February/March 2014 - Vol. 72
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.
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?
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” (Genesis 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 people have 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.
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 that 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 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,
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.
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 it can 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 translation: 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 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 Hebrews 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 translation: 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 rightly, 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
Now the serpent was more subtle than any other wild creature that the Lord God had made. He said to the woman,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.
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” (Revelation 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 that 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” (Wisdom 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 Christ 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
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 3:6This 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 (Genesis 1:31), and all the trees in it were “pleasant to the sight and good for food” (Genesis 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 (Ephesians 5:1) and be partners with him in ruling his creation (Genesis 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.
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.
A recent newspaper article told of a little girl who had disregarded her mother’s warning to stay away from the street. She had been hit by a car and ended up in the hospital with an injury that would cripple her for the rest of her life. Simply crossing the street seems trivial, certainly not intrinsically wrong. Yet that step involved rejecting the instructions given by her mother to protect her. Despite the warning, it also involved much greater consequences than the little girl ever imagined before she stepped off the curb or than we would have expected if we had only been told that a little girl crossed the street against her mother’s orders.
In the previous section, we looked at the first human sin as the pattern or prototype of that problematic interaction with God that is at the root of human misfortune. Now we will look at the way Genesis presents the first sin as affecting the subsequent state of the human race. The significance of sin begins to appear immediately after the first sinful act, but much of what happened in the fall becomes clear only in the light of the later course of the human race.
The eyes of both were opened, and they knew that they were naked; and they sewed fig leaves together and made themselves aprons. And they heard the sound of the Lord God walking in the garden in the cool of the day, and the man and his wife hid themselves from the presence of the Lord God among the trees of the garden. But the Lord God called to the man and said to him,Once Adam and Eve had eaten of the fruit they immediately realized that something was wrong. Even more significantly, they realized that something was wrong with themselves. They experienced themselves as naked and ashamed. They were conscious that their actions had affected their relationship with God, and they began to be afraid of him.
John Chrysostom described the result of the transgression of the first human beings by saying, “Through their guilt they consequently divested themselves of the glory surrounding them” (Homilies on Genesis 16,14). He first speaks of the guilt that came from having disobeyed God’s commandment. He then indicates the result, a loss of glory. In doing so, he sums up a truth that Genesis presents in narrative form: sin led to a change in the human race.
Seriously evil actions result in a sinful state. Christian teachers have described the change of state Adam and Eve underwent in a variety of ways. Sometimes they say Adam and Eve lost their “innocence.” We tend to understand that word to mean the kind of innocence children have, unaware of good and evil and in a certain way incapable of sin (or, for that matter, virtue). “Innocence” in this sense is a synonym of “naiveté”. As applied to the human race before the fall, however, “innocence” means rather that Adam and Eve were free of guilt, blameless in their conduct, able to be in God’s presence without profaning his holiness. Now they had lost that innocence.
Sometimes Christian teachers say that Adam and Eve lost their “original righteousness” or “original justice”. That phrase means that they lost the good or right relationship with God given them by their origin, that is, by the very way God made them. Along with this, they lost their habitual goodness of conduct. As a consequence of the fall, Adam and Eve were left in a bad relationship with God, a state of alienation or separation. As Isaiah puts it, “Your iniquities have made a separation between you and your God, and your sins have hid his face from you so that he does not hear” (Isaiah 59:2).
In the above quote Chrysostom, following a common Jewish and early Christian understanding, also indicates that the guilt of Adam and Eve resulted in the loss of their glory, by which he meant an exterior radiance that clothed them in a personal splendor. Their external glory, as we have seen, came from an inner glory or power that enabled Adam and Eve to rule themselves, to control their actions, to be people of good character. No longer in good relationship with God and no longer subject to him, they were no longer able to keep themselves in subjection and to direct their actions in consistently good ways. They had lost that interior excellence and moral greatness that comes from being in the image and likeness of God in an unmarred way. With it, they had lost a mastery of themselves and became subject to their own desires, prone to sin. That, Chrysostom tells us, was visible exteriorily in the loss of their glory.
God did not need to especially intervene to punish Adam and Eve. Punishment had already begun in the form of the evil consequences of their transgression. They experienced the change in their own persons. As a result their eyes were opened in a new way to the significance of moral matters in human life. Conscious of the shamefulness of their new state, they experienced for the first time the fear of God that arises from sinfulness. They had lost the garments of light that manifested their inner purity, and they experienced their nakedness.
