Do We Need an Alternative to the Traditional View of the Fall? | The BioLogos Forum

Woodcut of Adam and Eve, from Hartmann Schedel, Nuremberg Chronicle (1493). The magnificent illustrations in this famous book are from the workshop of Michael Wohlgemut and his stepson Wilhelm Pleydenwurff.

Introduction (by Ted Davis)

Original sin and the Fall of Adam and Eve pose major challenges to proponents of Evolutionary Creation, both at the level of theology and also at the level of biblical interpretation. BioLogos does not endorse any one response to those challenges: our view is that the church deserves a serious, pluralistic conversation about evolution and original sin. In an effort to help foster that conversation, we already provide numerous resources, among them these:

Further resources are being developed by some recipients of The BioLogos Foundation’s Evolution & Christian Faith program.

This series offers yet another perspective, as we serialize a paper by philosopher Robin Collins, entitled “Evolution and Original Sin.”

When this series began last fall, Collins introduced us to what he calls the “historical/ideal” view of Adam and Eve. If you haven’t been following along very closely, then I recommend reading that column carefully before going further. Collins then applied his approach to the biblical texts most frequently cited in reference to original sin: Romans 1, Romans 5, and Genesis 1-4. Separate sections dealt with biblical inspiration and Paul’s overall view of Adam.

Now we reach the climax of Collins’ essay, in which he compares his HI view with five other views before concluding with a final theological reflection. I’ve divided this part of the essay into three columns, the first of which compares the HI with just one alternative: the traditional view, which Collins calls the “historical/literal” interpretation. Happy reading!

Comparing the Historical/Ideal View with the Historical/Literal Interpretation

The traditional interpretation of the Fall, which is sometimes called the historical/literal interpretation, subscribes to a literal Adam and Eve who were in a literal paradise in which they were in fellowship with God. By disobeying God’s command to eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, this first couple violated their relationship with God and fell into a state of condemnation and bondage to sin.This fallen state was passed on to all Adam and Eve’s descendants.

This interpretation usually takes two versions. In one version, the Fall of Adam and Eve is responsible for all the death and suffering throughout creation. In a second version, the Fall affected only Adam and Eve and their descendants and did not directly affect the rest of creation.

This cartoon from the creationist ministryAnswers in Genesis illustrates the belief that there was no animal death prior to the Fall. A central tenet of young-earthcreationism; it’s one of the driving forces behind the rejection of evidence for an “old” earth.

The first version is highly implausible on two grounds. To begin with, it is committed to young-Earth creationism, since if one believes in an old earth then clearly death and suffering have been around long before Adam and Eve. Second, this version runs into problems when we consider animal death and suffering. Much of the death and suffering in the world is a result of the way creatures are constructed. It is not the result of some corruption of the creature’s original design. The tiger, for instance, has instincts, teeth, and a digestive system intricately well designed to catch and eat prey; various bacteria and viruses are well constructed to cause illness and sickness; and grass is constructed to grow and then die in order to make room for other grass. Thus, this version implies that the Fall somehow reconstructed, or redesigned various organisms on earth. But, the only way this could have happened is through some intelligence. One is thus left with claiming either: (1) that some evil power reconstructed the organisms, in which case God would no longer be the creator of present-day animals and plants; (2) that God redesigned the organisms; or (3) that God created some “redesign program” that got activated by the fall.

Clearly the claim (1) is unacceptable. Thus, one is left with the claim (2) or (3), which, however, are not much better than (1) since they end up hypothesizing a second re-creation, either by God or through the redesign program, of animals and plants after the creation recounted in Genesis 1 and 2. Such a hypothesis has no basis in Scripture and runs contrary to any natural reading of Genesis 1 and 2: Genesis 1, for instance, clearly indicates that God created the creatures we have today before the Fall, not in response to the Fall.

To avoid these problems, advocates of a literal Adam and Eve often claim that the Fall affected only Adam and Eve and their descendants and did not directly affect the rest of creation. According to one version of this view, Adam and Eve were supernaturally protected from illness, suffering, and death by their perfect relationship with God. Because of the Fall, however, they and their descendants became subject to these things.

Even though this second version is more plausible than the first, it also runs into severe problems insofar as it ascribes to a literal reading of Genesis 2-4, which is what typically motivates its advocates. Besides the textual implausibilities in interpreting Genesis 2-4 literally, as recounted above, there are serious scientific problems with taking this approach. The major problem is that the anthropological evidence we have overwhelmingly points to the worldwide existence of modern humans for at least 40,000 years. Further, these “humans” were culturally fairly advanced, as advanced as many tribal societies throughout the world: as Davis Young remarks, “they buried their dead in ritualistic ways indicative of religious impulses and possibly some conception of an afterlife, engaged in toolmaking, and produced cave art and a variety of beautiful art objects.” They also used fire, produced ornamentation, and made simple musical instruments, such as a bone flutes (see pp. 390 & 395 in the article listed below).

