Every moment someone feels the icy touch of evil. As historians tell us, sometimes verging on cliché, the twentieth century was the bloodiest century in all of human history. And there is no sign, alas, that the rivers of blood are slowing down. Genocide, slavery, sex-trafficking, pornography, child abuse, gross social injustices—those are some of the usual suspects and yet, they’re just the tip of the iceberg. Even to capture such grievous experiences with a crisp word or vignette runs the risk of obscuring the unspeakable depths of human depravity.
In the U.S. alone, legal abortions have led to the wholesale destruction of millions of unborn human lives. As I write, the world is still reeling in shock from the blood-thirsty, brutal savagery of Boko Haram, the Nigerian militant sect. On the same continent, a pregnant Sudanese woman was condemned to death because of her love for Jesus; the name of Meriam Yahia Ibrahim has been etched into the minds of praying Christians around the globe. Those are merely the headlines. It would be quite impossible to count all the wickedness that is unreported, from our daily, relatively minor, sufferings to the despicable horrors we inflict on each other. Believer or unbeliever, it matters not, part of our lot in life is to suffer the bitter sting of evil.
This reign of evil is a great scandal as its very existence potentially undermines the core of our faith. Christians tend to miss this point, because, like everyone else, we’ve been so desensitized by the ubiquity of evil. For as the ancient creed has it, “[We] believe in God the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth.” If this God who revealed himself to us in Jesus Christ is utterly good, and if it is also true that he is utterly sovereign, then why does evil exist? How could evil exist, and where did it come from? We are not, of course, the first to pose these questions. Boethius famously asked, “If God is righteous, whence evil?”—a question to trump all questions! We stand in the presence of mystery here, a case not dissimilar from other cherished doctrines (the hypostatic union of the God-man comes to mind). That we are dealing with mystery, however, in no way implies that we are left speechless before the void, nor are we saying that it’s “open season,” where any claim is just as good as another. The origin of evil is a theological riddle that has always existed within clear confessional limits. Or so I shall argue.
This essay is written with an eye to recent questions on the viability of the fall in light of evolution. I contend that Adam’s fall is the only way to reconcile evil and God as he reveals himself to us in Scripture. Those who are choosing to deny a historical fall are committing what is best described as a slow and painful theological suicide. If we abandon a historical fall, the doctrine of God is hopelessly eviscerated, shorn of its most central and treasured features. Oddly enough, then, Christianity needs Adam and his primal disobedience.
Only three options
The question of the origin of evil only has three possible solutions. Two of them are deadly—monism and dualism. Monism assures us that evil and good find their origin in God or ultimate reality. Evil and good are part of a larger truth; they are swallowed up by the greater whole. Jakob Böhme (1575-1624), the German Lutheran mystic, for instance, believed that good and evil are dueling forces within the very being of God. “God is all,” he wrote, “He is darkness and light, love and wrath, fire and light.” All the evil that we suffer in this broken world springs from God himself—“For all things have their first beginning from the outflow of the divine will, be it evil or good, love or sorrow.” This perspective is stated more explicitly by Baruch Spinoza, the seventeenth century Jewish philosopher, who claims that everything, including evil, is one aspect of the divine reality. “In nature there is nothing contingent,” Spinoza insists, “but all things have been determined from the necessity of the divine nature to exist and produce an effect in a certain way.” In plain English, evil had to exist and it is caused by God.
In the case of dualism, light and darkness are two eternal forces in conflict with each other. Good and evil cannot be united in any way. Zoroaster founded Zoroastrianism during the sixth century B.C., an ancient Persian religion known by tradition as dualistic. Ahura Mazda is the righteous god who seeks allegiance from all men and women. He does battle against Angra Mainyu, the source of evil that leads people astray. This dualism is an eternal war between the god of darkness and the god of light. A more obvious dualism appears in Manichaeism, a third century religion founded by Mani (216-277). Ultimate reality, Mani taught, consists in two fundamental co-eternal principles, god and matter, light and darkness, good and evil (prior to his conversion, as is well known, Augustine was influenced by the Manichaean religion). The same dualism rears its head in ancient Gnosticism. The world is judged the product of an evil power, and because God is good he is implacably disposed against anything material. Matter itself is intrinsically evil.
