“Think Different – Accept Uncertainty” Part VII : The Corruption of Human Life According to the Bible
In the beginning all was good, said the oldest biblical story of creation (Gen. 2:4b-3:24). That goodness was symbolized by the portrait of life in the Garden of Eden, a garden that contained everything for which a human being could yearn. There was ample water, fruit and vegetation. The author of the story even asserted that this garden contained precious metals like gold and precious stones like onyx. Exactly why this original couple might have needed either gold or onyx is not stated, but they were universally viewed as valuable so the garden was made to contain them.
The second symbol of this original perfection in the narrative was that the two human beings, the man and the woman, lived in perfect harmony with God. This harmony was symbolized by the fact that each day “in the cool of the evening” God came out of the sky to have a daily walk with God’s friends, Adam and Eve. In those pre-air conditioned days, God knew better than to come out in the heat of the day. That time was reserved for “mad dogs and Englishmen!” God ventured forth, probably with a straw hat and cane, only in “the cool of the evening.”
When God first placed the man and the woman into this garden, the author tells us, there was but a single restriction. The first couple was to have access to all of the plants and trees of the garden save for one. There was a tree, planted by God, known as the “Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil.” The man and the woman were forbidden to eat from the fruit of this tree. This restriction was not just divinely imposed, but it was severe carrying with it a terrible price. God had promised them that if “you eat of the tree in the midst of the garden, you will surely die!”
For a while all went well in Eden, says the text. Human beings, however, know the lure of “forbidden fruit.” So it was almost inevitable that one day, the woman, clearly defined by the male author of this story as the weak link in the created order, was found to be looking at this tree, perhaps fantasizing about what the fruit might be like to her taste buds. Fantasies are often the first step toward crossing a boundary. A serpent, the personification of all evil desires, approached Eve in this vulnerable setting. The serpent was smart and knew just where to aim its thrust into the vulnerabilities of this woman.
“It looks tasty, doesn’t it?” said the serpent. “Yes, Mr. Snake, it surely does!” “Why don’t you try it?” the serpent continued. “I could not do that,” Eve replied. “God said that if we eat of the fruit of this tree, we will surely die.”
“Oh, you won’t die Miss Eve,” the snake continued, weaving the tempter’s spell, “the reason that God has forbidden this fruit is that God knows that if you eat of the fruit of this tree, you will be as wise as God and will know the difference between good and evil. God doesn’t want anyone to compete with the divine prerogative.”
It was a subtle temptation. You can be more than you are, Eve. You can be as wise as God. So Eve thinks about it until her hubris wins out. She plucks the fruit and bites into its substance. Not content to be alone in this act of disobedience, she hurriedly calls Adam over and offers him a sample. Both then eat and in that act of disobedience, this story asserts, evil is born. The world and life itself, which were created to be good, were now corrupted, fallen. Sin had made its entrance into Paradise and would become a constant source of corruption. At that moment, the ancient biblical narrative tells us, the eyes of the man and the woman were opened. Adam and Eve began to see things they had never seen before. They discovered, for example, that they were naked and so they felt shame. Driven by this shame they scurried to make “fig leaf aprons” to cover their exposed bodies. Their walk with God in the cool of the evening, to which they had always looked forward with pleasure, now became a source of dread. It is one thing to walk with a friend, it is quite another to walk with one who has become your judge. So, as the hour of the divine stroll neared, Adam and Eve, in a wonderfully primitive and naïve way, decided they would hide from the all-seeing God in the bushes of the garden. They had just created a game called “Hide and Seek” and had decided that God was “It.” So into the security of the bushes they plunged.
When God arrived in the garden for the daily walk with God’s friends, God recognized that something was different. Adam and Eve were nowhere to be seen. So God called out to the man, who in that patriarchal era, would be perceived as the one clearly in charge, “Adam, Adam! Where are you?” Since this was the first time that the game “Hide and Seek” had ever been played in human history, Adam did not quite understand the rules. So, when God called him, Adam stood up in the bushes, raised his hand and said, “Here we are, Lord, hiding in the bushes!”
