The not-so-literal Adam and Eve and original sin

I’m seeking responses primarily from those of you who do not take the Gen. 2-3 story as literal history. I’m sure there are many like me on this forum who do not believe—literally, at least—that all of humanity derived from two people, whose name were precisely Adam and Eve, who were tempted by a talking snake, and whose sin caused the fall of humanity due to eating the wrong piece of fruit. Rather, you see the passage as having theological truths, but without necessarily accepting everything literally.

One of those theological truths we must accept, however, is the belief in original sin. It’s a central part of our faith.


If you believe in evolution like me, then what exactly do you think the original sin was? I mean, the term “original” means the very first. Therefore, do you suppose it was a caveman who committed the first sin in world history by doing something selfish? I mean, if you believe in evolution (as I do), then the doctrine of original sin becomes very problematic.

Please, I am looking primarily for responses from those Catholics who believe in evolution, but who also uphold the essential doctrine of original sin. My question to you is, How do you reconcile the two? How could have it played out if it there wasn’t a literal Adam and Eve? Could a Neanderthal have committed original sin? Or would he have to be at least a Cro Magnon, or homo sapiens sapiens? And how do you sin if you don’t even know the law? Again, problematic…and yet, I’d bet there are many of us here who believe in evolution, but also in original sin. How can people such as us reconcile the two?

(This thread is NOT to be debate about whether or not evolution is true—that would derail this thread; I’m taking it as a given that if you respond, you already accept the theory of evolution as fact, and then we’ll take it from there.)

I’m sorry OP, but I think the burden on proof is really on you to explain why evolution somehow makes the doctrine of original sin “very problematic”.

In my experiences atheists always seem to just assert that evolution is somehow a defeater or is problematic for theism without any argument, kind of sneakily shifting the burden of proof onto the theist when it should be on the atheist. I imagine this happens so often without challenge because of the whole notion that the anti-science fundamentalism popular in the USA and exemplified in the movie “Inherit the Wind” is what real Christianity is. In fact, such fundamentalism is an aberrant American phenomenon in reaction to the so-called enlightenment and completely at odds with classical theism.

So here’s some data, perhaps those wishing to create some kind of irreconcilable chasm between biological evolution and original sin could explain how this argument goes through and shoulder their burden here?

[quote=Catechism of the Catholic Church]355 "God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him, male and female he created them."218 Man occupies a unique place in creation: (I) he is “in the image of God”; (II) in his own nature he unites the spiritual and material worlds; (III) he is created “male and female”; (IV) God established him in his friendship.


356 Of all visible creatures only man is “able to know and love his creator”.219 He is “the only creature on earth that God has willed for its own sake”,220 and he alone is called to share, by knowledge and love, in God’s own life. It was for this end that he was created, and this is the fundamental reason for his dignity:

What made you establish man in so great a dignity? Certainly the incalculable love by which you have looked on your creature in yourself! You are taken with love for her; for by love indeed you created her, by love you have given her a being capable of tasting your eternal Good.221

357 Being in the image of God the human individual possesses the dignity of a person, who is not just something, but someone. He is capable of self-knowledge, of self-possession and of freely giving himself and entering into communion with other persons. And he is called by grace to a covenant with his Creator, to offer him a response of faith and love that no other creature can give in his stead.

218 Gen 1:27.
219 GS 12 § 3.
220 GS 24 § 3.
221 St. Catherine of Siena, Dialogue 4,13 “On Divine Providence”: LH, Sunday, week 19, OR.

[quote=Catechism of the Catholic Church] 397 Man, tempted by the devil, let his trust in his Creator die in his heart and, abusing his freedom, disobeyed God’s command. This is what man’s first sin consisted of.278 All subsequent sin would be disobedience toward God and lack of trust in his goodness.

398 In that sin man preferred himself to God and by that very act scorned him. He chose himself over and against God, against the requirements of his creaturely status and therefore against his own good. Constituted in a state of holiness, man was destined to be fully “divinized” by God in glory. Seduced by the devil, he wanted to “be like God”, but “without God, before God, and not in accordance with God”.279

399 Scripture portrays the tragic consequences of this first disobedience. Adam and Eve immediately lose the grace of original holiness.280 They become afraid of the God of whom they have conceived a distorted image - that of a God jealous of his prerogatives.281

400 The harmony in which they had found themselves, thanks to original justice, is now destroyed: the control of the soul’s spiritual faculties over the body is shattered; the union of man and woman becomes subject to tensions, their relations henceforth marked by lust and domination.282 Harmony with creation is broken: visible creation has become alien and hostile to man.283 Because of man, creation is now subject “to its bondage to decay”.284 Finally, the consequence explicitly foretold for this disobedience will come true: man will “return to the ground”,285 for out of it he was taken. Death makes its entrance into human history.286

278 Cf. Gen 3:1-11; Rom 5:19.
279 St. Maximus the Confessor, Ambigua: PG 91,1156C; cf. Gen 3:5.
280 Cf. Rom 3:23.
281 Cf. Gen 3:5-10.
282 Cf. Gen 3:7-16.
283 Cf. Gen 3:17,19.
284 Rom 8:21.
285 Gen 3:19; cf. 2:17.
286 Cf. Rom 5:12.

