by Philip Sudworth.
We all owe our lives, and the lives of those we’ve loved, to the existence of death. If there were no death, none of us would have been born; Earth would have been full up long ago. If the story of Adam and Eve were literally true, our first parents actually did our generation a great favour. But is that particular creation story really about humanity being banned from Paradise or about a wrathful God sentencing humanity to a life with difficulties, pain and death? If we suggest that a boy starving to death in sub-Saharan Africa or a girl dying from cancer in a local hospice are reaping God’s anger against Adam’s disobedience, what kind of a God are we proclaiming?
An alternative understanding sees the story as more about the implications of growing knowledge and insights, both as a human race and as individuals. Young children have their needs met and, in their innocence, happily run around naked. We grow out of the of childhood, towards self-consciousness, self-reliance and responsibility. The need to earn our own living and provide for our families is a natural development. Growing self-awareness and socialisation bring an awareness of good and evil, together with a conscience, a sense of shame, and of justice. As we transition into independence, we take responsibility for our actions and mistakes. Self-awareness means we understand life brings danger, suffering, grief, and death.
Traditional Christianity suggests that Eden provided for all human needs and was safe. It was how the world was meant to be; it’s how the world will be when Jesus returns. Yet life can lack a sense of purpose, unless there’s some challenge. Is paradise really the absence of danger, suffering and death? Without danger there’s no courage; without shortages, no generosity; without struggle, no achievement; without hurt, no compassion; without uncertainty, no hope or faith. Without the deep feelings that can lead to grief, we’d never be able to enjoy the intimate love of those with whom we’ve shared joy, fun and companionship. Without freedom to act wrongly, there’s no virtue. If everything were perfect, there’d be no possibility for development, progress or vision. Without death, there’d be no future generations. Perhaps the world isn’t “fallen” through humanity’s fault, but the original intention of God. Such a worldmay be a necessary condition for spiritual development. John Keats wrote, ‘Do you not see how necessary a World of Pains and troubles is to school an Intelligence and make it a Soul.’
This causes problems for traditional understandings of Adam’s sin, the inherited sinfulness of humanity, and the need for an act of atonement. Consequently, many Christians insist on the historicity of Genesis despite the genomic evidence, despite contradictions of observable science, despite discrepancies within Genesis and despite other differing creation accounts in the bible. Others take a hybrid position, acknowledging that Genesis 1 is poetry rather than science, but still insisting that Adam’s disobedience brought death and pain into the world. It took the Catholic church 300 years to acknowledge that Galileo was right. How long will it take the modern church to reconcile Christianity and evolution? Or to acknowledge openly that the small 3-tier cosmos of the bible is a pre-scientific image, which bears no relation to an expanding universe which is 93 billion light years across and contains 125 billion galaxies?
In the 13th century, John Duns Scotus maintained that the incarnation of Jesus wasn’t a response to a problem but was always the intended plan. Franciscans have understood that Jesus didn’t come to complete a divine transaction that would enable God to forgive humans; he came to change the way humans thought about God. It was always a matter of love and freedom rather than divine justice. This fits the view that true love and forgiveness cannot be conditional on anything that is thought, said or done. We can’t earn grace; it is a gift. Repentance rituals are perhaps helpful for those who harbor a sense of guilt and sinfulness and find that such rituals help them to put the past behind them and mark a transition to a new start. To suggest, however, that those rituals or a set of beliefs are essential, and that God cannot forgive people until they have jumped through those hoops is not only to place barriers between individuals and God; it diminishes God. We end up with a God that is too small for the present age.