Tim Keller on Original Sin, Atonement, and Evolution (Part 2) | The BioLogos Forum

Note: This post is part of the series "Creation, Evolution, and Christian Laypeople", first posted in early 2012. We are currently running a series featuring different perspectives on how to integrate Christian theology with evolutionary science—particularly in regards to the doctrine of the "atonement." Last week, Joe Bankard argued that evolution pushes us away from a model of the atonement focused on the Original Sin of Adam, and thus away from the theory of "Substitutionary Atonement." Yesterday and today, we are featuring Keller's perspective on the subject, which is very different than Bankard's. As Jim Stump expressed in the introductory post to the series, we are trying to feature a wide diversity of approaches to evolution and the atonement. Just as Christian tradition reveals a rich dialogue about the meaning of the atonement, BioLogos also wants to foster constructive dialogue about these important matters; especially seen in light of natural revelation. The theological questions stimulated by modern scientific discoveries are complex and difficult, and as like to say, the Church deserves a robust, diverse debate on how faith and science can together be integrated and understood.

A Model

If Adam and Eve were historical figures could they have been the product of EBP? An older, evangelical commentary on Genesis by Derek Kidner provides a model for how that could have been the case. First, he notes that in Job 10:8-9 God is said to have fashioned Job with his ‘hands’, like a potter shaping clay out of the dust of the ground, even though God obviously did this through the natural process of formation in the womb. Kidner asks why the same potter-terminology in Genesis 2:7 could not denote a natural process like evolution.1 Then, Kidner goes on to say that:

“Man in Scripture is much more than homo faber, the maker of tools: he is constituted man by God’s image and breath, nothing less….The intelligent beings of a remote past, whose bodily and cultural remains give them the clear status of ‘modern man’ to the anthropologist, may yet have been decisively below the plane of life which was established in the creation of Adam….Nothing requires that the creature into which God breathed human life should not have been of a species prepared in every way for humanity…”2

So in this model there was a place in the evolution of human beings when God took one out of the population of tool-makers and endowed him with ‘the image of God’. This would have lifted him up to a whole new ‘plane of life’. On this view, then what happened?

“If this…alternative implied any doubt of the unity of mankind it would be of course quite untenable. God…has made all nations ‘from one’ (Acts 17:26)….Yet it is at least conceivable that after the special creation of Eve, which established the first human pair as God’s vice-regents (Gen 1:27,28) and clinched the fact that there is no natural bridge from animal to man, God may have now conferred his image on Adam’s collaterals, to bring them into the same realm of being. Adam’s ‘federal’ headship of humanity extended, if that was the case, outwards to his contemporaries as well as onwards to his offspring, and his disobedience disinherited both alike.”3

Here Kidner gets creative. He proposes that the being who became Adam under the hand of God first evolved but Eve did not. Then they were put into the garden of Eden as representatives of the whole human race. Their creation in God’s image and their fall affected not only their offspring, but all other contemporaries. In this telling, Kidner accounts for both the continuity between animals and humans that scientists see, and the discontinuity that the Bible describes. Only human beings are in God’s image, have fallen into sin, and will be saved by grace.

This approach would explain perennially difficult Biblical questions such as--who were the people that Cain feared would slay him in revenge for the murder of Abel (Gen 4:14)? Who was Cain’s wife, and how could Cain have built a city filled with inhabitants (Gen 4:17)? We might even ask why Genesis 2:20 hints that Adam went on a search to ‘find’ a spouse if there were only animals around? In Kidner’s approach, Adam and Eve were not alone in the world, and that answers all these questions.

But there is another question that looms over the others. In this model, how could there have been suffering and death before the fall? Some answer may be in the second verse of the Bible, where we are told that ‘the earth was without form’ and was filled with darkness and chaos. Most traditional interpreters believe that God initially made the world in this ‘formless’ state and then proceeded to subdue the disorder through the creative process of separation, elaboration, and development depicted in Genesis 1.4 However, even this traditional interpretation means that there was not perfect order and peace in creation from the first moment. Also, Satan seems to have been present in the world before the Fall. What makes us think that Satan and demons were not in the world before the moment the serpent appears? One of the biggest unanswered (and unanswerable) theological questions is—what was Satan doing there? By definition, if Satan was somewhere in the world, it was not all a perfect place.

