The Fall: When and What, Exactly? (Part 2)
Amazon lists at least five books titled [Just] What [Really] Happened in the Garden of Eden? I’m sure there are others by virtually the same title. So I’m not pretending to resolve that question definitively in the space of 1500 words. My purpose (if I may wax Carsonian for a moment) is to try to ‘tease out’ the instant and the essence of the first human sin based on God’s testimony to the event in Genesis 2-3.
With the proliferation of even evangelical readings of these early events in Genesis, it is worth observing that part of the fallout of the Fall is our inherent proneness to misread the divine explanation of our proneness even to misread divine explanations. If you follow. In one of those ubiquitous book titles (Abner Chou, ed., What Happened in the Garden?), Grant Horner sums up that point this way:
No other text tells you so clearly why you tend not to read that text rightly. . . . So why are there so many varying interpretations (and therefore misinterpretations) of Genesis 3 [and, I would add, Genesis 1-2]? I would like to suggest … that the text of Genesis is not the problem. It is the explanation (102, 109).
So there’s lots of ink out there devoted to pondering the issue that I’m just poking my little probe into here in a humble blogpost. And last time I suggested it could be helpful to walk through alternative scenarios and then compare them with what we know from the text.
What if Eve had wandered over and handled the forbidden fruit, pondering the serpent’s words, but in the end decided not to eat it. Would that have been a sin? Would that have constituted the Fall? I don’t know on what grounds that could be defended scripturally.
Or, suppose she had talked over the serpent’s propositions with Adam, but then they still decided against eating it. Again, I think one would be hard-pressed to scripturally identify that act as sin, given what we are told in Genesis 2:16-17, since in the end they would have heeded God’s sole prohibition.
Or again, as my emailer wondered, what if she takes the fruit in Gen 3:6 with the intentionof eating it — but then she doesn’t eat it. Suppose Adam intervenes and takes the fruit from her, and she then realizes she should not have listened to the serpent or taken the fruit with intent to eat it. Would her initial choice and intention to obey Satan’s words rather than God’s have been the first “sin”? Would her intention itself have been sinful because she had already disposed herself to listen to the serpent’s words instead of God’s?
Or (I will offer one more to make a point), what if she doesn’t eat the fruit but begins to grow deeply suspicious of God as a result of the serpent’s insinuations? My question is, could she begin to grow suspicious of God (in any sinful sense) without eating the fruit? I don’t know that we could defend a definitive answer to that either, mostly because all we know and all our revelation to inform our answers to such questions is post-Fall.
I suspect C. S. Lewis has imagined the workings of the unfallen human mind as well and as thoroughly as anyone in the extended temptation scene of Perelandra. In response to the urgings of Weston (the tempter), the questions and responses of the green lady (the “Eve” figure) reflect curiosity and rationality and, yet, a sustained innocence. And in the end, she rejects the temptation. Of course, Lewis is fiction. Which is the point. That’s pretty much all we’re left with when we start trying to extrapolate beyond the text, especially when it leads us to suggest things that seem to contradict the text we have.
My purpose in posing alternative scenarios is to analyze them in the light of the revelation we have about that event. We can put only so much weight on arguments derived from what didn’t happen. Based on the revelation we’re given, it seems there was no human sin up to and through the first half of Genesis 3:6, but that 3:6b records the act that constituted the first sin and, hence, the Fall (i.e., the spiritual death forewarned in Gen 2:16-17) with its consequent transformation of our disposition away from God that we call depravity.
I would, however, describe the essence of that first act of sin not as some surging urge to rebel against God, but as the decision/choice to believe and act on someone else’s word other than God’s. Everything in the narrative rivets our attention on God’s words as the point of attack. Here Griffith Thomas is on safe ground (unlike his previously cited comments) because he sticks closest to the text:
…the temptation is associated entirely with doubt of God’s Word: “Hath God said?” This is characteristic of sin at all times; the doubt, the denial, and the disbelief of God’s Word.
“Chronologically” speaking, then, everything from her decision to her movement to her eating is part of “the sin.” But it’s like chronologically dissecting the moment of salvation, where multiple things happen essentially in the same instant (faith, regeneration, justification, reconciliation, Spirit-sealing, etc.). We can take a theological scalpel and dissect that moment of salvation and argue that certain things logically precede other things—but for all practical purposes they’re simultaneous, part-and-parcel of the same moment of salvation. The same seems likely to be true of the first sin. The only moment the text definitively puts its finger on as the moment of sin is Genesis 3:6b.
The rationale of the temptation itself is to question, attack, and undercut the words of God and, therefore, the character and being of God himself. The nature of sin, therefore — both at the Fall and ever since — is to decide to trust and act on anyone’s words instead of God’s.