The Fall and the Order of the World

As I have noted before, some people claim a very strong tension between the claim that the earth is ancient and that life has an evolutionary history, and the claim that the doctrines of Christianity are true. This is done both by Christians, to argue against evolution, and by unbelievers, to argue against Christianity.

Thus for example Joseph Gehringer says:

After nearly a decade of making headlines, the creation-evolution controversy in the United States has quietly faded from public view. Having won two major court victories (Arkansas, 1982; U.S. Supreme Court, 1987), evolutionists are now working quietly to consolidate their hold on the educational system (e.g., the California Science Framework; Project 2061 of the American Association for the Advancement of Science). Meanwhile, media interest has shifted to new issues such as AIDS and sexual harassment.

Surprisingly, however, evolution continues to attract sympathetic attention in many orthodox Catholic publications. Even publications which are considered ‘conservative’ have been giving circulation to the erroneous claim that the Catholic Church has “never had a problem with evolution.” A recent editorial suggested that evolution was so probable – for philosophical reasons – that Catholics are almost obliged to accept it. Apparently the constant attacks on creationism in the secular media during the 1980’s have had their effect: Humani Generis has been forgotten and theistic evolution has become part of the new orthodoxy.

One of the clearest signs of this evolutionary trend is the appearance of a new book by Father Anthony Zimmerman, S.V.D., who is well-known for his work in Japan combating the twin evils of contraception and abortion. Fr. Zimmerman’s uncompromising position on these moral issues stands in strange contrast to his treatment of Scripture, Tradition, and dogma on matters related to human origins. On moral questions he relies upon the Magisterium as an infallible guide; on the question of Adam and Eve, he relies upon scientific theories as the most reliable guide.

Father Zimmerman clearly recognizes the problems caused by the widespread acceptance of evolutionary theory. For, if man evolved gradually from an animal species millions of years ago (as he believes), the Genesis story of Adam and Eve becomes a religious myth of little significance in today’s secular culture. As a consequence, the doctrine of original sin and all those doctrines which depend upon it, lose their meaning for a modern Catholic. Father Zimmerman feels that this situation can be remedied if we “locate Adam on our family tree as we look at the fossil record THROUGH THE EYES OF SCIENTISTS” (page 2, emphasis added) and correct the errors of “theologians based on a wrong reading of Genesis” (page 202). In the Foreword, Paul Hallett hails this approach as “groundbreaking.” But I find nothing new in the Modernist error that “Scientific progress demands that the concepts of Christian doctrine … be re-adjusted” (No. 64, Syllabus of Errors).

Basically Gehringer’s objection is that if the theory of evolution is true, then the account of the fall in Genesis is false or at least meaningless.

Jerry Coyne says similar things, arguing for the opposite side, while discussing an essay by Mike Aus (Coyne’s link to the essay is no longer valid):

Here are the points of incompatibility as Aus sees them.

  • Adam and Eve  This is the big one, and all attempts to see it as a metaphor (since we know that the human population never bottlenecked at two individuals) are ludicrous on their face. If Adam and Eve didn’t exist, what sense does Jesus make. I quote from Aus:

“Which core doctrines of Christianity does evolution challenge? Well, basically all of them. The doctrine of original sin is a prime example. If my rudimentary grasp of the science is accurate, then Darwin’s theory tells us that because new species only emerge extremely gradually, there really is no “first” prototype or model of any species at all—no “first” dog or “first” giraffe and certainly no “first”homo sapiens created instantaneously. The transition from predecessor hominid species was almost imperceptible. So, if there was no “first” human, there was clearly no original couple through whom the contagion of “sin” could be transmitted to the entire human race. The history of our species does not contain a “fall” into sin from a mythical, pristine sinless paradise that never existed.”

. . . The role of Christ as the Second Adam who came to save and perfect our fallen species is at the heart of the New Testament’s argument for Christ’s salvific significance. St. Paul wrote, “Therefore, just as one man’s trespass led to the condemnation of all, so one man’s act of righteousness leads to salvation and life for all.” (Romans 5:18) Over the centuries this typology of Christ as the Second Adam has been a central theme of Christian homiletics, hymnody and art. More liberal Christians might counter that, of course there was no Adam or Eve; when Paul described Christ as another Adam he was speaking metaphorically. But metaphorically of what? And Jesus died to become a metaphor? If so, how can a metaphor save humanity?”

