Many people throughout church history have believed that this chapter in the Bible is the decisive text for all the rest—that it states the premise for everything that follows. But as Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann points out, this is at best a marginal passage in Scripture. It is never referred to in the rest of the Old Testament. In Ezekiel 28 there is a reference to Eden, but the Ezekiel passage clearly reflects a different version of the Eden story and applies that version to the king of Tyre at the end of the 6th century BCE. At no point in the Old Testament does the Bible refer back to this story and claim that this is the source of all sin and evil in the world. And the Old Testament never calls the Adam and Eve incident “the Fall.”
The only place in the New Testament where we have a possible reference to this chapter is in Paul’s letter to the Romans (5:12-21). But Paul’s thoughts in Romans 5 are actually based on later theological developments primarily found in the Apocryphal book IV Ezra. This writing is not found in most Protestant Bibles, but it had an influence on Paul. At any rate it’s obvious that even in Romans, Paul sees Adam as representative of all human beings.
So, the observation Biblical scholars make is that the Bible itself does not see Genesis 3 as an account of “the Fall” of the human race. It’s interesting that the Jewish religion to this day does not see this chapter as an account of the Fall. And Eastern Christianity reflected in the Greek, Russian, and Syrian Orthodox Churches also rejects such an understanding.
Instead of looking at Genesis 3 as the Fall of human beings, perhaps we would best be served by seeing the text as the Old Testament presents it—it is one of several stories which talk about the nature and consequences of sin and how that sin impacts the world and the human community. Genesis 1-11 has several “fall” stories—Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel, the Boast of Lamech, the Flood, and the Tower of Babel. Each story focuses on one aspect of the nature of sin, how it impacts humans and creation, and how God through grace keeps faith with us.
So that’s the way the Bible itself sees Genesis 3. Over the centuries the church in the West has put its own interpretation on this chapter, and that interpretation is what most of us have heard in one form or another. By the Fall, the church has basically meant the event which was the beginning and cause of evil and sin among humans. The thinking goes something like this: it all started with our first ancestors. They disobeyed God, fell from grace, brought about a curse on their lives and the world, and we have been alienated from God ever since. Because we are their descendants, we have inherited this sin. Adam and Eve may have started it, but we, marred by their sin, continue the pattern. We are born in sin—we are sinful by nature—we are damned from the very beginning. The most radical form of this view has even seen babies as sinful and damned to Purgatory or hell without baptism.
This kind of thinking does not go back to Jesus or even to Paul. For the most part we in the West have fallen under the influence of a church theologian named Augustine who lived from A. D. 354-430. What I will present as Augustine’s thought will be sketchy and somewhat of a caricature. But it has a lot of truth in it, and most people in the church have never been able to understand (much less appropriate) Augustine’s theology in its depths. But basically, this is what Augustine said: Adam and Eve out of pride disobeyed God. The fruit of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil was sex that was pleasurable. Adam and Eve had sex and this was their sin. God banished them from the garden. Adam’s sin was passed on to his descendants via the sex act. The semen of the man was what actually transferred this original sin. That’s why for years the Roman Catholic Church taught that unbaptized babies were destined for Purgatory or hell. They come out of the womb sinners, damned for all eternity. Some suggest that this is also part of the reason Jesus has to be born of a virgin according to Roman Catholic doctrine. Jesus was born sinless because he was not the product of conception through the sex act and the transmission of semen.
We know today that Augustine had a lot of guilt and hang-ups about sex, and that influenced his theology. Tragically his hang-ups have also crippled the Western psyche for many centuries. Today the Roman Catholic Church has made some modifications and clarifications about the Fall and Original Sin, but I personally believe that they still are plagued with Augustine’s hang-ups about sex. That explains why they won’t allow women to be priests, why priests are not allowed to marry, why they are opposed to birth control, why they insist that the mother’s life must be sacrificed if the family must choose between the mother and the fetus, and possibly why some priests are sexually abusing children. Some of these customs and problems, at least in part, go back to Augustine and his neurotic tendencies regarding sex. Augustine had a lot of wisdom to share, but on the subject of family and sex I think he was psychologically sick and needed a boat-load of therapy himself.
