I’ve argued before that the question of a “historical” Adam and Eve and the related question of a “historical” Fall is not a “gospel issue.” That is to say, universal human sinfulness is such a self-evident fact that the question of its origin is secondary. The gospel speaks to this phenomenon of universal sinfulness with its offer of universal grace.
But as Richard Beck points out in a thought-provoking post, the hard problem evolution poses for orthodox Christian theology isn’t one of soteriology (what are we saved from and how are we saved) but one of theodicy (how can an all-good God permit such evil as we see in our world). Beck is responding to a critique of evangelical scholar Peter Enns’ book The Evolution of Adam by neo-Calvinist theologian James K.A. Smith. Briefly, Smith doesn’t think Enns takes seriously enough the importance of the orthodox doctrine of the Fall. And Beck thinks that Smith may be right that Enns, by focusing on the origin of humanity, may overlook the broader context that brings the theodicy issue to the fore.
The problem is this: if the evolutionary story of how life came into being is right (and it’s cleary the best account going), then it looks like evil (suffering, death, sickness, predation, etc.) is built into creation so to speak. In other words, if God uses evolution to bring life into existence–as “theistic” evolutionists contend–then it seems that God is directly responsible for the evil that attends this process. And if that’s so, then can we say that God is truly wholly good?
Beck argues that the point of the traditional doctrine of the Fall isn’t so much to account for human sinfulness as it is to safeguard God’s goodness by exculpating God from responsibility for the existence of evil. He goes on to point out, however, that the orthodox story isn’t quite as air-tight in safeguarding God’s goodness as we might think. He notes, for instance, that in the Bible the serpent (representing evil?) is already present in the garden, tempting Adam and Eve. No account is given of its origin. Only much later was the story of a “fall” of Satan and his angels from heaven posited as a kind of prequel to the Adam and Eve story. And needless to say, this just pushes the problem back a step–after all, whence comes the angels’ propensity toward sin? St. Augustine, for one, rather famously wrestled with this question and never reached a wholly satisfactory solution.
At the end of the day, theodicy doesn’t really boil down to the origins of evil. It boils down to this: Why’d God do it in the first place? Why, given how things turned out, did an all-knowing and all-loving God pull the trigger on Creation? Why’d God do it?
No one knows of course. Not Smith. Not Enns. Not me. My point here is simply to note that this is a live and acute question for everybody. So I think it right and proper for Smith to point this out for Enns. But the same question is pointed at orthodox theology and it doesn’t have any better answers, just a “mystery” that allows it, often in cowardly ways, to retreat from answering the questions directly.
Theodicy has always been the root problem of Christian theology, orthodox or heterodox. There’s no getting around that. The problem is no less acute here than there.
Readers may be aware of my ongoing interest in this problem. For instance, in my blogging on Christopher Southgate’s book on animal theodicy, I discussed his “only way” argument. This is the argument that creating by means of an evolutionary process–with all that entails in terms of evil and suffering–was the only way for God to get creatures like us in the context of a law-governed universe. God is “off the hook” as it were because there was no other way for God to achieve his ends. Whatever problems there may be with this view (and there are some), it does try to account for evil in a way that doesn’t make God the author of (avoidable) evil. But as Beck says, this is a challenge for all theology, whether it accepts evolution or not.