Saturday, 8 June 2013

Evolution is a problem for Christianity only if you believe in Original sin and an immortal soul

While some Christian opposition to evolution is driven by a visceral loathing of the idea that humans and apes share common ancestry, by far most of it is driven by the fact that some mainstream Christian doctrines are incompatible with an evolutionary origin of the human race. Not all Christian sects have theological problems with evolution. Eastern Orthodox Christianity has no essential problems with evolution for one reason: it does not have a doctrine of Original Sin in the same way that the Roman Catholic and Reformed Christian churches do. However, for those in the Reformed and Catholic traditions, evolution poses a major problem for their theology. 

Mike Aus, a former Lutheran pastor who went public with his atheism on television last year [1] has written an article [2] in which he outlines the reasons why he believes Christian theology is ruled out by evolution. His two trump cards? Original Sin and the immortality of the soul:
Which core doctrines of Christianity does evolution challenge? Well, basically all of them. The doctrine of original sin is a prime example. If my rudimentary grasp of the science is accurate, then Darwin’s theory tells us that because new species only emerge extremely gradually, there really is no “first” prototype or model of any species at all—no “first” dog or “first” giraffe and certainly no “first” homo sapiens created instantaneously. The transition from predecessor hominid species was almost imperceptible. So, if there was no “first” human, there was clearly no original couple through whom the contagion of “sin” could be transmitted to the entire human race. The history of our species does not contain a “fall” into sin from a mythical, pristine sinless paradise that never existed.
Aus is correct. If Adam and Eve were the sole ancestors of the entire human race, then we woudl expect to see a sharp genetic bottleneck when we examine our genome. But we don't. There is simply not enough time for the genomic diversity we see to have arisen in 6000 years from two people. [3] Add to that the fact that human-ape common ancestry is readily shown by multiple shared identical genomic 'errors' such as pseudogenes, endogenous retroviruses and retrotransposons [4], and the case against universal human descent from Adam and Eve is unarguable.

However, this is a problem only if you believe that the consequences and guilt of Adam's sin have been inherited by the entire human race, and Christadelphians do not believe that we inherit the guilt of Adam's sin. Furthermore, the idea that Adam had a change of nature is not found in the earliest Christadelphian writings.Aus still sees Christianity through a Reformed prism, which makes his specific criticism of Christianity in the light of our evolutionary origin a tragic example of how a flawed theology can force people to abandon Christianity for entirely spurious reasons. He asserts:
The role of Christ as the Second Adam who came to save and perfect our fallen species is at the heart of the New Testament’s argument for Christ’s salvific significance. St. Paul wrote, “Therefore, just as one man’s trespass led to the condemnation of all, so one man’s act of righteousness leads to salvation and life for all.” (Romans 5:18) Over the centuries this typology of Christ as the Second Adam has been a central theme of Christian homiletics, hymnody and art. More liberal Christians might counter that, of course there was no Adam or Eve; when Paul described Christ as another Adam he was speaking metaphorically. But metaphorically of what? And Jesus died to become a metaphor? If so, how can a metaphor save humanity? Really, without a doctrine of original sin there is not much left for the Christian program. If there is no original ancestor who transmitted hereditary sin to the whole species, then there is no Fall, no need for redemption, and Jesus’ death as a sacrifice efficacious for the salvation of humanity is pointless. The whole raison d’etre for the Christian plan of salvation disappears.
Aus' criticism is spot-on, but only for a particular version of Christianity. It loses much of its sting if Original Sin is removed from the picture. We did not inherit the guilt or consequences of Adam's sin. We die because we are organic creatures. We remain dead if we fail to participate in the life Christ left for us to follow. The parallelism in Romans 6:23 makes it clear that Paul is talking about eternal death - a judicial punishment for sin - as the wages of sin, with eternal life being granted to those who participate in the life of Christ.

While I believe there was a literal Adam, I do not regard him as the sole ancestor of the human race - Genesis 4 implies that there were already human beings alive on the planet when Adam and Eve were expelled from the Garden of Eden. The genomic data merely confirms what a natural reading of Gen 4 already tells us, namely that there were other human beings alive on the planet.From my point of view, Adam can be seen as a test case, a demonstration that even when placed in a perfect environment, humanity will still fail unless it has a divine example to follow. This is why Jesus came into the world - to save us from our sins by providing the perfect example to follow. By participating in his life fully, and rising above our selfish genes, to steal a phrase from a well-known evolutionary biologist, we have the hope of eternal life. Jesus did not die to become a metaphor. Rather, he lived and died to show every human being how to subvert our selfish genes, and live a sinelss life. That is independent of how we were created. The flawed model of jusitication taught to Aus by his Lutheranism is vulnerable to evolution, bt it is not the Biblical model.

