The Genetics Of Sin: A Dialog With Ritchie, Pt. II

The Bible claims that Adam and Eve's "original sin" in the Garden of Eden resulted in an extensive punishment that affects all of humanity. Last month, we had quite an interesting discussion revolving around a comment of Ritchie's, originally left for me at Daylight Atheism:

..why should the sin of Adam and Eve pass on to their children, and by extension, to us? Why can't each person be born with a blank slate? God, apparently did not arrange things this way. Instead, He Himself introduced the taint of sin and then blames us for possessing that flaw.

[At this point I responded by saying I rejected Ritchie's claim that God introduced sin into the human race, and Ritchie responded with,]

Who made the tree of knowledge of good and evil in the garden of Eden (knowing in advance that Adam and Eve would eat from it)? Who gave instructions to Adam and Eve not to eat the fruit despite the fact that they had no concept of good or evil and were therefore unable to make moral decisions on their own? Who created the serpent (or Satan, whichever you prefer), knowing in advance the role he would play in man's downfall? Scripture says God, God, God. Whichever way you turn it, the entire episode in Eden is an almighty cock-up and it's all God's fault…

[Earlier in that thread, I had sad, "It's a reasonable argument that sin adversely effects the human apparatus; perhaps the original sin set something in motion genetically," to which Ritchie replied,]

You think sin gets passed on through your genes? Why? How could eating a piece of fruit affect Adam and Eve's DNA? Do other sins affect our DNA too? When we arrest people, should we take a blood sample and examine that for traces of 'guilt' or 'sin' to determine whether they are guilty? Should criminals be denied the right to have children, since their children will be born more genetically 'corrupted' by sin than the children of parents who have committed no crime?

Now, I thought for certain he was roasting me with his last two questions, but Ritchie assured me they were in fact sincere, so I promised him I would address them. We discussed some of these questions in rather excruciating detail in Pt. I, but I'd like to cover the rest of them, as well as add a thing or two to some of those we've already discussed.

First, I'd like to de-construct Ritchie's opening question somewhat. If you read it carefully again, you'll notice he uses the phrases, "pass on", and also "blank slate". To me, these phrases suggest the quantitative measure of sin mentioned briefly here. Hold that thought.

Let's clarify that when the question is, "Why does 'original sin' have to apply to us," what we're really discussing here are the ramifications of the fall of man as described in Genesis. If we're taking the story to be literal and not some sort of allegory, I believe there are at least two distinct categories of ramification that would naturally result from the fall of man: the first is spiritual, the second biological.

Perhaps the chief spiritual ramification was that God withdrew His presence from humanity. When we decided to pursue righteousness our own way, our spirit "became dead" as described in the citation from Watchman Nee (ibid.) Second, we were consigned to death (see below), so it is certainly 100% reasonable to suppose a genetic downgrade of some sort accompanied the fall of man. This would be one of the biological ramifications. According to the Bible, all of humanity since Adam inherits these conditions. Ritchie's position is that this is unwarranted; I'm going to argue that it's logically required. I have a feeling this will lead to another discussion of omnipotence, and "why couldn't God have done it this way" type questions, but we'll see. 

(I should also note that I'm arguing from distinct presuppositions here, for example the premise that human existence was physical or fleshly in the same way it is today — back then. I've heard people argue from the premise that before the fall of man, our existence was spiritual, and that taking on a fleshly existence was part of the curse itself. I'm not too sure what I think of that. In the same vein, I've heard folks argue that the death which resulted from the fall was spiritual, and not fleshly — or that it was actually both)

Anyways, getting along here, the reason I say the punishment's applicability to all humanity is logically required is because in order for a selective application of the punishment to work, each new person being born would literally have to exist in a different world than their parents. Humans would require two mutually exclusive worlds at the same time: one where God's presence is universally manifest, and another where It is not. So, by saying original sin affects us all — although I also believe there's a genetic component to the claim, and I'll get to that — it affects us all because God withdrew His presence from all of us. I do not define omnipotence as the ability to do the logically impossible, and neither does the Bible, so that's why I believe it is logically impossible to selectively apply the spiritual ramifications of the curse.

This might be the part where somebody is tempted to ask, "Well then cl, why couldn't God have set it up a different way?" The short answer is that I don't know, but that something doesn't make sense to us doesn't make it false, so we'll have to do better.