So, what can we say about the Fall and Original Sin? Obviously, it was not a major emphasis in the rest of the Bible. Throughout church history there have been those who rejected Augustine’s twisted thinking. The entire Jewish religion and all of Eastern Christianity reject the concepts of Fall and Original Sin. Common sense tells us that sin cannot be passed down through the semen of the male. And although Americans have a long way to go on the subject of sexuality before we can be called psychologically healthy, I believe most of us know that sex itself is not a sin. Like money, drugs, power, influence, and a host of other things, it can be used for good or evil.
And then there is the deeper issue. If sin is built into our make-up—if we inherit sin over the generations all the way back to the first humans—if we are sinners coming out of the womb—if sin is inevitable and we have no choice, then none of us is guilty. It’s not “the Devil made me do it”—it’s Adam and Eve/it’s the genes/it’s the DNA—that’s just the way we are. We can’t help it. We are not responsible for the evil we do because we are born sinners. So, is the option to discard the concepts of the Fall and Original Sin? There are those theologians who maintain just that. And if by the Fall and Original Sin we mean what Augustine and many others have meant throughout church history, I would agree. But I would prefer to look more deeply at what the Adam and Eve story is really trying to say. The more I look at the story the more I appreciate the profound wisdom in this seemingly simple tale. So, let’s give it a try and see if we can recover that wisdom and what it says about us, society, the world, and God.
As we said a couple of sermons ago, at some point in history our ancient ancestors became human beings. They became morally and spiritually aware. They became able to distinguish between good and evil. They were able to transcend themselves and their situation. They became aware of the inevitability of death. They knew one day they would die. They could divide time into past, present, and future. They had tremendous freedom to choose in life.
As far as we know, animals don’t share in these abilities. The other day I passed a semi on I-465. It was a truck carrying pigs to slaughter. I would imagine the pigs in the truck were disturbed by the change in their circumstances, but I doubt if any of them realized that this time next week parts of them will end up on someone’s breakfast table. Animals as far as we know are not aware of their mortality—they cannot transcend themselves—they cannot think about thinking—they cannot plan in a logical way for the future. But we can. Being created in the image of God means that we are made for freedom, creativity, love, and responsibility. That is both our gift and our curse. With such a blessing comes the possibility of choosing evil over good. We could say that at some point in the history of evolution creatures emerged with the ability to choose—to be “human.” And they chose evil. In that sense we can talk about original sin—the first time a human being who was self-aware and responsible for his choices chose evil.
But more can be said than the observation that at some point in history humans obtained the freedom to choose. There is an interpretation of the Fall and Original Sin which no person on earth would dispute. It has nothing to do with sex, semen infected with sin, DNA, and babies born as sinners. It is much more profound than these literal and foolish interpretations. What it says is this: We are all born into a world which is already tainted with evil. And the influence and legacy of that evil is the environment in which we grow up. We are influenced by the sin of those around us and of those who have come before us. Consider for a moment my own situation. I was not born with racial prejudice. I did not come out of the womb with any form of bigotry. But I grew up in a family and culture which were prejudiced and bigoted. Even my saintly grandmother and the parents I adored were infected by this sin. They too were born into a world already tainted by centuries of sin. As I grew from childhood to adolescence to young adulthood I became increasingly influenced by this prejudice. Everywhere around me there were examples and temptations to join the crowd and reap the rewards and approval of others if I shared in this prejudice. The sin did not start with me but I became responsible for the sin once I let it control my thinking and behavior—once I said “Yes” to that evil way of life. At that point I became guilty as I chose evil over good. I became a sinner. I did not have to choose that path. There were those in the South who did not embrace this way of life. They went against the current. They courageously stood up for what was right, just, and sensible. The sad truth is that everyone has a choice but few have the integrity to make the right choice. Clarence Jordan grew up in southern Georgia in a time when racial prejudice was even stronger than when I was a child. But from the beginning he chose not to embrace that sin. Not far from Jordan’s birthplace another man was born about the same time named Lester Maddox. He chose the path of prejudice and went on to be the Governor of Georgia making his reputation as a segregationist who sold ax-handles as weapons to use against African-Americans. Why didn’t Maddox make the same choice as Jordan? My point is that all this is a choice. We are responsible for the good or evil we choose in life. But we are also surrounded by influences going back thousands of years—back to people we have never heard of whose evil choices impact our lives and our decisions.
