Wednesday, May 1, 2013

The Fall, Part I: Another look at a theological keystone

As many of you may be aware, in recent months and in the course of rethinking a lot of how I view Scripture, I have arrived at a view of creation that accords most satisfyingly with both the Biblical and scientific evidence but, inconveniently, disbelieves in the existence of a historical Adam that most Christians hold so dear. Though I had felt somewhat pushed toward this conclusion for years by the evidence, I had resisted because of its theological implications--especially the perceived necessity of a real, historical Adam to the narrative of the Fall, one of the central doctrines of the Gospel message at my church.

So in this post and the next, I'm going to examine the doctrine of the Fall. First, let me state what I perceive to be the dominant evangelical narrative of this doctrine, as clearly and charitably as I can.
God created the world not just "very good" (Genesis 1:31), but perfect, exactly in accordance with His will. As the culminating act of His creation, He made man (2:7) in His own image and likeness (1:26) and put him in a garden He had planted (2:8) to live in and enjoy the perfection both of the Earth and of an unbroken relationship with his Creator. God later creates a woman (2:22) to end the man's aloneness, which was not good (2:18), and the two live a truly perfect life in perfect intimacy with God and each other that we can only vaguely imagine (2:25). He gives them one command: to not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, or they will die (3:17).
But this state of perfection was not to last. Satan, an angel who rebelled against God (Isaiah 14:12-15) and was cast from heaven (Luke 10:18), appears in the guise of a serpent (Genesis 3:1) and deceives or tempts the woman with half-truths and lies (3:1-5) into breaking the command and eating the forbidden fruit, along with her husband (3:6). Immediately everything changes; they feel shame for the first time (3:7) and break their perfect intimacy with God by hiding from Him (3:8). 
When God confronts their act of disobedience, they try to shift the blame and make excuses for their behavior (3:11-13), but God will have none of it. He curses Satan to eat dust and promises his future defeat by Christ (3:14-15), curses the woman with pain in childbirth and strife with her husband (3:16), and the man with toil (3:17) and the promise that, though in mercy he won't die immediately, he will certainly die and return to dust (3:19). Finally, he exiles Adam and Eve from the garden, leaving them to make their way in the outside world 3:23).
Because of this singular act of disobedience, the "Fall of man", all of humanity and, indeed, all of creation lies under the curse of sin. Adam, acting as the representative of mankind, brought sin into the world and into the hearts of all his descendants (Romans 5:12, 19), and now death reigns over creation until Christ does away with it (1 Corinthians 15:26, Revelation 20:14). Now no one is righteous (Romans 3:10-18), everyone rejects God and embraces sin, and pays the penalty for sin with their life (6:23). Come soon, Christ, and rescue us from this fallen world of sin and death!
The number of verses that can be cited to back a doctrine is no sure proof of its correctness. I am now going to proceed to, as carefully and honestly as I can, point out the problems I see with this narrative, not out of a desire to undermine peoples' faith or replace sound doctrine with fabrications, but out of a sincere love for the truth and a desire to appreciate and love God more by greater knowledge of the truth. (I hope that by the end of the second post, you'll agree)

Scientific Problems

I'm going to start with the problems this narrative has relative to evidence external to the Bible, both because there are fewer and because I know it may be less convincing to many evangelicals. The fact of the matter is, the above narrative is simply incompatible with any kind of belief in evolution, even if you believe as I do that evolution is the mechanism God used to create the diversity of life on earth today. The reason is that this narrative incorporates and assumes the theology of young-earth creationism (YEC)--that is, the literal (as modern science) interpretation of Genesis 1 that believes God created the earth and cosmos in six literal days about 6,000 years ago.

What do I mean? Even if you hold to an alternate interpretation of Genesis 1 (for example, as literary framework), the Fall narrative still assumes--no, demands--a literal interpretation of the rest of Genesis that casts Adam as a flesh-and-blood individual who lived around 6,000 years ago. And this Adam must be the ancestor of all modern humans (otherwise, how could his original sin have spread to everyone?) Given that we know modern humans as a species are much older than that (the patrilineal ancestor of all modern humans is estimated to be between 237,000 and 581,000 years old) and the lack of evidence for such a population bottleneck, this becomes a difficulty.

There is also the fact that the Fall narrative strongly implies that death did not exist in the world until about 6,000 years ago, which, as I have already pointed out, is manifestly false and leads to Ken Ham-like fantasies about humans and dinosaurs coexisting (because they couldn't have died before then).

