Was There a Fall?
Written by Paul Race
My Creationist friends insist that if you don’t take the account of Adam and Eve (in Genesis 3) literally, you’ll never be able to explain to people why they need Jesus. So in their theology, it isn’t enough to believe that Jesus is God and that He died for our sins - you also have to believe in a literal six-day creation and a literal serpent in a literal garden before you can even be saved.
Unfortunately, some of my less literal-minded friends - even a few who call themselves Christian - are doing everything they can to prove my Creationist friends right. They dismiss the early chapters of Genesis as myth. Consequently, to them we don’t need salvation, really - we only needed Jesus to model the “Golden Rule” and give us the “Blessed are” speech.
My friends who have no religious leanings at all lump the early chapters of Genesis in with “Cinderella” as interesting folk tales that have no bearing whatsoever on our “real lives.”
I disagree with all three perspectives. For one thing I know any number of people who realized they needed Jesus while they still believed in human evolution as it was taught in their day (which is not how it’s being taught today - for a “science,” it’s quite slippery - see our article “Does Evolution Disprove the Bible?” for more information on that phenomenon).
I also disagree with the perspective inside and outside the church that if Adam and Eve weren’t literal human individuals walking around naked in a literal garden, talking to a literal serpent and their Creator face to face, Genesis 3 is irrelevant and you might as well rip the first several chapters of Genesis off the front of your Bible. To me - an old English prof as well as an old Bible teacher - that’s like saying that if you can’t imagine the Antichrist as having seven literal heads and ten literal horns, then Revelation has no meaning at all and you might as well rip it off the back of your Bible.
At the very least, the early chapters of Genesis contain prophetic metaphor. I suspect that the stories they include contain much more. In fact I wouldn’t be surprised to discover one day that the history of the “Adamic” age was epic, perhaps on a Lord of the Rings scale, and all that has been preserved for us are the bits that affect our age.
But for the sake of argument, let’s allow that the early chapters of Genesis contain prophetic metaphor that is at least as important as the prophetic metaphors of Daniel, Isaiah, and the apostle John. If you look at it this way, Daniel and the other apocalyptic prophets bracket the end of the Age of Mortal Man, while the early chapters of Genesis bracket the beginning. And instead of telling us (in prophetic metaphor) how things will turn out, Genesis gives us (in prophetic metaphor, perhaps) a sense of how the “mortal human condition” came to be.
What Is “The Fall”?
Genesis 3 recounts a loss of innocence that “sets the stage” for all mortal human history that follows. In the simplest possible language, with the fewest possible details, the “story of Adam and Eve” starts with humans in close relationship with their Creator and ends with shame, blame, and consequences. This journey from blissful fellowship with God and nature to a life of difficulty, conflict, and mortality is called “the Fall.”
In the Genesis account God gives humanity a beautiful world and choice whether to do things His way or to chart our own path. He even warns humans that they will lose their immortality if we make the wrong choice. Chapter 3 ends with some “tough love,” in which God says, essentially, that, as consequences of our choice,
- Women’s relationship to the men in their lives will be asymmetrical (a euphemism I ask you to bear with for now).
- Women will suffer pain in childbirth.
- Men will have to work hard for a living.
- We will all face death eventually.
But Genesis 3 doesn’t stand on its own. It is followed all too closely by accounts of further consequences of humankind’s broken fellowship with our Creator: jealously, betrayal, murder, violence, and ethnic divisions - accounts that are all too believable, because they are paralleled in our own newspapers every day.
Now, it would certainly not be impossible to imagine some ancient Hebrew storyteller crafting a series of stories to explain such aspects of the mortal human condition, just as other storytellers have “explained” how the leopard got his spots or whatever. But the early chapters of Genesis delve far deeper into the pride and pain of the mortal human condition than such fables typically do.
Where does “Original Sin” come in?
For many centuries, the Roman Catholic church has preached that as a result of the fall we all carry the guilt of Adam and Eve’s “original sin.” Frankly, I struggle with that interpretation (especially in the light of Biblical passages like Ezekiel 18: 20: “The child will not share the guilt of the parent, nor will the parent share the guilt of the child. “). So do many Protestant churches. They believe that, while we aren’t guilty of a sin or sins from our collective past, we all have a predisposition to do bad things to other people, sometimes called the “sin nature.” In layman’s terms, even the most well-meaning people do things that are untrue, unfair, and which hurt other people, and even themselves. Or as Paul says in Romans 7:18-19.
