The necessity of salvation in Christian doctrine seems to be inextricably linked to the view that the entirety of human nature somehow springs from the gametes (and perhaps education) of a single original breeding pair (Adam and Eve's nature & nurture). From the Catechism of the Catholic Church:

416 By his sin Adam, as the first man, lost the original holiness and justice he had received from God, not only for himself but for all human beings.

417 Adam and Eve transmitted to their descendants human nature wounded by their own first sin and hence deprived of original holiness and justice; this deprivation is called "original sin".

418 As a result of original sin, human nature is weakened in its powers, subject to ignorance, suffering and the domination of death, and inclined to sin (this inclination is called "concupiscence").

Paul's writings had a large role in the development of this theology:

Therefore, just as through one person sin entered the world, and through sin, death, and thus death came to all, inasmuch as all sinned (Romans 5.12)

Modern biology doesn't allow the possibility that there ever was a bottleneck of two (or perhaps even one, given that Eve was cloned from the ribs of Adam) in Homo Sapiens history:

So can the ancestral sin theology and the foundational Pauline writings stand in the absence of an original breeding pair, or do they become meaningless?

(Since this is not a truth question, but a theological inference question please see the comment to avoid arguing uselessly outside the question)

  • [Note: This is an IF ... THEN WHAT question. Please don't come up with answers twisting reality or scripture to fit the single breeding pair myth, because it won't answer the question. And really, if you think you have better ideas than the experts in biology and evolution, you should be going to graduate school to enlighten humanity instead of posting on C.SE and complaining about conspiracies among atheist scientists] Jul 2, 2013 at 8:47
  • There may be a fair question here. But I will say that the "Reasons to Believe" folks claimed there was a bottleneck in female DNA that was older than a bottleneck in male DNA.
    – pterandon
    Jul 2, 2013 at 11:56
  • My question is whether the theology can survive without a single-breeding-pair assumption. But anyway, matrilineal / patrilineal common descent (mitochondrial "Eve" / Y-chromosomal "Adam" MRCA's) say nothing about population bottlenecks. E.g. there are women who had only male sons (and men who had only female daughters), thus breaking the mitochondrial / Y-chromosomal line, though their OTHER (non-sex) genes are still represented in the population. Jul 2, 2013 at 12:06
  • Are you distinguishing between 'ancestral sin' (typically used by the Orthodox) and 'original sin' (the term I'm used to associating with Augustine) for any reason? Jul 2, 2013 at 14:15
  • Not really, it seemed like a better stylistic choice (ancestral vs evolution), but you are right. I did quote the CCC though. I am mostly interested in Catholic viewpoints, since they so clearly state their doctrine Jul 3, 2013 at 2:26

6 Answers 6


Yes, provided we are don't interpret ancestral sin as something that's physically transmitted from parent to child. Instead, it can be viewed as sin due to human nature. It is true that if we don't believe in a single historical Adam, then we have departed from the "literalist" Bible reading. This answer describes a theological viewpoint where that departure doesn't inevitably lead to the rejection of Christ, while still being rooted in scripture (albeit read more critically).

Note first that there are many different notions of "original sin" or "ancestral sin". The naive view that there is some (physically or genetically manifested) hereditary taint that is responsible for our sinfulness or guilt is completely untenable. Rather, we should recognize that ancient writers used the language of descent to speak about human nature in general; for example, "son of X" is often a way of saying that someone or something takes after the nature of X. In the same way, nobody imagines that our salvation from sin comes about by descent from Christ. Being sons and daughters of Adam means that we are human, with a rich complex of meaning surrounding that concept: including the ideas that we are made in God's image, but we are not actually God, God loves all of us, we all have moral worth, we have a tendency to sin against God and one another, we are held morally accountable, and so on.

Now, the point about Paul is that he doesn't start with Adam, but with Jesus. He talks about Adam in order to explain Jesus - he is drawing on a well-known story about certain universals of human nature, and stretching it in a midrashic manner, ultimately to focus attention on who Jesus was and what he did. Even if the Adam analogy were completely invalidated, this does not do anything to the account of Jesus. (And in fact the Christ-Adam relation is not invalidated - it's just a bit different from the materialist reading, where it's all about literal descent.) This is a plausible way to read the rabbinically-trained Paul in his cultural context, just as the accompanying reading of Genesis draws on the cultural assumptions of the Ancient Near East.