Adam and Eve had previously feared God with the awe and respect due him as their Creator and Lord, their Father. Now they feared even to come into his presence. They knew they were unworthy to stand before God’s awesome holiness, his absolute moral perfection. Their sinfulness made them unseemly. To use the words of later Scriptures, they had become impure or unclean. Their sinfulness also made them afraid of what God would do with them.
God then summoned Adam and Eve and the serpent. He sat before them as judge, judge because he was ruler of the universe, but also judge because he was their Father. God began, as a good judge should, by questioning Adam and then Eve, probably giving them a chance to accept responsibility for their actions and to repent. There is, however, no indication of repentance in their responses, only a desire to avoid the unfortunate consequences of their actions.
The rest of Scripture tells us that repentance is a way to repair wrongdoing. By how it describes the response of Adam and Eve, Genesis 3 probably indicates that it was not just the first sin that caused the fall of the human race, but also the unwillingness to take advantage of the opportunity for repentance. Had they repented, their sin may not have changed the course of human history the way it did.
God then gave his sentences. They come in the form of “curses.” For us the word “curse” usually implies hostility and malice. The biblical words translated for “curse,” especially when used of God, do not imply either hostility or malice, but are the actions of the divine judge imposing a penalty that is deserved. The term “curse” is probably too misleading to be a good translation now, but its use cannot always be avoided.
The sentences God pronounced contain a curse on the serpent and a curse on the ground from which the human race was taken. Since humans needed to work the ground to grow food, the curse on the ground was also a curse on the relationship of the human race to nature, the source of the materials human beings need to live. It was consequently a curse on human labor. Although the word “curse” is not used, there was probably a curse on childbirth as well. The natural function that should have been simple delight for the woman became one of pain mixed with joy. God’s pronouncements indicate the way in which the sin of the human race negatively affects the natural functions of human life. To sum up the sentences, as a result of sin ordinary human actions lose much of their delightfulness and become difficult and even onerous.
The last evil consequence of their sinful action that directly affected Adam and Eve is described at the end of Genesis 3:
Then the Lord God said, “Behold, the man has become like one of us, knowing good and evil; and now, lest he put forth his hand and take also of the tree of life, and eat, and live for ever” – therefore the Lord God sent him forth from the garden of Eden, to till the ground from which he was taken. He drove out the man; and at the east of the garden of Eden he placed the cherubim, and a flaming sword which turned every way, to guard the way to the tree of life.Adam and Eve were banished or exiled from paradise, and thus deprived of the tree of life and so of their expected immortality. Yet there was more to their exile than this loss. In an age of great mobility and modern communications, modern people have forgotten much of the significance of exile. Exile deprived people of their home, of their family and friends, and of the way of life they were raised to live. In short, exile deprived them of much of what made their life worth living. As a result, exile often was used as a punishment for wrongdoing.
The exile of Adam and Eve from paradise was itself one of the worst consequences of their sin. They had lost the garden of God: the place of God’s presence and human blessedness, the place filled with delight, the place for human life to be lived the way it was supposed to be lived. They had lost the true human home.
Yet there is even more to the loss of paradise than clearly appears in Genesis. Paradise was described as an earthly place and the tree of life as bearing fruit that would prolong earthly life. Teaching in later Scriptures makes clear that God created the human race for an even greater nearness to him than Adam and Eve seemed to have before the fall. With that nearness would come fuller blessedness. Christians have come to use the word “heaven” for the place where that state could be experienced, because “heaven” is the scriptural word for the place of God’s dwelling or presence.
There are differing views on the relationship of paradise and heaven. God may have intended the earthly paradise to develop to the point where by living in paradise human beings would be living “in heaven”, that is, heaven would come to earth (Revelation 21). God may have intended at some point to change the mode of human existence more radically so that paradise would have been “swallowed up” in heaven (2 Corinthians 5:4). Perhaps these two understandings amount to much the same thing. But however the development is understood, the loss of paradise turns out to be more than just the loss of a good and prolonged earthly life. In Christian terms, it was the loss of heaven as well. It was the loss of the full, blessed life that God had intended for the human race – which they had begun to experience in paradise, which would be completely given to them in heaven, and which they would be able to enjoy eternally.
