According to the theology of the early Christian church fathers, Adam not only possessed complete human harmony, he also possessed an encompassing knowledge of nature such that God brought all the animals to him so that he could name them (Gen. 2: 19–20). Adam and Eve lost not only these gifts as a result of the fall, but suffering and death became part of their lives and were passed on to their offspring. Eastern theologians, therefore, spoke of death by heredity, while Augustine of Hippo and other early Western theologians spoke of original sin that is passed on by heredity from one generation to the next. According to this view, only the Bible, as God's revelation, offers true knowledge.
During the Middle Ages, the influences of the theologies of creation and Christology, as well as the reception of Aristotelian and other ancient Greek writings, brought about a new understanding of the regularity and independence of the laws of nature. Scholars began to see nature as a second book of God's revelation, in addition to the Bible. Consequently, the idea appeared that humans had to study the book of nature to regain partly the knowledge that Adam had lost in the fall. This idea was important in English physico-theology during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, which strongly influenced the emerging natural sciences.
Criticism against the doctrine of original sin emerged with Enlightenment philosophy, which, contrary to the natural sciences and their conception of deterministic laws, emphasized human freedom and deemed the conception of passing on sin by heredity a confusion of categories in which sin was an aspect of history, and heredity an aspect of nature. Enlightenment philosophy interpreted the fall as a necessary step in human development from a dreaming, childlike consciousness toward the full adult consciousness that befitted humanity. For nineteenth-century philosopher Søren Kierkegaard, angst, which distinguishes humans as ecstatic beings from animals, is the actual occasion for sin. Kierkegaard rejects, however, any attempt to scientifically construe a cause for sin because this would create only myths.
The theory of evolution challenged the traditional doctrine of original sin from still another angle. How could primordial humans, who hardly differed in their abilities from animals, have had a comprehensive knowledge of nature, and how could they have determined the whole of human history that was to come? Evolutionary theory also weakens arguments against the doctrine of original sin that stem from Enlightenment philosophy. Evolutionary theory, in effect, transcends the juxtaposition of nature and history that the Enlightenment had assumed because it can show how behavior is, in fact, passed on through heredity, and contingent (historical) events can become structural elements of a living organism.
The doctrine of the fall, on the one hand, intends to emphasize that evil, which has been the cause of great suffering in the course of history, is rooted deep within humanity, and therefore is not easily overcome. It rejects all simplified, quick, and utopian solutions to the problem of evil. On the other hand, the doctrine precludes human nature from being identified with evil, and thus leaves the way open for potential, however laborious, progress. It addresses a depth in the human person that can only be addressed in a language of its own, such as myth.
Furthermore, evolutionary theory explains how events and developments that are experienced as negative or evil by single creatures (e.g., suffering, being killed, being fed on) are conducive to the development of life in general. In this way, evolutionary theory provides a new context for theological reinterpretations of the traditional doctrine of the fall. These reinterpretations are developed within the framework of either classical theology (Raymund Schwager), process theology ( Jerry Korsmeyer), or as part of a common theory of religions (Eugen Drewermann and Philip Hefner).
See also Augustine; Evil and Suffering; Evolution; Human Nature, Religious and Philosophical Aspects; Natural Theology; Two Books
drewermann, eugen. strukturen des bösen. paderborn, germany: schöningh, 1977–1978.
hefner, philip. "biological perspective of fall." zygon 28 (1993): 77–101.
kierkegaard, søren. the concept of anxiety (1844), trans. and ed. reidar thomte. princeton, n.j.: princeton university press, 1980.
korsmeyer, jerry. evolution and eden: balancing original sin and contemporary science. new york: paulist press, 1998.
ricoeur, paul. the symbolism of evil, trans. emerson buchanan. boston: beacon press, 1969.
schwager, raymund. erbsünde und heilsdrama. münster, germany: lit verlag, 1994.