February 2010 - Vol. 37

The Great Downfall - Part I

by Steve Clark

God created the human race with great care and established it in a way that gave high hopes for the future. Adam was like a young man of good family, a favored son who received the best education available, who was betrothed or married to a woman of equal background. The son of God should have had a good prospect for his life.

But as we know from experience, not all such young people do well. Adam did not. Along with Eve, he ended up driven out of paradise by God with no chance of return. Facing a life of poverty and hard work, Adam turned out something of a failure. Having undergone what Christians have called “the fall”, Adam and Eve were in a predicament of great magnitude.

A race fallen and unable to help itself
One time when I was hiking in the mountains, I turned the bend and saw a man sitting, half lying, by the side of the trail. At first I thought he was just resting. But when I reached him, I found that he could hardly move. This man had twisted his ankle and fallen. He was waiting for a friend to come back with help. Ironically, he was young and strong and an experienced hiker. It never should have happened, but there he was. It did not occur to me at the time, but he made a good image of the human race as we see it at the end of the third chapter of Genesis — fallen, unable to help itself.

Some image like that of the hiker at the side of the trail is behind the use of the word “fall”. The Scriptures use this word to speak about many human setbacks or disasters. When David heard of the defeat and death of King Saul and his son Jonathan, the refrain of his lament was, “How are the mighty fallen in the midst of the battle!” (2 Samuel 1:25). Here “fall” refers to defeat and destruction. In a similar way, in view of the siege of Babylon by the army of Medes and its sudden capitulation, a prophecy in Jeremiah proclaims: “Suddenly Babylon has fallen and been broken; wail for her!” (Jeremiah 51:8). Her domination, her future prospects of wealth and prosperity, are all gone.

The word “fall” is used more broadly than for defeats in war. A proverb says, “A righteous man falls seven times, and rises again…” (Proverbs 24:16). It is speaking about various failures a righteous man has to endure, and probably has moral failures in mind. Because they are a kind of defeat, moral failures can be described as “falls”. We are warned by the Apostle Paul, “Let anyone who thinks that he stands, take heed lest he fall” (1 Corinthians 10:12). In view of all the possible kinds of falls, we are instructed by Ecclesiastes, “Two are better than one, because…if they fall, one will lift up his fellow; but woe to him who is alone when he falls and has not another to lift him up” (Ecclesiastes 4:9–10).

We do not speak about the fall of a snake, and do not think much about the fall of a four–legged animal like a dog or a cow. But because normal human posture is erect, a fall is very important for human beings. If they fall and cannot rise, they become unable to walk or run. A fall is a kind of predicament, at least when it is not complete ruin.

The phrase “the fall of the human race” or “the downfall of the human race” as it might better be translated, sums up the great failure that produced the predicament we are now in. The human race had been created in the image and likeness of God, filled with glory, established as the ruler of material creation, with an even better future in store. Yet it ended up in exile, banished by God, having suffered a great loss. How had such a great defeat happened?

A downfall caused by sin
The downfall of the human race was not an accident. Nor did it happen because God changed his mind. It was not even the result of a great enemy overpowering Adam and Eve and destroying paradise. It happened because of something human beings did. “The man” had “put forth his hand” (Gen 3:22) to take the one thing his Father had commanded him not to take. He had, to use a familiar word, “sinned”.

“Sin” is one of many words used in the Bible to speak about moral failures or wrongdoing. Through a lengthy historical process, it became the main word used in Christian teaching to refer to the failures of people to live the way they should. “Sin” especially refers to those failures as offenses against God. When we say that someone has sinned, we usually mean that they have done something that God has forbidden.

We also use the word “sin” in other ways. When we speak about human beings who live in a way not pleasing to God, we say they are living in sin. “Sin” here refers to the state of sin, the state of someone who lacks a good relationship with God. In addition, when we speak about tendencies inside human beings that cause them to commit sins, we also use the word “sin.” We say their bad actions were caused by their sin or their “sinfulness”. As we go on, we will be more concerned with the state of sin and with sinfulness. At the outset, we have to look primarily at sinful actions.