. . . For I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out. For I do not do the good I want to do, but the evil I do not want to do, this I keep on doing.
In other words, people have the capacity for good, and may even love that which is good, but we all have the capacity for evil. Some even seem to love evil (as long as they’re doing hurtful things to others and not vice versa). But even those who love what is good find themselves doing what is wrong, or hurtful, or self-serving at others’ expense.
If you want to know whether the Bible’s assessment of even well-meaning people’s capacity for evil is true, you don’t really have to go back to the Garden, you just have to look in the mirror and remember all those things in your past you would go back and change if you could - the hurtful words that slipped out and destroyed a relationship, the times you could have defended or comforted someone no one else would, but you followed the crowd, and so on. I’m not just trying to make you feel bad, mind you, but reminding you that one of the big lessons of Genesis - that even the most well-meaning humans can and do hurt other people - is as obvious today as it was when the words of Genesis were first written down.
After The Fall
Sadly, you don’t have to go back to a millennia-old document to learn that:
- The world holds both great beauty and great danger, as though a once-perfect creation has gone “sideways” somehow.
- In all but a few cases, men dominate male-female relationships, whether the means they use are physical, political, financial, or emotional.
- The world is full of violence and ethnic divisions.
- Most people have to work hard for a living.
- Even the best, most well-meaning people have the capacity for evil, and - at some point in our lives - all of us have hurt someone unfairly in ways we can never make right.
- Everybody dies.
Any newspaper will tell you the same things.
Living in the Age of Mortal Man
Less than a century ago, the Humanist movement was proposing that mankind was basically good, and that wrongdoing was just a result of hunger and ignorance. Then we realized that people whose ancestors killed for food are now willing to kill for tennis shoes. Or people whose ancestors’ ignorance “trapped them in a life of crime,” are now highly educated white-collar criminals and computer hackers, stealing more than ever.
But if the “the man is basically good” hypothesis is a discredited joke, where does that leave society? In a sort of “post-modern” nihilism, where people are essentially other people’s “consumables,” to be used and discarded as each individual’s needs and wants dictate? Some people certainly behave as if that’s “all there is.”
Others believe that there still should be some sort of standard for the ways people should treat each other. But then they find themselves lowering their own standards to get something they want and might not obtain some other way.
In short, we are all in a broken world, surrounded by broken people, but most of us try, at least, to resist the nihilist’s claim that life in general is futile and that our lives in particular are meaningless. Rather, we search for meaning and purpose. Whether we realize it or not, many of our careers, hobbies, interests, relationships, and even our own self-images are cultivated to avoid the sinking conviction that the universe is a big joke.
If “God” enters the discussion at all, it’s to take the blame for things not being better. “If there is a God, why is there war (or disease or . . . )?” As a Christian, I confess, that sometimes such questions still trouble me, too, even though I’ve studied the Bible’s answers to them. But I also can’t help noticing how many nonbelievers blame God for everything wrong, as though He is a real person, at the same time they reject the possibility that He is real enough to make any demands on them personally. And all this, as they desperately search for meaning and purpose.
In other words, the state of the world and our own inconsistencies between what we think is “right” and what we do are all exactly what you would expect if the Genesis report (literal or prophetic) of rebellion against the Creator, followed by consequences of death, violence, and ethnic divisions, were true.
Whatever you believe about the early chapters of Genesis, you have to admit that the “human condition” - from ancient history to this morning’s headlines - is exactly what you would expect if somewhere in our collective past, humankind had rebelled against our Creator, then experienced a subsequent descent into violence, confusion, and spiritual darkness.
Personally I believe this happened. I also believe that the Creator we disavowed has taken the initiative to restore each person’s relationship with Him. This same Creator, from outside our space-time continuum, cared enough for us:
- To overcome unimaginable barriers to enter our world at a specific historical space and time,
- To devote His human existence to show His concern and explain His expectations, and, eventually
- To die a humiliating, painful human death at the hands of the people He came to save, all so that we could be restored.
Please don’t let your skepticism about the way the beginning of our age was related by ancient prophets convince you that you and I and the world itself don’t need saving. At the very least, the hurts you know you’ve caused, and the headlines you read in the newspaper every day should convince you just how much we do need saving, and in particular, a Savior.
God bless and guide you,
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