Epigenetics Offers New Solution to Some Long-Standing Theological Problems: Inherited Sin, Christ's Sinlessness, and Generational Curses Can be Explained
What Are Epigenes
I am not a geneticist, but I follow its discoveries with great interest. As a philosopher and theologian, I was intrigued by a recent article in Time (Jan 18, 2010) claiming that "The new field of epigenetics is showing how your environment and your choices can influence your genetic code-and that of your kids" (p. 49). According to scientists, "powerful environmental conditions (near death from starvation, for example) can somehow leave an imprint on the genetic material in eggs and sperms" (50) that can affect ones offspring. That is, "Epigenetics is the study of changes in gene activity that do not involve alterations to the genetic code but still get passed down to at least one successive generation" (50). In fact, fruit flies exposed to a drug called geldanamycin "show unusual outgrowths on their eyes that can last through at least 13 generations of offspring even though no change in DNA has occurred..." (51) In humans it is believed that the grandchildren of grandparents who gorged themselves die earlier than normal. Baby lotions containing peanut oil may be partly responsible for the rise in peanut allergies (53). Bad habits like smoking can predispose ones children to disease and early death (50). Anxiety during pregnancy may lead to asthma in ones children (53). And poor eating habits of a mother can lead to heart problems in her children (49).
How does this work? Dramatic changes in the environment can place epigenetic marks on top of the gene. "It is these epigenetic 'marks' that tell your genes to switch on or off, to speak loudly or whisper" (50). While the gene does not change, the epigenes do influence the gene. Scientists explain, "If the gene is the hardware, then the epigene is the software." That is, "you're going to have the same chip in there, the same genome, but different software. And the outcome is a different cell type" (51).
How Epigenes May Help Solve Some Long-Standing Theological Problems
Evangelical theology has long been plagued with difficulties that have not to date been satisfactorily answered. The usual response is that it is a mystery. One of these is the problem of how we inherit original sin.
The Problem of Original Sin
Following St. Augustine and the Reformers, evangelical theologians have long held that human beings since Adam inherit a sin nature. David said, we "are born in sin" and "in sin did our mother conceive us" (Psa. 51:5). Paul added, we are "by nature children of wrath" (Eph. 2:3). This is because somehow we "all sinned" in Adam (Rom. 5:12). Hence, as Augustine put it, "We are born with the propensity to sin and the necessity to die." Just how this occurred has long been considered a "mystery" by biblical theologians. There is no evidence that depravity is transmitted in the genes. Nor, in the light of the biblical data, is the Pelagian view acceptable which claims that we have no inherited propensity to sin but everyone simply sins of their own free will. But this does not accord with the biblical data, nor does it explain the universal tendency to sin.
However, in view of the developing science of epigenetics, it is possible that while sin is not inherited through the genes, nonetheless, it may be passed on through the epigenes. Just what are epigenes? They are "marks" left on the genes from dramatic events in the environment. We now know that epigene changes can last many generations (51). But "Can epigenetic changes be permanent? Possible, but...it doesn't change DNA." Epigenetic effects transmitted from parents to their offspring can last many generations. If so, then why could not the traumatic event of the Fall of Adam have placed on his posterity "marks" that have lasted all these generations. In short, even though the effects of the Fall are not in the genes, they could be in the epigenes. Thus, we could all be born with the effects of Adam's Fall, even though they do not come from nor change our basic genetic human nature.
The Problem of the Christ's Sinlessness and the Virgin Birth
Conservative theologians have also been long troubled by how the Virgin Conception of Jesus is related to his sinlessness. In short, if Mary was his actual mother, then why would not the inherited depravity from Adam be passed on to Jesus anyway. Why isn't a sinful mother, which Mary was (Lk. 1:46), as much of a problem as a sinful father in channeling original sin. The Roman Catholic view of positing an immaculate conception of Mary does not solve the problem. First, there is no biblical evidence that Mary was sinless. Indeed, she considered herself to be in need of a Savior (Lk. 1:46). Second, by the same logic there would need to be a long regress of immaculate conceptions back to Eve to explain why sin is not passed along.
