driver of biophysical and geological changes. But this does not involve alterations to our planet’s fundamental natural laws and properties. Rather, it points to humanity’s unwillingness to take some of these properties, including biophysical constraints, seriously and live in harmony with them.
How, then, as Christians in the early 21st century are we to understand the origins and consequences of natural and moral evil? How should we interpret Paul’s letters in which he links Adam’s Fall to human mortality? How should we interpret the story of the Fall in Genesis 3? Further, how might we interpret the doctrine of original sin?
Let me offer a brief summary and then expand.
- God made a cosmos which is morally ambiguous. Natural evil is part of the created order – or at least since the beginning of life and the extinction of species. In this sense, the cosmos has long been ‘fallen’ or ‘groaning in travail’, as Paul describes it. The same creative processes that cause pain and suffering also generate great beauty, richness and diversity. The two go hand-in-hand: the various good features of creation, including the evolution of freely choosing self-conscious creatures, could only have arisen through a process which included creaturely suffering and the possibility of evil desires and propensities (Southgate, 2008, p.31). Hence, the creation is evolving and unfolding as God intended and in accordance with His providential care.
- Moral evil (or human sin) entered the world at some point in the past, namely when early human beings made bad choices having reached a sufficient level of moral awareness to make informed and responsible ethical decisions. Hence, there is a sense in which humanity experienced a Fall. But this Fall did not alter our biochemistry or the planet’s biophysical properties and processes. It did, however, have negative consequences, especially for our relationships – with God, our fellow human beings and other creatures.
- Having said this, it is better to conceptualize the story of the Fall in Genesis 3, not so much as an historical account of a sinful act by several early Homo sapiens in the dim distant past, but as a symbol for humanity’s universal and pervasive condition, namely one in which all human beings have evil desires and make bad choices and thus are in need of God’s forgiveness and redemption. In other words, the narrative in Genesis constitutes a mythological description of the state of all human beings – both now and throughout history.
- God has taken ‘remedial responsibility’ (see below) in Christ for the suffering and sin of the world (i.e. for both natural and moral evil). Through the Incarnation God has entered fully into the suffering of humanity and, in a sense, into the suffering of every sentient being. In so doing, God has expressed His deep and abiding solidarity with the ‘groaning’ creation. Moreover, through the Incarnation, God has taken absolute and unconditional responsibility for both natural and moral evil; and on the Cross, God has taken upon Himself all the evil of the world, if not the whole cosmos. Then, with the Resurrection, God has inaugurated the renewal and transformation of creation. Eventually, there will be a complete healing of creation. One day, in other words, all current biological and evolutionary processes – all suffering, death and species extinction – will end; what is mortal will become immortal; there will be a radically new kind of Heaven and Earth, one to which the Christ’s Resurrection points. This is the Christian hope and vision.
A way forward – an elaboration
First, the created order is morally ambiguous:
Our planet and universe are both ‘very good’, as Genesis 1:31 says, and ‘groaning in travail’, to quote Romans 8:22. In other words, our world is morally ambiguous. It embodies darkness and light, good and evil, great pleasure and intense pain, extraordinary flourishing and acute loss. Clearly, God’s creation contains much that is good. It is full of wonder, beauty, diversity, and complexity. It is truly awe inspiring. But it is not wholly or unreservedly good. Nor is it complete, finished or fully perfected; it continues to evolve; it is in the process of becoming, in accordance with God’s providential purposes. The creation will only be completely good in the eschatological future; that is, in the age to come. At that point, the Bible suggests, suffering and death will cease and a peacable Kingdom will reign: to quote Isaiah 11:6: ‘The wolf also shall dwell with the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the kid; and the calf and the young lion and the fatling together; and a little child shall lead them’.
Second, natural and moral evil are real and inescapable
As Christians we must take the existence of both natural and moral evil seriously. There can be no question that there is much which is wrong. Suffering is real, whether it is caused by natural processes or human actions, and there is lots of it. We should seek to minimize both causes of suffering.