When Christians notice these incompatibilities between their interpretation of Genesis and modern historical knowledge, the natural tendency is to allow the Bible (or their interpretation of it) to "trump" whatever non-Biblical evidence appears to contradict it. Besides the stereotype of conservative Christians as backward and ignorant and all the regrettable conflicts over the teaching of evolutions, there is another problem to this selective approach to evidence. It assumes a very hierarchical view of truth where "God's truth" as revealed through the Bible supersedes all other forms of truth. I simply don't think this is how God made us to deal with truth. I believe God gave us senses and inquisitive minds to explore, grapple with, and discern truth in whatever form it is presented whether in the world around us, through science, music, and others. Denying truth acquired via science or other methods because it doesn't fit into your theological system is a denial of the rational faculties God has given us, and it does a disservice both to us and to the people we're supposed to be witnessing to.

Biblical Problems

Now we get to the crux of the issue. Christians have been denying the scientific evidence in favor of their chosen hermeneutical frameworks for centuries, but there is no defense against intrabiblical problems with the Fall narrative but to sweep them under the rug or claim that they aren't a big deal. I am going to attempt to bring these problems into the light. Foremost is that it smuggles in a great deal of philosophical assumptions that are, in fact, not Biblical at all. Two of the main ones are what I will refer to as Platonic idealism and dualism.

Platonic Idealism

At the risk of undermining my credibility, I will admit that Brian McLaren did a great job of unpacking how Platonism has contributed to our understanding of the Fall in A New Kind of Christianity. He argues that the basic evangelical narrative of the gospel can be summarized in the following "six-line diagram" (I used slightly different labels for the lines than he did):
So God creates the perfect, paradisical garden of Eden. When Adam and Eve sin, creation falls from this state of perfection into imperfection, awaiting the redemption of Christ to restore perfection, or else people who reject Christ will continue to descend infinitely into damnation. (There is some slippage between talking about all of creation or individuals)

McLaren argues, and I agree, that a nonbiblical, Platonic definition of "perfection" is being used in this narrative. Namely, perfection as a static state, a point from which any change must be a change for the worse. While the belief that this definition of perfection applies to God is uncontroversial (including to me), the Fall narrative generalizes it to apply to the newly-created world.

But upon looking closely, this view of the unfallen world as Platonically perfect starts to look fishy. God creates the world in about six discrete steps--in a kind of story, which is impossible with Platonic perfection because stories involve change and change from a state of perfection must be a change for the worse. Was the world 1/6th perfect after the first day, half-perfect after the third, finally reaching perfection after the sixth day? Why not simply create the perfect world in an instant and skip the untidy imperfection? So it's a stretch to apply God's variety of perfection to the created order.

I will develop what I believe to be a more Biblical view of perfection more in the next post, but for now let me propose that perfection may not be a state but a direction, continued to infinity, and the eschatological hope of Christians is not a return to a static state of perfection or an end to history but an eternal, increasingly-glorious ascent or the beginning of the very best part of history. Not a final arrival but the beginning of an endless new journey, a new story better than any we've known before. Honestly, who really looks forward to playing a harp and singing "Holy, holy, holy is the Lord God Almighty,' who was, and is, and is to come" for all eternity? Actually reaching Platonic perfection is as impossible as counting to infinity--but what the endless counting is the whole point?

Lest you get discouraged, let me share some C.S. Lewis as he generally manages to make much less of a mess of these topics. Specifically, the very end of his landmark fiction series, The Chronicles of Narnia. After the Narnian version of the last judgment, our heroes pass through a stable door to a new Narnia. With the call "further up and further in!", they begin to explore this new Narnia, which resembles the old but where everything is bigger, grander, more colorful, "more like the real thing". The old Narnia was only a shadow of this one. "The new one was a deeper country; every rock and flower and blade of grass looked as if it meant more." So the unicorn cries,
"I have come here at last! This is my real country! I belong here. This is the last I have been looking for all my life, though I never knew it till now. The reason why we loved the old Narnia is that it looked a little like this."
Then, traveling to the east, they reach a garden that looks small from the outside but, within its gates, is another, even truer version of Narnia further up. And they realize that they could keep going up, climbing the mountains of Aslan forever, and it would keep getting better forever. The book ends with the following:
And for us this is the end of all the stories, and we can most truly say that they lived happily ever after. But for them it was only the beginning of their real story. All their life in this world and all their adventures in Narnia had only been the cover and title page: now at last they were beginning Chapter One of the Great Story which no one on earth has read: which goes on forever: in which every chapter is better than the one before.
Lewis absolutely nails how perfection-as-endless-story is infinitely better and more joy-worthy than perfection-as-static-state. This is an eternity I can put hope in; this, I believe is the merest glimpse of what God has in store for those who love Him.


Another issue with the Fall narrative is that it sees the Fall as a kind of ungodly act of creation--the "creation" of sin and evil, which were previously unknown in the world. Let me submit that this concept of humans creating sin by an act of disobedience reeks of dualism--the view of evil as an external force "out there", existing independently and in opposition to good.

