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Without a biblical understanding of sin, we have no basis from which to judge the external world, and the apparent brokenness and futility of life. We will have no real answers to the world’s dilemmas because we won’t have an adequate grasp of the true problem. Furthermore, without a correct view of sin, we’re bound to misunderstand who God is. C.S. Lewis points out that a belief in God without an understanding of sin would result in monism, where God is both good and evil, or dualism, where there are two opposing gods, one good and one evil (see The Problem of Pain). Perhaps most importantly, sin is the problem for which the gospel provides the solution. Without an adequate understanding of the problem, we cannot truly appreciate the solution. In other words, without doctrine of sin, there is no Christianity. The root of this Christian understanding is found in the first three chapters of Genesis. The way things were

We live in a culture with a predominantly naturalistic view of world. In the words of Carl Sagan: “The cosmos is all there is or ever was or ever will be.” The idea is that the universe is on a trajectory that has essentially continued unchanged since its origins. You don’t have to be an atheist or an unbeliever to have this perspective influence your view of life. There are many Christians who hold very naturalistic views of certain aspects of life. If you’ve ever heard someone excuse a fault with, “God made me this way,” or “I’m only being human,” or “it’s perfectly natural,” then you’ve see a bit of this philosophy in action. Underlying this is the idea that “The way things are by nature is the way things ought to be.”

However, the Bible paints quite a different picture. The way things are by nature is not the way it was, nor the way it ought to be, and it is not the way it always will be. In many respects, this is the story of the Bible – what was, what happened, what is, and what God is doing to bring about what will be. Genesis 1-2 describes an original creation untainted by sin. God created humans in His own image, made to reflect Him to the world. He gave them dominion over all of creation, to act as His deputies in cultivating and subduing the earth. God’s assessment of His original creation is that it was “very good” (Gen 1:31). The world is as it should be; there is real peace, real shalom. The picture is of husband and wife in communion with God, in communion with each other, and in communion with God’s creation. They are secure in themselves, undefiled by sin and immorality, naked and unashamed.

God gives the couple one rule: Don’t eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. In Old Testament Theology, Bruce Waltke comments: “The command assumes that as God’s image bearers, humans should think, plan, speak, and act as their Creator intends. The command is also for their good. The prohibition protects them from assuming self-serving autonomy in sin and death and to live instead under the Creator’s loving and trustworthy rule and protection.” (259)

Something happens, and shalom is broken…

In Genesis 3, the crafty serpent enters the scene, and questions the trustworthiness of God’s word, and the goodness of His instruction. He begins by questioning Eve’s interpretation and attempts to create doubt (“Did God really say…?). His focus is on the forbidden thing rather than God’s true blessings (“…you must not eat from any tree in the garden?”). He tempts her to discount God’s word and the stern warning (“You will not surely die…”). The core of the temptation is the prospect that Eve could become as God, tempting her to leave her status as creature, gain independence from God, and define her own existence apart from God (“You shall be as God, knowing good and evil…”). (Waltke, 261-263)

At this point, all of Eve’s defenses are down and she begins to doubt God. She examines the fruit and see that it’s good for food (it doesn’t look harmful at all), it’s a delight to the eyes (how could something so beautiful be wrong or bad?), and it’s desirable to make one wise (I’m just seeking to grow and improve myself). She gives in and eats the fruit, giving some to Adam as well. Sin has entered the human race. Based on this account, Waltke offer this definition of sin: “Sin is the perversion at the core of our being that causes us to disobey. Sin is the desire, the imagination, ‘to be like God’- the refusal to be human, to be creature – that causes us to disobey. Correlatively, sin is an inward, spiritual breach of trust in God’s character and his word that results in active disobedience.” (Waltke, 263)

Something does happen to them, just as the serpent said, but it’s not what they were expecting. “Their eyes were opened” and they realize they’re naked and they’re ashamed of it. There is a breach in the communion they shared with other, attempting to cover themselves and hide their shame. There is also a breach in the communion they shared with God, as they themselves from Him. When God confronts them about their disobedience they both pass the buck and refuse responsibility. Adam blames Eve, and ultimately blames God Himself for making her, and Eve blames the serpent. This simple narrative provides us with a profound description of human sin and our behavior, from the stages of temptation, to the guilt and desire to hide, and our tendency to pass the blame for our actions on to someone else.