Further, the evidence that the humans who did these things existed for at least 40,000 years does not rely on a single method of dating, but on a whole multiplicity of methods: for example, Carbon-14, potassium-argon dating, Uranium track dating, amino acid racemization, paleomagnetic, electron spin, thermonuclesis, and methods involving looking at the plant and animal life contemporaneous with the fossils. Moreover, it is based on a large number of fossil finds. [In addition to the article by Davis Young, see James Hurd, “The Fossil Hominid Record,” in Perspectives on an Evolving Creation. Actual examples of this abundance of fossils and different dating methods can be obtained by a search of a general science index under “Dating of hominid fossils.”] The only way around this evidence seems to be to adopt a young-Earth creationist position. Yet, as even leading defenders of young-Earth creationism such as Paul Nelson and John Mark Reynolds admit, “Natural science at the moment seems to overwhelmingly point to an old cosmos” (Three Views of Creation and Evolution, p. 49).

If we interpret Genesis literally, however, then it would be very implausible to push the time of Adam and Eve to 40,000 years. Although even literalists accept that the genealogies in Genesis have gaps in them, few find it plausible to stretch them much beyond 10,000 B.C. For instance, Gleason Archer, who defends Genesis 2-4 as literal history, claims that “However the statistics of Genesis 5 [and the genealogies in general] may be handled, they can hardly end up with a date for Adam much before 10,000 B.C.” (The Encyclopedia of Bible Difficulties, p. 64). Taken literally, the genealogy of Genesis implies that Adam and Eve, and their descendants, were farmers and lived in settlements. Genesis 4:4, for instance, refers to Abel as tending a flock, and Genesis 4:17 refers to Cain as building a city. The extensive archeological and anthropological evidence we have, however, implies that humans did not start tending flocks and building settlements until around 10,000 B.C. (See Davis Young.) Thus, combined with this anthropological and archeological data, a historically literal interpretation of the early chapters of Genesis implies that Adam and Eve could not have existed much earlier than 10,000 B.C. This means they could not have been the first humans, contrary to what a literal historical interpretation seems to imply.

Davis Young presents an excellent review of the four major responses those who wish to defend a literal view of Genesis could give to the above problem, and concludes that they all face serious difficulties (though we do not have space to further discuss these issues). [Here Collins has a lengthy footnote: One such response is to deny that Adam and Eve were the first humans and instead claim that they were merely “representative” humans. Among other problems, this view seems to conflict with the “plain” literal-historical reading of Genesis that this response is being advanced to save, particularly Genesis 3:20 which says that Eve was the “mother of all the living.” (A related view in which Adam and Eve are seen as mythical humans that symbolically represent each human being is advanced by those who do not believe in a literal Adam and Eve, particularly by advocates of what I call the existential view—discussed in the next excerpt.)] In light of these difficulties, I think that we have very good, though not definitive, scientific reasons to reject an historically literal interpretation of the early chapters of Genesis. Notice, however, that these difficulties have nothing to do with the theory of evolution per se, but merely the evidence from archeology and anthropology.

Few authors have done more than Davis Young to advance our understanding of the history of Christianity and science. Son of E. J. Young, a leading conservative biblical scholar, Dave has written many excellent books and articles combining scientific, historical, and biblical information. In his first book, written while he was a Concordist, he opposed young-Earth creationism at a crucial moment. Subsequent works on the age of the earth and John Calvin's understanding of nature have been no less important. The consistently high quality of his work led The Geological Society of America to name him recipient of the Mary C. Rabbitt History of Geology Award in 2009.

Of course, despite these archeological and anthropological findings, one could hold the view that there was a first couple, Adam and Eve, who were the common ancestors of all humans and who lived in a paradisal state before they fell, but disassociate this from a literal interpretation of Genesis. Although such a view is certainly possible, it becomes largely unmotivated, at least apart from Church tradition. If Genesis is not taken literally, why should we feel a need to believe in a literal Adam and Eve? The only scriptural motivation that I can think of is that associated with the doctrine of original sin and the related Pauline statements, which we dealt with [in previous excerpts].