Moreover, we must never trivialize, minimize or play down the grim reality of human sinfulness. Human beings have the capacity for – and sadly often display – shocking brutality, violence, dishonesty, malice, and injustice. And evil desires, intentions and motives are universal; no human being is immune from their grip; no one is morally perfect; there is much to lament. Whatever the origins of evil, therefore, its reality is indisputable and inescapable. Hence, for there to be any hope of redemption, God’s transforming love and gracious forgiveness are vital.
It is notable that those who question the existence of God often downplay the reality, seriousness and intractability of evil. I wonder if this is partly because they are fearful of accepting the seriousness of the human condition in a context where, from their perspective, there is obvious solution – i.e. there is no hope of redemption because there is no Redeemer.
Third, responsibility for natural evil – for intense and protracted suffering and species extinction – must rest with God
As suggested earlier, natural evil appears to have been part of the original creation or at least it must have been foreseen by God from the beginning of time. Significantly, St Paul talks in Romans 8 about the created order being ‘subjected to frustration’, being in ‘bondage to decay’, and ‘groaning as in the pains of childbirth’. And who is responsible for this subjection? Paul does not actually say, but the only realistic answer must be God:
For the creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the freedom and glory of the children of God.
We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time. Not only so, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for our adoption to sonship, the redemption of our bodies. For in this hope we were saved. But hope that is seen is no hope at all. Who hopes for what they already have? But if we hope for what we do not yet have, we wait for it patiently.
Arguably, if God made the world this way, then natural evil must have a purpose; it must serve a higher end. Otherwise, it could not be justified. One explanation, articulated eloquently by the biochemist and theologian Christopher Southgate (2008), is that it was not possible for God to create a world of such beauty, richness, intricacy, and diversity without there being destruction, decay, suffering and death. Note, for instance, that pain serves both good and bad purposes. It causes much misery and grief, but it also warns us that something is wrong, and if we fail to heed the warning we may suffer much more. Likewise, the very same natural processes that have given rise over billions of years to sophisticated brains, imagination, creativity, memory and foresight also generate relentless competition for reproductive opportunities and intense struggle for survival, which in turn cause much suffering and death. It appears that the good is impossible without the bad. In other words, it was impossible for God to make a world that had the potential for the evolution of self-conscious, intelligent, morally aware beings, such as humans, by any other means; it was the only way.
I realize that some Christians think that natural evil is the result of malevolent spiritual forces which are somehow outside of God’s control – or which God has allowed to exercise control, at least in this part of the cosmos. But such an explanation for (most) natural evil is implausible. This is because, as suggested earlier, the very same natural processes that cause suffering and death also generate great beauty, diversity, consciousness and, ultimately, the capacity for kindness and sacrificial love. To quote the Christian environmentalist Holmes Rolston: ‘the cougar’s fang has carved the limbs of the fleet-footed deer, and vice versa’ (quoted in Southgate, 2008). In other words, without the suffering of predation, neither the cougar nor the deer would be what they are today – or what God meant for them to be. But if suffering and death are inherent or intrinsic to this kind of world, then they must be part of God’s original design, not the work of a powerful, evil imposter.
Fourth, moral evil entered the world at some point in history with relational but not biophysical consequences
Why do human beings do such bad things? Why is there so much selfishness, pride, bitterness, cruelty, injustice and hate? Why do evil powers appear to have such a grip on the human will? Where did human sin come from and when did it all start?
These are difficult questions to answer and Christians have struggled with them over many centuries. There are several competing theories, but little scientific or other evidence to support one or the other. In these circumstances, any answers must, in my view, be provisional and tentative. Let me offer several observations and suggestions, drawing on an evolutionary perspective.
To start with, the scriptures contain only limited information about the origins of moral and natural evil. There are no detailed or systematic accounts in the Bible of what happened in pre-history. The story in Genesis 3 regarding Adam and Eve eating forbidden fruit is arguably mythological, metaphorical or allegorical rather than historical, and needs to be interpreted with great care. Moreover, however it is understood, it does not solve the problem of evil. Rather, it leaves numerous questions unanswered. For instance:
- Where did the serpent and its evil ideas come from?
