March 2010 - Vol. 38

.The Great Downfall Part II

by Steve Clark

In Part I of The Great Downfall [see February Issue] 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. 
The Consequences
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 [see Part I], 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 Judgment. No sooner had Adam and Eve eaten the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, than the consequences began to unfold.

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,
Where are you?
And he said,
I heard the sound of thee in the garden, and I was afraid, because I was naked; and I hid myself.” 
- Genesis 3:7-10
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.

The loss of glory
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.

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 exteriorly 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.

Repairing wrongdoing through repentance
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.(1)  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. 
- Genesis 3:22-24
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 (Rev 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.

The Aftermath. The consequences of sin as described by Genesis were not restricted to the lives of Adam and Eve but extended to their descendants, whose lives are portrayed in Genesis 4–11. The sin of Adam and Eve was disobedience to God, motivated by pride and based on disbelief. It was a sin directly against God himself. This sin against God also seemed to characterize Cain, their first–born son. But he added a further sin – murder, brother killing brother.

In the story of Cain’s murder of his brother Abel, we see how the state of sin produces hatred and envy between human beings. The subsequent narrative of the lives of his descendants shows an intensification of evil. By the time of the flood the earth was “filled with violence” (Genesis 6:11). Human beings, in short, inflict many of the most serious consequences of sin upon one another. The greatest danger to the human race is not what external forces will do, but what the race will do to itself. The first chapters of Genesis show us that disruption and disorder in the relationship with God leads to disruption and disorder in our relationships with one another.

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 (Genesis 4:25). The sons of Seth called upon the name of the Lord (Genesis 4:26), gave birth to Enoch who walked with God (Genesis 5:23), and gave birth to righteous Noah (Genenesis 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.

Many questions have been raised about original sin through the centuries. Some of these center on the guilt that might be due to individuals 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.

[section on "Punishment and Justice" omitted here]

Hope and blessing for the human race
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 3:15
Some 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”, 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 (Redeemer: Understanding the Meaning of the Life, Death, and Resurrection of Jesus Christ) will concern that Redeemer, Jesus Christ, and what he did to rescue human beings from the predicament in which they found themselves.]
See > Part I in the February Issue

Note: (1) “Curse”, like “blessing” is a special Hebrew word used only in reference to God. “Blessing” involves giving something desirable; “curse” involves giving something undesirable. When human beings “bless” they call upon God to act to give someone else something desirable. When God blesses, he simply acts to provide something desirable. When human beings “curse” they call upon God to give someone else something undesirable. When God curses, he simply acts to provide something that the human being in question regards as undesirable. In English now, however, the word “curse” seems to have taken on the meaning of an action of malevolence, seeking to harm another out of evil intent. It would no longer be used, for instance, of a human being rightly asking God to do justice by punishing a wrongdoer. Since both the scripture and much theology use the word “curse” in the older meaning, it is difficult to avoid using the word, especially when dealing with translations like the RSV which simply use the English word “curse” for the Biblical equivalents.
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, Tabor House.  Used with permission.
(c) copyright 2010  The Sword of the Spirit
publishing address: Park Royal Business Centre, 9-17 Park Royal Road, Suite 108, London NW10 7LQ, United Kingdom