When Did We Become Morally Accountable?

Continuing the discussion from Ape to Human evolution:

@Shane1 asked a really important and interesting question about human origins.

This question concerns my book. You can read the free extended excerpt to get caught up on the basics. For the more technical readers, you can find scientific paper behind the book here. That should be enough to get everyone caught up enough to make sense of the conversation here.

In a nutshell, I propose the idea of an Adam and Eve, ancestors of us all, created relatively recent (say 6,000 years ago, or maybe 10,000 years ago) with a larger population of people whom God had created before him. In this case, a very literal reading of Genesis would be entirely compatible with evolutionary science. To be clear, this is just a thought experiment.

Scientifically, we know that we would likely all descend from AE by AD 1, before Jesus walks the earth and the NT is written. So humanity would all be “sons and daughters” of Adam and Eve, as CS Lewis might put it. We also know that there is evidence of moral behavior long before Adam and Eve in the archeological record.

Different people will have different opinions on it, and that is okay. What is important about this experiment is that it raises a lot of interesting questions for us to explore. Questions are a great way to continue the conversation, and that’s why @Shane1’s question is valuable.

The Question

This brings us to @Shane1’s excellent question.

The way I’d paraphrase his question: in this scenario, when would we become morally accountable?

My First Response

I’ll give a sketch of my answer here, summarizing some ideas from my book, but also leaving enough unsaid to explore this with you. Perhaps there is a better way to think through this than I’ve laid out. Exploring what could have been is part of the fun here.

First off, let’s recognize this is a theological question that science cannot resolve. Science can give us some information to consider, but it doesn’t give us answers to questions.

Second, Romans really helps us here. There are a few things we get from Romans.

  1. There are several types of sin (“hamartia”). The word itself is used in the same sentence to mean different things. One example of this is Romans 5:12-14, which I will explain in a moment. Though there are several distinctions to make, I’d emphasize the difference between “transgression” and “ignorant wrongdoing.” Transgression always involves breaking a stated command, like walking onto a property that has a sign that says “no trespassing.” There are other distinctions and types of hamartia too, but we will leave that aside for now.

  2. There are several levels of accountability. From Romans, and other passages, everyone has enough knowledge to justify God’s wrath for disobedience (Romans 1:20-22), but God seems to hold people to different levels of accountability, based on their maturity (see: age of accountability) and knowledge of God.

So let’s take a look at Romans 5:12-14,

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—13 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. 14 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.

One important historical interpretation of this passage is that:

  1. The law being referred to here is not the Law of Moses, but God’s command to Adam in the Garden.

  2. Consistent with several elements of the Genesis narrative (e.g. the Serpent and Eve’s sins), the passage is teaching that there was sin in the world before Adam and Eve sinned, but people were not held accountable for it in the same way as would be AE and their descendents. There was wrongdoing before Adam, but he was the first trespasser.

  3. There were people sinning though they did not have a written law (except the law written on their conscience, see: Romans 1:20-22), but God did not hold them accountable in the same way as AE’s lineage.

  4. This strongly implies, perhaps even directly teaches, that there were people outside the Garden that were doing wrong and subject to death, but not held to the same level accountability because they did not have the same knowledge of God’s law that would come to Adam, and then to Moses.

That interpretation is certainly subject to criticism, but it is also closely tied to the text of Scripture, and it arises at least 500 years ago in the Genesis tradition.

So, back to the original question. Here is one possible answer:

Perhaps there was moral accountability for sin, in some ways, and wrongdoing long before Adam, but he was the first to receive God’s direct command, and the first to trespass against Him. In doing so, he became the first trespasser, and faced higher accountability for his sin than anyone before him. With this in mind, evidence of moral codes or sinful behavior is evidence that God had written his law on our ancestors hearts, but it is not evidence of the same level of accountability that AE’s lineage would face.

Questions Abound

A lot of new questions arise, and that is a good thing.

In what ways was accountability different before and after Adam and Eve? Why would descent from Adam and Eve be important? Why would God give a command to him in the first place?

So my response leaves important questions unanswered, but it provides a good starting point for conversation. Looking forward to seeing how it unfolds here.

1 Like

I want to add here that some of these ideas are the subject of debate. Though I have some expertise as a scientist, it is not as though science settles these questions. It is possible you might disagree with me, and that’s okay.

One way that this is explicated is in the Wesleyan Catechism:

  1. What are the two categories of actual sin?

According to John Wesley, acts of sin can be divided into sins “properly so-called” and sins “improperly so-called.”

  1. What are sins “properly so-called?”

Sins “properly so-called” are willful transgressions against a known law of God. This is the normal biblical definition of sin. I John is a good example of a Biblical book that certainly treats sin as willful and knowing. Willful, knowing sin brings condemnation.

