The fall and rise of original sin

I’ve been looking at a friend’s analysis of the Fall, and considering how different his conclusions (which are the conventional ones) are from my own.

The story is contained in Genesis 2-3. The relevant parts are (it seems to me), taking these from Bible Gateway NIV:-

2 Now the Lord God had planted a garden in the east, in Eden; and there he put the man he had formed. The Lord God made all kinds of trees grow out of the ground – trees that were pleasing to the eye and good for food. In the middle of the garden were the tree of life and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. …..
15 The Lord God took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to work it and take care of it. 16 And the Lord God commanded the man, ‘You are free to eat from any tree in the garden; 17 but you must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for when you eat from it you will certainly die.’

Now the snake was more crafty than any of the wild animals the Lord God had made. He said to the woman, ‘Did God really say, “You must not eat from any tree in the garden”?’ The woman said to the snake, ‘We may eat fruit from the trees in the garden, but God did say, “You must not eat fruit from the tree that is in the middle of the garden, and you must not touch it, or you will die.”’ ‘You will not certainly die,’ the snake said to the woman. ‘For God knows that when you eat from it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.’ When the woman saw that the fruit of the tree was good for food and pleasing to the eye, and also desirable for gaining wisdom, she took some and ate it. She also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate it. Then the eyes of both of them were opened, and they realised that they were naked; so they sewed fig leaves together and made coverings for themselves. Then the man and his wife heard the sound of the Lord God as he was walking in the garden in the cool of the day, and they hid from the Lord God among the trees of the garden. But the Lord God called to the man, ‘Where are you?’ 10 He answered, ‘I heard you in the garden, and I was afraid because I was naked; so I hid.’ 11 And he said, ‘Who told you that you were naked? Have you eaten from the tree from which I commanded you not to eat?’ 12 The man said, ‘The woman you put here with me – she gave me some fruit from the tree, and I ate it.’ 13 Then the Lord God said to the woman, ‘What is this you have done?’ The woman said, ‘The snake deceived me, and I ate.’ 14 So the Lord God said to the snake, ‘Because you have done this,‘Cursed are you above all livestock and all wild animals! You will crawl on your belly and you will eat dust all the days of your life. 15 And I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and hers; he will crush your head, and you will strike his heel.’ 16 To the woman he said, ‘I will make your pains in childbearing very severe; with painful labour you will give birth to children.
Your desire will be for your husband, and he will rule over you.’ 17 To Adam he said, ‘Because you listened to your wife and ate fruit from the tree about which I commanded you, “You must not eat from it,” ‘Cursed is the ground because of you;through painful toil you will eat food from it all the days of your life. 18 It will produce thorns and thistles for you, and you will eat the plants of the field. 19 By the sweat of your brow you will eat your food until you return to the ground, since from it you were taken; for dust you are  and to dust you will return.’ 20 Adam named his wife Eve, because she would become the mother of all the living. 21 The Lord God made garments of skin for Adam and his wife and clothed them. 22 And the Lord God said, ‘The man has now become like one of us, knowing good and evil. He must not be allowed to reach out his hand and take also from the tree of life and eat, and live for ever.’ 23 So the Lord God banished him from the Garden of Eden to work the ground from which he had been taken. 24 After he drove the man out, he placed on the east side of the Garden of Eden cherubim and a flaming sword flashing back and forth to guard the way to the tree of life.

Now I look at this passage as a lawyer, and the first thing I note is that by implication, until Adam and Eve have eaten the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil, they must not have knowledge of good and evil. Two things follow; firstly they cannot be thought of as understanding that to act contrary to God’s command is evil, as they have no knowledge of good and evil; secondly, they fall into the category of people who in systems based on English Common Law do not have criminal responsibility. This encompasses children, the severely mentally challenged and the severely mentally ill, and in English law none of these can be held responsible for their actions.

I think the category of “children” works best here. Clearly, both are represented as “new creations”, and the story moves directly from their creation in Gen. 2:5 and 22 to the “Fall”.

So, I ask myself, how, when our rather imperfect legal systems recognise that it is unconscionable to bring the weight of the criminal law to bear on children who are under the age of criminal responsibility, can God be considered to be acting reasonably in exacting a stringent penalty (even if this is not, in fact, death) for a transgression? Even more so, how can it be considered just for this to be imposed not only on those responsible but also on countless generations of their descendants, who have not (at this point) contravened any directive? I note, for instance, that the same God says through his prophet Ezekiel (Ezekiel 18) that the sins of the fathers are not held against the sons or future generations, and it is clearly the case that a transgression by a parent whether before or after conception is not inherited by the offspring; genetics is not, after all, Lamarckian but Darwinian.

Even more, having lived with dogs for many years, taking them as not really having adequate knowledge of good and evil, I am extremely conscious of the fact that if you forbid them something, given enough time they will eventually do it. Actually, it seems to me that the same goes for children, and very frequently adults. The only way to prevent a behaviour which is not desired is to associate it with bad results via appropriate punishment on many occasions, or to avoid the behaviour completely. A God with even reasonable foresight (far less than the omniscience which is traditionally ascribed, though this seems problematic given that God apparently cannot find them in the garden) would have known that sooner or later Adam and Eve were going to eat the fruit – and the obvious course would have been not to have the trees of the knowledge of good and evil and of eternal life in the garden (and so within reach) in the first place.