There is at the same time more to the sentence of death than appears in Genesis. Death is the loss of life. But as Scripture uses “life” to mean a good, blessed human life and not just animate physical existence, so it uses “death” to mean a loss of good, blessed life. It can refer, in other words, to what Christians have called “spiritual death” (Ephesians 2:1-2), a state in which human beings live without much of the presence of God, without spiritual blessedness, unable to live as they were created to live. Genesis shows us that sin can produce spiritual death even before physical death occurs.
Furthermore, the Scriptures indicate that physical death does not mean that human beings simply go out of existence. Rather, they go down to the place of the dead, Sheol or Hades. Those who have not been rescued from the consequences of the fall live there without the presence of God and the blessedness that comes from being united to him. For those who “die in their sins,” the state of death involves unfortunate consequences resulting from their sinful actions.
Many questions surround the afterlife and the place or places of those who do not end up in heaven. For our purposes here, it is enough to note that the punishment of death referred to in Genesis involved more than a simple termination of earthly existence. It involved, first, a change in Adam and Eve so that earthly life itself became a kind of living death. Second, even after the termination of earthly life, death did not produce annihilation but a continued existence deprived of much of what makes human life worthwhile.
But the story of the human race is not one of unmitigated evil. Adam and Eve themselves do not seem to have turned completely away from God after the fall. The Book of Wisdom seems to preserve the tradition that Adam repented because of the good influence of God’s instruction (Wisdom 10:1). Most Christian teachers have taken that same view.
Moreover, from Adam and Eve sprang two sons, the murderer Cain and the righteous Abel (Hebrews 11:4). With them came two ways of life – that of the sons of Cain and that of the sons of Seth, who replaced Abel (Gen 4:25). The sons of Seth called upon the name of the Lord (Genesis 4:26), gave birth to Enoch who walked with God (Gen 5:23), and gave birth to righteous Noah (Genesis 6:9). Noah in turn gave birth to Abraham. Sin predominates in human life, but there is also goodness and hope, something worth saving.
This goodness is related to another truth presented in Genesis: God did not abandon the human race. Punishment does not necessarily mean total rejection. No sooner had he finished passing sentence, than with fatherly kindness he himself clothed Adam and Eve, because they did not know how to provide for themselves in their new circumstances. He then continued the human race through Adam and Eve by blessing them with children.
God also cared for the descendants of Adam and Eve. He accepted Abel’s offering, allowing human beings to maintain a relationship with him. He then replaced the line of Abel after Abel’s murder. He even protected Cain from the worst consequences of his sin. When God judged the race as a whole to be worthy of destruction as a result of human evil, he preserved it through Noah, and renewed his original commission. Moreover, he added a special pledge of protection that no matter how evil the human race would become, he would never let it be completely destroyed. The fall, in short, did not totally cut the human race off from God. He was constantly at work to preserve it and lead human beings to the point where they could once again fulfill the purpose for which the human race was created.
Some Christian teachers, primarily in the Western tradition, have called the state of sin that resulted from the first act of disobedience “original sin”. “Original” means that the sin comes from the origin of the human race. “Sin” means sinful state rather than sinful actions. Original sin, then, is the sinful state that has resulted from the origins of the human race, the state of human estrangement from God with a related internal condition of sinfulness. This sinful state comes to all human beings through their membership in the race. It is the state of the race as a whole, but therefore a state that affects individual human beings as well.
Other Christians, primarily from the Eastern Christian tradition, speak of it as “ancestral sin” or “the sin of our forefathers or ancestors”. This perhaps puts more of emphasis on those in the past, rather than on those alive now. However, simply to speak of original sin does not say anything more about the responsibility of those alive now than speaking of ancestral sin.
Many questions have been raised about original sin through the centuries. Some of these center on the guilt that might be due to individuals now alive because of it. Others center on how corrupt or depraved human nature has become as a result of the fall. Because of what could be called the “stronger” views of original sin, many Christians avoid the term because it seems to imply more than they can accept.
Nonetheless, a consensus exists among orthodox Christians that something is wrong with the human race. It is not in the relationship with God it was created for. Apart from the grace of God, the state of the race inevitably leads to sinful actions by most, if not all, who reach the age of being able to perform such actions. Moreover, on their own human beings seem unable to radically change the way they live. For the purposes of this book, such a consensus is enough.
Many people believe the scriptural teaching on original sin can be found in Genesis 3, but this chapter only tells of the first sin. Genesis 4–11 narrates the fact that the first sin was not an isolated event, soon reversed by the repentance of Adam and Eve or by a fresh start with the birth of righteous Abel. Rather, the first sin led to a history that illustrates the truth that the fall of the human race has made human beings prone to sinful actions.
