Flesh and Spirit II: Original Sin

"The flesh is indeed willing, but the spirit is weak"—Jesus

A while back St. Anne / Weekend Fisher asked whether human nature is basically good or totally depraved.   I left a comment as follows:

There is no such thing as pure evil. God is pure good, and the things he creates are all good when properly related to him. Evil is always goodness twisted and perverted. It cannot exist on its own; it is a parasite on goodness.

Thus, when we say that human beings are depraved or evil, this necessarily presupposes that human nature is good. If we had not been meant for something better, it would not be a sin to fall short.

I am not sure I believe in "total" depravity, or even that I am sure what it would mean if it were true. I think it is clear that almost every person has, at some time in their lives, done something ethically good, out of love for other people, rather than hypocrisy or self-righteousness. Christ calls human fathers evil, but he also says that they know how to give good gifts to their children.

What I affirm is that (a) every part of our nature, though created good, is corrupted to some extent, and (b) we are sufficiently enslaved to sin that we are incapable of saving ourselves, but need God's gracious act of redemption through Jesus.

Also, I think people mistakenly think that because the doctrine of "original sin" applies to children, it is therefore especially about children. Children may be fallen, but adults are more so. Otherwise Jesus would not have said that you have to change and become like a child in order to enter the kingdom of heaven.

But this still leaves the question I asked last time, why, if God created us good, are we all so whacked?  (OK, I used a slightly different word, but nobody called me out on it.)  The Christian answer is well known: because some dude and his wife ate a piece of fruit a while back...wait, what?

The Genesis story is full of rich archetypes and symbols, and if we treat it too literalistically and fail to notice the applicability to our present state, we're missing out on the point.  The name Adam means Human Being.  The name Eve means Life.  In other words, we are all Adam and Eve, as Paul says:

For as in Adam all die, so in Christ all will be made alive... (1 Cor 15:22, 44-50)

Point is, YOU are Adam, and when you rebel against God you experience what it is like to be a fallen human being.  That is when you experience shame and nakedness and the desire to justify yourself by clothing yourself with whatever fig leaves you can gather, even if it isn't always that effective.  We can tell the Genesis story about ourselves, as Paul does:

I would not have known what sin was had it not been for the law. For I would not have known what coveting really was if the law had not said, “You shall not covet.”  But sin, seizing the opportunity afforded by the commandment, produced in me every kind of coveting. For apart from the law, sin was dead.

Once I was alive apart from the law; but when the commandment came, sin sprang to life and I died.  I found that the very commandment that was intended to bring life actually brought death. (Romans 7:7-10)

There was once, for our species perhaps as well as each individual, a time of rosy innocence before we became aware of morality as we now experience it, in the form of unattainable ethical imperatives and guilt for having disobeyed them.  At one time we lived in a state of innocence and spiritual simplicity, but then we wanted to make our own decisions and go our own way, and there were the consequences.

The way people usually tell the story of the Fall, they act as though Adam had eaten of the Tree of the Knowledge of Depravity and Sinfulness.  But that's not what the book says, it says the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil.  What's more the Knowledge is considered in itself something good, a property of God.  As the serpent says:

“For God knows that when you eat from it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil” (Genesis 3:4).

and on the off-chance you don't think the devil is a reliable source of information, God speaking to himself (in the communion of the Holy Trinity) says the same thing:

“The man has now become like one of us, knowing good and evil. He must not be allowed to reach out his hand and take also from the tree of life and eat, and live forever” (Genesis 3:22).

Perhaps human beings were supposed to eventually receive the Knowledge of Good and Evil when we became mature enough, but we wanted to try out both good and evil for ourselves, learning about each from experience, and now we experience the moral law in the form of commands which we find impossible to satisfy, with all the resulting effects on our mental and spiritual health.

Since the genetic evidence suggests that there was never a time in which the early homo sapiens population was smaller than about a thousand or so breeding pairs, it seems that we can't take literally the idea of only 2 human beings (even leaving aside the question of where Cain's wife came from!).  But I believe that the primary point of the Genesis story is to speak to the reality of the human situation, not to give a factual, literal account of what happened in the past.

Yet given that human beings were created to be in communion with God, but we now find ourselves alienated from him, we can deduce that there must have been some actual set of prehistoric events by which this happened, but because it happened in prehistory we don't know the precise details, just the aftermath.  So in that sense the Fall is indeed also about something that happened a long time ago, even if it is recapitulated in each generation (just as Evolution is also recapitulated in each generation, as the traits which were useful in the past manifest once again).

We also have the Tree of Life in the story.  Apparently if human beings had remained in communion with God (a state known as Original Justice) there would have been no need to die.  Given the laws of physics and biology as we know them (which have certainly been operating for a long time before human beings arrived on the scene) this would have required supernatural intervention.  But if touching the body of Jesus in the Gospels allowed supernatural healing to sinners, why should immortality not also have been available to sinless beings in full communion with him?

After people fell, how did the badness get transmitted to later generations?  Well the absence of immortality and spiritual communion with God doesn't really need to be explained, that's kind of the default position given the loss of Original Justice.  As for more specific morally undesirable traits, they are presumably passed on through genetics and culture, the same way we inherit everything else.  Of course it would have required many generations for our genetics to adapt in response to cultural changes (Lamarck was mostly wrong), but it has been a long time since then.

Also, a large part of our evil fleshly impulses are just our animal nature, evolved through natural selection by our pre-human ancestors prior to the Fall.  These fleshly impulses are not bad per se, since we are supposed to be spiritual animals in the image of God.  But once the Fall disrupted our communion with God they got out of control and started causing problems.  If we had remained under the control of the Spirit of God, our animal impulses would be holy as well as spontaneous, and thus part of our blessedness.  Or if we were still just animals, who had never known better, we would still have the innocence of animals.  A cat is morally innocent when it plays with a mouse, not because that is morally wonderful but because it doesn't know any better.  But now we know better (or else ought to know better but are in denial), and it pains us to experience our own worst impulses.

