The Heart of It All: Sin

September 25, 2012

by Peter Amsterdam

The Origin of Sin in the World

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(For an introduction and explanation regarding this series overall, please see The Heart of It All: Introduction.)

The previous article on the topic of sin affirmed that sin first entered creation in the angelic or spiritual world, when the fallen angels sinned. The Bible explains the entrance of sin into the physical world through the story of Adam and Eve’s disobedience in Genesis chapter 3. This article will cover the Genesis explanation of the entrance of sin and will also briefly touch on the viewpoints of some of those who, throughout history, have disagreed with the Genesis account.

The Genesis Account

The Bible tells the story of humanity’s fall in the third chapter of Genesis, with some important points also brought out in chapter two.[1]

God created man (Adam) and placed him in a garden, called Eden. In the garden were trees that were pleasant to look at and which were good for food. Also in the garden were the tree of life and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. God said to Adam, “You may surely eat of every tree of the garden, but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die.”[2]God then created Eve, the first woman, as a helper for Adam. They were together in Eden, and were both naked and were not ashamed.

At some point after this, a serpent spoke with Eve:

He said to the woman, “Did God actually say, ‘You shall not eat of any tree in the garden’”? And the woman said to the serpent, “We may eat of the fruit of the trees in the garden, but God said, ‘You shall not eat of the fruit of the tree that is in the midst of the garden, neither shall you touch it, lest you die.’” But the serpent said to the woman, “You will not surely 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.” So when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate, and she also gave some to her husband who was with her, and he ate.[3]

Once they had sinned, things immediately changed. They were now aware of their nakedness and were ashamed; they hid when they heard God calling for them; they tried to pass the blame for their sin on to someone else—Eve blaming the serpent, and Adam blaming Eve and indirectly God, since she was the woman whom God had given to be with him. The ground was cursed, and “in pain you shall eat of it all the days of your life.[4] Death of human beings, which God had told them would be one of the consequences if they ate from the tree, was pronounced when God said: By the sweat of your face you shall eat bread, till you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken; for you are dust, and to dust you shall return.[5]

They were also banished from the Garden.

Then the Lord God said, “Behold, the man has become like one of us in knowing good and evil. Now, lest he reach out his hand and take also of the tree of life and eat, and live forever—” therefore the Lord God sent him out from the garden of Eden to work the ground from which he was taken. He drove out the man, and at the east of the garden of Eden He placed the cherubim and a flaming sword that turned every way to guard the way to the tree of life.[6]

While some theologians throughout history have seen this account as non-historical and as purely symbolic, throughout the New Testament this account is accepted as historical. Other theologians make the case that the other accounts of historical figures, such as Abraham and Isaac, are written in a manner that is a continuation of the narrative of Genesis, and therefore there is no reason to see the first part of the book as only symbolic and the rest as historical. Adam is included in the genealogies along with other historical figures in Scripture. In the New Testament, the apostle Paul wrote of Adam being a historical person, and even contrasted Adam to Jesus, whom Paul knew to be a historical person.

Thus it is written, “The first man Adam became a living being”; the last Adam became a life-giving spirit.[7]

Adam was formed first, then Eve.[8]

For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive.[9]

While Scripture portrays the Genesis account as a historical event, and Adam and Eve as historical people, there is also symbolism in the account. Their first sin is a picture of the first sin in the life of each individual. Adam and Eve made personal choices to disobey God, to put their will before His. They succumbed to temptation; they were dazzled by that which was pleasing to the eye and would make them like God. Just like every human, they succumbed to sin. This symbolism, however, doesn’t mean the event didn’t happen.

William Lane Craig spoke of the Genesis account this way:

The fall of Adam is a historical event; it’s something that actually occurred. Mankind did fall into sin in this way. It’s not mythology. On the other hand, it does seem to be related in a literary dramatic form that shouldn’t be pressed for literal details or accuracy. This is especially evident, for example, when you have God walking in the garden looking for Adam and Eve, saying, “Adam, where are you?” and them hiding from Him. God’s not a physical person who walks around and has a body and doesn’t know where somebody is hiding. You’ve got things like the talking snake and other colorful features of this narrative of the Fall. I think what one can say is that this is the relation of a historical event in a kind of dramatic literary or picturesque form that shouldn’t be pressed for literal details in the way that you would read a police report.[10]

The First Sin

When Adam was told not to eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, God didn’t give him a specific reason why he shouldn’t eat it, only that there would be serious consequences if he did. Adam was in a position to show his willingness to obey God’s commands, to submit his will to the will of his Creator. It can be seen as a test of whether he would allow God to determine what was right or he would undertake to determine this for himself.[11]

Adam and Eve’s first sin shows the essence of sin. They resisted God’s will and would not subordinate themselves to it, but rather chose to do what they felt was in their best interest. They wouldn’t let God decide what was best for them.

Louis Berkhof explained it like this:

The essence of that sin lay in the fact that Adam placed himself in opposition to God, that he refused to subject his will to the will of God, to have God determine the course of his life; and that he actively attempted to take the matter out of God’s hand, and to determine the future for himself.[12]

Instead of accepting that God was their Creator and as such they were subordinate to Him, they yielded to the temptation to put themselves in the place of God.

