An Alternative Reading of the Fall

Here’s how, in my own semi-irreverent way, I would summarize the traditional, mainstream story of Adam and Eve’s Fall in the Garden of Eden:

“So you’ve got the first man, Adam, and the first woman, Eve[1], and they live together in paradise, and everything’s cool. God gives them one command. One! ‘Do not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.’ And God tells them, ‘don’t do it or you’ll die.’ And then comes along a serpent-thing. Maybe it’s a lizard, I don’t know; it’s kind of snake-like but it has legs. Either way, the serpent’s really the devil in disguise. The serpent tells Eve that it’s just fine if she eats the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil and she won’t die. It tells her that, if she eats, she’ll be like God because she’ll know good from evil. So she eats some and gives some to Adam. And now they’ve disobeyed God, and that’s the first sin, and everything kind of sucks after that because they messed up. And so, we need Jesus.”

There are a few logical problems with this interpretation, common though it is.

First, while Adam and Eve do disobey a command from God, they cannot be held responsible for this. For the story to make any sense whatsoever, Adam and Eve must be without the knowledge of good and evil before they eat the fruit—otherwise, what’s the point in the first place? But, if they do not understand good and evil when they disobey God, they don’t understand that what they’re doing is wrong. No credible system of justice holds people culpable when they did not understand that what they were doing was wrong and intended to do wrong.

So, if eating the fruit from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil was the sin that caused the Fall, God has acted arbitrarily in declaring mankind to have fallen. I don’t believe that our God does anything arbitrarily. This by itself breaks the traditional interpretation.

It is undeniably true that Adam and Eve intentionally disobeyed God. I am not disputing that. But if they did not understand that disobeying God was wrong, we need to derive a different meaning from the story.

There is a second problem. If God is omnipotent and omniscient, and God did not want Adam and Eve to have knowledge of good and evil, why put the freaking tree in the Garden? I think that we have to assume that God is purposeful in God’s actions and that the tree is there for a reason.

It would not be sufficient of me to criticize the traditional reading of the Fall so significantly without offering an alternative explanation. I suggest that we read the story of Adam and Eve a little more mythologically[2]—as expressing a fundamental truth about the nature of existence in a way that shows rather than tells. In other words, let’s get metaphysical.

The scriptural passages make clear that Adam and Eve have free will—they have the ability to choose their actions without determinism from God. Otherwise, there is no need for God to give them a command and warning about the tree. While they cannot be held accountable for their actions prior to eating from the tree, it is nevertheless their intentional choice to disobey God.

It is safe to say, then, that the existence of Adam and Eve’s free will leads to their disobedience of and separation from God as an inevitable consequence—without having to bring moral judgment into the interpretation. That’s a profound assertion—free will is a fundamental aspect of God’s creation of humanity, but one that brings a set of problems with it.

If God’s goal for humanity is relationship, as I believe that it is, God must (at least under the laws of reality as we understand them; one can’t ever really say must of God in any truly absolute meaning) give humans free will, because a meaningful relationship requires that both parties to the relationship willingly agree to be in relationship with one another. But with free will, there’s a possibility that one party will choose not to enter into relationship. On the same lines, this means that humans may choose not to be righteous and obedient to God.

How can the lack of righteousness created by the gift of free will be resolved? This, I think, is one of the fundamental problem Christianity answers—through the grace, salvation and guidance of Jesus Christ, humanity may be both free and good.

Under this reading, the tree of the knowledge of good and evil is not a catalyst, it is a symbol. If God’s command and Adam and Eve’s subsequent disobedience is indicative of the “problem” caused by free will, then the eating of the fruit is symbolic of the fact that man and woman have a knowledge of good and evil and thus are responsible for the use of their will. In order to be able to choose to be good, they must have this knowledge; now they need a guide in the ways of righteousness. Having this knowledge also means that they are now culpable for their evil; now they need a savior to forgive their trespasses as they struggle to learn to be righteous. Both of these needs are fulfilled in the person of Jesus Christ, and this reading of the Fall sets us up to look for our savior almost from the moment of creation.

The writer of the Gospel of John tells us that Jesus is the Word, and the Word was with God at the creation and was God. When we look back to the Fall with that knowledge in mind, now we see a long-term plan from God to create beings that are free and independent of God (and thus capable of meaningful relationship with God) and giving them a path to also be righteous of their own volition.

Along with this reading—to bring things into Wesleyan perspective—we might call the fundamental problem caused by the existence of free will “original sin,” that condition in which we will inevitably separate ourselves from God and creation in an effort to satisfy only ourselves. Having young children in my home, it does occur to me that, upon discovery of the existence of the will, that seems to be the path that naturally follows. “Prevenient grace,” then, would be that grace of God that goes before us and allows us to see beyond our own selfish desires enough to do good and to seek after God.

My favorite theologians, Paul Tillich among them, advise that we ought not to define sin as particular acts, but instead of the condition of separation from God, self and others that occurs because of certain acts. I think that my alternative reading of the Fall lends itself to that definition, which also fits well with what I called in a previous post the “positive morality” of Jesus—sin is what results when we fall short of the Great Commandment. This means that we must look to both intent and result of any act to determine whether it is sinful or not—we cannot simply categorize sin without context.

As I’m sure I’ll discuss in future posts, I think that the reading of the Fall that I’ve provided gives us more logical and more useful understanding of our place in the universe and the nature of sin than the traditional view. What do you think?

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[1] I said mainstream. I’m aware of all the Lilith legendry about her being the first wife of Adam, etc. While a fascinating story, it was probably generated by early attempts to syncretize the two accounts of humanity’s creation (Gen 1:26-27 and Gen 2:7, 18-25). I’m willing to chalk up the two accounts to sloppy editing, but I can’t deny the possibility that some theological insight is meant by the existence of the two differing accounts.

[2] The “curses” given by God either fit into a “traditional” mythological role—a pre-scientific attempt to explain why certain things are the way they are (why snakes have no legs, why we have to work for our food, why childbirth hurts so damn much, etc.), or a theological role—childbirth is a symbol that real creation sometimes requires pain and sacrifice, the requirement to work the land tests our choices when we exist in a world of limited resources, etc.

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