The fall of humanity and the beginning of original sin is told in metaphorical form in Genesis 1 – 3 of the Hebrew and Christian Bibles. The story of the first human couple shows the love that God has for humanity and helps us understand ourselves as we are today. By studying the account in Genesis we see what original sin is and how it started. We see the concept of free will and choices can either result positively or negatively. As we understand the concept of original sin and free will in the Biblical sense this leads to the practice of spiritual disciplines which help us keep our corrupted nature under control. The disciplines also provide an avenue through which God can become directly involved in our lives, as God was in the act of creation, to help reshape us.
The first human couple came into existence in a lush, primordial garden full of delicious food and friendly animals. They were created by a loving God who wanted companionship. The one stipulation for continuing in this primordial bliss was that the couple refrain from eating the fruit from one tree—the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. They could eat from any tree, except this one, on pain of death. Deceived by a serpent, the couple ate the fruit and was condemned forever. They were cast out of the Garden and made to live a life of hard physical labor and painful childbirth. Before this, their nature was perfect in innocence. But now, with the knowledge of good and evil, the couple and all of their descendents would struggle with a corrupt nature. As their descendents gave into that nature they committed murder, adultery, theft and other crimes against humanity. They also struggled to remember the loving Creator, who continuously sought companionship with the created.
The account of creation as written in Genesis 1 and 2 is not to be taken literally in light of scientific evidence. The writers of Genesis 1 and 2 write about a loving God who carefully fashioned the world through the spoken word. The ancient writers do not give great detail because they did not witness the creation firsthand; however, the underlying foundation is that God created everything and that God thought everything was good. This is emphasized by repetitive use of the phrase “God saw that it was good.” The writers of Genesis use metaphorical language, probably derived from oral tradition, which is stories, poems, memories that were passed down from generation to generation by word of mouth, to communicate important truths in a memorable way (Tullock, 6). “Oral law (which “carried equal weight with the written law”) consisted of traditional interpretations which had been handed down from teacher to pupil. In the course of the passing on of the tradition, further explanations of basic principles were added” (Elwell).
The concept of original sin comes from the philosopher and theologian Augustine who believed that original sin was not a psychological state, but a metaphysical one. “Man’s fall was a fall in the order of ‘being.’ Once having fallen, therefore, (humans) cannot by (his or her) own efforts regain his (or her) former status in being (Harvey, 222). As a result, Augustine believed that Adam’s sin corrupted the entire human race. By this, humans not only “inherit a tendency to sin but that he (or she) inherits guilt” (Harvey, 222). Therefore, original sin is passed down as a spiritual state from generation to generation, not a genetic state.
An interesting feature about the creation narrative that I hadn’t noticed before is how quickly corruption takes hold in the first couple. Could it be that humankind’s nature was flawed before they decided to disobey God’s command?
The “flaw” is the presence of free will. The tree in the middle of the Garden symbolizes humanity’s choice, to follow God’s commands or to do what they want. “The angels and Adam were created with a will that permitted a free option between good and evil. They chose the latter and thereby limited the choice of all succeeding human beings. When the will ceases to adhere to what is above itself, its source (God), and turns to what is lower (itself or created objects), it becomes evil, not because it is itself evil but because of the improper valuing of things” (Pojman, 74). God’s choice to create humanity with free will was not a flaw. It was an act of love by a Creator who wanted voluntary allegiance. Unfortunately, the consequences of disobedience far outweigh any temporary pleasure derived from the initial act.
The metaphor of Genesis 1 – 3 shows us that human nature was first made in the image of God (imago dei). Humans have the “breath of life infused by God … Being made in God’s image, humanity has intrinsic worth. Human beings alone, among all of God’s creation, have the breath of God blown into their nostrils” (Pojman, 5, 6). Evil came when the first couple exercised their free will poorly, “the falling away from the unchangeable good of a being made good but changeable” (Pojman, 74).
The concept of original sin is still strong even though the story is metaphorical. First of all, the concept of God as creator is seen in other oral traditions outside of Judaism and Christianity. Creation itself also displays that there has to be a mastermind behind the design because of the intricate detail in every creature. This detail shows that the world is not here by accident and if creation itself proves God’s existence, then the concepts in the Bible have merit. Human nature itself shows that the species is capable of great good and great evil. The more we give into either side, the easier it becomes to perform either good or evil. Consequences then follow as proof. Every act, whether good or evil has positive or negative consequences for those committing the act or for those on the receiving end. The story of the first couple shows us that choices matter.
The concept of original sin helps us understand ourselves and also points to a loving, powerful God who will help human beings realize their potential as created in God’s image. Understanding that our nature is corrupted is helpful in spiritual formation. To help keep our corrupted nature under control and to reshape it, measures must be taken. These measures include practicing spiritual disciplines such as confession, fasting, prayer, etc. We have a loving God who wants an intimate relationship with the created. God is there to aid us in our efforts to practice goodness and morality; God is there breathing new life into us as God did to the first man. We do not have to depend on ourselves to try to be good alone. God can help us reshape our desires so that we can do the right things (Bankard) and not further the corruption caused by sin.
Bankard, Joseph Supplemental Lecture on Aristotle.
Berlin, Adele, and Marc Zvi Brettler, eds., The Jewish Study Bible. New York: Oxford
University Press, Inc., 1999.
Elwell, W. A., & Beitzel, B. J. (1988). Baker encyclopedia of the Bible. Map on lining
papers. (2094). Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Book House.
Harvey, Van A., A Handbook of Theological Terms (New York: Touchstone) 1992.
Tullock, John H., The Old Testament Story, Second Edition (Englewood Cliffs, New
Jersey: Prentice-Hall, Inc.) 1987.