While some animals seem capable of embarrassment or shame at times, so far as I know we're the only animal to frequently feel shame just at the thought of having a body.  That's pretty weird!  It's also why most of us wear clothes even when it's not needed for protection.

This animal/evolutionary origin for most of our evil fleshly impulses seems a lot more plausible to me then simply being inexplicably cursed with evil-rays as a punishment for having eaten a fruit once.  (What do you get when you combine Christianity with evolutionary psychology?  Christianity, of course...)

Of course we aren't personally responsible for the fact that we are born in a morally problematic state.  But we do need to take responsibility for who we are, as best we can, to control the damage.  And while none of us were doing the right thing, God himself took on responsibility for the human condition by uniting himself to human nature in order to redeem it and make holiness and sanctity possible.

A couple more quotes to round out the discussion.  The first is from the rationalist blogger (who happens to also be a psychiatrist) Scott Alexander discussing the politics of "trigger warnings":

...I think [the essay he's responding to] contains a false dichotomy: privileged people don’t have any triggers, oppressed people do. You guys are intact, I am broken. But truth is, everybody’s broken. The last crown prince of Nepal was raised with limitless wealth and absolute power, and he still freaked out and murdered his entire family and then killed himself. There’s probably someone somewhere who still believes in perfectly intact people, but I bet they’re not a psychiatrist.
A Christian proverb says: “The Church is not a country club for saints, but a hospital for sinners”. Likewise, the rationalist community is not an ivory tower for people with no biases or strong emotional reactions, it’s a dojo for people learning to resist them.

Now Scott isn't a Christian, but he's sensible enough to steal good ideas even if they come from the Church.  Likewise I encourage my readers to steal all the good ideas from rationalism! Take all thoughts captive for Christ (2 Cor 10:5), to prepare for the day when the splendor from all the kings on the earth will be brought into the New Jerusalem (Rev 21:24).

The concept of Original Sin understood properly is equalizing, not dehumanizing.  As St. Chesterton wrote:

We have remarked that one reason offered for being a progressive is that things naturally tend to grow better. But the only real reason for being a progressive is that things naturally tend to grow worse. The corruption in things is not only the best argument for being progressive; it is also the only argument against being conservative. The conservative theory would really be quite sweeping and unanswerable if it were not for this one fact. But all conservatism is based upon the idea that if you leave things alone you leave them as they are. But you do not. If you leave a thing alone you leave it to a torrent of change. If you leave a white post alone it will soon be a black post. If you particularly want it to be white you must be always painting it again; that is, you must be always having a revolution. Briefly, if you want the old white post you must have a new white post. But this which is true even of inanimate things is in a quite special and terrible sense true of all human things...

Christianity spoke again and said: "I have always maintained that men were naturally backsliders; that human virtue tended of its own nature to rust or to rot; I have always said that human beings as such go wrong, especially happy human beings, especially proud and prosperous human beings. This eternal revolution, this suspicion sustained through centuries, you (being a vague modern) call the doctrine of progress. If you were a philosopher you would call it, as I do, the doctrine of original sin. You may call it the cosmic advance as much as you like; I call it what it is—the Fall."

I have spoken of orthodoxy coming in like a sword; here I confess it came in like a battle-axe. For really (when I came to think of it) Christianity is the only thing left that has any real right to question the power of the well-nurtured or the well-bred. I have listened often enough to Socialists, or even to democrats, saying that the physical conditions of the poor must of necessity make them mentally and morally degraded. I have listened to scientific men (and there are still scientific men not opposed to democracy) saying that if we give the poor healthier conditions vice and wrong will disappear. I have listened to them with a horrible attention, with a hideous fascination. For it was like watching a man energetically sawing from the tree the branch he is sitting on. If these happy democrats could prove their case, they would strike democracy dead. If the poor are thus utterly demoralized, it may or may not be practical to raise them. But it is certainly quite practical to disfranchise them. If the man with a bad bedroom cannot give a good vote, then the first and swiftest deduction is that he shall give no vote. The governing class may not unreasonably say: "It may take us some time to reform his bedroom. But if he is the brute you say, it will take him very little time to ruin our country. Therefore we will take your hint and not give him the chance." It fills me with horrible amusement to observe the way in which the earnest Socialist industriously lays the foundation of all aristocracy, expatiating blandly upon the evident unfitness of the poor to rule. It is like listening to somebody at an evening party apologising for entering without evening dress, and explaining that he had recently been intoxicated, had a personal habit of taking off his clothes in the street, and had, moreover, only just changed from prison uniform. At any moment, one feels, the host might say that really, if it was as bad as that, he need not come in at all. So it is when the ordinary Socialist, with a beaming face, proves that the poor, after their smashing experiences, cannot be really trustworthy. At any moment the rich may say, "Very well, then, we won't trust them," and bang the door in his face. On the basis of Mr. Blatchford's view of heredity and environment, the case for the aristocracy is quite overwhelming. If clean homes and clean air make clean souls, why not give the power (for the present at any rate) to those who undoubtedly have the clean air? If better conditions will make the poor more fit to govern themselves, why should not better conditions already make the rich more fit to govern them? On the ordinary environment argument the matter is fairly manifest. The comfortable class must be merely our vanguard in Utopia.