According to this reading, the spiritual meaning of Genesis 3 is preserved. What we lose is the literal or material reading (there was a man called Adam who lived in a garden, etc.); for some people, that is unacceptable on its face. Nevertheless, it shows that it is theologically possible to believe in human sin and redemption, even in the absence of a single breeding pair.

[This answer draws from my reading of The Evolution of Adam by Peter Enns (Brazos, 2012) and I love Jesus and I accept evolution by Denis Lamoureux (Wipf and Stock, 2009), which give a far more thorough treatment of the scripture and theology.]

  • This is an interesting non-literalist take. Is this "theological viewpoint" shared by any of the Christian traditions? For example the CCC section in the question doesn't seem to be compatible with such a take Jul 3, 2013 at 2:34
  • Of course, if "sin... is due to our human nature" which was created by God, it seems perverse to hold the creature accountable for a natural result of its design (and accountable according to what law?) Jul 3, 2013 at 2:43
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    @justbelieve - this is a problem, but I would say that this account reveals rather than creates that problem. Theodicy is an old conundrum, and so is accountability vs predestination - regardless of the Adam issue - so I don't think this adds to our total supply of problems.
    – James T
    Jul 3, 2013 at 13:12
  • Among the answers that provide a YES or a NO this seems to be the most enlightened, so I will probably accept it. I took the liberty to make the beginning more concise, because verbosity can obscure the point being made (I hope you like the edit) Jul 3, 2013 at 14:09
  • I've accepted this answer. I don't think any of the "major" denominations would support this theological viewpoint though (especially the Catholics, given e.g. @PeterTurner's Human Generis quote). On the other hand, simply proclaiming the necessity of a historical Adam and waving hands about a supernatural truth that contradicts established knowledge won't help much more than proclaiming the necessity of geocentrism. Jul 4, 2013 at 1:26

Preface that this isn't a site for debating what is true, it's merely for learning what s taught/believed within Christianity. See How we are different than other sites?

With that in mind, most of your question is off-topic, but I believe that the core concept from your question can be addressed if we phrase it as follows:

Do any Christian groups believe that without a literal Adam, the concept of original sin has no meaning?

I'm going to answer that portion, in the interest of answering the heart of the question, filtering out the portions that are off-topic and/or controversial/disputed within Christian circles.

The short answer is tat yes, some Christians, namely Young-Earth Creationists teach and believe exactly that. Ken Ham, Kent Hovind and other well-known YEC proponents teach exactly that.

One such example from CCEL

Is it important:

Well, if there was no first Adam, could there also not be a second Adam, our LORD Jesus Christ? For as in Adam all die, even so in Christ shall all be made alive...it is written, The first man Adam was made a living soul; the last Adam was made a quickening spirit." 1 Corinthians 15

If death did not come as result of Adam's sin, then why did we need a savior to deliver us from death unto life? "Just as sin entered the world through one man (Adam), and death through sin, and in this way death came to all men, because all sinned"- Romans 5

Was Jesus' real if his geneaology account is not trustworthy? Jesus was the son of Joseph, who was the son of ..., the son of Seth, the son of Adam (Luke 3) - Can the Word of God be trusted for its specific geneaology or is it mythology?

I also posted on the subject at Why do Young-Earth Creationists make such a big deal about the YEC view.

Not all Christians see it thus way, of course. This represents only one view within Christianity.

  • I believe my question was about future-proofing (or even present-proofing) theological arguments and thus certainly not off-topic Jul 2, 2013 at 12:17
  • 2
    Sorry... I wasn't clear.. I meant off-topic to the site per established guidelines. The rest was definitely on-topic to the question, but not on-topic to site guidelines. Outside of this particular site I'd love answering/discussing the question in its entirety. It's one of my favorite topics, but site rules restrain that. Jul 2, 2013 at 12:28
  • This is not a truth question. I asked whether a doctrine can survive without a certain premise, or does it fall apart like a house of cards. I'm sure the biology links will offend some folks, but they are useful to establish present-day context, without which we might as well discuss OT regulations. Jul 2, 2013 at 12:34

Can the ancestral sin doctrine (and Paul's epistles) survive without a single breeding pair?

