On Evolution and Sin

Let’s say these words right here mark the beginning of the universe by the will of God. And we’ll say this sentance marks the genesis of the earth. Here is where life first develops, and right…here marks the emergence of humanity. That was a pretty fast 13.5 billion years, no? But we can afford to skip a few steps in the process because that last one is where things get really interesting for our discussion today.

We will never know (this side of death, at least) what those first moments of the human race were like, the point at which the animal homo sapiens was deemed ready by its Creator and was imprinted by God with His image and made self-aware. We can be fairly certain though that it didn’t take long for these first men and women to sin. I’m placing the over/under on that wager somewhere around 2.5 seconds.  But what is sin in the first place? Interestingly, I think evolution and the natural order can inform our understanding of this.

The driving impulse of any organism is survival; it is the overarching rule of all life. Survive and, if there’s time, thrive. Every instinct is geared to this end: find food, find shelter, evade predators, reproduce. Plants and animals know nothing of altruism, nothing of sharing, nothing of playing nice with others. When they appear to do these things it is because it benefits them somehow. They will stand on the faces of their competitors in a heartbeat if it means a little more sunlight or water or carrion to eat or whatever floats their respective boats. And but for the grace of God, there go I.

You see, we’re no different. We are physical, biological animals that need food and water and sunlight and shelter and reproduction and will fight for any one of these things if it is denied to us. That is our nature as part of Nature. We are animals trying to survive just like ants and catfish and elephants. Or at least we were, until God gave us His image and showed us another way.

I want you to briefly make a list of sins in your head and try to find one that wouldn’t help us survive better as individuals and a species if we were merely biological beings. I don’t think you will find one. If we had no souls and no moral responsibility to God all sin would be beneficial to our survival. Reproducing as often as possible with as many partners as possible? Check. Agression, violent self-protection, dominance? Check. Deceit? Check. Stealing, hoarding, coveting? Check. Even abstract sins like arrogance would be beneficial. Selfishness would be a biological imperative, a virtue for survival. The only sins that don’t fit are those that relate directly to our position before God - worshipping other gods and the like.

Human beings are unique among the created order in that we possess eternal souls and have the capacity to know and be in relationships with God. We have bodies that still need food and still need to reproduce, but we have been implanted with the image of God’s character, and by that we are called to a higher standard. That standard calls us to trust God and cease striving after our biological survival. Be faithful to one spouse. When attacked, turn the other cheek. When stolen from, give away even more. Be anxious for nothing. Care for the weakest members of society. Lay down your life for your friends. Do not hoard earthly treasure. Submit one to another. Learn humility. Take your eyes off what is seen and focus upon what is not seen. When Jesus was led into the wilderness to be tempted, he fasted. He denied himself the thing his physical body needed most, and it was in this area – sustenance – that he was first tempted.

When Paul talked in Romans 7 of the war within him between the Flesh and the Spirit, I think he was being more literal than we might have previously imagined. Capital F Flesh has more to do with lowercase f flesh than we might have thought, sin nature more to do with physical nature than we had assumed. We were formerly just animals, mating and eating and killing and fearing, but now we bear the image of One who needs none of these things, and calls us to believe that we won’t need them in the same way we once did either if we will merely trust Him. This isn’t a gnosticism that claims all matter is inherently evil, just an understanding that our creature-ness must be redeemed and repurposed.

We can strive for survival of the fittest, or we can seek the survival of the weakest, the least of these. We can obey the flesh, our creaturely instincts to defend and hoard and consume and copulate, or we can obey the Spirit, the image and calling of God, and instead embrace and give and provide and love.

At the beginning of Terrence Malick’s Tree of Life a character narrates that there are two laws in the world – the law of nature and the law of grace, and we must choose which one to obey. Let us choose the way of grace.

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23 Responses to On Evolution and Sin

  1. Carolyn says:

    “I want you to briefly make a list of sins in your head and try to find one that wouldn’t help us survive better as individuals and a species if we were merely biological beings.”

