01/16/2011 01:16 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Original Sin, Evolution and Human Origins

On February 22, 1943, in Munich, the German student Sophie Scholl went to her death on the guillotine. A member of what is known as the "White Rose" group, she had been found guilty of distributing pamphlets against the war and the Nazis. Her last words, as she walked bravely to her death, were: "How can we expect righteousness to prevail when there is hardly anyone willing to give himself up individually to a righteous cause. Such a fine, sunny day, and I have to go, but what does my death matter, if through us thousands of people are awakened and stirred to action?"

I give this as background to another (in what has become a series) of assaults on the Christian problem of original sin. I use the word "assault" not in the sense of denying original sin. If what happened to Sophie Scholl was not the result of original sin, I don't know what could be. But rather in the sense of seeing how the notion can be reconciled with modern science, specifically with modern paleoanthropology (the study of human origins).

The problem is simple. The standard Christian position on original sin, stemming from Saint Augustine (around 400 CE), is that humans are tainted -- predisposed towards sin -- because of the acts of Adam and Eve. They disobeyed God and as a result we are all inflected. It is for this reason that Jesus, God incarnate, died on the Cross. This selfless act made possible our eternal salvation.

But what if Adam and Eve never existed? What happens to the whole doctrine of original sin? Unfortunately, it is absolutely denied by today's students of human origins that, at some point in the past, the human species (Homo sapiens) sprang into existence with just two people, a man and a woman. Everything comes about through a long process of evolution, fueled by natural selection. We humans have ancestors going back to the original blobs almost four billion years ago. And, when we did appear half a million or so years ago there was a whole population, and although the species may well have gone through some bottlenecks, there were always several thousand of us around.

Moreover, even if we today are all descended from one or two individuals, we are also descended from many other individuals. So really, talking about an original pair who made a big mistake is simply not on. Nor incidentally, is it much help to argue, as has recently been suggested by the scientist Denis Alexander, a Christian who heads the Faraday Institute in Cambridge, England (an institute dedicated to the reconciliation of science and religion), that perhaps two humans in the Middle East did something wrong and that caused the trouble. Modern biology suggests that sin was around a long time before any two individuals, however wicked they may have been, so it is a bit silly to say that they uniquely were responsible for all of our ills.

One solution to the dilemma, which I have floated earlier, is to suppose that although original sin in the sense of dispositions to doing wrong is very real, it is metaphorical or allegorical to talk of Adam and Eve. Rather, we should think of original sin as something that came through our evolution, along with other propensities for instance those towards helping and altruism. Natural selection produced beings who are a mélange of good and ill, with selfish inclinations as well as altruist inclinations.

Some theologians actually prefer this interpretation, because it no longer makes the story of Jesus look like "Plan B." We sinned and so God then had to come up with a solution, namely the incarnation and the resurrection. Better rather to assume that God planned everything from the first and that He knew all along that at some point we would need rescuing from our too natural inclinations. Theologically this is known as "supralapsarianism" as opposed to "infralapsarianism."

I want to mention another crack at the problem, also endorsing the supralapsarian position, by the distinguished Calvinist philosopher Alvin Plantinga. He argues that God planned the incarnation and the crucifixion and resurrection, from the first, because He saw that a world in which such a supreme act of goodness occurred is superior to a world in which it did not happen. Plantinga writes: "Could there be a display of love to rival this? More to the present purpose, could there be a good-making feature of a world to rival this?" So in other words, the sins of Adam and Eve were kind of fortunate things, because they made possible an already-planned act of supreme goodness. Adam and Eve were in a sense rather set up by God in order to make possible the arrival and acts of Jesus. The subtitle of Plantinga's article is "O Felix Culpa," meaning "Oh happy sin or fault."

Well, speaking as a non-Christian, I will have to leave the theological issues to others. Although I do have to say that, as an outsider, it is not obvious to me that Jesus' death on the Cross, admirable though it may have been, was beyond rival. It seems to me that Sophie Scholl was at least up there. Here is a young woman, just into adulthood, with everything to live for, deliberately giving it up because she had to do what she saw was right. I am not worthy to lick her boots and -- at the risk of seeming desperately offensive but I don't mean to be -- I am not sure that anyone else, including God-made-human, was too.

More than this, I continue to have the old Dostoevsky problem, namely the question asked by the chap in the Brothers Karamazov, is anyone's salvation worth it if it means the suffering of a child? I will be happy to take salvation if it comes, but if the price was Sophie Scholl on the guillotine, "no thanks."

The main point I want to make here is that Plantinga's solution sidesteps -- in the sense of "evades," not in the sense of "makes unimportant" -- the worry about the clash between science and religion. Even if God did plan it all knowing that the Jesus events would make for the best of all possible worlds -- to use the Leibnizian phrase -- you still have the question about Adam and Eve. Are they literal or allegorical? And unless you go for some sort of solution that makes for them being allegorical, then I think you are back with religion clashing with modern science.

So I remain with the idea of evolution and of sin being part of the naturally selected human condition. This, I have remarked, is the position that has got faculty members at Calvin College into hot water with their president for supposedly kicking over the bounds of their required religious beliefs for employment at the college. It is a sad reflection on the relationship between science and religion in the USA today that something like this has come to pass.