Traditional theology has never believed that humanity and the world in Genesis 2-3 was in a glorified, perfect state. Augustine taught that Adam and Eve were posse non peccare (able not to sin) but they fell into the state of non posse non peccare (not able not to sin). In our final state of full salvation, however, we will be non posse peccare (not capable of sinning.) Eden was not the consummated world of the future. Some have pointed out that in the Garden of Eden that there would have had to be some kind of death and decay or fruit would not have been edible.

It could be that Adam and Eve were given conditional immortality and, in the Garden, a foretaste of what life in the world would be like with humans in the image of God living in perfect harmony with God and his creation. It was offered to them to work with God to ‘subdue’ the earth (Genesis 1:28.) On any view, the idea of ‘having dominion’ and ‘subduing’ the earth meant that creation was at least highly undeveloped. Even before the Fall, the world was not yet in the shape God wanted it to be. Human beings were to work with God to cultivate and develop it.

The result of the Fall, however, was ‘spiritual death’, something that no being in the world had known, because no one had ever been in the image of God. Human beings became, at the same time, capable of far greater and far worse things than any other creatures. We now die eternally when we die physically. And since we are now alienated from God, the world is under the power of the forces of darkness in a way that would not have occurred without the fall. The physical world now ‘groans’ under disintegration because human beings have failed to be God’s stewards of creation. Greater ‘natural evil’ is combined with human, moral evil to create a dark, chaotic world indeed. The world will finally be renewed, and become all it was designed to be (Romans 8:19-23), only when we finally become all we should be through the work of the Second Adam (1 Cor 15:42-45.)

Other Models

Is this the only model possible for those who believe in an historical Fall yet who believe God used evolution to bring about life on earth? No. Some believe in theistic evolution—that both Adam and Eve were the products of evolution and given the image and breath of God.5 Others think it makes more sense theologically and philosophically to believe in ‘progressive creation’ that while God used evolution in general to bring about life, he created both Adam and Eve through a special act, and that the thesis of common ancestry with other animals is completely false.6 Kidner’s model is a kind of hybrid between theistic evolution and old-earth, progressive creationism. Whatever one’s ‘model’ for working out the relationship of the Bible to science, however, Kidner insists:

“What is quite clear from these chapters in the light of other scriptures is their doctrine that mankind is a unity, created in God’s image, and fallen in Adam by one act of disobedience; and these things are as strongly asserted in this understanding of God’s Word as on any other.”7

Concluding Thoughts

How do we correlate the data of science with the teaching of Scripture? The simplest answer for scientists would probably be to say ‘who cares about Scripture and theology?’ but that fails to do justice to authority of the Bible, which Jesus himself took with utmost seriousness. The simplest answer for theologians would probably be to say ‘who cares about science?’ but that does not give nature its proper importance as the creation of God. Psalm 19 and Romans 1 teach that God’s glory is revealed as we study his creation, yet in the end both of those passages say that it is only Scripture which is the ‘perfect’ revelation of God’s mind (Psalm 19:7). We must interpret the book of nature by the book of God. “It cannot be said too strongly that Scripture is the perfect vehicle for God’s revelation…its bold selectiveness, like that of a great painting, is its power. To read it with one eye on any other account is to blur its image and miss its wisdom.”8

My conclusion is that Christians who are seeking to correlate Scripture and science must be a ‘bigger tent’ than either the anti-scientific religionists or the anti-religious scientists. Even though in this paper I argue for the importance of belief in a literal Adam and Eve, I have shown here that there are several ways to hold that and still believe in God using EBP.9

When Derek Kidner concluded his account of human origins, he said that his view was an “exploratory suggestion…only tentative, and it is a personal view. It invites correction and a better synthesis.”10 That is the right attitude for all of us working in this area.