  1. What are sins “improperly so-called?”

Sins “improperly so-called” are unintentional transgressions. The Bible doesn’t usually refer to unintentional transgressions of the law as sin. However, we do have references to sins of ignorance in Leviticus 4, 5 and Numbers 15. These sins of ignorance needed a blood sacrifice. Therefore, there is a sense in which all transgressions of the law of God, whether intentional or not, could be called sin. But since this is not generally the way the term ‘‘sin” is used in the Bible, Wesley called these sins “improperly so-called.”


Once again, we do not all have to agree with this. I’m personally not even Wesleyan myself. But this gives a bit more sense of the multivalent nature of the term “sin,” and shows it isn’t peculiar to me to make that distinction.

1 Like

Hi @swamidass,
thankyou for your in depth reply, and for taking the time to respond to my question in a discussion format. Some great questions at the end there as well. :slight_smile:

I must confess, I got a little stuck understanding the scientific paper you published so would need to go back and re-look at that later.

I might just briefly mention; I know no Hebrew or greek, and am not a theologian or even Bible college trained; but enjoy looking up the words using Strongs concordance online via biblehub.com.

In regards to the Romans 5:12-14 passage.

agree completely;

This an interesting statement; I agree that in the Genesis record

  1. the serpent was in rebellion to God
  2. Eve sin was before Adams (or perhaps almost at the same time as she gave to Adam and he ate also).

I would suggest the serpents sin is Satan; who is in rebellion to God prior, or at a similar time frame to Adam and Eve’s fall. Satan, a spiritual being, was cast out of heaven due to his pride.

I think that to suggest there were people prior to Adam and Even, and Satan that were sinning is to push something to the Romans 5:11-12 that just isn’t there.

Points 3 and 4 of your argument rest on point 2.

I’m a fan of John Lennox’s books and writing; and as he points out Genesis 2:7 is a poor way of stating that God made man from a pre-existing creature. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mnallkejVQE

In regards to your second post; the difference between transgression and ignorant wrongdoing, I think this is a good differentiation. I love the BibleProject; and their three videos on sin, transgression and iniquity (as I said above, I don’t know Hebrew or Greek and love to learn more). I’m not expecting you to watch and analyse, just wanting to share what I enjoyed learning. :slight_smile:

I do like your questions you shared to think about. If I can make some comments as well.

I don’t think that there were people before Adam and Eve; but assuming there was:
Adam and Eve received a direct moral command; and thus must have had free will to choose or not to choose to trust and obey God’s command.
people, if there were any that are not mentioned in Genesis, didn’t receive any moral commands at all; so therefore cannot be held legally guilty before God. A general knowledge of a Creator, in Romans 1, who doesn’t give any direct moral commands isn’t enough to condemn people legally; or require Jesus to die on the cross as an atonement for their sin. Adam, Eve, and all the people prior to the coming of Christ looked forward in faith and were saved; and we now look back in faith for salvation.

theologically I would say it’s quite important as Christ is described as the second Adam. Interestingly the new Testament always speaks of Adam’s sin, not Eve’s. I’m not sure why that would be. Perhaps because as it says that Eve was deceived, and yet Adam willfully took and ate of the fruit and disobeyed God. Perhaps this ties in with your thought on the difference between wilful rebellion against God, compared to being deceived?

This I think is about free will. I can’t find it right now but I enjoyed a video from Ravi about who is responsible for evil; but God created both humans and angels with free will; and thus the ability to choose evil.

Thankyou again for your thought provoking answer; this has really made me think things through.

1 Like

Just a couple initial thoughts:

To be clear here, this is not my argument, nor does my main point depend on this particular reading of Romans. The first person to make this argument in detail might have been Isaac La Peyrere about 500 years ago, but he did not realize that we would all still descend from Adam and Eve.

Moreover, the argument doesn’t rest on point 2 in quite this way. It is possible that La Peyrere took the argument too far in arguing that Romans taught people before Adam, but the key question is if Romans 5:12-14 rules out people before Adam.

Maybe that isn’t the teaching. The key point, however, is that Romans 5:12-14 does not rule out the idea of wrongdoing in the world before Adam’s sin. In fact, many readers of Genesis noted the Serpent as evidence of a cosmic fall prior to Adam’s fall. The Genesis story isn’t about the entrance of every type of sin into the world, but something peculiar about Adam’s sin, and how that entered the world.

You might not think this teaches people outside the garden, but Romans 5:12-14 is not a solid argument against them. Perhaps the strongest Scripture evidence for people outside Garden might be the stories of Cain, Abel, Seth and Enoch…but that is another discussion, not so related to moral accountability.