- How did the initial bad desires to deceive and disobey God arise? From whence did such thoughts and temptations come? (Likewise, where did the desire to dominate others come from or the desire to have more than our fair share of food? If they were inherited from our animal ancestors, then arguably these bad desires would constitute a form of natural evil rather than moral evil. They would become moral evil, however, if we deliberately dwell on them and allow them to influence or dictate our actions.)
- Why were Adam and Eve, if they were morally perfect, so open to temptation?
- Why was humanity charged with ‘subduing the earth’ if it was already ordered and idyllic?
- And why did God allow moral evil (and also Angelic evil, if there is such a thing)?
Overall, the scriptures provide few answers to these questions. They simply take the existence of moral evil as a given (the knowledge of which is necessary for humanity) rather than as something requiring a detailed explanation or justification.
An evolutionary perspective on the origins of moral evil
From an evolutionary perspective, it is reasonable to envisage a shift occurring, perhaps over a long period of time, from a planetary state of moral ignorance and innocence (in the sense that no Earthly creatures were morally responsible for any bad thoughts and desires or their selfish, competitive and violent actions) to a time when there was genuine moral awareness, responsibility, culpability and guilt. Let me explain.
Prior to a certain point in the development of Homo sapiens there would have been no moral evil, and then after a certain point moral evil would have been present. This is because no creatures originally had sufficient brain capacity to undertake genuine ethical reasoning, exercise proper moral discernment and judgement, understand the meaning of temptation, or feel genuine moral guilt and shame. In short, they would have lacked a conscience or a free will. Presumably, over a long period of time this situation gradually changed. As the brains of Homo sapiens (or their ancestors) developed and enlarged, they would have become increasingly self-conscious or self-aware and, eventually, morally and spiritually aware. An inner conscience would have gradually developed, and alongside this a greater freedom and capacity of the will. Humanoids would have slowly begun to feel more deeply for each other, to develop empathy, compassion and neighbourly love. They would gradually have recognized that some actions cause hurt while others bring pleasure and joy. Hence, when doing bad things, they would have begun to experience feelings of shame, guilt and regret. Their sense of moral responsibility and culpability would have gradually increased. Over time there would have been an increasing capacity to discern the difference between right and wrong, or good and bad. In other words, very slowly over many thousands of years Homo sapiens would have become increasingly aware of having good desires, motives and intentions as well as bad ones, and of acting justly and unjustly. Parallel processes amongst Homo sapiens may have occurred simultaneously in different parts of the world.
Through the work of the Holy Spirit, men and women may well have become increasingly aware of the existence of God and God’s call on their lives – to worship God and live in accordance with certain moral rules. They would also have become gradually aware of a desire not to serve God – of an abiding sinful resistance to His calling and purposes.
Eventually, Homo sapiens would have become fully moral beings, with virtually all having a well-developed capacity to reflect on moral norms and principles and make informed ethical decisions. By that time, of course, countless bad decisions would already have been made, often with terrible consequences in terms of damaged relationships and human suffering – including the experience of new types of emotional and psychological suffering.
In short, it is arguably meaningful to talk about a genuine Fall, in the sense of a movement from a time of moral innocence to a time of moral awareness and guilt. This transition would have had various consequences, certainly in terms of human interactions and relationships. Whether it affected humanity’s biophysical systems (e.g. our neural pathways in the brain) I do not know, but it would not have brought about biological death. As argued earlier, a catastrophic Fall affecting the biophysical properties of the cosmos is not plausible.
Note that the evolutionary process outlined above – from moral ignorance and innocence to moral responsibility and guilt – is mirrored daily on a global scale in the moral development of babies and infants. Their moral awareness and understanding occurs alongside their brain development and develops in stages – from an initial understanding that certain things, like hitting people, are wrong, to concrete moral thinking about the distinction between truth and falsehood, to deeper thinking about the relationship between means and ends, and eventually the capacity to grapple with complex moral dilemmas and conflicting moral principles.
