The myth of the fall

I noted in my previous post some of the deficiencies of the ninth article on original sin, and postponed reflection on the problems raised by a contemporary scientific understanding of the world, together with a modern literary reading of the Genesis origin stories. Today I want to explore some different readings of those stories, in the light of our contemporary understanding of a slow evolution of living things, together with an appreciation of the mythopoeic nature of the early stories of Genesis.

At the same time, I want to hold on to what is affirmed (if that’s the right word) by the doctrine of original sin: namely that there is something more to the imperfect nature of the world and of human beings than simple concrete acts of human wrongdoing. In the bluntest language, we are not sinners because we sin, we sin because we are sinners. Estrangement both from God, and from the truest nature of what God calls us to and would have us become, is part of the fundamental theological description of human being.

First, we need to note that taking Genesis 3 as giving an account of a single historic Fall of humanity is essentially a later Christian reading, apparently generated by Paul’s comparison of Adam and Christ. Jewish readers do not take these texts in the same way, and there is good reason in the text to see it their way.

The eating of the fruit mars the way in which humans were to live in the world. Among other things they hide from God, the stewardship of the garden is replaced by the painful labour of farming, and childbearing likewise results in painful labour. (English translations rather obscure the use of the same word for the man’s toil and the woman’s pain.) The man and woman are distanced from each other and seek refuge in the cultural artefacts of clothing, and the way to the tree of life is barred.

As the story progresses, so too does a growing alienation between humans, as first Cain murders Abel, and Lamech develops a macho cult of power backed up by vengeance. Rivalries that set up a train of persistent bloody history develop in the story of Noah’s sons. This alienation will find its completion in the mangling of human language at the tower of Babel, and the dispersal of people and language groups. Throughout this time the growth of self-aggrandizing human culture continues apace.

The order of creation is itself threatened, first (and this is the nearest some Jewish traditions have come to an actual “Fall”) by the disordering of the proper relations of heaven and earth, as “the sons of God” mingle with “the daughters of men.” This prompts God to come close to unmaking creation by releasing the penned up waters, and disordering the world with the chaotic flood, yet in the end God sustains creation despite the fact that imperfections continue, and renews his blessing.

(The promise in the Apocalypse, that there will no longer be any sea, needs to be seen in this light. The present creation contains within itself the potential for being unmade. The future creation will not: fully indwelt by God, it will be un-unmakeable. There is a level of “very good”, a perfection, which present creation has never had.)

Throughout this story, the threat that eating the fruit from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil would bring death is being worked out. As human knowledge of good and evil continues increasingly and experientially through this primaeval history, so lifespans come increasingly closer to the norm. Adam may have been 930 years old when he dies, but by the end of Genesis 11 Terah dies at 205. We are some way nearer the normal human experience of a life bounded by all sorts of limits, but especially the limit of death.

This brief summary reads the texts as an aetiology of human experience of the world. It is a story of bane and blessing, disobedience and covenant, death and life. In this story it is remarkably hard to single out one moment only of this progression and say, “that was the Fall, that was”.

So what could have led Paul to his innovative understanding of a moment when everything changed with the transgression of Adam, rather than through a series of events? The answer, I think, must be that this is indeed one of the places where Paul moves, in Sanders’ phrase, “from solution to plight.” Seeing a decisive moment of new creation in the resurrection of Christ drives Paul back to seeing a decisive moment of creation’s fall through Adam. Thus there is only either fallen humanity, or recreated humanity. Just as resurrection is not a process, so fall could not have been a process rather. Both are read as decisive events.

Paul’s insight can’t simply wipe away the other ways of reading. On the other hand, it needs taking seriously. So if we try to do that, re-read the story of human fallenness in the light of Christ, rather than Christ in the light of the earlier story, does that also offer us a way of dealing with an atemporal fall in an evolutionary universe?

One of the more interesting aspects of St John’s gospel is the way in which Christ’s work is portrayed as the work of creation. Consider these fairly well-known verses (all NRSV):

  • Jesus said to them, “My food is to do the will of him who sent me and to complete his work. (4:34)
  • Therefore the Jews started persecuting Jesus, because he was doing such things on the sabbath. But Jesus answered them, “My Father is still working, and I also am working.” (5:16-17)
  • When Jesus had received the wine, he said, “It is finished.” (19:30 – completed on the sixth day of the week)
  • Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark … (20:1 – after the last sabbath of the first creation when Jesus rested from his finished work, comes the first day of the new)

In John, Jesus does not recognise the sabbath as a day of rest, because the work of creation has not been completed. It will only be finished when he dies.

I suggest this invites us to go back to the story of Genesis 1 and read it not as past event, but proleptically. We read it as the prologue to the whole Christian Bible, saying this is what God is about, creating order from chaos, and making human beings to live in union with God’s own self. The image of God is God’s intention for men and women, only fully realised in the incarnation, that reveals the image to us, and makes us able to share in it. For now, we participate in the chaos, as much as we are invited to join in the ordering activity of the one who breathes the spirit of life into us.

Fall, and original sin, then become a way of speaking about human existence on its way to being ordered out of chaos, and being created into the image of God. Though they describe our environment and our being negatively (though in all sorts of ways fairly accurately) their primary intent is not negative, but an invitation to a better vision, and a hope for a creation where God can pronounce at the end of the story, that it is indeed very good.

(Part of a series on the 39 articles of religion)

2 Replies to “The myth of the fall”

  1. “So if we . . . re-read the story of human fallenness in the light of Christ, rather than Christ in the light of the earlier story, does that also offer us a way of dealing with an atemporal fall in an evolutionary universe?”

    You know, it just might – if we lived in an evolutionary universe. But since we don’t, I guess we’ll never know.

    1. St Augustine: de genesi ad litteram 1.19.39

      Usually, even a non-Christian knows something about the earth, the heavens, and the other elements of this world, about the motion and orbit of the stars and even their size and relative positions, about the predictable eclipses of the sun and moon, the cycles of the years and the seasons, about the kinds of animals, shrubs, stones, and so forth, and this knowledge he holds to as being certain from reason and experience. Now, it is a disgraceful and dangerous thing for an infidel to hear a Christian, presumably giving the meaning of Holy Scripture, talking nonsense on these topics; and we should take all means to prevent such an embarrassing situation, in which people show up vast ignorance in a Christian and laugh it to scorn. The shame is not so much that an ignorant individual is derided, but that people outside the household of faith think our sacred writers held such opinions, and, to the great loss of those for whose salvation we toil, the writers of our Scripture are criticized and rejected as unlearned men. If they find a Christian mistaken in a field which they themselves know well and hear him maintaining his foolish opinions about our books, how are they going to believe those books in matters concerning the resurrection of the dead, the hope of eternal life, and the kingdom of heaven, when they think their pages are full of falsehoods and on facts which they themselves have learnt from experience and the light of reason?

Comments are closed.