Busily engaged in apologetics, BioLogos, an organization dedicated to getting evangelical Christians to accept evolution, has a new post on the never-ending kerfuffle about the meaning of Adam and Eve. It’s called “Why the church needs multiple theories of original sin,” and the author is Loren Haarsma, who has a doctorate in physics from Harvard and teaches the subject at Calvin College (he’s also the co-author, with his wife Deborah, of Origins: Christian Perspectives on Creation, Evolution, and Intelligent Design).
The cynical—but correct—answer to the title question is: “We need multiple theories because science showed that there isn’t an Adam and Eve, so we need to make up stuff to save the meaning of Jesus.” And indeed, that’s precisely what theologians do, though of course they don’t admit it. Instead, they pretend that the scientific results, which show that humans didn’t evolve from a single pair of ancestors, simply mean that we must reinterpret the Genesis story of Adam and Eve. But, as usual, theology cannot solve this problem, though Haarsma pretends that diligent theological study and proper interpretation of Scripture will yield an answer. It’s a prime example of how religious tenets are not only disproven by science, but, more important, how religion, unlike science, is powerless to find truth.
The facts first. Sheehan et al., building on earlier work by Li and Durbin (references in margin), calculated that the minimum population size associated with the worldwide expansion of humans out of Africa roughly 100,000 years ago was 2,250 individuals, while the population that remained in Africa was no smaller than about 10,000 individuals. For population geneticists, this is the “effective population size,” invariably smaller than the census size, so these are minimum estimates, and ones derived from conservative assumptions. The population sizes are estimated by back-calculating (based on reasonable estimates of mutation rates and other genetic parameters) how small an ancestral population could be and still give rise to the observed level and structure of genetic variation in our species.
Note: 2,500 is larger than two.
This means, of course, that Adam and Eve couldn’t have been the literal ancestors of all humanity. Normally, such a scientific trashing of scripture could be absorbed, at least by liberal theologians. They’d just reinterpret Adam and Eve as metaphors. But that causes big trouble on two counts. First, if there really were 2,000 or more ancestors, then all of them must have transgressed to bring original sin into the world. That is hard to fathom: did everyone do something bad at the same time?
Second, if Adam and Eve were metaphors, and the source of original sin is mysterious, then we have no idea why Jesus died. After all, his death and Resurrection occurred precisely to save us sinful humans from the transgressions of Adam and Eve. If you have to turn that story into a metaphor, then Jesus died for that metaphor. That’s not too palatable to Christians.
An easy and sensible way to solve this conundrum is to assume that the whole scenario is concocted: humans don’t have original sin; there was no Adam and Eve; and the Resurrection and divinity of Jesus were fictions. But Christians won’t have that, for the meaning of Jesus’s life, death, and resurrection is the final, non-negotiable “truth” of Christianity. You can see everything else as metaphorical, but not that. For if you metaphorize Jesus, you’re basically abandoning Christianity.
But before Haarsma even gets to the science (whose truth he gracefully admits, for he must), he discusses how theologians have historically dealt with the problem of atonement. The answer is that they’ve considered multiple theories and can’t settle on one. No answer is, or will be, forthcoming:
The church has developed multiple “theories of atonement” which seek to explain how Christ’s work solved the problem of sin. Not every proposed theory of atonement has been accepted; many were debated and rejected. But many competing theories remain—still studied, preached, and compared with each other centuries after they were proposed. This is because scripture itself uses numerous images for Christ’s work: victory over evil, ransom to free us from slavery, covenantal sacrifice, substitutionary bearing the penalty of sin, an example for us to imitate, and more. Indeed, how could a single human theory fully describe Christ’s work? By holding in tension multiple theories of atonement, each with its basis in scripture and each recognized as incomplete, we do more justice to the magnitude and the mystery of Christ’s atonement than any single theory could.
This is making a virtue of necessity. Theologians merely cast their inability to decide among multiple competing explanations into the weasel words “hold multiple theories in tension.” And then they pretend that this lack of resolution does “more justice to the magnitude and mystery of Christ’s atonement than any single theory could.” Can you imagine if scientists behaved this way? If they did, we’d say stuff like, “We have multiple theories of origins: evolution, creation ex nihilo, seeding of life by aliens from space, and so on; and we hold these theories in tension, knowing that this does more justice to the mystery of life than any single theory could.”
We don’t do that because science wants a correct answer and is not satisfied with competing theories. But theologians are satisfied, because they have to be: unlike scientists, they have no way to decide among their diverse explanations. And so they say, “They all could be right.” Let a hundred theories blossom.
How did we find ourselves in need of such divine rescue? God created us. God is good. God loves us. So why aren’t we sinless? That’s the question of original sin.
But none of these theologians consider whether we actually do find ourselves in need of divine rescue, or why God is good and loves us. This simply assumes that scripture is true, which is in fact the question at hand. In fact, many people are relatively sinless, leading decent lives. Of course everyone lies on occasion, or commits small transgressions, but why can’t this just reflect our evolved and partly selfish nature? That is a good alternative explanation, and one that has some evidence behind it. It’s also one that theologians must ignore.
