Denis Alexander and original sin
Denis Alexander is one of the UK’s leading theistic evolutionists. As an accomplished molecular biologist and Director of the prestigious Faraday Institute,1 he holds a prominent and influential position within the evangelical Christian community, and his book Creation or evolution: do we have to choose?2, reviewed here and here,3 has undoubtedly influenced many.
A few days before Christmas, he published an article in The Guardian4 in which he admitted that belief in evolution is incompatible with the doctrine of original sin. Since humanity evolved through the deaths of countless chimp/human intermediates, he claimed, it’s clear that death preceded human existence and sin. How, then, can it be said that evolution is compatible with the Bible? According to Dr Alexander, the answer is very straightforward—there is no doctrine of original sin in scripture. “Nowhere” he argued, “does the Bible teach that physical death originates with the sin of Adam, nor that sin is inherited from Adam.”
Dr Alexander’s view is that Adam’s sin led to spiritual death, rather than physical death. According to Alexander, “Nowhere in the Old Testament is there the slightest suggestion that the physical death of either animals or humans, after a reasonable span of years, is anything other than the normal pattern ordained by God for this earth.”5 How can he, as a professing evangelical Christian, make such a bizarre claim? Part of God’s judgement upon Adam’s sin was that he would ‘return to the ground’. ‘You are dust’, God said, ‘and to dust you will return’ (Gen. 3:19). This clearly refers to physical death.
Physical death is something horrible. It robs children of parents and wives of husbands; it leads to years of heart-rending, choking, soul-destroying grief; it is often preceded by untold suffering, and terrorises those who face it. How can anyone seriously believe that physical death was part of God’s original perfect creation? Physical death is the terrible consequence of the abomination of sin. Why did Jesus weep at the tomb of Lazarus? We are told that ‘he was deeply moved in spirit and troubled’ (John 11:34, 35). The Greek word translated ‘deeply moved’ is embrimaomai and indicates not only grief but rage.6 Jesus was enraged by sin and death, this dreadful business that had invaded His perfect world.
The apostle Paul contends, ‘the wages of sin is death’ (Rom 6:23). That this refers to physical death as well as spiritual death is clear from a consideration of why Christ had to die physically. In 1 Corinthians 15:21, the same apostle wrote, ‘For since death came through a man [Adam], the resurrection of the dead comes also though a man [Christ].’ If Adam only died spiritually, Christ would have only needed to rise spiritually.
Original sin is scriptural
When Adam spurned God’s love, and disobeyed Him by eating from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil (Gen. 3:1-6), he lost his perfectly righteous nature. He became guilty of sin and became morally corrupt. The doctrine of original sin holds that we all inherit both Adam’s guilt and his corrupt nature. The Westminster Shorter Catechism states, ‘all mankind, descending from [Adam] by ordinary generation, sinned in him, and fell with him, in his first transgression.’7
The apostle Paul’s discussion of death in Romans 5:12-14 is most relevant here:
‘Therefore, just as sin entered the world through one man, and death through sin, and in this way death came to all people, because all sinned—To be sure, sin was in the world before the law was given, but sin is not charged against anyone’s account where there is no law. Nevertheless, death reigned from the time of Adam to the time of Moses, even over those who did not sin by breaking a command, as did Adam, who is a pattern of the one to come.’
Paul’s point is that death is the consequence of breaking God’s laws and that alone. Since those who lived before the Mosaic law also died, they must have transgressed another law. As no other law like the Mosaic law had been given, this could only have been the commandment given to Adam not to eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Clearly they must have broken this law ‘in Adam’ as they had not been born when Adam sinned. And, according to the apostle Paul, the final proof that this is true is that they physically died. Indeed, Paul argues, ‘by the trespass of the one man, death reigned through that one man’ (Rom. 5:17), and ‘in Adam all die’ (1 Cor. 15:22).
This principle, that we partake in the actions of our forebears, whether in doing right or wrong, is also clear from other scriptures. In Luke 11:50–51, Jesus considered the Pharisees guilty of their ancestors’ sin in murdering the prophets:
‘Woe to you, because you build tombs for the prophets, and it was your forefathers who killed them. So you testify that you approve of what your forefathers did; they killed the prophets, and you build their tombs. Because of this, God in his wisdom said, “I will send them prophets and apostles, some of whom they will kill and others they will persecute.” Therefore this generation will be held responsible for the blood of all the prophets that has been shed since the beginning of the world.’
In Exodus 20:5 God states that He will punish ‘the children for the sin of the fathers to the third and fourth generation’. In Hebrews 7:7–10, Levi is understood to have paid a tithe to Melchizedek as, although not yet born, he was considered to have been ‘in the body of his ancestor’ Abraham, when Abraham paid the tithe.
This is not to suggest, of course, that we are not judged for our own sin as well. Indeed, ‘The soul who sins is the one who will die’ (Ezekiel 18:4). However, these passages make clear that the individualism now so prominent in the thinking of many is a far cry from the biblical view of humanity.
Original sin is foundational
The doctrine of original sin, attacked now even from within the church, explains why the world is as it is today, with all its wars, disease, misery and despair. It explains why we all die, including newborn babies, who may suffer as much as the worst of sinners. The Psalmist writes, “Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity, and in sin did my mother conceive me” (Psalm 51:5). This is not teaching that the act of spousal union is sinful, as some have suggested. Rather, the Psalmist is referring to ‘original sin and corruption, derived to him by natural generation … as soon as soul and body were united together, sin was in him, and he was in sin, or became a sinful creature’.8
Moreover, the doctrine of original sin makes clear that man and not God is responsible for all this. The death and suffering in this present world is God’s righteous judgment upon sin. God’s original creation was perfectly good and did not include suffering and death (Gen. 1:31), either of humans or of animals. It was like the world as it will be when Christ restores it. The imagery used in prophetic allusions to that future restoration denies any suggestion that the restored Earth could include the savagery and carnivory seen in today’s animal kingdom. Rather, they are reminiscent of Eden before the Fall. Isaiah writes that ‘the wolf will live with the lamb, the leopard will lie down with the goat, the calf and the lion and the yearling together’ (Is. 11:6). Echoes of this Edenic state are seen even today.
Biblical doctrine, based on biblical history, matters; and it is only a scripturally sound understanding of the doctrine of original sin that can provide a sure foundation for the doctrine of salvation. ‘For just as through the disobedience of the one man [Adam] the many were made sinners, so also through the obedience of the one man [Christ] the many will be made righteous’ (Rom. 5:19).
References and notes
- The Faraday Institute for Science and Religion, based at St Edmund’s College, Cambridge, UK. Return to text.
- Alexander, D., Creation or evolution: do we have to choose?, Monarch Books, UK, 2009. Return to text.
- A book-length, extended review is available at http://david.dw-perspective.org.uk/writings/creation-or-evolution-dr-denis-alexander/index.php/intro. Return to text.
- Alexander, D., Evolution, Christmas and the atonement, The Guardian, 23 December 2011; http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/belief/2011/dec/23/evolution-christmas-and-the-atonement. Return to text.
- Ref. 2, pp. 246, 247. Return to text.
- Milne, B., The message of John, Inter-Varsity Press, England, 1993, p. 165. Return to text.
- Westminster Shorter Catechism, Q. 16; http://www.reformed.org/documents/WSC.html. Return to text.
- Gill, J., John Gill’s exposition of the Bible; http://www.biblestudytools.com/commentaries/gills-exposition-of-the-bible/psalms-51-5.html. Return to text.
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