Moreover, historical theology demonstrates unequivocally that this sort of interpretation does not arise as a response to evolution or an old earth. Readers for quite a long time were picking out information in the text of Genesis and Romans itself that brought them to this conclusion.

There are many reasons considered in historical theology. One of the best ones, I think, is that Adam was given the command, but Eve was not. So she might have been doing wrong, but her actions did not break a direct edict from God, as did Adam’s.

That’s the fun part. You don’t have to think there actually were people before Adam and Eve to wonder about what about it would mean to theology. It is a type of theological fiction. A way to explore what is possible.

1 Like

Thankyou for your response, and for mentioning Isaac La Peyrere.

I agree completely that Romans 5:12-14 doesn’t rule out rebellion against God prior to Adam - but I would suggest that it was rebellion of spiritual (angelic) beings, in the heavens, not on earth; and not human people outside of the garden.
Interestingly in Ezekiel 28:12-18 it describes Satan as being in Eden, and his beauty. To me this matches up with Satan being the spiritual being that was in rebellion to God that tempted Eve and Adam. (from https://www.gotquestions.org/Satan-fall.html)

As Ravi mentions in this video to the question of " If God Created Us, Didn’t He Also Create Sin and Satan?" - both humans and angelic beings have free will; created with the ability to reject God’s moral commands.

There is conjecture about when precisely Satan fell; was it before the creation of the Garden, or quite close to it? theBibleProject has a 6 part series on Spiritual Beings; which are quite interesting watching (https://bibleproject.com/explore/spiritual-beings/).

They suggest some interesting things to consider (I’m not sure I agree with them completely), one suggestion being that Eve wasn’t scared to see a talking Serpent ‘seraphim’ - because spiritual beings were visible in the Garden; and one of these Spiritual beings was in rebellion against God and temped Eve in Genesis 3. They seem to suggest that the fall of Satan, and the angelic beings that rebelled against God; actually coincided with the fall of Adam and Eve.

I’m not sure I agree entirely that these stories support people outside the garden prior to Adam and Eve. The reason being these are people are in the Biblical genealogies, traceable back to Adam. ; with a day-age position; with a literal Adam (and matching up the genealogies in the BIble) I would suggest that Adam/Eve were the first couple created from dust in the Garden; they fell (Genesis 3), and then after they fell, death passed upon all men and all Adam and Eve’s descendants were born with a sin nature (Romans 5:12).
So basically

  • Adam/Eve first created humans from dust as a special creation in God’s image
  • they fell
  • Cain and Abel were two mentioned sons from Eve
  • Cain murdered Abel
  • Seth was another son born to Eve
  • (where did Cain get his wife?) one of this sisters born to Adam and Eve logically; not some other human outside the garden from another pre-Adamic being (human, Neanderthal, common ancestor etc)
  • all humans (homo sapiens) are moral beings with free will and will be judged

The reason I mention free will as being important is because I reject theistic determinism; God is both Sovereign and man has free will at the same time. If man doesn’t have genuine free will, then this introduces the problem of God not being a just judge to hold people accountable for choices they were pre-determined to make. (John Lennox covers this in detail in his book ‘Determined to Believe’ which is a side track from this discussion :slight_smile: )

absolutely; it is very interesting to think through the implications. :slight_smile: :slight_smile: thankyou for taking the time to post here and continue the conversation. I haven’t yet seen your videos on what it means to be human; and your discussions with William Lane Craig; that will definitely be my next videos to watch.

I thought an interesting video from WLC recently suggests that both Neanderthals and homo sapiens were descendants from Adam and Eve. (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eXCxrohwxIE) I’ve not thought through this completely yet; but he suggests that Adam and Eve were a literal couple 500-750k years ago. He mentions genetics, not genealogy (I remember you made this distinction in your scientific paper, that your focus is on genealogy?)

I’m still of the view that Adam and Eve were created as a special creation from dust, in God’s image, with genuine free will and moral duties and responsibilities; for which they can be rightly judged for their moral choices. I believe there is a very thick line between the animal kingdom, who are neither moral beings, nor have an eternal soul; and humans created in God’s image; who will give an account of their life before God. Adam and Eve were the first humans who will stand before God in the final judgement; and as we know we are all morally flawed and unable to live up to God’s perfect standard which is why Christ died, in our place on the cross, as an atonement; and we are justified before God and able to be reconciled back to Him. The great news of the Gospel of salvation through faith (Ephesians 2:8-9) is what Christians can agree upon and rejoice about. :slight_smile:

1 Like