I don’t see any way around this. BioLogos has had a gazillion posts trying to make metaphorical sense of Adam and Eve, but responses like the “federal headship model,” in which God simply designated two of the many early humans as “Official Original Sinners”, are simply laughable.  And remember that the Catholic Church’s official policy is one of “monogenism”: all human literally descended from Adam and Eve.  Catholic Answers notes:

In this regard, Pope Pius XII stated: “When, however, there is question of another conjectural opinion, namely polygenism, the children of the Church by no means enjoy such liberty. For the faithful cannot embrace that opinion which maintains either that after Adam there existed on this earth true men who did not take their origin through natural generation from him as from the first parents of all, or that Adam represents a certain number of first parents. Now, it is in no way apparent how such an opinion can be reconciled that which the sources of revealed truth and the documents of the teaching authority of the Church proposed with regard to original sin which proceeds from a sin actually committed by an individual Adam in which through generation is passed onto all and is in everyone as his own” (Humani Generis 37).

I wonder how Catholic scientists like Kenneth Miller reconcile this dogma with their acceptance of human evolution. Do they simply deny the teachings of their church? If so, they are heretics.

The objection is that given the way evolutionary theory works, there could not have been a “first man” in any usual sense. It apparently follows that the account of the fall in Genesis is false, just as Gehringer argues.

I would note two things concerning this objection:

First, Coyne misunderstands the statement by Pius XII. I have noted previously that Pius XII is leaving the question open, in the sense that he is allowing for the possibility of a future reconciliation, while warning that at the moment there appears to be a conflict. And whether there is a conflict or not, it is clear that the Catholic Church no longer objects to someone holding that there was no first man in any ordinary sense. The document of the International Theological Commission, Communion and Stewardship, states:

63. According to the widely accepted scientific account, the universe erupted 15 billion years ago in an explosion called the “Big Bang” and has been expanding and cooling ever since. Later there gradually emerged the conditions necessary for the formation of atoms, still later the condensation of galaxies and stars, and about 10 billion years later the formation of planets. In our own solar system and on earth (formed about 4.5 billion years ago), the conditions have been favorable to the emergence of life. While there is little consensus among scientists about how the origin of this first microscopic life is to be explained, there is general agreement among them that the first organism dwelt on this planet about 3.5-4 billion years ago. Since it has been demonstrated that all living organisms on earth are genetically related, it is virtually certain that all living organisms have descended from this first organism. Converging evidence from many studies in the physical and biological sciences furnishes mounting support for some theory of evolution to account for the development and diversification of life on earth, while controversy continues over the pace and mechanisms of evolution. While the story of human origins is complex and subject to revision, physical anthropology and molecular biology combine to make a convincing case for the origin of the human species in Africa about 150,000 years ago in a humanoid population of common genetic lineage. However it is to be explained, the decisive factor in human origins was a continually increasing brain size, culminating in that of homo sapiens. With the development of the human brain, the nature and rate of evolution were permanently altered: with the introduction of the uniquely human factors of consciousness, intentionality, freedom and creativity, biological evolution was recast as social and cultural evolution.

70. With respect to the immediate creation of the human soul, Catholic theology affirms that particular actions of God bring about effects that transcend the capacity of created causes acting according to their natures. The appeal to divine causality to account for genuinely causal as distinct from merely explanatory gaps does not insert divine agency to fill in the “gaps” in human scientific understanding (thus giving rise to the so-called “God of the gaps”). The structures of the world can be seen as open to non-disruptive divine action in directly causing events in the world. Catholic theology affirms that that the emergence of the first members of the human species (whether as individuals or in populations) represents an event that is not susceptible of a purely natural explanation and which can appropriately be attributed to divine intervention. Acting indirectly through causal chains operating from the beginning of cosmic history, God prepared the way for what Pope John Paul II has called “an ontological leap…the moment of transition to the spiritual.” While science can study these causal chains, it falls to theology to locate this account of the special creation of the human soul within the overarching plan of the triune God to share the communion of trinitarian life with human persons who are created out of nothing in the image and likeness of God, and who, in his name and according to his plan, exercise a creative stewardship and sovereignty over the physical universe.