As far as Ritchie's claim that God "introduced sin" into the human race, well… he explained what he meant in Pt. I, but I just didn't find it persuasive. From my perspective, Adam and Eve introduced sin into the human race when they made the decision to go beyond clear parameters with full knowledge that they weren't supposed to. Ritchie feels they lacked sufficient moral compass to make a proper decision, thus making God's punishment unwarranted. He agreed to my statement that, "..anyone who understands the parameters yet willfully offends them merits consequence," with the additional proviso that, "..anyone who understands the parameters — and that they must not cross them, yet still crosses them — merits consequences." I believe that Eve fulfills Ritchie's requirements in Genesis 3:2, where she says to the serpent, "We may eat fruit from the trees in the garden, but God did say, 'You must not eat fruit from the tree that is in the middle of the garden, and you must not touch it, or you will die." Clearly, Eve knew she "must not" eat it, as she used Ritchie's qualifying phrase verbatim — twice. 

I'd go on here, but each of the questions from Ritchie's second paragraph were thoroughly addressed in  Pt. I, so let's move on.

Echoing the concerns in his third paragraph above, in Pt. I's thread, Ritchie said,

Sin does not change a person's DNA. We cannot find any 'guilt' or 'sin' or any trace of wrongdoing by examining the DNA of criminals. I'm sorry, I appreciate you may not have meant this literally, but I don't really see what you DID mean by it… (to Karla)

Okay. Bare with me here, this is likely to get confusing, but I'm going to try my best. First, the claim that sin does not change a person's DNA. A simple example comes to mind: if you'll grant that excessive cigarette smoking is sin, such adversely changes human DNA. If you'll grant that blowing people up with nuclear bombs is sin, such can adversely change human DNA, specifically by damaging bonds between oxygen (O) and phosphate groups (P). These are empirically observable phenomena, and the underlying principle here is that aside from being offense to God, sin also has objective consequences in the here and now. We misunderstand the scope of sin if we frame it exclusively in its moral context. 

When indulged, it's reasonable that even 'mental' sins such as hatred either directly or indirectly change our DNA. To quote organic chemist David Hamilton, "There is a whole branch of medicine called psycho-neuro-immunology, which studies the effect of thoughts and emotions on our biochemistry. The biochemistry is intimately connected with the DNA, so if these biologichemical components are affected by thoughts and emotions then thoughts and emotions must also affect our DNA." (It's The Thought That Counts, Hamilton Press, 2005)

Let me be clear: sin simply means missing God's mark, and that can occur any number of ways. I am not saying each and every instance of sin from murder to gluttony to hatred changes our DNA, though it's certainly possible. Either way, it follows that if the Genesis story is true in the literal sense we've just discussed, and if we grant that excessive cigarette smoking and blowing people up with nuclear bombs and indulging in hatred are sins, then the idea that sin can change human DNA seems not only consistent with the Bible, but empirically corroborated. So in this sense, we can say yes, sin would change our DNA, and these changes would pass on through our genes — quite literally.

Sins carry their punishment with them by the order of nature and by virtue of the mechanical structure of things itself; and in the same way, noble actions will attract their rewards by ways which are mechanical as far as bodies are concerned… -Gottfried Leibniz

So when Ritchie asks how Adam and Eve eating a piece of fruit changed their DNA, I submit that I've not claimed it would. Rather, the biological ramifications of being consigned to death is what would have changed our DNA — the genetic downgrade — not the simple act of eating the fruit.

Turning to the first of Ritchie's final two questions, the ability to identify guilt in blood samples isn't a logical ramification of my argument. Per the argument I've just made here, it is certainly reasonable that guilt might produce observable, empirical effects on the human body, but guilt itself is actually a psychological mindset, not something a blood test would reveal. Yes, I did say that in a sense sin gets "passed on" through genetics, and that it can change our DNA, but that doesn't entail that we should be able to "find" sin or guilt in blood samples. In and of themselves, sins — both individual and original — change things; they are not things. 

Likewise, asking whether criminals should be prevented from breeding also becomes a non-sequitur, because it's not just the people modern society thinks of as criminal who have compromised DNA as a result of sin — it's the entire human race — because we're all biologically related, and we're all under the affects of the fall. We're all a family. What affects one member affects us all, and we can't live in two mutually exclusive worlds at once. 

I don't see anything logically inconsistent about it.

3 Comments

  1. Ritchie says:

    Hello!
    Sorry for having been absent for so long, but I’m impressed to see our conversation has merited a second post, so I thought it’s only polite to pop back on to respond. I’ll respond to this post first, and then go back to part 1 to see if there’s anything there I haven’t covered here.

