Excerpts from an article “Fitting Evolution into Christian Belief: An Eastern Orthodox Approach” by Alexander V. Khramov (International Journal of Orthodox Theology. 8:1. 2017. Pages 75-105.):
St. Maximus is definitive in stressing “the difference between the temperament of the human body in our forefather Adam before the fall, and that which is now observed within us and predominates, because then the temperament of man’s body was obviously not torn apart by mutually opposed and corrupting qualities, but was in a state of equilibrium devoid of ﬂux and reﬂux.” Of course, this is not to be understood as stating that before the Fall humans existed as souls separated from the bodies. St. Maximus lets to know clearly that he follows the refutation of this Evagrian doctrine by the Second Council of Constantinople in 553. What he wants to say is that the bodily nature of humans has changed dramatically after we went astray from God.
These teachings cannot be dismissed as extreme and untypical cases of spiritualism. For example, St. John of Damascus, sometimes called “the Thomas Aquinas of the Greeks”, who synthesized the doctrines of the Eastern Fathers and tried to find a balance between extremes, was of the same opinion.
…Remarkably, the early Augustine also held [these] views which were in contradiction to his later position. In his “Two Books on Genesis against the Manichees” (388-389), Augustine underscored that great changes had occurred in the ontology of humans because of their sin. Before the Fall, the lot of human beings was to bear “the spiritual offspring of intelligible and immortal joys”, but this propensity “changed into carnal fecundity after sin”. Augustine in this treatise understood the life in the Paradise in highly spiritualistic terms – according to him, the man plunged into this world of flesh and blood, being “drawn down by the weight of his own sins to a place that suits him.”
…God did not create humans in their present bodily condition; rather prelapsarian human beings had spiritual bodies and lived a kind of angelic life. Humans turned to the organismic life only after the Fall.
…We come to the conclusion that evolution with all suffering intrinsic is not the means by which God created the world, but a consequence of the Fall, which happened before the beginning of the empirically known universe. Indeed, since angel-like humans changed into the biological organisms because ofthe Fall, and, as science tells us, such biological organisms have been produced by evolution, it is entirely reasonable to suppose that evolution itself started in the fallen world after the first sin had been committed. So we can speak of humans in a twofold sense. Humans as a part of the empirical realm are the result of evolution, but, as those who belong to the primeval and now unattainable order of things, they are its cause.
…Following this logic, the Big Bang should be interpreted not as the first creative act of God, but as the first cognizable manifestation of the human Fall; it ruined primordial creation in a catastrophic manner. On such a view, the basic properties of matter that made evolution possible are in fact no other than corruption brought by sin to the “very good” world which preceded our observable Universe.
The Eastern theology traditionally viewed the human act of disobedience in paradise not as an isolated event, but as a trigger for the global transformation of the whole creation: “cursed is the ground because of you” Gen. 3:17). For example, Origen taught that the change of humans from the angel-like state to the animal one were accompanied by the recasting of the entire natural order because the world designed for spiritual beings is different from the world necessary to sustain biological life. So “descent from higher to lower conditions” has been experienced not only by fallen souls but by the whole of nature as well.
…[This] understanding of evolution by no means assumes in a gnostic style that the animals, human bodies, and the whole material realm have not been created by God. What it claims is that all these things were created in a different state from one in which they are now. The beauty of the present world is just a pale imitation of the primordial creation originally made to be “very good”. Since the cognitive faculties offallen humans have been impaired, we are shielded from any certain knowledge about the prelapsarian world by a kind of “veil of ignorance” [let me borrow this term from john Rawls]. The Big Bang is the ﬁrst event on our side of the veil, but we cannot know anything about what was behind the veil, except what is revealed in the Scripture. After all, how can a brain shaped by cruel natural selection learn about life in paradise? We do not know how we ourselves, stars, rivers, plants and other realities of our world looked like before the Fall. Certainly, at that time, the laws of nature worked in different ways from the ways in which they do now since such things as maintaining body power without food were possible. There was no entropy and struggle for existence.
…According to John Polkinghorne, “if the world to come is to be free from death and suffering, its ‘matter-energy’ will have to be given a different character. There will have to discontinuous change of physical law”. Christopher Southgate supposes that resurrected animals will live in the special “pelican heaven”, “without competition or frustration on the part of predator or prey.”
If the world after the resurrection of the dead is going to be so dissimilar to what we see, why cannot we assume the same for prelapsarian creation, keeping in mind Origen’s principle “the end is like the beginning”?
…More successful and more philosophically sophisticated attempt in this direction was made by Russian thinker Nikolai Berdyaev (1874-1948). He was well aware of Eastern theology, often citing St. Gregory of Nyssa and especially St. Symeon the New Theologian. Berdyaev combined insights from them with a Kantian philosophy to interpret the Fall as objectification (or self- estrangement) of the human spirit, as a result of which primary reality has been fallen apart into subject and object, mutually impenetrable realms of phenomena and noumena (things-in-themselves).
“Man is the supreme center of the cosmic life, it fell through him, and through him it must rise,” Berdyaev writes. God did not create the current world order with universal laws of nature. What he did create is concrete beings or “existential centers” which on account of the sin have been turned into phenomena in space and time, subjected to a rigid principle of causation. “The world is the servitude, the enchainment of existences, not only of men but of animals of plants, even of minerals and stars…. The enslavement, the enslaving state of the world, the determinism of nature are the outcome of objectification. Everything is turned into object. …Evolution belongs to the system of objectification,” it is related only to humans in the phenomenal sense, that is, to humans as fallen beings, and cannot be regarded as an expression of God’s creativity.
In the eschatological consummation, God will reverse objectification to return all created things to themselves. “The end of the world will be an end of that world of objects.” Like Moltmann and his followers, Berdyaev links the resurrection of the dead with the global transformation of the whole natural order: “my salvation is bound up with that not only of other men but also of animals, plants, minerals, of every blade of grass—all must be transfigured and brought into the Kingdom of God.” By this the core structure of reality, now distorted by the Fall, will be restored. But until it happens, we have to remain objects among objects: “man as a noumenon is at the beginning, and as a noumenon, he is at the end, but he lives out his destiny in the phenomenal world.”
…Olivier Clément, strongly influenced by Berdyaev, also took theology of St. Gregory of Nyssa and St. Maximus the Confessor as his starting point. “Holy fathers, delving into the biblical texts, showed that the Fall represented a cosmic catastrophe, an eclipse of the paradisiacal mode of being and emergence of a new mode of existence in the whole universe.” If science cannot find any trace of paradise in our past, it does not follow that paradise has never existed at all, but rather that it is not within the sphere of competence of scientific inquiry. “Geology and paleontology, with all their achievements, stop at the gate of paradise, for it is a different state of existence. Science cannot reach beyond the Fall, because it itself is a part of the fallen state of the world, being inseparable from spatial, temporal and material conditions that arose from the destruction of paradisiacal state.” Since events described in Gen. 1-3 pertain to the realm of unknown, evolution studied by science is not a synonym of six days of creation. “What science calls ‘evolution’ from the spiritual point of view is a process of objectification of primeval Adam or universal Man, which involves all humanity and all the world.”