Punishment and Justice
The Penalty of Sin
God’s penalization of sin could happen in some different ways. The first might be through the bad consequences that follow from sin. These are in large part natural, built into the way human life works. If murder is allowed, conflict will follow, life will become insecure, and sooner or later social life will become less viable for its members. Murder has bad consequences – always for the victim who is deprived of life, usually for the murderer as well, but also for society. Sin does not produce bad consequences only when it provokes external judgment, but sinful actions are themselves intrinsically destructive.
Some would not use the words “penalty” or “punishment” for the bad consequences of sin, but would reserve those words for something deliberately inflicted by an authority who has the responsibility to punish wrongdoing. Parents, however, at times punish their children by allowing them to suffer the consequences of some disobedience. They may give their children an allowance with instructions for its use. If the children choose not to follow them, the parents may let them live through the bad results of their own actions by not helping them when they run out of money. Sometimes parents follow such a course of action simply for instructional reasons. Sometimes, however, they do so specifically as a way of punishing disobedience because they judge their children need some penalization because of their incorrigibility. What they normally would have rescued their children from, they let them suffer through. Letting others suffer the bad consequences of their actions can at times be a kind of penalization.
When we remember that God created the universe, his approach to sin can be seen as similar to such parental punishment. God set up human life in such a way that unfortunate consequences are connected to the actions he forbade. In this sense, the bad consequences of sin operate as deterrents for future sin. If we understand that God might have relieved us of the consequences of our sins, but did not do so because of our lack of repentance, we could see his allowing the “natural” consequences of our sin to run their course as a penalization.
Genesis, however, seems to present a second way that God punishes sin. He seems to have inflicted pain or difficulty through the “curses” as a special response to the sin of Adam and Eve. At least a narrative is preserved of God “sentencing” Adam and Eve.
Some have held that the curses simply stated the bad consequences that would come as a result of sin. In this view, when God proclaimed the curses to Adam and Eve, he was not by that fact imposing them but merely predicting what would happen to them. This was intended to help them realize that their own actions were responsible for what was befalling them. Sinfulness would simply produce its normal consequences in daily living. Pain and difficulty would come upon the two main areas of human life: family life and work. Some would even understand the sentence of death and banishment from paradise in the same way.
More commonly, however, the “curses” are viewed as an added difficulty that God inflicted upon the human race – above and beyond the automatic bad consequences of sin. In this second view of the “curses,” they are added as a special disciplinary measure designed to lead human beings to repentance. In such an understanding, God intended the added difficulty of human life as a reminder that something is wrong, that the human race is in a different state than when it was originally created. He intended it to lead to a salutary change of attitude, or at least a readiness to receive help when he offered it.
There is yet a further way God punishes sin. Sometimes he punishes sin without any remedial goal in view and simply condemns those who have gone too far and not repented. In a similar way, human beings with governmental authority at times execute or banish other human beings. Execution simply ends human life and is reserved for the greatest of criminals, at least the ones who are deemed hopeless. Banishment eliminates people from a given society and is used in a similar way. Lifelong imprisonment in our society is a type of banishment.
These penalties have a certain inevitability about them. Some people behave, or, given the chance, will behave in a way that is so harmful of others or of the common good that they cannot be left part of the common life without penalizing others. The criminal needs to be penalized in some way, at least to save others and to uphold a needed order in a given human community.
The flood by which God “determined to make an end of all flesh” (Genesis 6:13) has been traditionally understood as such a condemnation. It has therefore been taken as a “type” of damnation or condemnation to hell, which Christian teachers have traditionally seen as simply penal, with no remedial role. Hell is the place for those who cannot be part of heaven and have heaven still be a place of blessedness for others. Full blessedness and closeness to God can only happen in a society or community where people freely love God and one another. Those who will not, or cannot be made to do so without having their freedom destroyed, can only be excluded from heaven.
The main punishment for the first sin, however, seems to be neither the evil consequences of what happened nor any added punishments that were specifically inflicted. Rather, it is the loss of the relationship with God that was given to Adam and Eve at their creation, a loss expressed in the banishment from paradise. That in itself is the loss of the greatest good that the human race can ever have.
A loss is difficult to comprehend for someone who has never experienced what is missing. Those born blind do not seem as unhappy about their handicap as those who have become blind. The Scriptures teach that “seeing God” is itself a great good. Those who have come into such an experiential knowledge of God testify to its being a source of deep joy.
