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A Doubter’s Guide to the Bible Review: what do you make of sin?

July 31, 2015

A Doubter’s Guide to the Bible Review: Chapter 2 – Why so much is bad: Adam’s story and ours

The second chapter John Dickson’s A Doubter’s Guide to the Bible deals with Chapters 2-11 of Genesis and the concept of “sin”. Dickson prises open the human heart and once inside ‘we are confronted with the dark and selfish twist’ (p.37). He explains that the ‘wicked, wretched and dark streak in humanity’ is explained by the fall and Genesis 2 & 3.

Dickson is certainly right in my opinion that humanity does have a ‘dark and selfish twist’. It’s uncomfortable, but I think we’d agree it is a universal experience. So I’m not sure what you make of the concept of “sin”? Is the human heart ‘dark and selfish’?

Interpretations of the text – what do you make of Genesis 2 & 3?

As Dickson explains and outlines the implications of the text of ‘the fall’ of Genesis. Dickson outlines four different ways in which the Adam and Eve narrative have been in interpreted. Was Adam:

  1. An historical individual and the story is a straightforward piece of history?
  2. A symbol of humanity?
  3. A symbol of Israel?
  4. A concrete symbol where the story is a real event in picture language?

Dickson prefers the fourth option where ‘there was a time in this world when a prehistoric individual or couple was in perfect communion with God and then in some way defied God’ (p.42).

What do you make of this assessment? If you read Genesis 2 & 3, are these potential conclusions reasonable?

Dickson doesn’t really go into much detail about some of the more ‘unusual’ aspects of the narrative in Genesis 2 & 3, like talking snakes etc. Given he is writing a small book he cannot deal with everything in great detail, but do the presence of things like a talking snake in Genesis 2 & 3 make taking the narrative harder for you to believe?

The myth of progress?

Dickson is very critical of the ‘evolutionary’ view of life which proposes that instead of accepting that we are ‘sinful’ we as a society are in fact are ‘progressing’. He highlights the enigma that whilst there have been some advances in technological and ethical arenas, there are also some areas where we seem to be regressing e.g. the failure of so many marriages, the decline in charitable giving and the burgeoning sex trade.

To support his case Dickson quotes Terry Eagleton, who is critical of the New Atheists (people like Richard Dawkins). Eagleton supposes the New Atheists as anti-realists who hold complacent beliefs that we are all becoming kinder and more civilised. Eagleton rejects their simplistic analysis by pointing to some of the great social and political challenges of the 21st Century. (p45).

This is an apt, correct and helpful quotation, but also slightly puzzling. Eagleton does demonstrate that there are challenges to the view that we as a society are ‘progressing’, but mentioning people like Dawkins comes a little as a surprise. So far it appears Dickson’s audience is the average person unfamiliar with the biblical story. Yet here he appears to be addressing more the more trenchant and staunch opponent of the Christian message. This raises in my mind questions about what kind of ‘doubter’ Dickson is addressing?

This criticism notwithstanding, what do you think of the suggestion that the world is not actually ‘progressing’?

The absent Ark?

Dickson finishes this chapter with a brief exploration of Genesis 4-11. Yet in his treatment I do wonder if he passes too quickly over the great flood of Noah? This is a very significant event and is a great challenge to many ‘doubters’ both historically and ethically. Yet Dickson deals with it in just two paragraphs. His analysis is helpful as he shows the flood of Noah is a story of judgement and he brings the story into dialogue with other flood ‘myths’ of the Ancient world. But given the barrier to belief that the flood affords to many ‘doubters’  I wonder if Dickson needed more time to explore this issue?

What do you make of the flood of Noah? Is it a barrier to accepting the Bible?


Dickson makes some helpful and thoughtful points in this chapter. He outlines some legitimate and useful ways of understanding Genesis 2. So, I wonder what you make of it? I’ve asked lots of questions, but I’m keen to get your thoughts as I review the book.


From → Bible, Comment

  1. I would guess that Adam is a symbol of humanity as a whole, or perhaps Israel. Obviously I can’t get on board with options 1 and 4 as they both involve God being real.

    “there was a time in this world when a prehistoric individual or couple was in perfect communion with God” <- I just can't accept this, and not just because of the 'god' part. There were never two 'first' people. Not that Dickson is claiming these people were 'first' but given there were no first people (as the bible describes) how could any two be picked out to be the people who perfectly communicate with God? Why them and not others? Why them at that point in time? What did they do that was the 'fall' of man, if not what's described in the bible? There are just too many questions unanswered which makes this entire story unbelievable to me.

    And that's not including the talking snake. Snakes cannot talk. If a story involves a snake that talk, the story is fictional.

    The Noah story is one of the things that makes the bible unbelievable. It simply didn't happen but it's put in the bible as fact, and it's a pivotal moment. It's a very big facet of God's character that he's willing to wipe out the planet…but it just didn't happen. It's impossible for me to take the bible seriously when it presents fables as fact.

