Saturday, 8 December 2018

Why defending original sin in the light of evolution is untenable - a former Christian shows why

One common theme in deconversion stories is the loss of faith when the former believer discovered that contrary to what their faith community had dogmatically asserted, the evidence for evolution was in fact overwhelming. Unfortunately, one of the biggest reasons behind the perception that evolution and Christianity are utterly incompatible is the doctrine of Original Sin, in both its Reformed and Catholic forms. The fundamental problem here is of course the fact Original Sin requires every single human being to be exclusively descended from two people in order for the physical change in human nature that adherents of Original Sin believe happened as a result of Adam's sin to be genetically transmitted to the entire human race. Given what we know of the origins of the human race, this is of course impossible as the size of the human population has never been lower than a few thousand people, while humans and chimpanzees share a common ancestor that lived around six million years ago. Original Sin demands a view of human origins that cannot be reconciled with hard facts.

In a recent article [1] at the Recovering from Religion blog Ex-Communications, Suze Ambs writes on how discovering the truth about evolution helped erode her faith. While she states that there were many reasons for her deconversion, in this article she points out how the scientific evidence for human evolution was the "nail in the coffin" for her belief because it directly undermined Original Sin and the atonement theory based on it. Ambs' observation is hardly isolated, with other ex-Christians also pointing out how evolution destroys the anthropology of Original Sin and any atonement theory based on it. As such, it is worth looking at her article in some detail, if only to show just how dangerous to faith evolution denialism and Original Sin are.

By her own admission Ambs knew little about evolution when she was a Christian, something which certainly holds true in our own community:
I was never very educated about evolution. I thought it was simply the scientific guesswork that humans came from apes because we have similarities.
This ignorance about evolution in general is something of a two-edged sword for fundamentalist Christianity. While it means that the anti-evolution leadership in fundamentalist communities invariably get no pushback from members when they use long-debunked anti-evolution arguments, it also means that if some of those members take the time to actually read up on the subject and find out that the evidence for evolution is no longer in dispute, they end up feeling betrayed by their church for not being honest with the facts, a point Ambs makes in a post at her blog:
I prayed for months for spiritual protection from the deceiving enemy who was out to get me as I began to read things – for the first time – that argued against what I believed. I would pray for God’s leading before, during and after I read. Shockingly, I was reading new, important information. Why hadn’t I been told these facts? Much of what I read resonated deeply, and confirmed the doubts I had were not foolish, evil tricks or without simple explanations.  Emphasis mine [2]
No relationship can survive when one party feels betrayed and deceived by the other, which is why deconversion often follows in such situations.

As I noted in my introduction, Ambs regards the overwhelming evidence for human evolution as the 'nail in the coffin' for her faith.
Here is the crux of it: No Adam means Adam could not commit the original sin, separating us from the Judeo-Christian God. No ‘one man’ Adam separating us means no need for ‘one man’ Jesus to reconcile us to the Judeo-Christian God.

When we put these things together, the very premise of Christianity comes crashing down like a domino effect. And this is by tangible proof we can hold in our hands, not by debates in subjective, human reasoning. Creationist fundamentalists know this is the achilles heel of their faith and they refuse to accept evolution. Their faith is ultimately more important to them than evidence.
Ambs is hardly alone in believing that evolution undermines the core of Christian faith. Mike Aus, a former Lutheran pastor likewise has argued that the fact of human evolution completely guts Christian theology.
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....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. [3]
The real tragedy here is that this loss of faith is due not to any fundamental clash between Bible and science. Rather, the problem stems from the doctrine of Original Sin, one that was unknown in the Christian church for its first few centuries of existence and which in the form known to Western Christianity is absent from Eastern Orthodoxy, one of the main branches of Christianity. The problem owes everything to dogma and nothing to the Bible.

Original Sin - The Evolution of a Dogma [4]

The Didache, a handbook on Christian doctrine and praxis dating from the late 1st to early 2nd centuries CE assumes adult baptism, a significant point given that part of the justification for infant baptism was the belief that it was needed to 'cleanse the stain' of Original Sin. Clement of Rome, writing at approximately the same time (late 1st century) in his Letter to the Corinthians assumes the universality both of sin and the need for redemption. However, he does not explain either, Ignatius of Antioch, who died around 108 CE assumed the universality of sin without explicitly stating that it was an inherited condition. In The Shepherd of Hermas, which dates from the first half of the second century CE, we see an echoing of ancient Judaism in asserting that sin leads to death. In particular, personal sin arose from individual choice. Infants therefore, as they were not able to choose between good and evil had no personal sin. The absence of any explicit reference to a fully-formed Augustinian doctrine of Original Sin in the earliest post-NT Christian writings is hard to reconcile with the belief that it represented original Christian teaching.

