Evangelicals have four proposals for harmonizing…
Jhe last few years have not been kind to evangelism. Every couple of months, a new scandal or controversy seems to pop up. Sexual and spiritual abuse. Patriarchy and toxic masculinity. Critical Race Theory and Racism. The list continues. In the wake of these self-inflicted wounds, of construction and evangelical have become buzzwords in Christian discourse. No one should be surprised.
Given the circumstances, it seems almost antiquated to revisit issues of evolution, original sin, and the historical Adam and Eve. How do these decades-old theological controversies relate to our current situation? The answer is simple. Despite appearances, the phenomenon of deconstruction is not new, and historical researcher David Kinnaman recounted in his 2011 book, You Lost Me: Why Young Christians Are Leaving Church…and Rethinking Faith, always rings true. Young people have been abandoning the faith in increasing numbers for decades, and one of the main reasons is the church’s perceived anti-science mentality.
The anti-mask, anti-vaccine stance of far too many conservative pastors and pundits has added fuel to the fire, but the evangelical science problem ultimately comes down to resistance to “secular” evolutionary science. which opposes the biblical account. Of course, all evangelical Christians feel a duty to be faithful to Scripture, but is it possible to leave room for evolution and remain faithful to inspiration, authority and inerrancy? of the Word of God?
The issues at stake
In his book When did sin begin? Human Evolution and the Doctrine of Original Sin, Loren Haarsma, professor of physics at the University of Calvin, exposes various evangelical proposals for harmonizing human evolution and original sin. Drawing from a dozen recent books on the subject, Haarsma reviews the four main options:
- God chose Adam and Eve from an existing population to represent all mankind. Since they represented everyone, the consequences of their failure immediately affected everyone.
- God chose Adam and Eve from an existing population to represent humanity, but after they were expelled from the Garden, their sinfulness spread to others through culture or genealogy.
- Adam and Eve are not literal individuals. Rather, Genesis 2–3 is a stylized account of numerous human events compressed into a single archetypal story. Although God occasionally revealed his will to individuals or groups, people persisted in disobedience.
- Adam and Eve are symbolic figures in an archetypal story. Over a long period of time, humans became morally responsible through general revelation (Romans 1:18-20), but they chose sin.
Haarsma, the husband of BioLogos President Deborah Haarsma, has been involved in dialogues between faith and science for decades, and his expertise shows throughout. The kind of “harmony” sought by Haarsma is not a one-to-one correspondence between the details of Scripture and science. Instead, he advocates “a harmony reminiscent of JS Bach’s counterpoint”, which employs two melodies played simultaneously. Each can be enjoyed independently, but “played together they form a richer whole”.
Before discussing the strengths and weaknesses of each viewpoint, Haarsma spends the first half of the book reviewing the theological and scientific issues that come into play: scriptural interpretation, divine agency, natural evils, and human evolution. The opening chapter covers the principles of biblical interpretation, invoking John Calvin’s well-known principle of divine accommodation – how God, knowing our limitations, speaks to us in something akin to “baby talk” – to explain “ancient science” in the Bible. Haarsma concludes that science does not dictate interpretation, but “scientific findings are one of many ways the Holy Spirit has prompted the church to reinterpret specific passages.”
With respect to divine agency, Haarsma focuses on answering the common objection that many aspects of evolution rely on random processes, which non-specialists characterize as “purposeless” or “meaningless”. “. When scientists use the term ‘random’, however, they simply mean ‘unpredictable’ from a human perspective, which does not exclude God’s purposes or process control.
Likewise, his discussion of natural evil addresses the common misconception that animal suffering and death are the consequences of human sin and the Fall. Although there is “abundant scientific evidence”, he writes, that “death was a natural part of animal and plant existence from the beginning”, Haarsma also turns to Genesis, Job and Romans 8 to make make his point, usefully ending with a word of pastoral counsel that in Christ, “God has given us the mandate to alleviate the suffering of others”.
The chapter on human evolution begins with a review of genetic and fossil evidence for common ancestry, particularly the fact that species start from a population, not a single pair. Haarsma points out that the beginning sapiens the population was geographically dispersed and never very large, but it stumbles a bit on a demographic bottleneck between 100,000 and 200,000 years ago. Recent research has ruled this out, but it’s a minor flaw in an otherwise good discussion.
