Private correspondence regarding my last article stirred some additional thoughts in me – going in a couple of directions. I will begin with some reflections on Creation and the story of Adam and Eve.
Before delving into the heavier matter, however, allow me to share with you what I consider one of my life’s greatest achievements: developing an answer years ago to the age-old question of which came first, the chicken or the egg.
(My answer was drawn from my vaguely remembered college philosophy course that discussed Plato and types – or something like that – as well as a biology class on genetics and evolution).
The answer depends on whether one believes in an evolutionary model of creation or a direct creation model. (Both notions are consistent with the idea of God as Creator, although the former doesn’t require it.)
If one believes in direct creation, certainly the chicken(s) must have been created first. It would make no sense to create an egg with no rooster to fertilize or hen to warm it.
However, if one subscribes to an evolutionary model, the egg must come first. To understand this, we must assume that there exists a specific and unique genotype of the “true” chicken, that distinguishes it from similar fowl that are not chickens.
In the context of the evolutionary perspective, different types of fowl developed over time, some surviving better than others, as gradual changes occurred in their genetic makeup.
Finally, some day, somewhere, two “almost chickens” got together to create the first “true chicken”. With just the right combination of genes from its almost-chicken parents, this first real chicken emerged into the world – as an egg.
Having addressed this weighty issue, I will now plunge more deeply into the complex questions relating to the creation of humanity.
In my last post, I drew some beliefs/truths (as I see them) from the Creation story found in the book of Genesis. In all fairness to the reader, I will disclose now that I subscribe to an evolutionary model of creation, though I am not claiming that either ancient or contemporary man could fully comprehend what this means.
In no way am I dismissing or minimizing the role of God in the creative process. Indeed, I cannot imagine there being no Creator of a universe that is so immensely beautiful and well-ordered. But neither can I imagine that God just created once and then stopped. Creation is continually unfolding before us.
To regard the Genesis Creation story as a myth is not to say that it is not true. Rather, we are labeling its genre in literature as a story that was told to describe a truth (or belief), rather than to report on a historical event.
This is not a great deal different from saying that parables of Jesus were intended to be stories designed to teach. We have every reason to believe that the story of The Good Samaritan, for example, was told to convey a truth, not an actual historic event. And it is no less the Word of God as such.
So, in Genesis, we have a story of how human beings came into existence and how evil entered our world. In learning how to read and interpret the truths in this story, we have the obvious dilemma of whether any of it was intended to be historical fact – and, if so, which parts.
Please allow me to take some liberties in describing the understanding I have arrived at, with my full recognition that I may be totally wrong. (Surely I am at least partially wrong – which of us can claim to understand God?)
First, if we assume an evolutionary model of creation, we likely have a similar process with the creation of Man as we did with the chicken in my story above.
Over vast periods of time, God created a universe which formed a planet Earth that revolved around a sun. Waters existed and land emerged. Life, initially in very small and simple forms, developed out of these materials. Again, over vast periods of time, these simple life forms evolved to produce increasingly complex living structures, both animal and plant.
Some of these creatures lived but a short time and died. The matter of which they were composed was then “recycled” to become the building blocks for more life. (Much like the process occurring right now in my compost bin – but at a higher level.) This was not a defect in Creation or a result of sin, but simply a beautiful cycle of how life was made to be.
At this point in the creative process, there was no suffering. Now I realize this is a rather bold assertion on my part. However, I am using the word “suffering” in a very specific way, which admittedly deviates a bit from the standard definition. I will explain this a bit more as follows.
This claim is perhaps most easily understood with very simple life forms that do not have nervous systems. While they may be subjected to experiences that lead to death, experiences we might classify as “painful”, they are not equipped to process the experience, to have an awareness of it that would constitute “suffering”.
Now as we observe more complex organisms, this claim of mine becomes more ambiguous. Many, for example, would argue that dogs and cats are capable of suffering. And, on one level, this appears to be indisputable. The fact that behavioral changes occur in response to pain and death indicates a significant level of awareness.
But do they have the “knowledge of good and evil”? And what does this mean?
To know goodness is to know God, for God alone is good (to paraphrase, Mark 10:18).
To know evil is to know the opposite of God – to know that there is a way opposite to the Way created for everyone and everything to live harmoniously with each other and the Creator.
Many animals seem to “love” by attaching to one another and even to humans, displaying what we would call warm and loving behaviors. But does this constitute knowing our God who is love?
Animals also instinctively want to avoid pain and death, but is this the same as knowing evil?
In both cases, I believe the answer is no. While their personalities and behaviors are often wonderful reflections of the Lord God, they were created to follow the Way instinctively and without free will.
Thus, as far as we can tell, the other animals do not have a true knowledge of good and evil nor do they have the capacity to consciously choose between them.
Hence, when I refer to the “suffering” resulting from the Fall of Man. I am referring to not just the experience of physical discomfort, but to an acute, conscious awareness of hardship, pain and death and their significance.