God’s judgment

Something has already gone horribly wrong. The fellowship between God and humanity has been broken. The covenant in Paradise has been broken, and the blessings forfeited. God pronounces judgment as he had promised.

  • First, God pronounces a curse on the serpent: God speaks not only to the animal, but to the true tempter behind the animal (Revelation 12:9 tells us that the serpent was Satan himself). In the curse against the serpent, there is a glimmer of hope – Adam and Eve have made their allegiance with rebellion, disobeyed God, and then passed the blame rather than repenting. However, God promises that He will put hostility between the woman and the serpent, and between their respective seeds, with the anticipation of the serpent’s defeat. This promise of the seed provides the seed for the story of redemption which is the overarching theme of the Bible’s narrative.
  • Next, God addresses the woman: she will face pain in childbearing and conflict with her husband. Eve will have an inordinate desire to control her husband, and he will “rule” over here (as opposed to leading, guarding, and caring for her). This conflict destroys the bond of peace and fulfillment that was once present.
  • Finally, God addresses the man: The ground is cursed, and work will be difficult. The whole creation suffers because of this sin and the world as it was becomes the world as it now is (cf. Romans 8:20-22). The futility of life, describes so poignantly in Ecclesiastes 1-3, is a direct result of humanity’s fall into sin. In Reason for God, Tim Keller writes, “We are told that as soon as we determined to serve ourselves instead of God - as soon as we abandoned living for and enjoying God as our highest good – the entire created world became broken…Disease, genetic disorders, famine, natural disasters, againg, and death itself are as much the result of sin as are oppression, war, crime, and violence. We have lost God’s shalom – physically, spiritually, socially, psychologically, and culturally.” (170)

God’s final act of judgment in the account of the fall is also an act of mercy. Adam and Eve are banished from the garden, so that they might not eat from the tree of life and live forever. God cleanses the garden of sin, and at the same time prevents Adam and Eve, in their fallen, corrupted, and sinful state to eat from the tree and remain forever in that state. He has better things in store for them beyond death.

Bruce Waltke provides some additional theological reflection on this text:

“God plants an idyllic garden as the setting for humanity on probation. The failure of Adam and Eve in this paradise has profound theological significance. Since Adam is the only human being who could have resisted the Serpent’s temptation, his failure implies that humanity that is not spiritually empowered by God does not match the Serpent’s power and so keep covenant with God. In contrast to much sociological thinking that holds that the way to improve humans is to better their environment, this text shows that humanity at its best, when tested, rebels even in the perfect environment. “This theological understanding is found at the outset of Genesis. Each of the subsequent covenants – Noahic, Abrahamic, Mosaic, and Davidic – must be read with this presupposition: unassisted human faithfulness is an impossibility; any aspect of the covenant that is contingent upon human will alone is doomed for failure. The argument is simple: If Adam falls in the perfect setting of garden paradise without inherited guilt and a depraved nature, how can stiff-hearted Israel keep the Lord’s teachings in Canaan, a land known for its debauchery (cf. Deut 31:26; 32:1-43; Josh 24:19,17). And how can Judean kings in their own spiritual strength satisfy the conditional aspects of the Davidic covenant (2 Samuel 7:14)? Indeed, the failure of these later covenants is preordained by the failure of Adam and Eve in the garden. This failure, right at the start, implicitly anticipates a different sort of covenant relationship, one that does not depend on human faithfulness, but entirely on the grace of God through the second Adam.” (256)