But on to Adam and Eve. Haarsma describes three ways to reconcile the facts of science with “original sin” and our salvation through Jesus. I will put numbers in front of his alternatives to make this easier:
A variety of scenarios are being proposed by Christian scholars today for how we might understand the Adam and Eve of Genesis 2, and their disobedience in Genesis 3, in light of modern science.
1. Some scenarios propose Adam and Eve as two individuals living in Mesopotamia just a few thousand years ago, acting not as ancestors but as recent representatives of all humanity. As our representatives, their disobedience caused all of humanity to fall into sin.
2. Other scenarios propose Adam and Eve as two individuals, or as literary representations of a small group of ancient representative-ancestors, selected out of a larger population, living in Africa over 100,000 years ago at the dawn of humanity; they were ancestors—but not the sole ancestors—of all humans today; they fell into disobedience against God over a relatively short period of time with a fairly distinct “before” and “after.”
3. Other scenarios propose that Adam and Eve’s disobedience in Genesis 3 is a symbolic retelling of the story of every human who, over our long history, became aware of God’s claims on how they ought to live, and then disobeyed.
As noted by Haarsma, each of these has its own set of problems if you want to save the idea of original sin. The first raises the problem of how the transgressions of two people could infect the entire species. And what about those people outside the Middle East who were already on their own evolutionary path? How did original sin get to the Aztecs, Incas, and East Asians?
The second scenario, which proposes that Adam and Eve could be “literary representations” (i.e., a made up couple) of an entire group of ancestors, also fails to explain how that whole group became afflicted with original sin. (It’s easier to explain two people disobeying God’s orders than how 2,500 or more humans did so simultaneously.) And if Adam and Eve were real (i.e., not “literary”), then the chance that they would be genetic ancestors of us all is virtually nil. Did God then plan that, and, if so, what part of their DNA did we all inherit?
The final alternative, if you wish to save original sin, is the one employed by more sophisticated theologians like Peter Enns (references in right margin). Enns, formerly a biblical scholar at BioLogos, but possibly expelled from Paradise for his science-y transgressions, simply says that the whole scenario is metaphorical. Granted, in the Bible Paul sees Adam and Eve as the literal ancestors of all humanity, and the bearers of original sin, but, as Enns says in his book The Evolution of Adam (p. 143):
“One can believe that Paul is correct theologically and historically about the problem of sin and death and the solution that God provides in Christ without also needing to believe that his assumptions about human origins are accurate. The need for a savior does not require a historical Adam.”
In other words, the Adam and Eve story is fictional. Enns, of course, does not solve the problem of sin and death, for nobody can. Any answer must be confected to give meaning to the fictional deeds and salvific potential of Jesus. Since that stuff is non-negotiable, neither Enns nor other Christians are willing to abandon their faith for a more parsimonious hypothesis: to the extent that humans are “sinful” (i.e., occasionally behave selfishly and deceptively), that is the result of both our evolutionary past and the ability of our big, evolved brains to have a theory of mind and anticipate the results of our acts. There’s much evidence supporting this latter scenario: just look at the behavior of our primate relatives. But Jesus couldn’t have died to save us from our evolutionary heritage, for Christianity presumes that there was a time when humans were not “sinful.”
After metaphorically tearing out his hair over the explanation of original sin, Haarsma simply punts and says that having many theories is a good thing, and that, one fine day, we may know which one is right. All it will take is lots of hard work by theologians and a “proper” understanding of scripture. And even if we can’t solve the problem, it’s still all to the good, for that will simply make us appreciate God all the more. (How is that supposed to work?). As he says,
If we do our job carefully, the church will be well served by the time spent working through the theological implications of these differing scenarios. If the problem of sin is so vast that it requires such an astonishing solution as the Atonement, perhaps we will also need multiple theories of original sin. Some theories of will be discarded as being inconsistent with God’s revelation in scripture. Those that remain should deepen our understanding and our appreciation of God’s grace and the immensity of the rescue God undertook through Jesus Christ.
Talk about turning necessities into virtues! The debate will never be settled, for theology has no tools to settle it. The game is given away when Haarsma mentions that “some theories will be discarded as being inconsistent with God’s revelation in Scripture.” But the whole problem is this: what, exactly, is God’s revelation in Scripture? It used to be a literal interpretation of Adam and Eve, and still would be had science not taken that off the table. But maybe original sin is metaphorical, too, and perhaps even Jesus is! Indeed, maybe God isn’t loving and good, either. After all, he’s pretty much of a hateful bully in the Old Testament.
In the end, nobody can tell us what God’s revelation in Scripture is, though Biblical literalists are the best at doing it without looking like weasels. More liberal theologians simply sit around and make up interpretations that comport with their sophisticated a priori understanding of the Bible. What a blessing that we scientists don’t have to act like that!
A version of this post first appeared on WhyEvolutionIsTrue. Jerry A. Coyne is a Professor of Ecology and Evolution at The University of Chicago and author of Why Evolution is True, as well as the eponymous website.
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Jerry A. Coyne is a professor of Ecology and Evolution at The University of Chicago. He is the author of Why Evolution is True and Faith vs. Fact: Why Science and Religion are Incompatible.