Thus, at the least, if I were to take the traditional understanding of the passage (at least Augustine’s understanding), I would want to argue entrapment as well as lack of criminal responsibility. As Omar Khayyam put it Oh, Thou, who didst with pitfall and with gin beset the road I was to wander in, Thou wilt not with predestin’d evil round enmesh me, and impute my fall to Sin?” And I would expect a just and merciful God not to impose a draconian penalty, and certainly not expulsion from their rather cushy life in the garden or painful childbirth for billions of women, rather to use moderate punishment as a teaching opportunity.

There clearly has to be a meaning to this other than the standard “they disobeyed and therefore they and all of mankind must be punished forever”, and I’ll come back to that a little later. Judaism, interestingly, never developed a concept of original sin, and doesn’t regard the Fall in the same way as has been the case in Western Christianity since Augustine.

Let’s now look at what God says and what the serpent (who probably should not be identified with Satan; certainly Judaism does not make that identification) says.

God is placed as saying:- 17 but you must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for when you eat from it you will certainly die.’

But, of course, in fact they do not die (and it is a fair translation of the original to put “in the day when you eat it you will certainly die”); they are instead banished from a life of ease and condemned to hard labour (pun intended). God is not telling the strict truth here, according to the writer.

The serpent says:- ‘You will not certainly die,’ the snake said to the woman. ‘For God knows that when you eat from it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.’

And, in fact, the snake is telling the truth. This is confirmed by God:- 22 And the Lord God said, ‘The man has now become like one of us, knowing good and evil. He must not be allowed to reach out his hand and take also from the tree of life and eat, and live for ever.’ As an aside, this rather negates the traditional statement that death came into the world at this point; death was already implicit unless the fruit of the tree of life were eaten, which it was not.

The poor snake comes out of this really badly; a severe penalty for telling the truth (“giving the game away”, you might say), assuming for a moment that this is a serpentine equivalent of the Darwin fish (the one with legs) and his legs are stripped from him – and also, it would seem, the power of speech.

I clearly know that God’s dictum can be regarded as parental overstatement in order to keep the children safe “If you keep doing that, I’ll rip your arm off and beat you to death with the soggy end”. I’m well aware of arguments that a command overrides any consideration of knowledge of good and evil (and I reject those; laws are, after all, commands, and the principle of lack of criminal responsibility should hold). I don’t hold that no punishment of children is justifiable either – understanding of good and evil is, to a significant extent, imparted by parental punishment. But this is a draconian punishment and not one which is calculated to teach. In fact, it’s the way it is, according to the text, because God fears Adam and Eve becoming immortal as well, and not for any reason of education.

So I look for some other explanation, and find it in something which actually IS inheritable. At some point in the evolution of humanity, there will have been a beginning of self-consciousness, the “sense of self”. I actually think you can see the start of such a consciousness in some primates, and possibly in other species, but not developed to the extent that it is in adult humans (though I could be surprised by, for instance, dolphins…). In the absence of such a sense of self, there is no embarrassment about nakedness, for instance (I think it extremely telling that this is mentioned); there is also, and crucially, no possibility of self-assessment, of any true sense of guilt or shame due to ones past actions.

Is this truly describable as a “fall”? Not really. Prior to development of self consciousness, instincts rule, and instincts are generally amoral; nature unmodified by something like human consciousness has a tendency to be “red in tooth and claw”, though there are identifiable mechanisms which produce some cooperative and even apparently altruistic behaviour in some species. Self-awareness can, indeed, be regarded as a “step up”, allowing for a sense of morality. What Paul says of “the Law” in Romans 5:12-20 and 7:7-20 – “sin is not counted where there is no law” (Rom. 5:13b being the crux of this argument) – is particularly true where there is no ability to reflect on ones deeds with a self-critical stance.

However, the sense of self also allows for self-centredness, selfishness and self-seeking fear, all of which are less than admirable. Arguably, inasmuch as one is self-centred, one is unable to be God-centred, one is unable to love either God or ones fellow human beings and so cannot abide by the Great Commandments, and this is reasonably equated with sin.  Certainly this gives rise to feelings of guilt and shame. In this sense, therefore, sin did enter into humanity with the advent of self-consciousness, colourfully portrayed in Genesis as resulting from eating a fruit but in fact the result of evolution, and it was inheritable, as the genes which produced this mental change will have been heritable.

At the end of this meditation, therefore, we have a form of original sin, due to not so much a fall as a change in humanity, with good and bad aspects. And, of course, definitely not the cause of death entering into the world, nor something meriting punishment in and of itself.

It is, of course, true to say that the basis of penal substitutionary atonement is removed by this reading of Genesis. I don’t consider that a significant loss to theology, though!

3 Responses to “The fall and rise of original sin”

  1. Chris Says:

    This discussion is continued in “Falling Further” at

  2. Chris Says:

    Pleased to see that Bible Pirate has also riffed on a reading of the Genesis text without importing preconceptions about God…

  3. Eyre Lines » Blog Archive » The pinnacle of creation… Says:

    […] certainly the bulk of Christian theology has drawn from that the concept of original sin, and even my own take on that argues that self-centredness is effectively a kind of  “original sin” (though an […]

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