[quote=Pope Ven. Pius XII]37. When, however, there is question of another conjectural opinion, namely polygenism, the children of the Church by no means enjoy such liberty. For the faithful cannot embrace that opinion which maintains that either after Adam there existed on this earth true men who did not take their origin through natural generation from him as from the first parent of all, or that Adam represents a certain number of first parents. Now it is in no way apparent how such an opinion can be reconciled with that which the sources of revealed truth and the documents of the Teaching Authority of the Church propose with regard to original sin, which proceeds from a sin actually committed by an individual Adam and which, through generation, is passed on to all and is in everyone as his own.[12]
12. Cfr. Rom., V, 12-19; Conc. Trid., sess, V, can. 1-4.

Blessed Pope John Paul II and Venerable Pope Pius XII seemed to find no problem with evolution. Perhaps those wishing to contradict them could help us out here?

[quote=Bl Pope John Paul II]In his encyclical Humani Generis (1950), my predecessor Pius XII had already stated that there was no opposition between evolution and the doctrine of the faith about man and his vocation, on condition that one did not lose sight of several indisputable points.

  1. The Church’s magisterium is directly concerned with the question of evolution, for it involves the conception of man: Revelation teaches us that he was created in the image and likeness of God (cf. Gn 1:27-29). The conciliar constitution Gaudium et Spes has magnificently explained this doctrine, which is pivotal to Christian thought. It recalled that man is “the only creature on earth that God has wanted for its own sake” (No. 24). In other terms, the human individual cannot be subordinated as a pure means or a pure instrument, either to the species or to society; he has value per se. He is a person. With his intellect and his will, he is capable of forming a relationship of communion, solidarity and self-giving with his peers. St. Thomas observes that man’s likeness to God resides especially in his speculative intellect, for his relationship with the object of his knowledge resembles God’s relationship with what he has created (Summa Theologica I-II:3:5, ad 1). But even more, man is called to enter into a relationship of knowledge and love with God himself, a relationship which will find its complete fulfillment beyond time, in eternity. All the depth and grandeur of this vocation are revealed to us in the mystery of the risen Christ (cf. Gaudium et Spes, 22). It is by virtue of his spiritual soul that the whole person possesses such a dignity even in his body. Pius XII stressed this essential point: If the human body take its origin from pre-existent living matter, the spiritual soul is immediately created by God (“animas enim a Deo immediate creari catholica fides nos retinere iubei”; “Humani Generis,” 36). Consequently, theories of evolution which, in accordance with the philosophies inspiring them, consider the spirit as emerging from the forces of living matter or as a mere epiphenomenon of this matter, are incompatible with the truth about man. Nor are they able to ground the dignity of the person.

  2. With man, then, we find ourselves in the presence of an ontological difference, an ontological leap, one could say. However, does not the posing of such ontological discontinuity run counter to that physical continuity which seems to be the main thread of research into evolution in the field of physics and chemistry? Consideration of the method used in the various branches of knowledge makes it possible to reconcile two points of view which would seem irreconcilable. The sciences of observation describe and measure the multiple manifestations of life with increasing precision and correlate them with the time line. The moment of transition to the spiritual cannot be the object of this kind of observation, which nevertheless can discover at the experimental level a series of very valuable signs indicating what is specific to the human being. But the experience of metaphysical knowledge, of self-awareness and self-reflection, of moral conscience, freedom, or again of aesthetic and religious experience, falls within the competence of philosophical analysis and reflection, while theology brings out its ultimate meaning according to the Creator’s plans.

There must have been a first man and woman, If you go far enough back there, more than several hundred thousand years, there were no humans. In fact, geneticists are trying to learn something about the first humans through their science.
The Church does not say the Genesis account of creation has to be taken all literally. Saint Augustine for one said that much of it can be taken poetically. Some Protestant fundamentalists say the creation account in Genesis must be taken as literal through and through, but this is no Catholic doctrine. Therefore there is no reason for believing that the first great sin was eating fruit of a tree. This can be a poetic representation of what happened. But this does not mean there is no literal truth in the creation account, such as the sin of our first parents.
–But surely you don’t believe even a caveman can’t commit a mortal sin? (Though calling them cavemen seems a crude representation for intelligent men.)

With regard to Adam and Eve all Catholics are bound by Church teaching to believe they actually existed. That is not up for debate.

