How do we understand “the fall” and “original sin”?

original-sinQ: Can you explain the idea of “the fall” and “original sin” and how they are understood by Lutherans and Episcopalians?

A: I’ll do my best! A quick look at my seminary systematic theology notes, as well as books by Lutheran and Episcopalian theologians, made me realize this could be quite the long answer. But as concisely as I can, a few key points:

When we speak of “the fall” we are generally speaking of the story in Genesis 3 in which Adam and Eve eat of the fruit “of the tree of the knowledge of Good and Evil.” They do so at the encouragement of “the serpent,” and against the explicit command of God. After eating the fruit, Adam and Eve’s “eyes were opened,” they realize they are naked and make clothing, and they hide from God. As punishment, God expels Adam and Eve from the Garden, makes it less convenient for the serpent to move around, and to add insult to energy, ensures that childbearing will be painful and that humankind will have to endure hard labor for their earthly lives. Ouch!

As Lutherans and Episcopalians, we, like most Jews and Christians throughout history, are comfortable reading this story as allegory. We categorize this tale in the biblical genre of myth—a deep and poetic account that tells us a deeper truth (the fact that there is a talking snake is a dead giveaway). An additional note that is important: much of what we understand about the story of the fall is not from Scripture, but rather from Milton’s “Paradise Lost.” The serpent as “the devil” is one example of something not actually in the text.

So, what does this story have to tell us? I think the biggest point is also what might be the strangest: why were Adam and Eve punished so harshly for eating a piece of fruit? And more strangely, if this fruit simply let Adam and Eve tell the difference between right and wrong, why would God be upset about that? The main problem here is that such knowledge takes God out of the equation. Previously, Adam and Eve were dependent on God to tell them what is right and what is wrong. If they had this knowledge themselves, they would no longer be dependent on God and could thus chart their own course through life. Augustine called this the desire of humans to “be their own masters without the Lord.”

And so the story of the fall, and the reality of our “original sin,” is not so much the result of an historical event, but rather a reality of our sinful existence. In creation, God has given the world into our care and provided for us every good thing. And yet, because of our sinfulness, none of that is enough. And instead of embracing God’s love, we turn around and run in the other direction. Of course, as Christians, we believe that Christ’s death and resurrection, and our baptism, are the cure for original sin. We have turned out backs on God, but God will never turn God’s back on us. Instead, Jesus reconciles us to God, and promises us a new way forward, despite our sinfulness.

Comments are closed.