Regardless of how we conceptualize the emergence of moral and spiritual awareness many thousands of years ago, from an early stage in the process human beings would have been increasingly aware of having many bad desires, intentions and motives. Over time, it would have become evident that there is a propensity or proneness to have bad desires, think evil thoughts and do bad things. Some theologians refer to this propensity – or state of sinfulness – as ‘original sin’. But why is there a proneness for evil? Where did it come from? And where do temptations come from and why are they often so hard to resist? Did God intend things to be this way? Is the proneness an inevitable part of the evolutionary process? Is it related to humanity’s animal ancestors? Have we simply inherited their instinctive drive for survival and their inbuilt self-assertion? Do we have selfish genes? In other words, is the tendency to have bad desires imbedded in our genes and thus part of our hereditary make-up? Alternatively, are such tendencies learned through various socialization processes? To put it differently, is the propensity to do evil due to nature or nurture, or a mix of both? Frankly, I do not know. What is clear is that this propensity is real, universal and apparently inescapable. Unsurprisingly, therefore, the scriptures affirm that all human beings are in need of being made anew (John 3:3; II Cor. 5:17), that the image of God within us is in need of renewal (Col. 3:10), and that our final state will be one in which our spirits are perfected (Heb. 12:23)?
It should be noted that the issue of original sin, including its origins, nature and implications, is a deeply complex and controversial topic with many different theories and interpretations. Let me mention one option. This is to view original sin as the condition of communal, collective, structural and systemic evil into which all human beings are born and in which we all live, and move and have our being. This evil is universal; it is pervasive and persistent; no human being can escape; and there is no complete human solution.
Put differently, we all inherit a world of brokenness, conflict, damaged relationships, environmental degradation, and moral failure. Deceit, injustice, corruption and violence abound – in politics, geopolitics, businesses, and family relationships. Every aspect of life and every social structure is thus permeated by sin. Moreover, none of us is free or immune; there is no escape from the world’s structural sins, collective failures and past wrongs. Indeed, we all contribute and participate, through our lifestyles, market transactions, and political interactions. And we contribute both in what we do and what we fail to do. Accordingly, our hands are inevitably dirty, morally speaking. And we cannot wash them clean. There is simply too much dirt and it is all pervasive.
This is not to suggest that we are morally responsible for the sins of our forebears, including those of the first morally aware human beings. We undoubtedly suffer the consequences of such sins, but we are not morally culpable. At the same time, we all share a responsibility to rectify past wrongs and atone for the sins of our forebears. This responsibility is sometimes referred to as a ‘remedial responsibility’ and it is relevant to many areas of human life. Here in New Zealand, for instance, this remedial responsibility is highly relevant to our current political efforts to address the breaches of the Treaty of Waitangi during the mid-to-late 19th century. But in a corrupted world, progress to resolve past wrongs will always be slow and limited. The work is never done.
Fifth: we need to revisit and reinterpret the argument that humanity is responsible for biological death
What about the death of human beings? How are we to understand the various references to death and mortality in Genesis 3 and how should we interpret what Saint Paul says about Adam’s sin and death in his various letters, especially Romans and Corinthians?
I acknowledge that Paul, drawing on the account in Genesis 3, probably envisaged that human beings – and specifically, the very first human beings – were responsible for physical or biological death, as well as their subsequent, deep estrangement from God, and hence spiritual death. His various letters include the following claims: ‘For as in Adam all die …’ (1 Corinthians 15:22); ‘through the trespass of one human, death reigned through that one human’ (Romans 5:17); and ‘the result of one trespass was condemnation for all’ (Romans 5: 18).
