When we ended the last podcast, we had just looked at the story of the fall of Adam and Eve as it’s recorded in the book of Genesis. I concluded by pointing out that the story can be understood in different ways, can be interpreted from different viewpoints. I said that the Christian West puts a particular spin on this tale, applies a particular theological interpretive scheme to this tale, which is very different than that of the Christian East. I want to begin to compare these by first reviewing that culturally familiar theological rendering of the tale.
In the Western mind, what is God saying to Adam and Eve when he tells them they will “surely die” if they eat of the forbidden fruit of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil? (Genesis 2:17) To most, it seems clear that God is warning them that if they disobey his command not to eat of that tree, he will inflict punishment on them—the punishment of death. As I say, that’s the common understanding of this verse, but this interpretation is grounded in a vision of the Christian God which, beginning with theologians like Augustine of Hippo in the 4th century, has become pretty much standard in the West. And it reflects the neoplatonic philosophy which shaped those teachers’ understanding of the Faith. You see, for neoplatonism, the purpose of the material universe is to return to the order and perfection of the transcendent, abstract ideals on which it is built.
So it’s not strange that under this influence the Western Christian philosopher/theologians began to see God as a God of perfect order whose ultimate goal for his creation is that it constantly submits to, emulates, and preserves those perfect designs—the perfect will and absolute holiness of its Creator.
Now, what is the mechanism by which order is preserved? In any society, culture, or economy, order is maintained through the precise definition and application of justice. So it should be no surprise that in the commonly embraced Western Christian view, God’s defining trait is his unflinching demand for justice. Even when he seeks to be merciful, his acts of compassion and pity must conform to the just requirements of his ineffably righteous character.
To the Western mind, then, the placing of the eventually tempting tree in the midst of the Garden of Eden is God’s way of testing Adam and Eve’s willingness to bow to his absolute sovereignty, to his absolute order, to the absolute perfection of all he desires. Will they humbly accept their place as subservient creatures in the universe of a Holy God? From the beginning, God makes it clear that in any just realm, failure to abide by the dictates of the one who rules will result—as justice demands—in punishment. In this case, the punishment is nothing less than eternal death.
But along comes Satan, telling Eve that God is not being quite truthful with them. She and Adam will not die if they eat of the fruit God has forbidden. In fact, by partaking of it, they will become God’s equal—equal with the Creator. This suggestion tantalizes Eve’s selfish pride. She succumbs to the Serpent’s suggestion and pulls Adam in with her. And the results for them are cataclysmic. Yet, interestingly, in the Western mind, the heart of the tragedy, the aspect around which the subsequent story of Salvation revolves, is the impact their disobedience has on God. Adam and Eve commit an infinitely grave offense against God’s ineffable holiness. Thereafter, everything God does in response to their sin centers on his need to erase their affront to his Holy Honor and restore order through justice to his universe. Thus the perfectly just and righteous God levies punishments on Adam and Eve. Eve will suffer in childbirth. Because of Adam’s sin, God curses the ground he must till. They will walk this path of sorrows until death comes upon them. Most sadly, the same fate which they have brought upon themselves will fall on all their descendents. Still, the Western version of this story is not without hope. Yes, God’s uncompromising justice requires comprehensive and far-reaching measures in order to achieve satisfaction for the wrongs committed against his holiness, but the good news is that God’s mercy moves him to institute a plan that will meet the requirements of his justice, while, at the same time, permit him to legitimately and justly restore the gift of life to his human children. To this end, he sends the Divine Son, the second person of the Trinity, the Lord Jesus Christ, into the world to become a human being. He takes on human flesh so that he can eventually go to the Cross in humanity’s place. There, the Father heaps upon his sinless shoulders, the punishment for sin that is rightly due to all of us. Through the death of Jesus Christ, God achieves the satisfaction his justice demands and, at the same time, purchases eternal life for his erring, human children.
For the majority of Christians, that’s what God was accomplishing when he sent his son into the world. He was setting the whole plan, a plan which climaxes at the Crucifixion, in motion.
