Evolution and Original Sin: The Problem of Evil

Evolution and Original Sin: Where are the Parameters Today?

Evolution and Original Sin: How to Read Genesis 1-3

I want to turn now to one of the more difficult aspects of the problem of original humanity and original sin, and that is to the origins of suffering and evil.  For the most part I will be relying on two Jesuit theologians to help me articulate the problem and some possible solutions.  These are Pierre Teilhard de Chardin and Karl Rahner.  I feel particularly prompted to write on de Chardin after Benedict XVI so recently spoke approvingly of his work.  Indeed, Benedict helps point the way forward on some of these hard questions through his appropriation of Teilhard from as far back as Introduction to Christianity.  But that is getting ahead of myself.  

In a collection of essays, God and Evolution, Teilhard states: 

The principal obstacle encountered by orthodox thinkers when they try to accommodate the revealed historical picture of human origins to the present scientific evidence, is the traditional notion of original sin.

According to this doctrine, the whole universe was effected by Adam’s sin, such that it was because of Adam’s sin that the world fell into disharmony and it was becauseof Adam’s sin that Christ has to come.   This raises a serious problem.  We now know with certainty in a way that theologians never knew before, that millions of years before humanity arrived on the scene, suffering and death were a part of reality. Suffering was an integral part of life from the very beginning of its appearance on earth.  Long before man came on the scene, death existed, and was wreaking havoc on the world.  We must be clear here.  It seems that for St. Paul, Original Sin is the general solution to the problem of evil.  Through Adam’s disobedience, death and suffering entered the world.  And according to Romans 8, since through man’s sin death and suffering entered the world, it will be through the New Adam’s obedience that creation will be freed.  Bluntly put, we know this is not the case, at least in the traditional sense.  Adam as a historical man who sinned and brought about suffering in creation did not exist. Evil and suffering existed in the world long before human beings came around.  

For Teilhard, this means that “if there is an original sin in the world, it can only be and have been everywhere in it and always, from the earliest nebulae to be formed as far as the most distant.”  The problem of original sin and evil is not that it is a small event that occurred way back then, but that it is so large an event.  It can no longer be a particular “act” restricted to a man or even a first population of human beings.  It must be a “state” of all of creation.  

Can we accept this?  Teilhard understands Original Sin to refer to the nature of all participated being that is in fiere, in the process of becoming.  He puts it thus: 

It simply symbolizes the inevitable chance of evil which accompanies the existence of all participated being.  Wherever being in fieri is produced, suffering and wrong immediately appear as its shadow: not only as a result of the tendency towards inaction and selfishness found in creatures, but also (which is more disturbing) as an inevitable concomitant of their effort to progress.  Original sin is the essential reaction of the finite to the creative act [my emphasis]. 

In other words, when God, who is existence itself, decides to create finite being, being that can only become perfect by means of change and growth, there will necessarily be statistical evil.  All finite being necessarily involves suffering, insofar as it involves change and movement toward perfection.  Teilhard sees the movement of Creation as one from the multiple to the unitary.  This process requires suffering and death.  Of course, these words must be used analagously, since suffering for a proton is not the same as for a dog, or for a human.  But nevertheless, they all share the same genus of metaphysical evil.  They all represent some kind of lack, privation, that is the result of all finite creation as opposed to infinite being.  A perfect world could not actually involve true change in the realm of creatures and freedom in the realm of humans.  An already perfect world would simply be an extension of God, and not truly different from God, as Catholic theology maintains.  

What role then does “Adam’s” sin continue to play?  Teilhard notes that in Adam, sin, which only existed in potency in finite creation, becomes a reality in Adam, who actualizes through freedom the potency toward sin in finite participated being. In Adam, just as creation is rising higher and more individually toward what it is meant to be (toward the unity of Christ) by moving from the multiple to the unitary, so, as an almost necessary shadow or byproduct of this movement, “evil” too becomes more individualized.  Adam’s sin is the first moment when evil becomes “specially individualized” as Teilhard notes.  This “individualization” of evil in human sin would be “Original Sin” in the strict theological sense.  In a larger sense, Original Sin is the ontological law of finite participated being in fiere. 

