The story of eternity interrupted is told in the third chapter of the Bible.
Humanistic perceptions of evil and of human nature have deeply influenced Christian thinking about sin and its effects. Believers in God are very often naive about the nature of sin, and they deceive themselves by not taking the power and deceitfulness of sin seriously. Humans cannot change their sinful nature (Ps. 51:5; Rom. 7:14, 18), and evil is our deadly enemy. Many Christians believe that there is a good core in each person and that people can overcome sin and temptations on their own and obey God if they concentrate hard enough. Incorrect perceptions about sin lead to desperation for many people and induce a feeling of false pride for others, which leads to perfectionism.
On the other hand, many people try to avoid speaking about sin or dismiss it as a mere mistake, fault, problem, foolishness, error, disease, illness, forgetfulness, statistical deviation, ignorance, or offense. To perceive the nature of sin clearly, it is necessary to investigate anew the nature of sin and its consequences according to God’s revelation. This biblical-theological study will be principally limited to Genesis chapter 3.
Anatomy of the Original Sin and Dynamics of Temptation
The biblical explanation of sin’s origin on earth is given in the form of a story. In the account of the Fall in Genesis 3, the term sin does not appear, yet it is the best definition of sin. This model story is historical, recounting what actually happened, but at the same time it contains a deep symbolic meaning that explains the nature of sin as a paradigm and archetype with vast consequences. We like explanations in the form of definitions or philosophical treatises, but the inspired biblical authors give insights into profound issues of life through pattern narratives.
The biblical narrative regarding the original sin—the first sin of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden—presupposes a knowledge of the Creation accounts (Genesis 1 and 2). According to these accounts, God created humans in His image in a pristine state not yet marred by evil and placed Adam and Eve in the beautiful Garden of Eden. To be created in God’s image (1:27, 28) meant that humans were made with the capacity to communicate and relate to God, and were created to care for His creation as His representatives and to represent His character of love in their own character. They were not created as small gods but as special and unique persons to be able to be a blessing and contribution to one another.
The first Creation story demonstrates that the world was made without a trace of sin by stating six times that everything was “good” (Gen. 1: 4, 10, 12, 18, 21, 25). Moreover, after the completion of the physical creation, the Creation account culminates with a seventh expression: “God saw all that he had made . . . was very good” (vs. 31).1 This means that Adam and Eve did not have a corrupted nature and that God had endowed them with the power of free will and choice (2:16, 17). In addition, the first couple were “naked,” yet without “shame” (vs. 25). This innocence is an indication that they were not in a broken state of sin. Allen Ross summarizes: “They were at ease with one another, without fear of exploitation for evil. . . . God has prepared human beings, male and female, with the spiritual capacity and communal assistance to serve him and to keep his commands so that they might live and enjoy the bounty of his creation.”2 This verse is a springboard text, however, that anticipates the changes in Genesis 3 that describe how the pre-Fall harmony, peace, love, and joy were abruptly interrupted and marred by sin, with tragic consequences.
Humans were created in a perfect world without guilt, shame, fear, corruption, or death, and the Genesis creation account teaches that they were primarily made for (1) close fellowship with God, (2) a total dependence on Him, and (3) the cultivation of His presence in their lives. This joy of life was sharply diminished by the disobedience of the first couple. Enjoyment of the vertical dimension of life was a safeguard for eliminating the risk of rebellion against God and a prerequisite for cultivating meaningful horizontal relationships.
The Fall account also presupposes the existence of Satan, who used the disguise of the serpent’s form. Chapter 3 begins with the serpent as a known entity for the reader. The insight into Satan’s rebellion against God before humanity’s fall into sin is provided only in a few biblical passages (Job 1:6–13; Isa. 14:12–15, and Eze. 28:11–19). The serpent in the Garden of Eden was used as a medium by Satan, the adversary to salvation, as it is biblically documented (Job 1:7–9; 2:2; Matt. 4:1–11; 2 Cor. 11:3; Rev. 12:7–12; 20:2).
It is significant that neither the serpent nor Eve speaks about God in a personal relational term translated as the “Lord,” but simply as transcendent “God,” as indicated in their conversation of Genesis 3:1–5. It is understandable for Satan, because there is no close or covenant relationship between him and God (as the usage of the proper name “the Lord” would presuppose). However, Eve’s failure to use the name Yahweh in reacting to the serpent’s question is surprising because chapters 2 and 3 consistently use the term Lord for God (except in the dialogue between the serpent and Eve), which may indicate that Eve minimized the personal aspect of her relationship with the Lord.
The Genesis fall account begins with three surprises. First, a serpent speaks—a very unusual phenomenon that may have immediately indicated to Eve that this creature had extraordinary, otherworldly power. On only one other occasion in the Bible did an animal speak, specifically, Balaam’s donkey (Num. 22:28–32). There is a striking contrast, however, between these two situations. The donkey’s mouth was opened by the Lord, but the serpent’s mouth spoke directly against God’s command. Furthermore, the serpent addressed the woman. The text does not explicitly give Adam’s location, but the imagery suggests that Eve was curious about the forbidden tree and walked there alone. Significantly, the serpent knows exactly what God said previously in the Garden of Eden (Gen. 2:16, 17) and directly contradicts His command. He engages in a deceptive activity even though he never forces Adam or Eve to eat the forbidden fruit. He knows the art of seduction.
The Fall narrative records the well-aimed statement of the serpent (Satan) when he asks the woman, “‘Did God really say, “You must not eat from any tree in the garden”?’” (3:1). It is interesting to observe that so far in the Book of Genesis when God has spoken, He has expressed Himself with authority, and has not employed questions. But when Satan speaks, he uses questions to challenge God’s word and authority (“‘Did God really say . . . ?’”). If one takes this sentence as declarative, then it has the sense of questioning God’s command and authority with even greater force. Speiser states: “The serpent is not asking a question; he is deliberately distorting a fact.”3 So one needs to ask, What was the purpose of this very first emphatic question recorded in the Bible and expressed as a powerful attack against God?
