Pilgrims from Paradise:
Last time, we were discussing Augustine of Hippo’s doctrine, Original Sin, which, by and large, is the most common understanding of how sin and death somehow end up being a part of the lives, not only of Adam and Eve, but of all their children, of all succeeding generations. As we were finishing up I was talking about how this seem to be the most reasonable explanations, for many Christians, as to why it is we all die, just as Adam and Even die. But I said, as we ended, the flaw with this view is really founded on a serious misunderstanding of what actually happened in the Garden of Eden, and I want to pick up there with that thought.
I have pointed this out in my lectures, and if memory serves me correctly, in at least some of my podcasts, although I am not certain about that. I have done enough of them now that sometimes I forget exactly what I have said in the podcasts and what I have not. But the problem lies in this, you see: In Genesis 2:16-17, God tells Adam and Eve, “Of every tree in the garden, you may freely eat, 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.”
Unfortunately, Western Christians who live in the shadow of Augustine and his teachings, interpret this text according to Augustine’s image of the punishing God, so they take that passage to mean, especially the part where God says, “In the day you eat of it, you shall surely die,” to really say, “In the day you eat of that tree, I will punish you with death.”
However, in the apostolic, non-Augustinian understanding of the Christian East, the text says something different. The loving God is telling Adam and Eve something more like, “Do you see that huge vial of cyanide over there? If you drink from that, you will die.” The Eastern tradition teaches that death came upon Adam and Eve, not as a punishment from God, but as a natural result of their choosing to separate themselves from the Creator, who actively sustains all human life.
St. Athanasius, for instance, makes this particularly clear, in his well-known work, On the Incarnation. As Adam and Eve’s descendants, we do not die because we share in Adam’s punishment. We die because when Adam and Eve walked away from God, when they walked away from the Creator, who gives us life, they took us, all their children, with them. Their choice made death and sin the natural state of humanity. After Eden, to be human is to die.
To escape the capricious power of death, which in the absence of the Creator, is free to take whomever it wills, whenever it wills, we would have to become something other than human. The Christian East does not teach that we die because we are all guilty of Adam’s sin, and therefore equally punishable with death. Rather, we all die because we cannot escape the effects of Adam and Eve’s willful transgression.Without the restoration that comes through the life, death and resurrection of Christ, human beings are, by nature, bound for death. And we are also inexorably bound to sin, for when we are separated from the life-giving God, all of our actions, even our morally righteous ones, as Isaiah reminds us in Isaiah 64:6, fall short of anything that resembles life in God’s world. Divorced from Him, not even the morally good things we do can bring us participation in the life of the trinity. Even good things that we do miss the mark of life in God.
Here is an analogy that I hope will make this East/West difference clear: Imagine a city in which the citizens are all blood descendants of a powerful king—one, obviously of great age, and with many wives. One day this king goes insane. He becomes consumed with a demented death-wish. In his madness he decides that all his people must die with him. Knowing that all the city’s food and water supplies are outside his walls, he has every gate to the city permanently sealed. Guards and various lethal devices are placed on the tops of the walls to prevent anyone, including the guards, from escaping. The food and water within the city are soon gone, and a short time later, and the king and all the city’s inhabitants perish from thirst and starvation.
We know why the king dies—he goes mad and kills himself, essentially. But why do the people in the city die? Do they expire because they share in the madness of their king and father? No. They perish because of his actions—actions in which they have no part, and for which they are in no way accountable, yet, which produce consequences they cannot escape, which produce the same fate that the king, who is responsible for these actions, takes. This is the nature of the curse that Adam’s sin has brought upon us.
Let us return to the passage from Augustine which I quoted earlier, the one in which he lays out what it takes for God to make the human-corrupted universe perfect again. Let me read it again:
If sin occurred, and unhappiness did not result from it, then evil would violate order. As long as men who do not sin gain happiness, the universe is perfect. When sinners are unhappy, the universe is perfect. Since there are souls that gain happiness because they do right, or unhappiness because they sin, the universe is always full and perfect (On Free Choice of the Will, Book 3, Chapter 9, Sections 93-94.)
As I suggested before, in the light of all we have discussed thus far, the puzzling part of this passage is the last sentence, specifically, the part where Augustine states that there are souls that gain happiness because they do right. But are not we all just massa peccati? One big lump of sin? To the person—completely incapable of goodness. Well, who then are these folks who gain happiness because they do right? In Augustine’s theology, they are the ones to whom God arbitrarily grants grace. There are certain select individuals whom he imbues with a special dose of divine power. This makes them able to act righteously and reap the rewards of that righteousness.
Why does God do this? Is it out of His self-denying love and longing for communion with His human children? No. In Augustine’s teaching, God gives grace to some human beings, solely for the purpose of re-establishing the moral order that His divine protection demands—the order that humans ruined.
There are a couple of things of which we need to take special note of here. First of all, God’s decision as to who receives grace, and who does not, is a judgment that He makes before any of us ever come into existence. Augustine is, in fact, the author of the doctrine known as Predestination. According to this doctrine, one which is held by many Christians today, God foreordains each of us, either to salvation, or damnation. Also, since our fate is a predestined judgment by God, it is clear that what we, ourselves, may want, do, or decide, has absolutely no bearing on our salvation. The desires, inclinations, and choices of our own wills have no effect on God’s choice as to who gets saving grace and who does not. In fact, according to Augustine, human free will no longer exists. It disappeared with Adam’s wrongful decision in the Garden of Eden.
I think most of us are pretty intuitively convinced that we do make, at least some, genuinely free choices, that our actions are not all predetermined by forces outside of us. Interestingly, even Augustine was quite disturbed that his theology guts human will of all substance. He always struggled with this, and at the end of his life, he lamented, “I tried hard to maintain the free decision of human will, but the grace of God was victorious (Retractions, Chapter 2, Section 1).”
Of course, by grace, Augustine means here, God’s arbitrary, foreordaining of saving power to some, eternal damnation to others. A lot of people, including many philosophers and theologians, chafe at applying the term grace to that process. For God to determine our eternal destinies without allowing us at least some influence on the decision, seems terribly unjust and compassionless. But when we look at the matter through Augustine’s Platonic eyes, it is no surprise that he sees no injustice, whatsoever.
And we will pick up there next time.