From the series, Ten Turning Points That Make All the Difference
Genesis 3 tells how humans first entered into what I’m calling our problem. Some people find the story there hard to believe on account of the talking serpent and the seemingly magical fruit. We’ll come back to that. For now I want to show what it is in Genesis 3 that makes more sense than any other explanation I know of for the human condition.
Consider this, after all: difficult though it may be for you to accept a talking serpent, is it really any harder than believing that evil is an illusion? Or that human uniqueness is an illusion: we’re really no different from the animals (so what good does it do us to think we’ve got a problem)? For me that’s unbelievable, ridiculous; laughable if it weren’t about something as serious as evil and suffering.
No, what we want for a believable explanation of the human problem is one that takes seriously who we are, and doesn’t try to convince us our problems are less than they are. Our problem is actually greater than most of us realize.
We have seen that God created us in his image. The original humans were indeed fully human: in fully human relationships with each other, with the natural word (for which they had been given responsibility), and with God. They were free innocent, free from blame, fulfilling the relational and individual purposes for which God intended them. Being fully human they could love fully, which meant they loved by chose, not by robotic necessity; but to choose love intentionally meant to reject unlove intentionally, which required that there be some form of unlove that was possible to reject.
God gave them a world nearly without limits, but not quite. He gave them the possibility of choosing to reject his goodness and love.There was one tree whose fruit was off limits. It was called the tree of the knowledge of good and evil: knowledge they did not have, for their innocence was of a quieter kind than ours. It was not a struggling innocence, or an innocence restored, or innocence among blameworthiness (for while the jury can find the defendant innocent of the charge, it would never say, “we find this person innocent of all wrongdoing of any kind whatever, his whole life long.”)
This openness and freedom, this goodness, was what we were made for. When we say, as we often do, “it’s not supposed to be this way!” we’re speaking of what we know: there is another way instead that it’s supposed to be. When we say, “This is just wrong!” it’s because we know there is a real right that our experience isn’t living up to. When we say, “I don’t know why I can’t do better than this,” it’s because we have a conception of something really better that’s missing in us, that we’re not living up to. Recall Pascal’s words from last time:
The greatness of man.—The greatness of man is so evident, that it is even proved by his wretchedness. For what in animals is nature we call in man wretchedness; by which we recognise that, his nature being now like that of animals, he has fallen from a better nature which once was his.
For who is unhappy at not being a king, except a deposed king? … Who is unhappy at having only one mouth? And who is not unhappy at having only one eye? Probably no man ever ventured to mourn at not having three eyes. But any one is inconsolable at having none. (Pensées 409)
We were meant for complete goodness, and we cannot forget it. What happened? We call it The Fall. The serpent deceived Eve. She knew that to transgress God’s limits was to die. The charm he wove on her was one that is repeated over and over still today: To be a god under herself (Genesis 3:4-5):
But the serpent said to the woman, “You will not surely die. For God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.”
Adam joined her in stepping over the line. And the two, for the first time, knew evil. The good that they had perhaps hardly recognized previously, as a fish hardly knows what water is, they finally saw; and saw that they had lost it. They were frightened, or embarrassed, or they felt exposed; they could no longer feel the freedom of goodness they had had before. They hid.
We are still frightened, embarrassed; we still feel exposed. Especially—but not only—when we know we have done wrong. We still hide. You still hide. I still hide. You and I both still know we do wrong, and we still feel a need to hide, from God, from others, from ourselves.
When God asked what was going on, they dissembled, shifting the blame: “It was the serpent’s fault!” “It was the woman’s fault!” (How many times will that latter accusation be spoken today?) This rings true, doesn’t it?
God knew better, obviously. He let them know then the consequences of their rebellion. Their relationship with him was broken; they no longer had the free and open fellowship with him they had had. This was a spiritual form of death, of separation from God. Their relationship with each other turned into alienation and confused desire, and it was hardly moments later that the first murder was committed. Their relationship with the world was mangled, and the joy of fulfillment through work turned into the pain and sweat of laborious toil. These things are our experience today. These things are real. We have fallen from a real place of rightness to a real place of trouble and wrong. The whole earth suffers the pangs of it (Romans 8:18-23).
The difficulty we are in is bigger than many of us realize, especially in that it includes a severed relationship with God, the one source of all love and all goodness, and because it is a forever problem.
Even in the pronouncing of those consequences, though, God spoke of hope: the serpent would be crushed (Gen. 3:15). Looking back at it we see the significance of the identity of the crusher: it would be the offspring of the woman, not of the man, who would do that. We see the first gleam of a solution even in the first appearance of the problem.
For when it comes to explaining our problem as humans, it’s a nice thing if it also helps us understand the solution. It’s not logically necessary that our problem would have a solution;* it could have been that we’re all locked in illusion with no way out, or that we’re on an evolutionary path that has no good ending in sight forever. Still, if our problem really is the kind that has an answer, that would be helpful to know, wouldn’t it? We will come back to the solution very soon in this series, or you can take an advance look at it here.
As for that talking serpent and that magic fruit: It doesn’t take that much to believe these things, now, does it? What’s more outlandish, a serpent who can talk, or the idea that 7 billion organisms who are fundamentally no different from any other animal can talk? What’s more outrageous: the idea that there is a spiritual side to reality, and that one hostile spirit leader became embodied temporarily in a serpent, or the idea that 7 billion embodied humans are absolutely nothing but machines in motion?
The fruit was probably literally a fruit, in my opinion, but it could have been anything. It wasn’t a magical apple, though. It was simply an open door for them to exercise their free will to follow God or to reject him. It represented a choice. They made it. Ever since then we’ve been trying to understand what to do with our problems.
*I mean it’s not logically necessary from a limited perspective. There are many who believe that the existence of a good God is logically necessary, and I think they are right; which would seem to imply that whatever human problems might exist, there is a good God to deal with them in a good way. But I’m not taking this concept of logical necessity out to that extent right now.