The disobedience of Adam and Eve, called “The Fall” in Genesis needs new interpretation in the light of evolution.
An Existential approach like that used by Paul Tillich a and Karl Rahner may help.
“The Fall” is not something actually historical that occurred in definite place and time but is instead symbolic of every human and is a failure of psychological and moral development.
The Biblical Stories
From the two stories of creation in Genesis 1-2 the biblical narration leads into chapters 3 and 4 with stories where the first humans disobey God and are driven from the Paradise of Eden. They are cut off from the Tree of Life and labour and existence becomes a burden rather than a joy. Their fellowship with each other is marred and also their life with the rest of creation becomes also one of antagonism. Murder then enters the saga as Cain kills Abel.
This is ancient saga is often theologically called “The Fall”; a falling away from an original ideal existence, falling into temptation away from the divine intention, the coming of disobedience that leads to condemnation and suffering. It has become a foundational story for Jewish and Christian theologies that related to the perversity of human actions and the reality of human failures.
One of the other things related to these stories, especially in Western tradition was the idea that that initial disobedience of the first man and woman was somehow transmitted to all their descendants such that we all bear the taint and stain of that original disobedience, we have all in some way inherited this “Original Sin” that must be dealt with by God by acts of Salvation.
New Interpretations Needed
The modern era discoveries that led to the theory of the evolution of humanity leaves little room for an original Adam and Eve as historical persons, responsible for all the evil and suffering in the world. While attempts are made by some Christians to attempt to locate the Adam and Eve stories at some point in the development of humanity after our evolution from apes I find such attempts unconvincing and better to treat the stories as mythical and symbolic.
The story seems to convey the origin of death as a punishment. In contrast it is evident that in the long scope of cosmic and geological time suffering and death has always been part of the order of things in the world. Physical death has always been potentially and actually present in geological time and the events of the development of species in their forms and behaviours. In fact evolutionary theory presupposes that death and destruction was actually a driver of change and development of new things and new forms of life. Physical death did not occur on earth as a punishment for disobedient human ancestors. The coming of “death” may sometimes be seen as symbolic death of relationships and cut off from heaven but that is not what the original story seems to convey.
In instead of trying to locate a historical “fall” and original disobedience how may we re-interpret the theme of disobedience and “The Fall” in a modern context? Then secondly how are we to view the theological doctrine of Original Sin in an evolutionary context?
Tillich’s Existential Interpretation
Many years ago when I first embarked upon alternative ways of viewing the story of Genesis 3 other than as a quasi-history. I had already come across the idea of interpreting the story allegorically and symbolically as representing all people as they are with the tendency to go astray. It was with this in mind that I found some helpful support when reading part of Paul Tillich’s “Systematic Theology”. Although I would not now take on board his whole scheme and explanation of the text something of the way in which he presents the story as the story of all of us has some resonance.
Tillich rejects any kind of literalism in using the text. The story in Genesis 1-3, if taken as a myth, shows the description of the human being’s awareness of existential estrangement and shows a transition from “essence” to “existence”. Before the Fall there is a dreaming innocence and essential state of being with God. But there is then a transition to an actual existence that puts humanity at odds with God. In the choices and life that we make for ourselves we will be frequently at odds against the divine communion.
To put this another way, we are a certain type of creature that has as our essence the intention of beings in communion with God and the world. But in our life of actual choices we become something other than what are intended to be. For me the Essence as humanity is the desire of God to have us be Beings in Communion, with the divine and the world. But we have lost that Essence of Intended Humanity and have instead remained as selfish creatures, too much orientated to self-centred motivations that should have been left behind in our evolution. Our existence is instead a self-centred alienation that is only mitigated by our need to have loving relationships.
Karl Rahner’s Existential interpretation
Some notes taken from Chapter 3 of his Foundations of Christian Faith
The actual theme of the chapter is about our lives threatened by guilt and is treated in an existential way. Like Tillich he therefore sidesteps the historical origin of sin but relates it to our experience of life as having inherited our condition and being immersed in it.