Biblical religion does not—for it cannot—tolerate either monism or dualism. Christians worship the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, who is not only the triune God of bountiful goodness, but also resplendent in holiness, without a trace or shadow of evil. Clearly monism is out of the question. This same God created and also governs the entire cosmos that is teeming with all his creatures. Nothing else exists independently of God; every other reality derives its very being from him. At best other so-called gods or eternal principles are the stuff of myth. They don’t exist in the biblical world. It stands to reason that dualism is also out of the question.
A third, final possibility remains, however, namely that one of God’s own creatures fell. Evil, on this view, is a creaturely reality, it is something foreign, contingent, deeply mysterious, that has entered and ruptured God’s good creation. This third solution is the pure genius of the Christian tradition, marinated in Scripture, as it evades the Scylla of monism and the Charybdis of dualism. C. S. Lewis grasped this point with great clarity when he noted that the fall “exists to guard against two sub-Christian theories of the origin of evil—Monism … and Dualism.” The French thinker, Paul Ricoeur, recognized the role that Adam’s fall played in theology (though in the end he rejected it). If evil originated from the fall, “it prevents it from being regarded as primordial evil,” explained Ricoeur. “Sin may be ‘older’ than sins, but innocence is still ‘older.’” That is well said.
Exception to the rule?
In our day, this doctrine of the fall has fallen on hard times among Western academics. Ricoeur was not alone in rejecting this doctrine, the list is legion. Thirty years ago, W. Sibley Towner concluded that “[t]here is no Fall in scripture … There is no account of the origin of evil and no primeval encounter with Satan.” The theologian Paul Tillich tells us that, “Biblical literalism did a distinct disservice to Christianity in its identification of the Christian emphasis on the symbol of the Fall with the literalistic interpretation of the Genesis story.” For Reinhold Niebuhr, to read the narrative of Adam historically is to offer “childlike answers” to “childlike questions.” David Kelsey similarly announces that the traditional doctrine of the fall is “unintelligible” and “no longer believable.” A recent restatement of Augustine’s hamartiology informs us that the demotion of Adam frees “Christianity from commitment to the kind of monogenetic theory of human origins that contemporary evolutionary biology renders untenable.” O Adam, woe to you, unceremoniously banished to the outer darkness of ancient Near Eastern myth!
None of these theological developments are all that surprising. Adam’s fall is under heavy fire and has been so for a long time, facing tremendous pressure from multiple disciplines. Much of the recent tension comes from mainstream interpretations of the scientific data (e.g., evolution; population genetics; cognitive ethology). The handwriting is on the wall, or so we are told. Standing fast with the tradition, in this context, doesn’t seem intellectually attractive or even credible. However, caveat emptor! These new interpretations come with a very high price tag: once we lose Adam the only recourse left to us is to embrace monism or dualism. The good news is that none of these scholars are drawn to dualism; the bad news is that they all finally succumb to monism.
The situation makes sense if we consider the logic of original sin. This doctrine functions on two key fronts—it tells us that we all share in Adam’s guilt and are conceived in sin (thus we sin because we are sinners by constitution); it also points back to Adam’s fall as the ultimate origin of evil within the human experience. Those scholars who have dispensed with Adam are thus obliged to explain why sin is so endemic to humanity. If not the fall, then whence sin?
That is a good question. There are a number of different, often overlapping answers offered by those who reject the traditional doctrine of the fall. By appealing to nature and nurture, some theistic evolutionists argue that sin arises at the interface between nature (genes) and nurture (culture). Those two poles are essential to being human—we do not sin “because we bear the guilt and fractured will of a single ancestral couple who fell from a state of original righteousness, but because we share a transtemporal and universal biological and cultural heritage that predisposes us to sin.” To be “fallen,” on this view, is to have sinful tendencies that are now part of our nature and nurture but were once amoral traits which allowed our pre-human ancestors to evolve by natural selection. Others think that our experience of sin arises from disorder or entropy that is within the actual physical structure of creation. We are innate sinners, then, because we inherited analogous capacities from nonhuman animals (our evolutionary ancestors), and those capacities, in turn, developed from more basic physical processes. As one advocate clarifies, entropy is the “background, predisposition, or precursor to what emerges in us as sin.” In a third proposal, “the fall” is simply a premodern way of describing human freedom, the freedom achieved when our species Homo sapiens arrived at a high degree of evolutionary complexity. That honour comes with a new psychological complexity that far exceeds other animals, but it also means we are now saddled with a biological, inborn disposition to sin, “an inevitable consequence of human freedom.”
