Denis Alexander, of the Faraday Institute, the Templeton funded “interdisciplinary research enterprise based at St Edmund’s College, Cambridge,” whose purpose is to show that Christianity and science are compatible, has a piece in the Guardian this morning (24th December), just in time for Father Christmas, entitled “Evolution, Christmas and the Atonement.” Of course, the problem that he is addressing is a real one, to solve which Alexander is prepared to throw Augustine to the ravening wolves of unbelief.
The problem, to put it simply, is this. The birth of Jesus, which Christians in the West celebrate on 25th December, and Christians in the East (even if they live in the West) celebrate on 6th of January (when Christians in the West celebrate the Epiphany) — it all gets easier after this — is thought to serve a purpose for the whole of humankind. According to the story, we are — all of us — so sunk in evil and sin that only something like the sacrifice of a god can save us. This is outlined in the letter to the Hebrews in the New Testament, long thought to have been written by St. Paul, but now known to have been written by Anonymous. According to Hebrews, Jesus’ sacrifice, unlike the sacrifices of the Jews, is alone sufficient to atone for the sin and evil in which humankind is so deeply sunk. Jesus entered into the holy place (viz., before the throne of God) with his own blood (Hebrews 9.12), and thereby saved those who believe.
St. Paul put it quite simply in the 15th chapter of his first letter to the Christians at Corinth, where he sums up the faith that he had received. First, the heart of that faith:
15:1 Now I declare to you, brothers, the Good News which I preached to you, which also you received, in which you also stand, 15:2 by which also you are saved, if you hold firmly the word which I preached to you—unless you believed in vain. 15:3 For I delivered to you first of all that which I also received: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, 15:4 that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures …
And then its relationship to the history of humankind:
15:20 But now Christ has been raised from the dead. He became the first fruits of those who are asleep. 15:21 For since death came by man, the resurrection of the dead also came by man. 15:22 For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ all will be made alive.
The whole passage, incidentally, is prescribed by the Book of Common Prayer (1549) to be read at funerals, and you can see why.
The crucial point, of course, is the reassurance to people who have just lost a loved one that, though it seems, in burying their loved one, that death itself has won the victory, the truth is that the person will be made alive in Christ. This is something yet to happen. Christ has already won the victory over death, and while it may seem that death has won, this is only for now. In the end, all those who have died in Christ will be raised with him. What happens in the meantime? Well, no one really had an answer to this question. The church in the West decided that this would be a time for purgation and renewal, so that those who died, their venial sins still upon them (mortal sins, unshriven, would take you straight to hell), would have those faults burned away in purgatory so that they would be fit to stand with Christ in the last day. Protestantism, generally, has left the issue undecided, and it is usually held that the person, upon death, already stands before the judgement seat of Christ, or is even whisked immediately into the presence of God. Of course, about that for which there is no evidence, practically anything can be said or believed.
But it is important to see that in this important chapter Paul is trying to set people’s minds at rest. Many of them were taught that the coming of Christ was imminent; but people kept on dying, nonetheless. What was to happen to them, since they would not be here to receive Christ when he comes? Was the whole thing just made up out of thin air? How could they know that what they believed was true? This great 15th chapter of Paul’s first letter to the Christians at Corinth was supposed to reassure them that they had not believed in vain:
15:12 Now if Christ is preached, that he has been raised from the dead, how do some among you say that there is no resurrection of the dead? 15:13 But if there is no resurrection of the dead, neither has Christ been raised. 15:14 If Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain, and your faith also is in vain. 15:15 Yes, we are found false witnesses of God, because we testified about God that he raised up Christ, whom he didn’t raise up, if it is so that the dead are not raised. 15:16 For if the dead aren’t raised, neither has Christ been raised. 15:17 If Christ has not been raised, your faith is vain; you are still in your sins. 15:18 Then they also who are fallen asleep in Christ have perished. 15:19 If we have only hoped in Christ in this life, we are of all men most pitiable.