In this view, as I’ve said in earlier podcasts, Salvation is simply a matter of each individual Believer becoming right with God by saying “yes” to Christ—that is, by genuinely trusting in the efficacy of Christ’s payment for his/her sins. When that is done, Divine justice is served. God is satisfied.
But while this may be the common understanding of the Eden tale, it is not the correct understanding. By that I mean, from start to finish, the Early Church and the Eastern Tradition (which follows in its footsteps), reads the story in a much different light. Their version springs from a contrasting vision of God and his purpose for his human children. As I said earlier, the neoplatonic colors that crept into Western Christian thought paint a God of order whose ultimate goal is to exact payment from humanity for offending his perfect holiness through their disobedience. Yes, he seeks to be merciful at the same time. He offers his own son as a recompense for humanity’s sins. Still, at its core, the whole process is driven by God’s need to assuage his uncompromising sense of justice. But the Early Christians and the Christian East revere a much different God. He is not a self-concerned, self-directed God of order who seeks, above all things, to satisfy his just demands of disobedient human beings. Instead, he is a self-denying, other-directed God of love who, above all, desires to heal humanity of the death and sin which separate us from intimate union with him. In other words, God’s focus in the matter of Salvation is our need, not his.
From this viewpoint, the real tragedy of Adam and Eve’s sin is not that their insubordination offends God, rather the calamity of the Fall lies in the fact that it derails God’s ultimate and pre-eternal purpose for us—to make us perfectly one with him and one with each other, as Jesus prays in John 17:20-23.
To get the story straight, let’s go back to the moment when God warns Adam and, eventually, Eve about the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. The whole scenario changes when we recognize that when God tells our first parents that “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 2:17) he is not saying, “if you disobey me and eat of the Tree I will have to punish you with death.” Yes, that’s exactly how it’s commonly interpreted in Western Christian thinking, however that is not what God is conveying to them. When he cautions them that “in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die”, he is saying something more akin to, “you see that big vial of cyanide over there? If you drink that, you’ll die.” In other words, the death that awaits them if they eat of the fruit is not an abstract extraneous punishment from God. It is, rather, a natural consequence of their actions.
How so? Again, let us remember that human beings comprise two constituent elements—the dust of the ground and the breath of God. (Genesis 2:7) The life of God enlivens our bodies. As St. Paul tells the Athenians, “in him we live and move and have our being.” (Acts 17:28) When Adam and Eve sin, they do not miff God. After all, God is love and love, as St. Paul reminds us, “keeps no record of wrongs.” (1 Corinthians 13:5)
What they do is consciously choose to reject God, to remove themselves from intimate union with him. They disconnect themselves from the sustaining power of the Creator who gives them life. When they do that, they begin to revert to lifeless dust. In his great spiritual treasure on the Incarnation of the Word of God, St. Athanasius describes the aftermath of Adam and Eve’s disobedience:
For the transgression of the commandment was making them turn back again according to their nature. And as they had at the beginning, come into being out of nonexistence, so were they now on their way to returning, through corruption, to nonexistence again. The presence and love of the Word had called them into being. Inevitably, therefore, when they lost the knowledge of God, they lost existence with it. For it is God alone who exists. (The Incarnation of the Word of God, ch. 1, sec. 4)
Death comes to Adam and Eve not as a punishment for their disobedience, but because by their sin they willingly remove themselves from the source of life. The Fall is much more than a loss of the legal innocence before the God of absolute justice. It is a fall from life-sustaining oneness with the God of ineffable love. That oneness is the issue here is clearly illustrated in the experience Adam and Eve have immediately upon eating the prohibited fruit. As Genesis says, “So when the woman saw that the Tree was good for food, that it was pleasant to the eyes, and a tree desirable to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate, she also gave to her husband with her and he ate. Then the eyes of both of them were opened and they knew that they were naked.” (Genesis 3:6-7) Earlier in Genesis, we are told that, “and they were both naked, the man and his wife, and they were not ashamed.” (Genesis 2:25)
Upon eating the fruit, they are suddenly quite ashamed. Why? What does this experience of having their eyes opened teach us about the nature of the Fall? We’ll investigate that next time.