    David, you challenge me and I like that. It is good to look at things from different angles. But this idea of sins helping us survive better if we were merely biological beings… that is hard for me. I just got through publishing a post on my blog that lays out my most grievous sin – hurting a child. I labored over the writing of that, so you can be sure I’ve thought of it from several different angles just in the last 24 hours. But I just cannot see where that sin would have helped me in your scenario. Could you help me flesh that out a little bit?

    • I think when we look at the fact that we are biological AND spiritual beings, we see where sins are deeply harmful to us and those around us. They absolutely do not help us survive and thrive. When I sin by saying something unkind to my wife, that does not help me or her. It hurts us both. My point is that if we were merely biological and NOT spiritual, the instincts that would help our survival are the very things that we recognize now as sinful. Selfishness, greed, lust, anger, aggresion, etc. Does that help at all?

      Thanks for your perspective on this and for helping me refine the point. It is a new angle of thinking about this for me, so it definitely has rough patches still. Look forward to hearing back from you!

      • Carolyn says:

        All the comments here are still rattling around in my head. Wrote a blog post yesterday about why I did not study geology, although I found it fascinating. I feel like if God told His story one way, but created the earth another, we are missing something. But I cannot pinpoint what that would be. I am finding that following Him through today is almost too much sometimes, so I’m going to have to leave following Him through the past for another time.

    • T. J. says:

      In the wild, infanticide is quite common – usually killing other father’s babies so yours will have a better chance of survival. It is true that killing your own children is usually counter productive, although in times of famine, killing a newborn may help the mother survive until the food supply becomes more plentiful allowing her to have children who have a better chance of reaching reproductive age.

  2. lisa says:

    David, I agree with the comment above in saying I like reading your posts as you challenge me.
    I too question everything(to a degree) and I think that’s OK.
    I am in a place of asking the why’s to what I’ve always done and believed without question.(in order to ensure I have not been led astray along the way unbeknownst to myself!)

    However, I do think we can cross dangerous lines with it… If we are going to question, in my opinion, we need to do so in a context other than (bigger than should I say) just our own opinion and/or theory.
    I believe as a christian that my ‘bigger context’ to which I mould myself around rather than mould to suit me (take bits I agree with and scrap the rest) is the Bible.
    I believe it to be the Word or God that He has intended for us to know Him through and although I am not against further reading and study..I do run everything back by the foundations it gives me.

    With that in mind;

    These quotes in particular really challenge me as I don’t see a Biblical basis for them. ….

    “the point at which the animal homo sapiens was deemed ready by its Creator and was imprinted by God with His image and made self-aware.
    “We are animals trying to survive just like ants and catfish and elephants. Or at least we were, until God gave us His image and showed us another way. ”

    “We were formerly just animals, mating and eating and killing and fearing, but now we bear the image of One who needs none of these things, and calls us to believe that we won’t need them in the same way we once did either if we will merely trust Him”

    Would you mind, in the spirit of open and friendly discussion, sharing where this is grounded or what has led you to this conclusion and if it has foundation in the Word?

    Thanks, Lisa :)

    • Thanks for the response!

      I think if we accept evolution (do you subscribe to theistic evolution, or do you hold to a different view of origins?) there’s not much way around some version of these ideas. If got brought about the human species through evolution, then there had to be a point at which He “made them in His image”, took us from intelligent mammals to the spiritual beings who could know Him and know right from wrong.


      • lisa says:

        Thanks for the response. I’m sorry I am only seeing it now.
        I don’t subscribe to theistic evolution. I don’t see where the Word supports that and I believe God intentionally made us from the dust in his likeness as the account states.

        That is why I was wondering could you direct me to literature and scripture to support the view of theistic evolution or even how you came to the conclusion as I am interested to see its foundation.

        I am particularly interested in when it happened. Did the animal species change all in one go(at the same time) or did it start with God stamping one man with his identity and it flows like Genesis from there? Do you believe man and women evolved this way or do you believe God created woman from man as in the Genesis account?

