Could Adam and Eve Have Made Christ Unnecessary?

The answer is: Christ’s self-sacrifice was necessary to save us, to make us true companions of God. No action by any human being could have changed that fact. No action by any human being could have reduced our dependence upon the work of Jesus Christ. In the sense of needing salvation in Heaven, no possible creature could be saved by some sort of natural grace because God has to act to make that creature suited for life in a radically different phase of Creation. The Almighty has to act to purify and raise that creature before it can be happy sharing His life.

There are many who would claim to believe that we need Christ to save us and then they go on to claim the Bible tells us that Adam and Eve were created in a state of grace the same as the state of the saved who belong to Jesus Christ. Then, as the story goes, the snake seduced grace-filled Eve into an act of disobedience to God and she, in turn, brought grace-filled Adam into that state of disobedience. A careful reading of the third chapter of the book of Genesis might lead to the suspicion that we’re reading the story of Adam and Eve through interpretive lenses and not simply accessing a clear and obvious understanding of that strange story.

The story of Adam and Even is presented in a mythical form and apparently borrows much of its content from the heritage the Hebrews shared with the various pagan traditions of the Near East. To treat it as if it were presented as literal truth is, among other errors, to do great injustice to the treatment of the story of Jesus Christ in the four Gospels. Some might think that the entire Bible should be raised to the level of the Gospels in the sense of historical reliability and truth-bearing capacity, but the real effect is likely to drag the Gospels down to the level of the books of the Bible which are intended as myths or allegories which teach a lesson of some sort rather than relating historical facts which carry their own direct truth.

That story of our mythical ancestors also has an edge to it. God Himself isn’t presented in the best possible light. The all-knowing Creator is presented as being surprised by actions of His creatures. He seems to be defeated, at least in the short-term, by the snake and can do no more than promise a decisive counter-attack at some vague time in the future. Moreover, God seems unreasonable in punishing Adam and Eve for not meeting expectations that might well have been beyond human capabilities.

Something is wrong with that story of Adam and Eve or perhaps something is wrong with our interpretations of that story.

Let’s consider a little bit of modern empirical knowledge. There is serious reason to believe there was no human man and woman who were the common ancestors of the human race in the way of Adam and Eve in the book of Genesis. It seems almost certain that any common ancestors of the entire human race existed well before human beings came to full moral self-awareness. The geneologies of Cain and Seth indicate the authors of Genesis believed, as I do, that that awakening was tied to the development of technology, including true agriculture, and the growth of the early cities. So far as I know, the earliest evidence of craftsmen gathering in community — perhaps seasonal at first — shows in layers of soil about 10,000 years old in the vicinity of Jericho. Perhaps that indicates the reason for the inordinate importance attached to that city in the Bible. Specialists have done genetic sampling of human beings from across the globe and think that our last common ancestor lived about 70,000 years ago in the vicinity of Nigeria.

The very important conflicts which underly the story of Adam and Eve — and their sons — seem to have arisen more than 50,000 years after any possible common ancestor of all humans. A specific and concrete act of rebellion by a particular human couple doesn’t seem to be a plausible explanation of the sinful nature of human beings or the disorder which often arises in the world. As St. Augustine told us: we do not sin, we are sin. Yet, the particular forms of sinfulness which bother the Biblical authors involve forms of human social life which appeared with cities. The disorder in the physical world, more accurately — the struggle between order and disorder, has gone on since the so-called Big Bang about 15 billion years ago, a bit before human beings appeared.

The positive element in all of this is that the hint that the true meaning of the story of Adam, Eve, and their sons has to do with human moral problems which somehow involved technology and the greater gatherings we call cities. I think it’s even better to say that these important moral problems were magnified when technology and cities appeared. In a potentially dangerous way, I’ll speculate that those authors of Genesis knew that human uniqueness, the reason we have the potential to be companions to God, is tied up with our ability to abstract ourselves — so to speak — out of the concrete environments in which our species evolved. As our ancestors developed technology and the ability to live in cities, they abstracted themselves out of the grasslands and a tribal foraging life. They had the problem of reshaping to some extent their own moral natures to match the new possibilities and dangers which arise faster than we can adapt.

