Tuesday, June 09, 2015

Evolution and Sin (Part I)

So it all started with something simple. As far as I can tell, Christians have held, almost universally and quite uncontroversially throughout history, that the incarnation (that's the Christmas story - God coming to Earth as a man, for those of you without the inside scoop on theological mumbo-jumbo) of Jesus Christ was the plan from the beginning. It's easy to see how sending Jesus to die as a solution for sin might appear to be a reaction to the actual sinning we humans did - but the Church has never believed that (this is part of a more complex discussion of God's knowledge and power - which may be better left for Part II... or III).

It's a rather unassuming assumption, really, but it has some pretty profound implications. If God was always planning to come to Earth in the person of Jesus Christ how does sin affect that plan? The traditional understanding of the beginning is that Adam and Eve were born perfect and immortal, but once they ate the forbidden fruit they became imperfect and mortal. One, that leads to a whole lot of difficult questions in light of actual history, human behavior, logic, and even just physical coherence. It's certainly a possible explanation for things - a simple, elegant one at that - but it's not very satisfying, at least for me.

It's possible God always planned, had things worked out better for Adam and Eve, to come as Jesus and just stay - that the Incarnation would essentially be the start of heaven. We have an Earth full of faultless loving humans and now God joins them in life. Beautiful. Encouraging. But, somehow, it just didn't seem right. Especially since human history did, in fact, play out much differently.

I've always been told that Adam and Eve were given free choice - to eat or not to eat - and certainly in a moment I believe that's true. We always have a real choice. I don't believe in determinism. But over time, I'm not sure the choice between obedience and disobedience is really a choice unless both are chosen. If someone goes their entire life always doing the right, most loving thing, well, there's something unnatural about it.

I know this is a point where people can and will disagree - and that's ok - but for me, I came to the realization, or at least asked the question: what if God intended for humans to sin?

That brings us to a little discussion of sin, something that's been difficult for Christians to pin down well over time. At one point a lot of people might have said, "Sin is something that leads you to end up in Hell," which is a difficult definition to parse, you know, before actually dying. It's part of the reason we end up with this long list of Dos and Don'ts; people are just trying to have their bases covered.

I tend to define sin as some action which works against God's intended purpose for the world. I suppose that's not entirely different than the one above, but it does put the impetus on the moment instead of the far future. It's also not really that different from what some of the earliest Protestant reformers used. They talked about sin as anything that falls short of the mark - a major tenet of this thought is that we sin every day in thought, word, and deed (I know this doesn't reflect completely the position of the first reformers, but certainly is suited well enough to most of them). On the cosmic scale, that's a pretty good definition - those things we do which aren't helpful in bringing about peace and unity in the world are sin.

But I'm also a Wesleyan, and John Wesley didn't like that notion of sin, because it leaves us guilty of things we may never have intended. An off-handed, innocent comment might really offend someone - clearly a wrong move in the world, but more a mistake than a sin. He defined sin as "an intentional violation of a known law of God." You could certainly be doing wrong things without knowing it, but God wouldn't hold those against you.

This definition is still trying to match up with an eternal reward/punishment idea - keeping our butts covered in the event of a surprise rapture (you can look that one up) or something.

I've never really thought, though, that the purpose of this life is to get to the next one. That's doesn't make a lot of sense - it makes no more sense, really, than God waiting thousands and thousands of years from the creation of humans to the incarnation if they weren't sinning.

So I've sort of come to the conclusion that perhaps it makes the most sense, given our scriptural witness, the experience of life, and what we know of God, to believe that God intended Adam and Eve (and thus the rest of us) to sin.

I know it sounds like blasphemy, but it makes sense in a lot of ways.

Firstly, let's look at love. The Bible pretty clearly states, "God is love." I'd say the action of Jesus on the cross is the ultimate example of love (more on that later). If love is the ultimate action, goal, lesson, what-have-you, then perhaps we need to look at this whole thing through that lens.

If I were to ask what makes the death of Jesus the ultimate example of love many people would respond, "dying to save life - even the life of an enemy," and that is certainly noble. But I'd argue that the ultimate sign of love is redemption. It's not the death of Jesus, the pain and agony that makes the cross so powerful, it is the forgiveness that comes with it and the commitment to reconciliation. On the cross, God is providing a way for people who've been separated by sin to be redeemed, to be restored to relationship with full rights and privileges.

Love is love, but no love is more powerful than a love that's undeserved.

If we've done something to justify a cutting off, a breaking of relationship, and the other chooses to work for restoration, to keep loving, to work through the pain and find healing... that's the highest pinnacle of love. I believe God set out to demonstrate that love through creation. That requires, though - absolutely requires - a break in relationship.

God created humans not only with the power to choose something other than God intended, but with the understanding that they would. We can get all existentialist and ask whether a choice not taken is ever really a choice - I think perhaps it's not.

If you go back to the scriptural record, this story is told in Genesis 3. The real problem doesn't occur in verse six when Adam and Eve eat the fruit, but in verses twelve and thirteen when first Adam and then Eve blames someone else for their error instead of taking responsibility. This is the real break in relationship. God gave them the chance to repent, seek forgiveness and bring restoration. They chose to get defensive. Whatever cosmic consequences rippled out through history, I believe, happened not when the ate, but when they chose not to be reconciled.

God continues to love them, because God is love. Thank God. But the consequences of their actions, the reality of their sin, that lingers. God forgives. God redeems. God loves. But God does not take away the consequences of our actions. God walks through them with us.

I'm not sure exactly what the real plan was - the hopeful plan - but I'll venture a guess. I think God created people who would be selfish and disobedient. Those are precisely the kind of people you need if you're going to act out redemption, the ultimate act of love - they also happen to be the kind of people each and every one of us is. We're people who do stupid stuff, hurtful stuff - not always with malicious intent, either. I'm guessing God knew, planned, for us to sin in this way. This would still require an ultimate reconciliation - an incarnation - something to fully restore the separation created between God and Creation through this action.

I'm guessing the further refusal to reconcile really broke God's heart. This just made things worse. The divide was expanded and pain increased. The consequences of these actions to effect the rest of the world - the ripple down to everyone we know and love and come in contact with. The scope of restoration provided in the incarnation had to increase exponentially. Exactly as scripture tells it: Adam and Eve made life more difficult for everyone. Telling it this way, though, makes it a lot more understandable for us - it lines up a lot more with the life we recognize and the world in which we live.

That's probably enough for now. More to come in the future (I didn't even mention evolution yet)...

No comments: