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.