The dualistic perspective envisions a spectrum of good and evil, with God at one end and Satan on the other. In other words, it sees good and evil as external realities or categories that people, angels, and God fit into. Before the Fall, there was no spectrum and everything was perfectly good; afterward, the "Evil" side of the equation came into being and people slipped down away from Good and into Evil. In other words, the Fall of man (or, a bit more accurately, the Fall of Satan) marks the creation of Evil. God, being fully good, could of course not have created Evil; it had to be created by the choice of a free agent, and God promises to totally destroy evil in the end.

I don't think this is the view of good and evil we see in the Bible. Here is a bit of what the it does have to say. 3 John 11 says that "Anyone who does what is good is from God. Anyone who does what is evil has not seen God." In Luke 18:19 Jesus says, "No one is good—except God alone." As I see it, there is no spectrum--there is no "out-there" concept of Good or Evil, there is only God-who-is-good, and varying shades of unity or disunity with Him. Being united with (or "from") God is good; being separated from God is evil.

In other words, I would flip around the Fall's narrative of Evil being created and needing to be destroyed. Rather, I see sin as an act of de-creation and disunity, an offense to God's desire to create and unify. God's solution, then, is not to destroy Evil but to re-create what sin destroys or dismantles and to unite a straying world back to Himself, because to be separated from God is destruction. (See Jesus' prayer for the world in John 17)

A caveat: Paul does speak of sin "entering the world" in Romans 5:12. Does this mean he sees sin as a separate metaphysical concept in opposition to God? I don't think so. Personifying sin is not the same thing as setting up a dualistic system around it. His usage here is not incompatible with a definition of sin as rebellion, disobedience, and separation from God.

The nature of God

The basic "fact" of the Fall has led to many well-known difficulties in its reconciliation with God's sovereignty and goodness. The Christian-turned-agnostic singer-songwriter David Bazan expresses his incredulity about the Fall in the songs "Hard to Be" and "When We Fell", the latter of which has the line, "Did you push us when we fell?" It's a valid question: why would God permit, determine, or cause (depending on your view of His sovereignty) the Fall? The third of these choices, representing the hyper-Calvinistic view that God actively engineers or causes everything to happen, becomes untenable because He can't be held directly responsible for the Fall and still be considered good--I wrestled with this issue in my series on providence.

Meanwhile, the first choice, God passively allowing or permitting the Fall, makes little more sense. It makes Him seem strangely apathetic or absent at the moment of the "original sin", only showing up after the fact and asking what happened. This goes beyond simply respecting peoples' free will. Why would God give Adam one clear command and then so cavalierly step aside to let him break it? What parent would stand by to allow his child to freely wander onto the highway? I'm not saying this question is unanswerable within the Fall narrative, but the very fact that it so powerfully casts His goodness and agency into question should cast suspicion on it.

And again, even the second choice, representing the view of God's providence I arrived at last year, of separating God's determining all things from His directly acting in the world, has trouble. Again, if God created the world in a state of perfection that could not be improved on, there is nothing that could possibly be gained from determining that it would fall from that state--the best one could hope for would be a return to that initial perfection, calling into question the point of the Fall in the first place. The only answer I know of is a vague appeal to some quantitative understanding of God's "glory"--"He allowed the world to fall so He could redeem it and get more glory for Himself"--but expressing spiritual concepts like grace, righteousness, sin, or glory as if they could be weighed on a scale or wrapped in a box is another Western fallacy. (See the long Eastern Orthodox quote in this post) Certainly it's hard to see the Fall as anything other than a failure or setback to God's plans that He has to react to and recover from; how could He have planned it?

I have to wonder if the narrative of the Fall is so popular with Christians because of its austerity, its bleak, guilt-ridden view of humanity that paints us as the reason everything is wrong in the world so therefore we have that much more need of a Savior. Funnily enough, this is also a big reason why atheists believe their perspective of the world as a meaningless collection of molecules is true and Christianity is false. It's a fallacy to assume a correlation between the palatability of a theory and its truthfulness. A theology of sin that makes us feel worse about ourselves is not the more true for it.

Defining a "fallen world"

The term "fallen world" seems self-explanatory at first: God made the world good, it got messed up to include sin and death, and now we wait for it to be redeemed. But in an evolutionary view of history it's not so simple. In the timeline of the universe we have from science, when did the earth become fallen? Is it meaningful to refer to the primordial soup of subatomic particles that was the early universe as "fallen"? What about the very early earth as a lifeless ball of cooling magma? Did the earth become fallen when the most basic organisms starting evolving and, therefore, dying? Or when more advanced organisms capable of experiencing pain came along? Or when the earliest humans came along to do something we might consider "sinning"?

