How do we read Genesis?

Is the doctrine of the Fall compatible with evolution?

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In the Judaeo-Christian tradition, Adam and Eve were the first humans.
According to evolutionary biology, there was no such thing as a first human.

In 1950, the encyclical Humani Generis commented on the relationship between Catholic faith and evolutionary theory. The encyclical stated that human bodies may have evolved over time. Nearly half a century later, Pope John Paul II declared evolution to be more than a hypothesis. And in 2014, His Holiness Pope Francis said that evolution was consistent with creation: living beings had to be created before they could evolve.

In 2008, as scientists celebrated the 200th anniversary of Charles Darwin’s birth, a senior spokesman of the Church of England publicly argued for good religion needing good science; he even suggested that Christians should apologise for having been too dismissive of Darwin.  

Many Evangelical Christians, on the other hand, have been less conciliatory. Only recently, theologian Wayne Grudem made a 250-page Biblical Case Against Theistic Evolution. Ken Ham’s Answers in Genesis ministry has long tried to use science to back up a literal reading of the Bible’s opening chapters. And millions of people flock to Kentucky’s Creation Museum, which vividly depicts a young earth made in six days.

So, what exactly is the issue? Why has it been so difficult to imagine God creating the world and allowing it to evolve happily ever after? Why did the Catholic Church and more liberally minded Protestants take a while to come round to the idea, and why are many Christian believers still sceptical or downright hostile?

As far as I can see, there are two main issues:

Firstly, theistic evolution – the idea that God used the evolutionary process to create the world we see today – faces a conundrum: God would have to approve the immense, cruel wastage of life which drives the evolutionary process. Science tells us that fitter species have survived at the expense of less well-adapted ones, a fight to the death which has been going on for hundreds of millions of years. Earth, according to evolution, never was in a state which a benevolent deity would call good.

The second issue is our understanding of sin and redemption. Not only did St Paul associate death with sin (1 Corinthians 15:56), he also maintained that sin and death had come into the world through Adam (Romans 5:12). Christians, therefore, identify the Fall – not evolution – as the primary mover of death and suffering. Adam and Eve disobeyed God and were expelled from paradise. From crop failures to domestic violence to oncology appointments, the effects of living east of Eden have been felt by every human being ever since Adam fell. Science, on the other hand, tells us that death and suffering were around long before humans appeared on the scene.

You can see why being a Christian while embracing modern understandings of the origins of life may not be that straightforward. If we do accept evolution as the best explanation for the variety of organisms that populate our planet, we’ll have to examine the way we interpret Holy Scripture.

Three-pointers shall suffice for our purposes:

First of all, we need to appreciate what the text actually says. Genesis 1 keeps repeating the phrase ‘and God saw that it was good’, but the word translated ‘good’ can also mean ‘fit for purpose’: a world that isn’t perfect but good enough for life to exist and thrive. Genesis 3 doesn’t suggest a flawless world, either. Where did the fatal serpent come from? Did evil come before the Fall?

Might we have to rethink what Genesis is telling us? And might this help us, at least to a degree, to reconcile faith and science? What if the Bible was in unison with evolution insofar as it depicts the pre-human world as less than perfect?

Secondly, we need to ask what kind of text we are reading. Mainstream Bible scholars agree that the first chapters of Genesis are not a scientific textbook but members of a family of ancient Mesopotamian creation narratives. Adam and Eve, therefore, can be understood as human archetypes, rather than two literal, historic individuals. Notice that the original Hebrew word for human is ha’adam: Adam, the symbolic representative of humanity?

And finally, what about the Fall itself? Genesis 3 describes the tasting of the forbidden fruit as a brief and momentary event. But if we’re dealing with a symbolic narrative, rather than a report in real-time, couldn’t we read it as a poetic description of a gradual evolutionary process? Slowly but surely, homo sapiens evolve into a being that has an awareness of the divine. Step by step, we change from morally neutral animals into beings who can make ethical choices, including those we come to regret.

So, how do we read Genesis? And is the doctrine of the Fall compatible with evolution? We’ve barely scratched the surface, but hopefully, I’ve whetted your appetite for discovering more for yourself.

For reflection and discussion:

You’ve just read about some of the issues around evolution and biblical interpretation. Was there anything you didn’t know or that hadn’t occurred to you? If so, what do you make of it?

How can contemporary understandings of evolution and biblical interpretation help to deepen your faith?

Detail of Masaccio, The Expulsion from the Garden of Eden (c.1427) Source: Wikipedia.

Further Reading:

Catholicism and Evolution: A History from Darwin to Pope Francis, Michael Chaberek, Angelico Press 2015.

Dawkins’ God. Genes, Memes and the Meaning of Life, Alister McGrath, Blackwell 2005.

Think God, Think Science. Michael Pfundner in discussion with Ernest Lucas, Paternoster 2008.


Now the serpent was more crafty than any other wild animal that the Lord God had made.
Genesis 3:1 (NRSV)