I wonder if anyone saw the television two-parter called ‘The Bible Hunters’? It was all about the discovery of ancient Bible manuscripts. Pretty good but a little spoilt by the repetition of some hoary old chestnuts, urban legends about the history of Christianity.
I’m sure you’ll have heard this before, because it keeps on being trotted out. But here goes: according to the myth, before the 19th century life was dominated by religion. Everyone believed Genesis Chapter 1, literally. They took at as an article of faith that God created the world in seven days. Archbishop Ussher even worked out the date: it happened on the 22nd October 4004 BC. But along came Darwin and evolution, the light of science began to shine in the world. Clergymen hated the light and tried to put it out, but science triumphed over ignorance.
Compelling but untrue. The facts are that way before Darwin, Origen and Augustine in the early church argued that Genesis 1 was not a scientific account – its truth lay in the inner meaning. So people in the past took a much more sophisticated view than the story supposes. Moreover biology around the time of Darwin depended on vicars of country parishes who, obviously, had plenty of spare time– and many of them were positive about Darwin’s ideas. Religion was not universally hostile. Nor is it the case that science automatically brings light and peace to the world. Sadly, like any human idea, evolutionary theory can be used for good or evil – Nazi eugenics comes to mind.
I don’t see it as Christianity versus science. I see God’s Word in the Bible and God’s creation as two complementary books, illuminating one another. I’d like to bear this in mind as we think about the passage from Romans. V.12a. One man. The Adam of our Genesis reading.
What do we make of Adam? Can we believe the story of the garden of Eden? We’ve all seen the textbook illustration of evolution: which starts off on the left hand page with the shambling ape going ‘ug, ug, ug’. Little by little they stand more upright and they’re less hairy until you end up on the right hand side with modern man, who looks pretty pleased with himself as he’s managed to walk across the page completely naked without compromising his modesty. Science says we came from apes, does it not? So was there an Adam?
Recent science may actually make it easier to believe in a first human. In the body cells of apes are 24 chromosomes. Humans have just 23. One of the human chromosomes looks very clearly as if it was formed by the combination of two of the ape chromosomes. Now that isn’t a gradual process. It is a sudden event. In one person. In other words, we had our roots in apes, yes. But at some point along the ape-human transition there was an individual with this genetic change. Could that be how God created modern humanity? By joining chromosomes which are known to be important in governing intelligence?
That’s speculative and open to discussion. New scientific discoveries may change the view again. So we recognise that St. Paul’s argument in Romans doesn’t crucially depend on there being a literal Adam. The gospel doesn’t stand or fall with that first human. I happen to believe that there could well have been a first human pair who disobeyed God’s direct command. I don’t think that’s scientifically impossible.
But if you believe that Genesis 1-3 with its talking snake and tree of knowledge is poetic rather than scientific, if you feel it describes eternal truths, then St. Paul’s message still applies. If the story of Adam is a way of saying that we all turn away from God’s will, we all sin, then that’s exactly the point Paul’s making. He says in v. 12 death came to all because all have sinned.
And that rings true in our experience. We all know the reality of sin. We all know what it is to affirm the right course of action, but not to do it. We know that we are responsible but cannot always resist.
That may sound a very negative attitude. But as the novelist Marilynne Robinson puts it ‘The belief that we are all sinners gives us excellent grounds for forgiveness and self-forgiveness, and is kindlier than any expectation that we might be saints, even while it affirms the standards all of us fail to attain.’ As Lent begins we remember we all fight the battle against sin day to day. And we know that sin does not lead to life.
It doesn’t make a great deal of difference whether or not you believe in original sin. St Augustine worked out a huge theory from this passage – in v 18 ‘one man’s trespass led to condemnation for all’.
He said that Adam and Eve sinned, and they passed on that original sin to every descendant. So like it or not we are doomed to follow their example, even before we’ve actually committed any sins of our own. In modern language it might be described as cultural conditioning , or an innate tendency to put self before others. Every human being ends up losing the battle against sin.
And to argue about where sin came from is a bit like trying to work out where the plague came from in the middle of an epidemic. The origin of the virus isn’t so important. What matters is whether or not you’ve got it. The undeniable fact is, we have all sinned and continue to do so.
In v.12 Death came through sin, and so death spread to all because all have sinned. As Paul puts it elsewhere, the wages of sin is death. Turning away from God, which is what we do when we disobey him, cuts us off from the source of life, so eventually we must die. Without forgiveness there would be no hope, only the judgement of God and eternal loss. It is a serious problem, from which only God himself can rescue us. He does not want anyone to perish and so he sent Christ who gave himself to die our death on the cross, so we could be free.
But did death come into the world through sin? The fossil record tells us that animals and plants have always been dying – that’s why they’re fossils! Our pre-human ancestors died. Evolution says they have to: The survival of the fittest doesn’t work if survival doesn’t mean anything! If so, then what do we make of v.12?
Was it that the first human was created immortal? A kind of exception to the rule? Or was it that Adam and Eve were mortal but while they were sustained by God’s presence in Eden they lived? After they sinned and were thrown out they eventually died?
Perhaps a better way of thinking about it is to see what Paul means by death. Whenever he speaks about death he means death as it is now, our current human experience of it. Death as parting, sorrow. Death that is feared. Pain. Death that means a return to God and being judged.
What if there was a death before sin, but it was more like a falling asleep? A death that held no terrors. A passing maybe like that of Enoch in Genesis who was taken to be with God. However, when humanity sinned, our relationship with God was broken. Returning to God became the final reckoning, the prospect and fear of judgement.
Death changes with sin, and yet the wonder of the good news is that Jesus can heal even that.
As Paul says in verse 16, God’s free gift is not like the effect of one man’s sin. For the judgement following the one trespass – that’s referring to Adam – brought condemnation. However, out of God’s love, the free gift of forgiveness through Christ, despite following many sins, brings justification, or a right relationship with God.
Paul tells how Jesus gave his life so we could be forgiven. He dealt with sin by giving himself on the cross, taking the penalty that we deserve. As Paul repeats – the sin of Adam spread to all humanity and brought death. We have all followed that path. But the loving act of Christ can be received by each and every one of us, and bring life. It’s a wonderful sign of God’s grace, that forgiveness so outweighs sin. One man Adam took his descendants away from God, one Divine-Man Jesus brought billions of us back – if we will decide to receive it.
And that’s the key point: what will we do? Will we turn back to God and accept the forgiveness Jesus offers? For our position is the same, no matter what our understanding of science and history. Whether you are a seven day Creationist, or a thorough going evolutionist, God’s love for you is the same, and he wants you to know him. Whether we believe in an original Adam, or believe that we all follow Adam’s path, we still need a Saviour for our sin. God has supplied that rescue in Jesus. He calls us back to himself in love. As Lent begins, what better time to accept that love?
Let us pray: Lord God, we confess that we have sinned. We need your forgiveness. Thank you for sending Jesus to die for us so that we could come back to you. We turn from all that is wrong, and ask you to fill us with your Spirit so we may live our lives following you. Amen.