Or, rather than temporally, think spatially, much like C.S. Lewis in the Space Trilogy. Does the "Fall" extend beyond the upper atmosphere? What does it mean for the rest of the universe to be "fallen"? Is it even meaningful to speak of a difference between a "fallen" Jupiter and a "redeemed" Jupiter? Can a world with no life be "fallen"? Hopefully you can see from this how the term "fallen world" can seem more universal than it has any right to be.

Other disconnects with the Biblical data

The Fall narrative is an example of how differences can arise between what the Bible actually says, and what we say it says, without our even noticing. Some specific examples:
  • Nowhere (except possibly in the very end, Revelation 12:9 and 20:2) does the Bible identify the serpent in Genesis 3 with Satan. As far as Genesis 3 itself says, it's just a talking snake. (The word-for-word ESV says, "Now the serpent was more crafty than any other beast of the field...", assuming that the snake is supposed to be just another beast of the field)
  • The absence of death or suffering is also an interpolation. Did Adam or the other animals age? What about plants--were there convenient paths so everyone could be sure to avoid stepping on anything and crushing it? Did Adam's cells die, or was his biology totally different than ours? The text itself doesn't say, but it's necessary to assume to support the idea of a deathless paradise. You could argue that "for dust you are, and to dust you will return" (3:19) implies that nothing died before the curse, but again, it's only talking about Adam (or maybe humans), and the statement is used as a justification or reason for what God had just said; a reminder, not new information.
  • The link between Adam's sin and the human condition is made only by Paul. Jesus never mentions Adam; he is only mentioned in the Old Testament as part of a genealogy in 1 Chronicles 1:1, never as an explanation or ground for anyone's sin. These are significant and conspicuous omissions if Genesis 3 is supposed to be the definitive explanation for the origin of sin and death. Certainly this connection is not made in Genesis 3 itself; it has to be read back in.
  • Even more tenuous is the link between Adam's sin and the more general concept of a "fallen world"--the existence of things like animal suffering, natural disasters, disease, and so on. As far as I know, the Bible never links any of these things to human sin, and indeed, the idea that Adam's sin could, say, alter the underlying tectonics of the earth to make earthquakes and volcanoes possible is bizarre, to say the least. The Bible does say, however, that God can and does make these things happen. (Isaiah 45:7) Hmm...
The fact is, the theology of original sin and the fallen world I described above is not stated nearly as clearly in the Bible as much theology would have you think; most of the narrative is not actually told in Genesis, but is laid on top of it from elsewhere. For the most part, the Bible simply doesn't concern itself with how creation got to the messed-up state it's in, and it certainly doesn't pin it on humans. I don't think the purpose of Genesis 3 is to answer that question in the universal way the Fall narrative makes it. Much more, the gospel takes "the way things are" as a fact and presents God (as most truly shown in Jesus) as the answer, the solution, the redemption plan. We're called to "deny ourselves" to follow Jesus (Matthew 16:24), and this can look like learning to set peripheral questions like this aside and trust Jesus as the Answer instead of demanding the answers from Him.

Perpetually incomplete theology

By this point, you're probably either listening raptly and disappointed you have to wait for the second post, or worrying for the fate of my soul. The doctrine of the Fall is close to the core of much of Christian theology, at least in evangelicalism. The summary of the gospel my church frequently runs through goes Creation-Fall-Redemption-Glorification. Calling any link of this chain of reasoning, including the Fall, into question, is seen as little different from doubting the depravity of humanity, the gospel, or the very truthfulness of God. Let me be clear: I am not, in any way, questioning the very, very clearly-established fact that people are uniformly evil (disunited with God) by nature and that it leads them to sin. You have to believe that this reality is not the same as the doctrine of the Fall. The here-and-now fact of human depravity is independent of its origin.

As Christians, it's easy to go from believing you have been given the truth of God, humanity, sin, redemption, et cetera to adopting a very defensive "gatekeeper of truth" posture where any perceived threat to the "closed-hand issues" of faith is marginalized, ignored, or attacked because what matters most is holding onto the truth we've been given and defending it from the lies of sin. The realization that our theology is always incomplete should keep our eyes and ears open to truth from all sides. The danger of dividing everyone into "good guys" and "bad guys" is that it always assumes, uncritically, that you're with the good guys. I don't mean this personally, but the kind of thinking that leads to writing off theology that, say, questions the traditional doctrine of the Fall differs only in quantity from the kind that led to Westboro Baptist Church protests, the persecution of Galileo, or the Diet of Worms in that they all equate theological disagreement with danger.

It's much easier to question, tear down, and destroy than to answer and build up. Simply questioning and attacking the Fall narrative is of no help if you don't provide an alternative. Next post, I will attempt to do that--to show that there are Biblical ways of explaining the human condition other than "God made it, we broke it, God will fix it".

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