“What in the world are you doing in the bushes?” God asked, before it slowly dawned on the divine consciousness that something was terribly amiss. Then God asked, “Have you eaten of the fruit of the tree that was in the midst of the garden?” In response to this question, the human capacity to rationalize guilt leapt into full bloom. “It was not I, Lord,” said Adam. It was that woman. You know, Lord, the woman that you made.” Adam obviously wanted to include God in the guilt. The woman then in turn defended herself by blaming the tempter, the serpent. The result, however, was obvious. The goodness of God’s creation came crashing down. God, now cast in the role of judge, proceeds to do just that. He sentences the guilty and these punishments were used by the ancient Jews to explain observable phenomena that seemed to them to have no other explanation. The punishment given to the serpent was that for all eternity, it would be condemned to crawl on its belly and eat the dust of the earth. The punishment given to the woman was that she would experience the pain of labor in childbirth. The punishment given to the man was that he would, from that day forward, have to scratch his meager living out of the ground that frequently brought forth more thorns and brambles than it did food to eat.
That was not all. Their punishment also required that they be expelled from the Garden of Eden and thus banished from the presence of God. They could no longer be “at one” with God, making the quest for atonement a driving human need. Communion with the divine was broken. They now lived in a state of alienation and since they were no longer able to live in Eden, they had to dwell “East of Eden,” to borrow a phrase from John Steinbeck.
The final punishment was probably the most terrifying. Each of them would die. It was, said this story, now the destiny of all living things to be finite not infinite, mortal not immortal, separated from God not one with God. For human life death had an extra dreadful dimension. All living things die, but only self-conscious human beings know that this is their destiny and so they have to plan for it, anticipate it, and get themselves emotionally prepared for it. The ancient biblical story also says that once the man and the woman were expelled the gates of the Garden of Eden were closed and locked and an angel with a drawn sword stood at the entry, barring any human attempt to return. The corruption of human life was now complete. No life escaped this evil. Human beings were forever after to be born into this fallen status. The fact that everyone died meant that everyone lived “in sin” and was, therefore, guilty. Human beings could do nothing to overcome the fall except to wait patiently for God to come to their rescue.
Augustine thus took this ancient story and not only literalized it, but also built an entire theological system around it. Within this theology, he would place the story of Jesus with which most of us are familiar. This theology had several parts. It was rooted in the perfection of God’s creation. It assumed, however, that human beings had destroyed that original perfection with an act of disobedience. That act had corrupted the entire human enterprise. It was this “original sin” that stained irreparably all of life. Original sin was passed on from generation to generation. No one could escape it. No one could save himself or herself from it. All anyone could do was to wait in silence for a divine rescue, for a savior who would come from God, one who was not infected with our sinfulness, one who could redeem us from our “fall”. That yearning for rescue became the lens through which these western Christian Gentiles read and interpreted the messianic dreams of the Jews. When Christianity became the established religion of that western Gentile world, it was within this theological understanding of human life that the Christ story was told. Jesus was God’s rescue operation. His death on the cross was the payment that God required for our sins in order to accomplish our salvation. We developed a mantra inside Protestant Christianity that proclaimed that “Jesus died for my sins!” The Eucharist in Roman Catholic Christianity became the liturgical reenactment of the moment when Jesus paid the price that bought us salvation, so this liturgy was referred to as “the sacrifice of the Mass.”
In time believers even developed a fetish about the cleansing power of Jesus’ blood shed on the cross. Protestants wanted to be made clean by bathing in the blood of Jesus. Catholics wanted to be cleansed internally by drinking the blood of Jesus. This was the way that traditional Christianity told the Jesus story. It is still deeply implanted in our minds, in our hymns, in our prayers, in our liturgies and in our sermons.
What is wrong with this story? Everything! It is bad anthropology and it is not true. Can we find a new way to tell the Christ story apart from this scheme? I hope so, for if we cannot Christianity will surely die. We will put flesh on both of these assertions when the next installments in the series play across our computer screens.
~John Shelby Spong