It is difficult to think any longer of any temporal sequence that leads to our condition. There are even further difficulties because the perception of sin may actually be denied and just seen as a guilt from religious taboos that may longer be acknowledged. But we cannot escape the situation of our developed moral responsibilities that we ought to have and combat any false sense of innocence.
We have freedom to think and act and that freedom is the source of our problems of sin. We have freedom to act or not to act. (From an evolution point of view we have acquired such rationale freedom that has then brought about our responsibilities when we crossed a threshold of knowledge that enabled it).
The freedom to chose also includes the decision to go against God and even a denial of God’s existence and claims upon us, and this is what we do. God’s graced self- revelation has come to us but we may refuse it and cut ourselves off from it, and we are responsible for doing so. It is then an actual denial of our self that is intended to grow towards God. Our actual decisions and lives show whether or not we are living in this state of negation of God (and our intended being). However our Yes or No to God are not equivalent opposites. If we deny God our true transcendence cannot take place.
The free decisions we make affect subsequent decisions but also the decisions of others and our freedom has an impact on others and so are never isolated cases. We can know we are sinners or can become sinners by our choices even if we want to pretend we are not and this existence of sin cannot be eradicated by us.
But how are we to define and understand today what has been called “Original Sin” attributed to Adam and Eve (given the doubts about its real history and that it is just a mythical story)? We again start from the consideration of our individual and collective misuse of our freedom and the rejection of God’s graced self communication. We make our decisions in the environment of all other decisions and the decisions others have made in the past that have been a rejection of God and divine intentions and revelations. Our decisions and actions are part of the whole history of the human species (after we acquired the capacity to do so).
This does not mean (as in some Catholic traditional teaching ) that there was some specific past event that has the been transmitted as some distorted moral quality nor that some event of sinfulness in the past is imputed to us now. We know instead the actuality of Original Sin in its universal manifestation in our lives and in the world. Our own freedom is unique to us while also involved with all others.
Sin, universal and original, is in its essence a rejection of the self communication of God that is intended with grace towards us and wants to justify us. It is not just a rejection of laws and moral values its a rejection of God and all that God has intended. God’s offer of grace and self communication is still valid.
What then are we to make of the scriptural statements about Original Sin? We should not see the Genesis story and things related to it as historical reports. Instead to be seen as descriptions of our realty in the world, representative of our existence and what we do and do not do. When it comes to consider the mythical curses that follow sin we may see them as facts of existence that may be made worse by our individual and collective acts of misused freedom. (Ie that natural disasters are
A personal interpretation
With that in mind I want to now provide a further extension of this theme by looking more closely at the events in Genesis story, not as history but as some aspects of our Existential Fall, or as I would rather describe it our Failure to be our Intended Divine Essence as Beings in Communion.
3 Now the serpent was more crafty than any of the wild animals the Lord God had made. He said to the woman, “Did God really say, ‘You must not eat from any tree in the garden’?”2
The woman said to the serpent, “We may eat fruit from the trees in the garden, 3 but God did say, ‘You must not eat fruit from the tree that is in the middle of the garden, and you must not touch it, or you will die.’”
4 “You will not certainly die,” the serpent said to the woman. 5 “For God knows that when you eat from it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.”
6 When the woman saw that the fruit of the tree was good for food and pleasing to the eye, and also desirable for gaining wisdom, she took some and ate it. She also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate it.
The mythical element of the serpent as the tempter is that revealed a tendency to enter a state of disobedience. There has been a prior understanding given to human beings of a divine command and intention for moral purpose and living in the most excellent relations. It may have come as inspiration and revelation into their minds and nature, something God put to them as means of safety in growing. At some stage human beings gained an impulse, felt as command, towards a way of life but there was also contrary tendency towards the negation of that impulse.