But in relation to biological death, the vast fossil record suggests otherwise. And, as noted earlier, the idea that one primordial trespass by a human being brought about universal death and eternal condemnation is hard to sustain – scientifically and morally. Accordingly, we must revisit the question of how various Pauline texts ought to be interpreted – and hence how we think about the nature and origins of death. In this regard, there are numerous suggestions on offer by Christian scholars. These include:
- Recognizing that in the account in Genesis 3, Adam and Eve did not in fact die immediately after eating the forbidden fruit. Indeed, they are reported to have lived extremely long lives and had numerous children. The lack of an immediate death, it might be argued, is significant in terms of how the passage should be understood.
- Reinterpreting biological death to mean spiritual death – that is, a permanent and intractable alienation from God, potentially with eternal consequences.
- Dwelling not on biological death but rather on the reign of death or power of death – that is, a condition in which humanity is fundamentally opposed to God and/or where humanity is bound together – and arguably imprisoned – by our inescapable finitude and the related fear of death. The reign of death includes the notion of death having a particular hold on our consciousness, imaginations and psyche. It weighs us down, depresses, traps and ensnares.
Aside from these suggestions, there are various ways of interpreting the references by Paul to Adam. For instance, regarding how Paul frequently contrasts the nature of Adam and Christ, Philip Pattemore (2011, p.298), a Christchurch paediatrician, offers the following suggestion:
Paul … is using Adam as a foil against which to throw Jesus’s achievements into sharp relief. This is primarily a literary and rhetorical method, and Paul’s theology of resurrection is based on transformation from the human condition. It is dependent on Christ’s resurrection life, rather than on Adam being the cause of death. The fact that Paul believed he was using a historical event in his comparison does not change the argument.
The theologian Richard Middleton also has an interesting perspective on the nature and origins of death. Drawing on the wisdom literature in the Old Testament, Middleton argues that the tree of life in the Garden of Eden is a symbol for earthly flourishing – in line with wisdom being a ‘tree of life’ for those who find her (Prov 3:18). From this perspective, death might be seen not as mortality but rather as a lack of flourishing or the antithesis of flourishing. To quote (2017, p.79):
So, when the wisdom literature contrasts the two paths of Life and Death, this is not reducible to the contrast between mere existence and the extinction of existence; nor does it refer to immortality versus mortality. Rather, the focus is on the difference between a life that conforms to wisdom, rooted in reverence of God, which results in blessing and shalom, and a life of folly, characterized by rejecting God’s ways, which is thereby deformed and plagued by corruption and calamity.
Viewed from this perspective, the distinction is not so much between mortality and immortality but between choosing a life that leads to Life – that is, one which follows the Way, the Truth and the Life – and choosing a life that leads to death in life – to affliction, sorrow, grief, injustice, hate … and estrangement from God. As noted, there are many other ways of interpreting the relevant passages in Paul’s letters, but their exploration must await another occasion.
Sixth: God has taken responsibility for natural and moral evil and acted to remedy it
Finally, God has taken remedial responsibility in Christ for the suffering and sin of the world. Through the Incarnation, God has entered fully and completely into the suffering of humanity and, in a sense, into the suffering of every sentient being. In so doing, God has expressed his deep and abiding solidarity with His ‘groaning’ creation. Moreover, through the Incarnation, God has taken absolute and unconditional responsibility for both natural and moral evil; and on the Cross God has borne all the evil of the Earth, if not the whole cosmos. Then, with the Resurrection, God has inaugurated the renewal and transformation of creation. Eventually, there will be complete healing of creation. One day, in other words, all evolutionary processes – all suffering, death and extinctions – will end; all tears and sorrow will be washed away. At this point there will be a radically new kind of Heaven and Earth, one to which the Resurrection points. At that point, we will enter into what Paul refers to in Romans 8:21 as ‘the freedom of the glory of the children of God’. This is the Christian hope and vision.