1. Derek Kidner, Genesis: An Introduction and Commentary (IVP, 1967) p.28 n.2. 2. Kidner, p.28. 3. Kidner goes on to write: ‘With one possible exception *Gen 3:20+ the unity of mankind ‘in Adam’ and our common status as sinners through his offence are expressed in Scripture in terms not of heredity but simply of solidarity.” (p.30.) Kidner comments on this one possible exception--Gen 3:20, which calls Eve ‘the mother of all living.’ He considers that the translation could be instead something like ‘the mother of all salvation’ since salvation will be coming to the world through her ‘seed’ and that is the context of the name. 4. Another popular view of these verses is the ‘Gap’ theory, namely, that God created the heavens and the earth to be a place of order and light, and then verse 2 tells us that the world became chaotic and dark through some struggle or disaster, and that Genesis 1 is the story of how God re-created the world. Grammatically, the ‘Gap’ theory is not likely, but there have been at least four different ways of reading the relationship of the clauses of Genesis 1:1 and 2. See Gordon Wenham’s summary of this debate in Gordon J. Wenham, Genesis 1-15 (Word Biblical Commentary, 1987), pp.11-17. 5. See Alexander, Creation or Evolution: Do We Have to Choose? 6. See the September 1991 issue of the Christian Scholar’s Review for articles by Alvin Plantinga, Howard Van Till, and Ernan McMullin. See a summary of these arguments in W. Christopher Stewart, “Religion and Science” in Reason for the Hope Within, ed. Michael J. Murray (Eerdmans, 1999), p.331. 7. p.30. 8. Kidner p.31. 9. Denis Alexander (Creation or Evolution: Do We Have to Choose? (Monarch Books, Oxford, UK, 2008) speaks of several ‘models’ by which we can relate the teaching of Genesis 2-3 with evolutionary biology. ‘Model A’ sees Genesis 2-3 as parabolic about every individual human being. (i.e. we all sin.) ‘Model B’ sees Genesis 2-3 as a figurative account of something that actually happened to a group of early human beings. ‘Model C’ sees Adam and Eve as real historical figures, but fully accepts the fact that human life came from EBP. ‘Models D’ is old earth creationism, and ‘Model E’ is young earth creationism. (See chapters 10 and 12.) Even though Alexander lists these five, I’m not sure this exhausts the possibilities. The proposal by Derek Kidner doesn’t really fit into any of Alexander’s categories. 10. Kidner, p.30.

This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at https://biologos.org/blog/tim-keller-on-original-sin-atonement-and-evolution-part-2

As with yesterday’s post, Pastor Keller is not available to answer questions and comments. However, I encourage thoughtful discussion about his ideas. I was thrilled with the great discussion about yesterday’s post, and I look forward to reading everyone’s thoughts on this one as well.

The above quote comes remarkably close to how I reconcile modern science with my religious faith, IF one removes the two words: 'and cultural’. Evidence from skeletal remains, and lately from mitochondrial and nuclear DNA, indicate that archaic Homo sapiens were physically and genetically identical to us living today. Yet the archeological evidence also shows that they had the same life style, used the same tools, and were the cultural equals of their Neanderthal ‘cousins’ who shared the same territory in the mideast. Human origins can be dated to the sudden appearance of what anthropologists call the Cro-Magnon culture: burials with goods for an afterlife, astounding cave art, and even music. Certainly for religious and theological purposes, that is when ‘God breathed a soul into Man’.
Al Leo

Well, no surprise that the issue of federal headship causes more problems for believers for whom federal headship is a cornerstone of their theology. If (a historical) Eve was not literally created for (a historical) Adam, some of their dearly held complementarian gender theology is on shaky ground too. But that is a bunny-trail.

