I came across a very interesting blog series written by Edward Feser about five years ago. Feser’s purpose in writing these posts was to discuss how a Catholic (his tradition) understanding of original sin does not conflict with modern biology. This is an issue I have been wrestling with for about three years now, and I wanted to write out where I am at this time.
To start, I believe there is a serious difficulty with one common understanding of original sin. Often times, it goes like this: God’s original creation was perfect in every way. Adam and Eve were perfect in every way, experiencing no pain and suffering. Eve ate an evil fruit. Because Eve could not control herself, every human being born afterward is damned to hell and we all have to bear the effect of sin. The problem is fairly evident, and the solution seems unsatisfactory. Many will say we cannot blame Eve because anybody else would have done the same thing. So we are to expect that God created a fatalistic world in which ANYBODY would have sinned without exception? Also, it seems as though Eve had a stronger degree of free will than any of us do, being able to avoid sin to a greater extent than we do given the perfect nature of her condition. I find this implausible, but I do not expect everybody else to share my personal sympathies. I do think it says something about God’s character if this is true. As a Christian of the protestant tradition, I do want to emphasize the ultimate authority of Scripture and its revelation, but I also believe strongly in church tradition and extra-biblical evidences to fuel the Bible’s reliable authority. If all truth really is God’s truth, I would expect traditional socio-historical understandings of Scripture to bear heavily on how they should be read today. For the purposes of this post, I will assume two factors that will not be discussed in further detail here: Modern physical anthropology and evolutionary genetics do play a part in our discussion of original sin, and human beings do have a distinct metaphysical nature that cannot be reduced down to pure biochemical make up.
To start, there seems to be a group who assumes there is no death prior to the first sin. On the surface, this seems to be what Genesis 3:3 is referring to. However, from a contextual standpoint, this does not work with physical death, as God tells Adam and Eve that they day they eat of the fruit they will surely die. They did not actually die the day the fruit was eaten, so it seems that the emphasis was on spiritual death. I do not mean to blow this point off as unimportant, nor do I mean to suggest there are not any legitimate arguments in support that the text is referring to physical death. I am simply pointing out what appears to be a more clear understanding of the word “death” given the events that follow God’s command. From a practical standpoint, this does not seem to work either. Some animals are carnivorous by nature (lions, tigers, etc.) and their livelihood depends on the meat of other animals. In fact, every living organism on earth depends on the death of other creatures for their survival. A world without any physical death at all seems to violate the innate survival methods God created organisms to have.
From the outset, the fall narrative shows the creation to be imperfect. For one, the serpent is there. It is entirely feasible to assume physical death existed millions of years prior to the fall given demonic activity, which is clearly present in the Garden. The problem, however, is how do human beings who come afterward inherit this “original sin”? It would help to discuss what exactly happened to humanity upon this first sin. Human population geneticists have concluded that all of modern humanity descended from a group of about 10,000 individuals around 200,000 years ago. I feel uneasy to simply define a human being for the purposes of spirituality by mere biological classification. Homo sapiens, the classification to which modern humans belong, were what this group of 10,000 individuals belonged to. Let me be clear, what I am about to propose is a THOUGHT EXPERIMENT. I am in no way saying this IS what happened, but I am using this experiment to establish a basis for original sin that is more biblically sound than the doctrine is commonly understood, and one that is compatible with modern evolutionary genetics. Let’s assume these 10,000 individuals were human beings in a biological sense, but they had no distinct metaphysical nature. This would make humanity no ontologically distinct from other creatures. Let’s assume that God, for whatever reason, chose a pair of individuals from this group and instilled them with a new, immaterial, spiritual nature (call them Adam and Eve for simplicity sake). Has this pair experienced pain? Sure. They live in a world full of it. The difference is they have a special, spiritual connection to the glorified God with full and complete access to Him. Suppose God gave them a task and they failed (not eating a fruit, or at least the story is an allegory for this task). They failed because of the pressure of dark forces acting upon them, and so fell away from this perfect, glorified access to God. As a result, every one of their offspring will share the same nature. Assuming this, suppose that Adam and Eve in their distinct metaphysical nature reproduced at a much faster rate than other homo sapiens who did not share their same nature, and eventually, through reproduction with other homo sapiens the Adam and Eve lineage covered up the whole of the human species, resulting in every human thereafter being endowed with an immaterial nature. This is not to say evolutionary genetics will one day refute this claim, but as of now there is no reason to assume this cannot happen.
I believe the story is a bit richer than this, but it is a good illustration of how original sin can work in the context of modern biology without putting all the blame for every pain and strife that modern humanity experiences.