The main cause of the human predicament
According to Christian teaching, sins are the main cause of the human predicament. They are the reason the human race cannot reach its intended purpose. That teaching stems from Genesis chapter 3, which describes the first sin and presents it as the one which caused the downfall of the human race. The first sin, however, was more than just the cause of the fallen state of the race. It was also the prototype or “model” of all subsequent sin. Genesis, in other words, describes the first sin in a way that allows us to understand the nature of all sin.

The “Model” Sin

The Test. Genesis 2 contains the only words that God said to unfallen human beings that are recorded in Scripture: 

The Lord God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to till it and keep it. And the Lord God commanded the man, saying, 
You may freely eat of every tree of the garden; but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall die.
                           - Genesis 2:15–17

Here we come to a controversial point. Why did God command Adam (and Eve probably through him) to avoid the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil? The view of the serpent as presented in Genesis 3:1–15 was that God wanted to keep the human race in a state of inferiority. This view has been expressed in other ways by modern people who claim that Christianity retards the advance of the human race or acts as the opiate of the people. The serpent’s view is certainly plausible. After all, why should God forbid the first human beings to eat fruit that gave something as good as wisdom?

The fear of the Lord
One of the best answers given by Christian commentators is that the prohibition was intended to be only temporary. The knowledge of good and evil was something good that the tree conferred, something God wanted the human race to have, but something that should only come in a certain way. Adam first needed to acquire age and experience before he could eat of the tree safely. He needed to be taught the “fear of the Lord” (Psalm 34:11).

The “fear of the Lord” is the respect for God that leads to obedience to him. “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom” (Proverbs 9:10). True wisdom comes through knowing that only what God holds to be good is truly good and that what God commands is good to follow — even when we do not understand why he commands it. It is based on a commitment to God’s teaching over any rival forms of teaching, on a trust in its goodness, and on a willingness to accept the limits he imposes to protect us when our own wisdom is inadequate.

Without fear of the Lord and personal maturity, knowledge, especially when manifested in increasing power and mastery of the world, can lead to destruction. We have only to consider modern warfare. Here human beings have the knowledge that can cause tremendous destruction without the wisdom that ensures its use for good rather than evil purposes.

Seeking wisdom for self-glorification
Knowledge without fear of God can also lead to evil effects in a person. It can lead to pride, the belief that one can determine what is good and evil for oneself, or to seeking wisdom for self–glorification at the expense of greater goods (Ezekiel 28:1–10). To many can it be said, “You corrupted your wisdom for the sake of your splendor” (Ezekiel 28:17).

To protect his newly created son, God commanded Adam not to eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Adam first needed to learn obedience. Like a good father, God probably intended to lay the foundation of Adam’s wisdom — to “teach him torah” — so that Adam might then eat of the tree and acquire more wisdom on his own. Such an understanding of the need to acquire knowledge of good and evil in the right way probably lies behind Paul’s instruction in Romans 16:19. Alluding to the tree of knowledge, he exhorts Christians to be wise as to what is good and blameless [RSV: guileless] as to what is evil. They should not, in other words, acquire knowledge of good and evil by doing evil.

In such an understanding, eating of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil would eventually have been part of the process by which God formed his son, and with him the human race, to govern his creation, making of it something good, completely free from evil. Adam would then have been able to act like his Father, the Lord God. He would have been in his Father’s image and likeness not just because of his natural capability, but even more because of his formation and character.

The great test
The account in Genesis implies that Adam had received enough instruction to know how to conduct himself, at least how to conduct himself in regard to the tree of knowledge at that point in his development. If, however, Adam’s instruction was to be complete, it had to involve undergoing a test. Genesis 3 is the account of the great test that came to the human race. In line with the interpretation of the Genesis narrative we have been following, that test is best understood as part of God’s plan.

