The Nature of Man

One of the key points from the last chapter was that an evolutionary view of creation does not require us to cast aside the account captured in Genesis 2. The next topic we’ll look at is one that has generated tremendous debate in our community for over 100 years, but interestingly enough, drawing on our understanding of the origins of man provides evidence from God’s natural world that helps bring some insights to the debate.

At the heart of the issue is the suggestion that the term ‘very good’ in Genesis 1:31 affords a special status on man’s nature. Sadly, this is our old friend eisegesis showing up again, because all the text says is that God saw everything he had made, and that it was very good – nothing more than that. Therefore, this description applies to every part of creation, not just to man.

This phrase ‘very good’ is used elsewhere in scripture, and there is nothing in the Hebrew to suggest that anything more is meant by the phrase other than to imply something is really good. The two Hebrew words occur together eleven times, and a few examples include phrases like these:

  • The next use after Genesis 1 is of Rebecca’s external appearance, “the damsel was very fair to look upon” (Genesis 24:16);
  • Joshua and Caleb use the phrase “it is an exceeding good land” when appealing to the wandering tribes in (Numbers 14:7);
  • Jonathan tells Saul that David’s works “have been to thee-ward very good” (1 Samuel 19:4);
  • Jeremiah saw a basket of very good figs (Jeremiah 24:2).

Therefore, the context of Genesis 1:31, and the subsequent use of the term does not support the suggestion that there is any special significance in the phrase ‘very good’ in regard to man.  It simply means that, like the rest of creation, man was very good in kind and condition. LG Sargent’s conclusion was this: “In fact, “very good” was God’s judgment of the creation as a whole, viewed as an ordered system. In this Adam was included, but to apply the term specifically to Adam in a particular state is not scripturally justified”.⁠1

Human nature and Adam’s fall

So, even though man was part of this very good state of creation, we now come to Genesis 3 and read of Adam and Eve’s disobedience and subsequent fall from God’s grace, and how they suffer the consequences of sin.

But did this ‘fall’ actually change Adam’s nature at a genetic or cellular level? Well, here we go again trying to read twenty-first century concepts into ancient text, whereas in reality the text doesn’t discuss this point at all. Genesis 3 explicitly defines the various consequences of Adam’s sin for both him and Eve, and these align to the shame, the defiled conscience and death. The text doesn’t specify any change in nature, and to suggest that it does, reads concepts into the text that aren’t there.  The text simply says, “you are dust, and to dust you will return”.

In fact, looking closely at the context of the discussion in Genesis 3:17-19, God makes the point that the ground will be cursed, so that Adam will labour hard to survive, until he returns to the ground from which he was taken. This hardly reads as though it represents a change in God’s plan.  This assertion is backed up through two lines of reasoning:

Firstly, we have already mentioned 1 Peter 1:20, which speaks of Christ being “foreknown before the foundation of the world”. Given that God had fore-ordained the mission of Christ, it’s hardly credible to suggest that this now represents a change of plan in God’s mind, a ‘Plan B’ if you will. Therefore, mortality is built into the cycle of life as God designed it.

Secondly, we know this is the case because the fossil remains show creatures (including homo sapiens) have been dying ever since the first one lived. Such is the nature of biological life – in the best cases cells decay, and organisms age and eventually die; and in the worst cases, organisms perish from an unrecoverable trauma or are even consumed by others. Mortality is simply a natural process of life, as we read in Ecclesiastes 3:19-20: “For what happens to the children of man and what happens to the beasts is the same; as one dies, so dies the other. They all have the same breath, and man has no advantage over the beasts, for all is vanity. All go to one place. All are from the dust, and to dust all return.”

John Thomas (a doctor) offered an interesting take on human nature and how it relates to sin and the fall:

“The nature of the lower animals is as full of this physical evil principle as the nature of man; though it cannot be styled sin with the same expressiveness; because it does not possess them as the result of their own transgression; the name, however, does not alter the nature of the thing…   A defective piece of mechanism cannot do good work. The principle must be perfect, and the adaptation true, for the working to be faultless. Man in his physical constitution is imperfect; and this imperfection is traceable to the physical organisation of his flesh, being based on the principle of decay and reproduction from the blood; which, acted upon by the air, becomes the life of his flesh. All the phenomena which pertain to this arrangement of things is summed up in the simple word sin; which is, therefore, not an individual abstraction, but a concretion of relations in all animal bodies; and the source of all their physical infirmities…”.⁠2

In other words – animals have the same nature of man – they both die. But they don’t have mortality as a result of a transgression, they have it as consequence of the natural cycle of life. Humans on the other hand have to deal with mortality as a result of natural cycle of life, and with death as a punishment for sin. To explain this point further, we need to take a quick detour with two stops…

The first stop looks at the principle of spiritual adoption: This concept appears as a metaphor five times in New Testament writings (Romans 8:14, 23; 9:4; Galatians 4:5; Ephesians 1:5), where it serves as useful explanatory device to distinguish between the believer’s original heritage and their new status in Christ (Galations 3:29).⁠3 Those who are considered believers are ‘adopted’ into a broader spiritual family.

The second stop revisits what we looked at in the previous chapter noting the extent to which Paul compares Adam (the first man) to Christ (the second man): Paul explains this is a representation of our respective statuses: “As was the man of dust, so also are those who are of the dust, and as is the man of heaven, so also are those who are of heaven. Just as we have borne the image of the man of dust, we shall also bear the image of the man of heaven.” (1 Corinthians 15:48-49).