    Perhaps the chief spiritual ramification was that God withdrew His presence from humanity.

    I find this assertion curious. God has withdrawn his presence from humanity? I thought He was around us all the time, that He was omnipresent. If this is the case, how can you assertion here hold? It what way was He ‘more present’ for Adam and Eve than He is for us today?

    Anyways, getting along here, the reason I say the punishment’s applicability to all humanity is logically required is because in order for a selective application of the punishment to work, each new person being born would literally have to exist in a different world than their parents. Humans would require two mutually exclusive worlds at the same time: one where God’s presence is universally manifest, and another where It is not.

    Why does sin have to work like that? Why can’t sin work like, for example, a virus. It is possible for parents infected with a virus to give birth to a child which does not possess the virus (I accept there is a good chance the child may have it, but it is not guaranteed, and this, I think, is good enough to make my point). If sin worked in this way, it would not require two seperate world. Remember that God, as the ultimate creator of everything, presumably created the way in which sin behaves, and being omnipotent (more on that in a bit) could have chosen to make it behave in any way He wished. If He is also indeed benevolent, surely He wishes it to act in such a way as to cause as little suffering as possible? In which case, it makes no sense for sin to be simply inherited, rather than earned or deserved.
    Also, I must reiterate the point I made above. Surely God IS manifest in this world? Is He not omnipresent? Is He not everywhere? I do not see the reasoning that leads you to conclude that God withdrew His presence from humanity as a consequence of the fall. How did you arrive at this interpretation?

    I do not define omnipotence as the ability to do the logically impossible, and neither does the Bible, so that’s why I believe it is logically impossible to selectively apply the spiritual ramifications of the curse

    With all due respect, the dictionary does. Omnipotence is not defined as ‘the amount of power God has’. It is defined as ‘having absolute, unlimited power’. God is omnipotent or He is not. The fact that we can show omnipotence itself to involve logical contradictions rather implies it cannot really exist in the real world, and therefore cannot be a quality possessed by God (assuming He exists at all). But if you want to define God as being able to ‘do anything logically possible’ then that still leaves you with the problem of assertaining whether it is ‘logically possible’ to create a universe, or the first spark of life, or to know the future. Maybe these things are logically impossible. In which case they would lie outside God’s abilities too.

    if you’ll grant that excessive cigarette smoking is sin, such adversely changes human DNA. If you’ll grant that blowing people up with nuclear bombs is sin, such can adversely change human DNA, specifically by damaging bonds between oxygen (O) and phosphate groups (P). These are empirically observable phenomena, and the underlying principle here is that aside from being offense to God, sin also has objective consequences in the here and now.

    That’s not really accurate. If we grant excessive smoking is a sin, then it is smoking which affects DNA, not sin itself. The same with the nuclear bomb. Telling a lie doesn’t affect your DNA. Neither does stealing or murder. In fact the vast majority of acts we would describe as sins do not change our DNA at all.

    When indulged, it’s reasonable that even ‘mental’ sins such as hatred either directly or indirectly change our DNA. To quote organic chemist David Hamilton, “There is a whole branch of medicine called psycho-neuro-immunology, which studies the effect of thoughts and emotions on our biochemistry. The biochemistry is intimately connected with the DNA, so if these biologichemical components are affected by thoughts and emotions then thoughts and emotions must also affect our DNA.”

    I hope you’ll forgive me being dismissive, but this sounds suspiciously like New Age pseudoscience to me. I know I should not be dismissive before I throughly investigate, but the theme of thoughts affecting physical reality (‘think sucessful thoughts and sucess will come’, ‘negativity itself is attracted to negative vibes’, ‘harness the power of YES’) is pretty classic pseudoscience. Even if our thoughts genuinely affect our DNA (and I have a long, long, long way to go before I’ll accept that one), where does sin fit in? Surely happiness will affect our DNA slightly differently to stress? Surely relaxation will affect our DNA differently to being highly motivated? You mentioned hatred as an example. Is it a sin to FEEL hatred? I can understand it is perhaps (often?) a sin to act on that hatred, but a sin to even feel it? And how would feeling hatred (or other ‘sinful’ feelings) differ from feeling emotions which were not inherently sinful?

    I am not saying each and every instance of sin from murder to gluttony to hatred changes our DNA, though it’s certainly possible.

    So in this sense, we can say yes, sin would change our DNA, and these changes would pass on through our genes — quite literally.