(Concerning Some False Opinions Threatening to Undermine the Foundations of Catholic Doctrine)
Pope Pius XII

Encyclical Promulgated on 12 August 1950

  1. When, however, there is question of another conjectural opinion, namely polygenism, the children of the Church by no means enjoy such liberty. For the faithful cannot embrace that opinion which maintains either that after Adam there existed on this earth true men who did not take their origin through natural generation from him as from the first parent of all or that Adam represents a certain number of first parents. Now it is in no way apparent how such an opinion can be reconciled with that which the sources of revealed truth and the documents of the Teaching Authority of the Church propose with regard to original sin, which proceeds from a sin actually committed by an individual Adam and which through generation is passed on to all and is in everyone as his own.

Amen, God Bless, Memaw

If you read German, I would recommend the book Schöpfung und Mythos by Oswald Loretz. It’s been seven years since I read it, so I wouldn’t be able to debate (or explain) the specifics, but it offers a very interesting (and in my opinion solid) exegesis of the creation and fall narratives of Genesis, which would address many of your questions. I’ve been trying to find an English translation, but sadly it doesn’t seem to exist.

Thanks for the respose. I don’t read German, though I am impressed that you do. Perhaps I can find a synopsis somewhere in English, where other commentators reference him.

I’m not trying to prove evolution here. My post presupposes that it’s true, and that those replying believe it as well. Here is where it becomes problematic.

A. Believing in evolution does not preclude one from believing in the Fall or original sin. (True so far, right?)

B. Let’s assume you are one of them. We have been told that one can believe in evolution so long as we also believe that at some point “ensoulment” occurred.

So my question is, how did this play out? Did he only “ensoul” two of them, a male and female? Did their surrounding kin just grunt and jump around their newly enlightened kin, bewildered at their newfound reason and free will? And if you don’t accept literally the story of the two trees, the snake and the forbidden fruit, then what would their sin be, especially since ancient man certainly didn’t have God’s revelation. Did he steal something? Did the first man do something selfish toward the first woman? This is where for me it is problematic. I am not trying to prove someone wrong here, I’m merely seeking the truth (so please remove the chip from you’re shoulder and retract your claws). I’m seeking understanding.

So if one accepts evolution as it is generally taught by scientists, what would the first sin look like? And also, did the surrounding beasts subsequently get ensouled, or was it only those two and their children?

Except that papal encyclicals are not ex cathedra statements.

Well, I just stumbled upon something plausible those interested in the question might enjoy. It’s a article in the American Catholic Philosophical Quarterly titled “Science, Theology, and Monogensis”, written by Kenneth W. Kemp of the University of St. Thomas.

:rolleyes: So what weight do you give it? As much as the paper you cited?

Are you saying that the Papal Encyclical is wrong?

Read more here:

Adam and Eve: Real People

It is equally impermissible to dismiss the story of Adam and Eve and the fall (Gen. 2–3) as a fiction. A question often raised in this context is whether the human race descended from an original pair of two human beings (a teaching known as monogenism) or a pool of early human couples (a teaching known as polygenism).

In this regard, Pope Pius XII stated: “When, however, there is question of another conjectural opinion, namely polygenism, the children of the Church by no means enjoy such liberty. For the faithful cannot embrace that opinion which maintains either that after Adam there existed on this earth true men who did not take their origin through natural generation from him as from the first parents of all, or that Adam represents a certain number of first parents. Now, it is in no way apparent how such an opinion can be reconciled that which the sources of revealed truth and the documents of the teaching authority of the Church proposed with regard to original sin which proceeds from a sin actually committed by an individual Adam in which through generation is passed onto all and is in everyone as his own” (Humani Generis 37).

The story of the creation and fall of man is a true one, even if not written entirely according to modern literary techniques. The Catechism states, “The account of the fall in Genesis 3 uses figurative language, but affirms a primeval event, a deed that took place at the beginning of the history of man. Revelation gives us the certainty of faith that the whole of human history is marked by the original fault freely committed by our first parents” (CCC 390).

and here:

Your quote from Humani Generis doesn’t prove your assertion. Now, if you were asserting that the OP was advocating polygenism, you’d be ok. If you were asserting that the OP claimed that there were “true men” who weren’t descendants of a first parent (named ‘Adam’ in the Scriptures), you’d be fine. If you were asserting that the OP said that ‘Adam’ is code for a number of parents, you’d be solid.

However, you’re claiming a literal Adam. The quote you provided doesn’t make that claim. :wink:

No, but I believe the encyclical is dealing with an issue where science and theology intersect. Church statements can err in the area of science, just not in the area of faith.

Science and theology also intersected in the geocentrism debate. It doesn’t bother me that the church had it wrong, though. After all, it was a matter of science.