God had said that if they ate of the tree they would surely die. The serpent told them they wouldn’t. God had told them what was true, yet they disbelieved God’s word; they questioned who was right.

The decisions Adam and Eve made to not subordinate themselves to God, to not accept His determination as to what is right, and to not believe Him, are emblematic of the root cause of the specific sins of individuals throughout the history of humanity. Every human is tempted to sin just as the first humans were, and every human yields to that temptation. In doing so, each of us has acted toward God in the same manner as Adam and Eve did.

Prior to this first sin, Adam and Eve lived in harmony with their Creator. They enjoyed His fellowship; they trusted and believed Him. Their freewill decision to disobey God changed that, not just for themselves but for all of humanity. This sin resulted in the fall of man, and humankind hasn’t been the same since.

As J. I. Packer explains: Original sin, meaning sin derived from our origin, is not a biblical phrase (Augustine coined it), but it is one that brings into fruitful focus the reality of sin in our spiritual system. The assertion of original sin means not that sin belongs to human nature as God made it (God made mankind upright, Ecclesiastes 7:29) … but that (a) sinfulness marks everyone from birth, and is there in the form of a motivationally twisted heart, prior to any actual sins; (b) this inner sinfulness is the root and source of all actual sins; (c) it derives to us in a real though mysterious way from Adam, our first representative before God. The assertion of original sin makes the point that we are not sinners because we sin, but rather we sin because we are sinners, born with a nature enslaved to sin.[13]

Humankind stands guilty of sin before God due to Adam and Eve’s sin being imputed to all, and due to our own individual sinning. As sinners, we are separated from God; we physically die and stand guilty before Him and deserve punishment for our sins.

God, in His love for humankind, made a way for humans to be forgiven, to be reconciled with Him, and to be spared from His wrath.

Therefore, just as sin came into the world through one man, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all sinned … For if, because of one man’s trespass, death reigned through that one man, much more will those who receive the abundance of grace and the free gift of righteousness reign in life through the one man Jesus Christ. Therefore, as one trespass led to condemnation for all men, so one act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all men. For as by the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners, so by the one man’s obedience the many will be made righteous.[14]

For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.[15]

Divergent Outlooks

Throughout the history of Christianity, there have been Christians who haven’t accepted the biblical version of the entrance of sin into the world and/or that humans are born with sin or a sinful nature due to Adam and Eve’s fall through disobedience into sin. I will briefly cover some of the alternate outlooks.

In the fifth century, Pelagius, a British monk, rejected the concept that humans enter the world sinful. Instead he taught that humans were born innocent and free from the natural tendency to sin. He contended that evil didn’t enter humanity through Adam’s sin, but rather that humans learned to sin through imitating the bad example of others. He taught that some people obey God perfectly and thus can live their lives without sinning. He also rejected the concept that death was part of the punishment for Adam and Eve’s sin. Pelagianism was condemned as heresy at the Council of Carthage in 418 AD and at the Ecumenical Council in 431 AD.

Pelagianism had a resurgence in the sixteenth century in the teachings of the Socinian movement, which denied original sin (inherited sin)—that the guilt of Adam’s sin is imputed to all humans, and that death was a punishment of sin. They too felt that humans sin because they learn to sin from others.

In the fifth and sixth centuries some theologians took up a modified version of Pelagianism, known as Semi-Pelagianism, which held that Adam’s sin caused humans to be spiritually weakened but not fallen. Their view was that some moral corruption is passed on to humanity, but it doesn’t amount to sin and guilt and therefore doesn’t warrant God’s wrath.

Some modern theologians reject the idea of the existence of Adam as a historical person and that there was an original human couple living in Eden. They see the Genesis story not as history, but as an allegory with symbolism. Others see the Genesis account as a myth or parable. They see the story as being representative of what every human being goes through in making an individual decision to sin in rebellion against God’s authority. As such, they deny that sin is inherited from generation to generation, but rather see it as only an unavoidable part of human nature.

The next article will cover more on the topics of inherited sin, sinful nature, and Adam’s sin being imputed to humankind, and how these matters connect to our faith and salvation.

[1] The Lord God planted a garden in Eden, in the east, and there He put the man whom He had formed. And out of the ground the Lord God made to spring up every tree that is pleasant to the sight and good for food. The tree of life was in the midst of the garden, and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil (Genesis 2:8–9).

The Lord God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to work it and keep it. And the Lord God commanded the man, saying, “You may surely eat of every tree of the garden, but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die” (Genesis 2:15–17).

See also Genesis chapter 3.

[2] Genesis 2:16–17.

[3] Genesis 3:1–6.

[4] Genesis 3:17.

[5] Genesis 3:19.

[6] Genesis 3:22–24.

[7] 1 Corinthians 15:45.

[8] 1 Timothy 2:13.

[9] 1 Corinthians 15:22.

[10] William Lane Craig, The Doctrine of Man, Defenders Series, Lecture 9.

[11] Louis Berkhof, Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1996), 222.

[12] Louis Berkhof, Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1996), 222.

[13] J. I. Packer, Concise Theology (Carol Stream, Illinois: Tyndale House Publishers, 1993), 83.

[14] Romans 5:12, 17–19.

[15] Romans 6:23.