There is a distrust of the divine voice speaking into the mind and a distrusting wilfulness to reach out to fulfil personal desires. It is a leaning towards personal desire rather than trust in the divine voice.
Would God have deprived them of the fruit forever? Possibly it was there to given at a later stage of relationship. But humanity is impatient, wanting the satisfaction of desires now. We cannot wait and the divine voice is seen as unfair and withholding something the self wants.
Then the eyes of both of them were opened, and they realized they were naked; so they sewed fig leaves together and made coverings for themselves. 8 Then the man and his wife heard the sound of the Lord God as he was walking in the garden in the cool of the day, and they hid from the Lord God among the trees of the garden.
The realisation of nakedness is on the one hand a symbol of sexual shame but could also point to a greater sense of guilt. One of the outcomes of the deviation from the revealed Divine Will is the inner estrangement that results in guilt and shame. We become not only outwardly guilty in the face of God but known this sense of guilt and shame within ourselves, although this may be manifest in denial and other manifestations of reactions born of that guilt.
. 9 But the Lord God called to the man, “Where are you?”10 He answered, “I heard you in the garden, and I was afraid because I was naked; so I hid.”
11 And God said, “Who told you that you were naked? Have you eaten from the tree that I commanded you not to eat from?”
12 The man said, “The woman you put here with me—she gave me some fruit from the tree, and I ate it.”
13 Then the Lord God said to the woman, “What is this you have done?” The woman said, “The serpent deceived me, and I ate.”
The manifestations of guilt and shame are further shown in the dialogue. The desire to hide the guilt and then pass the blame for the deed on to another. The man will not own his guilt but blames his wife. The woman while admitting she has eaten the fruit casts the blame upon the serpent.
16 To the woman God said, “I will make your pains in childbearing very severe; with painful labour you will give birth to children. Your desire will be for your husband, and he will rule over you.”
7 To Adam he said, “Because you listened to your wife and ate fruit from the tree about which I commanded you, ‘You must not eat from it,’ Cursed is the ground because of you; through painful toil you will eat food from it all the days of your life. 18 It will produce thorns and thistles for you, and you will eat the plants of the field. 19 By the sweat of your brow you will eat your food until you return to the ground, since from it you were taken; for dust you are and to dust you will return.”
The divine curses can be seen symbolically as consequences of the disobedience and the guilt. The wilful selfish disobedience disrupts human relationships and also disrupts relationships with the rest of creation.
From an evolutionary point of view there was probably never a perfect relationship with the natural world, but even any intended and possible good natural relationships are tainted and disrupted by turning aside from the divine will and from out intended role as lovers of creation. The self-motivations make natural relationships worse than they would have been when living the divine will and wisdom.
There is another reason to rject the story as historically; true it also makes God look despotic to inflict such injury on the whole of their descendents beacause of their individual sin.
20 Adam[c] named his wife Eve,[d] because she would become the mother of all the living. 21 The Lord God made garments of skin for Adam and his wife and clothed them.
22 And the Lord God said, “The man has now become like one of us, knowing good and evil. He must not be allowed to reach out his hand and take also from the tree of life and eat, and live forever.” 23 So the Lord God banished him from the Garden of Eden to work the ground from which he had been taken. 24 After he drove the man out, he placed on the east side[e] of the Garden of Eden cherubim and a flaming sword flashing back and forth to guard the way to the tree of life.
Despite the extension of divine curse to include banishment from Eden, from the state of harmony, it should be noted there is one important divine initiative. God provides alternative garments to their self-made clothing. It is one of those early biblical pointers to salvation as God provides a covering that is an answer their shame and guilt. it points to a God who loves and wants to heal the breach of relationships caused by ignorant and willful sin and disobedience.
You dearest Origin and Lover of all life reveal your heart to me, you reveal my best to be
But alas I often ignore your way to answer my selfish desires
I am lost in my self and have lost my truest life to be
Yet you would clothe me anew and give me my Right Mind and my best Humanity