The best way to discover the goal of Satan’s utterance is to compare it with God’s previous command. In the beginning, the Creator gave two commandments: The first was positive, the second negative (2:16, 17). He first created free space for humans, because He is the Guarantor of ultimate freedom: “‘You are free to eat from any tree in the garden’” (vs. 16). Thus, God commands freedom. He created Adam and Eve as free moral beings; but in order for them to enjoy this freedom, to be happy and grow in a healthful environment, they needed to accept God-given borders and limits. This is why God gave the restriction in the second command: “‘you must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil” (vs. 17).
The gift of freedom presupposes choice and free will. Humans must always acknowledge that they are created beings. They need to cultivate their total dependency on God. God’s generosity was plainly explained—Everything I created is for you except one fruit. To ensure their freedom, Adam and Eve needed to respect their boundaries. Then and now, restrictions must be kept. Even in a perfect world, there are limits that must be guarded, for discipline is a crucial ingredient of life. Humans need to accept that they are not gods. By accepting limits, Adam and Eve were free; they had a safe space in which they could grow and develop their potential, true humanity, and the image of God in which they were created.
Satan’s goal was more than simply an invitation to dialogue. He wanted to accomplish more than merely create doubt, which is the usual assumption about the purpose of the serpent’s statement. Doubt would certainly come as a result of his tactics when suspicion was aroused. Satan could succeed in his intrigue only when he was able to create a wrong picture of God. Thus, his primary goal was to paint a false image of God and suggest a wrong impression of His character and intentions, thereby implanting in the minds of Adam and Eve erroneous and incorrect thinking about God.
Satan recognized that if he succeeded here and gained victory over the thinking of human beings, he would win the whole war for their allegiance, because everything in our spiritual lives depends on the correct picture of God in our mind. How we view God determines who we are and how we behave. Satan knows this. Therefore, he does the maximum possible to distort our understanding of God’s character. He tries hard to put God in a false light because he knows humans will be willing to do something against God only if they do not perceive Him as loving, caring, compassionate, and gracious, and as the Guarantor of freedom. Only when trust is broken will doubts appear.
Thus, Satan knows where to strike first—against God’s character of love. Once this first step in the wrong direction is taken, a person embarks on a slippery slope, and the end is inevitable: doubting God’s goodness and the purity of His intentions. This inevitably results in the person’s gradually finding himself or herself in the abyss of destruction.
Eternal life is to know God existentially (John 17:3), and people are dying for lack of that knowledge (Hosea 4:6; 5:4). The matter hinges on the following simple question: Why would a God who created humans as beings dependent on food, who gave them a sense for aesthetics and millions of taste buds, who created plenty of pleasant-smelling and appealing fruits, forbid Adam and Eve to eat from any of them? The anatomy of the first sin began with an attempt to create a false picture of God, to misrepresent Him, to put Him in a false light in order to discredit Him and make Him appear to be a monster.
Trust is the essential and foundational element of all meaningful relationships. It is a quality of life without which nothing can function properly. We trust only a person we know, who has our best interests in mind, who loves and cares for us, is unselfish and gracious, and understands our hearts. Satan wants to break this trust relationship between God and humans, but to do so, he needs to generate a distorted picture of God. If he succeeds in planting this “virus” in the minds of people, his job is accomplished.
Satan’s goals will succeed if humans accept this deceitful image. They will turn against God as the result of questioning the motives, words, relationship, and authority of the divine being. When a love relationship is put into question, mistrust begins its work. Doubts about His purposes, plans, and character are sown and bring forth destructive fruit. By asserting a false picture about God, it is easy for Satan to create seeds of doubt. Inevitably, loss of trust produces fatal consequences.
Instead of running away from the situation (the only proper reaction [Gen. 39:12]), Eve tried to defend God. This was her cardinal mistake, because one cannot engage in a dialogue with the devil, the master of all intrigues, and win. In defending God, however, Eve did not quote Him correctly. She altered His word, and her interpretation of the divine statements created a trap for her. Her small modifications give some hints of what was going on at this tragic moment in the mind of Eve.
The dialogue in Genesis 3 between the serpent and Eve is “the first conversation about God.”4 Walter Brueggemann excellently explains: “God is treated as a third person. God is not a party to the discussion but is the involved object of the discussion. This is not speech to God or with God, but about God. God has been objectified.”5 Phyllis Trible underlines this: “The serpent and the woman discuss theology. They talk about God,” but “only using the appellative God, they establish that distance which characterizes objectivity and invites disobedience.”6 Mettinger claims: “A motif that has a central role to the plot and pervades the text as a whole is the motif of the divine commandments. . . . The plot is focused on a divine test of the first two humans.”7 It is a reflection on the precise wording and nature of the divine commandment that appears in Genesis 2.
It is noteworthy to observe that Eve, by referring to the divine Person only as “God” (3:3) instead of speaking about Him in a personal way using His proper covenant name, “the Lord,” distances herself from her Creator as suggested above. In addition, Eve makes four changes to the Lord’s explicit command:
First, instead of stressing the freedom of being able to eat and enjoy every fruit of “‘any’” (v. 1) tree in the Garden of Eden, she mentioned only that she and Adam “‘may eat fruit from the trees in the garden’” (v. 2).
Second, instead of speaking about the nature of the forbidden tree (“‘tree of the knowledge of good and evil’” [2:17]), she pointed to its geographical location (“‘that is in the middle of the garden’” [3:3]). This forbidden tree had become the most important focus of her attention instead of the tree of life, which was also located in the center of the garden (Gen. 2:9).
Third, she added to God’s words about the forbidden fruit: We “‘must not touch it’” (3:3). Undoubtedly, this is a correct interpretation of what the Lord said because if one cannot eat the forbidden fruit then he or she certainly should not come close to admire, meditate on, smell, touch, or dance around it. But by exaggerating and adding to these words, she may have suddenly realized that her empirical experience (what she saw by her own eyes) contradicted God’s word, because the serpent was on the tree, touching the fruit, and not dying.
