Over the centuries the notion of a fall of humanity from a state of primeval bliss and communion with God has been, faute de mieux, a convenient theological coat-rack to hang such important Christian doctrines as the origin of evil and death, original sin, human moral weakness, the Incarnation of Christ and baptismal theology. The problem, as we pointed out in an article in 2013, is that it is not possible, despite brave attempts to do so, to reconcile a historical understanding of the biblical account of paradise and the fall of Adam and Eve with scientific data and theories. Genesis 1-3 must instead be read as allegory or literary myth, intended to convey certain fundamental truths, such as the divine origin of creation and of humanity and the reality of human evil.
In the project of de-historicizing Adam and Eve, the Garden of Eden and the fall, three areas predominate: the nature of human existence; the origin of evil; and the motivation for Christ’s Incarnation. Genesis predicates a form of human perfection prior to the fall (“prelapsarian”), and a much-weakened human existence after the fall (“postlapsarian”). In the standard interpretation, Adam’s fall introduced evil (and the decay and death which accompanied it) into creation. The alternative narrative, we argued, is that God created a world which was neither perfect nor imperfect, but perfectible; decay and death, whether on a galactic or microscopic scale, were inherent in creation from the first moment.
Did God create death? At first blush, the answer is evident: A good God could not have created something as evil as death; to suggest otherwise is outrageous, if not blasphemous. Some strands of ancient thought ascribed the creation of the material universe to an evil First Principle, with which death could be associated. Maneuvering between these two unacceptable solutions, the standard narrative ascribes the introduction of death in the world to a human agent: Adam’s sin brings death not only for the first humans, but throughout creation. In the alternative narrative, death exists in the cosmos from the outset, both the destruction of inanimate compounds, and the death of living creatures. These are offset by the re-composition of particles into new compounds and the perpetuation or evolution of living beings. To exist, to be alive, is to be intimately associated with change, destruction and death – and resurrection. The cells that compose the human body are constantly dying and being replaced by other cells – no one could live without the death and replenishment of cells. In bringing forth life, God instilled into creation the mechanisms – laws of chemistry, physics and biology – whereby creatures could live and assure the continuation of life before dying. By creating life, God allows death to occur.
But evil is of another order. True evil is a moral category, contingent on a deliberate act of a creature endowed with free will. In the absence of the power to accept or to reject divine goodness and love, evil exists only by analogy, not as an ontological category. There is no evil in the death of stars, in black holes, the natural disappearance of species, or predation, disease and death in the natural world. These events are tragic in a cosmic sense, but there is no moral evil attached to them. Death is a part of God’s creation from the beginning, while evil became possible because of God’s gift of free will to humanity. Evil arose as a result of humanity’s conscious rejection of God. It is not possible to determine when and how this initially took place, nor is it particularly important. No cosmic consequences resulted from “the first sin,” since death was already present in the world and perfectibility inscribed in human nature as humanity’s ultimate purpose.
In this alternative narrative, Christ’s Incarnation was not to repair the damage caused by the first human disobedience, but rather to render possible humanity’s ultimate perfectibility, Christ as the means to achieve this perfection, seen as union with God, encapsulated in Christian notions of theosis, sanctification, holiness and justification.
Orthodox and Western theologies ascribe different meanings to original sin. In Orthodoxy, original sin is the sin of the first humans and is sometimes referred to as the “ancestral sin.” The descendants of the first humans inherit the consequences of ancestral sin, typically identified as decay, death and an inclination towards evil. But they do not inherit guilt derived from the first sin, because guilt is personal and is not transmitted. Much of Western theology since Augustine thought of the guilt of original sin as transmitted to the descendants of the first parents and as abrogated by baptism. In Orthodox theology, baptism has nothing to do with original sin, but is the rite of initiation into the Body of Christ. The alternative narrative obliges a rethinking of the notion of original sin, which effectively no longer has major theological importance, even if it signifies that sin and evil are not inherent to human nature and may retain some pedagogical utility as allegory.
Orthodox faithful recite at every liturgy the creedal formula that Christ “became man (anthropos) for us and for our salvation.” Orthodox dogma contains no other motive for the Incarnation. Maximus the Confessor considered that Christ’s Incarnation was “an absolute and primary purpose of God in the act of creation” (Georges Florovsky, “Cur Deus Homo? The Motive of the Incarnation”). The notion that the Incarnation would have taken place even without the fall occurs in Western theology from Duns Scotus onwards. So the idea of the Incarnation without the fall is not foreign to Christian theology, although it remained speculative. The alternative scenario, discarding the fall as a historical event, builds on the idea that the Incarnation is not dependent on the fall. Christ’s Incarnation, teachings, passion, death and Resurrection were necessary to provide the Way (Christ) and the Means (Christ) by which humans can achieve the perfection to which they are called. Similarly, speculation on whether Christ took on original or fallen human nature is of no theological significance.
No essential elements of Christian theology are threatened as a result of de-historicizing the Genesis account of Eden and the fall, although this does require re-formulating aspects of Christian notions of human existence, the origins of death and evil, original sin, the motive for the Incarnation and baptismal theology. With a creative recalibration to eliminate the fall as a deus ex machina solution to difficult theological questions, Christian theology can recover from the fall.
* I am grateful to Professor Peter Bouteneff (St. Vladimir’s Orthodox Theological Seminary, New York) and to Fr. Geoffrey Ready (Orthodox School of Theology at Trinity College, University of Toronto) for comments on an earlier version of this post.
Paul Ladouceur is Adjunct Professor, Orthodox School of Theology at Trinity College (University of Toronto) and Professeur associé, Faculté de théologie et de sciences religieuses, Université Laval (Québec).
Public Orthodoxy seeks to promote conversation by providing a forum for diverse perspectives on contemporary issues related to Orthodox Christianity. The positions expressed in this essay are solely the author’s and do not necessarily represent the views of the editors or the Orthodox Christian Studies Center.
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