The clause, “whether as individuals or in populations,” clearly accepts the possibility that there was not one first man from whom all other men descended. The document is not a document of the magisterium but required the approval of Cardinal Ratzinger, the head of the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith, in order to be published. This indicates that Catholics holding such a view are certainly not heretics, contrary to Coyne’s supposition. As for the issue of a gradual process, as the ITC notes here, Catholic doctrine implies a radical distinction between human beings who have immortal souls and other animals which do not. But this does not imply any radical outward rupture, just as there is no such rupture in the behavior of a human being, starting from conception, where there is no rational behavior at all, and throughout the remaining history of the child’s life both before and after birth. This process of change is always gradual, and there is nothing in Catholic doctrine on the soul which would imply that the process of human evolution could not have been gradual in a very similar way.

Second, it should be conceded that the apparent continuity of human evolution, and the evidence against a bottleneck (namely against the idea that the human population once consisted of two individuals), is evidence against the account in Genesis. However, it is fairly weak evidence, because the account in Genesis is not a literal account. What is necessary to that account is an elevation of human nature and a fall from that state, not the particular claim that the human race descended from a couple such as Adam and Eve.

However, it follows from this that both sides, here represented by Gehringer and Jerry Coyne, are right to some extent in claiming that there is some tension between Christianity and the theory of evolution.

In fact, there is a philosophical objection to the account of the fall in the first place, which would be a somewhat reasonable objection even apart from the idea of evolution, and the effect of the theory of evolution is simply to exacerbate the effectiveness of the objection.

Discussing the order of the world, I stated that a successful world is one in which the order of time basically corresponds to an order of goodness, that is, in the sense that the world should be improving over time. I argued in the following posts that the world tends to be successful in this way, that is, that things generally tend to get better rather than tending to get worse.

This is evidence against the account of the fall, in which things appear to get much worse. Naturally, this is not conclusive, since things do in fact sometimes get worse, and even sometimes much worse, even if the general tendency is the opposite of this.

The nature of the order of the world also provides some evidence against the preceding elevation of human nature which seems required for the account of the fall. This is true to the degree that the preceding elevation includes things which in principle could be the result of secondary causes, but which according to the account did not actually come about through such causes. The reason for this is that the world is good not only because there are good things in it, but because one thing is a cause of another. Consequently, the world is better and more ordered if something which can be a result of secondary causes is in fact a result of secondary causes, than if the thing is produced directly by the first cause. This is no argument, of course, against those aspects of the preceding elevation which could not be produced by secondary causes in principle, except by association: namely, if part of the account is not true, that argues against the rest of the account.

The theory of evolution exacerbates this argument by pointing out that before the existence of humanity, the world of animals in some way increased in goodness until it touched upon human nature, and that after the existence of humanity, the human race continued to make various improvements over time. That is, one possible response to this objection is that the human race is a specific exception to a general situation regarding the order of the world. The theory of evolution indicates that it is not an exception. In order to maintain the account of the fall, one must hold that it was the specific events of the elevation and fall that are exceptions.

One final point that strengthens this objection still more, is the fact that it is a very common human error to argue, “Things are really bad right now, this surely means that they must have been much better before and just got worse.” This argues that the account of the fall might simply be a mistake of this kind. C. S. Lewis would no doubt object, and especially without a specific argument indicating that it is in fact an error of this kind, but it remains reasonable to point out such facts.

Genesis on the Fall

Given that the account of the creation and fall of man is not in a historical genre, what does the account intend to say about the world?

There are two ways in which an account like this can be taken. In one way, it would simply be a guess about the nature and origins of humanity. Taken in this way, it would present a possibility, but not claim that it is definitely the case.

