Exchanges about Original Sin

These questions are part of the John Polkinghorne Q&A Page.  Last updated 10 Nov 03

Original Sin I am currently doing post-graduate research on the issue of the relationship between an evolutionary understanding of the universe and the doctrine of original sin, with particular reference to JCP's thought. The question that has kept coming back to me deals with the genetic roots of sin. Many sinful activities (ie adultery, murder, etc.) certainly have precursors in the animal world. It seems necessary to conclude that the propensity for these sorts of behaviours have been carried over into homo sapiens from earlier stages of human evolution. JCP has clarified (in Reason and Reality) the difference between moral evil and natural evil,and I agree with him that human free decisions have a moral aspect that animal'decisions' do not. However, the question remains, can we seperate the roots of free, moral sin from instinctual 'natural' sinfulness? In other words, was the fall just an issue of Adam giving in to natural instinct, and additionally are our individual sins to be seen as the same? It seems that it is easy to see that we have inherited the propensity to sin in our animal instincts, but difficult to see how this could have been rooted in the free-choice of Adam in any way.

Preliminary Response As a preliminary point, I don't think we can see 'instincts' as all tending to sin. As Kagan points out forcefully in his brilliant Three Seductive Ideas one of the strongest human 'instincts' is towards "the affirmation of virtue" and social animals seem to have some version of this quite strongly ("good dog!"). There is obvious evolutionary value in social animals moderating their baser instincts to achieve approval and cooperation. So I don't think we can equate instinctual with sinfulness. There is generally a balancing act involved. Human moral responsibility arises when we have sufficient freewill to make moral choices - ie to throw our freewill on one side or the other of a balance (and if someone were to kill as a pure reflex action - eg when my knee was tapped by a hammer my foot kicked a button which fired a missile - they would not have made a sinful action). So the possibility of sin (eg murder as opposed to killing) only arises when there is moral responsibility that could make a difference.

Now if God had created us incapable of sinning we would not have had freewill, but logically there must have been a time between: a. The emergence of the first moral freewill being or beings (=df Adam and Eve - obviously they were not the only members of their biological species as Genesis implicitly makes clear) and b. The first time they actually made a sinful choice. Now in principle it must be possible for that interval to have been of arbitrary length, and it may well be that, if A&E had had the strength of character to resist indefinitely then their children would have found it a lot easier to do so as well - especially since sin seems in some real sense to separate us from God. The fact that we are born to sinful parents and in a sinful society certainly makes it much harder for us to avoid sin. I don't think therefore we should see original sin as genetic but societal - it is entirely conceivable that if newborn babes where placed in a sinless environment and given the sort of direct access to God that A&E had they might resist temptation for a lot longer than we do! Does this help at all - I'll see what John has to add.

John adds I agree that original sin involves an entail from one generation to the next of a primeval turning away from God and into our self. A large part of this entail is, no doubt, societal but some of it may be genetic. The point is we are not slaves of our instincts. As Richard Dawkins himself has said (at the end of The Selfish Gene) we can and should rebel against what he calls the `selfish replicants'.

Supplementary question (sent before John's comment) Thank you very much for the quick response. Your thoughts were helpful. I agree that there are plenty of human propensities/'instincts' that direct us toward virtue rather than sin. I'm also with you that free will is a necessary precursor to sin, and that free will is an evolved characteristic that transcends animal abilities. I also can see how there would be a period between when humans acquired free will and the first sin. I'm just left with a few questions about the nature of original sin as purely societal. I think there is a societal aspect to it--I'm an American and well aware that a lot of my own access to prosperity rests on the shoulders of those who don't have the same access, for example.

However, it seems that you can't get rid of the individually (genetically?) inherited character of the human propensity to sin. If you could, it seems that Christ's mission would have been political rather than sacrificial. He would have shown us how to overthrow corrupt societies rather than provided us with freedom from sin through the spirit (cf. Romans 7-8). Additionally, it is corrupt individuals that build corrupt societies. So, anyway, it seems hard to argue that there is not at least some way in which our predisposition to sin is connected with our genetics--free will may be defined as the ability to choose against our 'instincts,' but the instinct to 'sin' (commit adultery, steal when we know we won't be caught, etc.) seems to still be there in all of us independent of societal expectations or otherwise. At the root of it all I think that I feel that original sin has to be connected in some way with natural evil. We've risen above it as freely choosing agents, but we can't escape the propensity to sin without Christ. Even though sin is at its root a free moral decision, it is also something that dwells in all of us as part of our nature.