It is impossible to fully appreciate the evolution of Original Sin without an understanding of Gnosticism, a pessimistic worldview obsessed with evil. Some Christian Gnostics argued that the sin of Genesis 2 was cosmic in dimension, and that once trapped in the material world, humans were inevitable sinners. Therefore, they needed liberation from this world through an esoteric saving knowledge. Clement of Alexandria (150CE to 215 CE) argued that Gnostics made the concept of moral responsibility meaningless. His idea of human freedom was rooted in a view similar to the Hebrew idea of the good desire and the bad desire. Ultimately, humans had the freedom to sin, or not to sin. Clement of Alexandra proposed that humans inherited from Adam a bad example, and saw in Adam's sin a refusal to be educated by God. The late second century Christian Irenaeus of Lyon rejected the Gnostic reading of Genesis 3 as a cosmic fall. He regarded sin as inevitable, but believed humans were responsible for their sin. Irenaeus differentiated between the 'image of God' and the 'likeness of God', The former he argued referred to the human capacity for moral reasoning and, he argued, remained with Adam after his sin. The latter, Irenaeus claimed referred to Adam's spiritual similarity to God, which he believed was lost after sin.

Justin Martyr (100-160 CE) apart from arguing that infants needed baptism because they were born with 'wayward inclinations' regarded the sin of Adam as a 'template' for human sin. He asserted that while Adam's sin weakened human freedom, it did not eradicate it. Therefore, humans were without excuse if they failed. The link between the sin of Adam and that common to all humans therefore is best seen as a doctrine of human corruption rather than human sin. The key difference is how the universality of sin is explained, and the need to appeal to any mechanism of genetic inheritance. The fact supporters of Pelagius in opposing Augustine appealed to Justin Martyr is definitely significant.

Tertullian (160CE to 225CE) rejected the Gnostic 'cosmic fall' theory of Genesis three, and saw two consequences of Adam's sin:
  • alienation of human beings from God (historical)
  • change of human state from blessedness to wretchedness (human nature).
Tertullian advocated a traducianist theory of the origin of soul which argued that an individual's immortal soul (a concept that I reject of course) was inherited from his or her parents. Humanity was therefore linked to Adam as all souls were therefore linked with those of Adam by generation. This marks the start of the idea of human solidarity in sin with Adam. Tertullian also argued that Adam's sin introduced an irrational element into human nature biasing humans towards sin, but which in itself was not a sin.

Origen (185CE - 254 CE) was the first to coin the term 'original sin'. He explicitly argued for infant baptism given his belief that everyone was tainted with original sin, and cited Genesis 3 and Psalm 51:5 as justification. Baptism he asserted removed this defilement. Interestingly, Origin still believed humans retained the ability to choose between good and evil even with the defilement of Original Sin, a position definitely at variance with the classic view of Original Sin. Furthermore, his view on Original Sin was not contingent on human solidarity in Adan. Instead, he argued that defilement of the soul was as a result of poor choices made in the transcendent realm, prior to the fall to the historical realm. Origen argued that the personal sin of humanity was due to following Adam's poor example.

At this point, it is easy to see the trends that would result in the evolution of the classic doctrine of Original Sin:
  • A belief that the practice of infant baptism began because babies were believed to have been born with sin
  • A belief that Adam’s sin was transmitted to the next generation at the moment of conception
  • An idiosyncratic reading of Romans 5:12
While Original Sin as we know it was first formulated by Augustine, one can see the ideas on which Augustine drew developing in the 3rd and 4th centuries CE.

Cyprian (200-258CE) asserted that Adam;s sin was inherited by each person at conception, and saw it as a form of contagion. As everyone was born with Adam's sin he argued, they all needed forgiveness. Baptism both cleansed the stain of contagion and gave forgiveness. Conversely, Theodore of Mopsuestia (350-428 CE) while regarding Adam's sin as the beginning of sin and death in the human race explicitly rejected Original Sin, claiming that only human nature could be inherited, not sin. Theodore's views have been seen as a theology of Original Death.

The seminal event leading to the doctrine of Original Sin arguably can be found in the writings of the 4th century theologian Ambrosiaster, His mistake was in using the flawed Latin reading of Romans 5v12, a reading which can be seen in the Douay-Rheims, (The NRSV is used as a reference to show the error in the Latin version to which Ambrosiater appealed):
  • NRSV: Therefore, just as sin came into the world through one man, and death came through sin, and so death spread to all because all have sinned.
  • Douay-Rheims: Wherefore as by one man sin entered into this world and by sin death: and so death passed upon all men, in whom all have sinned.
Ambrosiaster argued physical death and a tendency to sin were the two principal consequences of Adam’s sin. Therefore, for Ambrosiaster, Christ was the remedy for Original Sin. As even medieval scholars realised, the Old Latin reading of Romans 5v12 was demonstrably flawed. Ambrosiater based his theology largely on a flawed translation of a single verse.

