Publications: Articles - Theology
Sin: Missing the Mark of God's Original Plan for Humankind
What is sin? How does it work? Did God create it? What is 'original' sin? How does 'original' sin affect us since we did not take part in it? How does it come down through the generations? It is these questions that the following two articles of VEMA seek to reflect upon.
Created in the image and according to the likeness of God, and therefore for communion with God, the human person was destined to become like God in every respect by grace. Yet Genesis 3 claims that in the persons of Adam and Eve, the primordial couple fell from innocence and found themselves outside paradise. In failing to achieve their ultimate destiny to grow more godlike in an eternal communion of life with the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, they failed to realise the fullness of life as love and communion with God.
The Genesis 3 account speaks of sin precisely in terms of Adam and Eve's failure and how they missed the mark. In fact the Greek word for sin, amartia means "to miss the mark, to miss the road, to fail of doing, fail of one's purpose, to miss one's point, fail, go wrong." According to this interpretation of Genesis, the sin of the primordial couple consisted in their failure to achieve the very purpose for which God created them – that is to share in God's life for all eternity. And it was this missing of the mark that brought about their fall.
The fact that the Christian tradition speaks of the fall presupposes that the first human beings fell from one state of being into another. From what has been said above the Orthodox Christian tradition does not claim that Adam and Eve fell from an idealistic or 'spiritual' world to a material world. Rather, the teaching is that they fell from an incorruptible life of relationship and communion with God and the world, into a mode of life unrelated to, and independent of God - that is a life of autonomy and existential self-sufficiency which gave birth to loneliness, isolation and the first taste of mortality. Regarding the Orthodox claim that the fall is to be identified with a loss of communion with God which resulted in death and not with any notion of punishment on the part of God, is also succinctly verified by St Basil (4th century):
"the more human persons separated themselves from life, the more they drew near to death. For God is life, and the loss of life is death."
In this interpretation, it is sin and death which are inextricably connected. The primordial sin is not explained in terms of God's punishment upon the world resulting from Adam offending God nor can it adequately be explained in terms of God needing to punish Adam and Eve with death . Rather it is simply stated that in ceasing to remain in communion with God as the source of life they caused their own distance away from God which is isolation and death. Consequently the consensus in the Greek Patristic tradition would be that the world thereafter essentially inherited mortality rather than sinfulness, sinfulness resulting from mortality. In reflecting upon Psalm 51:7, Theodoret of Cyprus remarked:
"Having become mortal [Adam and Eve] conceived mortal children, and mortal beings are necessarily subject to passions and fears, to pleasures and sorrows, to anger and hatred".
For this reason human beings would subsequently be born into a world where sin and death prevailed and therefore would not be able to live in accordance with their original destiny of selfless love and communion with God.
By succumbing to the serpent's temptation and going against the one commandment required of them not to eat from the fruit of the tree in the centre of the beautiful garden, the first couple turned from God-centeredness to self-centeredness. Having been promised likeness to God – that is the possibility of 'real' life - Adam and Eve were beguiled into thinking that this could happen without the assistance of God. In Genesis we read:
"God said, 'You shall not eat of the fruit of the tree that is in the middle of the garden, nor shall you touch it, or you shall die.'" But the serpent said to the woman, “You will not die; for God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil." (Gen 3:3-5).
Seeing that the fruit was good and a delight to the eyes, and desiring to be made wise, they ate of the fruit only to have their eyes opened to a world completely different. In putting themselves over and above God they thereby attempted to become their own gods without God. In trying to realise life without God, they thought that they could draw life from themselves but instead tasted the fruits of an autonomous self-centred existence which was loneliness and ultimately death.
The ancestral sin consisted precisely in Adam and Eve 'missing the mark' or deviating from the original goal; in falsely believing that they did not need God in order to exist. Regarding sin, the Orthodox Christian tradition would state explicitly that sin did not enter the world by the will of God but by human beings who were deceived by the devil. In the Wisdom of Solomon states:
"For God created man for incorruption, and made him in the image of his own eternity, but through the devil's envy death entered the world, and those who belong to his party experience it" (Wisdom of Solomon 2:23-24).