Is there any answer to the proposition that those who have had the best opportunities will probably be our best guides? Is there any answer to the argument that those who have breathed clean air had better decide for those who have breathed foul? As far as I know, there is only one answer, and that answer is Christianity. Only the Christian Church can offer any rational objection to a complete confidence in the rich. For she has maintained from the beginning that the danger was not in man's environment, but in man. Further, she has maintained that if we come to talk of a dangerous environment, the most dangerous environment of all is the commodious environment. I know that the most modern manufacture has been really occupied in trying to produce an abnormally large needle. I know that the most recent biologists have been chiefly anxious to discover a very small camel. But if we diminish the camel to his smallest, or open the eye of the needle to its largest—if, in short, we assume the words of Christ to have meant the very least that they could mean, His words must at the very least mean this— that rich men are not very likely to be morally trustworthy. Christianity even when watered down is hot enough to boil all modern society to rags. The mere minimum of the Church would be a deadly ultimatum to the world. For the whole modern world is absolutely based on the assumption, not that the rich are necessary (which is tenable), but that the rich are trustworthy, which (for a Christian) is not tenable. ("The Eternal Revolution", Orthodoxy)

In my previous post in this series I was talking about the goodness of being created with male and female bodies, and somebody brought up the issue of gender dysphoria.  I said that it was just a more extreme example of the type of body-image problem that we ALL struggle with.  Christianity, while it is willing to call particular acts sinful, problematizes any use of such words to stigmatize anyone, since after all Christ had to die for my sins as well as your sins.

I read an article once which had a list of derogatory language and insults, and in addition to the usual suspects, included the word "sinner".  The barely concealed goal was to reclassify the Christian church as a hate group.

Except that's not how the word "sinner" is used at all.  Sinner is indeed a derogatory word, but one of the key attributes of this word in Christianity is that it applies to everyone, and that you aren't allowed to use it to refer to anybody unless you bear this in mind.  This is not to say that all sins are equally bad; that is total nonsense which deprives the word of any meaning at all; there are plenty of Bible verses which quite explicitly say that some sins are worse than others.  But all sins come from a root cause that is present in all of us, and you'd have to be morally clueless not to sympathize, given that we all struggle with the same things.  Except that, once again, we are all morally backwards when it comes to self-righteousness and looking down on others, that's part of the problem.

On my bookshelf I have a section for Heretics, books which I own that contain serious distortions of Christian teaching.  Some of these books, I agree with the title even though I disagree with almost everything inside of them.  One of them is The God who Risks, by John Sanders.  Another book with a great title is The Joy of Being Wrong: Original Sin through Easter Eyes.

I don't recommend either of these books, but the title of the second one makes an important point.  It's an interesting fact that Jews don't make a big deal out of the story of the Fall in Genesis, it's not really a central theological point for them even though it's right near the beginning of the story.  It's only after Jesus rose from the dead, and the idea of a new human nature became solidly founded, that we have a platform to go back and criticize the old human nature we all have.  Paul talks about Adam so much because he needs something to compare to what Jesus did.

Christian theology centers around Jesus and the Resurrection (a thing which happened in historical times i.e. during the period of written evidence).  Our attitude towards Adam, the Fall, and our fallen neighbor must be recalculated in light of this new glory.  That's why it isn't a bummer to learn you've been wrong the whole time about how you've been living.  A fish can't really tell it's swimming in water until it learns to fly.

Update: I answered some of the questions in the comments below in
Questions about Adam.
The grand conclusion to the series is here:
Flesh and Spirit III: Easter Sermon

About Aron Wall

I am a Lecturer in Theoretical Physics at the University of Cambridge. Before that, I read Great Books at St. John's College (Santa Fe), got my physics Ph.D. from U Maryland, and did my postdocs at UC Santa Barbara, the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, and Stanford. The views expressed on this blog are my own, and should not be attributed to any of these fine institutions.
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24 Responses to Flesh and Spirit II: Original Sin

  1. David says:

    About that last point, Jews and original sin, unfortunately a lot of Jewish theology is based on the Talmud -- The second (Or Oral) Torah which Christians don't accept -- rather than the real Torah. I grew up having a Jewish background. I noticed the rather embarrassing trend which especially Dr Michael Brown (Jew for Jesus) points out, how clearly the Talmud points to Jesus as the Jewish Messiah. E.g., he must be born before the destruction of the Jewish temple, and he must suffer and be rejected by his people.

    There was even a dispute between Rabbis recorded in the Talmud that there may be two Messiahs. Because of unclear passages referring to him as a humble priest ridding on a donkey and others as a king. Of course Christians have an answer for that (i.e., One Messiah who comes twice).

  2. David says:

    *Jewish temple = second temple

    It also says God would make the second temple greater than the first, yet God (according to Judaism) only dwelled in the first temple.

  3. Hi St Aron (I guess when in Rome one should speak the vernacular!),

    It seems to me that, once we accept that humans go back further than 20,000 years our DNA shows descent from earlier hominids, and there was never less than many breeding pairs, a lot of doctrine is thrown into question. You seem to accept Adam & Eve were not literal historical people, you seem to modify the traditional understanding of original sin, but you seem to retain the Fall, is that right? And I wonder where you think spirituality and the sensus divinitatus entered the evolutionary tree?

    Denis Lamoureux suggests that just as babies grow in the womb from cells to people, so did evolution allow gradual development of spirituality. Who knows? - but the tree of life story reads more like this than the traditional understanding of Adam & Eve being corrupted, as you point out. It seems that we didn't so much fall as gradually become aware of good and evil. But of course the end result is still the same - we are flawed beings and we need God's forgiveness.

    So what do you think about the Fall and the growth of our spiritual capacity?

  4. willie says:

    Aron- Good day
    This is my first response and I do feel welcome on your blog.
    (Searched a long time- so glad to find you)

    'There is no such thing as pure evil. God is pure good, and the things he creates are all good when properly related to him. Evil is always goodness twisted and perverted. It cannot exist on its own; it is a parasite on goodness.'

    Please explain the difference between evil and sin.

  5. TY says:

    Is human nature basically good or totally depraved?