But this is not meant to be a debate. I simply know that there are Catholics who believe in original sin and Darwinian evolution, and I was just wondering how they reconciled the two. Perhaps a better title for my thread would have been “Cavemen and original sin.”


HooserDaddy’s post provides the means by which you can come to an understanding of how the text of Genesis and the Church’s teaching aren’t in conflict.

The categories of “true” and “false” do not match up exactly with modern literary techniques (for instance, allegory). An allegory, while not reporting literal events, can nevertheless be telling a true story.

Your issues seem to be rooted in a desire to look only on the surface of the story in a sense of strict literalism. Was the sin of our first parents “eating an apple”? Of course not. Is the story telling us that the sin of our first parents was instead disobedience of God, in which they were instructed not to attempt to partake in the “knowledge of good and evil”? That’s more the point! Adam and Eve attempted to break the rules; the content of their disobedience was the desire to be able to define for themselves what is ‘good’ and what is ‘evil’.

In this perspective, then, it’s not about choice of diet, but about the choice to follow God or to disobey Him; it’s not about the content of moral law, but about the authority to define that content.

Hope this helps!

One of your problems might be your bias in assuming the Church and Science disagree. Or that the Church is wrong again which you insinuate by bringing geocentrism into the frame. However, I would encourage you to study that issue more and perhaps on a different thread.

Yes, true faith is believing down is up when something tells you otherwise, but in this case the Church is just asking you to believe down is down.

Without turning this into an evolution debate I would be careful viewing the science as steady and true and not agenda driven. And the Church as needing to change it’s wording or way of viewing and explaining man. Usually, and especially with things like evolution, it is science that moves and shifts. And the Church that is steady.

I’m in a very similar intellectual position to the OP, so I’m really thankful for this thread. I believe in Darwinian evolution because as near as I can tell, there is a wide array of evidence that points in that direction. For the most part, I think the idea of evolution is perfectly compatible with the faith. There’s no reason why God needed to actively create each animal individually. Why not set up a process by which they will develop from other forms of life? Going one step further, I don’t see a theological problem with humans evolving from other forms of life. Obviously, the human soul is not a product of biological evolution, but that doesn’t mean the human body isn’t.

But when you look at the details, the scientific evidence does point in a markedly different direction from the details in Genesis. As I understand it, evolution occurs in populations. It would be strange (maybe impossible from an evolutionary perspective) for a new species to emerge as two solitary individuals and to be completely descended from the offspring of those two individuals.

In the past several years, there have been news articles about the scientific search for the “mitochondrial Eve,” who is the most recent common female ancestor to all living humans. But scientists generally state that mitochondrial Eve is not the first woman. Furthermore, the most recent common male ancestor would not have lived during the same time period as mitochondrial Eve, according to estimates.

Also, the amount of genetic diversity among current humans cannot be explained if there were only two first parents. Either the frequency of genetic mutations was much larger than usual, or there were more than two first parents, or the early humans mated with non-humans.

These ideas fly in the face of Pius XII in Humani Generis, as others have quoted. But the language in Humani Generis is not unequivocal. It simply says that “it is in no way apparent” how Genesis can be reconciled with the notion of more than two first parents. In fact, Jimmy Akin mentioned a while back that one of the European bishop’s conferences published a catechism (which was approved by Rome, as I recall) which explicitly mentioned the possibility of polygenism. So Jimmy took that as a signal that Rome is considering other possible ways to understand Genesis from a different point of view.

I basically agree with your second point here. The science is by no means settled or perfectly understood, so it may not be wise to reject the Church’s judgment in favor of the shifting sands of imperfect empirical knowledge. On the other hand, the evidence is piling up, and it’s becoming less likely that the basic outlines of evolutionary theory are false. In light of that evidence, I am forced to question whether it is possible to understand Genesis in a different light without losing all meaning.

I’m uncomfortable with the implications of the assertion that true faith is believing down is up when the evidence points in the opposite direction. Of course, it’s prudent and wise to admit that we are nowhere close to perfect knowledge, and if two things appear contradictory, maybe we just don’t know enough. But if the evidence becomes sufficiently convincing, I think it would be dishonest for me to continue believing something that appears to be false.

I was not really putting any thought into the idea of up down down up. I was just pointing out the view that many who choose science OVER faith have.

However, upon further thought, I think it is quite accurate. Faith is believing down is up. The Eucharist is by no means scientific. yet we have Eucharistic Miracles, we have a SUPERnatrual faith. So when Jesus says “come out of the boat and walk to me Peter” He is really saying down is up.

Faith is believing Joseph of Cupertino flew (levitated) and the Sun danced.

Faith is superior to science because it is within faith that we believe what is contrary to our sense of taste, touch and eyes.

DISCLAIMER: The views and opinions expressed in these forums do not necessarily reflect those of Catholic Answers. For official apologetics resources please visit