God created the human person 'very good' (cf Gen 1:31) and therefore sin was not built into human nature. Yet the possibility of sin existed since human beings were created with God-like freedom since they were created in His image and could therefore chose to alienate themselves from God.
This loss of communion with God is beautifully described in the Genesis account in terms of Adam's desire to hide from God:
"They heard the sound of the LORD God walking in the garden at the time of the evening breeze, and the man and his wife hid themselves from the presence of the LORD God among the trees of the garden." (Gen. 3:8).
Adam and Eve's desire to hide from God, shows the rupture in their communion as they seek for a place where God was 'absent'. Therefore the fundamental definition of sin has nothing to do with punishment or morality but rather is directly related to humankind missing the mark as to what God had originally intended for them. Since it is God who provides the world with life it follows that it is only in communion with God that the world could be provided with the presupposition of life. The Orthodox Christian tradition would claim that the sin of Adam and Eve consisted precisely in their false belief that they could exist the way God exists without the grace of God. Fundamentally they were beguiled into thinking that they did not need to be in loving communion with God in order to really live as opposed to simply survive.
A fundamental point to be made at this point is that the fall did not rule out the possibility for humankind to restore and regain their former participation of a life in God. The story of Genesis continues in showing how God went out to find the fallen Adam.
"But the LORD God called to the man, and said to him, “Where are you?” (Gen. 3:9).
Prefiguring the parable of Christ seeking the lost sheep, the Scriptures depict God actively seeking out Adam in the hope of his repentance. Some Eastern fathers openly believed that if Adam and Eve had repented from their sinful ways, that God undoubtedly would have forgiven them. It is for this reason that the Eastern Christian tradition does not describe the fall as a total depravity of God's grace since God does not entirely abandon the world.
The Genesis account of the fall also describes the 'original sin' of humankind in terms of alienation or loss of communion not only from God, but from creation itself. In speaking to the serpent, God explicitly states this lack of intimacy with the world.
"I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and hers; he will strike your head, and you will strike his heel." (Gen 3:15).
Therefore the primordial human beings produced a division between God, themselves and the world. The division between God and the first couple which was a result of pride separated and alienated them at the same time from the world since pride is essentially a concern and love for self over others. Whilst before the fall, the human person was created to be in constant communion and love with God and the created realm, after the fall, no place was given to God or the world since the human being turned in on itself. Therefore with this loss of communion with God followed a rupture in their communion with the world which was originally given to Adam and Eve to care for and cultivate. The world became a disposable commodity, nothing more than an object for their fulfilment and self-centred desires. According to St Maximus the Confessor "Human persons wished to lay hold on the things of God without God, before God and not according to God's will" and so "they delivered the whole of nature as a prey to death." Just as the image of God within human persons was distorted, so too was creation robbed of its lustre and translucency in reflecting the beauty of God.
Consequences of the Fall
The alienating effects of Adam and Eve's fall were both physical and moral. Finding themselves outside paradise, they experienced not only 'bondage and decay' but also a world, as was stated above, hostile and destructive, subject to storms, earthquakes and floods. Furthermore they experienced pain, guilt and anxiety in the face of death. There are three consequences of the fall which are outlined and reflected below – a) the rise of pain and sorrow in the world; b) the plight of the entire created realm and c) the feeling of nakedness. It is to these three consequences that we now turn.
Consequences of the fall: sorrows and pain
Genesis describes the original joy of a mother with regard to bringing forth children now marred with pain and labour. Moreover it describes that henceforth women would be ruled over by their husbands even though they were created in equality and mutuality. To the woman God said:
“I will greatly increase your pangs in childbearing; in pain you shall bring forth children, yet your desire shall be for your husband, and he shall rule over you.” (Gen. 3:15-16).
The God given hierarchy of equality within creation was now disfigured into inequality and subservience. As for men, they would experience hardship in the tilling of the land in that they would earn their food by the sweat of their brow.