    These two sentences contradict each other, though you don’t seem to see it. If sin changed our DNA, then it would do so MOST of the time. Perhaps there would be a few exceptions, in special circumstances, but the rule of thumb at least would be that sins change your DNA. This is not what we find. You have taken two rather extreme example of sins which CAN change our DNA, and then are saying are examples of a general rule. I don’t agree with this. It rather strikes me that most sins do not affect our DNA. And even in the examples you mention, it is not the fact that they are sins which affects our DNA, it is the nature of the acts themselves.

    guilt itself is actually a psychological mindset, not something a blood test would reveal. Yes, I did say that in a sense sin gets “passed on” through genetics, and that it can change our DNA, but that doesn’t entail that we should be able to “find” sin or guilt in blood samples. In and of themselves, sins — both individual and original — change things; they are not things.

    I agree. And I follow your argument – Adam and Eve were genetically different before the fall. As a result of their ‘sin’, their DNA was changed, and it is this ‘corrupted’ DNA which gets passed down to all their descendants. However, this does not solve my original question, it merely puts it into different words – why do children get born with their parents’ corrupt DNA? Why can’t they get born with Adam and Eve’s pre-fall ‘pure’ DNA? It presumably was not outside God’s abilities to organise the world like that.

  2. cl says:

    Ritchie,

    I’m impressed to see our conversation has merited a second post,

    Well for me, the two issues were distinct enough that trying to hash both out together seemed unnecessary.
    There’s the issue of whether or not Adam and Eve could’ve made a moral a decision (Pt. 1), and then this whole concept of genetics as it relates to sin, and whether or not the ramifications of original sin need pass on to all humanity.

    Why does sin have to work like that?

    If sin has real consequences in the real world that we live in, that’s just a brute fact, like any other brute fact of nature – which we don’t question. In my view, if sin has irrevocable consequences, it has to work like that. Else, it would require two worlds. Yes, it is possible for parents infected with a virus to give birth to a child which does not possess the virus – but it is not possible for parents to birth children into a world other than the one in which they live. That’s why nobody can really start with a “clean slate” so to speak. There was only one “clean slate” – at the time of Adam and Eve in the pre-fall world. It’s kind of like how we can never return to the singularity that preceded the current universe: a one-time apex. Sin affected the entire world, the entire “Kosmos” in Greek which refers to the entire created universe. Paul notes that sin threw the entire kosmos into a state of disarray or decay, [which coincidentally sounds very much like our modern concept of entropy]. If the fall of man was the inevitable result of Adam and Eve’s decision to go their own way, we can’t expect that each of their descendants would somehow get to be born in paradise and have the same pre-fall conditions Adam and Eve did, right? Such would be a case of “two different worlds.”

    Remember that God, as the ultimate creator of everything, presumably created the way in which sin behaves,

    I think what you’re trying to say here is that God could’ve made things such that the consequences of sin weren’t so severe. That’s reasonable, and actually what I argued in the first post – God could have just instantly decreed a universal “all sinners go directly to Sheol and do not pass go” policy, but God didn’t do that. Instead, God lessened the suffering and offered a chance at redemption.

    ..it makes no sense for sin to be simply inherited, rather than earned or deserved.

    But don’t you say that children must inherit the world their parents live in? If yes, then sin – described as the ramifications of the fall – must be inherited.

    I do not see the reasoning that leads you to conclude that God withdrew His presence from humanity as a consequence of the fall.

    Perhaps I should have worded that better. The bottom line is that Adam and Eve’s original sin affected their relationship with God. However Adam and Eve originally related to and communed with God, their decision to go their own way changed that. That’s about all we can really take from the text without speculation. Now, from what I can glean, it seems that yes, to some degree, God did withdraw His manifest presence as a result of the fall. When Genesis says Adam and Eve saw God and the serpent, for example, I don’t think it describes intuition. It seems to me that Adam and Eve were clearly able to see and communicate with spiritual entities at that time; it suggests some sort of “spiritual vision” that perhaps could be humans’ default state, I don’t know. The phrase “withdrew His presence” shouldn’t necessarily be taken to mean that God physically left us, more that some sort of “veil” has been placed between this world and that one. Either way, I’m not really sure of the import of God’s presence to your position, which really just seems to be that God could’ve / should’ve done things a different way. What I mean is, I don’t see how either God’s presence or God’s absence affects your argument.