Another solution offered is that Jesus' human nature was miraculously created in Mary's womb and is not genetically connected to her. But this runs into other serious problems. First, the Bible declares that Jesus is, to use modern terms, genetically connected to Mary. He as "born of a woman" (Gal. 4:4) and came from "the loins of David" (Acts 2:30 cf. 1 Kgs. 8:19). Second, he could not be the "last Adam" (1 Cor. 15:45), unless he was genetically connected to Adam. Nor could he redeem Adam's race unless he had "flesh and blood" of Adam and was the actual "offspring of Abraham" (Heb. 2:14-15).
This is where epigenetics may solve this previous "mystery." According to scientists, "the general mechanism for transmitting information about ancestral environment [is] down the male line" (53). If this is so, then perhaps a person born of a virgin mother would not inherit the epigenetic information resulting from Adam's Fall. Whether this is so or not, we are not in a position to say. And, of course, there may be other factors. But certainly epigenetics has opened the door to a possible solution of this long-standing and vexing problem for evangelical theology.
The Problem of Generational Curses
The Bible speaks of the results of parent's sins being passed on to their children. Moses wrote from God, "I the LORD your God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children to the third and the fourth generations of those who hate me..." (Ex. 20:5). We have long known that this refers only to the consequences of parental sins, not the guilt. For Ezekiel wrote, "The soul who sins shall die. The son shall not suffer for the inequity of the father..." (18:20). So, the children can suffer from the consequences of their parents sins but not from the guilt of their sin. Each persons bears the guilt for his/her own sin (Rom. 14:12).
However, we have not known precisely how these generational curses work. We do know that children of alcoholics often have a tendency in that direction. We also know that other evil tendencies of parents show up in children, but we do not always know how they get there. We do know, for example, that no alcoholic gene or homosexual gene has been identified. But until recently we had to attempt to explain the generational influence by nurture, not by nature. However, with the emergence of the epigenes we now have some possible new insight as to how this may work.
Perhaps, there is an inherited tendency to one form of behavior or another that are not rooted in the genes. But maybe they are in the epigenes. Perhaps the serious sins of the fathers have left an epigenetic "mark" on the children that can last for generations. If so, then there is still good news. First, epigenetic tendencies are not irreversible. Second, scientists are already treating and correcting these epigenetic marks. And maybe another traumatic experience (like divine regeneration) can also reverse their effects.
No Good News for Macro-Evolution
Epigenetics has opened the door for a solution to some of the more sticky long-standing theological problems. However, so far it has not provided any good news for macro-evolution. According to the Time article, "...it's important to remember that epigenetics isn't evolution" (51). Why? Because "it doesn't change DNA" (51). As Stephen C. Meyer's has demonstrated in his excellent book (Signature in the Cell, 2009), it takes an infusion of genetic information to make or change the genetic code. In short, the argument for intelligent design is not hampered by the discovery of epigenetic activity. For the only power known to be able to produce complex genetic information, such as is needed for first life and new kinds of life, is intelligence or a Mind. As famous former atheist, Anthony Flew, put it: "It is simply inconceivable that any material matrix or field can generate agents who think and act.... A force field does not plan or think. So...the world of living, conscious, thinking beings has to originate in a living Source, a Mind" (There is a God, 183).
Epigenetics is Good News for the Future
Furthermore, we are told that over time, the effects of the epigenetic impact fade and even vanish (51). In short, they are not irreversible. This is very good news for depraved human beings. This means that perhaps another traumatic event could reverse the course of depravity and we would lose our propensity to sin. This certainly fits well with the biblical teaching that one day the effects of Adam's sin will be erased when by another dramatic event we will see Christ face to face. Paul said, "now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face" (1 Cor. 13:12). John tells us this will take place at the dramatic event of Christ's second coming when "we shall be like him because we shall see him as he is" (1 Jn. 3:2). This means that without changing our human nature we could be delivered from out sinful nature which by epigenetic transmission we inherited from Adam.
Whether this is all true or not, we do not know. We do believe, however, that a new possibility for explaining some long-standing difficulties in evangelical theology is now possible. As the science of epigenetics develops, it remains to see whether or not these suggested solutions are plausible. One can only say that, at least at this stage, it seems possible.
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