Supplementary preliminary response My response to your second questions (which John has seen and not made any additional comments) is as follows: Sin is surely a spiritual condition which can neither be reduced to genetic nor social categories. Two different individuals can be genetically identical: there is an awful lot more going on in real human inheritance than mere genetics. All our human characteristics are connected in at least some way with our genetics because they are connected with our bodies, and the primary Judaeo-Christian understanding of humanity is a psychosomatic unity: hence in resurrection we have real bodies, albeit ones different from our present flesh. (Tom Wright in The Resurrection of the Son of God is very good on all this BTW)

Second Questioner I have read some of the Q&A at your website regarding the above topic, but still am not satisfied I understand it. After 16 years of Catholic Education (most of it quite good, part of it in a Seminary taught by Benedictines) I went off into science because I felt strongly that theology/philosophy was inadequate for not including science. Now 40 years later after a rewarding scientific career I find the Catholic Church doing an about face and heading back to pre Vatican II thinking, a major part of which is a stress on our fallen/sinful nature. However, to me the doctrine of Original Sin/fallen nature and punishment for that sin needs to be substantially reworked if religion is not to become irrelevant in light of the latest findings in hominid evolution.

In short, there seems no room for A&E in the appearance of Homo Sapiens which now appears to have been some 160,000 years ago. Certainly we begin seeing ritual burials nearly 100,000 yrs ago showing that our distant ancestors already sensed that there was something after this life. Now where could A&E be squeezed in? If 100,000 yrs ago, then we are faced with the conundrum that God essentially ignored humans for 90,000 yrs--a strange situation indeed. If we place A&E much more recently, say 10,000 yrs, we're faced with and enormous amount of time before that when humans knew about God. Thus, qualitatively, we can argue that sometime in evolution there were two humans who first sinned, and society went on from there with this bad example. But quantitatively it just won't wash. There are too many tens of thousands of years involved.

The alternative is to explain what appears to be a fallen nature/tendency towards sin as the result of the evolutionary process. Evolution we know doesn't fashion optimal things. Rather it makes new experiments out of the contingent materials of the previous species. Thus, my bad back, and useless appendix. So too it seems that evolution could give one species of the great apes such a brain that it could become self conscious and capable of perceiving the transcendent, but by no means perfectly. In fact of the 5 great apes in existence we see really big problems. Their large brains require early birth (evolution hasn't yet given us large enough pelvis). All apes but humans are rather specialized and inflexible as regards habitat and so in constant danger of extinction. We have a larger brain and so are finally able to adapt to nearly any habitat, yet one could say that we share with the other apes a built-in disposition to take rather desperate measures to preserve ourselves--nearly constant fertility, over concern for security (food, power, social status). And some, if not all, of these are biologically/ chemically/ hormonally driven making them very difficult to resist. Thus, what appears is a less-than-perfect human nature with a disposition to attempt to succeed at the expense of others (this has all been seen in chimpanzee, orang-utan, and gorilla behaviour), is not due to some original sin so much as it is who we are, what evolution has produced.

This just seems so much more aligned with the observations. Religion need change very little in discarding Augustine's version of original sin. In his time there were any number of excellent theologians who thought his ideas very incorrect and were perfectly comfortable with Christ as our Saviour through redemption, baptism and grace--no need for a fallen nature to correct (in fact Christ didn't fix that!). They did understand that we are imperfect and do tend to fall short of Christ's teachings, but they attributed that to our nature. (If I understand it correctly, Augustine's strongest argument was that human suffering from birth could only be explained as punishment for original sin propagated down through the race by sex. But none of those people knew what we know now. Had they known, I think Augustine would have either changed his mind or lost the debate. Yet we now know better, and it seems high time for theologians to rethink our apparent tendency toward sin in light of the facts now known. There is still room for free will; we still need divine grace, but the God who brought us into this world in this evolutionary manner will deal with us with an understanding that we are flawed. And so I would like your take on this. Doesn't it appear that we are badly in need of some careful rethinking starting from a realization that there simply was no A&E at least in any way that is useful to our consideration of salvation? Once we finally lay aside this poetic myth as perhaps the only way early theologians could reconcile the human condition with the Gospels, will this not breathe fresh air into a long overdue rethinking of how evolutionary humans can expect to respond to their Creator?

Preliminary Response

Thank you for your email. I'm not sure I fully understand the problem.

We don't suggest that A&E were 'perfect' in the sense of absolutely optimal - only God is perfect in that sense and indeed the more we understand about the wonders of how he has created the world in ways that can be expressed with faithful and beautiful scientific laws such as evolution the more we can share the Psalmists awe and amazement (eg O Lord how glorious are thy works! thy thoughts are very deep!).

Let's define:

It's clear that t_aed <= t_fall and it's (sadly) only too likely that t_fall - t_aed is << 1 human lifetime. It's certainly not unreasonable that AE has male and female members and that it was one or more members of AE that first sinned. So far so good for Adam and Eve.

I don't see very compelling arguments for putting t_fall at 100,000 BC. Knowing About God is clearly a precondition of Capable Of Sinning but real moral responsibility is also required and that could have taken a long-ish time to evolve. 90,000 years is long compared to recorded history but short in evolutionary terms.

But even if t_fall was 100,000BC I don't see a problem. Of course God was not ignoring Human beings - or any other part of His creation - at any time in the last 14bn years or so, but the work of redemption takes time and pre-conditions - just as we need 2nd generation stars for humans so we need writing for the Old Covenant and some form of global international culture for the New Testament. Theologically we know that God sent His Son at just the right time, and even with the very limited knowledge we have available we can see that the conditions required for the development spread of Christianity didn't exist much before 0AD or after AD70. +70 years in 14 billion isn't bad!

