We’ve looked at ways in which western and eastern Christians have understood Genesis 2 and 3. The latter view, in which humanity was created in an immature condition and expected to grow, corresponds best to our scientific picture. The earliest human sin was not a fall from perfection but a start along a path that led away from God.
The first humans would have inherited tendencies for selfish behaviors that injured their fellows. Sin has to do with our relationship with God, and didn’t exist before God revealed his will to our ancestors. But when God told them not to harm others, they would have been tempted to ignore him.
Humanity could theoretically have obeyed God, for our behaviors are not hardwired. Sin wasn’t “necessary” but was “inevitable.” Refusing to obey God, humanity turned from God’s intended goal and started on a road to perdition. Science of course supplies further details about early humanity, but we’re concerned here with theology rather than history.
This corresponds to the picture we get from Genesis. The sin of Adam and Eve fractures their relationship with one another and with nature. Cain kills Abel and violence pervades the world. Genesis 1-11 is not an historical narrative but does describe the human condition. We inherit selfish tendencies and are also born and nurtured in cultures estranged from God, taking in idolatrous views and values with our first breaths. Augustine was right about the seriousness of this sinful state, one in which people cannot cooperate with God because they are spiritually dead.
Unregenerate sinners are spiritually dead, but biological death can’t be attributed to sin. The fossil record shows that creatures were dying long before humans came on the scene. There is no scriptural reason to argue otherwise, for texts connecting sin and death have only humanity in view. The notion that God had to create a world with no suffering or death fails to appreciate a theology of the cross. Since God shared in the dying of creatures to bring about his purpose for creation, it shouldn’t surprise us that he created a world in which death plays a role.
What about human death? Paul did say that “all die in Adam” (I Corinthians 15:22). How can we understand this if the earliest humans were mortal?
Genesis doesn’t say whether Adam and Eve would have died if they hadn’t sinned. However, the later Judaism in which Paul was educated had come to see sin as the cause of physical death. When Paul says that death came through Adam he meant biological as well as spiritual death.
But biological death has powerful affects. Suffering, loss, uncertainty about an afterlife, the horror of rotting corpses and regret for unfinished work may all be present. The most serious threat is separation from God. It is finally sin that makes death terrible. Those who live biologically but without God partake of death in an important sense.
Perhaps biological death didn’t have to have all those affects. If humans had not sinned, they might have seen death purely as a transition to a future life. But we look back over history as people who have lived our whole lives in a sinful atmosphere, and see all earth’s dying as something more and worse than physical death. We can’t think of it as a purely biological phenomenon. Sin did not cause death but gives it new meaning.
Paul too saw death as a biological-spiritual whole. He may have been wrong about biological death originating with Adam, just as the writer of Genesis was wrong about the dome of the sky, and the Holy Spirit accommodated revelation to Paul’s culturally conditioned idea. But Paul was right that sin makes death “the last enemy” that can be defeated only by God.
Our discussion so far has been a grim story of sin and of death colored by it. The gospel announces that in Jesus Christ God acted to deal with these threats, reconciling creation and reorienting human history toward himself. That will be our next topic.