    Probably both because it seems consistent with the notion of free will, which is the freedom to do both good and evil. If human being were “pure” or “unsinful”, there can be no evil in this world. As Rabbi Sachs wrote, “We are divided beings.” (Ref: Does moral action depend on reasoning? Series of Big Questions, John Templeton Foundation)

    St Paul says in Romans 7: 14-20:
    We know that the Law is spiritual. But I am merely a human, and I have been sold as a slave to sin. In fact, I don’t understand why I act the way I do. I don’t do what I know is right. I do the things I hate. Although I don’t do what I know is right, I agree that the Law is good. So I am not the one doing these evil things. The sin that lives in me is what does them. I know that my selfish desires won’t let me do anything that is good. Even when I want to do right, I cannot. Instead of doing what I know is right, I do wrong. And so, if I don’t do what I know is right, I am no longer the one doing these evil things. The sin that lives in me is what does them.

    St Paul is saying we know what is good; yet we do bad things because that’s part of our human nature. Selfish desires and what not.

  6. Aron Wall says:

    Thanks for your comment, and welcome to my blog. You ask me to "please explain the difference between evil and sin". Obviously like all words these have a range of meanings, but in the sentence you quoted I was using evil to mean "any way in which a thing can be bad, whether or not this is due to morally wrong choices". I was making the philosophical point that badness can only exist if goodness is presupposed. Then I was applying that point to the specific case of sin and moral corruption. As for the definition of sin, I think it usually has 2 definitions:

    1. Anything we do, or are, which offends God,
    2. Choices which are morally wrong.

    The two meanings are closely related because God is holy and righteous, and the thing which offends him is the moral failure to love him, or our neighbor, or the planet in the way that we should.

    "Original sin" is not quite a sin in the usual sense of the word, since we don't choose it and therefore (in my theology) we aren't really responsible for it until God offers us the grace to become like Jesus instead. But we needed a phrase to describe the radical disruption in our relationship with God and other people and the world, which makes it so easy to sin in our current condition. And "original sin" is the phrase which the theologians have selected.

    Good points. My best friend (from college) has a Jewish background and back when he was a practicing Jew he complained all the time about the rules which the rabbis just made up. Of course he was rather interested to discover that Jesus was also a harsh critic of the so-called "Oral Torah". In our sophomore year he converted to non-rabbinic Judaism (he called it "sola scriptura" or "Protestant" Judaism) and a few years later to Christianity.

    There is a branch of Judaism (the "Karaites") which reject the Oral Torah, but today they are quite few in number.

    On the other hand, even in the Tanakh, while there is plenty of griping about human sinfulness, there aren't that many references to the Adam and Eve story specifically (after Genesis). Even if there had been no "Oral Torah", it's not at all surprising that a New Covenant would result in substantial changes in emphasis regarding the theological importance of various elements.

    It sounds like you are saying that human beings are partly good and partly evil. But if so, why would you feel comfortable using a phrase like "total depravity" wich suggests we are 100% evil?

    What would really be philosophical progress is to carefully state in what way we can be bound over to evil and still be (in another sense) good. St. Paul makes some distinctions in the book of Romans, but the NIV isn't a good translation to use when exploring this issue, since they systematically overintepret his (somewhat technical) use of the word "flesh" and say things like "sinful nature" instead. In any case, the passage you quoted doesn't seem to emphasize "free will". It sounds a lot more like a person who is trying to exercise free will but who fails due to being enslaved to various desires. One difficulty with the "free will" theodicy taken on its own is that the world doesn't seem designed to maximize our free will anymore than it maximizes goodness. I think the New Testament grapples with this isuse pretty seriously though.

    Well, here in Rome we do not use the title "St." when addressing somebody in the second person! (Actually the real rule is that nobody besides me is obliged to adopt my eccentric canonization procedure, and I certainly didn't start writing that way because I was hoping other people would use it on me...)

    As for your questions, there's a lot of things I didn't talk about simply because I would only be speculating. But we have to be aware of our limitations. The fossil record gives a pretty clear picture of our physical and technological development, but it doesn't say much about our psychological, linguistic, or spiritual development. Evolutionary psychology is a pretty uncertain thing.

    I do believe in a prehistoric Fall, not only because we seem pretty messed up, but also because we seem to have a spiritual understanding which must have come from somewhere, and both on the mythological level and the individual level there's this uncanny nostologia for something in the distant past we don't really have a clear image of. Once human beings had the capacity to become aware of God and hear God's voice speaking to them, surely the God we read about in the Bible would have made some sort of explicit covenant with them! Whatever that covenant was, it has long since been broken.

    We can't assume that just because things are gradual on the genetic level that they would also be gradual on the memetic/cultural level. "Gradual development of sprituality" is one thing, actually realizing that God is speaking to you and saying something back is quite another. Even in physics, a gradual change in one variable (e.g. temperature) can sometimes lead to a discontinous change in behavior (e.g. water versus ice).

    My own pet theory is that maybe the origin of human beings began when God chose to speak verbally to a particular human being (or perhaps even a literal married couple) thus granting them language and (therefore) a greatly advanced ability to think, all wrapped up in the same package with communion with God. One interesting feature of this idea is that it allows humanness to be trasmitted "horizontally" within a single generation to the others living at the same time. But this is just speculation!

    As for when full humanness happened I don't know, but once you've got people wearing decorative clothing and burying each other and making representative art, I think the transition has already happened.

    I think part of the point of the doctrine of the Fall is to highlight the "evitability" of human history. If our historical records open with a bunch of warring polytheistic tribes with only a distanct memory of there being One Highest God, it didn't necessarily have to be that way. People chose to be that way, and therefore (with God's grace and intervention) they can also be different.

    Thus I would see elements of both advance and fall in human development, I don't see why the story has to be simple. The only things I know for sure is that we had to get to where we are somehow, and that the problem with the human race is that we are collectively rebels against God who must repent, not that we are "insufficiently evolved" or something like that.

    As for the resulting state of "original sin", I don't think my modifications to the "traditional doctrine" fall all that far from the tree (so to speak). There's more than one "traditional doctrine", after all. My views aren't very close to the Reformed tradition, but they are pretty close to the Wesleyan view, which isn't too far off from Eastern Orthodoxy either. Have you read St. Athanasius' On the Incarnation? I was surprised when I read it how much more compatible his views seemed with Evolution, for example he takes for granted that human beings are basically a species of animal who would naturally (i.e. apart from supernatural grace) die.