Fourth, Eve made a tiny but significant alteration in relation to God’s statement: “‘You will surely die’” (2:17). She makes it less serious by stating simply: “‘you will die’” (3:3), omitting the crucial emphatic word surely. Is this a textual signal that she questioned the certainty of death after disobedience? Perhaps she has concluded that death is not the inevitable result of transgressing God’s command.
Thus, the next step in the anatomy of the first sin was Eve’s conclusion that there were apparent contradictions between her empirical experience and the word of God. An incorrect interpretation of God’s word can lead to difficult situations ending with dangerously wrong decisions. This deepened Eve’s doubts, questions, and curiosity, and built distrust.
After this (and only after this situation transpired), the serpent was able to make a full frontal attack, using a statement that contradicted what the Creator had stated. The Lord said: “‘when you eat of it, you will surely die,’” but Satan boldly asserted: You will not surely die’” (3:4). Satan here used the same syntactical structure as God Himself to put certainty into his categorical statement, but reversed it by inserting a forceful “not.” The conversation, which began with a subtle quasi-question regarding God’s prohibition, became a total “denial of the consequences of disobedience.”8 Thus, Satan categorically denied the penalty for sin and falsely promised immortality. Eve now faced a critical decision: Whom would she trust, God or the serpent? Should she follow the word of the Lord or the word of the serpent, which contradicted what God had commanded?
This was an opportunity for the serpent to act and insert his interpretation. With his cardinal attack, he brought two offers: “‘Your eyes will be opened’” and “‘You will be like God, knowing good and evil’” (v. 5). Sin is never presented to humans as a loss but as a gain. However, sin is like a mirage in the desert. A thirsty traveler will go after it, but in the end it produces disillusionment, bitter disappointment, and death. It may seem that sin will bring something better, a solution to a problem, or fulfilment of an inner void, but in reality, all the enchantments of sin will disappear as a vapor. Both offers ultimately prove to be false because they are built on deception and illusion.
If they just ate the forbidden fruit, the serpent insisted, they would not die but would become like God, knowing good and evil. This specific gain would elevate them to a higher level of their existence, and God would no longer be able to keep certain secrets from them. Satan subtly suggested that the forbidden fruit had a unique power similar to the fruit from the tree of life that would give them access to the unknown and mysterious. Their immortality would acquire a new dimension that would be secured by the act of eating from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Adam and Eve were created mortal (Gen. 2:7) with the potential for immortality based on obedience to God’s commands (vss. 2:9, 17; 3:22–24). However, they now wanted to guarantee for themselves the gift of immortality, something that belonged to and was reserved only for God as His prerogative.
Satan wanted to create in Eve a desire for something better, a feeling of deficiency. He persuaded her that she was missing something important that would make her better, wiser, and more capable. He suggested that she lacked liberty and self-realization, that she deserved more than she presently possessed. Satan desired to create a void in Eve and proposed that if only she got “it,” she would be indeed happy. He tried to construct a false perception and feelings of hurt that God was hiding something from her and that He had taken her freedom, as though God was suppressing some information or gifts that could lead to her ultimate happiness.
Satan also claimed that he knew God’s motivation for the prohibition regarding the tree of the knowledge of good and evil: “‘God knows that when you eat from it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil’” (Gen. 3:5). He depicted God as a jealous, self-centered, and self-contained Deity who retained ultimate good only for Himself. Ross eloquently explains: “Adam and Eve lived in a setting that God himself had pronounced ‘good.’ Yet they were now led to believe that there was greater good held back from them, that somehow they could elevate life for better. . . . In raising doubt about God’s integrity, the serpent motivated them to sin with the promise of divinity. The idea of becoming like God has an appeal that is almost irresistible.”9 In her rationalization, Eve fell into the temptation of divinization. She desired what did not belong to her, and to get what she never could or should obtain.
Verse 6 reveals that Eve engaged in incorrect meditation, perception of reality, and thinking about the forbidden fruit (the Hebrew text uses the term translated as “see”). Eve was not blind before; this verb suggests intense inner struggle and intellectual activity. In her thinking, she “saw” that eating from the forbidden tree was profitable on three different levels: “good for food,” “delight of the eyes,” and “desirable to gain wisdom.”
Sin always begins in the mind. First, a battle must be won in our thinking, which is then supported or contradicted by our feelings, desires, and imagination. Eve observed the forbidden fruit, thought about it, and then made her decision. Satan seemingly promised thus-far unexperienced pleasures, a great future, and superior knowledge. He appealed to the physical, emotional, and spiritual dimensions of life, associating a forbidden fruit with beauty and wisdom. The perceived “benefits of sin,” however, are like a golden castle in a fairy tale—they are not real. They exist only in a fantasy land and lead to wrong decisions. “Eve’s reflection concentrates on the potential good of the fruit and ignores the evil that there is in disobedience.”10
When Eve lost the true picture of a loving and caring God, this created doubts about His word, apparent contradictions that appeared to lack an answer, and she accepted the serpent’s offer: “she took it and ate.” Mistrust resulted in a visible act of disobedience. When a loving relationship is broken, then the word/law of God is broken. Note that neither Eve nor Adam, was forced by Satan to eat the forbidden fruit, or to disobey. This was their deliberate action. Adam and Eve faced a dilemma—deciding who was right, whom to trust: God and His word or the serpent (self, their eyes, their own feelings and experience). Behind the Bible’s description of the struggle and agony of decision lies a foundational issue, namely, whether God can be trusted. Thus, at the core of each temptation lies the basic question: “Whom will I/we trust?” Misunderstanding of God’s character produces wrong thinking that leads to poor choices and bad decisions. Then the tangible act of disobedience occurs.
Definitions of Sin
Sin is described in Genesis 3 primarily in theological and relational terms, as it is aimed against God the Creator and what He represents. David expressed his understanding eloquently after he acutely understood the demoralizing nature of his own sinful actions in his adultery with Bathsheba: “Against you [O God], you only, have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight” (Ps. 51:4). Joseph stressed the same conviction when he refused to acquiesce to Potiphar’s wife’s lustful attempt at seduction: “‘My master has withheld nothing from me except you, because you are his wife. How then could I do such a wicked thing and sin against God?’” (Gen. 39:8).