Our hope is eternal life on this Earth when Christ returns to establish his Kingdom. it is not an eternity in heaven as a disembodied soul. Aus argues that the immortality of the soul is another reason why Christianity is incompatible with evolution:
Doctrines of sin and redemption are not the only areas of Christian thought impacted by the theory of evolution. Christianity and many other religions claim that human beings have a soul, comprised of neither matter nor energy, which survives the body’s death.
Again, Aus has a point, but every Christadelphian would agree that we don't have an immortal soul, so his criticism does not impact on Biblical Christianity. The question of when an immortal soul is inserted into the human race becomes irrelevant when we recognise that human beings become living souls when they first draw breath. Aus' flawed theology once more has led him astray, which makes his assertion that evolution invalidates Christianity only true for the version he abandoned:
...looking at the concept through Darwinian lenses raises numerous problematic questions for the doctrine. If all humans have souls, does that include all members of the genus homo? What about homo erectus, homo habilis and other hominid species that are no longer with us? Did they have souls that needed saving as well... And even if we forget about the predecessor hominid species and just assume that only homo sapiens needs saving, our species has been around some 200,000 years. Jesus came just two thousand years ago. What took him so long to show up? Humans must not have needed salvation all that badly if he left them without it for 198,000 years or so. 
Aus's arguments on the soul are readily dismissed given that the soul is an unbiblical concept, but he does have a point in the length of time between human origin and divine revelation. Why did it take so long for God to reveal himself to the human race? Here, archaeology provides information. In short, biologically modern human beings emerged 200,000 years ago, but the modern cultural mind capable of appreciating a religion more sophisticated than cave bear clans emerged only with the Neolithic Revolution, around 10 thousand years ago.

In the Ancient Near East, the Neolithic revolution saw the emergence of animal and plant domestication, as well as the emergence of organised religion, such as seen at Çatalhöyük in Turkey, which existed around 9500 - 7700 years ago. Once human thought was capable of appreciating a religion more complicated than cave bear cults, it was capable of appreciating divine revelation.

Furthermore, the concept of sin is meaningless when divine law is not known. Those who live and die in ignorance of God's laws die 'as the beasts that perish.' No eternal torment. No flames. Just oblivion. Aus' arguments collapse when we recognise that Original Sin, eternal torment, eternal souls and the Lutheran / Reformed concept of justification have zero Biblical support.

For Christadelphians, evolution should hold no fear as it has no theological implications. We don't believe in original sin. We don't believe in immortal souls. We don't follow with Calvin and Luther on justification. Our original position on the nature of Adam prior to the Fall was that there was no change of nature. Robert Roberts wrote in 1869:
‘Our friend imagines there was a change in the nature of Adam when he became disobedient. There is no evidence of this whatever, and the presumption and evidence are entirely the contrary way. There was a change in Adams relation to his maker, but not in the nature of his organization. What are the facts? He was formed from the dust a living soul, or natural body. His mental constitution gave him moral relation to God.’ [5] 
Adam, before transgression, though a living soul (or natural body 1 Cor. 15:44-5), was not necessarily destined to die, as obedience would have ended in life immortal. After transgression, his relation to destiny was changed. Death (by sentence,) was constituted the inevitable upshot of his career. He was, therefore, in a new condition as regarded the future, though not in a new condition as regarded the actual state of his nature. In actual nature, he was a corruptible groundling before sentence, and a corruptible groundling after sentence; but there was this difference: before sentence, ultimate immortality was possible; after sentence, death was a certainty. This change in the destiny lying before him, was the result of sin.’ [6]
Roberts unfortunately modified this eminently sensible and Biblical position under pressure during the 'Clean Flesh' controversy. Having said that, his original position is one which I maintain, and it is one which has the advantage of being unaffected by evolutionary biology. Any theological position which posits a heritable change in nature is flatly ruled out by the fact of evolution.

Aus's criticism of Christianity holds only for those instantiations that believe these dogmas. It holds no problems for us, and that is good news indeed.

This article first appeared on my Facebook page here



2. Aus M "Conversion on Mount Improbable: How Evolution Challenges Christian Dogma" Monday, 21 May 2012

3. Venema D "Genesis and the Genome: Genomics Evidence for Human-Ape Common Ancestry and Ancestral Hominid Population Sizes" Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith (2010) 62:166-178

4. Finlay G "Homo Divinus - The Ape that Bears God's Image" Science and Christian Belief (2003) 15:17

5. Roberts R, "The Relation of Jesus to the Law of Sin and Death" The Christadelphian (1869) 6:85

6. Roberts R, "Apparent Contradictions Reconciled" The Christadelphian (1869) 6:243