The Hebrew and Greek words that are normally translated “test” are sometimes also translated “temptation”. The account in Genesis 3, in fact, is commonly described as the temptation of Adam and Eve. In English, we use the word “temptation” when a test involves an inducement to do wrong and when it is clear which choice we ought to make. The focus in the English word on the presence of possible wrongdoing, however, can obscure the fact that someone who has fallen to temptation is someone who has failed a test.

The word “test”, however, can also be problematic. If we say that Adam had to pass a test in the course of being educated by his Father, what comes to mind most readily is a test in the modern school or university. Such a test provides a way for a teacher to find out whether the pupils have acquired the necessary information or not. They respond to questions or do exercises that show what is in their mind.

Such a view of a test is misleading as an understanding of the events in Genesis 3. It is misleading, first of all, because Genesis 3 describes a test of wisdom. Wisdom, in the most common scriptural sense, is not primarily theoretical information, knowledge that can be written on a piece of paper about what is right and wrong. Wisdom involves the ability to live and act well, to make choices that are good and just. Wisdom is not proved through the ability to answer questions, but through the ability to handle concrete situations in which there is an issue about good and evil. Moral maturity, according to Heb 5:14, is being “trained by practice to distinguish good from evil”. Any test of Adam’s wisdom and his fear of the Lord would have to involve a practical situation in which a choice was needed.

There is a further way in which the test Adam underwent was different from tests in modern schools. In the ancient world, tests were not used simply to determine whether pupils had completed the educational process adequately. Rather, they were seen as an actual part of the educational process, as a way to learn, because wisdom, or any practical knowledge, cannot be acquired apart from action.

Young people can go through instructions, but until they play real games, they have not learned a sport, and until they fight real battles they are not warriors. When James says, “when you meet various temptations [RSV: trials]…you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness” (James 1:2–3), he is reflecting the scriptural view that character, the ability to live a good life, is only produced by testing. When the discourse of Moses in the book of Deuteronomy tells us that God tested the children of Israel “to know what was in your heart, whether you would keep his commandments, or not” (Deuteronomy 8:2), he probably was taking the view that only in choosing to obey, especially in situations of difficulty, was obedience actually established.

If we accept such a view of testing, we cannot be said to be fully moral or faithful until we have come successfully through temptation. We could even say that it is not clear what is in our hearts until we make real life choices and adopt and hold to certain courses of action in the face of challenges or difficulties. If God wanted a son who could rule over creation, that son would have to undergo a real test. He would have to handle a situation on his own, but handle it rightfully, in the way his Father taught him. By choosing well and following God’s commandments, Adam and Eve would become the people they were meant to be. But of course, a choice is no choice at all unless there is a real alternative, nor is a test a real test unless there is the possibility of failure. In other words, to be what God intended them to be, Adam and Eve had to decide not to sin.

The External Source. The account of the first sin is found in the third chapter of Genesis:

Now the serpent was more subtle than any other wild creature that the Lord God had made. He said to the woman, 
Did God say, ‘You shall not eat of any tree of the garden’?
And the woman said to the serpent, 
We may eat of the fruit of the trees of the garden; but God said, ‘You shall not eat of the fruit of the tree which is in the midst of the garden, neither shall you touch it, lest you die.’
But the serpent said to the woman, 
You will not die. For God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.”         - Genesis 3:1–5
Here we see the dynamics of the first sin, the archetypal sin, portrayed in narrative form. At the outset of the chapter, we see the serpent, the one who originates the idea of sinning. The incitement to sin, in other words, came from outside Adam and Eve. It was a challenge they were presented with.

Satan’s role in the downfall
The serpent is a strange figure, a talking reptile who convinces Eve to take a sinful course of action. In the Book of Revelation, we find the serpent identified as “Satan” (Rev 12:9). A being of angelic nature, Satan appears from time to time in the Old Testament as someone who seeks to bring harm to human beings because of their guilt or possible guilt. He is the “accuser”, the attorney for the prosecution, the opponent of human beings in the great trial which is the earthly life. He seeks to get human beings condemned and so ruined. In identifying Satan with the serpent, Revelation is following a tradition probably also found in the Book of Wisdom, written in the first century B.C., where it says: “Through the devil’s envy, death entered the world” (Wis 2:24).

