Roger Courtney, who has recently completed a course at the Cathedral on Genesis 1-11, here offers his own perspective on the Creation, the Fall and science.

Christmas is coming and even though the times are exceptional, churches will be seeking to reach out to their communities through Christmas services. Some of these will have the nine traditional readings and so those attending, whether in person or on-line, will hear the story of the origin of the separation between humankind and God as told in Genesis 3, the story that provides the Biblical background to the coming of Christ. And particularly those on the margins of faith will wonder how Christians can believe this story which seems to be so much at variance with the understanding that has developed over the last two hundred years about the origins of the Earth and of humankind. Do people of faith really believe that there was a first couple who lived in Paradise and walked with God? What has God got against apples? When did talking snakes disappear from the world?

These questions cannot be dismissed. There is a widespread perception that Christian beliefs have been undermined by science. We live in a world in which Christianity and its followers are widely regarded as outdated, out of touch and irrelevant.

Unfortunately, the church does not seem prepared to accept an alternative account, consistent with modern understanding, of how ‘sin’ (which can be interpreted as humankind not accepting God’s principles for living) came into the world and why Christ came. Yet such an account is perfectly possible. Humans are the product of a long chain of evolution, each link in the chain being there because in its day it was successful in the struggle for existence. Our genes have at their core a competitive element that has been honed over aeons. As human societies became more complex, not only the need to compete but also the benefits of cooperation influenced the gene pool. But the competitive element remains and, inevitably, this manifests itself in many different ways including a desire for power and dominance. The result is the huge range of human behaviour that we observe in practice.

All this would have been foreseen by the loving God who, by the processes that he set down in that first instant of creation, caused the eventual emergence of an intelligent life-form to whom he could reveal himself and with whom he could have a special relationship.  And when through the progressive increase in the self-awareness and reasoning capabilities of his creation God was able to interact with the group that he had chosen to be the bearers of his truths – the people of Israel -  causing them to become aware of his presence and giving them concepts of good and evil, a tension was created between their inherited modes of thought and action and those that pointed towards him. But because a loving God who desires a loving response from his creation does not exercise absolute control over his creation, humans had a choice – to follow what they had learned to be God’s ways or to follow the self-centred instincts that they had inherited and be separate from him. And the loving God, in fulfilment of the relationship that he had established with Israel, therefore sent his Son to expiate all those occasions where humans had decided not to follow his ways, to take those sins upon himself and point the way to the eternal relationship that was and is God’s will for humankind.

This account of why the inherent tendency to substitute one’s own desires for those of God exists in everyone is wholly compatible both with the foundational creeds of Christianity and with current scientific understanding.

There are, though, implications for traditional belief and teaching:

First, if genetic inheritance provides the driver for sin, the place of a Satan, a distinct personalised force for evil, in the scheme of things becomes unclear. The snake may be a powerful image, but it is no more than that.

Secondly, references to ‘fallen’ humanity have no historical foundation. The world was never perfect and humans have if anything risen within the spectrum of life-forms so that, in contrast to their predecessor hominoids, they are able to have a relationship with their creator.

Thirdly, the basis of the doctrine of innate or original sin changes. We all possess the tension between our personal desires and God’s wishes, but this is because of our genetic inheritance, not because of a specific act.

So this Christmas let us be clear that we have in Genesis 3 a story with crucial lessons for us about the consequences of not following God’s will for our lives, but not an account of how sin came into the world. And as we go into 2021, let us celebrate the understanding of ourselves and of our world that humans have been able to achieve through the skills with which God has endowed us, skills which we need more than ever to meet the challenges of our time.

Roger Courtney

Title image: Adam and Eve in the St Albans Psalter, Dombibliothek Hildesheim

Image 1: Adam and Eve, Metropolitan Museum of Art. Image available through Creative Commons. 

Image 2: The Downfall of Adam and Eve, part of the ceiling paintings in the Sistine Chapel by Michelangelo. Image available through Creative Commons.