Heaven itself is often described in terms of the beatific vision. “Beatific” means “producing happiness.” The “beatific vision” then, is the vision that makes people happy. The glory of God is such that just to be able to see him is the cause of overflowing happiness. Moreover, many Christian teachers hold that when we see God, we receive something of that glory into ourselves. We share or participate in that glory. Doing so it has a beneficial, joy-producing effect upon us. Even though many human beings do not realize what they are missing, the worst consequence of the fall is the loss of their original closeness to God, which produces beatitude, full human happiness.
The loss of the relationship with God is also serious because it leads to the further loss of a good human life. God is necessary for human beings to fully achieve even a natural happiness. Without a good relationship to him involving submission to his instructions, human beings are unable to live with the kind of moral goodness and character that allows them to achieve a good life and avoid much misfortune. Furthermore, the failure to submit to God and follow his ways cuts the human race off from the wisdom and blessing and help that alone could protect it from demonic influences and guard it from its own weakness.
Sin, in short, is partly as important as it is because human beings need God to live well, and because serious sin cuts us off from God. The state of sin is the absence of that blessed relationship with God that allows us to have true life. It is a tremendous loss to the human race.
Sin, then, has many ways of producing bad consequences, and in origin God is the source of all of them. He has created the universe and governs it in such a way that when human beings sin, they are deprived of much of what makes human life as worthwhile and blessed as God intended it to be. We can, therefore, describe the current state of the human race and many of the circumstances of human life as “penal.”
By describing sin as penal, we are using “penal” in a broad sense. We do not necessarily mean that all the results of human sin are punishments directly inflicted by God as a result of human wrongdoing, although most Christian teachers think that some of them are. We mean that the unfortunate state of the human race is due to the deserved consequences of sin, whether directly inflicted or simply the consequences of human actions, and of the disruption of the relationship with God that those actions produced, consequences which God has not chosen to relieve human beings from. We also are saying that in ensuring that the universe was governed in such a way that wrongdoing produced negative consequences, God has acted as a good father and judge should.
Justice and Hope
Penalties are a main category of actions that have to be evaluated in terms of their justice since they involve depriving people of what normally would be considered as “due” to them. People in prison no longer have that freedom of action which is normally considered “their due” or, to put it in another way, their ordinary right. Penal justice is the justice that governs such matters. A just ruler should not inflict punishments without good reason. We are therefore concerned with whether God’s actions of penalizing human beings can be justified in any way that human beings can make sense of.
But is God a just ruler? Does he even have to be just? Some thinkers, including some Christian theologians, have held that God is above justice. As a Creator, God is free to act as he will, so that what he does cannot be unjust. Most Christian theologians, however, have held that if God is to be considered morally good at all and so distinguishable from Satan, he must act in a way that we can somehow recognize as justice – even if it does not correspond exactly to what we would call justice in an earthly ruler. Since the Scriptures call God “just” with the same word that they use for good earthly rulers, he must at least intend to be just in something of the same way.
Then was God just in allowing the descendants of Adam and Eve to suffer the way they did as a result of the sins of their parents? The first chapters of Genesis give us a preliminary answer to this question.
First, we are dealing with creation. God could create the human race the way he wished. Whatever benefits he gave human beings were more than they deserved. That the descendants of Adam ended up with less than they might have had if Adam had responded differently is not a reflection on God. This is perhaps the most fundamental answer – God has never been obligated to give human beings all that he gave them at their creation.
Second, Genesis seems to indicate that from God’s point of view, human beings can at any time return to a better state by turning away from sin and toward God. Sin is still the problem, not God. Sin leads to bad consequences. Sin deserves penalization. The human race does not always live in perfect evil, and as a result, does not always live in perfect misery either. Human history is a play of light and shadow, and the freer from sin human beings live, the better their lives become. The penalties that come from sin are in an important way the responsibility of those who sin.
These observations are true. They allow us to see that God’s actions are not unjust in the most basic sense of “unjust”. If the human race either corporately or individually fails to fulfill God’s conditions, human beings have no claim on the blessings he bestowed at creation. They are fortunate that he has left them with as much as he has. Yet to focus on the “minimum requirements of justice” is not to see the whole picture. It does not allow us to understand God’s solution to the predicament of the human race.