Satan’s role in the downfall of the human race raises many questions. How did he become the sort of being who would want to cause the downfall of the human race? How did he himself fall? Revelation 12 seems to tell us that the history behind Satan’s appearance happened in heaven and not in this material creation. It also indicates that Satan was not alone, but the leader of angels who were in rebellion against God. Here we need to limit ourselves to a simple consideration of Genesis 2 and 3, but the fact that Satan was a rebel against God is important for the Christian understanding of what follows.

To rebel against his Creator and rightful Lord, a mighty angelic prince like Satan had to be filled with pride. In other words, he had to be filled with the desire to be God’s equal and not subject to him. When manifested in rebellion, pride regularly expresses itself in hostility toward the target of rebellion. Throughout human history, then, Satan is a rebel and an enemy of God.

As an enemy of God, Satan is also an enemy of God’s son, Adam, and of the human race. The Book of Wisdom says he acted in the temptation “out of envy”. Perhaps his envy stemmed from resentment at seeing another being favored the way he himself had been. Satan may have expected Adam to take the place from which he himself had fallen. Perhaps his envy was just the expression of hate for a rival or potential rival. Whatever his motivation, Satan wanted the human race to disobey God and so be subject to the stated punishment for disobeying the command of God — death. As Jesus put it, Satan’s actions were those of a murderer (John 8:44) because he sought to kill the as yet innocent human race.

The conversation between Satan and Eve reveals something further about Satan’s influence on the first sin. We discover that his words do not seem hostile to the human race. Satan presents himself as a friend, a knowledgeable friend, one who knows more about the human condition than Eve. Even more, he presents himself as someone who knows that God has spoken falsely to Adam and Eve.

Eating of the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil will not produce death, but just what the name of the tree seems to indicate: greater knowledge or wisdom, and hence equality with God. God does not hold his position by an intrinsic excellence no creature can attain, but by knowledge that can be had for the asking, or better, for the eating. Knowledge is power. Enough power is equality. Eve can have all that by reaching out and eating of the fruit.

Eve believed Satan, but later, confronted by God as the judge, she is quite clear that she has not become equal to the Lord of all. She then confesses, “The serpent beguiled me” (Gen 3:13). Her words are sometimes translated “he tricked me” or “he deceived me.” Eve had learned an important truth through the results of her conversation with Satan: sin is a result of deception that originates in the influence of Satan.

Few human beings have experienced Satan or any other demonic being appearing to them and trying to persuade them to sin. The New Testament, however, tells us that Satan is the ruler of “this world”, that is, of fallen human society that has not yet been redeemed. It also tells us that his “rule” is manifested in various doctrines, religions, and theories that lead human beings to sin. We will consider Satan himself more fully further on. At this point, we simply need to see that his influence comes to us from the various voices in society that lead human beings to sin.

Satan did not use force to overpower Adam and Eve, and he does not use force to overcome other human beings. He seeks a choice on the part of human beings — the choice of disobedience to God expressed in disobedience to his instructions. To attain his goal Satan makes false statements about God and the consequences of disobeying God. Sin, in other words, involves choosing falsehood rather than accepting what God has said. It is based, at least implicitly, on disbelief, rejection of God’s Word.

The Inner Source. The account in Genesis then turns to Eve’s response to the influence of the serpent. 

So when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate; and she also gave some to her husband, and he ate.        - Genesis 3:6
The way sin originated inside us
This passage portrays the way sin originates inside a human being. The external agent succeeded only because he was an effective motivator who knew how to arouse something inside Eve to get her to do what he wanted. When she heard the words of Satan, Eve looked up to the tree to see its fruit. She could tell it would be nourishing. She saw it was attractive, enticing to look at. And she now understood that it would produce a beneficial change in her, wisdom.

Something awoke inside of Eve. The first letter of John, probably referring to this passage, describes what was happening inside of Eve as “the lust of the flesh and the lust of the eyes and the pride of life” (1 John 2:16). “Pride of life” seems to mean the desire to be something great or to live at a higher station.