From there, the chapter shines in its treatment of human sociality and gene-culture coevolution. The terms may not be familiar, but the concept is not difficult to understand. Coevolution simply involves a “feedback loop” between genetic and cultural change. For example, the genetic changes that led to bigger brains also required more calories to eat and longer to learn and mature. Human survival techniques and social structures had to adapt accordingly. As Haarsma explains, “Each generation inherited both genes and cultural practices from their ancestors, and both were important for survival and reproduction.”
This chapter is virtually required reading for those unfamiliar with recent developments in evolutionary thought. In short, animals exhibit behaviors that we would describe as “mean” or “nice,” Haarsma writes, but “humans do so much more than that. Humans develop moral codes to regulate and improve behavior and pass those codes down through Actions and Words Animals have learned “rules” of behavior, and they have methods of communication, but they lack language, which is necessary for truly human morality.
Appropriately, the chapter on human evolution marks a turning point in the book. Going forward, Haarsma asks pointed theological questions about the soul, the image of God, Adam and Eve in scripture, the historical doctrine of original sin, the definition of sin, and more. He considers the answers offered by the four major evangelical schools of thought, and he weighs the pros and cons of each in their attempts to reconcile Scripture and scientific evidence.
This approach is both a strength and a weakness. I really appreciate the fact that Haarsma asks the right questions without leaning one way or the other. Unlike most who write on these topics, myself included, he does not express a preference, instead challenging his readers to consider the options and choose for themselves. The downside is not a weakness in his evidence or his reasoning; it’s purely stylistic. The format lends itself to some repetitiveness, but perhaps that was unavoidable. I found it an occasional distraction, but no more than a fly hitting a window pane.
Keep Jesus in sight
I’ll forego a detailed review of the rest of the book, respecting Haarsma’s decision not to provide answers, but I have a few nits to pick from and highlights to hit.
At first I was concerned with several references to sin as “a violation of the revealed will of God”. This abbreviated definition is problematic. First, it requires a special revelation from God, which would mostly rule out the fourth scenario – that over a long period of time, humans became morally responsible and chose sin. Second, it implies that people who are unaware of God’s will (eg, those who “have never heard of”) cannot sin. That said, Haarsma’s chapter on sin more than allayed my fears – it was worth the price of admission alone. In particular, Haarsma’s treatment of Romans 2 and general revelation was beautifully treated.
While I understood it as a marriage of convenience, I also didn’t like that genealogy and culture were lumped together as possible mechanisms for transmitting sin. No one has proposed a clear mechanism for transferring sin along genealogical lines. Simply stating the possibility is not an explanation. The lines on a family tree do not make a person a sinner. On the other hand, the method of cultural transfer is obvious. The fruit eaten in the Garden came from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. Knowledge is learned, not inherited in genes or through genealogy. The transmission of knowledge from one generation to the next is practically the definition of “culture”. It is difficult to assimilate these two very different explanations.
Appropriately, the book ends on another positive note: “God’s answer is always Christ. A common complaint from those building Noah’s Ark theme parks is that an evolutionary view of creation removes the need for Christ’s atonement. As Haarsma perfectly demonstrates, this accusation is not true. Across the spectrum of evangelical interpreters who accept the science of evolution, none deny the necessity of Christ’s atonement. To his credit, Haarsma keeps Jesus in view throughout the book. I enjoyed this even more than his unbiased treatment of the various options for understanding Adam and Eve.
A 2017 Gallup poll showed that, for the first time, there were as many people who believed in God-guided evolution as there were people who believed mankind began with two people named Adam and Eve. Including the minority (19%) who deny God’s involvement in human evolution, most Americans (57%) accept scientific evidence. While concern for evangelism is still a hallmark of evangelism, especially pastors and lay leaders must stop drawing unnecessary lines in the sand about the evolution and interpretation of early Genesis. It only drives people away from Christ.
If anyone is seriously wondering if a person can believe in both Jesus and evolution, I recommend Haarsma’s book. The problem isn’t a lack of loyal options. If anything, there are too many.
Jay Johnson wrote about evolution, original sin, and Adam and Eve for Canadian-American Theological ReviewBioLogos, the Lutheran Coalition for Faith, Science and Technology, and God and nature magazine. His website becomes adam.com.