Once we see the human predicament in the light of God’s full revelation we get a different perspective. When we know about the existence of a life of eternal gladness in the presence of God (“heaven”) and of eternal loss in separation from God (“hell”), the predicament looks more serious. The truth about the human condition adds to that assessment. When we see the weakness of the human race, its proneness to sin, and its consequent inability to please God in a way that could deserve the gift of heaven, the predicament looks still more serious.
If we look at the predicament of the human race just within the framework of this life, improvement does not so clearly seem beyond human effort, bad as the record may have been to date. Once, however, we see the glory of what God intended for his sons and daughters, the loss seems irreparable. God may not be unjust in how he has conducted himself towards the human race, but nonetheless there seems to be no hope that the race will ever recover its lost blessing.
Genesis provides a basis for hope in a seemingly obscure but significant passage in the curse on the serpent:
I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your seed and her seed; he shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise his heel. – Genesis 3:15Some Christian writers, based on the New Testament (Romans 16:19-20), have seen this as the first proclamation of the gospel. If so, it is a prophetic one, and like most prophecy it is somewhat obscure before its fulfillment.
The words of this passage promise hostility between the serpent (Satan) and the woman, here representing the human race. There will be lasting conflict, but the conflict will involve the human race having the upper hand. The picture behind the prophecy is of a barefoot man being bitten as he crushes and destroys a snake. A human being will be victorious, although he will only be victorious with suffering.
According to many Christian teachers, that image has been fulfilled in the sufferings and death of Christ. The prophecy means that the enemy of the human race, the one who caused its downfall, will himself be defeated by a future representative of the human race. That representative in the traditional Christian understanding is Christ, who will be wounded in the process (have his heel “bruised”). He will not, however, be destroyed and will prove victorious in crushing Satan.
The first “curse”, the one on the serpent, then, is actually a promise of blessing for human beings. God’s words of punishment begin with a promise of deliverance for his sons and daughters. God’s full “justice,” his merciful willingness to help human beings even when they do not deserve it, and his just approach to rescuing them from the penalization they do deserve, can therefore only be understood in the light of his future plan.
Rescuing A Lost Race
There is a fairy tale about a baby found in the woods and raised by simple peasants. One day a knight comes to the family’s hut and sees the child. He looks and acts like a peasant child, uneducated, unable to speak his native language in a proper way, with simple, somewhat rude manners. But when the knight looks at him, he is struck by the child’s appearance. Despite his peasant-like and unpromising manner and behavior, the child looks like the king. The knight has discovered the lost son of the king who years before had been kidnapped by an enemy and left in the forest to die.
The human race is much like that child. As we consider human affairs, we see much evil – wars, murders, robberies, violence, and cruelty. We see senseless brutalities – sadism, torture, genocide. We even see human beings destroying themselves, giving themselves over to enslaving addictions, or letting themselves deteriorate to satiate some lust. We see noble empires fall into ruin; great endeavors wither. Futility, insecurity, and failure seem the constant accompaniment of human life.
Yet we also see a race that is capable of great kindness, heroic deeds, high successes, and vast accomplishments. We see individuals whose character we can admire, whose wisdom we can learn from. Even more, we see a race that seems capable of recognizing that much that it does is evil, that knows a great deal about how to distinguish good from evil, and that seems to want a society of peace and justice better than any it has so far produced.
We, in short, see a race that was made in the image of the King – the Lord of the universe, who made all things good – but a race that has fallen into great evil. The state of the human race as the Scriptures describe it does not have to be proven. It is all around us to see.
How can the son of the king be restored to his Father and his royal state? How can the image of the great King be recreated so that the likeness is recognizable in every respect? How can the human race become what most of us intuitively think it should be?
The answer of a Christian reflection on Genesis is that sin has to be taken away, removed from human life. Not only do human beings have to cease doing the things that cause evil and further ruin, the things that deserve penalization, but also the sinful state of the human race that causes those actions has to be changed. The disease that leads to death has to be healed. Sinfulness has to be eradicated; true health, true life, has to be given. Human beings need a Redeemer, someone who can rescue them from the misfortune into which they have fallen and restore them to true life.
The rest of this book will concern that Redeemer, Jesus
Christ, and what he did to rescue human beings from the
predicament in which they found themselves.
Steve Clark is a founder and former president of the Sword of the Spirit, a noted author of numerous books and articles, and a frequent speaker. This article is excerpted from chapter 1 of Steve Clark’s Book, Redeemer: Understanding the Meaning of the Life, Death, and Resurrection of Jesus Christ, copyright © 1992, 2014. Used with permission.
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