The Catholic Church understands the text in a second way, namely as presenting the same possibility, but also as claiming that this possibility is actual. Thus the Catechism states,

The account of the fall in Genesis 3 uses figurative language, but affirms a primeval event, a deed that took place at the beginning of the history of man. Revelation gives us the certainty of faith that the whole of human history is marked by the original fault freely committed by our first parents.

This is a reasonable understanding of Genesis, even the first way is possible in principle. Taken as the Catechism takes it, Genesis would be saying that humanity existed in a more perfect state, and fell to a less perfect state due to human sin. St. Paul seems to have a similar understanding of Genesis, saying that “sin came into the world through one man.”

The text of Genesis, which should be understood as an image, presents this more perfect state as a situation where Adam and Eve are in the garden of Eden, living off the fruit of the trees, naked and unashamed, and with access to the tree of life, by which they might live forever.

The Catechism does not seem to summarize the more perfect state, but describes it indirectly, by contrasting it with the fallen state:

The harmony in which they had found themselves, thanks to original justice, is now destroyed: the control of the soul’s spiritual faculties over the body is shattered; the union of man and woman becomes subject to tensions, their relations henceforth marked by lust and domination. Harmony with creation is broken: visible creation has become alien and hostile to man. Because of man, creation is now subject “to its bondage to decay”. Finally, the consequence explicitly foretold for this disobedience will come true: man will “return to the ground”, for out of it he was taken. Death makes its entrance into human history.

St. Thomas discusses whether the defects that resulted from sin are natural or not:

Objection 1. It would seem that death and such like defects are natural to man. For “the corruptible and the incorruptible differ generically” (Metaph. x, text. 26). But man is of the same genus as other animals which are naturally corruptible. Therefore man is naturally corruptible.

Objection 2. Further, whatever is composed of contraries is naturally corruptible, as having within itself the cause of corruption. But such is the human body. Therefore it is naturally corruptible.

Objection 3. Further, a hot thing naturally consumes moisture. Now human life is preserved by hot and moist elements. Since therefore the vital functions are fulfilled by the action of natural heat, as stated in De Anima ii, text. 50, it seems that death and such like defects are natural to man.

On the contrary, (1) God made in man whatever is natural to him. Now “God made not death” (Wisdom 1:13). Therefore death is not natural to man.

(2) Further, that which is natural cannot be called either a punishment or an evil: since what is natural to a thing is suitable to it. But death and such like defects are the punishment of original sin, as stated above (Article 5). Therefore they are not natural to man.

(3) Further, matter is proportionate to form, and everything to its end. Now man’s end is everlasting happiness, as stated above (2, 7; 5, A3,4): and the form of the human body is the rational soul, as was proved in the I, 75, 6. Therefore the human body is naturally incorruptible.

I answer that, We may speak of any corruptible thing in two ways; first, in respect of its universal nature, secondly, as regards its particular nature. A thing’s particular nature is its own power of action and self-preservation. And in respect of this nature, every corruption and defect is contrary to nature, as stated in De Coelo ii, text. 37, since this power tends to the being and preservation of the thing to which it belongs.

On the other hand, the universal nature is an active force in some universal principle of nature, for instance in some heavenly body; or again belonging to some superior substance, in which sense God is said by some to be “the Nature Who makes nature.” This force intends the good and the preservation of the universe, for which alternate generation and corruption in things are requisite: and in this respect corruption and defect in things are natural, not indeed as regards the inclination of the form which is the principle of being and perfection, but as regards the inclination of matter which is allotted proportionately to its particular form according to the discretion of the universal agent. And although every form intends perpetual being as far as it can, yet no form of a corruptible being can achieve its own perpetuity, except the rational soul; for the reason that the latter is not entirely subject to matter, as other forms are; indeed it has an immaterial operation of its own, as stated in the I, 75, 2. Consequently as regards his form, incorruption is more natural to man than to other corruptible things. But since that very form has a matter composed of contraries, from the inclination of that matter there results corruptibility in the whole. In this respect man is naturally corruptible as regards the nature of his matter left to itself, but not as regards the nature of his form.