    Yes, I think the world is progressing. Equal rights, access to food and water are all at all time bests. We're living longer, in more sanitary conditions. But it's not a steady progression. It's not even two steps forward, one step back. More like 3 steps forward, 12 steps back. Pause. Two steps forward, and so on. But yes, I think we *are* progressing.

    You ask a few times who the intended 'doubter' might be and, like you, I am confused. I would have thought it would be something like:

    'no, I don't believe it'
    'let me explain it, so this means this, that means that. See?'
    'oh, right, thanks'

    If the book is intended to convince a doubter that the bible is a true account of things that actually happened, it's not working. At least, not for me.

  2. Ann permalink

    I don’t believe any of the stories and if the talking snake etc is intended to be real then you’ve lost me immediately. I believe our selfish nature and our altruism are all part of our evolutionary struggle to survive and that is a balance between the two that have helped us. As individuals we are all on a spectrum with respect to these things – from people who have no empathy for anyone and are almost completely selfish to those who seem extremely selfless. Most of us are somewhere in between. I believe these things will in the main be fount to be controlled by our genetic makeup combined with epigenetic effects. I don’t really believe in the concept of sin at all. I believe that morality can be determined through an understanding of suffering and avoiding causing it. I believe very little is black and white but that living by this principle has served me well. Of course I have done things I regret but that is part of the human condition.

    As for whether we are progressing or not – I don’t believe that we have to be in the sense that why should we be? The universe doesn’t care if we progress, regress, destroy ourselves or whatever. There is no grand plan, in the world according to me – which is why I think religion is so destructive in it’s seemingly inexorable march towards self-fulfilling the prophecy of armageddon.
    I actually think that because as humans we have evolved to the extent that we can manipulate our environment so much that we are overpopulating the world – and we are also enabling individuals with deleterious genes to live longer and produce offspring etc. In some ways you could view this as “reverse natural selection”. This does NOT mean I am a proponent of eugenics! It does mean that I think it’s imperative that we take care of the world and all species in it, and don’t completely overrun it with humans and destroy so much habitat although I fear it’s already too late.

    Of course we are progressing in our understanding of the world and science and technology, however I am concerned that the ethical discussions are way behind the science. I often wonder how religious people will react when stem cell technology allows the cloning of a replacement kidney etc – will they accept one when they need one or will they choose a lifetime of dialysis/death?

    In summary though I don’t see why progress is tied to atheism – I hope for progress and I hope education will help us progress but I don’t think it is guaranteed or necessary. I would suggest that many of the challenges we are facing are due to problems with sectarian and religious groups although I accept that the issues have been exacerbated by the West.

    The flood is a definite barrier to accepting the Bible – basically god creates everyone and then creates mass genocide? What’s with that? It’s too ridiculous for words. And the ark? seriously? What about the termites? What did the animals eat? Raining for forty days and nights flooded the world – pretty sure parts of Hawaii that happens regularly! But the main problem is the whole god committing mass genocide. A loving god doing that to his creations? It strained my credibility from a very early age. I struggle to imagine how anyone can take this seriously I’m afraid, although I know people who do, including someone who works for me in IT.

  3. On the point of original sin, MrOzAtheist’s observations go straight to the core of this obvious falsehood, and actually provide a real dilemma for reflective theists who actually understand evolutionary biology and accept Darwinian evolution by natural selection.
    Indeed, there never were two first people. There is only a continuous evolutionary lineage back through time to some primordial aggregation of self-replicating organic compound mixtures. (And arguably, beyond that to very first appearance of matter at all, 13.7B years ago!).

    The theist that accepts this therefore has to resolve the dilemma of the completely arbitrary selection of which humans (or human precursors) could ‘qualify’ for this special communion. And therefore, which individuals could qualify for salvation.
    Just like our continuous evolutionary lineage, it is almost certainly the case that consciousness and the ability to reflect on complex concepts like identity and Gods and worship, etc., is also a continuum. The ‘original sin’ concept requires a harsh, arbitrary, and utterly false division to be drawn through these continuous lineages.

  4. James Garth permalink

    It seems to me that getting the literary genre right is key here. Of course people will object to ‘talking snakes’ (remember that old comic strip Snake Tales?) but that’s a very slavishly literalistic reading which isn’t endorsed by serious scholars who have closely examined the literary aspects of the text and its ancient near east context. Unfortunately our culture isn’t particularly good at reading ‘picture language’ these days, and that’s to our detriment. It’s a real loss. But if you’re willing to do the hard work, embrace the picture language & look at comparative epic texts, you’ll find Genesis contains some quite sophisticated theological polemics & makes some incisive comments on the human condition. I thought Dickson’s book did quite well in pointing the reader in this direction.

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