Note again, for Teilhard, this is not a deficiency in the creative act, but is of the very structure of participated being.  It is the necessary side product.  He notes in a footnote that “original sin then becomes a combined effect of atomicity [which is the statistical disorder of multiplicity that we see after the big bang for example] and organicity [which is the general contamination of the human mass by the use of human freedom in selfish ways].”  The more human beings misuse their freedom spiritually, the more the human social mass will be effected through natural selection.  Those who are more selfish may be selected out to propagate more since they survive longer, and so sin works its way into DNA.  

Through a winding pathway then, we come back to the question of what Original Sin, in the light of evolution, can any longer be or represent.  Death was in the world before Adam.  Yet this is not hard to reconcile with the Genesis account.  As Rahner states so well in a small gem of a book called Hominisation:

The features of the biblical account which might give the impression of supplying such [historical] details, in reality belong to the form of statement, not to what is affirmed.  Consequently we know nothing except that man was created by God as God’s personal partner in a sacred history of salvation and perdition; that concupiscence and death do not belong to man as God wills him to be, but to man as sinner; that the first man was also the first to incur guilt before God and his guilt as a factor of man’s existence historically brought about by man, belongs intrinsically to the situation in which the whole subsequent history of humanity unfolds.

He continues:

On this supposition, however, the proto-history of man cannot be thought of as extending for some length of time in the pure condition in which God had established man.  In that case, however, much that we almost automatically consider as belonging to the historical apearance and form of the first man is rather to be understood as something that really should be and as what ought to have been [my emphasis]. 

In other words, when God notes that “it is good,” this is a futural announcement of God’s plan for all of creation.  All is potentially good and has the potential for good and for perfection as it unfolds according to God’s plan for all. In effect, God is seeing Christ when he pronounces all to be good, since it is Christ as St. Paul notes who is the goal of creation.  Genesis 2 is what should be and ought to be. Adam is potential humanity in promise of the New Adam, which includes each of us.  We are already there in the beginning.  That is how we must read this myth.  

Ratzinger helps to spell out the full meaning of original man and final man inIntroduction to Christianity.  He explains, using Teilhard’s philosophical workThe Phenomenon of Man as his anchor: 

Let us look at a further text, in order to see in what direction such ideas lead: “Contrary to the appearances still accepted by Physics, the Great Stability is not below — in the infra-elemental — but above, in the ultra-synthetic. So it must be discovered that, “if things hold, and hold together, it is only by virtue of ‘complexification’, from the top.” I think we are confronted here with a crucial statement; at this point the dynamic view of the world destroys the positivistic conception, which seems so obvious to us, that stability is located only in the “mass,” in hard material. That the world is in the last resort put together and help together “from above” here becomes evident in a way that is particularly striking because we are so little accustomed to it. 

Christ acts toward creation, not only as inner dynamism, but as futural magnet, drawing the multitude toward the unitary by the force of his attraction.  Original Sin in this broad sense is the dispersion of all things, “Adam,” who is potentially Christ not yet arrived at perfection.  Human beings represent a certain culmination of physical perfection, “complexification” as Ratzinger calls it, or a certain level of “interiorization” as Teilhard prefers.  This is exemplified in freedom.  Possibility and contingency are what allow “the multitude” to move toward unification.  When multitudinal contingency reaches human form, “contingency” becomes “freedom.” Yet human freedom shares all the deficiencies of beings in fiere, which is lack of perfection.  So simultaneous with the complexification of man is the complexification of evil as well.  In this sense, Teilhard sometimes speaks of Original Sin as existing the future, as that which man is potentially capable of, even as he rises in complexity and interiority.  

