Adam and Eve ruined the world, and now they're ruining Christianity

The Bible was written a long time ago in a world far removed from our own. Accordingly, it contains prescientific beliefs. For example, the Bible asserts that the sky is a dome that separates the waters below from the waters above; it infers stars are small enough to fall to the earth; and it assumes that the sun revolves around an immovable earth. For the most part, modern Christians have been able to reinterpret such passages in non-literal ways without much consequence. Yet there is one prescientific biblical claim that is wreaking havoc on Christian theology.

According to the Bible, God created Adam and Eve, the first two humans. The couple lived in harmony with their creator until that fateful day when they ate from the forbidden tree. This first act of disobedience was disastrous for humanity. God enacted various punishments and expelled Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden. 

In Christianity this event, known as the Fall, marks the moment when sin and death entered the world. Sin infiltrated the very nature of human beings. This “fallen” nature inevitably leads every one of us into sin and separates us from God. Adam and Eve broke the original God/human relationship. And Jesus came to fix it. Through Jesus’ death, humans who profess Jesus as lord and savior can be made right with God again and avoid the punishments of sin. 

The problem Christianity now faces is that science has uncovered a very different story. The evolutionary history of life on earth is difficult to square with the story of Adam, Eve, and the Fall. Unfortunately for Christians they cannot simply reinterpret the biblical account as an allegory. Christian theology was based on a historical Fall — an event that turned humans into sinners who need saving.

Attempting to embed the Fall into evolutionary history is no easy task. For starters, the idea that death entered the world as a result of sin, as Christianity claims, is incompatible with evolution. Death, as a key ingredient of evolution, has been happening for many millions of years, independent of human sin. 

Additionally, the belief that all human beings need a savior requires a point in history when human beings began to need saving. Traditionally this was not a problem: the creation of Adam and Eve provided a clear beginning for humanity. They disobeyed God and every single human being since has been affected by their fall from grace. But the slow, gradual, branching process of evolution does not allow for a beginning of the human race. This makes for awkward theology. Did Homo erectus need a savior? Did Neanderthals need a savior? Did Homo sapiens (modern humans) of 200,000 years ago need saving? When did this program start? Did these prehistoric people know about it, or was it kept secret until a mere 2,000 years ago? 

Relatedly, evolution shows humans not as falling from a higher state, but as emerging from wild animalhood. In the Christian story, the first humans broke the system, bringing about the world we live in today. But evolution is not a story of paradise lost. The Christian evolutionist must posit a God who chose to forge humans through a brutal contest of survival-of-the-fittest and then deemed them all deserving of damnation for not being perfect. Again, we have awkward theology. Why would humans need to be saved from being as God made them? Humans are not fallen, they are as God intended. Nothing broke.

But, you may be thinking, Christians must have a way to deal with these problems. After all, the theory of evolution has been around for 150 years, and Christianity has continued strong. So how have Christian thinkers responded to these challenges? 

For many Christians, breakthroughs in geology and biology (as well as biblical scholarship) did indeed break their theology. More liberal forms of the faith emerged in the 20th century, which placed little emphasis on doctrine and instead focused on themes of social justice in the Bible. As for traditional Christianity, it has persisted largely by rejecting the theory of evolution. Many were forced to concede that the earth is vastly older than previously assumed from a literal reading of scripture. Many have accepted that animal death has been a reality for millions of years prior to the existence of Homo sapiens. Yet, they maintain, Adam and Eve did not evolve, but were specially created by God, and their disobedience brought death and sinful natures to all subsequent humans. The Fall is preserved. 

But the landscape is changing. In response to monumental advances in genetics, Christians are increasingly realizing that evolution cannot be kept at bay. Christian theology must make peace with evolution, including human evolution. But how? 

Given there was no first human couple, some have proposed that God selected a couple (presumably named Adam and Eve) from amongst the human population to be representatives of the human race. God established communication with them, they strayed, and humanity fell. Problems abound with this theory. Is it believable? Was there any noticeable change when this one couple caused the downfall of the entire world population? Humans have been imperfect creatures and experienced death before and after any date one chooses to impose a Fall on the long steady timeline of human history.

Alternatively, some Christian evolutionists have abandoned a historical Adam and Eve altogether. Christianity might have been wrong about the reason why people sin and die, but the fact remains that people do sin and die, and therefore they still need saving. But, again, retaining the traditional punchline while discarding the traditional backstory makes for awkward theology. When did humans begin needing a savior? Why? What does God expect from creatures forged in the furnace of natural selection?

Christianity is at a crossroads. The realities of modern science have thrown a wrench in the Christian story, and it’s difficult to see how the pieces can coherently and credibly be put back together.