The Doctrine of The Fall

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God made the world good. The sense we get in Genesis 1 is of “perfection.” By perfection we do not mean in the sense that it was complete but rather that it was fitting for its time. It was incomplete in the sense that humans still had the work of filling and subduing creation and of tending and caring for it.

We see here an eschatological trajectory. As a number of commentators over time have noted, the movement is from a Garden to Garden City. We look forward to a day and a place where God will dwell with all his people (see Rev 21-22). I believe that Revelation 21-22 was always the goal of Creation.

According to John Calvin, this means that sin was both a fall from where we were and a departure from where we are going.

“For what is our original? One from which we have fallen. What the end of our creation? One from which we have altogether strayed, so that weary of our miserable lot, we groan, and groaning sigh for a dignity now lost.”[1]

Or to put it another way, redemption does not simply restore us to a previous static position, but puts on the right path and in the right direction again.

So, the first state of Creation was “good.” Goodness means that

  • It is rich in provision. There is a fertile garden and a fertile earth. Humans and animals are also fertile, expecting to be fruitful and multiply.
  • Work is there at the start, but does not include the struggle and frustration we see later.
  • Similarly, child birth was meant to be painless.
  • There was an absence of pain, conflict and death.[2]

Humans and Sin

It was Adam and Eve’s response to temptation, listening to the Serpent and disobeying God’s command that led to The Fall.

We note here that that

  1. Sin was a conscious, willed decision so that Adam and Eve were responsible for their choice and action.
  2. The consequence and punishment of sin is that our human status is “dead”. This includes
    1. Spiritual death (broken relationship with God and exile)
    1. Physical death – mortality
    1. Eternal death – Hell
  3. This applies to all humanity – we sinned in Adam and so we die in Adam (See Romans 5).

Sin meant choosing to side with God’s enemy in his “revolt against the LORD.”[3] This reminds us again of the wider creation beyond the material Universe, of things both seen and unseen. As Blocher notes, the snake plays a significant and not a minor role[4] in the rebellion against God. We have talked about God creating angels. There is a spirit world as well as a material world and in the Bible, we see that some angels have fallen, standing in rebellion against God. Spiritual warfare means that we must not underestimate the devil’s role just as we shouldn’t overstate his power.

Sin involved the decision to believe a lie, however subtly put. Note the nature of the lie:

“The snake’s attack on the truth of God’s word is launched in an indirect manner, by imputing hidden motives that God’s revelation passes over in silence, by subjecting the terms of the covenant to ‘the hermeneutic of suspicion’. Even when he is so bold as to contradict the terms of God’s words, ‘DYING you shall not die’ (v4), there is still ambiguity. The unusual placing of the negative leaves open the possibility of understanding it as: ‘It is not proper death that you shall undergo’; in other words, dare to experience the trivial death-like change that will bring you the experience of full humanity.”[5]

So, the Fall was a suppression of truth.  We have seen that God’s greatness and goodness are clearly revealed and that Creation speaks of them. Romans 1:18ff tells us that we exchanged the truth about God for a lie.

“But God shows his anger from heaven against all sinful, wicked people who suppress the truth by their wickedness.19 They know the truth about God because he has made it obvious to them.20 For ever since the world was created, people have seen the earth and sky. Through everything God made, they can clearly see his invisible qualities — his eternal power and divine nature. So they have no excuse for not knowing God.21 

Yes, they knew God, but they wouldn’t worship him as God or even give him thanks. And they began to think up foolish ideas of what God was like. As a result, their minds became dark and confused.Claiming to be wise, they instead became utter fools.And instead of worshiping the glorious, ever-living God, they worshiped idols made to look like mere people and birds and animals and reptiles.”[6]

Dan Strange observes that:

“the serpent entices Eve and Adam into disbelieving the truths about God that Genesis 1 and 2 have clearly established and that Adam and Eve had witnessed experientially since their creation.”[7]

It is not that they were without excuse. They knew truth by revelation and experience but chose to reject it. Strange identifies this as false faith.

“To have ‘False Faith’ is to believe lies about God, lies that are both rationally and ethically unjustified.”[8]

False faith is in the word of the Serpent (an alternative revelation), in themselves (they want to be like God, so false gods) and in a promise of reaching a desired place with God through a wrong action (a false salvation and a false gospel). In other words, the Fall was about idolatry.[9]

We will return to the specific role of humanity and the consequences for us in more detail later when we look in detail at the truth and lies we believe about ourselves. Here I want to pick up the effect of the Fall on the rest of creation.

