The world is not as it should be. But must that mean it was once perfect?
In the biblical story of creation, God brings forth life out of a formless void and ushers light out of darkness. Our divine creator makes the heavens and the earth, the plants and the animals, creeping creatures that creep and winged creatures that fly. Then, God makes humankind in God’s own image, Imago Dei. Adam and Eve, the first parents of all humankind, are placed in the midst of Paradise, in the Garden of Eden.
In the Book of Genesis, our Creator makes all things. God sees all that has been made with divine hands and pronounces it good.
The problem comes in chapter three.
In the third chapter of Genesis, Adam and Eve are tempted by a cunning serpent into eating the forbidden fruit from the Tree of Life. Because of their transgression, God curses Adam and Eve, casting them out from the Garden. In much of the Christian West, the Garden of Eden represented the original perfection of humankind. According to this tradition, Adam and Eve subverted creation’s original perfection and brought sin into the world. Thereby, humanity fell from their original perfection into a disordered and sinful state. It was believed that Adam and Eve’s transgression precipitated an historical fall from a state of perfection to a state of sin.
According to theological tradition, God’s creation today exists in this state of brokenness and disorder.
Like any good follower of John Calvin, I am a firm believer in the doctrine of sin. I believe that sin is both original and inherited. As Reinhold Niebuhr famously stated, “Original sin is the only empirically verifiable doctrine of the Christian faith.” Evidence of the fundamental brokenness of creation is everywhere. We are sinners in need of redemption, of healing, of wholeness. I believe it’s impossible to live rationally in this world, whatever your belief system may be, without some type of language for the universal condition of sin and brokenness which we experience every day.
True, the world is not as it should be. But must that mean it was once perfect?
If you believe that all life once coexisted in perfect order, in some original state of created bliss, then somehow you have to come to terms with the presence of the malicious serpent in the Garden. Ultimately one must reconcile that even in Paradise, sin prevailed. Sinless human wills willingly chose sin. How can this be?
In my article “Leave the Tensions: Calvin’s Account of Human Agency before and after the Fall,” I point out that John Calvin has a complex understanding of the fall, namely as it pertains to free will. Leaning on the traditional fall narrative, Calvin has a difficult time explicating the belief that sinless human beings freely brought sin into the world. In so doing, Calvin ends up with two different accounts of free will: an idealized, perfect version before the fall and a messy, disordered version after the fall. Before the fall, human beings were free and consistent in choosing the good. After the fall, our will is completely bound by sin. We can sometimes choose the good, but we do so inconsistently and not without God’s help. Still, how the ideal faculties of a sinless human being were subverted in the first place is a question that Calvin largely leaves unanswered. Yet Calvin is unwavering in his insistence that, while nothing happens apart from God’s permission, the fall was our fault, not God’s.
Thus, we are left with Calvin’s messy, complicated, and, at times, inconsistent explanation of the fall. One which, I argue, makes sense in line with the traditional fall narrative. You see, Calvin’s understanding of the fall is shared largely by the Western Augustinian tradition. His problem in accounting for how sinless wills effectively bring sin into Paradise is a problem he generally inherited from those who came before him. For centuries, this orthodox theological tradition insisted: 1) the world was created perfect; 2) the fall was an historical event brought on by humans; 3) after the fall, the world was in a state of sin.
Yet most of the main themes of this theological tradition, of which Calvin is a part, are inherited from extrabiblical sources, namely from Greek philosophical influence. In the Phaedrus, Plato writes that immortal souls literally fell down from heaven, falling, as it were, into human beings. Souls were fallen from their ideal state of transcendent perfection and became trapped in imperfect and mortal bodies. Sound familiar?
In truth, this idea of a fall from an original ideal state was largely read into the story found in Genesis 3. (The word “fall” is not even mentioned in the story itself!) The story in Genesis 3 recounts an ancient tale of human propensity to sin from our very origins, even in this ethereal garden where God walks among us: the closest place our ancestors could imagine to heaven on earth. Even still, the serpent was not only present in the Garden but was also actively scheming, actively working against the whole system. Human beings, though supposedly made perfect, were fully capable of willing contrary to their nature. In my humble reading, it seems there was trouble in Paradise from the very start.
So then, did God create sin? Or did God allow sin to befall us? Of course, these were some of the traditional concerns of orthodox minds like Calvin. Calvin did not want to make God out to be the malevolent architect of the world’s brokenness. (Though still, in the end, he pretty much did.) However, if you’ll indulge me, I’m proposing that we throw out the nice, orthodox, traditional fall narrative and embrace the confounding nature of the biblical narrative itself.
In the Book of Genesis, God creates the world and it was very good. Perhaps the world is still very good! Perhaps nothing has inherently changed about the nature of creation itself. Sin is not an accident human beings unwittingly stumbled upon and inflicted upon the world. Sin is a part of creation. Sin is a part of our genetic makeup. The story in Genesis 3 shows us that human inclination to sin existed even in Paradise. We don’t have to delineate the creation story into neat, little epochs: before the fall and after the fall. We don’t have to defend God’s role in the narrative. From the very beginning, I believe creation was both good and sinful. It’s complicated; it’s messy. Most of it doesn’t even make a lot of sense. In the end, we must have faith in God’s love and in God’s loving intentions.
Frederick Schleiermacher didn’t believe that creation was created perfect, but rather that it was created perfectible. This certainly doesn’t get human beings off the hook, by any means. God is moving and working in our world, often despite us. Genesis 3 reminds us of the ways we strayed from God from the very beginning, but the biblical narrative is ultimately a story of God’s faithfulness to us. Though sin has served to separate us from God, God’s love always prevails. The world may not be what it should be, but God’s faithfulness is far stronger than our worse impulses.
As Martin Luther famously reminds us, we are simultaneously righteous and sinful—and God loves us anyway.