Sadly, the way things were meant to be is not the way things are. Something has gone badly wrong, and it went wrong almost from the beginning. As fundamental as creation is to the Christian worldview, the Bible spends surprisingly little time reporting how it happened—mainly a couple of pages in Genesis. Presumably, this is because humanity fell so quickly and suddenly into sin.
In the Garden
To understand how humanity sinned, we need to know the law that God required Adam to keep. To glorify God completely is to love him wholeheartedly, trust him unreservedly, and obey him absolutely. In the words of Michel de Montaigne, the famous French essayist, “To obey is the proper office of a rational soul.” God is to be obeyed simply because he is God. To prove their obedience God gave our first parents a clear and simple prohibition: “You are free to eat from any tree in the garden; but you must not eat from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, for when you eat from it you will certainly die” (Gen. 2:16–17 NIV). With these words, God spoke Adam into the personhood of moral agency. In effect, he also established a covenant with Adam. It was a covenant of creation, in which the first man—representing all humanity—was duty bound to perfect obedience. God made a moral universe in which the reward for obeying him was life, but the punishment for disobeying him was death.
The Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil was the ideal test of man’s fidelity. The only thing it demanded was the only thing that mattered: pure and loving obedience to the revealed will of God. Knowing that this particular tree was forbidden was not something that could be read off creation; it could only be revealed by God. So Adam had to choose whether to live for God or for himself. In making this choice he was—as the Puritans sometimes put it—“able to stand, but free to fall.” If he made the right choice, he would live forever, fulfilling the creation mandate, filling and subduing the earth with the help of godly offspring, and developing the full potential of human civilization in covenant with God.
That is not what happened, however. Our first parents had everything to lose by tasting the forbidden fruit and nothing to gain worth gaining. Nevertheless, they sought their own independence and broke covenant with God: “The woman . . . took of its fruit and ate, and she also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate” (Gen. 3:6). In these few words are contained the sum of human misery. Until this moment, human beings had known only the good. Now they also knew evil, to their dismay and destruction.
Here it is crucial to understand that the fall was a real event that took place in space-time history. There was a man, Adam, who took a piece of fruit from a woman, Eve, put it in his mouth, and swallowed it. This is not merely allegory; it is history. Christianity identifies the beginning of evil in the world by showing its human origin in a genuinely historical event. There is a sense in which this history gets repeated every time that anyone makes a sinful choice. But because of his divinely ordained role as our moral representative, the first sin of the first Adam is foundational for all that follows.
From that point on, everything has gone badly wrong. So let us lament the many tragic consequences of sin, starting with guilt. Even before they could wipe the juice off their chins, Adam and Eve knew that they were sinners: “The eyes of both of them were opened, and they realized they were naked” (Gen. 3:7 NIV). Their unprecedented shame over their nakedness was a telltale sign of their guilt before God. And because of our solidarity with Adam as our covenant representative, the juice of his first sin ran down our chins as well. This is part of the profound unity of the human race. Not only are we all “made from one man” (Acts 17:26), but all of us have also sinned in one man. “Sin came into the world through one man,” the Scripture says; “one trespass led to condemnation for all men” (Rom. 5:12, 18). According to the doctrine of original sin, the entire human race was condemned in Adam and has received from him a sinful nature. “Certainly nothing jolts us more rudely than this doctrine,” wrote Blaise Pascal, the famous French philosopher, “and yet, but for this mystery the most incomprehensible of all, we remain incomprehensible to ourselves.” We are all guilty from birth and therefore born under divine judgment. Adam’s fall was our fall, the fall of humanity into sin, which we are only too willing to ratify by our own guilty sins.
Sin also brings alienation. Formerly Adam and Eve had walked with God in the cool of the day. They did this because they loved God and wanted to be with him. But now “they hid themselves from the presence of the Lord God among the trees of the garden” (Gen. 3:8). Sinners know instinctively that God is too holy to look upon their sin. This explains why our first parents dreaded the sound of the divine footfall in Eden. When they heard God coming, they literally hid “from his face.” This is what we all do. We hide from God, not wanting to confess our sin against him or acknowledge his claim upon our lives (Col. 1:21) yet all the while still desperate to find him. We were made to love and enjoy God, and we will never find true and lasting satisfaction apart from a relationship with him. But sin brings separation, which leads us to start looking for satisfaction in all the wrong places. Rather than taking true delight in God and moving at every moment toward him, there are many times when we want nothing to do with God at all—when we are not hungry to hear his Word or happy to sing his praises.
The loneliness that sin brings is horizontal as well as vertical, affecting not only our relationship with God (the vertical), but also our relationships with other people (the horizontal). Having rebelled against God, we now find ourselves estranged from one another. Sometimes the problem is that we expect too much from other people. Longing for relationship, we hope that friends, lovers, and family members can give us something that it turns out only God himself can provide. Our desire for relationships is good, but we demand too much, and soon our disappointment with other people turns to conflict.
The breach between Adam and Eve became obvious the moment they sinned and felt the need to protect themselves from the unbearable scrutiny of another human being by wearing clothes. Soon Adam launched his first assault on his estranged wife. When God asked if he had eaten the forbidden fruit, Adam said, “The woman you put here with me—she gave me some fruit from the tree, and I ate it” (Gen. 3:12 NIV). This was hardly chivalrous. Adam’s confession (“and I ate it”) seems to come as an afterthought. His real concern was to shift the blame to Eve (not to mention God), and this is the way of fallen human beings ever since: we excuse our sin by saying it was someone else’s fault.
We can only imagine the bitter arguments that Adam and Eve had during the long, sad years after Eden. “If only you had never eaten that forbidden fruit!” Eve would say. “Well, you ate it first!” Adam would retort. In Paradise Lost, John Milton describes their endless recriminations: “Thus they in mutual accusation spent / The fruitless hours, but neither self condemning; / And of their vain contest appeared no end.” Milton was right—there is no end to human conflict. Always sinned against but never sinning, everyone a victim but never a villain, there is discord and disharmony at every level of human relationships.
Estrangement is common in the home, where husbands are angry or unfaithful, wives are critical or judgmental, and far too many marriages end in divorce. Children disobey their parents, while parents exasperate their children. The elderly are killed in the name of mercy, while the unborn never see the light of day. There is also estrangement in the church, where each group claims to have God on its side and looks down on people who do not think, or worship, or serve the way they do.
Then there is estrangement in society, where men and women wage an endless battle of the sexes, often to the disadvantage or exploitation of women. There is estrangement in the workplace, where competitors use and abuse one another to get ahead in their careers, and where corporate greed claims excessive profits off the backs of ordinary employees and out of the pocketbooks of helpless investors. Bosses abuse their power and workers rise up in rebellion. We see the same thing in the wider economy, where exploitation is so woven into the fabric of the global marketplace that the poor are often enmeshed in the cords of injustice. And there is estrangement around the globe, especially in the form of armed conflict. Nation rises against nation, and tribe against tribe; dictators oppress their own people; terrorists commit random acts of violence; and superpowers provide weapons that fuel the fires of war. We are not guided by love but held captive to hatred.