Notice how “iffy” the reassurance is. Paul has told them, on his own authority, that Jesus was raised from the dead, and now he says, if he wasn’t, then their faith has all been in vain, and they “are still in [their] sins.” This is the classic move in cases of cognitive dissonance. The only solution for people who have based their lives on a belief that seems to be contradicted by experience — if they are not simply to give it up altogether – is to believe more firmly. Faith thus enters a dynamic of communal reinforcement, and may even then reach out beyond itself to convince others of the truth of their beliefs. There is nothing more reassuring to someone who has begun to wonder whether their faith is really true than the fact that new believers are attracted to the same beliefs. This dynamic was studied in some detail by Leon Festinger, Henry W. Riecken, Stanley Schachter and Elliot Aronson, and explained in their book When Prophecy Fails.
Now, let’s return to Denis Alexander. Alexander has a problem. Ever since Augustine, and, I think, even before, indeed, ever since St. Paul, people have thought of the story of Jesus as in a sense recapitulating the story of Adam and Eve and the Fall, thus reversing, by his obedience unto death, the disobedience of Adam that brought death into the world. It is of course true, as Alexander says, that the Bible itself never mentions something called “the Fall,” but the idea is present in Paul’s claim that “in Adam all die.” St. Paul believed — though he may not have expressed it this way — that with Adam’s disobedience an ontological change took place in the nature of humanity, and not only of humanity, but in the very nature the universe itself, for, in his letter to the Romans Paul tells us that the whole of creation is groaning in labour pains, awaiting the redemption of the body. Listen:
8:21 … the creation itself also will be delivered from the bondage of decay into the liberty of the glory of the children of God. 8:22 For we know that the whole creation groans and travails in pain together until now. 8:23 Not only so, but ourselves also, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, even we ourselves groan within ourselves, waiting for adoption, the redemption of our body.
In other words, redemption in Christ has cosmic significance. It may be, as Alexander says, that the Bible doesn’t think of death as originating with Adam, but Paul’s idea of the cosmic Christ seems to suggest otherwise. Alexander says:
On the day that Adam and Eve sin, they do not drop dead but proceed to have a big family, albeit now alienated from friendship with God, causing spiritual death. Nowhere does the Bible teach that physical death originates with the sin of Adam, nor that sin is inherited from Adam, as Augustine maintained.
Notice that important qualification: “physical.” In the light of what Paul says in First Corinthians, and what we read in his letter to the Romans, this seems to be a bit of the soft shoe shuffle. It’s the stock-in-trade of theology: if one way doesn’t work, try another. Perhaps death didn’t originate with Adam, but Paul does say that “in Adam all die,” and that the whole of creation awaits the redemption of the body. So, theologically speaking, the Bible does tell us that death originates with Adam — possibly not physical death, but a death that is, if anything, more real, at least to Paul — for the the whole of creation is somehow involved in Adam’s disobedience. It’s that real!
So, of course the Bible teaches that death originates with Adam’s sin, and that Eve was responsible for it — which explains why the Bible tends to treat women as second class citizens, why women are, throughout the history of Christianity, thought of in very much the same way as they are regarded in Islam, as seductive and dangerous to the spiritual life of men, a nasty necessity for reproduction, but not in the same spiritual or intellectual league at all. Eve was the one who fell, but women are just like that, weak and formless, given to overexcited emotionality, not rational and upright like men. So the more serious fault lies with Adam, because men are, by nature, more rational and noble, and less affected by emotion than women. That’s why it is better that women should be marginalised, kept for reproductive purposes, but otherwise not to be seen or heard, much like children.
In any event, to continue. It is very clear in the story of Adam and Eve in the first few chapters of Genesis that the Serpent’s prediction, though it doesn’t happen the moment they disobey God and eat the “apple,” as the Snake says it will, that death will be the result of this disobedience, is in fact borne out by events. Perhaps the story can be read metaphorically — practically any story can — but Paul, I think, is forced to reinterpret the story for the Corithians, because things just refused to happen as he thought they would. Paul believed that the coming of Christ was imminent – and that’s what he had been preaching so urgently and unceasingly, lest some should die before the message had been heard — and when it didn’t happen, he had to explain the contradiction; he had to relieve the cognitive dissonance that he and his converts were feeling. There was simply no reason for doing this, unless Paul initially believed that death entered the world through Adam. It is only when things don’t happen the way they are supposed to that Paul brings his intelligence to bear and makes a distinction between physical and spiritual death, so neatly expressed by Alexander’s prevarication, where he emphasises (but does not explain what he is doing) that physical death did not enter the world with the sin of Adam. But this is simply falsified by Paul’s cosmic conception of what took place at the Fall.