Have I missed something?

Follow-up Question

I am amazed and heartened by your ever-so-rapid response, and I thank you for it. Your response allows me to perhaps focus further. First I have no problem at all with your response largely because it ignores what most Christians take from Genesis, namely that our fallen nature is from one original sin, and that it is a real punishment for that sin and is all pervasive. Only last evening on the news I heard an interview with two Anglican theologians on the controversy of the gay bishop. The interviewer asked the one against that action, "would you change your attitude towards gays if it could be shown that homosexuality was genetic in origin rather than learned?" Without hesitation he answered that he would not because the genetic problem was created by as part of our fallen nature due to original sin.

Your answer suggests that it's more difficult to lead a sinless life when all around us, past and present, have a history of sinning (and a world of sin is far from the paradise it might be without sin). That's perhaps a defensible position and, if it's the only lesson we take from Genesis' A&E story, that's okay. But most take far more from it. They subjugate women, and seek stringent control of the faithful because they view humans as fallen and largely unable to get up and thus in need of coercion. They even go so far as to suggest that genetic predispositions did not exist prior to the Fall. And for us poor Catholics, what are we to think of the, now infallibly defined doctrine of Mary's Immaculate Conception??? That certainly isn't covered by your explanation.

So I'm still in need of a little help here. It seems, in presenting your explanation, that you need to make perfectly clear what you don't take from the Genesis account, namely that human's physical condition did not change--birth pangs are about the same, toil in the fields about the same (I understand that work in the fields in a sinless world is much more rewarding than in the one we have now, etc. But Genesis gives the impression that A&E (and their relatives!) didn't have to work all that hard before the fall. And what about the enormous number of serpents that have been killed because of their association with the diabolical?? Many still think serpents didn't crawl until after they were cursed.

In short, it's time for theologians to state explicitly what Genesis is not saying and to recognize that Augustine's ideas were just wrong. There was no change in human nature only, as you point out, the deleterious effects of turning away from God. Then we can build a new message based on Genesis similar to the one you have suggested which is full of recognition and hope.

2nd Preliminary Response

I don't think its that simple. Human nature is not just about genetics. In particular, our ability to rise above our biological tendencies is directly dependent on our spiritual state. So birth pangs are not necessarily the same, they are perceived very differently. Nor does the concept of our fallen nature go away even if the historical basis of the fall is rather different. We now understand that our fallen nature consists of an impaired ability to resist certain tendencies within the nature (a product of our evolutionary history) which, in the absence of divine grace, tend to evil.

If homosexual tendencies are mainly genetic in origin (for which there is v little evidence - of course all human behaviour is influenced by genetics to some extent) it does not follow that it is right to follow them. There are almost certainly genetic differences in the levels of aggression that people are likely to display but even if it could be shown that some people were genetically more likely to murder that would not justify murder. The whole "I am like this, so God made me like this" argument which is often used by militant liberals is in fact radically undercut by an understanding of evolution.

As an Anglican I don't have to defend Immaculate Conception, but I can point out that if the problem is that we have gone away from divine grace it is at least possible that God might so fill someone with His grace that she might be immunised from this entail. My problems with Immaculate Conception are (a) I believe that it must be seen as an optional doctrine - one on which good Christians can legitimately disagree and (b) I think that it tends to undermine the real humanity of Jesus and the fact that Mary chose to cooperate in the incarnation.

John's Comments
I have discussed this in Chapter 8 of my Reason and Reality.  Certainly the Augustinian account needs substantial revision. I believe that we differ from even the higher primates by possessing self-consciousness to a high degree (we can see far into the future, forseeing our eventual deaths for instance) and God-consciousness (so that we can worship or deny the Creator).  Adam and Eve represent symbolically, in my view, our hominid ancestors in which these remarkable capabilities first dawned.  When that was we do not know, and how it happened is hard for us to imagine, though undoubtedly it did happen.  At this time people turned away from God and into the self, so that they became alienated from the One who is the only true ground of our life and fulfilment.  That was the Fall, and its continuting consequence, generation after generation, conveyed culturally and perhaps partly genetically, is what we rucghtly call original sin. Its consequences are clear enough - something is slanted in human nature, both individually and socially, which corrupts good intentions and frustrates hopes. Christ came to restore our relationship to God and so to redeem us from original sin.

Reply from questioner Please thank John for this succinct answer. It seems to be the best we can do on this matter and is perfectly acceptable to me with the possible objection that I don't see how sinning could affect our DNA.

Nicholas's response Sexual selection is the most obvious way.  It's a very powerful evolutionary force.  To the extent that self-control and altruism are influenced by genetic factors one would expect that a society that valued these qualities highly in sexual partners would develop its gene pool rather differently from one which valued aggression, materialism and promiscuity.  And of course practically all aspects of sexual behaviour influence the gene pool and most of the sexual sins have clear genetic and reproductive consequences. So for that matter do idolatory, murder, covetousness.

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