        Thanks, lisa

      • I apparently have my comments set to only allow replies three levels deep, so this might appear before or after the comment I’m replying to. For reference, this is in reply to your “Thanks for the response” comment.

        You’re right in saying the text of Scripture does not tell the story of Theistic Evolution and instead tells the story of a young earth created in six days. No arguments here. My “conversion” to T.E. came from the overwhelming scientific evidence suggesting an old universe and the process of evolution, and the recognition that unless I wanted to believe God was intentionally deceiving us by this evidence, then this evidence pointed to the truth. And if God used evolution, then He must have intended us to take something else away from the early chapters of Genesis than an exact account of origins. I believe these chapters were symbolic, and I am currently doing more reading on this. There are several books out there I would recommend checking out.

        Rachel Held Evans has a wonderful book called “Evolving in Monkey Town” that talks (among other things) about how she went from young earth creationism to Theistic Evolution. Karl GIberson has a good one called Saving Darwin. There are two books I haven’t read yet but I am looking forward to reading in the coming months: The Lost World of Genesis One by John H. Walton and The Seven Pillars of Creation by William P. Brown. And there are more out there too.

        Thanks for commenting. I’ve appreciated discussing this with you. I look forward to hearing more thoughts from you on this!

  3. Alise says:

    I agree with you that at some point God gave the ape-like creature a soul (or whatever word one would care to use) and he became Adam (man).

    Would you say that God giving us a soul is what shows us the other way? IOW, the capacity for belief is what allows us to make choices for the good of the least of these, rather than actual belief?

    I still find common morality to be the most compelling argument for God. I’ve read some of the arguments as to why “good” can be beneficial from an evolutionary standpoint, but I’m not convinced. That said, I have NOT seen a compelling argument as to why belief is a necessary ingredient. Still working that one out.

    • Separating these things out is tricky, but I would say the image of God is what makes us recognize right and wrong. We bear the imprint of His character, so we have both that nature and the fleshly nature within us.

      As social creatures, “good” would benefit us from a herd standpoint, but would still be selfishly motivated. True good asks us always to give of ourselves, to set aside our own survival. It makes me think of Shawn Smucker’s post from a few months ago about how we lay down our lives for our friends every time we put their needs before our own.

  4. Hmmm
    I like this train of thought.

    And having made the requested list of sins, i think that your point holds true (if not immediately, then once I get to the bottom of whatever the sin issue is, I find that most sin issues tend to be me giving the finger to someone else and choosing some form of selfishness over servanthood).

    Re your response to Alise, do you hold the image of God (interchangeable with soul?) to be given to all humanity? Just want to clarify your response to her question of whether it’s the actual belief or the potentiality of belief that allows us the freedom of choice to prefer the Other.

    Jesus had this simplicity about his understanding of how to live (simple but not easy, my youth pastor training demands I add): Entire law = love God with all of your existence + love your neighbor as yourself.

    I like the way you’re thinking here because I’ve never heard it phrased like this before, and I think it fits. Our sins are (insofar as I can think right now) either selfish (relating to self and/or others) or spiritual (relating to God). And i think the polarities of natural selection law and grace of selflessness make a lot of sense. And I don’t see it being opposed to Scripture– particularly if the law (summed up by Jesus) is how we know what sin is (good ole Paul).

    I like this.

    …I suppose the pushback happens with those who don’t believe that man’s evolution had us animal at any point. Even still though, i think a case could be made for the *strange parallels* between animal survival instinct and our own flesh. Obviously, since you do it here.


  5. athanasius96 says:

    If you haven’t already, I think you’ll find some overlap between your view and the Orthodox view of “Christus Victor”. In it, the cycle of sin and death does not start with original sin leading to death. Instead, they view the fear of death (survival) as driving sin. Christ then comes to claim victory over death in his resurrection, thereby also freeing us from sin.