But, finally, doesn’t this all contradict St. Paul’s claim that through Adam’s disobedience, death entered the world.  Isn’t death the result of sin?  Yes, but we must remain clear about what death is.  The Old Testament understanding of death is not dualistic.  It primarily means separation from God, and is only a physical phenomenon secondarily.  Paul would have known this, and so for him to speak of death entering the world through Adam is to acknowledge that death in its fullest sense, which would have still been meaningless to a degree for other beings, becomes a full possibility in Adam.  Human beings are the first creatures capable of choosing this separation, of being disobedient.  Paul seems to make it clear that he is primarily talking about humans when he says that with sin, death enters the world, “and so death spread to all men” (Rom 5:12).  This is death in the true, not analagous sense, shared by animals and plants.  Yet the salvation of creation is held in the choices of conscious beings, and in this sense, creation groans, awaiting the conquering of Original Sin, of multiplicity, in the unity of the Body of Christ.  

10 Responses to Evolution and Original Sin: The Problem of Evil

  1. Greg says:

    I don’t understand this part:

    “Teilhard sees the movement of Creation as one from the multiple to the unitary. This process requires suffering and death. Of course, these words must be used analagously, since suffering for a proton is not the same as for a dog, or for a human. But nevertheless, they all share the same genus of metaphysical evil. They all represent some kind of lack, privation, that is the result of all finite creation as opposed to infinite being.”


    1. What do you mean: “these words must be used analagously”? Why must they be used at all? For example, why not just use the word suffering for hominidae and academic nomenclature for protons?

    2. What do you mean: “they all share the same genus of metaphysical evil”? What specifically do you mean by “the same genus” and “metaphysical evil”? What evidence is there that they share the same genus?

    3. What do you mean by “some kind of lack, privation”? Can you provide specific examples of how protons represent “some kind of lack”? What do you mean by “finite creation” and “infinite being”. How are they different? Can you give a specific example of something that has resulted from an infinite being and also demonstrate how you know that it has?

  2. Greg,

    I’ll try to answer 1 and 2 together. The traditional definition of evil, as I’m sure you know, is privation of a good. Augustine was the first to really coin this definition and work it out. He was also the first to distinguish metaphysical evil, physical evil, and moral evil. Metaphysical evil is basically the situation of finite beings which are not perfect insofar as they lack certain perfections. Finite beings are defined in a metaphysical sense by what they are not: not perfect, infinite, necessary, etc. And, in striving to achieve the perfection of their nature, they necessarily overstep the bounds of other creatures. This is physical evil, which seems to be a part of the very fabric of finite beings, especially when we look at laws like natural selection. Thus, animals eat each other, wasps lay eggs in caterpillars, which eat them away from the inside out causing terrible pain. Finally, moral evil is freely chosen privation, freedom deciding to choose against the good rather than for it.

    I think these must be used analagously, since the similitude is greater than the similitude in some sense. There is huge difference between physical suffering and moral suffering, insofar as the latter includes the experience of freedom and self-consciousness. But at the same time, all suffering is the result of a privation that comes from being finite. In this sense they both share the same genus.

    As far as number three, while it may not look like particular atoms experience lack, their chemical “impulse” toward combination with other atoms to form higher level unities and more complex unities that at one time resulted in the origins of life and then consciousness seems to point to a dynamic desire within nature for self-transcendence. A proton does not represent a lack, but it “experiences” a lack insofar as it does not exist on its own, but for the sake of higher unities. These have, over millions of years, moved somewhat inexorably toward higher levels of complexification and interiorization. The “multiple” that was immediately following the Big Bang has coalesced bit by bit. Christ is the lode star that draws all things on to the perfection of creation of which St. Paul speaks.

    I think that this universe has resulted from an infinite being. Can I demonstrate this? I think Thomas Aquinas does fairly well:

    There are three ways to account for a things existence: either

    (a) its existence is part of its essence, or
    (b) its existence comes to its essence from without, effecting a composition with it, or
    (c) its existence is itself the entire essence of the thing.

    It is not the case that (a).
    If it is the case that (c), then it is so for at most one thing.
    For all other things, it must be the case that (b).

  3. BCatholic says:

    While Chardin is interesting, I think it was Lewis who suggested that Original Sin, man’s sinfulness, affects both backwards and forwards in time, which I prefer.

  4. Fine, but he doesn’t try to deal adequately with the theological problems that evolution raises for the origins of evil. I think that Lewis is a nice start, but not enough.