    Other interesting sepculations about the Prehistoric Fall are found in:
    St. Lewis, The Problem of Pain,
    St. Peter van Inwagen, The Problem of Evil.
    There's also some interesting speculations (but from a Thomistic Catholic viewpoint) here and on St. Ed Feser's blog starting here.

  7. TY says:

    Thanks for the comments.

    “It sounds like you are saying that human beings are partly good and partly evil. But if so, why would you feel comfortable using a phrase like "total depravity" which suggests we are 100% evil?”

    I was just repeating the question by St Anne, and placing the words in quotation marks would have avoided any misinterpretation that was my view.

    What I meant was just the opposite: that we are not 100% of either but that at any time in our day-to-day existence it’s a mixture of both in a tug-of-war of sorts; hence referring to St. Paul who is saying he knows what is right and yet he does the opposite. God forbid we are 100% evil.

  8. Scott Church says:

    If I may add a few more thoughts... The word most frequently translated as sin in the New Testament is the Greek hamartia, which literally means to miss the mark. The term was commonly used in reference to archers who couldn't hit a target. Ultimately, to sin is to miss the mark--to fall short of our God-given identity and calling. We are at enmity with our inmost selves... so we lack peace and wholeness. We are at enmity each other... so we're given to fear, misunderstanding, and conflict. We are at enmity with the Earth we walk upon... so we abuse its wild places and bounty, filling our atmosphere with toxins and paving over wetlands to produce yet more shopping malls and other distractions. And most of all, we are an enmity with God... who we hide from at every opportunity.

    To be sure this includes evil (as we understand it), but the concept of sin itself is much larger. We are sinners because we are not who we were created to be and fall short of the glory of God (Rom. 3:23).

    This is why Jesus had to become one of us... to show us in flesh as well as spirit our truest selves. Though equal to God He did not consider that equality a thing to be clung to, but emptied Himself, took on the form of a servant, and being found in human form He was obedient unto death, even death on a cross (Phil 2:5-11). In so doing He redeems us, cleanses us, and sets us on the path home... where we are meant to be. We sin whenever we rebel against that... whether we do it with overtly evil deeds, or seemingly innocent ones.

  9. Hi Aron, thanks for that response. I'll keep thinking (and even praying!).

  10. willie says:

    Aron – According to your reponse re evil and sin, it seems to me that everything that is offending God, falls under that category. And I agree. I would then like to humbly add my drop to the bucket.

    God is not good, but perfect. Though the creation is good but imperfect. The main task and call to humanity is to pursue perfection.eg Matthew 5:48 "Therefore you are to be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”
    To become perfect it is necessary to do/live the will of God.
    To know the will of God, and knowingly transgress it (Divine Law), is called sin.
    To un-knowingly trangress God's will is called evil
    Deliberate, persistant transgression of God's will is called iniquity.
    Thus, we come to understand our Lord's prayer- “deliver us from evil--” as to pertaining to that where we unknowingly fall short from perfection. And also, Jesus lived a sinless life because He totally lived according to His Farthers will. It is important to note that our Father is totally aware of our shortcomings as creatures of time and space. We are after all not "god" but our Farther is mercifull, recognising our creature shortcomings.

    Regarding Original Sin- I am quite uneasy with the idea/dogma. That is the result of, maybe, coming to a different conclusion regarding Adam and Eve. But I would only post that conclusion if you invite me to add another drop in the bucket.

  11. Aron Wall says:

    Dear willie,

    Some more points about language.

    "God is not good, but perfect". Perfectly what? Perfectly red, perfectly noisy? I would say "perfectly good". So instead of saying that God is perfect instead of being good. I would say he is perfect in being good. Sometimes people use "good" to mean something better than mediocre but below excellent, "quite decent but could use improvement", but that's not how I was using the term...

    Second, for modern people that word "perfect" (τέλειός in Greek) means primarily flawless but for the ancient Greeks (and for a long time in English) "perfect" meant something more like complete. (That's why people who study grammar call sentences like "I have eaten the cake" the perfect tense, because it means that the act of eating the cake has been completed.)

    Now God is both flawless and complete, so it's perfectly kosher to call him perfect in either sense. But when we read the passage where Jesus tells us to be "perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect" the original meaning was more likely to be "complete". If we look at the context:

    "You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, love your enemies, bless those who curse you, do good to those who hate you, and pray for those who spitefully use you and persecute you, that you may be sons of your Father in heaven; for He makes His sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust [note that in a desert culture rain is considered a blessing just as much as sunshine --AW]. For if you love those who love you, what reward have you? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet your brethren only, what do you do more than others? Do not even the tax collectors do so?"

    the form of completeness being advocated seems to be having a complete list of people who you are supposed to love, i.e. everyone should be on it. I don't think the passage means "Be sinless, as your Father in heaven is sinless". Although of course we should always avoid sinning whenever we can in each particular decision we make, being totally sinless does not seem to be a realistic goal while we are here on Earth.

    This also makes sense of the passage in Hebrews which says that Jesus was "made perfect through suffering". He was sinless at all times, but his human nature needed to develop and it was not yet complete until he had gone through enough experiences.

    "I would only post that conclusion if you invite me to add another drop in the bucket."

    You don't need to ask my permission to speak, seeing as all your comments so far have been polite and on-topic. Go for it!