The first three objections argue on the side of the matter; while the other three argue on the side of the form. Wherefore in order to solve them, we must observe that the form of man which is the rational soul, in respect of its incorruptibility is adapted to its end, which is everlasting happiness: whereas the human body, which is corruptible, considered in respect of its nature, is, in a way, adapted to its form, and, in another way, it is not. For we may note a twofold condition in any matter, one which the agent chooses, and another which is not chosen by the agent, and is a natural condition of matter. Thus, a smith in order to make a knife, chooses a matter both hard and flexible, which can be sharpened so as to be useful for cutting, and in respect of this condition iron is a matter adapted for a knife: but that iron be breakable and inclined to rust, results from the natural disposition of iron, nor does the workman choose this in the iron, indeed he would do without it if he could: wherefore this disposition of matter is not adapted to the workman’s intention, nor to the purpose of his art. In like manner the human body is the matter chosen by nature in respect of its being of a mixed temperament, in order that it may be most suitable as an organ of touch and of the other sensitive and motive powers. Whereas the fact that it is corruptible is due to a condition of matter, and is not chosen by nature: indeed nature would choose an incorruptible matter if it could. But God, to Whom every nature is subject, in forming man supplied the defect of nature, and by the gift of original justice, gave the body a certain incorruptibility, as was stated in the I, 97, 1. It is in this sense that it is said that “God made not death,” and that death is the punishment of sin.

This suffices for the Replies to the Objections.

Basically St. Thomas is asserting that the condition of mankind was not natural in the sense of caused by nature, but it was something that would be desirable to nature. After sin, man fell basically to the level that could be caused by nature.

St. Thomas thus suggests a reason why it was fitting for man to be created in an immortal condition. He says in the cited article:

Thirdly, a thing may be incorruptible on the part of its efficient cause; in this sense man was incorruptible and immortal in the state of innocence. For, as Augustine says (QQ. Vet. et Nov. Test. qu. 19): “God made man immortal as long as he did not sin; so that he might achieve for himself life or death.” For man’s body was indissoluble not by reason of any intrinsic vigor of immortality, but by reason of a supernatural force given by God to the soul, whereby it was enabled to preserve the body from all corruption so long as it remained itself subject to God. This entirely agrees with reason; for since the rational soul surpasses the capacity of corporeal matter, as above explained (76, 1), it was most properly endowed at the beginning with the power of preserving the body in a manner surpassing the capacity of corporeal matter.

Understood in this way, the account in Genesis asserts at least two things: that man was created in a state above the state that could be caused by nature, because this was better, and that man fell from this state due to his sin.

The Fall

Genesis 3 tells the story of the fall of the human race:

Now the serpent was more crafty than any other wild animal that the Lord God had made. He said to the woman, “Did God say, ‘You shall not eat from any tree in the garden’?” The woman said to the serpent, “We may eat of the fruit of the trees in the garden; but God said, ‘You shall not eat of the fruit of the tree that is in the middle of the garden, nor shall you touch it, or you shall die.’” But the serpent said to the woman, “You will not die; for God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” So when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate; and she also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate. Then the eyes of both were opened, and they knew that they were naked; and they sewed fig leaves together and made loincloths for themselves.

Eve exaggerates God’s command, adding the precept not to touch, while God had only said not to eat from the tree of knowledge.

It is possible that the reader is intended to understand the serpent to stand for a demonic power. However, this would be a secondary level of understanding. On one level the text is presenting a story which must be understood literally in order to be understood correctly. The serpent is as truly there as the loincloths made of fig leaves, for example. This is clear later when the serpent is punished by being made to crawl on its belly. Since this can only be understood in relation to the fact that real serpents do not have legs, we must understand a real serpent in this account, even if possibly one that had legs.