I think that even though Adam and Eve were not the literal biological parents of the human race, they were chosen to enter a covenant with God and be the patriarch and matriarch of his newly constituted people, and so it is important that they existed in history, no matter how allegorical or symbolic or mythologized we assume the Scriptural account of their existence to be. I don’t think it is a huge leap to accept that their rebellion affected the relationship of the entire covenant community for the rest of history even without there always being a biological/genetic relationship between them and those who were affected. Gentiles could be incorporated into God’s chosen people and considered children of Abraham, heirs of the blessings of the covenant that resulted from Abraham’s faith, even without a genetic relationship. The themes of “chosen ones” and “chosen people” and inheriting curses and blessings that affect the whole community run throughout the narrative of redemptive history.

I’m glad Dr. Keller brought up the fact that Satan was in the world before humanity’s rebellion. Humans were not the first privileged creatures with free will who chose to reject God’s rule of creation. The world Adam and Eve lived in (even with a very literal reading) was not perfect in the sense of being free from evil or temptation.

I’m also glad he mentioned that the idea of a deathless, Edenic paradise with physical bodies that were created to be physically immortal is something the young earth folks made up, not something the historical church believed. Jesus’ resurrection to physical immortality is presented in Scripture as an unprecedented historic event (the first fruits of the harvest of the Resurrection to come, 1 Cor 15), not just an encore of Adam and Eve.

It seems the question that troubles people in these discussions of original sin is why we are all born sinful. The traditional doctrine of original sin and the Fall and the federal headship of Adam had that wrapped up nicely, so even if you can come up with good exegetical interpretations of Genesis 1 and 2 that harmonize with scientific understanding of natural history, you usually lose the nice neat answer to that question. I don’t think knowing why is all that necessary to the gospel of Jesus Christ, though.

Christie, when I first held each of my three children just after they entered this world, no scripture could have convinced me that this miracle I cradled in my arms was sinful. On this point Pelagius was right and Augustine wrong. Of course when they reached the ‘terrible twos’ and some selfish genes kicked in, my viewpoint changed somewhat. Too often the word sin is used when propensity for sin is more accurate.
Al Leo

Semantics. You know as well as I do that sinful is used in several senses. We are all born inevitably destined to rebel (traditionally termed “sinful”) by nature. That is what the Bible teaches, and what all of our observations of humanity bear out.

My babies were all colicky and wouldn’t sleep, they just screamed and screamed, so I don’t share your warm fuzzy memories of the innocence of infancy. For me, the pain and suffering of bringing forth children extended into four years of sleep deprivation and frayed nerves, along with chronic back and neck problems from holding their crying, struggling little bodies for hours and hours at a time. So the curse of the Fall was quite forefront in my mind long before the toddler years.

I wonder how many serious altercations through the ages have resulted from just semantics. As I age I become more intolerant of ascribing so much human miseries to Adam’s disobedience (Original Sin) and not to where it belongs–to our genes and an evolutionary process which, while competent to lift life from ‘scum’ to a creature who has a relationship with its Creator, still asks us to pay the price when our genes do not behave as well as we would like them to: colicky babies, pains of childbirth, leukemia in youth, Alzheimer’s in old age–the list is endless. We should be careful, though, to distinguish the genetic ‘failures’ that lead to physical misery from those that lead to spiritual misery–the Sins of selfishness, lust for power, etc. Can’t we accept that these are parts of God’s plan, and NOT the Curse of the Fall? God gives us the tools that can keep us from being slaves to both kinds of these genes. Using these tools makes us co-creators with Him.
Al Leo

I’m confused. Are you suggesting that both physical misery and the sinful propensity of humans are part of God’s plan for creation? What would be the theological motivation for that?

A lot of the time, physical misery among humanity is a direct result of sin and systemic societal injustice, not genetics.

For the record, I don’t believe the earth was a perfect, deathless, pain-free, place before human sin. I think the “curse” is descriptive not prescriptive, and it is an accurate depiction of the course nature and culture take when they are not “ruled” righteously. They are not ruled righteously because Adam and Eve failed, and so did every other human image bearer after them until Christ.