  12. willie says:

    “My own pet theory is that maybe the origin of human beings began when God chose to speak verbally to a particular human being---”
    Aron , your open mindedness inspire me to articulate my own pet theory. This theory impact on the doctrine of original sin.
    My reasoning starts off trying to understanding Genesis 1-6 in some way.
    The Hebrews were taken into captivity by the Babylonians. What a shock for there system. Their believe in themselves as the chosen people of Jahwe came under severe pressure, questioning even their believe in Jahwe. The Babylonian victor's world view was taking its toll on the Hebrew world view. (Naturally).
    The action taken by the priests, scribes etc was to craftily use the many oral narratives, putting them in a coherent written format in order to bolster their own world view and counter the Babylonian influence. Genesis starts off in a form of a confession. Clearly, without mentioning the Babylonian narratives regarding their pantheon of gods, their creation stories , every aspect was countered in first part of Genesis One. Everything made sense for even a six year old Hebrew – then.
    Adam and Eve in pre historic times clearly had a huge impact on the Hebrew heritage. And the writers of Genesis had to make sense of the oral narratives. But one can sense the complication of a vague oral tradition. Take for instance the conflict of Gen 4;16 and 17 where Cain went to Nod and took a Nodite woman in view of Adam and Eve being portrayed as the first human beings. Also, the mentioning of celestial beings in Gen 6;2 and 6.4 complicate matters.

    Aron, I also expect “there's this uncanny nostologia for something in the distant past we don't really have a clear image of.”

    I would like to propose that Adam and Eve were send to this planet in accordance with God's plan to quicken the evolutionary development of mankind, not as the first man and woman but as the first of a higher, advanced stock.
    Adam and Eve was suppose to uplift man culturally and genetically. Wouldn't it be nice if there were to exist scientific support for this theory.

    I would like to turn your attention to a paper written by Patrick D Evans et al and Bruce Lahn namely “Evidence that the adaptive allele of the brain size gene microcephalin introgressed into Homo sapiens from an archaic Homo lineage (“http://www.pnas.org/content/103/48/18178.full)

    “By using the interhaplogroup divergence test, we show that haplogroup D likely originated from a lineage separated from modern humans ≈1.1 million years ago and introgressed into humans by ≈37,000 years ago. This finding supports the possibility of admixture between modern humans and archaic Homo populations.”
    What is so remarkable of Evans et al's finding is that this introgression happened in a once off occurrence in the distant past, plus minus 37 000 years ago, by a single progenitor.
    No evidence, as yet, could explain this admixture of genetic material See for example http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/20498832
    I would like to propose the introgression of genetic material by means of Adam and or Eve as a possible explanation..
    But Adam and Eve failed in their mission by not abiding with God's will regarding their mission. Adam and Eve sinned ( acted outside God's will, knowingly).
    All the above leads to a sensible conclusion:- The Fall was/is real.
    Mankind is disadvantaged in its evolutionary advancement to this day. That says something about the Original Sin
    This in short, is my short effort to discuss a small aspect of a bigger picture. Keep in mind that English is not my mother tongue therefore my thoughts does not flow that easy and effortlessly. How I envy the elegant use of English by you and others. But I take solace in that this envy is not a sin.

  13. i like pizza says:

    hi aron,

    i don't want to get too off-topic here, but i'm curious about your thoughts on whether or not adam was a historical person. and if you believe that he was not, what are your thoughts on paul apparently believing (and teaching?) that he was (rom 5:12-20; 1 cor 15:45-49)?

  14. Declan says:

    This has been a thought provoking post! Thank you.

    I've been reflecting on my belief in evolution and Christianity as a whole and realized that there are many questions to think about that I can't appropriately answer.

    You mentioned evolutionary psychology as an explanation of why we have sinful inclinations. Yet some advanced mammals like chimpanzees seem to demonstrate an ability to go against their evolutionary instincts by demonstrating kindness to a wounded chimp when other chimps don't. Does this demonstrate that animals too, can sin?

    And if animals can sin, then it would seem that Pauline soteriology is pretty false: Sin didn't enter the world through one man. What do you think Dr Aron?

  15. I do believe in a prehistoric Fall, not only because we seem pretty messed up, but also because we seem to have a spiritual understanding which must have come from somewhere, and both on the mythological level and the individual level there's this uncanny nostalgia for something in the distant past we don't really have a clear image of.

    We feel like exiled kings because we are. Our standards can't be based on experiences of this world: the persistent outrage that something's wrong with it (too much evil and suffering and injustice). When we say these things, what worlds are we comparing this one to, compared to which it falls short? This is inexplicable without a prehistoric Fall, as is the need for a Redeemer.

    William Craig covers a lot of ground on Original Sin:

  16. Scott Church says:

    As always Petronius, your comments are very thought-provoking and insightful. Thanks! I enjoyed the discussions of Craig's you linked as well. There's a lot to think about here... Interesting stuff that should give me plenty to chew on for a bit. Best.

  17. willie says:

    "We feel like exiled kings because we are. Our standards can't be based on experiences of this world: the persistent outrage that somethings wrong with it (too much evil and suffering and injustice). When we say these things, what worlds are we comparing this one to, compared to which it falls short? This is inexplicable without a prehistoric Fall, as is the need for a Redeemer."

    I am of the opinion that we can compare our world with that of the kingdom of God. Jesus in his prayer, refer to this important aspect where he put it about central to what our attitude should be.(Matt 6;10)
    It is not in dispute that ( at least for Christians) there is a spiritual order and a material order. Thus we can compare our earthly material order with the heavenly order where the will of God reigns supreme. The problem lies in the fact that God's will does not feature properly in mankind's (the whole) will. The part/individual may live according to God's will, but that does not say much of the whole.

    I believe that the mission of Adam and Eve was to establish an order on earth were the earthly material world, mankind, the whole, in a evolutionary way develop into a Godlike material order(heaven on earth). It was the good/best time to do just that then. Mankind was still unsophisticated spiritually and otherwise.
    Adam and Eve was supposed to live as immortals, to head a new order for maybe thousands of years, establishing the kingdom of God on earth. Adam and Eve defaulted and the Godly plan failed partially and in the short term. That in itself says a lot about free will.