A vivid, wide-ranging terminology for sin in the Bible reveals its devastating nature. This rich biblical vocabulary demonstrates the complexity of sin. The trilogy of words for sin expressed in the strongest biblical language are translated as (a) “missing the target,” “deviating from a right way,” or “going astray from a straight path”; (b) “transgression” or “bent,” “twisted,” or “crooked”; and (c) “rebellion” or “revolt.”
God forgives all the variants of sin and trespasses mentioned in the crucial passages of the Hebrew Scripture (Ex. 34:6; Ps. 32:1, 2; Isa. 53:5, 6, 8–12). Besides these three main terms for sin mentioned above, the Bible uses additional terms to describe the complexity of sin and our sinful nature. Additional vocabulary includes evil, guilt, wickedness, trespass, impurity, deceit, dishonesty, falsehood, offense, abomination, desecration, perversion, unrighteousness, error, injustice, arrogance, failure, etc.
One may summarize this explicit biblical terminology, which describes the vast array of the sin problem, in five main definitions of sin, all of which build and expand upon the theology of sin presented in Genesis 3:
1. According to Genesis 3, sin is a broken relationship with God; it is an attempt to live an autonomous life—ignoring God, His authority, and His law. Sin is thus de-creation, the undoing of God’s wonderful creation. Sin reverses all three foundational functions and purposes of life for which we were created according to the first Genesis creation account. Sin breaks our closeness with God, destroys a trusting fellowship, and alienates us from the Lord’s presence. By living in sin, people reveal distrust of God, deciding for themselves what is right and wrong. Sin comes as a result of rejecting God’s authority and refusing to acknowledge Him as the Creator to whom humans must be accountable. God’s law must be broken first in the mind and then in actual behavior.
The concepts of Genesis 3 are expanded by Paul in the New Testament: “Everything that does not come from faith is sin” (Rom. 14:23). Faith is a trust relationship with God, and breaking faith is sin (Mal. 2:10, 11). God commented on the sin of Moses in the same manner: “‘You did not trust in me enough to honor me as holy in the sight of the Israelites’” (Num. 20:12). So sin is mistrust and disbelief in God; it is a state of mind that produces a rejection of His law. This quest for autonomy leads to separation from God and His presence. Peters excellently expresses it: “At the heart or essence of all sin is the failure to trust God. Sin is our unwillingness to acknowledge our creatureliness and dependence upon the God of grace.”11
This crucial definition of sin leads theologians to differentiate between sin and sins by stating that sins are actions that grow out of sin, a broken relationship with God. Sin is thus more encompassing than a mere action; it is an attitude of rebellion against God, His authority, and His values. It occurs where people love themselves more than God and His creation. Such an attitude leads to many sinful thoughts and to wrong behavior Sins are thus the many, visible, concrete, and tangible actions produced by the condition of sin(Eze. 18:5–9, 11–13, 15–17; Matt. 15:18, 19; Gal. 5:19–21; Rev. 22:15). The difference between sin and sins can be compared to the difference between the root and the fruit. John the Baptist pointed to Christ and explained that he was “‘the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!’” (John 1:29) because He is the solution to the entire problem of sin.
Although the Bible presents additional definitions of sin, they are in reality an elaboration and expansion of the essential definitions. All other biblical explanations spring from the principal understanding of sin provided in the Fall narrative.
2. One well-known definition of sin in the Bible comes from the apostle John: Sin is a breaking of the law (1 John 3:4). The Greek word used here literally means “lawlessness.” This definition is rooted in Genesis 3. God’s question: “‘Have you eaten from the tree that I commanded you not to eat from?’” (Gen. 3:11) likewise indicates that disobedience is the result of disrespecting God’s commandments. In this way, sin is a defiant, arrogant rebellion against God, and a prideful rejection of His word, will, and authority. This was well explained by Samuel to Saul, Israel’s first king, after his disobedience: “‘Rebellion is like the sin of divination, and arrogance like the evil of idolatry. Because you have rejected the word of the Lord, he has rejected you as king’” (1 Sam. 15:23). “‘To obey is better than sacrifice’” (1 Sam. 15:22). Living in sin means living without focusing on God and fulfilling His will.
3. Sin is a state in which we are born. This is already reflected in Genesis 5:1–3, when it is stated that Adam was created in God’s image, but Seth was born in the image of Adam, his father. The difference between Adam being created in God’s image (Genesis 1) and Seth being made in Adam’s image (Genesis 5) can be explained by the event that brought this change: the Fall into sin described in Genesis 3. As a result of Adam and Eve’s sin, human nature was corrupted, and their posterity were born with a sinful nature. David states it plainly: “Surely I was sinful at birth, sinful from the time my mother conceived me” (Ps. 51:5). Also, in Psalm 58:3, David speaks of the wrong attitude of the wicked toward God: “Even from birth the wicked go astray; from the womb they are wayward and speak lies.” The sinner does not take God into consideration when making life’s decisions. All our garments are filthy (Isa. 64:6); our hearts are perverted and deceive us (Jer. 17:9). The way seems straight to humans, but its end is death (Prov. 14:12). Humans cannot change their nature, just as a leopard cannot change its skin (Jer. 13:23). Without exception, all are born sinners (Eccl. 7:20; Rom. 3:23) naturally afraid and alienated from God, and dead in their sins (Gen. 3:10, Eph. 2:1, 12, 19).
The apostle Paul explains it clearly: “I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do. . . . But it is sin living in me. I know that nothing good lives in me, that is, in my sinful nature [literally “in my flesh”]. For I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out. For what I do is not the good I want to do; no, the evil I do not want to do—this I keep on doing. Now if I do what I do not want to do, it is no longer I who do it, but it is sin living in me that does it” (Rom. 7:15–20). Sin lies in our human nature. Humans are not a sin, but are born with a sinful nature, and consequently are separated from God and in need of salvation. As sinners, we love and produce sin, and our sinful nature is characterized by selfishness, tendencies to evil, propensities to sin, and inclinations to do wrong. The power of sin enslaves us (Rom. 5:6; 6:6, 7). As an apple tree bears apples and a fig tree, figs, so we as sinners produce sin. The whole person has sinned, therefore everything on earth is affected and corrupted by sin.