Moreover, unless one believes in some form of special creation of Adam and Eve—which does not fit well with the evidence for hominid evolution—one runs into a further problem: namely, God’s bringing these first humans into a paradisal state seems unmotivated. In the traditional young-Earth creationist account of Adam and Eve, one could make sense of why God would create them in such a state: God is a perfect God, and hence God would create a perfect world, including a perfect human couple in a perfect relationship with him. Within this scenario, the imperfections, suffering, and death of the world are the result of God’s perfect gift of free will. Once one admits that humans evolved from ancestral hominids, however, then the scenario looks much different. God would have had to take creatures with imperfect physiologies, imperfect brain structures, and imperfect instincts, and somehow brought them into perfect fellowship with himself, knowing full well that they would fall again in a short amount of time because of the frailty of their own nature. What purpose could God have in doing this? It seems unmotivated, some game that God plays with these first humans.

[Collins has a two-paragraph footnote that I’ve put here.] One could attempt to reply to the above argument by adopting the increasingly popular “open view” of God which claims that God does not know with certainly the future free acts of human beings, and hence would not have known with certainty that Adam and Eve would fall. This reply, however, still runs into the further problem of why God allowed the sin of Adam and Eve to infect their descendants. The usual answer is that it was practically inevitable that humans would eventually fall, if not Adam and Eve, then one of their descendants. So, the only way God could prevent humans from becoming fallen was continually to perform miracles to restore individuals to their unfallen state or not let them infect others, which would arguably have negative consequences for human community and mutual interdependence. This answer, however, reintroduces our original problem in a modified form: Why would God put humans into an uncorrupted state knowing that it was practically inevitable that they would eventually fall?

One might wonder if the HI view runs into a similar problem by hypothesizing an original state of unclouded awareness of God. I would argue that it does not, since God’s being present (immanent) with creation flows from God’s relational nature. In the case of self-conscious creatures, this immanence would naturally involve them being aware of God, unless something intervenes to obscure that awareness. Thus, under the HI view, there is a clear theological motivation, flowing from God’s nature, for God’s bringing about this postulated state of unclouded moral and spiritual awareness among the first self-conscious hominids.

Finally, the literal view runs into the following theological problem: If this fellowship was perfect, what could possibly be the motive for disobeying God? Thus, I conclude that although one could follow Church tradition and defend a literal Adam and Eve living in an original state of justice and holiness, it faces significant scriptural, theological, and scientific problems. Accordingly, we have good reason to look for an alternative.

Looking Ahead

When the series resumes in a couple weeks, Collins compares the HI view with four additional views. Opportunities to delve into these issues at this level, with a Christian scholar as qualified as Collins, do not come along every day. We are pleased to bring these ideas out of the “ivory tower” and into your busy lives, and we hope you find them sufficiently interesting to stay with us for the last two excerpts.

References and Credits

Robin Collins’ chapter from Perspectives on an Evolving Creation, ed. Keith B. Miller (Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2003), is reproduced by kind permission of the author and the Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company. We gratefully acknowledge their cooperation in bringing this material to our readers.

All Scripture quotations in this paper are from the NRSV translation.

One of the sources cited by Collins is especially important for anyone interested in this topic: Davis Young, “The Antiquity and Unity of the Human Race Revisited,” Christian Scholars Review 24 (May 1995): 380-396. For more information about radioactive dating methods in general, see Roger C. Wiens, “Radiometric Dating: A Christian Perspective.”

Readers who study either article are invited to comment here.

This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at

@TedDavis is available to respond to questions and comments about this article, or any of the ideas in this series.

One idea that seems seldom addressed in these discussion arises when the 2nd creation story is read in context with other ANE stories. I’ll keep this short, but among the pantheistic religions of that time, evil was thought to reside in nature. For example, evil was often understood as the act of capricious gods. The 2nd creation story, by contrast, elevates evil from the natural realm to the moral realm. In the story of Adam and Eve, evil arises because of choice. The human, not the gods, are responsible for evil and, more importantly, have the means to prevent evil by organizing cultures around a set of moral values and the ethical rules that instantiate them.

I would argue that mankind is NOT inherently evil except in the sense that evil is under his/her control. And when evil occurs, the fault is always man’s. Not some external agent. This notion of evil was profoundly radical in its day.

Blessings (and thanks for the opportunity to join in),




I preface my remarks by saying that I am not debating the notion of a fall from Grace; these posts however, made me curious, and I searched the Patristic writings I have to find a formal teaching under the term “fall of man” and “original sin”.

