Legend has it that G. K. Chesterton, asked by a newspaper reporter what was wrong with the world, skipped over all the expected answers. He said nothing about corrupt politicians or ancient rivalries between warring nations, or the greed of the rich and the covetousness of the poor. He left aside street crime and unjust laws and inadequate education. Environmental degradation and population growth overwhelming the earth's carrying capacity were not on his radar. Neither were the structural evils that burgeoned as wickedness became engrained in society and its institutions in ever more complex ways.
What's wrong with the world? As the story goes, Chesterton responded with just two words: "I am."
His answer is unlikely to be popular with a generation schooled to cultivate self-esteem, to pursue its passions and chase self-fulfillment first and foremost. After all, we say, there are reasons for our failures and foibles. It's not our fault that we didn't win the genetic lottery, or that our parents fell short in their parenting, or that our third-grade teacher made us so ashamed of our arithmetic errors that we gave up pursuing a career in science. Besides, we weren't any worse than our friends, and going along with the gang made life a lot more comfortable. We have lots of excuses for why things go wrong, and—as with any lie worth its salt—most of them contain some truth.
Still, by adulthood, most of us have an uneasy sense of self. Whatever we try to tell ourselves, something in us knows that we don't measure up to our own standards, let alone anyone else's. Even if we think we've done rather well, all things considered, there remains a looming conclusion to our lives we cannot escape. Death will bring an end to all achievements and all excuses. And who among us can face the reality of final judgment with the conviction that we are altogether blameless?
Maybe there is something to Chesterton's answer after all. In fact, theologian Reinhold Niebuhr was fond of saying that original sin—the idea that every one of us is born a sinner and will manifest that sinfulness in his or her life—is the only Christian doctrine that can be empirically verified. Everyone, whether a criminal or a saint, sins. Insofar as that dismal verdict is true, it's hardly surprising that there is a great deal wrong with the world.
Why Do We Sin?
But how could such a thing be? How could sin invade and pervade the world that God made good? To this great question, like the other great question of how it could be that Christ's death saves us, the Bible gives no theoretical answer. Rather, it only narrates how it came about.
The account comes in Genesis 2 and 3, the second Creation narrative. In the first Creation narrative, Genesis 1, God celebrates what he has made and gives humankind a position of honor and responsibility. The second narrative (probably written earlier than the first) provides an important counterpoint, given the broken world we experience. In Romans 5 and 1 Corinthians 15, Paul takes up this second narrative to point the direction to the doctrine of the Fall. What happened in Eden, Paul implies, didn't stay in Eden. What went wrong in the beginning marks everything that follows. Adam's sin not only brings the judgment of death upon all who come after him, but also makes them sinners. (True, Eve gets blamed in 1 Timothy 2 [see also 2 Cor. 11:3], but only Adam is named in Romans 5. Sin is an equal opportunity employer. In fact, the impulse to say, "I am not to blame, that other one is" flows from our primal disobedience.)
Paul doesn't explain the cause of this universality of sin and death. He doesn't blame inheritance or bad example. Indeed, he doesn't say how it comes about at all. He only points to it, and comments later, in Romans 11:32 (HCSB), that "God has imprisoned all in disobedience" (with the crucial caveat that he ultimately plans to extend mercy to all). Somehow, God's own decision extends the consequences of Adam's sin to us all.
Note, of course, that all people actually do disobey; it's not as if we are counted sinners without actually being sinners (Rom. 5:12). Still, something within us is corrupt from the beginning, so that we do not love what is good with our whole hearts but are deeply inclined to evil. And once our excuses are stripped away, the reason we do evil remains as mysterious as the turning away of Adam and Eve. The most honest part of us sees that we could have done differently in any particular case, but didn't.
The Genesis narrative does not tell us why the Fall continues to affect us all. Nor do we learn why the serpent—that tempter identified by the Christian tradition as Satan—turned away from God but was nonetheless allowed into the Garden of Eden. But it does give us profound insight into the nature of sin. Consider, for instance, the seemingly inconsequential object of temptation. A piece of fruit? As the source of the ruin of the world? In Paradise Lost, John Milton has Satan describe the event as worthy of the fallen angels' laughter. The corruption of humankind, so easily achieved!
But is it not ever thus? The pregnant teenager may have only tried it once with her boyfriend, but her life will be forever altered. The AIDS-infected drug addict may have fallen just once for the sales pitch, "Try it; you'll like it!" But having tried it, it doesn't matter whether or not he liked it—the act generates its own consequences. A wonderful old sculpture shows Eve cupping her ear to listen to the serpent while her hand reaches out behind her, beyond her own sight, to grasp the fateful fruit. Sometimes we are determinedly ignorant of what we are doing; we refuse even to recognize that we are doing wrong. It is the small wrong step that is so easy, the small deviation from the path that we cannot imagine will lead us ever farther from our goal.