In his Epistles, James underlines the same truth when he explains that sin begins with the inner cravings, that the “evil desire” lies within us, and when it is cultivated, it produces sin—a person reaches for the forbidden fruit. This wrong desire is not yet sin (unless cherished), but when yielded to, it leads to wrong actions and death. Wrong thinking and imagination urge the individual to obtain what he or she seemingly lacks; by yielding to the urge, sin is thus the result (James 1:14, 15). Notice that, according to James, temptation begins in our sinful nature. We are not culpable because of this sinful tendency and propensity to sin rooted in our nature, but this fact puts us under condemnation and results in alienation from God (John 3:36; Eph. 2:1–3). We sin because we are sinners marked by wrong thinking and orientation in life. We are guilty when we play and give in to these evil desires.
4. Sin is also failing to do what is right (James 4:17), as a result of indifference, apathy, or lukewarmness (Rev. 3:15–18). It is not enough to refrain from doing wrong. The sin of omission leads to the sin of commission and to incorrect action and/or inactions. Christianity is not primarily about refraining from doing wrong things, even though this is included (James 1:27). True religion is about doing what is good, right, and profitable (Micah 6:8; John 5:29). Christianity is an active religion. The living God is a God of action; therefore, He wants proactive and progressive followers. It is not enough only to confess faith;
, good deeds are also important (Gal. 5:4; James 1:27). Knowing the truth and practicing it should always go hand in hand.
5. The ultimate sin is rejecting Jesus Christ, as He is the only solution to our sinfulness (John 16:8, 9). Humans cannot help themselves, cure the problem of sin, or heal their own brokenness. Christ is the only Savior of the world (Acts 4:12; Rom. 8:1; 1 John 5:12–13). To reject His ultimate sacrifice for us—His death on the Cross—can be compared to drowning and, when help arrives, refusing the lifeline. Sin is a disbelief in Jesus, a rejection of His saving activity on our behalf, since He is the only one who can rescue us from bondage to sin. This truth can be expressed in a different way: No one will be condemned to eternal death at the last judgment only because he or she is a sinner (since we are all sinners), but because of failure to repent and declining to accept Jesus as the solution to his or her sinfulness. Given the opportunity, failure to accept Jesus as one’s personal Savior and choosing to remain in sin is always fatal (Prov. 24:16; John 3:36).
Consequences of Sin According to Genesis 3
We live in a world in which evil and sinful behavior dominate. The world is incurably sick. The presence of evil has brought terrible results to the human race. Genesis 3 explains not only how paradise was lost, but also the consequences of disobedience and God’s reaction to the transgression of His command.
Following the sin of Adam and Eve, the imagery in Genesis 3 changes. Shame, guilt, fear, degradation, and humiliation are suddenly present. The brightness of life changes to darkness, and the melody is depressive and melancholic. Brueggemann comments: “What had been a story of trust and obedience (chapter 2) now becomes an account of crime and punishment (3:1–7).”12
Sin is a curse that brings terrible consequences; it is like an avalanche—starting seemingly as nothingness but eventually tearing down everything that is beautiful, valuable, and meaningful, destroying life completely. It is only a matter of time before this destructive force becomes plainly visible. Where there is wrong thinking, it follows automatically that there will also be evil behavior. Sin breaks down all kinds of meaningful relationships and brings only misery, suffering, separation, and complications. What was originally very good is now corrupted and marred by sin.
Genesis 3 describes the multiple consequences of sin:
1. Sin/disobedience opened the eyes of the first couple, and they saw their nakedness. Satan promised that by eating the forbidden fruit, Adam and Eve’s eyes would be opened (Gen. 3:5), and the narrator of Genesis 3 affirms that this did indeed occur. However, their eyes were not opened in the way they anticipated. The serpent’s promise was a deception. Adam and Eve actually suffered a great loss. They began to perceive the reality of life differently after they lost their innocence (vs. 7). The rupture in their relationship with God, meant that their very nature was corrupted, resulting in a broken relationship with their own selves and each other.
When Adam and Eve saw their nakedness, for the first time they felt a sense of shame and guilt. They felt miserable and experienced remorse (Gen. 2:25; 3:7). The Bible’s statement about Adam’s and Eve’s nakedness refers to more than mere bodily exposure. Genesis 3:7, 10 reveal that when God appeared in the Garden of Eden, Adam and Eve were no longer physically naked, because they were covered with fig leaves (vs. 7), yet Adam stated, “‘I was afraid, because I was naked’” (vs. 10). Though clothed, they still felt naked. Thus, this nakedness was greater than a physical phenomenon, As a result of their broken relationship with God, they acquired a sinful nature, which their posterity would inherit (vss. 7, 10). This means that every part of our being is corrupted by sin and cannot be saved without God’s redemptive activity.
For the first time, Adam and Eve felt that bitter burning insight about themselves. It was more than a feeling of shame about bodily exposure, because their fig-leaf cover could not cure it. The term used in Genesis 3 denotes elsewhere in the Old Testament a shameful exposure of nakedness (Deut. 28:48; Eze. 16:7, 22, 39). Victor Hamilton correctly describes their attempt as a self-justifying act: “Rather than driving them back to God, their guilt leads them into a self-atoning, self-protecting procedure: they must cover themselves.”13 Their covering activity can be theologically characterized as “righteousness by works.”
The nakedness Adam and Eve experienced after sin signifies inner nakedness, being unmasked, a consciousness of guilt, total shame, loss of integrity, feelings of degradation, defeat, ruined innocence, and the disappearance of light. Gordon Wenham rightly asserts: “A more complete transformation could not be imagined. The trust of innocence is replaced by the fear of guilt.”14 Sin has deeply affected human nature, but it has not destroyed it completely. After sinning, people did not become stones or automatons. Something remained of God’s image, but it was shattered, and everything has consequently been marred by sin. We are not able to save ourselves. We are lost, broken, alienated, and condemned to death. Love for sin and inclinations to evil are now superimposed on us and are an integral part of our human nature.
