Question: "What is atavism?"
Answer: Atavism is the tendency to revert to ancient or ancestral roots. An example of atavism in genetics would be a blue-eyed person born in a long line of brown-eyed persons, but whose great-great-grandmother had blue eyes. The word atavism is based on the Latin atavus, meaning “ancestor.”
In contemporary society, atavism is illustrated by a family leaving their comfortable suburban home for a weekend camping trip or grilling steaks on an outdoor barbeque while their modern range sits idle inside. Based on the concept of atavism, the Paleolithic Diet asserts that eating the foods of our ancient ancestors is beneficial in the maintenance of weight control while reducing health risks such as coronary heart disease and diabetes. A more sinister example of atavism is the idolization of Adolf Hitler among a small number of German youths.
In religion, atavism is seen in the resurgence of paganism and the growing interest in ancient beliefs sweeping Europe. Nordic paganism, or Ásatrú, is Iceland’s fastest-growing religion, and a temple dedicated to Thor and Odin is under construction (Iceland Magazine, Oct. 17, 2018). This will be the first pagan temple erected in Iceland in over a thousand years. In 2016 Denmark constructed its first temple dedicated to the worship of Odin. A growing interest in German paganism, also known as Heathenry, involves the worship of ancient German gods as well as elves and trolls. Renewed interest in paganism appears to be filling the spiritual void brought about by the decline of Christianity in Europe.
Atavism, the tendency of returning to one’s ancestral roots, is also illustrated in the sin nature we inherited from Adam and Eve. Though man was created in the image of God (Genesis 1:27), this image has been tainted by the first couple’s rebellious act that ushered sin into the world (Genesis 3). We sin because we have a sin nature; we inherited this sin nature from Adam. Sin is a part of our spiritual DNA. The apostle Paul wrote, “Therefore, just as sin came into the world through one man, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all sinned” (Romans 5:12, ESV). No matter how good we try to be, we always revert to our spiritual roots, and we sin (see Romans 7:14–25).
Other than our Lord Jesus, no one born of woman can boast of sinless perfection. Even the best among us is marred by Adam’s sin and cannot measure up to God’s exacting standard of righteousness (Romans 3:23). As the wages of sin is eternal death (Romans 6:23), there would be no hope for man if it were not for the sacrificial death, burial, and bodily resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ (John 3:16; Ephesians 2:8–9; Romans 5:12; 8:1). Sin came through the first Adam, but Christ Jesus, the “second Adam,” overcame the power of sin and death and gives those who believe in Him everlasting life (1 Corinthians 15:45).
Atavism is the tendency within us to sin in the manner of our ancient ancestors, Adam and Eve. But, as new creations in Christ Jesus, we need not dread God’s wrath or fear the loss of our salvation, for we belong to Him, and nothing or no one will take us from Him (2 Corinthians 5:17; Romans 8:38–39; Philippians 1:6).