    The fact that we can show omnipotence itself to involve logical contradictions rather implies it cannot really exist in the real world, and therefore cannot be a quality possessed by God (assuming He exists at all).

    No, that just implies that whoever composes dictionaries doesn’t consult logicians and/or philosophers. In this case, I really don’t care what the dictionary says – simply because omnipotence can only be the ability to do all that is doable. But we could probably go around in circles forever there. All I’ll say is, when I say “God is omnipotent” it does not include the ability to do the logically possible, and I understand that for you it does, so at least we know each other enough to avoid talking past each other in that regard. That’s always good.

    ..if you want to define God as being able to ‘do anything logically possible’ then that still leaves you with the problem of assertaining whether it is ‘logically possible’ to create a universe, or the first spark of life, or to know the future. Maybe these things are logically impossible. In which case they would lie outside God’s abilities too.

    This seems kind of a non-sequitur, though. I could just as easily say atheists are left with the problem of ascertaining whether it is logically possible for a universe to spontaneously arise.

    If sin worked in this way, it would not require two seperate world.

    How would it not? If the ramifications of sin – described as Adam and Eve’s decision to usurp God as their moral authority – objectively affected the entire kosmos according to the Bible, we can’t simultaneously have a pre-fall kosmos and a post-fall kosmos, right?

    I hope you’ll forgive me being dismissive, but this sounds suspiciously like New Age pseudoscience to me… the theme of thoughts affecting physical reality… is pretty classic pseudoscience.

    Condemnation without investigation is a bar to all knowledge. While I don’t want to digress too far into it right now, I will gladly attempt to make the case for the ability of thought to affect individual cells and even DNA.

    Even if our thoughts genuinely affect our DNA (and I have a long, long, long way to go before I’ll accept that one), where does sin fit in?

    Because sin takes place in the realm of intent, which is intimately connected to the realm of consciousness or thought. Thoughts are waveform patterns – informing, existing and interacting with matter all around us – as such sin and righteousness can affect the external world.

    Surely happiness will affect our DNA slightly differently to stress? Surely relaxation will affect our DNA differently to being highly motivated?

    Correct; that’s the theory in a nutshell. Sinful patterns would have negative ramifications, righteous patterns would have positive ramifications.

    I am not saying each and every instance of sin from murder to gluttony to hatred changes our DNA, though it’s certainly possible. … So in this sense, we can say yes, sin would change our DNA, and these changes would pass on through our genes — quite literally. [cl]
    These two sentences contradict each other, though you don’t seem to see it. [Ritchie]

    I disagree. The first sentence claims not all sins directly affect DNA in single instances. For example, certain “sinful patterns” must be indulged for some time before we might expect them to produce their negative fruit in the biological vessel; the old adage goes that you don’t get cancer from a single cigarette. Still, I acknowledge your concern about painting too broadly, so a more accurate sentence might have been something like, “We currently only have evidence that certain sins affect DNA.” Still, what in that contradicts the idea of sin-affected DNA passing on?

    The nature of the acts themselves – is sinful.

    That’s exactly it. We’re agreeing here, it just seems maybe you’re reluctant to accept the word sin or something. What I’m saying is, sin constitutes those acts which – by the nature of the acts themselves – corrupt human beings and/or the natural world.

    ..I follow your argument – Adam and Eve were genetically different before the fall. As a result of their ‘sin’, their DNA was changed, and it is this ‘corrupted’ DNA which gets passed down to all their descendants. However, this does not solve my original question, it merely puts it into different words – why do children get born with their parents’ corrupt DNA? Why can’t they get born with Adam and Eve’s pre-fall ‘pure’ DNA?

    Adam and Eve’s descendants can’t have the “pre-fall” DNA because the pre-fall DNA was for a “pre-fall” world that cannot exist anymore, and we’re right back to the “two different worlds” problem. you seem to think God could have somehow set things up so that descendants of a fallen race could be born into a different, “pre-fall” world, but I honestly don’t see how that’s logically possible.

  3. Karla says:

    Good follow up post CL. When you mentioned the death of our spirit, I was thinking about how a dead spirit cannot give birth to a live one. If Adam and Eve’s spirits died with sin, then they would beget children who also had dead spirits. The life comes from our spirit being intertwined/immersed in His Spirit. That was severed by sin which caused a separation between man and God. Yes, His presence was still and will always be omnipresent, but His manifest presence was necessarily withheld and could not mingle with our spirit until it was made alive again. So the spirit is only resurrected by His life, not by our merits or anything else.

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