Before looking at Augustine, it is helpful to compare the views of early and later Christianity on this subject. As we've seen, a doctrine of Original sin was unknown to the early church for its first two centuries. Furthermore, the doctrine evolved over time. Even concepts such as the Origin of Sin, the Fall, and the Inheritance of Sin were defined in significantly different ways by the church over time,

Origin of Sin
  • Later church: refers to the cause of the universality of human sinfulness, for which the answers were unity in Adam, or the physical transmission of Adam’s sin.
  • Early writers: were more concerned about the origin of death. Why would God create humans only to have them die? By making human sin the cause of death, the blame was placed on humans. Death is the punishment for sin.
The Fall
  • Later church: this refers both to a change in human nature, making it inferior to its pre-fall state, and expulsion from paradise.
  • Early church: writers disagreed about the location of the fall. Origen placed it in the transcendent realm. Irenaeus located it in history, but did not see it as representing a change in human nature, but a gradual spread of evil through the world due to the inevitability of sin.
Inheritance of Sin 
  • Early Church: were not in agreement about what this meant, with views such as humans inheriting a warped world (much as we say our children will inherit our mistakes) or humans inherit the guilt of Adam and Eve, but not their sin being prevalent/
  • Later church: original sin and its effects genetically inherited.
Augustine (354 - 430 CE) argued that moral and spiritual purity were impossible for a human to achieve. Even after the removal of Original Sin through baptism, Augustine asserted that a permanent warp towards sin still existed. Major influences on Augustine were
  •  Cyprian: Adam’s sin was a contagion inherited by each person at conception.
  • Ambrose of Milan: Adam’s sin was transmitted biologically to his descendants
  • Jerome: also argued in favour of a biological theory of inheritance. Jerome was influenced by
  • Didymus the Blind: argued that infants were born with a sin transmitted through conception.
  • Ambrosiaster: interpretation of Romans 5v12 provided significant theological support.
No discussion of Original Sin and Augustine is complete without referring to Pelagius (354-418 CE). Pelagius pointed out that  Augustine’s view on human nature made sin inevitable. Moral responsibility therefore would vanish. He argued that the tendency to do evil, predicated on bad habits, could be reversed with effort and reconditioning. God’s primary gift of grace, Pelagius argued was moral nature (bonum naturae). The image of God in humans is the capacity for moral choice and performance, and was given so that we know what is right, and choose to do this. The existence of human freedom, Pelagius stated that the existence of human freedom was was proof that we could do either good or bad. If we did not have the potential to avoid doing good, then how could one be held morally responsible? Only if one had the freedom to do good or evil could one be held morally responsible. Pelagius argued that God provided natural and revealed law to guide human behaviour. n He believed that God offered three forms of grace to help people avoid sin (1) natural and revealed law (2) the teachings and example of Christ and (3)  the forgiveness of sins through the church.

In 418CE, the Council of Carthage debated Pelagius' views. It identified the following teachings of his follower Celestius as being at odds with those of Augustine:
  • Adam was created mortal and would have died irrespective of whether he had sinned
  • The whole human race did not have to die because of Adam’s sin
  • Adam’s sin was not transmitted to his descendants
  • Infants are born in the same state as Adam prior to his sin
  • The Law was as sufficient for salvation as the gospel
The first canon of the Council of Carthage stated that Adam had been given immortality, but lost it through sin. Its second canon focused on the state in which humans were born. It inferred from the practice of infant baptism the existence of original sin, and made the belief that babies are born with Adam’s sin Christian orthodoxy. Original Sin had become de facto Western Christian orthodoxy.

I deliberately emphasised Western Christian because the doctrine of Original Sin as we know it is largely absent from Eastern Christianity. Theologian George Kalantzis reminds us that:

“Unlike Augustine and much of the Western tradition, for Theodore, Chrysostom, and Theodoret, the Fall neither introduced mortality as an ontological change to the human γένος, nor removed freedom of choice, προαίρεσις, from our post-lapsarian condition.” [4]
In other words, these leading figures in the Eastern church did not believe that Adam became mortal after his sin or that as a result of it he was biased towards sin, being unable to choose freely. Needless to say, this is radically different to both the Catholic and (in particular) the Reformed views on Original Sin, Kalantzis continues:
“Mortality is at once the consequence of sin and an aspect of humanity’s original state. The mere fact that Scripture tells us God made Adam “from the dust of the earth” should make clear to everyone that his body was mortal by nature, from the very beginning. Adam is mortal for no other reason than that he has a body.