Only creatures who can comprehend good and evil – and make a choice between them – can suffer in this manner. For only those who understand good and evil can begin to fathom what it means to be separated from God.
For those of us who grew up with Christianity, it is natural that when we first heard the story of Adam and Eve, we pictured the creation of one man, one woman, a garden with a special tree in the middle and a snake. In other words, we pictured a literal, historical event.
For some, as they become more educated and able to think critically, this became a problem. Not only was the theory of evolution taught in our science classes, but we also began to speculate that with this model, incest would have to have been the means of propagating the entire human race.
This contributed to some people dismissing the entire story as one creation myth among many, having no more significance than any of the others. Meanwhile, others have clung to the literal story and defended the notion of direct creation despite these rational arguments.
There is another understanding, however. If we return to my hypothesis regarding the first chicken, we may discover that an integrative approach is quite appropriate, spiritually and rationally.
Assuming an evolving creation set into motion and ordered by God, it is quite possible that along the way, there were creatures who were “almost” human but not quite. They had many similar biological features but not the level of awareness that we associate with “Man”. Archeological studies support this possibility.
Of course, we are not capable of pinpointing exactly who the first “true” humans were or what differentiated them from their close cousins. It is very likely, however, that there were more than just two individuals who reached this status at the same time. It is also possible that there may have been both the true humans and close cousins inhabiting the earth simultaneously as this process continued.
Since Adam means “Man”, it is reasonable to hypothesize that this Creation myth was meant to communicate something about the development of the whole of humanity and our relationship with God, rather than just being a story about one particular man.
Such stories or myths were common during those ancient times as truths had to be remembered and retold orally across many generations.
To effectively accomplish this, the core beliefs were woven into a good story – which naturally required specific characters in order to be interesting to the listeners. Scripture scholars tell us that this story was told and retold orally for hundreds of years before it was ever written down.
So what truths were to be conveyed in this story, making it any more significant than the other myths of its time?
Although I listed some in my last post, allow me to pick up where I left off.
We were purposefully created by the one true God, in His image and likeness.
We were endowed with the ability to know God and to be in relationship with Him. Thus, He created us to know goodness.
What about evil? The story tells us that everything that God created He pronounced “good”. He did not create anything evil, i.e. opposed to His Way of Love.
But the story tell us that God created the human creature differently from all the other animals, with the both the capacity and the opportunity to understand good and evil. The tree represents that opportunity.
Here is where the myth of our creation becomes particularly interesting – and challenging to understand.
The story tells us that God warned our ancestors not to eat the fruit of this tree, suggesting that He didn’t want humanity to have this knowledge. But, if this is so, why not simply make human beings incapable of acquiring it?
I am going out on a limb here, but I suspect that the storyteller was attempting to communicate a very important and profound truth about our God.
On the one hand, He created us to participate in His love and thus share in His life.
On the other hand, He didn’t want to us to experience the suffering associated with knowing evil. His love wanted to protect us from that – and so the narrative has Him forbidding us to try to obtain this knowledge, warning that it would only lead to our death.
This story is much more sophisticated in its implications than we might expect, especially if we are used to reading it as though it were a literal account.
As noted elsewhere, love is only love if it is chosen freely. The animals and plants were all created “good”, but none were given the capacity to love God.
To choose love freely, we must have a full view of its opposite – or there is no real choice.
Hence, a tension develops in the story: God wants us to love but doesn’t want us to know evil – but there seems to be no way around this.
And so the storyteller introduces a new character to embody this tension. The tempter, a snake, enters to try to convince our ancestors that they would not die but rather become like God – if they ate the apple (i.e. acquired the knowledge of good and evil).
We now have God telling Man that he will die if he eats this “apple” and a cunning tempter saying that he will not. The tension in the story reaches it climax: who is telling Man the truth?
What is happens next is both interesting and instructive. Of course, Adam and Eve eat the apple and thereby acquire knowledge of good and evil. From what God has said, we might expect that they would die immediately – but they do not. Instead, they feel shame.
The introduction of shame, something no other creature had ever experienced before, hints at another truth: not only is Man no longer innocent like all of the other creatures, but he has become capable of an entirely different sort of death.
Although Scripture reports that Adam did eventually die, it was only after living 930 years and begetting many children. (See Genesis 5: 5.) It hardly seems likely that this was the sort of death about which God had warned him.
What are we to make of this? Did Man’s disobedience cause his eventual bodily death?
There are some who have made this interpretation. Had the first pair not disobeyed, human beings would have been immortal and lived eternally on this earth. Mortality, it is said, is the punishment for disobedience.
Naturally, this makes little sense in the context of an evolutionary model of Creation, where the living and dying of species had been occurring from the very beginning. And on a planet with limited space and resources.
Furthermore, God never says this in the Genesis story. Indeed, the storyteller relates that God banned Adam and Eve from the garden where the Tree of Life grew, lest they try to attain immortality by eating from this tree as they did the other. (See Genesis 3: 22.)
Their actual punishment for disobedience, related by God in the story, is that men and women will be subject to increasingly painful labor, both in giving birth and in toiling for food.