"And to the man [God] said, "…cursed is the ground because of you; in toil you shall eat of it all the days of your life; thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for you; and you shall eat the plants of the field. By the sweat of your face you shall eat bread until you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken; you are dust, and to dust you shall return." (Gen 3:17-19).
The primordial couple were overcome by pain and sorrows because they have lost God's gift of incorruptible life and now anxiously had to struggle merely to survive.
Consequences of the fall: the plight of creation
With the fall of Adam and Eve came the fall and distortion of the entire created world from its original beauty since it too was alienated from the source of life. The original harmony and beauty of creation was disrupted by the fall of the primordial couple. Since God's commandment to Adam not to eat of the fruit of the tree was directly related to creation it too felt the consequences of Adam's fall. The fall of creation is described in the letter to the Romans in the following way:
"for the creation was subjected to futility, not of its own will but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope." (Rom 8:20).
This point is made clear by St Paul regarding the interdependence between human beings and the world and therefore of the consequent fall of the world resulting from Adam's fall. It could be said that the entire created realm is victim to humanity's abuse of freedom. It is for this reason that the created world refuses to be subject to human persons. St Symeon the New Theologian describes this reality in a beautifully poetic way:
"When it [creation] saw Adam leave paradise, all of the created world no longer wished to be subject to the transgressor. The sun did not want to shine by day, nor the moon by night, nor the stars to be seen by him. The springs of water did not want to well up for him, nor the rivers to flow.
The very air itself thought about contracting itself and not providing breath for the rebel. The wild beasts and all the animals of the earth saw him stripped of his former glory and, despising him, immediately turned savagely against him. The sky was moving as if to fall justly down on him and the very earth would not endure bearing him upon its back."
The world ceased to be a transparent window through which humanity could behold God but rather grew opaque; it ceased to be life-giving but instead it too became subject to mortality and corruption.
Consequences of the fall: nakedness
Both Adam and Eve were not only isolated from creation but also from themselves in that they were ashamed by their nakedness and put on garments of skin. Genesis states this in the following way:
"then the eyes of both were opened, and they knew that they were naked; and they sewed fig leaves together and made loincloths for themselves." (Gen 3:7).
The feeling of nakedness is symbolic of a rupture in communion since they ceased to relate in a self-offering and unifying love but rather saw the 'other' as an object of desire and gratification. It is for this reason that Genesis describes Adam and Eve sewing leaves of figs so as to protect and defend themselves from such objectification. Weakened in their will and divided within themselves they would now become subject to inward estrangement and isolation, caught in a situation where they would choose evil even though God created them innately good. In Genesis 4, for example, the Scriptures describe the story about fratricide where Cain killed his brother Abel; and in Genesis 11, humankind is further divided from each other in the confusing of languages brought about by the headstrong pride of that generation.
Even if the entire Genesis narrative is mythological and prescientific in nature it offers an explanation for the reality and human experience of sin in the world. Prefiguring the entire tragic history of humanity, the Genesis account of the fall accounts for the reality of suffering, injustice, evil death and sin which are all too obvious in the world today. One only has to mention the twentieth century list of violence – the two world wars, the Armenian genocide, the Holocaust, the killings in Rwanda, Cambodia and Bosnia, the death of so many children which result from a lack of nutrition and starvation, the continued wars of religious ideologies, the continued existence of slavery and the sexual exploitation of children.
However this world of natural catastrophes and injustice is not a failure of God's work nor is it his punishment but rather as St Paul notes a triumph of freedom in that the world is led back to life ever so slowly and sometimes unbeknown to us by the love of God:
"I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed to us. For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God….in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God." (Rom 18-21).
Knowing that Adam and Eve would sin by missing their original target, God nevertheless created them along with the entire world simply so that they could become partakers of His eternal beatitude. Yet even a life in communion with God without the person's freedom to choose this would be a failure of God's work. For this reason, beyond the reality that "the whole creation has been groaning in labour pains until now" (Rom 8:22) there is in all this God's guiding 'hand' leading his children and the entire created world back to His embrace.
Academic Secretary and Associate Lecturer
St Andrew’s Greek Orthodox Theological College