The Fall and the World around us

The key thing is that there has been a loss of the goodness described above. Death and decay affect the whole creation. It is not a complete loss of goodness. There is still provision of fruit and food for sustenance and enjoyment, but it comes at a cost. We harvest food and give birth by the sweat of the brow. There are weeds, thorns and thistles in our work and pain in our labour.

There is enmity within creation – the seed of the serpent and the seed of the woman points towards Christ and Satan, but also reflect the reality of predatory creatures and the fear they cause.

The Fall is a subversion of the Creation order. Instead of humans worshipping God and ruling over Creation, they sit in judgement over God and listen to the serpent. 

Romans 8 describes creation as groaning and longing, waiting for the day when things will be put right.

“Yet what we suffer now is nothing compared to the glory he will reveal to us later.For all creation is waiting eagerly for that future day when God will reveal who his children really are.Against its will, all creation was subjected to God’s curse. But with eager hope,the creation looks forward to the day when it will join God’s children in glorious freedom from death and decay.For we know that all creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time.And we believers also groan, even though we have the Holy Spirit within us as a foretaste of future glory, for we long for our bodies to be released from sin and suffering. We, too, wait with eager hope for the day when God will give us our full rights as his adopted children, including the new bodies he has promised us.We were given this hope when we were saved. (If we already have something, we don’t need to hope for it.But if we look forward to something we don’t yet have, we must wait patiently and confidently”[10]

It is for those reasons that, contra Blocher, I continue to think it is right to refer to the events of Genesis 3 as The Fall.  Blocher is uncomfortable with this, seeing the term as Gnostic.

“Traditionally the churches, commentators and theologians entitle the third chapter of Genesis ‘The Fall’. There is nothing in the text, however, to suggest that metaphor. It could put the reader’s thoughts on the wrong track altogether by implying that the event was a sudden, dramatic change of level downwards, of a metaphysical order: a fall from the heavenly to the earthly, from a higher spiritual stage of being into the lower material realm. The Bible would condemn such contamination from Greek and Gnostic themes.”[11]

He prefers to talk about it as “transgression”[12] or “crossing a boundary”[13] which are, in my opinion, true labels, but focus on what Adam and Eve did and miss the wider consequences.

When we refer to Genesis 3 as “The Fall,” we are not describing a fall from spiritual to material. Rather, the whole material creation falls together. It is a fall from the glorious position that man was meant to have into rebellion, slavery and death. It is the fall from goodness which we have outlined above.

The Fall and punishment

Living in a fallen creation is part of the punishment of sin. As Bavinck says:

“According to Scripture, in addition to guilt and pollution, suffering is also a punishment for sin. As a result of it, humanity not only lost true knowledge, righteousness and holiness, but also dominion and glory. This became evident already immediately after the fall and is further confirmed throughout Scripture. God put enmity between the human race and the serpent and thereby in principle took from humanity the dominion over the animal world originally granted to it.”[14]

The punishment for sin is summed up in one word: “Death”.  Now, Adam and Eve continued to live for many years after eating the fruit, so does that mean God got things wrong or lied? We reject this idea because, “in the Bible, death is the reverse of life – it is not the reverse of existence.”[15]

This means that, as we saw above, we experience spiritual death as exile from God, we face physical death and outside of Christ there is eternal death – separation from God’s loving presence in Hell. Punishment for sin also means living in a dying and decaying world now.

Because physical creation fell, it needs physical restoration. That’s why it longs for the day when God will put everything right.

[1] Calvin, Institutes, II.i.3.  (Beveridge 1:212).

[2] I have argued previously that this applies to all creatures, not just to humans.

[3] Blocher, In the Beginning, The Opening Chapters of Genesis (Downers Growve, IL.: IVP, 1984), 137.

[4] Blocher, In the Beginning, 150.

[5] Blocher, In the Beginning, 139.

[6] Romans 1:18-23.

[7] Strange, For their Rock is not as our Rock, 75.

[8] Strange, For their Rock is not as our Rock, 76.

[9] Strange, For their Rock is not as our Rock, 77.

[10] Romans 8:18-25.

[11] Henri Blocher, In the Beginning, 135.

[12] Blocher, In the Beginning, 135.

[13] Blocher, In the Beginning, 136.

[14] Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics 3, 176.

[15] Blocher, In the Beginning, 171.

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