Had a spat over at BioLogos with a guy named George (who makes rejection of the Fall his strapline, it seems), who was replying to GJDS to say that the biblical creation story is flawed because of Hebrew lack of scientific knowledge, and in particular because there was no Fall, and humans were actually created flawed.
He hasn’t replied to the question of just how he knows what happened so long ago, and the details aren’t important here. I just want to use the opportunity to look at what has been a pretty constant motif in “evolutionary theology” since Victorian times – that evolution is entirely incompatible with a fall from innocence, and that it demonstrates that man evolved to be “red in tooth and claw” from the start – hence, the universal experience of sin.
To be honest I’m less interested in entirely heterodox reworkings of Christianity than in the way this particular theme seems an almost inevitable result of ditching an historical Adam of some kind, even by otherwise evangelically-minded people. If there can have been no single innocent couple, how did sin arrive? The most obvious answer is that it evolved like all the other nasty things we think we see in nature.
I’ve suggested all kinds of problems with this before, but today I want to start with the word that George used to describe both the Scripture and man-as-created: “flawed”. After my reply, he in fact modified his post (naughty) to add that there aren’t even perfect examples of animals. But “flawed” is not the opposite of “perfect” … at least, you have to get busy with some definitions before you can decide whether it is.
“Flawed” has, in fact, the same hidden and crucial connotations to which I drew attention in a recent piece on DNA repair. “Flawed”, just like “repair”, has inevitable teleological significance, which is of importance in the scientific realm of evolution, of course, but even more so when one is talking openly about God’s creation of mankind. “Flawed”, by describing something as defective, necessarily means there is a norm to which it ought to comply but doesn’t. But what could that mean, in relation to creation (which George accepted as the event) and evolution (which, by implication, he assumed as the material process)?
In purely secular evolutionary terms, of course, “flaw” has no meaning at all to speak of. A thing is fit, and survives, or not, and doesn’t. “Evolutionary theologies” therefore tend to say that in order to arrive and survive by evolution, man had to be flawed in some non-evolutionary moral sense (usually meaning “selfishness”). But within naturalistic evolution, there can be no “norm” to which the actual can be compared, and therefore no standard by which one could say mankind is “flawed”. A spider is not sinful to eat its mate – if we believe it’s wrong to eat our spouses, where does the wrongness come from?
As soon as you talk “evolutionary creation”, though, there’s another problem. For in that system evolution is a tool for a creation goal of God, ie a final cause, and that goal is a living form. God creates only when he conceives an aim and achieves it.
Whilst George may be strictly correct in saying that there are no perfect cats or butterflies, there are nevertheless many normal cats and butterflies, and it’s that normality that defines how we would recognise one that was perfect: it would completely exemplify the natural form of “cat” or “butterfly”. A flawed cat or butterfly, then, is one whose form is deficient from the normal: the cat is autistic, say, or the butterfly has stunted wings.
If on the other hand cats, or butterflies, taken as species, were flawed, there would be only two possibilities: either God had conceived them in a faulty way, or he had designed faulty means to produce them. In the first place, those are both calumnies on the wisdom and power of God as Creator. In the second place they are logically incoherent – how could you ever decide how cats or butterflies could be better than they are as cats or butterflies? What sense does it make to say “elephants are flawed”?
So it is with humanity and sin. Sin is, definitionally, a falling short of, or deviation from, God’s will, or norm, for man. For God to create him, through evolution or anything else, with a nature (form) that is bound to sin (which is what “flawed” means in this context) would be the same as to create a cat that is predisposed to be a non-cat. Where would the wisdom be in that?
For a start, it would be as absurd for God to judge man for sinful actions as to condemn butterflies for metamorphosing. The siner’s counter-accusation, “You made me thus”, would be undeniable. Therefore, such a belief carries with it the need to remove the whole question of judgement (and therefore of law) from Christianity, or make God the judged, rather than the Judge.
Then again, if sin is part of man’s created nature, one has to account for conscience as something alien to nature – a kind of false guilt whereby one becomes ashamed of what one was created to be. The pricks of conscience would be like beating a dog for not walking on its hind legs. Moral goodness has to be flown into creation from elsewhere, and the goodness of creation is thereby radically denied, in a rather Gnostic manner. Salvation becomes an escape from creation to something else.
Yet in the Bible the theme of the goodness of creation, and the theme of salvation as the restoration of it (especially expressed in Edenic language) is ubiquitous. Moses pictured Canaan in terms of the garden of Eden. The prophets used Edenic imagery. Even the last chapters of Revelation are awash with allusions to the garden, albeit that in Christ the eschatological hope moves beyond what Eden was ever pictured to be. And so conscience only makes sense if sin is an offence against what should be normal for us. And sin must therefore be a perversion of that normality, and not something for which we were created.
Furthermore if conscience were indeed something that was historically added to created nature, its origin raises exactly the same problems as were supposedly posed by the Genesis story of Adam being historically deprived of righteousness. Adam, or something like him, comes in by the back door, only as the origin of conscience instead of sin.
Lastly let me return to the idea of the Fall as the bedrock of the salvation history of God, by earthing it particularly in the beliefs and teachings of Jesus. We believe that he, as Son of God, became man in order to save us from sin – and so one would expect that at least he would have the problem correctly diagnosed. If mankind came into the world flawed, then his task would have been essentially an upgrade to get us out of the flawed physical realm and up to a non-evolved heaven.
Instead, it began with a baptism of repentance, and led to an act of atonement, to restore a “flawed” Israel to a state before sin, and to give the gift of the Spirit to keep them, and subsequently the gentiles, in that state of innocence before God. The last goal was a resurrection both to a sinless, physical, existence and the eternal life lost in Eden, and for God himself as a result to dwell amongst mankind, as had been the model in Eden and the purpose in the Exodus. Rewrite chapter 1 of the story, in Genesis, and you quite literally “lose the plot” of salvation history that Jesus completes.
And Jesus knew that. Jesus dealt with sin in Edenic terms. Like John the Baptist, he refers to his opponents as “offspring of vipers” in Matt. 12.33 and 23.33 (cf Gen 3.16). In John 8, equally angrily, he calls them “children of the devil”, which only makes sense in the Eden context. Moreover he calls Satan “a murderer from the beginning” ie for maliciously incurring the punishment of death for Adam and Eve by means of being “the father of lies” in his temptation. In this way Jesus accuses them of trying to obstruct his work as the new Adam, just as the snake did for the first Adam.
But if sin generally, and his enemies’ malice in particular, was really just the inevitable outworking of evolution, then not only was Jesus’s whole idea of his mission badly mistaken, but he owes the scribes and Pharisees an apology for condemning them by a misdiagnosis, based on his swallowing the Eden story uncritically.
I think that’s all too high a cost to pay for making a smoother path for twentieth century fashions in biological theory.