  5. brettsalkeld says:

    I just followed you over here from VN and read you three-part series. Very interesting. I just wanted to share something that seems obvious to me now (5 minutes after it first occurred to me), but that I never realized until I read the first Rahner quote above.
    The thing is that I find it very theologically significant that our FIRST parents sinned. Why were there not 3 or 4 or 100 generations of humans who chose to obey God before someone screwed up the whole Eden thing? I think the fact that Scripture has the very first humans as the culprits lends some serious theological weight to your (and Teilhard’s and Rahner’s and Ratzinger’s) basic hypothesis.

  6. Jolly P.K. says:

    How would you explaing the Church’s teaching:
    “Bodily death, from which man would have been immune had he not sinned” (GS 18:2).


  7. reyjacobs says:

    The Bible never mentions ‘original sin.’ It is pure Gnostic eisogesis (imported into the text). It is eisogesis on the part of Augustine, who was a Manichean Gnostic for 9 years before finally giving in to his mother and returning to the Catholic church (because she arranged a marriage for him with a wealthy Catholic lady). It may have somehow been contained in embryonic form in Romans 5 in a bit of eisogesis on the part of ‘Paul’ or whatever Gnostic sect composed the original edition of Romans (remember Marcion’s shorter Pauline epistles?) But nowhere in Genesis does it mention damnation of the human race, loss of freewill, or loss of moral capacity. Quite the opposite, God says “Behold the man has become as one of Us, knowing good and evil.”

  8. I don’t know if it’s been too long, but I came across your intriguing post and was wondering on what your concept of the soul is in all of this. That is what has been troubling me, at one point did these hominids have souls as we think then? Would one generation have it and then the previous not in the same way a drop of water makes water overflow with a small difference making a big difference or is there something more of a continuum ala sorites paradox going on here between spirit and matter? Just curious what your thoughts are.

  9. There is nothing so useless as doing efficiently that which should not be done at all….

    Death does not surprise a wise man, He is always ready to leave….

  10. Mark30339 says:

    Nathan’s summary of Teilhard’s ponderings on original sin is very informative. It should be mentioned that in Teilhard’s time (the early 20th century), his writings on theology were extensively muzzled by Church authorities. Pope Benedict is recognizing Teilhard’s insights nearly a century late (better late than never). The Augustinian/Pauline notion of how Adam’s single “gotcha” disobedience taints us all has never resonated with me — it simplifies human creation with rigidly logical dualism. I do not reject the standard original sin doctrine, I sense it to be thoroughly incomplete.

    Why not embrace Teilhard’s notion that humanity was created with a profound potential for sin and separation from its Creator. “In the beginning, when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless wasteland, and darkness covered the abyss . . . .” The building material for man, earthen clay, seems imbued with a great potential for darkness, although it certainly need not develop in a dark way.

    Adam and Eve, the prototype original humans, were persuaded to indulge a yearning to be like gods themselves and so they ate of the tree of knowledge of good and bad, their eyes were opened, and suddenly they became so self-conscious and self-absorbed that they perceived a shame in their nakedness. An ego-centered, comparing mind that sees everything as good or bad, better or worse, worthy of envy or worthy of disdain, takes root in mankind. Life is no longer perceived as a unified harmony, and becomes something commenced in pain, lived in toil and surrendered in death and bodily decay. Adam and Eve’s legacy is that each succeeding generation embraces life in this fallen way — it is taught and reinforced by example, again and again and again. We quickly forget and abandon the unified harmony that enveloped us in utero and in infancy.

    Part of the Good News is that this fallen way can be unlearned, and part of the notion of being born again is learning to perceive God’s unified harmony and learning to keep the judging ego in check. Our Lord provides a great gift with his Parable of the Prodigal Son. It seems that until we descend and humbly surrender like the prodigal son, we tend to live like the prodigal’s brother, in a hard-hearted delusion of virtue.

    Teilhard led a life filled with great triumphs and great difficulties. It is interesting that the importance of his observations of conditions from a century ago have great relevance and recognition now.

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