2. Sin/disobedience made Adam and Eve afraid of God. Instead of enjoying God’s presence and rejoicing in His company, they hid from Him. Their disobedience caused by a broken vertical relationship with God resulted in their separation from Him (Gen. 3:10). They were hiding in shame, guilt, and fear. Consequently, all human beings are born with an alienated and antagonistic attitude toward God and are naturally afraid of Him (Eph. 2:1–3). In order to change this misleading picture, humans need to see the God’s true character of love (Rom. 2:4).
3. Sin/disobedience led Adam and Eve to blame each other for their failure (indicating that the horizontal dimension of life was also broken). They now experienced the pain of a broken relationship (Gen. 3:12; 4:5–8). Although they do not die on the day they eat the fruit, “something in them and between them does die. Their sense of themselves and their relationship with each other is shattered.”15 Sinners typically refuse to accept their accountability for wrong behavior. Eve blamed the serpent for the seduction. Adam blamed not only Eve for giving him the forbidden fruit but actually blamed God Himself because He had given her to him. Self-vindication causes one to find fault outside rather than within oneself.
4. Sin/disobedience brought death, because the relationship with real life was broken (Gen. 2:17; 3:3, 19). Adam and Eve would return to dust: “‘Until you return to the ground, since from it you were taken; for dust you are and to dust you will return’” (3:19). Death was not a primary theme in Genesis 2, because the God of Creation is about life and abundance. Death “was not a threat but a candid acknowledgment of a boundary of life. But the boundary is now altered to become a threat. It is transformed into a terror which puts everything in question. It is not God, but the serpent who has made death a primary human agenda.”16
5. Sin/disobedience would make giving birth and raising children a painful experience (Gen. 3:16).
6. Sin/disobedience would make marriage a place of struggle for dominance and supremacy instead of a loving, caring, emotional, and intimate relationship between husband and wife as equal partners (Gen 3:16).
7. Sin/disobedience would make work a painful experience (Gen. 3:18). Sweat and fatigue would become part of that endeavor. On the other hand, the troublesome work was a blessing in disguise, a means for stopping the avalanche of evil caused by idleness, and a learning process in how to do what was right and to help develop character. We need to realize that some of the punishments described in Genesis 3 “were also promises of future relief.”17
8. The sin/disobedience of Adam and Eve harmed their sense of good and damaged their ability to discern between good and evil. Satan promised that after eating from the forbidden tree they would “‘be like God, knowing good and evil’” (Gen 3:5). This statement seemingly affirms that Satan’s assertion was correct, but it must be emphasized that it seems so only because the Septuagint Greek translation renders the original Hebrew term as “become” instead of “be.” The idea of “becoming” in this particular context is foreign to the intention of the original text and Hebrew thought. Such a translation and understanding is problematic for several reasons:
● A literal translation of Genesis 3:22 is as follows: “Behold, Adam [i.e., humanity] was like one of us to know good and evil. And now he must not be allowed to reach out his hand and take also from the tree of life and eat, and live forever” (translation is mine). According to this interpretation, Adam and Eve were like God in their capacity to discern what was good and evil, but by sinning they lost this faculty, the sensitivity for detecting evil and lies. This indicates that even a taste of sin destroys the capacity to discern between good and evil. After experiencing the flavor of disobedience, humans love sin. Adam and Eve now knew more because they had overstepped their limits and disregarded their own status as God’s creation. God never intended for them to possess this kind of knowledge, since it would cause them to lose moral discernment.
● To be like God in knowing good and evil does not mean to experience or do evil because God does not know evil by experience. God’s knowledge of evil is only “intellectual.” Even though He had to deal with the real consequences of evil after Satan’s rebellion against Him in heaven, He has never experienced evil by doing it but only by reacting against it, because He is absolute good (James 1:17). He is the Light, and there is no darkness in Him (John 1:4, 5; 1 John 1:5, 7). A forbidden knowledge of good and evil is related to the experience of sin.
● Adam and Eve’s ability to discern between good and evil before sinning was not associated with the entitlement to decide for themselves what was right and wrong. Good and evil are defined realities, and the first pair should have followed only what was good. Deciding what is good or evil is entirely God’s prerogative (Gen. 2:16, 17). The ability to distinguish between good and evil in our post-sin condition is possible only when informed by God’s revelation.
● Eve was enticed to eat forbidden fruit, to transgress and negate God’s explicit command, and it would be absurd to think that the first pair would gain the “desired” knowledge through disobedience. For humans to obtain moral discernment through eating the prohibited fruit would in itself be a contradiction of terms.
● “The humans were created mortal but were destined for immortality”18 on the condition of their trust and obedience. Instead of blessings and gain, for the first time the word curse appears in the biblical text (Gen. 3:14, 17), thus demonstrating a close association between disobedience and sin. If humans fail to cultivate the vertical dimension of life, they will live like animals and ultimately behave like brute beasts. Only God’s presence makes them humane and prevents them from living an uncivilized life. “Human disobedience did not make the humans ‘like the gods.’ Man is made from dust and ends as dust.”19
9. Sin/disobedience corrupted both human beings’ relationship with nature and the ecological balance in the natural world. The ground would produce thorns and thistles, and would be exploited and corrupted (Gen. 3:18; 6:11). Sin brought climate change (8:22). The chill of the day necessitated clothing. Fear also appeared within the animal world (9:2). It is worthwhile to notice that after sinning, humans were not cursed, only the serpent/Satan (3:14) and the ground were (vs. 17).
10. Sin/disobedience produced violence, pain, hatred, polygamy, etc. Everything good, meaningful, and beautiful became corrupted by sin (Gen. 6:11–13); and as time progressed, the thinking of humanity became evil all the time (6:5; 8:21). A wide range of contemptible behavior followed: (a) the first murder is committed in the context of worship by Cain; (b) bigamy begins with Lamech (4:19), initiating the degradation and exploitation of women as well as polygamous relations; and (c) anger, rage, and revenge are introduced in the stories of Cain and Lamech (Genesis 4).