In “The Apostolic Fathers with Justin Martyr and Irenaeus by Philip Schaff ”. I found these instructive statements: “…; even as He submitted to be born and to be crucified, not because He needed such things, but because of the human race, which from Adam had fallen under the power of death and the guile of the serpent, and each one of which had committed personal transgression. For God, wishing both angels and men, who were endowed with free-will, and at their own disposal, to do whatever He had strengthened each to do, made them so, that if they chose the things acceptable to Himself ,…”

And " in order to manifest the disobedience of men,—I mean of Adam and Eve,—and the fall of one of the princes, i.e., of him who was called the serpent, …, because he deceived Eve. But as my discourse is not intended to touch on this point, but to prove to you that the Holy Ghost reproaches men because they were made like God, free from suffering and death, provided that they kept His commandments, and were deemed deserving of the name of His sons, and yet they, becoming like Adam and Eve, work out death for themselves …”

There are many statements other that show “fallen” can mean “error”, or any act that is “contrary to the Law” or opposed to the teachings of the Faith. In this context, a fall need not be interpreted as an event that can be historically studied, but the entire history of mankind (or that which we can know as history), that show the errors and evil acts we human beings have performed. I am inclined to view this doctrine as “who had fallen under the power of sin”. This approach also identifies the author of sin, and the Genesis account uses the serpent as the deceiver.

Irenius states, “ God showed himself, by the fall of man, as patient, benign, merciful, mighty to save”. These teachings point to the propensity of humankind to err and commit sin, and the patience and grace extended by God through Christ ".

In “Latin Christianity: Its Founder, Tertullian” by Philip Schaff, we find a direct usage of the term “… the Depravity of Man’s Soul by Original Sin” and in this discussion, the point is made that man must be considered as physical and spiritual, so that one cannot discern these as separate. Any discussion which considers the physical attributes of mankind as a basis for discussions of a fall would by necessity be wrong. I think this is important when discussions such as these concentrate on some type of physiological description of humanity, and relate this to some notion of origins or similarities to primates. Unless Collins and others can show how a spiritual aspect of humanity can be synthesised with notions of primate origins, such discussions remain unrealistic within the Christian faith. It is instructive to consider these words, “…Thus some men are very bad, and some very good; but yet the souls of all form but one genus: even in the worst there is something good, and in the best there is something bad. For God alone is without sin; and the only man without sin is Christ, since Christ is also God. Thus the divinity of the soul bursts forth in prophetic forecasts in consequence of its primeval good; and being conscious of its origin, it bears testimony to God…”

Thank you very much, GJDS, for sharing the results of your inquiry into the Patristics. Your perspective as an Orthodox Christian believer is especially relevant to this series, given that Robin Collins has expressed his sympathy for an Orthodox interpretation of Paul, rather than that of Augustine, which he regards as erroneous.

I enjoy this series very much and fully agree it is seldom such issues get a chance to be combined in discussion in such a format. I would like to know any thoughts on the serpent. Traditionally viewed as either satan in disguise or possessed by satan, the serpent plays a big role in the Fall. Satans name is never mentioned though but most take the Messianic reference about the heel as Jesus defeating satan.

I also think it is very sensible to accept many humans existed along with Adam and Eve, especially the verse in Genesis where it says * male and female created He them*

Look forward alot to the rest of trhe series!!!

This is a quibble about terminology, but the religions around the Hebrews weren’t really pan-theistic, they were polytheisitic. They did think about everything in what we call supernatural terms, since they had no concept of laws of nature. My impression is that they didn’t think their gods cared very much about how they behaved except that they had to honor their gods and made sacrifices before their images. Law codes concerning social behavior existed before the Hebrews’ laws (Hammurabi’s being famous) but may have been motivated more by the experience of tribal warfare, family vendettas and the tragic consequences of murder/adultery etc than by any concern about what their gods thought.

We can see the recollection/reconstruction of the process in Aeschylus’ Agamemnon trilogy, where Agamemnon sacrifices his daughter to assure the success of the siege of Troy, which does at long last succeed, but he is murdered by his wife and her lover on his return, just as Cassandra had prophesied to him. (Of course she dies too - it IS a Greek tragedy.) Later in the trilogy there is indication of the process of establishing law administered by the community to bring justice for such excesses. I don’t know the Mesopotamian literature enough to know if there is any similar tale for them.

What happened with the Hebrew prophets, the linking of the idea of one supreme God who cared about his people behaving rightly in social relationships, and who wanted the people to offer sacrifices for their own sins, not before images of him (which they must not make, since they are the bearers of his image), but simply on altars, was utterly unheard of before. Owen Barfield said it was the most surprising thing that ever happened. Other than the Incarnation itself, it was.

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