Answer: YES

When Adam fell and sin was ushered in

"the creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope 21thath the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the freedom and glory of the children of God." (Romans 8:20)

In other words, God put all of Creation under the curse, not just Adam. One need only remember that the ground was cursed because of Adam, and the animals were cursed because of Adam - even though only Adam sinned.

Animals share no DNA*, no gametes, nothing that could have been inherited from man. And yet, they were subject to futility. As such, this discredits the idea that sin is a disease or a genetic mutation passed from one generation to the next.

*I understand that animals and humans do actually share a common codebase of DNA, and that chimpanzees use 99% of the same genetic code. I am using this is the common parlance idea of 'passing down DNA from one creature to the next,' not in the biological common code sense.

As such, one can still assert fully as Paul does in Romans 5 that

"Therefore, just as sin entered the world through one man, and death through sin, and in this way death came to all people, because all sinned—

To be sure, sin was in the world before the law was given, but sin is not charged against anyone’s account where there is no law. Nevertheless, death reigned from the time of Adam to the time of Moses, even over those who did not sin by breaking a command, as did Adam, who is a pattern of the one to come.

In other words, it is not that sin entered with the Fall, but rather the Law. All of Creation became subject to the law of futility and death.

Does it seem unfair? That is outside of the scope of the question. Rather, it should be understood that even if there was a "Lillith" who wasn't part of the apple incident (and yes, I know the Bible doesn't say apple!), it would be irrelevant. It is irrelevant because it isn't sin that entered, but the law.

And everybody was subject to that.

  • Finally, understand that original sin is a doctrine that developed to explain Scripture and battle the heretics. It is not necessarily 'Scripture'. Jul 2, 2013 at 14:27
  • I don't get it -- your answer makes extensive use of Adam's fall. But if there was no Adam to "represent" humanity, who fell? One random member of Homo Sapiens? One leader of a group of men? This answer isn't self-consistent as far as I can tell (since you postulate YES in the first sentence -- otherwise it would be merely off-topic). Jul 3, 2013 at 2:19
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    Lilith is just a way of saying "a non-Adamic human". Lillith herself has nothing to do with my very simple argument. The argument is simple- the fall affected everything. Even if there was more than one human, any human ushering in the law would have brought it about, and everything is now subject to it. Jul 3, 2013 at 15:13
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    I don't mean to be rude, but its pretty simple logic as to how it answers your question. Jul 3, 2013 at 15:13
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    @justbelieve here's your cult :)
    – Peter Turner
    Jul 3, 2013 at 16:40

Allow me to rephrase the question in terms more suitable to the internet...

Whether God requires His creatures to have sex in order to condemn themselves?

Objection 1. It would seem that God does not desire His creatures to continually create themselves bearing the fruits of original sin, but is in fact happier with those whom he deigned to create or beget without sin. When God created Adam and Eve, sinless originally, He said that they were good (Gn 1:31). When God sent His messenger to Mary, sinless as she was, he said she had found favor with God (Lk 1:30). When God the Father spoke to His Beloved Son (also sinless) He said that in Him He was pleased (Mt 3:17).

Objection 2. Furthermore, God must need our participation to perpetuate Original Sin. Because without His creatures copulation, there would be no more Original Sin for Baptism to wipe away the effects of, thereby negating a vital sacrament of initiation.

Objection 3. It would seem that our nature inherits Original Sin because our nature comes from our parents. Since science might (today at least) have us believe that we had no tangible first human parents as evinced in the Bible by the persons of Adam and Eve, there could not have been two such parents to fall for us to inherit Original Sin from. Therefore cloned human beings would not be subject to the effects of Original Sin, nor would those who were not of the branch of Adam and Eve (let alone Noah).

On the contrary, Original Sin is a mark on the immortal Human Soul, created by God, for God and only from the Love of God. It is not sex that imposes concupiscence. So, No God does not require humanity's participation (though carnal unions or sterile cloning) to impose Original Sin on it. And yes, Original Sin will survive (thrive even) in a Brave New World. As Uncle Chestnut says:

Certain new theologians dispute original sin, which is the only part of Christian theology which can really be proved.

GCK - Orthodoxy

His proof for Original Sin, although tongue-in-cheek, will exist where ever humanity exists.