Did God reverse Himself on His warning about death? How is this “punishment” significantly different from what other creatures experienced before the Fall? Certainly animals have labored to give birth and to obtain food before this.
The story, I believe, is attempting to convey two important truths.
One is that humanity is now to experience suffering. By knowing of good and evil, having a choice and sometimes choosing against the way of Love, the human creatures now experience an acute, conscious awareness of hardship, pain and death.
They will experience guilt and shame. They will anticipate and fear their bodily hardships and death. Rather than simply experiencing the coming and going of their lives, they will find life and death difficult, even dreadful.
Man is unique in having experiences of this nature. The other animals do not undergo this kind of suffering.
The second important truth in this part of the story involves what death really means to the ones who understand.
Bodily death comes to all creatures of the earth. However, except for Man, none of them depart from the Way created for them. The human being, however, now capable of choosing between good and evil, is subject to an entirely different type of death: separation from the Way of Love, separation from God.
This is the eternal death from which we need to be saved.
Having thus extracted from the myth the truths I believe it embodies, what does this mean about what really happened?
Was there actually a moment in history when the first “true” Man committed a specific act of disobedience against God, leading to the Fall of all humanity? Is there really a tempter, a being outside of ourselves, who led us astray and continues to do so?
How did we come to attain the “knowledge of good and evil”? Did we truly obtain it through an act of disobedience as the story suggests?
Or did it come about when the gradually developing neural networks in our brains rendered us capable of understanding?
Possibly God breathed it into us at a certain point in our development through a mechanism separate from biological evolution.
These are questions beyond our knowing. We simply cannot know the facts of our creation or our Fall with any historical certainty. None of us were there – and neither were the people who finally put the Genesis account into writing.
My own tendency, as one who accepts the evolutionary model of creation, is to believe that yes, certainly among the first “true” human beings, someone went first in knowingly stepping out of the way of Love.
However, who went first is of little consequence. Within seconds, another human was probably doing essentially the same thing.
Perhaps one new human hit another in order to take his food. Or one stole a tool from another. This may have occurred before but, at some point, there was an awareness that this was wrong.
It is not as though the Fall would not have occurred if only that first ones had refrained. Eventually the first rebellious act was going to occur, both because the possibility was there and there was a tempter in our midst (see below).
How do I know this? I don’t. However, I believe it to be true. While theologically it may be a helpful shortcut to refer to “the sin of Adam”, it is not as though the rest of us are merely innocent victims of one man’s decision.
True, evil begets more evil, creating an impact on future generations that is emotional, spiritual, even biological.
However, the story, the myth, I believe is to help us understand the nature and consequences of evil more than it is to pin the blame on a single person.
I can imagine a group of ancient humans huddled around the fire, asking “Why is life so hard? Why do people do bad things to each other?”
And some individual or group of individuals, aware of God and seeking the truth, attempted to answer this question by telling a story. It does not bother me that the story may have been refined a bit over the hundreds of years of retelling.
Something about the final version that was recorded in Genesis exceeds mere human invention. It is hard to imagine a story with such profound and sophisticated considerations being developed by a primitive people alone.
And I do not believe they did it alone. I believe that God revealed Himself and His spirit guided and inspired their story-telling – as He has guided and inspired the prophets, all of the authors of Scripture and, eventually, now, the Church itself.
God reveals Himself in different ways at different times. The Bible is a collection of stories about these events, though clearly not an exhaustive one. And relatively few of them were recorded to be historically factual accounts.
While truth has long been a concern of our race, it has been only relatively recently that humanity has become infatuated with the historicity of our stories.
And what about the tempter? Is there really such a being? Or is our capacity to understand and choose evil a “defect” in our creation that makes our sin inevitable?
As I have written elsewhere, I do believe that there is an evil one, a tempter, one who was also created by God with free will (as opposed to being an uncreated equal of God’s.)
I’m not sure that I can describe fully how I reached this conclusion. But a few of my thoughts are as follows.
Scripture tells us that God pronounced “good” all that He created. Hence, we were created good and without defect.
I believe that the character of the tempter in our Creation myth was not incidental or simply inserted to enhance the story. The storyteller included him to both make clear that we were created good and to make us aware that our knowledge results in a vulnerability to being led astray by forces outside of ourselves.
If this were not enough to convince me, I would believe that there is a tempter because Jesus described him (Satan aka “adversary”) and cast out demons. If all such incidents were misunderstood physical illnesses, certainly the departed demons would not have identified Him as the Holy One.
If I choose to believe that Jesus is the Christ, our God incarnate, I must accept all that He said, even if I do not understand it.
While I sometimes catch glimpses of how our adversary operates, thankfully I do not know or understand him as one creature knows another. And I prefer to leave it that way.
Much is mystery in our lives as we travel the journey toward God. I hope that I have not offended anyone with my musings here – for that is all they are. Certainly I am not trying to teach anyone anything since I am but student of truth myself.
All glory to our loving God.