“From the moment of his creation Adam was bound to the consequences of what God had foreseen he would freely choose to do. Mortality, then is not of one kind in two modes (now as a natural condition, now as a penalty) but there are two distinct genera of mortality: the natural mortality whose origin is in the “dust of the earth,” and a different type, a penal mortality, the punishment for actual sin.[6] Emphasis mine
Kalantzis' point about 'two different types of mortality', namely the death that is a function of human bodies eventually wearing out and dying, and death as a punishment for sin is one that is important to keep in mind, as conflation of death and mortality lies at the heart of Western Christian misunderstanding of the issue, a point that can be readily appreciated by looking at Rom 6v23 - "the wages of sin is death" and realising how this Pauline statement collapses into incoherence if mortality is substituted for death. Continuing:
“If, then, Adam and Eve’s post-lapsarian mortality was not the result of an ontological change that took place at the moment of their lapse, and if death is the just punishment for sin, one is left to wonder about the overwhelming force of sin and death in the experience of the rest of the human race—their children.

“The answer, of course, would be found in Romans 5. Theodoret is the most concise on this point: “Since Adam had sinned and death had occurred through sin, both spread to the race: death spread to all human beings for the reason that all sinned. In other words…it is not because of the sin of the first parent but because of their own that each person is liable to the norm of death.” Like all the Greek Fathers before him, Theodoret finds the etiology for our deaths in our own sin, not that of our first parents. [7] Emphasis mine
I cannot put it any better. We are mortal because we are made from the dust of the ground. Adam's sin set an example to follow, but our sin stems from our own poor choices, not from any mythical inherited sin, or inherited 'fallen nature' that warps us towards evil. What Christ offers then is an example for us to follow (1 Peter 2:21) rather than a reversal of any mythical Original Sin. Given this,  evolution ceases to be the 'nail in the coffin' of Christianity. At most, it shows that the Reformed and Catholic views on Original Sin are untenable and need to be modified.

It is interesting to see that some Catholic theologians readily concede this. Catholic theologian Jack Mahoney notes that
The formal teaching of the Council of Trent, then, is that Adam’s original sin is inherited by everyone through procreation and that its guilt is forgiven by the conferring of baptism, yet something of its results remains even in the baptized, experienced as concupiscence or sinful desires, fomenting or fueling sin in each of us. On this several comments can be offered, the first crucially relating to where it all starts, namely, to what Paul meant in Romans 5:12 when he used the Greek phrase eph’ hō relating to Adam’s action. Augustine and others, including the council fathers at Trent, relying on the Old Latin translation, took this to mean in Latin in quo, or “in whom,” with the clear implication that everyone had sinned in Adam. Most exegetes today understand this phrase as using the common Greek preposition epi to imply succession rather than inclusion, thus giving the meaning “since when” all have sinned rather than “in whom” all have sinned. We must conclude that if this is the original Pauline meaning, it removes from divine revelation any reference to Adam’s descendants being incorporated in solidarity “in him” (in quo), and as a result it dispenses with the conclusion that the whole of succeeding humanity has been condemned en masse as a sort of “condemned mass in Adam,” as Augustine and others explained. J. N. D. Kelly delivers his considered verdict in explaining how the Old Latin version of the New Testament (which had influence only in the West) gave “an exegesis of Rom 5, 12 which, though mistaken and based on a false reading, was to become the pivot of the doctrine of original sin.”
As a consequence of this reflection, it follows that there is now no need for theology to find a method by which to explain how all Adam’s offspring inherit his original sin. Trent’s insistence that Adam’s original sin was transmitted among all subsequent human beings by propagation, or by generation, rather than simply by imitation (which Pelagius was considered to have maintained) was clearly due more to the theological polemic of Saint Augustine against Pelagius and his supporters than to Paul’s writing centuries earlier. [8] Emphasis mine
While it is reasonable to assume that Paul believed that Adam was the first human being, as Mahoney, Kalantzis, and others note, his theology is not contingent on this, and as a result, is unaffected by evolution. It is a tragedy that conservative Protestant sects fail to recognise this.


1, Suze Ambs "Why I'm No Longer A Christian" Ex-Communications October 24 2018
2. Suze Ambs "My Story" The Journey of Doubt July 2 2018
3. Mike Aus "Conversion on Mount Improbable: How Evolution Challenges Christian Dogma" 21 May 2012
4. I am indebted to Tatha Wiley's Original Sin: Origins, Developments, and Contemporary Meanings  (Paulist Press, New Jersey, 2002) for this summary of the history of Original Sin.
5. George Kalantzis, The Voice So Dear to Me. Themes from Romans in Theodore, Chrysostom, and Theodoret, in Greek Patristic and Eastern Orthodox Interpretations of Romans, ed. Daniel Patte and Vasile Mihoc, (London; New Delhi; New York; Sydney: Bloomsbury, 2013), 86.
6. ibid, p 87-88
7. ibid, p 90
8. Jack Mahoney Christianity in Evolution: An Exploration (2011: Georgetown University Press), 55-56