  6. brambonius says:

    The aspect of self-seeking as driving force behind evolution might be an exaggeration born of a capitalist culture which operates on a similar ideology. (That’s why a neo-Darwinian focus ‘struggle of the fittest’ as a battle is much more emphasised than Kropotkins theory about cooperation as driving force in evolution) In reality there are a lot of cooperations which create win/win situations, which can be betweens individuals of the same species or between totally different species (and it’s not limited to animals, look for lichens on wikipedia for an example). A lot of creatures would not even be able to live without certain other species they’r ein symbiosis with… A close community of beings living without your list could actually be in a very good situation to survive together and make progress in evolution …

  7. Pingback: Last Week’s Reading: CCM, Centered Sets, and Reading Literally « New Ways Forward

  8. LSaik says:

    David, thank you for your words and thoughts. I have been wrestling with the ideas/thoughts/evidences of theistic evolution for a few months now (ever since that article about the histroical Adam came out in Christianity Today). I found it interesting that you wrote “our creature-ness must be redeemed”. My biggest struggle with theistic evolution is how the concept of ‘redemption’ and ‘evolution’ relate to each other. My understanding of biblical redemption is that a price is paid (from yourself or from a representative) to reclaim what was lost (see Leviticus 25). Since we are unable to redeem ourselves, Christ paid the price for our redemption. The idea of redemption to me means that there was a state of perfection (eden) for mankind and perfection in his/her standing before God (i.e. what was lost). But how does redemption fit in with theistic evolution? i.e. what was lost and requires redemption?

    • I don’t believe the Fall was the beginning of physical death or pain. You’re right in recognizing that evolution requires death, and would certainly involve pain. So we have a couple options at that point, and I’ll be honest: I’m still thinking/reading/praying on this, so I am by no means giving the definitive answer.

      First of all, since I believe the death brought about by sin was/is spiritual, then Christ’s redemptive work could be seen as restoring our spiritual life and our communion with God. This is true regardless of where we fall on the evolution/creation debate. The only difference between the two is that Creationism would add that the death was spiritual AND physical, whereas Theistic Evolution would only claim the spiritual.

      Second, and I think this plays into it, we could say that the physical creation by God was never intended to be “perfect” in the sense of being totally satisfying and painless for its inhabitants. We were always meant to have to lean on God, to look ahead to a better eternity, to depend upon His spiritual aid in the midst of our physical need. In His death on the cross and His resurrection, Christ takes us from the despair of death and pain and gives us a better hope.

      There is certainly more to be said and worked through there, but those are two things to think about.

      • LSaik says:

        Thanks David, yes they are some good points to think about. I’ve never struggled with believing that all of creation could have come about thru the process of evolution, but i seem to struggle with humanity and evolution. Do you know of any credible websites that explains in layman’s terms the science of how human genome research actually rules out two original human ancesters? So far i’ve heard/read a lot about the theological issues but havent found anything explaining the science behind it and how the research has come to the conlusion that a literal Adam and Eve is not possible.

  9. Amory Ewerdt says:

    Great post, David! Much of this resonates with me. I, too, see the fall of humanity as something that took place once we were aware of the expectations that God had for us. Btw, I tried connecting with you on Facebook, but I was not able to find you. I even entered in Greenville, Ohio. If you want to connect there look me up…I’m the only Amory Ewerdt:)

  10. lisa says:

    Thanks for reply David, as you pointed out, I cant comment under our discussion.
    Just to say; thanks for the heads up on those books, I may look into them as I am interested in different view points. I don’t think I could be swayed though.
    However, I appreciate your humblness in having frank discussion in a respectful manner rather than diving into arguing points – thats a trate I cannot stand amongst christians, I think we should be able to discuss these things out, none of us have it all figured out and we never will.


  11. Matthew_CFSI says:

    I’m a writer on a group faith and science blog run by the non-profit Center for Faith and Science International. I just wanted to let you know that I thought this post was really interested, and I posted a link (with a brief reply) here:

    I’m sorry I didn’t tell you earlier; it must have slipped my mind. Please feel free to browse our site and comment on anything you find interesting.
    In Christ,

  12. Pingback: More thoughts on evolution and sin | The Screaming Kettle at Home

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