I answer that, this entire question could be swept away by the common Catholic teaching that the first 11 or so books of Genesis may be primarily useful in senses other than the literal

the first eleven chapters of Genesis, although properly speaking not conforming to the historical method used by the best Greek and Latin writers or by competent authors of our time, do nevertheless pertain to history in a true sense, which however must be further studied and determined by exegetes;

the same chapters, in simple and metaphorical language adapted to the mentality of a people but little cultured, both state the principal truths which are fundamental for our salvation, and also give a popular description of the origin of the human race and the chosen people. If, however, the ancient sacred writers have taken anything from popular narrations (and this may be conceded), it must never be forgotten that they did so with the help of divine inspiration, through which they were rendered immune from any error in selecting and evaluating those documents.

Pope Pius XII Humani Generis - 38

Pope Pius XII can concede nothing on the Spiritual and Everlasting Truths found in the first chapters of Genesis.

Reply to Objection 1 Although it can add nothing to His greatness, God is pleased by every one of our selfless acts of love and kindness. Otherwise He would not have said Blessed are they who... (Mt 5:1-12) Even though we suffer the residual effect of Original Sin (i.e. we have an inclination to sin) it can be overcame with the Divine Help.

Reply to Objection 2 Although St. Paul says that where sin abounds, grace abounds all the more. and during the Exsultet on Easter Vigil it is proclaimed "O happy fault, O necessary sin of Adam, which gained for us so great a Redeemer". It is clearly not good that we are borne into concupiscence and that is why Jesus is coming again one day. When we're borne into eternal life, we will be freed from that sinful inclination even though our souls were created and imbued with it. The Ox says:

Original sin is caused by the semen as instrumental cause. Now there is no need for anything to be more in the instrumental cause than in the effect; but only in the principal cause: and, in this way, original sin was in Adam more fully, since in him it had the nature of actual sin.

Summa Theologica Q.83 A.1 Reply to Objection 2

So, Adam had original sin, but it wasn't passed to him through his parent's sexual intercourse.

Reply to Objection 3 Although it is not clear whether anything besides children of Adam have human souls. Science has not the competence to trounce theology on the topic of human evolution (Youcat 42) Nor should theology inform scientific theory. The key point is:

Souls are not inherited Each is a distinct creation of God and is united with the body at the time of conception.
This is the faith - Canon Francis Ripley

There is nothing in science that can contradict this supernatural truth for this and many other reasons Pope Pius XII says

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.

Humani Generis 37

Human nature is not strictly speaking a property of the human soul, the Rational Immortal Soul is God's gift to human nature. Aquinas and Aristotle teach that everything has a nature and a soul. But the powers of the human soul vary considerably with those of the rocks and fishes but the danger is that they can suffer the effects of Original Sin and even if there were no women left on earth, each cloned man would still be limited by whatever God determined the powers of his soul would be imbued with. In this case one needs to interpret literal inheritance or can posit a sideways inheritance in Paul's writings. But in the absence of a test for a soul in those who we hope would be naturally having one, it is impossible for science to know whether cloned individuals would likewise have or not have a soul.

  • Very scholastic - I love it!
    – James T
    Jul 3, 2013 at 13:13
  • A lot of valuable material (perhaps too much); I'm still making my way through it. However I'm not too fond of the "Objection 1, therefore Objection 2, therefore 3" structure -- it seems to supply a red herring argument and then debate it. Furthermore, there are so many sub-arguments branching off from the main argument that it's pretty hard to follow. Jul 3, 2013 at 13:41
  • Also, you start your answer by stating that the first 11 chapters of Genesis are non-literal, but conclude with a papal quote about the need to hold on to the "supernatural truth" that there was one true Adam -- which way is it? It's hard to understand the main message of your answer (if there is one), even though it contains a lot of useful little points. The answer suffers greatly in its overall structure. I can't even tell if your answer to the original question is YES or NO. Jul 3, 2013 at 13:47
  • @justbelieve - Imagine this is an edited transcript of a classroom discussion - the objections come from students and the rest from the teacher (in fact this is exactly what it's meant to be). The teacher says something, there are objections, and then the teacher responds in detail. You can start reading with the "on the contrary"/"I answer" if you like - I usually do this and then cycle back to read the objections/responses in order.
    – James T
    Jul 3, 2013 at 15:57
  • I see the literary device, but I think it tends to make the answer look rambling (so many sub-plots kill coherence). The main problem is that I can't figure out what you're saying (is it a YES or a NO to the original question). Look especially at my last comment before this one (non-literalism of Genesis chapters 1-11 vs Pope's indispensable Adam -- which one are you arguing?) Jul 3, 2013 at 16:12

(Firstly, this site is NOT a place for searching the TRUTH)

Can the ancestral sin doctrine (and Paul's epistles) survive without a single breeding pair?