11. Sin/disobedience blinds people. Tragically, the serpent/Satan could easily deceive Eve and persuade Adam and Eve to disobey, but God Himself could not calm Cain’s anger, or convince him to do what was right in order to avoid murdering his brother Abel. People do not gain immortality by eating the forbidden fruit, but stubbornness. One of the terrible characteristics of sin is that sinners deny their real condition, so signs of lostness are not discerned and accepted. Sin leads us to deny the truth about our own sinfulness.
Hope appears in Genesis 3 in the midst of hopelessness. In the midst of darkness, disobedience, despair, judgment, and condemnation, God secures humanity’s future even though Adam and Eve do not deserve to live. However, sin cannot be undone, the clock cannot be turned back, and reality cannot be reversed.
The solution to the problem of sin comes from God Himself: “Salvation comes from the Lord” (Jonah 2:9). Covenant theology is the key to an understanding of sin and salvation. “The Eden Narrative speaks of a radical choice, a choice between obedience and disobedience to the divine commandments.”20 Ross states: “Sinful rebellion against God brings pain, conflict, and death; but confession to God ensures God’s gracious provisions.”21 However, God’s grace precedes human repentance and change. The Lord always takes the first step and is the Initiator of our salvation. God confronts evil and responds to it as the loving Creator and gracious Judge.
There are at least seven indicators of God’s saving activities in regard to humanity, according to Genesis 3:
First, God comes to Adam and Eve with grace. He cries for His lost and missing children: “‘Where are you?’” (Gen. 3:9). Because of divine, undeserved grace, they could live (Rev. 13:8). Although sinners are lost, God graciously calls them back to Himself, just as He called Adam and Eve. This is a principle revealed in the Bible from the very beginning—humans sin, but God takes the initiative and invites them back to Himself. Humans thus respond to God’s amazing, prevailing grace, and His goodness leads them to repentance (Rom. 2:4). God’s first question is an invitation of grace, an expression of His deep love in search of humanity, and, at the same time, a revelation of God’s judgment (Ex. 34:6, 7; John 3:16; Rom. 5:8).
Second, God provides a tangible garment fraught with symbolic meaning (Gen. 3:21). As the nakedness of the first couple was more than a physical phenomenon, the garment thus represented more than physical clothing. There is a contrast in the biblical text between “they made” and “He made.” What Adam and Eve could not do for themselves, to cover their guilt and shame, God did for them. By giving them a garment of skin, He thereby signified that He covers sinners with the garment of His righteousness (1 Cor. 1:30; Rev. 7:14). God’s sacrifice of the first animal to provide the solution to Adam and Eve’s sin problem prefigured the Messiah’s death for humanity (Rev. 13:8). Forgiveness and their redemption was secured through God’s gracious sacrifice represented by the death of the animal whose skin they were wearing.
Third, God creates enmity between the powers of good and evil (Gen. 3:15) in the context of spiritual warfare. This theme of the Great Controversy introduces the imagery of war and tension. Because humans have embraced sin, God helps them by introducing enmity toward evil, thereby enabling us to hate sin.
Fourth, God promises to send the Seed of the woman (vs. 15), who will do for humans what they cannot do for themselves: He will defeat their enemy, Satan. God’s statement to the serpent lies at the center of the chiastic literary structure of Genesis 3. The Messiah will become humanity’s Redeemer and Savior, and His victorious, deliberate death will ultimately destroy Satan, as well as everyone and everything associated with him. Thus, God planned ahead for the solution to the problem of sin. His solution is decisive and victorious, but also very costly, demanding, and full of suffering. God did not abandon humans to the power of evil. He deliberately chose a course of action that would defeat our enemy even though He knew that it would cost Him His life.
Fifth, paradoxically, God expels Adam and Eve from the garden to prevent and protect them from becoming “eternal” sinners who continue to exist forever under the curse of sin. Ross aptly explains: “The story closes with the Lord’s reasoned decision to prevent humankind from extending life in such a painful state. . . . God acted to prevent them from continuing on perpetually in that condition.”22 He will lead and teach human beings to trust Him and walk humbly with Him, and become transformed as they come to know Him personally and factually. Adam and Eve’s future seemed uncertain, but they were in God’s caring hand. He would bring victory over their enemy and secure their salvation. If they turned to Him in faith, His victory would be theirs.
Sixth, He teaches humans how to worship (Gen. 4:3–9). His providing Adam and Eve with garments made of skin (3:21) alluded to the death of an animal, a sacrifice for their sin. On that occasion, God gave insights into true worship, which involves the cultivation of a genuine relationship with God.
Seventh, God provides the gift of faith, the ability to cling to His word as an affirmative response to His kindness. Even though the word faith is not explicitly mentioned in Genesis 3, it is implied in the actions of Adam and Eve: (1) they both accept the garments God provided for them [faith is trust in God’s grace and word]; (2) Adam gave a special name to his wife—“Eve” [meaning “a mother of the living” according to Genesis 3:20]; and (3) Eve expresses her hope in the coming Redeemer, the promised Seed (3:15), by naming her firstborn son Cain—“‘I have received a man, the Lord.’” She hoped that through him salvation would be secured and thus they would return to the lost paradise. What a disappointment when he became the first murderer. Humanity would need to learn painfully how to trust the Lord and to patiently and consistently follow Him and His will.
Faith brings victory. “This is the victory that has overcome the world, even our faith” (1 John 5:4). However, faith is not our Savior, but only a means by which we receive God’s victory for ourselves. Faith is a relationship of trust; it is a reliance upon God’s Word. Saving faith is not an innate quality of believers, and not our achievement but rather a gift of God (Eph. 2:8). At the same time, it must be stressed that we are responsible if we do not believe, because faith is communicated through hearing the gospel (Rom. 10:17). This is a biblical paradox. There is no way we can on our own overcome sin; only God can solve the problem of sin and give us victory over it through His supernatural power. Victory comes from an external source as a gift from God through faith. We can fight against different symptoms of sin, try to overcome wrong habits, but what we really need is a transformation of heart, the experience of a new birth, and a pure heart (John 3:3, 5), because our real problem is our sinful heart.