I don’t believe sin is genetic, because I don’t believe sin exists outside of the possibility of relating to God and submitting to his justice. If God never asked humans for obedience, there would be no sin and there would be no righteousness/justice/shalom either, as we see in the rest of the animal kingdom. I think God’s shalom was what humans were commissioned to bring to the earth/nature/human culture in its un-subdued, un-submitted state as God’s representatives, and they failed. It wasn’t that perfect shalom existed Adam and Eve ruined it. This world has always been only a foretaste and a preview of God’s new creation to come. It is the promised new creation that will be free from death, sin, and evil.

Yes, Christy, I am suggesting that God created all life, including Adam & Eve (Homo sapiens) through the mechanism of evolution which includes the pressure of genes to be passed on to the following generation. They are, to a real extent, “selfish”. And God could still call it ‘good’–not perfect but good. When He gave Adam & Eve the gift of conscience, they could choose to resist the gene pressure to be selfish. When they failed, they sinned.
quote=“Christy, post:10, topic:645”]
righteousness/justice/shalom either, as we see in the rest of the animal kingdom.
I am not sure just what you mean in this phrase. The animal kingdom gives ample evidence of the ‘selfish genes’ that are part of God’s creative plan. The male lion that hunts down and kills all cubs in his newly-acquired pride that do not carry his genes may seem ruthless and sinful to us, but he is just instinctively following God’s plan. At least I cannot see it from any other perspective than "God’s ways are not always Man’s ways."
Al Leo

I don’t think violence, death, and suffering in the animal kingdom is sinful or evil. Nor can we accurately speak of animals as being unfaithful or treacherous or murderous, because justice/righteousness does not apply to them. I think physical death is natural, and the only reason it is painful for humans is because of our sin and moral culpability, and because we have consciousness of and longing for God’s coming Kingdom where there is no death.

I don’t see how the mechanism of creation relates to sin. Sin is a concept that is separate from the natural world and only exists in relationship to God and accepting or rejecting his dominion. A genetically human person who is not mentally capable of accepting or rejecting God’s dominion is not held accountable for sin.

We all agree that creatures that lack a conscience cannot Sin, but when one sees a nature video of a lioness with her jaws clamped on the throat of a terrified gazelle whose eyes plead for release from pain and suffering, the word ‘evil’ is the first to pop into one’s mind. If we sinful humans are moved by compassion at this scene, how can it be that this is just one example of how a good God creates? Surely ‘Adam’s Sin’ had nothing to do with it. No one, throughout the ages, has found a totally satisfactory answer (in my opinion at least). Several well known scientists (either agnostic or atheist), trying to explain the source of their persistent drive to acquire new knowledge, have phrased it as ‘wanting to know the mind of God.’ The same is true for many theologians and philosophers (Plato, Augustine, Aquainas). But, in the end, all we can be sure of is “God’s Ways are not Man’s Ways.” Nevertheless we should make every effort to seek Him.
Al Leo

The death of animals is not a result of animals “sinning”. They are acting on instinct, doing what is possible. But the death of animals, especially through predation, with the accompaniment of pain, fright, fear, destruction, seems to be a result of an imperfection, which includes the death and competition within the biome for space, priority, power, dominance. Scripture talks about the lion laying down with the lamb, and the child with the poisonous snake… this seems to be an ideal, a sought after state of being, so that not only humans, but all of creation will be redeemed and renewed: paradise renewed.

Physical death is natural to us, because we are used to it, just like we are used to injury, disease, competition, strife, pain, and sin in general. But we cannot equate “natural” to “good”. Scripture indicates that sin caused death. But scripture also indicates that one particular sin (such as that of a blind person) did not cause that person’s blindness. Sin changed what was good, into something not so good. This happened both in human relationship to God, and in the relationship of man with nature, and nature with nature.

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