Science in Christian Perspective

Letter to the Editor


Responses to "Original Sin as Natural Evil"(II)
Scott R. Scribner
Graduate School of Psychology
Fuller Theological Seminary
Pasadena, California 91101

From: JASA 28 (June 1976): 95-96.

I very much enjoyed the article "Original Sin as Natural Evil" in the December 1975 issue of the Journal ASA.

Bube begins by characterizing evil as "that which is not in accord with God's creation purpose." This is a good definition, but care must be taken to distinguish this view of the "good" from the classical conception in ethics. This is probably part of the reason Plantings. finds ambiguity in the phrase "God's creation purpose". I took the statement to mean something similar to Bonhoeffer's view of good in his Ethics. His first implied question: is evil possible without human involvement? also relates to the issue of the universality of the Fall, since so much of the universe contains no humans. The use of the term "natural" and its opposite "unnatural" raises another issue: what is the distinction between "unnatural" and "unfamiliar or anomalous"? Perhaps what we know as "nature" is itself an anomaly! Bube pointed out that natural events appear indispensable in the natural world, and thus called them "natural evil". There may be another alternative: that all events in Category I (not involving humans) are part of God's creation purpose, but man's awareness of them is conditioned by his sinfulness so that he sees them as evil.

On the next point involving human suffering, the same question as above might apply, i.e., man's awareness of suffering or his attitude toward it cause him to see it as evil. This avoids the Buddhistic view of suffering as maya (illusory), but places it in a perspective of God's creation purpose. Certainly this view is held in practice in the idta that God tests us in suffering; the concept of Heaven as a place with no challenges or blissful ease is more Islamic than Christian. One objection to this is that suffering manifests itself on earth so horribly that God could not possibly want it, but this objection has some weaknesses. The third point on moral evil raises the issue of the nature of the imago Dei. Are there any actions which do not cause suffering or death, but which might be called evil? The definition of suffering appears to be crucial here. Existentialists such as Medard Boss state that any action at all incurs ontological guilt; does this imply that all human action might be evil? At issue is also the question of whether, suffering is a purely psychological concept

(the Buddhist view). . . .

The recurring question of the range of the Fall appears to be tied in with the concept of evolution for a couple of reasons: first, the conditions for the evolution of life appear to exist on many planets in the universe (as indicated by the most recent scientific findings) and second, what would be the implications of the discovery of intelligent life elsewhere for theology? In that realm, our most sophisticated doctrines are as terracentric as pre-Copernican astronomy.

The first theory mentioned, that moral evil caused natural evil, runs immediately into this range of the Fall question. The second, placing responsibility on the Devil, may have some merit but seems to play into the "conspiracy-theory" mentality which makes up part of man's need to see things as part of a metaphysical unity. It also defines the Devil perhaps more clearly than he exists in fact. The Devil may benefit from or enjoy natural evil, but he is perhaps not totally responsible for it. The difficulties inherent in the term "natural evil"itself ~aution against Christians attributing suffering to either God or "the ruler of the world." The comment about Christians combatting natural evil is consistent with Bonhoeffer's defense of "good and just causes" within secular society; he defended them against those separatists who would shun the world on the basis of piety. . . .

Bube's suggestion that the Fall chronology is a symbolic temporal representation of an ontological reality is an interesting one; I would like to see the theological responses to that. One possible implication of a trans-temporal being (God) communicating with a temporal being, however, is that God's nature is seen in philosophical categories and the realm of ideas, for that is an area of trans-temporality to which we can relate. The danger is that it may then become difficult to conceive of God in personal or experiential terms. Marx and other philosophers have run into that sort of problem (God cannot 11 act", but we perceive Him in terms of action; God is not a person, but we perceive Him in personal terms). I believe that one of the great strengths of the Christian paradigm is that since Christ came, the nature of God-for-us has been established beyond abstraction.

In the section on original sin, the possibility of genetic inheritance is referred to. Koestler, in The Ghost in the Machine, offers the physiology of the brain as the area where this may have taken place. While a couple of the theologians felt that these concepts were making God responsible for sin, this need not be the case if in some way man had been given responsibility for his own development in ways which affected him physiologically. As to the guilt for sin, certain existentialists define ontological guilt as arising out of temporal existence; while this may seem to equate evil with finitude, it may offer some possibilities. If man is guilty for his own sins, we are back to the concept of karma again, with human action needed to discharge our "debts" (whether this action be works or acceptance of a Savior). . . .

I would agree that the traditional formulation (man commits evil because he is man) is inadequate, if only because it is a tautology and does not impart any constructive information. Similarly, the non-Christian view of man as animal seems to deny some of the data (the actual behavior of animals, and the specific ways in which man and animals differ). However, I feel that to say that, in this approach, the concept of sin is "down-graded" makes the assumption that evolutionary incompleteness or cul-de-sac is not a serious matter. I think that some non-Christians would be willing to negotiate that point. If we have in some way been given part of the responsibility for our own development, and have misused that privilege, the consequences may be evolutionary but morally serious nonetheless. Such a transgression would not be smoothed over by time, but would require the participation of Creator and creation; such a model appears highly compatible with Christian faith statements.

The hypothesis that "animals commit evil because they are men" (or "when they become men") runs into problems because even an evolutionary understanding has not yet allowed us to observe an "animal" in the act of "becoming a man." Even to  well take state that animals are "characterized by self-centeredness?' is perhaps too simplistic an analysis (cf. Ardrey's The Social Contract on the death-related behavior of elephants). If brain size is seen as a criterion or possible concomitant of spirituality, then we may be forced to consider elephants, whales, and dolphins as less self-centered than "lower" animals; at least their behaviors suggest this. Schaeffer's comment demonstrates little more than semantic facility, since he is dealing with the animal issue in an abstract theological rather than a scientific sense. . . .

To say that "man cannot (choose to enrge in sex indiscriminately) without forsaking his humanity' , is to introduce
from outside an assumed standard of humanity which may be shared by Christian readers but not by others. To state that God calls man to transcend an animal heritage is not the same as saying that God calls man to fulfill a human heritage. While
Jewett says that sin has nothing to do With an animal heritage, I  feel that this is an arbitrary application of the Theological Fallacy;  because he may be making assumptions about an animal heritage which we as Christians need not make at all (such as its lack of  responsibility, etc.).

Another question raised by separating man from the animals  on the basis of the ability to choose evil, is the problem of the  relative evil which animals commit and the social guilt which  the higher ones seem to be able to learn. A recent Psychology  Today described the behavior of a chimpanzee who "lied" to  avoid punishment and "apologized" when exposed. Certainly  there is always the danger of anthropomorphization, but at a  point the data become highly suggestive. My own inquiries into  the similarities and differences between socially learned guilt and the "Adamic" type of guilt strongly suggest. a distinction, but this must be studied further. Thus when Plantinga states that "animals do not rebel against God," he is overlooking animals' seeming rebellion against man, who they might very well take for God...

I felt that Bube's responses to the four commentators were accurate and direct. Of the four, it would be my opinion that Ramm made the most helpful comments; it seemed that the other three were at times missing the point and offering theological pronouncements which did not come to grips with  the material. I hope that some of my comments may have been helpful and would welcome feedback on them. I found the article extremely stimulating and expect it will be helpful in my own consideration of the evolution issue.