There are several points in this brief account that need emphasis. First, the absence of a catastrophic Fall caused by humanity does not remove the need for God’s forgiveness or redemption. The grand narrative of the Christian faith remains one of God’s extraordinary creative, redeeming and reconciling love in a context of creaturely suffering and sin. But some aspects of this narrative require reinterpretation. In particular, we need to abandon any notion of an original perfect creation or any suggestion that humanity is responsible for natural evil. The biophysical world we witness and explore today is fundamentally as God intended, and the evolutionary processes which have led to the emergence of a self-conscious and God-conscious being are the very same processes that cause suffering, death and extinction – and which also enable evil desires and propensities.
From this perspective, then, Christ’s Incarnation was not some kind of emergency measure in response to an unforeseen or unexpected sinful human act (i.e. a great Fall). God did not miscalculate. God chose to create a world that could eventually bring forth creatures – Homo sapiens – who were free and rational – beings that could bear His image, be capable of receiving Him in their own form, serve His purposes, fulfil His calling, love sacrificially and eventually embark on the Great Commission. But in doing so, God must have known that such a world would be marked by great suffering and abundant sinfulness. Accordingly, He must have known that He would need to take responsibility for all this suffering and sin by entering fully into its midst. The Incarnation of Christ was thus intended from the beginning of creation – God planned that Christ would one day be, to quote the book of Revelation, ‘the Lamb that was slain from the foundation of the world’ (Rev 13:8).
Second, in the Christ-event, God becomes present in and expresses solidarity with all creaturely life – including suffering and death – in a new way, thereby making possible the transformation of creaturely life. God is not distant or remote, but rather suffers with and feels for the ‘groaning’ of creation’s evolutionary processes. God in Christ knows our grief, sorrows and afflictions, and arguably the suffering of all other creaturely life. He fully understands our human condition – from a deep and direct personal experience. He is thus with us, beside us, alongside us and within us. In short, God is present in our deepest suffering and darkest hours. In the words of the theologian Niels Henrik Gregersen:
God has taken the costs of evolution into the very being of Godself: the Son of God dies the death that is required by nature, and in doing so, he dies the death of pain (as a biological organism) and the death of social scorn (as a social being). And with Jesus’ resurrection from the dead death, weakness and pain are brought into God’s experience so that they will never be forgotten (quoted in Southgate, 2008, p.167).
Or to quote Christopher Southgate (2008, p.76):
The Incarnation is the event by which God takes this presence and solidarity with creaturely existence to its utmost, and thus “takes responsibility” for all the evil in creation – both the humanly wrought evil and the harms to all creatures.
Third, Christ’s Incarnation involves not only an expression of God’s solidarity with His suffering creation but also, through His suffering, death and resurrection, the ‘objective freeing of humans from the compulsions of sin, subjectively appropriated by humans through faith and contemplation of the example and passion of Jesus’ (Southgate, 2008, p.76).
Fourth, in Christ we witness the beginning of the final act in the drama of creation – the stage at which ‘the evolutionary process itself will be transformed and healed’ (Southgate, 2008, p.76). To quote Southgate again:
God’s ultimate self-giving in Christ makes possible a self-transcendence in humans that evolution of itself would not make possible. Christ’s ultimate act of kenosis, felt by his Father as the uttermost alienation, begins the final phase of the creation … (ibid.).
In so doing, God frees ‘human beings to love self-sacrificially after the model of Christ’, and somehow, as Paul writes in Romans 8, this process ‘precedes God’s full liberation of the rest of creation’ (ibid.).
I realize that these brief reflections cannot possibly do justice to the large and complex subjects under discussion, but I trust that they offer some glimpse of how, as Christians, we might think about the Incarnation, Cross and Resurrection in the light both of evolutionary theory and the suggestive ideas of Paul on the ‘groaning of creation’ in his letter to the Romans.
To sum up, I have endeavoured in the preceding remarks suggest ways of harmonizing the findings of scientific research with some of the core tenets of the Christian faith, especially in relation to the origins of natural and moral evil. This requires rethinking several traditional Christian doctrines and a number of long-standing interpretations of particular Biblical texts, such as Genesis 3. I have proposed the following approach:
- The created order we witness today, with its various natural laws, biophysical attributes and evolutionary processes, reflects God’s original creative purposes. Suffering and biological death are integral and intended features of God’s creation. They are not aberrations, mistakes or distortions. In this sense, creation is morally ambiguous. It will only be truly good in the world to come – when all death and suffering cease.