    But it is important to note that the material world is an order characterized by vicissitudes. That must be taken into account when thinking about suffering and the question of not-goodness. I try to refrain from using the word evil in this sense. Jesus is a true commendable example of living a life in the world of vicissitudes.
    But note that even 'heaven on earth” would and can not be free of the vicissitudes of a material creation.

  18. I thought I’d just add a few comments to this very interesting discussion. Aron.

    You say the following:

    “Since the genetic evidence suggests that there was never a time in which the early homo sapiens population was smaller than about a thousand or so breeding pairs, it seems that we can't take literally the idea of only 2 human beings (even leaving aside the question of where Cain's wife came from!).”

    I think there are ways of positing two original humans even given this genetic evidence.

    First we should consider how we think evolution normally occurs. This is something of an oversimplification, perhaps, but often we have a large interbreeding population and one individual has a mutation which has a special benefit and is selected for. The advantageous characteristic allows individuals of this subspecies (those with this mutation) to displace the others, at least in a particular environment. The mutation may be the last of a number of mutations all of which may have been merely neutral (not harmful nor beneficial). So there could have been one individual with the mutation (or final mutation) which made him or her human. I won’t speculate as to exactly what that characteristic or set of characteristics were except to say that it must have at least involved some spiritual awareness of God and some moral awareness.

    So there could have been a first human in an interbreeding population of non-humans. If it were male, this could have been Adam. He could have mated with a non-human primate of his species and produced offspring some of whom also had this mutation. A female human offspring (suppose there was only one) could then become the biblical Eve. The human subspecies could continue to mate with the non-human subspecies until the non-humans are displaced. This long process would allow the larger genetic diversity we find in our present population which suggests no less than several thousand breeding pairs.

    This scenario saves the biblical idea of an original first couple, but of course it also produces other problems—perhaps even greater problems in some Christians’ thinking. For example, it suggests ideas of parent-child incest and bestiality as an unmentioned core of the Genesis creation story. But some sins today are only sins because the social context makes them such. The old problem of where Cain got his wife, most of us have come to think, is best answered by accepting that he married a sister. It just wasn’t a sin back then because there was no social structure which would be harmed by this act and no genetic harm that would be produced as it would today. Long ago when we first came to see and accept this answer, it had produced a small Copernican revolution for many of us in our moral thinking. But likewise there would be no social or other harm that would result from Adam being wed to his daughter. Perhaps between Eve’s birth and her being brought to Adam as an adult there would need to be some kind of physical separation. Perhaps there would also need to be some time in Adam’s life in which he does not have a fully human awareness. Sometimes a gene will not kick in until a particular point later in an organism's life. It is not difficult to image that such conditions might be met, whether they actually need to be met or not.

    John Walton calls the Genesis creation story exalted prose. Henri Blocher calls it prose-poetry. It is literature which is unique in the Bible. It seems to me that most or all of this account should be interpreted poetically. Might the strange idea of Eve coming from Adam (being created from his rib or side) be a poetic or metaphorical way of saying that Eve was Adam’s daughter?

    The original events may have occurred in a hunter/gatherer culture (or perhaps a gatherer society only). God may have allowed the original story to be adopted to an agrarian culture as it was eventually received by Moses. Nothing of the original information which God desired to be passed on need be lost by such a process.

    I like the above scenario because it does preserve the possibility of a first human couple with whom God had special dealings and who were the first to sin. For some reason I find that hard to give up, even though I know that it just might be possible to do so without contradicting any biblical teachings. But I’m still not sure that Paul didn’t claim that there was a first couple who were the first to sin.

    I hope you or one of our readers will show me that I’m way off base if I am. I also hope I’ll be able to catch up on the rest of your blogs, Aron. Your topics and insights are just too interesting to ignore.

  19. Aron Wall says:

    Um, gross? To me, parent-child incest is a lot ickier even than incest between sibilings. I don't think it's entirely social context which makes this problematic, especially given that in Genesis Adam and Eve don't just play the role of an origin story, they're also archetypes of what it means to be married (pretty explicitly in Gen 2:24 and also in Jesus' teaching).

    Also, your story would imply that Adam had an earlier wife, so at least we get to work in the biblical fan-fiction about Lilith!

    I don't really understand why, in a version which changes so much else from the literal Genesis account, you would hold on so tightly to this one feature of the narrative (Eve originating from Adam) but then transforming the elegant, mytho-poetic rib thing into a form where it would have also grossed out the original Hebrew tellers of the story... In my view, part of the reason why Genesis shows Eve created from Adam's side (beside foreshadowing Christ and the Church) is to balance the obvious way in which men are dependent on women for birth and motherhood, with the less obvious truth than women also depend on men; so that the two genders need each other, are incomplete without each other.

    In any case, I don't think Evolution quite works that way. (Supposing that you are trying to tell some sort of quasi-natural story of how human beings arose, through God's guidance indeed but without any overt miracles.) While the rate of Evolution is not constant, the change of just one gene doesn't usually lead to a being with completely new properties. One expects instead gradual changes in abilities. And even if there was a single mutant allele X which gave a hominid (let's call him Adam) self-awareness and spiritual capacity, it wouldn't be passed on to all, or even most, of Adam's descendents if he bred with the rest of the group. If X is dominant and both Adam and Eve have a copy, on this scenario only 3/4 of their children and then 3/8 of their (outbred) grandchildren will have a copy of X, by the standard Mendelian rules. But in reality, things like intelligence or spirituality or language probably involve a whole host of genes, so that you'd expect "regression to the mean" after one particularly bright individual...

    But note that the amount of intelligence it takes to invent language or spirituality is a lot more than the amount it takes to merely receive it from somebody who already has it (as we do today). Even chimps can learn sign-langauge from humans (though they don't pass it down to their children). And Adam's cousins are a lot smarter than chimps; by stipulation their genetic cleverness is just a couple mutations shy from that of Adam itself. So I would expect that once Adam e.g. learns language, the rest of the primates in his community will too... just like it only takes one primate today to come up with an iPhone, and then pretty soon nearly everyone has one!