Paul calls these influences “Principalities and Powers.” They are invisible but lethally real and powerful. They control much of our world even today—greed, violence, pride, prejudice. Humanity and creation have both suffered because of the legacy of the evil choices people have made over the millennia. That is the real truth behind the concept of Original Sin and the Fall. We are all born into a world already infected by evil and sin. We are powerfully tempted to join the crowd and give our assent to such evil. And once we do say “Yes” to this evil, regardless of what it may be, we become sinners ourselves, responsible for our choices as well as the consequences of those choices. We add our part to the suffering, evil, and “Fall” of this world.
But I want us to go deeper into our understanding of Original Sin, and here we are dependent on the insights of perhaps the greatest theologian the United States has ever produced: Reinhold Niebuhr. Niebuhr maintained that the sin in the Adam and Eve story is the sin of pride—self-glorification. That sin manifests itself in the assumption that we are better than others—that we deserve more—that we are worth more—that others are worth less, deserve less, and are not as good as we are. Such pride results in greed, violence, prejudice, and arrogance.
Now most of us know that. Perhaps we have never expressed this truth in words, but we know deep down that pride is the chief sin of humans. But where Niebuhr is helpful is that he goes deeper. As creatures made in the image of God we enjoy freedom, creativity, and transcendence. We are self-aware. We can think in terms of past, present, and future. We can plan life. We know we are mortal—that one day we shall die. And because we are aware of all this and because we are surrounded by all kinds of perils and threats to our lives and well-being, we become anxious. We become insecure. And so, in our anxiety we try to make ourselves secure. We try to be somebody. And we do so by thinking and acting as though we are better than others, deserve more than others, and are worth more than others. And in so acting and thinking we treat others as though they are worse than we are, deserve less than we do, and are of lesser value then we are. Such anxiety, Niebuhr argues, is the root of the sin of pride.
But he goes even deeper. Such anxiety points to a prior sin—the sin of a lack of trust in God. In our anxiety over life and our condition we try, like Adam and Eve, to go it alone—to be our own God—to become God—to cross boundaries that were meant for our own good. Adam and Eve decided that God was not to be trusted—that God was devious—that God was selfish and self-centered and did not want to share a good thing. So, they decided to trust in themselves and their own abilities and schemes. Niebuhr’s analysis is profound. The chief sin of humans is pride, but that pride is a false pride. It results from anxiety. We try to be something we are not. And that anxiety results from a lack of trust in God.
Jesus recognized this profound truth. Look at the passage from the Sermon on the Mount we have studied so many times in the past. (Matthew 6:25-34) It is perhaps the foundational teaching of Jesus. The real path out of Original Sin is a basic trust in God. We cannot erase the past. What has been done cannot be changed. What we can do is “repent”/turn around and begin a basic trust in God which relieves anxiety and thus eliminates the need of false pride and greedy self-glorification. We can be “born again” into the Kingdom of God where as we follow Jesus we use our freedom to choose the good. At that point we come to the profound wisdom of the little man from Assisi, St. Francis, who said, “I am who I am in the heart of God—nothing more and nothing less—and so is everyone else.”