Make no mistake, the shadow of monism looms large. And that’s because, for this brand of theistic evolution, Adam is missing in action. Sin’s origin becomes an ominous problem, as the human disposition to sin is now a natural part of the evolutionary process. We have inherited the tendency to sin against others from our nonhuman ancestors. Violence, selfishness, and other vices galore, are the engine driving evolutionary survival. There has never been a time in which human beings experienced life without sin. Evil and sin, in fact, are a necessary part of God’s creative design. The appeal to human freedom is a hopeful move, as such, but cannot resolve the problem in this case given that sin is still inevitable, as it must be on the standard evolutionary account. Sin that was a contingent reality in the older scheme has been reduced to “the very ingredients of being … [with] its seed and its root in the very creation.” Since God is our sovereign creator, directly responsible for the character of his creation, and since sin is now an extension of biology, one piece of a larger monistic puzzle—he is by implication the Author of evil.
John Schneider, a former professor at Calvin College, has recently challenged this conclusion. Given what our best scientists are saying, he doubts Adam and Eve ever existed or were the progenitors of the human race. In the traditional picture, God’s probationary testing of Adam and Eve could have gone either way, but their subsequent fall led him to initiate a plan of redemption. Schneider thinks this picture is hugely implausible and was foisted on the western church by Augustine. Drawing instead on Irenaeus, Schneider envisions God’s original creation as full of disorder, natural evils, and even human vice—but this creation was still “good” because its ultimate value can only be judged in light of the picture that emerges on the broad canvass of all of redemptive history. In the incarnation and atonement, God will finally vanquish all the evil that has spoiled his world from the beginning—that was his reason for creating anyway—and the final picture of evil being overcome by God’s victory through Christ will be, overall, beautiful. The name he has given to this new proposal is “aesthetic supralapsarianism.”
His case against Augustine deserves a closer look. Schneider claims that current scientific opinion rules out the idea of an original couple; we should also not appeal to the Bible as part of the evidence since that would be “unacceptably parochial” (by excluding non-Christians). In any case, Augustine’s interpretation is not the only option—according to Schneider, Irenaeus offers a far better alternative. His next move is to invoke a familiar criticism of pre-fall Adam; what could possibly have motivated him to sin given that he was morally pure and enjoyed the sheer bliss of God’s presence? In Schneider’s mind, the moral psychology doesn’t make sense. Finally, Schneider claims that the Augustinian theodicy doesn’t even work as advertised. It doesn’t work because if pre-fallen Adam is able to sin (posse peccare), God must have created him with an in-built spiritual “fragility” that was consistent with original goodness. But if that is the case, Schneider observes, haven’t you rendered God the Author of evil after all?
Let me respond to each of his main points. It is true that the current scientific consensus doesn’t bode well for an original couple. But a Christian should count the biblical testimony as part of the relevant evidence—he would be a fool not to since we have in Scripture the living God addressing us through unerring human words. Scripture clearly portrays Adam and Eve as the first human beings. Schneider may even concede this point. His claims about Irenaeus, though popular among many Christian scholars, are exaggerated and miss the target. Irenaeus was cut from the same cloth as all the church fathers who believed Adam and Eve were two historical individuals from whom all humanity is descended (a view at odds with mainstream evolution). Yes, Irenaeus thought Adam was like an infant who had to “grow, and so come to (his) perfection”—but this child-like innocence was sinless, a point that makes all the difference. He held that sin entered Eden; it was not there at the beginning:
This commandment [not to eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil] the man kept not, but was disobedient to God, being led astray by the angel who, for the great gifts of God which He had given to man, was envious and jealous of him, and both brought himself to nought and made man sinful, persuading him to disobey the commandment of God. So the angel, becoming by his falsehood the author and originator of sin, himself was struck down, having offended against God, and man he caused to be cast out from Paradise.