It’s still true that we develop technology and ways of life that reshape ourselves and our children in important ways. This reshaping is not just on the skin. As we learned at Hiroshima, as we learn when children are corrupted by modern entertainment, we can reshape ourselves and others to serve evil and sometimes, as Hannah Arendt told us after her studies of the Holocaust, evil is served most effectively by nice human beings who are well-adjusted to modern bureaucratic life.

What does this have to do with human sin and human salvation? In adapting ourselves so effectively to serve good or evil, we show we’re capable of reshaping ourselves to the higher demands of God, demands which exceed natural morality, demands which culminate in the command: “Be perfect”. Be Christ-like. Cooperate with God as He reshapes you to share His life.

The problem the authors of Gensis seemed to be dealing with was this:

The all-loving God was the same as the Creator who made a world which placed impossibly difficult burdens upon morally self-aware human beings. The human race seemed to be condemned by God the Creator for the crime of using the unique abilities He’d gifted to men and women. If a St. Francis is possible, then so is an Adolf Hitler. Does the possibility of St. Francis justify the sufferings of so many at the hands of Hitler?

Adam and Eve didn’t rebel against God so much as they recognized the burdens of God’s demands upon human moral nature. As the great Southern writer Andrew Lytle realized, man had to leave paradise to fulfill his God-given role. (See the under-appreciated novel, “The Velvet Horn”, for a rich display of Lytle’s views on this issue.) But paradise wasn’t what most think it to have been. It wasn’t Heaven. It was the same earth Adam and Eve later lived in. The difference was that Adam and Eve awoke and left behind their animal state of innocence, the innocence that left them fully as victims of their own human natures as those natures existed before self-awareness. Go back and read the third chapter of Genesis and see if this makes sense. Adam and Eve took up their yokes, but those yokes were yet hard and those burdens were heavy. Our ancestors were called by God to be His companions but that task is well beyond human capacity.

The traditional interpretation of the story of Adam and Eve is inconsistent with the Christian belief that we can be saved only by Christ. That traditional interpretation makes the claim our ancestors were born in a state of grace, a state of salvation, and would have remained in that state if not for an act of rebellion. Even if God had created a world and a human race better suited to perfect creaturely virtue, we would still not be suited to be the companions of God.

Only Christ can save us. Only Christ can make us Christ-like, God-like, so that we can share God’s life. Life with God for time without end would be hellish for a creature not suited to share God’s life.

I think that the empirical knowledge of evolutionary biology, viewed properly, is a message from God, a wake-up call. God is driving His story along in a particular way at this particular time. I also think the human authors of Genesis were smarter than us and certainly had a stonger and more pure faith than we modern Christians have. Those authors were sensitive to God’s call and they realized that God had placed contradictory burdens upon us, had given us demands which were impossible for human beings to meet. They didn’t try to justify God when they couldn’t understand the position in which He’d placed us.

Evolutionary biology leads me to the speculation that we human beings have natures that allow us to be reshaped to share God’s life. We’re not born in in a God-like shape and we don’t have long-ago ancestors who were in that shape before some fall from grace. Nor do we have the capacity to reason towards absolute truths which are binding upon God Himself. God shaped us to be reshapable as His companions and He must do the reshaping, He must tell us the greater moral truths which are the perfect and complete versions of the moral truths which have arisen in the course of evolution.