It’s no accident that the first man was named Adam (“man”), because although he was a single person, he still represented the entire human race. Twenty-first century thinking emphasises the individual, whereas the Hebrews and other Near Eastern peoples often saw an individual as representative of an entire body, and the actions of an individual were often transferred upon a social group such as a family or tribe (e.g. Jeremiah 31:29 and Ezekiel 18:1-4).⁠4

Hopefully, this little detour explains why in scriptural terms (i.e. adoption and group representation), we should consider ourselves to be Adam’s descendants, and included within the same family or covenant group as Adam. Therefore, even though we are mortal by virtue of the fact that we are biological creatures, the rules of of a punitive death that applied to Adam apply to us as well.

But, hang on. This seems to imply death (as a punishment for sin) and mortality are different? Are they?

Death through sin

So far in this chapter we have ascertained that ‘very good’ doesn’t imply any special attributes to humans that shouldn’t be applied to any other part of creation; and secondly, that as biological organisms, mortality is simply part of the life-cycle that God designed, and it has been this way for millennia. Therefore, man is “imperfect” and has a nature that is mortal. As a result of our imperfection, we are also prone to sin.

Some might look to verses such as Romans 5:12 to suggest that it’s Adam’s fault that there is death in the world. It is true that Paul consistently regarded sin as a responsible act and death as its consequence⁠5, but let’s explore this further.

In the New Testament death is seen more as a theological problem than as a personal event. New Testament authors knew that we die; their problem was to find words to explain the difference between a believer’s death, and those who do not belong to Christ and therefore might suffer a final and total separation from God.⁠6

Paul was very careful to differentiate between ‘death’ in the natural sense of mortality as opposed to ‘the death’ that is a consequence of sin. He mostly uses two terms: Thnetos, which refers the mortal natural life that is subject to both physical and spiritual death; and thanatos, which designates the spiritual-physical condition of humanity in Adam, and through which Paul shows sin and death operating closely together.⁠7

For example: If we compare Romans 5:12 with Romans 6:12, we see Paul referring to ‘the death’ (ho thanatos) that came into the world through sin, in contrast to the sin that reigns in our mortal (thnetos) bodies. In Romans 6:16, it’s thanatos again (the consequential death that comes through sin), whereas Romans 8:11 is about our mortal bodies. Romans 6:23 spells it out clearly – the consequence of sin is death (thanatos). In 1 Corinthians 15:53-55 Paul talks of ‘the death’ (thanatos) being overcome by mortality (thnetos) which put on immortality; and 2 Corinthians 4:11-12 we are being given over to ‘the death’ (thanatos) so that Christ may be manifested in our mortal (thnetos) flesh.  Notice what Paul has done in 1 Corinthians 15? The mortal must put on immortality to overcome death. He makes it very clear these are two concepts, and one overcomes the other. 

So, death in the New Testament is can now viewed in the light of the resurrection of Jesus.⁠8 As in Adam all died (because we are adopted into that broader family), so in Christ shall all be made alive (1 Corinthians 15:22), and those who have not yet encountered Christ are dead in sin (Ephesians 2:1).

Thus, in a spiritual context, we can see from the use of the different Greek words that being subject to death through sin is not the same as being mortal by nature. If these were inter-changeable concepts, then the question begs asking as to what sin should be imputed on pre-Adamic beings and animals who were not under a covenant with God in the way Adam was.  This is what Paul is referring to when he says that Adam bought sin into the world, because Adam was the first human in a covenant relationship with God, and he was technically the first person to break that covenant and, well, “sin”.

My head hurts. What is all this really saying?

To put it as simply as possible: Because we are biological organisms we will all die – we are mortal. The fossil evidence is there to prove this has been happening for ages and ages. However, it’s not all bad news. Whilst death (mortality) is our final physical destination, it doesn’t have to be our final spiritual destination.

Because we are mortal, we are also imperfect just as Adam was (thnetos – mortal). Because of this imperfection, we will fall short of God’s standards (sin) and the wages of sin is death (thanatos – death), however, life in Christ means that this death (thanatos) does not have to be permanent, and this is the basis for our hope in a resurrection to a new spiritual life.

This is simply the way the cycle of life was designed by God. THIS is his creative genius in action, because the spiritual body is sowed first as a natural body. This may seem like a complicated process, but it is the very foundation of what gives us our free-will.  Rather than creating automatons that simply bow to his bidding, God has given us a path to understand our mortality and to exercise our free-will. If this pathway did not exist, and we were not created with this imperfection, we would not have that choice to make. If we didn’t have that choice, then our service and worship would be empty and meaningless.

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1 L Sargent, The Nature of Resurrection (The Christadelphian, 1965) 102:27

2 J Thomas, “Original Sin” Men Sinners in a Twofold Sense (Quoted in The Christadelphian, 1921) 58:530

3 Frederick W. Knobloch, “Adoption,” ed. David Noel Freedman, The Anchor Yale Bible Dictionary (New York: Doubleday, 1992), 78.

4 Walter A. Elwell and Barry J. Beitzel, Baker Encyclopedia of the Bible (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1988), 27.

5 Gerhard Kittel, Geoffrey W. Bromiley, and Gerhard Friedrich, eds., Theological Dictionary of the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1964–), 15.

6 Walter A. Elwell and Barry J. Beitzel, Baker Encyclopedia of the Bible (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1988), 604.

7 Gerald F. Hawthorne, Ralph P. Martin, and Daniel G. Reid, eds., Dictionary of Paul and His Letters (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1993), 554.

8 Norman R. Gulley, “Death: New Testament,” ed. David Noel Freedman, The Anchor Yale Bible Dictionary (New York: Doubleday, 1992), 110.