The cause of sin inside of Eve, then, was desires of various sorts. But is desire bad? After all, the contents of paradise were all very good (Gen 1:31) and all the trees in it were “pleasant to the sight and good for food” (Gen 2:9), probably including the tree of knowledge. The fruit of the tree that was now tempting Eve is purposely described in Genesis with many of the same words used to describe the original creation. The tempting fruit, in other words, had been made good and fulfilling by God.

Just as importantly, the desires Eve experienced were also created in her by God. The desire to eat what may have been the world’s most luscious and nourishing fruit was a good desire. Even the desire to be wise, to be as great and noble as possible, can be good. To push the point further, even the desire to be “like God” could be good, since God wants humans to imitate him (Eph 5:1) and be partners with him in ruling his creation (Gen 1:26).

Eve’s desires were starting to move her to a wrong choice, but they were not, in themselves, bad desires. She was not even experiencing her sinful human nature at work, because she did not have a sinful human nature. Eve had not yet fallen. She was a human being the way God created human beings to be, responding to something that God had made good and desirable. Yet in so doing, Eve sinned and Adam sinned with her.

Sometimes we hear about people who seem to take great pleasure in torturing and killing other human beings, often innocent children or animals, or who take pleasure in wanton destruction of nature. We might consider these actions the paradigm case of sin, sheer evil or desire for what is in no way good. But these are expressions of a nature far gone in the corrupting results of sin — either the sin of those who do such deeds, or the sin of their parents or others who have made them to be what they are, Satan not the least. Such actions are not the disease as first caught but the disease in its last stages, morally destroying the being in whom it lives. The paradigm case of sin is rather the first sin, the sin that caused the downfall of the human race. 

Something good gone wrong 
Here we have arrived at an important truth about the nature of sin. Sin is a parasite that grows on God’s good creation. It is something good gone wrong. In the first sin, a good person with healthy desires responded to something good created by God, but made the fatal mistake of approaching it in a way that violated the right kind of relationship with God.

Eve sought something God wanted for her — to be wise and to be more like him — but in a way that rebelled against the truth of her creaturehood. We cannot relate to God well except on the basis of the reality of who he is and who we are. We need to acknowledge that we are not the source of our own being or of the good things that come to us. We have to accept the limits involved in being a creature. We therefore need to respond in gratitude to the one who has created us out of his goodness and to live in a way that is pleasing to the one who is willing to keep us in existence. Wisdom requires the acceptance of reality as it is, especially the reality of who he is and who we are. Only on such a basis can human beings grow in wisdom and become like God.

Sinful actions, then, do not have to be evil through and through to be seriously sinful. They simply need to violate the relationship with God by doing something he has made clear he cannot accept. Consequently, of their very nature they break the relationship with him. Normally, a human action does need to be seriously evil in itself to break the relationship with God. It needs to be an action like murder, adultery, or idolatry. Such was not the case with the transgression of Adam and Eve. Eating the fruit of a tree is not intrinsically evil. Under other circumstances, such an action would have been good.

An action that was not intrinsically evil was probably chosen because of its fitness to represent the essence of all sin: disobedience, disordered choice, failure to live in unity with the one who created us and who made a certain kind of life good for his human creatures to live. To choose to do something that could be good, but to do it when God has forbidden it, is to choose to do evil.

This leads us back once again to the central truth about sin. Sin comes from outside, external influences. Sin also comes from the inside, the internal desires of human nature that are capable of embracing good, and evil. But sin is ultimately the choice or decision of the sinner to act in a way that destructively damages the purpose for which every human being is created: the love of God. Sin is a failure of the sinner — and usually in the face of a test.

Part II to be continued in next month's issue.

Steve Clark is former president of the Sword of the Spirit. This article is excerpted from the first chapter of Steve Clark’s Book, Redeemer: Understanding the Meaning of the Life, Death, and Resurrection of Jesus Christ, (c) 1992, 2009.  Used with permission.
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