Answer: NO

If we reject the Biblical story that humanity started from a single pair, the whole christian concept of Sin and Salvation is meaningless. If evolution is true and that humanity started from multiple couples, then the "original sin" concept may not apply to all mankind. Some will born with sin and some without, which infers that Jesus did not have to die for all of mankind but only for those who are born from sinful parents.

Can we find anyone without sin?

Answer: I don't think so.

It won't be an easy thing to find a person who can boastfully say that he/she is without sin. Many times we fool ourselves into thinking that we are good enough but I say it is only due to our self righteousness nature. We never see other's fault but when we erred, we make excuses. Believe it when the Bible says "No one is perfect". Jesus even once proved this to the Jewish religious leaders that no one is righteous.

John 8:1-11 (NKJV) -Excerpt

Then the scribes and Pharisees brought to Him a woman caught in adultery. And when they had set her in the midst, they said to Him, “Teacher, this woman was caught in adultery, in the very act. Now Moses, in the law, commanded us that such should be stoned. But what do You say?” So when they continued asking Him, He raised Himself up and said to them, “He who is without sin among you, let him throw a stone at her first.” Then those who heard it, being convicted by their conscience, went out one by one, beginning with the oldest even to the last. And Jesus was left alone, and the woman standing in the midst. When Jesus had raised Himself up and saw no one but the woman, He said to her, “Woman, where are those accusers of yours? Has no one condemned you?” She said, “No one, Lord.” And Jesus said to her, “Neither do I condemn you; go and sin no more.”

If we agree to the fact that no one is exempted from sinning, then we can make a clear deduction that Bible is true and that Adam and Eve were the first couple by which, through their disobedience the whole humanity is under the power of SIN.

  • Interpretation of Biblical stories has changed throughout time. 7 days aren't literal days anymore. Perhaps in the same vein theology can survive a non-literal Adam and Eve. Or perhaps not -- that is the question. Jul 2, 2013 at 12:19
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    I gave you my answer already as "NO"
    – Mawia
    Jul 2, 2013 at 12:20
  • I was commenting on the first sentence of your answer ("this site is NOT a place for searching the TRUTH"). This wasn't a truth question (much as some folks like to be insulated from the truth). The rest of your answer is spot-on. Jul 2, 2013 at 12:29
  • @justbelieve I might have misjudged you but your "Note" sounds like searching for truth.
    – Mawia
    Jul 2, 2013 at 12:32
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    Faith in the bible exempts you from the rules of logic? YES ..It is and ...umpteen times. Rules of logic lead you nowhere but to same place where you left this site because rules of logic creates more thirst for searching of TRUTH then satisfaction in what one believes to be true.
    – RowenSmith
    Jul 4, 2013 at 9:07

I'll answer a tangential, but implied question: Can Pauline doctrine survive "physical death before Adam?"

Answer: yes, from an Old Earth Creationist perspective.

Romans 5:12 Therefore, just as sin entered the world through one man, and death through sin, and in this way death came to all people, because all sinned

The Bible states that the doctrine of sin rests on that story of one man, as you observed.

Gen 2:17 but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, thou shalt not eat of it: for in the day that thou eatest thereof thou shalt surely die.

The literal historical figure of Adam literally died in the day he ate the fruit.

If you take a Young Earth Creationist view, his body's cells started to decay. If you take an Old Earth Creationist viewpoint, he spiritually died and became in need of a Saviour at that instant. In this latter view, there is no conflict with animals eating each other (Triceratops with T-Rex-tooth holes in their frill predating man, for example) and our need for salvation from our sins.

  • Are you conflating the original sin with animal predator / prey relationships, and implying that carnivores (with short digestive tracts and ripping teeth) ate grass before the Fall corrupted the entire nature? Jul 3, 2013 at 4:05
  • But regardless, this doesn't address the question of the necessity of a single breeding pair for the theology of salvation. You mention that "The Bible states that the doctrine of sin rests on that story of one man, as you observed.", but then you ignore the question Jul 3, 2013 at 4:07

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