- There was no primordial paradise on Earth or in the cosmos. There has been no lost perfection. There was no primordial human action which fundamentally altered the biophysical properties of this world.
- Natural evil existed long before the evolution of Homo sapiens, and certainly since the beginnings of sentient life (or perhaps since the extinction of distinct species). God is morally responsible for natural evil because He has made the world this way. But arguably there was no other way that God could have created the world – or at least a world that would generate certain desirable ‘goods’, not least self-conscious and God-conscious creaturely life. Hence, natural evil ultimately serves good purposes and does not undermine or threaten the goodness of God.
- Prior to a certain stage in the brain development of Homo sapiens it seems reasonable to suppose that there was no moral evil. At some point in history, therefore, humans were morally innocent. At a later stage, however, they were no longer innocent. The gradual development of moral awareness, with its consciousness of bad desires and bad actions, almost certainly affected human relationships and generated new kinds of emotional and psychological suffering. But it did not affect humanity’s fundamental biophysical properties. In particular, humans were mortal from the outset.
- The cause of humanity’s propensity for moral evil is uncertain. But a case can be made that is it due less to the sins of early Homo sapiens (and related changes to our make-up) than to the inherent nature of evolutionary processes, including the drive for survival. To quote Christopher Southgate: ‘the very process by which the created world gives rise to the values of greater complexity, beauty, and diversity also gives rise to the disvalues of predation, suffering, and violent and selfish behaviour’ (2008, p.29). The power which evil exercises over the human will reflects the fact that ‘God upholds and treasures the evolved freedom of that will. The same processes that gave rise to that freedom are the ones that endowed humans with their capacities for its misuse’ (ibid., p.39).
- The idea of original sin can perhaps best be thought of in terms of communal, collective, systemic and inescapable evil, accumulated over the long history of bad desires and actions. Individual human beings living today are not morally culpable for most of this historical evil (although they all invariably add to it), but they certainly have a remedial responsibility to address the wrongs of the past wherever humanly possible and contribute, through love, forgiveness and reconciliation, to a more virtuous, just and sustainable world.
- God has acted in Jesus Christ to suffer alongside and express solidarity with the ‘groaning of creation’, to atone for humanity’s sin, to deliver or rescue humanity from the forces of evil and the inescapable nature of original sin, to triumph over death, and to begin the transformation and eventual healing of creation. There is, in short, a paradise to come.
I am most grateful for the many comments I have received on an earlier version of these sermon notes, including from: Neil Dodgson, Rebecca Dudley, Bruce Hamill, Mary Hutchinson, Allister Lane, Vic Lipski, Sam Macaulay, Tim McKenzie, and Derek Woodard-Lehman.
Alfred Lord Tennyson’s In Memoriam A. H. H., 1850. The quotation comes in Canto 56.
Cavanaugh, W. and J. Smith (eds) (2017) Evolution and the Fall (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans).
Haught, J. (2008) God After Darwin (Boulder, Westview Press).
Middleton, R. (2017) ‘Reading Genesis 3 Attentive to Human Evolution’, in W. Cavanaugh and J. Smith (eds) Evolution and the Fall (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans).
Pattemore, P. (2011) Am I My Keeper’s Brother: Human Origins from a Christian and Scientific Perspective (Christchurch: Philip Pattemore.
Polkinghorne, J. (1991) Reason and Reality (London: SPCK).
Southgate, C. (2008) The Groaning of Creation: God, Evolution and the Problem of Evil (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press).
Swinburne, R. (1989) Responsibility and Atonement (Oxford: Oxford University Press).
Swinburne, R. (1998) Providence and the Problem of Evil (Oxford: Oxford University Press).