    This is why I think that memetic changes, rather than genetic changes, would be the primary driver of any abrupt transition to humanness (if indeed it was abrupt). And it seems to me that being dependent on one human couple for learning all of your rational concepts is just as good, or perhaps even better, a vehicle for passing on things like "humanness" and "original sin" than direct parentage is.

    However, once we have a human being capable of talking to God (and hearing God speak back) any attempt to spin this as a quasi-naturalistic scenario goes out the window anyway. Whatever else we Theists might try to explain with evolutionary just-so stories which make no explicit reference to God's action, we can't explain God's own Spirit that way.

  20. Angela says:

    Hi Aron,
    I hope you don't mind questions months/years after the posting. Sometimes certain thoughts and questions have me searching on your site. It's a greatly appreciated resource. My thoughts tend to get swirled up and confused and I've spent time at a funeral home this week so I know emotions are dancing around too so I hope I can articulate a coherent question.
    I think my question is if humans were meant to live forever, why are the physical laws set up in a way that everything breaks down? Flesh isn't inherently bad but it has always been corruptible. I know you mention the possibility of supernatural preservation (sans fall) and I think that works, but would that include the rest of the planet/universe? Otherwise, it would die out eventually, right? I'm thinking the New Heaven & New Earth comes into discussion at some point, but I can't find a clear picture in my mind and my ideas start to sound ad hoc. The clearest notion I have is that God knows the end from the beginning so the laws were set up with the eventual fall & it's reconciliation already established, but I still find myself dissatisfied.
    Thank you sincerely for your insight.
    Also, would there be a way for the search bar on this blog to show up near the top of the page on mobile devices?

  21. Aron Wall says:

    I certainly don't mind questions or comments months and years after!

    It is hard to know what would have happened if humanity had never fallen. Perhaps it would have resulted in a gradual transformation of Creation into God's Kingdom. At some point something would need to be done about the Second Law of Thermodynamics. But if human beings in full submission to God's will have the same sorts of supernatural powers that Christ exercised on Earth, perhaps it would turn out okay! Some theologians think that Christ would have become Incarnate anyway even if there had been no Fall, but this is quite speculative... But the important thing to bear in mind is that if we had chosen to remain in a state of grace, that would still only have been the beginning of the story, not the end of the story.

    I think that one of the functions of human beings prior to the Fall was to be priests to the rest of the material universe, especially the animal kingdom. We can be mediators because we are both animal and spiritual, much as Christ is both God and Man. To some extent we can still exercise this role today ("the gifts and callings of God are irrevocable", Romans 11:29), but right now this is of secondary importance compared to the task of reconciling human beings to God (hopefully before our sins lead us to the brink of total ecological catastrophe).

    If you want to read some fictional stories about unfallen worlds, you can try:

    Perelandra by St. C.S. Lewis (this is the 2nd book of his Space Trilogy, so you'd want to start with the first one),
    No Man in Eden by St. Harold Myra (which considers a technologically advanced unfallen civilization).

    Of course at the end of the day this is all speculation. All we really know is what God's plan is for actual history, in which death is going to be solved in part by a radical transformation of the existing order of things---as you say, the New Heaven & New Earth.

    I don't know how to move the search bar. Probably the easiest thing would be to do a Google search that includes "Undivided Looking" plus whatever search term you had in mind.

  22. Joe says:

    It is so nice to be in communion with people searching for meaning, knowing that meaning can only be found to make sense in God and His plan with His creation. How good to know that we, short-livid though, can also take part in this divine plan of planet earth as co-creators of a new earth.
    Angela -“I think my question is if humans were meant to live forever, why are the physical laws set up in a way that everything breaks down?”
    There are some scholars who reason that death was part of the nature from the beginning. Bishop John William Colenso in his commentary in 1860’s said “Death, therefore, has been in the world from the very first, as the universal law for the animal, as well as for the vegetable creation. And there is nothing to compel us to believe,.. that man’s mortal frame would have endured for ever ..”
    If Adam and Eve were not the very first, first human beings, as also suggested in the Bible ( example the land of Nod and it inhabitants) and by theories of maybe hundreds of breeding couples, then Adam and Eve had to be very special. This is suggested by the notions that they were not born like humans, they had special status of being able to commune with God, they were immortal and they had to fulfill a task according to God’s will, directly communicated to them.
    If death was prevalent and natural for “the breeding couples”, then immortality would have seemed to be “something out of this world” to the humans. The people would have looked up to Adam and Eve as “divine”, their natural leader, the “first man and first lady” of planet earth in the tradition of say USA presidents and first ladies.
    I can associate with the idea of “Homo divines” to describe Adam and Eve.
    Would we mortals, today, not look up to immortals as very, very special? God-like special.
    I think humans were meant to be mortal in the flesh. I can not see how planet earth would survive human immortality.
    But Adam and Eve failed in their mission. Therefore the fall is real. And Adam and Eve reserved a special place in the history of planet earth.

  23. Aron Wall says:

    This is a matter of speculation, but I don't see why, in the scenario you mention where there is a literal Adam and Eve, God couldn't have extended immortality also to Adam and Eve's descendents, as well as to any other humans grafted into the covenant with God. (As Christians participate in immortality through being joined to Christ.) That seems more analogous to later covenants, and also allows for the death of future humans to be a consequence of Adam's sin, as suggested by St. Paul.

    This would indeed create a potential problem down the line once the Earth reached the maximum capacity for human beings, but one could imagine that breeding would stop then, or that some of the humans would ascend to Heaven to make room for new ones, or that eventually there would be a transition to a new order of things (like the New Heaven and Earth).

  24. James H says:

    Philosopher Richard Swinburne is very interesting on the question of original sin. See this review of one of his books (the section relating to chapter 9): https://apologetics315.com/2013/02/book-review-responsibility-and-atonement-by-richard-swinburne/

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