Another reason we succumb to temptation is that we doubt God's commands. We wonder, first, whether more is off limits than really is, which biases us against both the core of the command and the God who decreed it. Some Christians, rejecting empty legalisms that are no part of God's purpose for his good law, end up neglecting his actual commands. Eve herself is seduced into adding a prohibition against even touching the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, which casts doubt upon the reasonableness of the original command not to eat of its fruit (Gen. 3:3). How often Christianity's despisers depict it as an uptight, sour-faced religion of "thou shall nots," keeping its followers from the innocent pleasures of a delightful world. God is presented as a cosmic spoilsport or, worse, a malevolent being dangling enjoyments in front of his creatures while simultaneously affixing them with the FORBIDDEN label. In this way, "sinful" becomes code for something especially enticing, like the "sinful chocolate cake" on the dessert menu. Or, consider how Las Vegas flaunts its reputation as "Sin City."
Having doubted the boundaries of God's commands, we go on to doubt whether the threatened consequences of disobedience will really come to pass. On the surface, this doubt is understandable, as there seems to have been some truth in the serpent's contention that the primal couple would not die. Certainly they did not die right away, even if death had indeed entered in like a silent cancer. Unbelief hadn't yet metastasized to soul-suffocating proportions. But a consequence delayed is not a consequence denied. We can abuse our bodies for a long time before we actually die of what our doctor says will prematurely kill us. We can abuse our spirits for a long time, maybe even a lifetime, without seriously confronting the consequences of sin. But we will die in the end all the same, and meanwhile, unbelief leads us farther and farther away from God.
The other classic piece of the temptation narrative is its appeal to pride—its stirring up of doubt as to whether there ought to be any limits on human exploration. An old cartoon gets the gist of it: A woman, fascinated by an Apple computer in Eden, hears the serpent declaring, "Of course he told you not to touch it. Then you'd have all the knowledge he does." As the biblical serpent put it, "You'll be like God." Could God have a good motive for such a prohibition? Or only a petty, jealous one? Are there lines we should not cross, even in our scientific endeavors? Or is any such thought entertained only by oppressors with wicked, self-interested motives?
In any case, we can presume from the Genesis story that no such line will ever be made to hold. And if we want a current example of pride taken to its height, consider those who (to the dismay of many serious scientists) dub the Higgs boson the "God particle": Knowledge, we value to a high degree. Wisdom, not so much. We want to decide for ourselves, and nothing can stop us. Another cartoon shows an angel, lightning bolt in hand, asking God if he should destroy the earth. God stops him, saying its inhabitants are doing a pretty good job of that on their own.
The world of Genesis 3 is the world we live in. Seemingly insignificant choices, unbelief, and pride are key aspects of the Genesis account, and of our ongoing struggle. They have a sort of universal character to them. Yet the question remains: Why did God allow such a state of affairs in the first place? Why any serpent at all? Why, as theologian Karl Barth asked, place a DO NOT ENTER sign over an open door? Why not just close the door?
Barth answered his own question by saying that the open door with the attached prohibition represents the true state of affairs with respect to our relationship to God. We are asked freely to orient ourselves to God's will, freely to exercise the obedience that is our duty as creatures. We are asked to believe, trust, and obey him even when there is not a reason to do so that we can wrap our minds around. Why might that be?
God Belongs in the Center
Dietrich Bonhoeffer, in his profound book Creation and Fall, adds to this picture. He asks why the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, the tree with the forbidden fruit, should be placed right in the center of the Garden of Eden. The reason, he concludes, is that this is where God belongs in our lives.
God is not a boundary around the edges of our lives, a limit to our abilities that we are always striving to surpass. Nor, we might add, is he the keeper of a boundary imposed by legalists who think we can be changed through an ever more encompassing set of rules. He belongs in the center. Were God merely an outer boundary, we would be left with an inner boundlessness, an emptiness at the heart of things—left, that is, without any true organizing center for our lives. It is only when our relationship of glad obedience to God governs everything that we will be truly free. Then we will find no need for a boundary at all. The more we find ourselves needing to shore up boundaries, or feeling driven to escape them, the surer we may be that something is wrong at the center.
The tree at the center of Eden, then, is not a malicious trap cleverly designed to snare the innocent and naïve. It tells us of the God who made us, who invites us to relate to him as who he is (and not on our own terms). It tells of the God who defines good and evil according to his infinite wisdom, a wisdom marked always by the grace and mercy revealed in Jesus Christ. We no longer have the freedom fully and freely to obey, to live in a world with nothing wrong with it, to be people with nothing wrong with us. We are corrupt, and creation suffers a curse on account of Adam and Eve's lapse—and our own.
But if, in our unending failures, we keep returning to the center, we will find One who will save us, and this capsizing world, from ourselves. As Romans 8 assures us, "The creation waits in eager expectation for the children of God to be revealed. For the creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the freedom and glory of the children of God." We await that day.
Marguerite Shuster is the Harold John Ockenga Professor of Preaching and Theology at Fuller Theological Seminary. She is the author of The Fall and Sin: What We Have Become as Sinners (Eerdmans).
Have something to add about this? See something we missed? Share your feedback here.
Subscribe to Christianity Today and get access to this article plus 65+ years of archives.
- Home delivery of CT magazine
- Complete access to articles on ChristianityToday.com
- Over 120 years of magazine archives plus full access to all of CT’s online archives
- Learn more