Wherein the first Adam failed, the Second Adam won (Rom. 5:14–21; 1 Cor. 15:22, 45–49). What humans lost in the Garden of Eden, Christ came to restore at the Cross. Our new true identity and must be shaped and built according to the victory accomplished by Jesus Christ. God did not leave us to the power of Satan and sin. The Spirit of God brings victory when we by faith cling to God and His word, because only the Holy Spirit and the Word of God can produce true life (Eze. 36:25–27; Rom. 8:4, 14).
The solution to sin involves not only forgiveness, but also the renewal and restoration of the image of God in humanity and freedom from slavery to sin (sin addictions). A new life is Word- and Spirit-oriented (Rom. 8:2–6). Those who do not live according to the flesh but according to the Spirit, and who are led by the Holy Spirit are sons and daughters of God (8:14). Only when we surrender to God, decide for Him, and allow Him to be God in our lives do we experience the difference of a new life. So, we need to fight every day for a close relationship with God so that nothing can take it away from us (Rom. 8:31–39). Only Jesus can give the true joy of a new victorious life (7:25).
The good news is that Jesus Christ regenerates and changes our hearts (John 3:3–5), forgives all our sins (1 John 1:8, 9), liberates us from bondage to sin (John 12:31, 32), and transforms our lives (I John 3:1–3). If the Son gives freedom, we are indeed free. Sin began with pride but is defeated by humility. There is hope for us because sin was overcome through Jesus Christ’s willingness to humble Himself as the Guarantor of freedom, peace, and joy.
God created a perfect world that was distorted by sin, which brought terrible consequences. Eugene Peterson describes our lost situation: “A catastrophe has occurred. We are no longer in continuity with our good beginning. We have been separated from it by a disaster. We are also, of course, separated from our good end. We are, in other words, in the middle of a mess.”23 Because of the sin problem, we live in a wounded world destined for death.
In addition, God endowed humans with
free will, and being human means to have freedom of choice. Our freedom has been compromised, however, because we have tasted the forbidden fruit that misleads and perverts our judgment. The problem is our sinful nature, which has inclinations to evil, love for sin, and a desire for selfish self-realization and self-centeredness. Humans no longer respect God’s word and will. This disrespect for divine guidance tragically complicates human life.
Because of God’s revelation, we know about the origin of sin and evil in the world. In Genesis 3, sin is described as a broken relationship, a mistrust of God, a refusal to follow His word, and unbelief. It is an egocentric life that rejects God’s authority, His word, and His law, which is not merely a code of norms but an expression of His loving and holy character. Sinners do not recognize and appreciate His goodness, love, justice, order, and care. Sin underestimates, blurs, and blinds us to the real values of life and the severe consequences of sin. It is a wrong attitude, an enslaving power that changes human nature and leads to violence, problems, and death.
Sin is first of all a charge aimed against God (Gen. 3:1; Ps. 51:4) that ruins relationships and personal integrity. Although transgression dishonors humanity, it primarily dishonors God, and robs Him of His honor as our Creator. When God’s creatures rebel against Him, His glory, reputation, and name are belittled, and the splendor and majesty of His Person and His character are degraded. When the vertical relationship with God is broken, this causes the breakdown of all other relationships (with ourselves, other people, life, and nature). Sin is a state of thinking and being as well as a concrete act of active rebellion.
Sin steals vitality, diminishes strength, brings fleeting excitement, leads to phobias, discouragement, and disappointments. First, we play with sin, and then sin plays with us. The taste of sin makes us weak, but we like it. We want to decide what is good and evil by ourselves. We reject God’s Word and His law. We want to be free of His commands, His authority. We want to be gods.
Sin produces a sense of emptiness as our selfishness is expressed in lustful thinking (James 1:13–15). Sin has an addictive power, and its cycle of addiction may be described in the following way: First, there is a feeling that we lack something important that can bring us happiness, followed by a desire to obtain it. This leads to the cultivation of desirous thoughts (lust), and finally a reaching for the forbidden fruit that brings momentous excitement, satisfaction (for a while), and short-term comfort. But inevitably, we experience disappointments and negative consequences from the wrong decision and action. So, we are left craving for the lost feelings of excitement, satisfaction, and comfort. To get them, we repeat the same sinful actions. And the circle goes round and round.
Sin may bring relief and some sense of resolution to the problems of life but only for a moment. It is a temporal reality that does not consider the past or future, or the consequences. Its focus is on now, and thus its inflated emotional experience, good feelings, or excitement do not last long. One cannot find lasting satisfaction in a constant search for what to eat, what to drink, how to dress, with whom to have fun and amusement, or with whom to sleep.
The Fall account teaches people not to be ignorant of the power of sin and Satan’s devices (Rom. 6:5–7; 2 Cor. 2:11). John Toews makes a salient point: “The serpent asked the woman and Adam to make a judgment about God. They did. They . . . decided to mistrust God, to mistrust the word of God, in quest for autonomy that would make them wise. Their mistrust of God led them to disobedience, to disobey the word of God.”24 Sin is a separation from God, and salvation is a restoration of that broken relationship with God.
Only when we understand the true nature of sin can we better comprehend and know ourselves and truly appreciate what Jesus has done and is doing for, in, and through us. Our world is in desperate need of healing. The realization that the solution of the sin problem necessitated the incarnation and the death of Jesus Christ (Gen. 3:15; John 3:16; Rom. 6:23) helps us to see the true and horrible nature of sin. He left His position in heaven, lived as a human being, and experienced immense suffering and death in order to save and deliver us from the power of sin. This solution was priceless. It cost the life of God’s Son, Jesus Christ. John Wenham profoundly declares: “At the heart of the [biblical] story stands the cross of Christ, where evil did its worst and met its match. It is there that roots of evil are fully revealed and it is there that the almighty God of love shines forth.”25
Jiří Moskala Th.D., Ph.D., is Professor of Old Testament Exegesis and Theology and Dean of the Seventh-day Adventist Theological Seminary in Berrien Springs, Michigan, U.S.A.
NOTES AND REFERENCES