The moral truths of Christianity are consistent with natural moral truths, those which can be derived by the methods of evolutionary biology, but they go far beyond into regions which human beings couldn’t have reached on their own. We can see this in the way that Jesus Christ astonished or shocked His followers with the Sermon on the Mount and with His claims that they were to eat His Flesh and drink His Blood. Many, including many who claim to be Christians, still discount the commandments to be perfect even as many refuse to accept Christ’s words in instituting the Eucharistic Rite or in saying that only those who eat His body and drink His blood will be saved (Matthew 26:26-28, Mark 14:22-23, Luke 22:19-20, and especially John 6:53-58). There are many Christians who swallow camels and then strain at gnats, finding literal truth in an ancient Hebrew allegory and then denying or diluting the words of Him who they acknowledge as Lord and God.

My speculation about the meaning of the story of Adam and Eve moves in the opposite direction, taking Christ’s words as absolute truths impossible for us to reach on our own. I’m willing to speculate about even divinely inspired human stories and their meanings. Oddly enough, taking Christ seriously rather than trying to dilute His words or to impose heavy philosophical loads on Him has let me accept modern empirical knowledge on its own and has also let me speculate freely about Creation and about forms of metaphysics that can allow a deeper understanding of that Creation. I can let God be God and then go about my creaturely task of trying to understand Creation.

I think my particular speculations about the story of Adam and Eve render justice to the Gospels in recognizing our inability to save ourselves, to make ourselves Christ-like or God-like, even by the most virtuous behavior. It also does justice to modern empirical knowledge as well as to the book of Genesis. My speculation leads to a recognition of our dependence upon Christ, not because our mythical ancestors rebelled but because we’re creatures and can’t transcend our own natures. The traditional interpretation claims man was in charge, conjecturing that Adam and Eve could have saved themselves — and us — by simple obedience in a natural human state. In that traditional interpretation, God’s plans were at the mercy of human decisions and the rebellion of Adam and Eve forced the Son of God to accept crucifixion to save us from our own willfulness.

I see man as a product of evolution, the crown of Creation in the sense that man can be reshaped while remaining man. We human beings can abstract ourselves from our natural environments to live, imaginatively or concretely, in environments for which we seem unsuited at first glance. God can even reshape us to be suited to life in Heaven. It’s largely our minds, so poorly developed in modern times, that make us so shapable, that allow us to abstract our own characters from a particular environment and to live in imaginative realms or in new environments such as those of the Industrial Age.

Adam and Eve weren’t rebels who removed themselves from God’s direct Presence. They were apish animals who heard God’s invitation to be His companions and realized they weren’t suited to such a life. There were contradictions in the human situation and those contradictions are prominently displayed in the story of Adam and Eve. The tree of knowledge was set in front of them and to eat from it was natural to human beings — it had to be done for them to realize their own natures. Having eaten that fruit, they gained self-awareness, awareness of their own nakedness, and knew sin. Sin had already been with them. They, in fact, had already been sin, but suddenly they knew that they were sin. But good or bad behavior, only a small part of the Biblical understanding of sin, is still not the point and the story is confused when it should be confused — the authors of Genesis admit their confusion and ignorance to anyone who reads with any sensitivity. The story of Adam and Eve seems to be almost a scream of frustration:

What do you want from us, Lord? How were Adam and Eve to live forever? How were they to share the life of God? God Himself seemed unwilling to help them. God seemed to have booby-trapped His world, leading men and women to realize the potential of human nature, and then hinting at a transcendence of that nature. But He left men and women with no way to transcend their animal natures. God seemed to have played the nastiest possible joke on human beings, calling them to a life which could be seen only at a distance as well as through a glass darkly. The authors of Genesis were inspired to look at a tiny image that God was holding miles away from them — behind a smoky hunk of glass.

Only Christ could save human beings and He was free to do so or not. He was free to come when He chose.

Explore posts in the same categories: Biblical interpretation, Christianity, Evolution, Moral Formation, Moral issues, Real Presence, Sacraments, The nature of sin

One Comment on “Could Adam and Eve Have Made Christ Unnecessary?”

  1. […] modern physics. Actually what they know is that we’re speaking some sort of gibberish. (See Could Adam and Eve Have Made Christ Unnecessary for a Christ-centered critique of the ‘usual’ interpretation of that Biblical […]

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