Given this fact, one might ask why Eve does not appear to be surprised that the serpent speaks with her. This can be understood from two things. First, the serpent is said to be “more crafty than any other wild animal that the Lord God had made.” This could mean that the serpent could speak but that the other animals could not. More likely, however, it simply signifies that the serpent was deceitful in a way that the others were not. The second fact is the odd fact we mentioned regarding the previous chapter, namely that the other animals were brought to Adam as potential partners. The most reasonable way to understand these things together is that all of the animals could talk, and therefore in an abstract way could be viewed as potential friends and allies of Adam. But in the concrete they were found to be wanting due to a lack of other kinds of similarity, and therefore God chose to create Eve as a more fitting partner. Eve is not surprised when the serpent speaks, therefore, because all of the animals can speak.

After eating the fruit, “the eyes of both were opened, and they knew that they were naked.” As was said in the previous post, the implication is that Adam and Eve had a greater perfection before the fall and consequently were not ashamed. They lose this perfection in eating the fruit, and become ashamed.

The account continues with the consequences of their misbehavior:

They heard the sound of the Lord God walking in the garden at the time of the evening breeze, and the man and his wife hid themselves from the presence of the Lord God among the trees of the garden. But the Lord God called to the man, and said to him, “Where are you?” He said, “I heard the sound of you in the garden, and I was afraid, because I was naked; and I hid myself.” He said, “Who told you that you were naked? Have you eaten from the tree of which I commanded you not to eat?” The man said, “The woman whom you gave to be with me, she gave me fruit from the tree, and I ate.” Then the Lord God said to the woman, “What is this that you have done?” The woman said, “The serpent tricked me, and I ate.” The Lord God said to the serpent,

“Because you have done this,
cursed are you among all animals
and among all wild creatures;
upon your belly you shall go,
and dust you shall eat
all the days of your life.
I will put enmity between you and the woman,
and between your offspring and hers;
he will strike your head,
and you will strike his heel.”
To the woman he said,

“I will greatly increase your pangs in childbearing;
in pain you shall bring forth children,
yet your desire shall be for your husband,
and he shall rule over you.”
And to the man he said,

“Because you have listened to the voice of your wife,
and have eaten of the tree
about which I commanded you,
‘You shall not eat of it,’
cursed is the ground because of you;
in toil you shall eat of it all the days of your life;
thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for you;
and you shall eat the plants of the field.
By the sweat of your face
you shall eat bread
until you return to the ground,
for out of it you were taken;
you are dust,
and to dust you shall return.”
The man named his wife Eve, because she was the mother of all living. And the Lord God made garments of skins for the man and for his wife, and clothed them.

Then the Lord God said, “See, the man has become like one of us, knowing good and evil; and now, he might reach out his hand and take also from the tree of life, and eat, and live forever”— therefore the Lord God sent him forth from the garden of Eden, to till the ground from which he was taken. He drove out the man; and at the east of the garden of Eden he placed the cherubim, and a sword flaming and turning to guard the way to the tree of life.

Adam blames Eve, saying that it was her suggestion, and then blames God as well, saying “the woman whom you gave to be with me.” God then questions Eve, who blames the serpent. The serpent is not questioned, which suggests that God already understood its nature as “more crafty” than the rest of the animals.

Punishment is then announced for the three of them. The penalty for Adam consists in two things: the cursing of the ground and its consequences, and in his own return to the ground. The consequences of the cursing of the ground are that “in toil you shall eat of it all the days of your life; thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for you; and you shall eat the plants of the field.” It is possible that Adam was meant to care for the garden in the first place, but apparently it was not meant to be burdensome. From now on his work will be a burden. The ground will bring forth thorns and thistles, or in other words it will not be docile to his work. And finally, even what Adam takes from the ground will be inferior in quality, the “plants of the field.” It appears that in the garden there was enough fruit that eating these other plants was not necessary. Later in Genesis this is extended to the eating of meat as well:

The fear and dread of you shall rest on every animal of the earth, and on every bird of the air, on everything that creeps on the ground, and on all the fish of the sea; into your hand they are delivered. Every moving thing that lives shall be food for you; and just as I gave you the green plants, I give you everything.

This text implies that the human race was originally vegetarian, and that the animals did not begin to fear people until they started eating meat.

Adam’s second punishment is death, and God enforces it by removing the pair from the garden and preventing any possible return.