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When Did Sin Begin? [a review]

To say that the conversation about creation, evolution, and the question of human origins is fraught is to put it mildly. Nearly everyone—Christian or not—has a strong opinion about the topic. Dr. Loren Haarsma, Professor of Physics at Calvin University, enters this conversation with his new book, When Did Sin Begin? While one typically expects treatments of the subject to be fiery and polemic, I appreciate that he begins with a call to charity in our thinking:

Christians who affirm evolution as God’s means of creating humans have been accused of being motivated by a desire to fit in with non-Christians at secular universities and of having their theology compromised by philosophical naturalism. Christians who have been hesitant to embrace evolution as God’s means of creating humans have been accused of being motivated by anti-intellectualism or of being fearful of a loss of power within their denomination. God commands us to avoid bearing false witness. Whenever there is reasonable doubt, we should assume the best about the motives of Christians who disagree with us.

This is exactly the right posture, I think, because the only way we'll make progress in this conversation is if we can truly listen to one another instead of suspiciously assuming nefarious intent. On the other hand, an equal and opposite danger is to so emphasize irenicism and "getting along" that we refrain from having any real convictions, prizing unity above all else. Haarsma luckily does not fall into this trap either. He articulately argues for the compatibility of evolution and Christian doctrine, and then he spends a majority of the book on the titular topic that is at the heart of the issue: sin, and when it began if one understands evolution to be the means by which God created humanity.

Haarsma's argument begins from a 30,000 foot vantage point by considering the perennial "faith and science" question, and then he zooms in on creation, evolution, and divine action, the question of death before humans, and the more particular questions of human evolution and theological anthropology. The second half of the book is entirely devoted to the question of sin considered from the perspective of scripture and church history, followed by a theological/philosophical examination of issues like what sin even is, what changed when sin began, whose fault it is, and the difficult questions that remain for each explanatory paradigm.

One tool Haarsma uses that I found particularly helpful is to distinguish between "nasty/nice" behaviors and actually "sinful/righteous" behaviors. We intuitively conceive of all "nasty" behaviors as inherently sinful, and all "nice" behaviors as righteous, but this is not necessarily the case. There are times when righteousness calls for speaking a hard word. Many things that appear to be very nice can in fact be done with a sinful heart. By making this distinction, Haarsma is able to look at theologically sticky questions like the existence of death before the fall in a new light.

The other thing I appreciated about his work is that while he doesn't brush aside the issues, he also doesn't leave me feeling like I have to choose between orthodox belief and evolution: that we can work through the tensions, examine the questions, and honor God in the process. Though I doubt all readers will find him persuasive, I personally found it to be a helpful analysis of and meditation upon the question of evolution and sin.

DISCLAIMER: I received a copy of this book from the publisher for the purpose of a fair, unbiased review.

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