Alexander says, in response to his summation about Augustine’s theory — which is really Paul’s theory – of original sin and the Fall being disconfirmed by evolution:
So do we then just shrug our shoulders and say “well so much the worse for theology – science wins in the end”? Surprisingly, perhaps, the Bible suggests otherwise.
And, of course, that’s true, but unsurprising, for, as we have just seen, Paul faced the same problem long long before Christian theology was seen to be in conflict with the theory of evolution. Paul realised that he had to resort to figurative ways of understanding the story of Adam and Eve because people were still dying, and this shouldn’t be happening if Christ was really triumphant over the grave and was soon to return to receive his own.
Nevertheless, science does win in the end, and Augustine was right. Jewish commentators seldom interpreted the sin of Adam as the Fall of Man. It wasn’t a universally significant moment in that sense, though it was in another, and perhaps more important sense. The story of Adam and Eve is the story of human becoming, retelling, imaginatively, the story of the moment when human beings became both morally conscious beings and at the same time came to be aware that they would die. The transition to moral consciousness was, indeed, a transition of enormous significance to humanity. It is the story of this transition that Christians interpreted in terms of human sinfulness and failure, a problem to which Jesus is thought to have been God’s solution. In other words, if Jesus is the solution, then, as Augustine realised (and as Paul saw as well), there has to be a problem, and the problem was located, by Paul, and by subsequent Christian theology, in the disobedience of Adam.
Alexander thinks that he has solved the problem (and so did St. Paul) by reading the Adam and Eve story figuratively. But can that work? The problem is this. God created us. If we are in need of redemption because of our misdoings, then we must be responsible, otherwise God created us evil. Now, while it is just possible to see, given the logic of sacrificial offering, how one man might be taken as representative of the whole human race, so that, as Paul says, we have all been made alive in Christ; does it make sense to say that a representative human being was chosen by God to take responsibility for, and in some sense to be the cause of, the general sinfulness of human beings? I don’t think so. And this is precisely the problem that Augustine was trying to solve by his idea of the Fall of Man, in terms of which everyone inherited Adam’s nature as a kind of genetic infection, as if Adam’s sin caused a genetic flaw which was inherited by all subsequent members of the human race. While the idea of representative man might work in the case of sacrificial offering, representative man cannot work in terms of attributing sinfulness to all human beings, which is what the doctrine of original sin attempts to do (if, indeed, we cannot take the story of Adam and Eve literally).
If Christians cannot reinvent the theory of the Fall of Man in some way that makes sense, then Christmas doesn’t work either. I don’t think they can. All the metaphors in the world cannot attribute sinfulness to all humankind, the kind of sinfulness which would take the sacrifice of God’s own son (supposing it makes sense to talk in this way) to redeem us. It will take more than a metaphor to justify a human sacrifice. And it will take more than the suffering and death of one man to atone for the evil that we do. If there was no first Adam, in the sense required, then Jesus Christ cannot be the second, and all the sentimentality and hollow joy of Christmas will not make up for this deficiency at the heart of the Christian theory of redemption — which, for good reasons, has never been solidified into dogma. The simple truth seems to be that there is no satisfactory way of doing it. Had this been attempted, the very implausibility of Christianity and the redemption it promises would have been obvious long ago.
I have just received notice that Jerry Coyne has also addressed himself to Alexander’s remarks. Well, they do just cry out for commentary, don’t they? Perhaps someone will explain how Christmas really does make sense. Denis Alexander’s attempt fails, in my view, and I suspect that other attempts will fail as well. Making human sinfulness as such – that is, our tendency to do wrong — a matter of human responsibility simply won’t work. We are finite beings who have come to be what we are as a result of evolution. We fail to live up to our own moral standards for reasons having to do with the evolutionary path that, as a species, we have taken. We do not need redemption, even though unappeased guilt may often assail us. What we need to do is to contribute our own small piece of the puzzle so that our successors will be able to live their lives with less torment than those who have gone before them. There is no answer, just occasional insights that will make life better than we have received it. The fact that Christians and other religious believers think that there is an answer is, sadly, part of the problem.