In the present discussion, the significant point is that Irenaeus and Augustine shared a belief in Adam’s originating sin. Augustine even sounds Irenaean in making the distinction between posse non peccare (Adam able not to sin in Eden) and non posse peccare (Adam not able to sin in glory)—it was always the divine goal that pre-fallen Adam would experience growth. Schneider is right to note that there are differences between these two theologians, and yet, “to set Irenaeus and Augustine sharply against each other makes neither historical nor theological sense.” In the patristic scheme of things, these men had largely complementary perspectives.
Schneider’s other two criticisms target the plausibility of sinless Adam sinning in the first place. He’s right that it’s difficult, perhaps impossible, to fathom why someone in Adam’s sinless spiritual state would ever disobey God. But this insight was not lost on Augustine or his theological heirs (as Schneider knows), and it is why the best representatives of the Augustinian tradition have always recognized something fundamentally mysterious about this problem. By endorsing the concept of “mystery,” they simply recognized our inability, this far East of Eden, to answer that question. Schneider’s criticisms at this point derive most of their force from trying to peel away the mystery to solve the problem. Perhaps it is not our business to solve that particular problem, given that our Lord has chosen in his wisdom to keep his reasons obscure from us (cf. Deut 29:29).
I have similar concerns related to his comments on Adam’s spiritual fragility. His critique is only compelling insofar as pre-fallen Adam represents a “problem” to solve rather than a canonical mystery to confess. In any case, Adam’s fragility only presents a genuine theodicy problem if it is true that God denied him the capacity to obey the original command—but of course the Augustinian doctrine makes no such claims. Schneider’s proposal turns out, in the end, to be a cure far worse than the disease. He claims that sin and evil are part of the ontological fabric of God’s creation; in order to accomplish the original goal of incarnation and atonement, sin and evil must be intrinsic to God’s evolutionary, creative process. That means that for Schneider creation has never existed without evil. His aesthetic supralapsarianism does not escape monism, the ghost that haunts theistic evolution whenever it relinquishes the fall.
Adam’s fall, the only logic
The conclusion follows irresistibly. Adam’s fall fits seamlessly into the logic of the Christian faith. Monism is excluded because sin is absolutely foreign to the being of God. Yahweh, the God of Israel, is the thrice holy God—holy, holy, holy!—and the whole earth is full of his glory (Isa 6:3). God is the Rock, everything he does is perfect and all his ways are just. He can do no wrong (Deut 32:4). Not only is there no hint of sin in God, his wrath is revealed against all the godlessness and wickedness among men (Rom 1:18). There can be no monistic waffling—“God is light; in him there is no darkness at all” (1 John 1:15; cf. James 1:13). If any doubt remains, we need only recall with wonder and great trembling that it was because of sin and evil that the Son of God became incarnate and laid down his life as a propitiation for the sins of many (Heb 9:11-28). There is no greater truth than this—God is holy and in him there is no sin. G. C. Berkouwer struck gold when he called this the biblical a priori, “that God is not the Source, or the Cause, or the Author of man’s sin.” Herman Bavinck said the same years earlier: “Scripture vindicates God and presents a continuous theodicy when it proclaims and maintains that God is in no way the cause of sin.”
Yahweh brooks no rivals (Ex 20:3; Deut 5:7), so dualism is also excluded. In the biblical world, the only real world, there is one Lord, “the Alpha and the Omega, the First and the Last, the Beginning and the End” (Rev 22:13). Even the devil is God’s devil. Sin entered into God’s good creation as a result of Adam’s fall (Rom 5:12). That is the scene of the original crime and it is precisely there that we first hear the glad tidings of salvation (cf. Gen 3:15). The doctrine of the fall reminds us that things are not the way they’re supposed to be. It reminds us of the liberating gospel and Jesus Christ our blessed Saviour, the Last Adam who did for us what the first Adam failed to do. Jesus came once and, God be praised forever and ever, he will come back again—when “all shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.”