Making Sense of the Fall: Part 1

March 8, 2023 | Jim Neumann

Why were Adam and Eve so easily tempted? And why did God create a world in which everything could go so wrong so easily? These two questions have no easy answers, yet we can scarcely help but ask them. Indeed, any question that begins with “why did God” is ultimately for God alone to answer. But God has also revealed enough of himself to us that we can attempt some educated guesses––and to the extent that pondering these questions helps us understand God, ourselves, and the world we live in, there may be some profit in doing so. As Proverbs 25:2 says, “It is the glory of God to conceal things, but the glory of kings is to search things out.”

Why were Adam & Eve so easily tempted?

The question is not simply why are we so easily tempted by sin. We, after all, have an innate lure to sin inherited from our first parents (Rom 5:12; Jam 1:14)––what the church fathers called concupiscence: an inherent tendency toward sin. But Adam and Eve knew no such concupiscence prior to the Fall. To the contrary, they walked with God in a veritable paradise and, moreover, they had been warned by him of the dire consequences of eating from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil: death (Gen 2:17). So what caused them to disbelieve God so easily?

The answer may lie in the very fact of their innocence. It must be underscored that the first man and woman lived in a state utterly incomprehensible to us. We who have been born under the power of sin have no idea what it is like to be untainted by sin or inherent desire for it. Quite simply, we have never known what it is to be truly and totally innocent. How could they have possibly understood evil in a world in which there was no evil to understand? Despite God’s warning, how could they possibly understand the meaning of the words “you will surely die” in a world in which death did not exist? Did we ourselves comprehend death before the first time we experienced loss? Did we fully comprehend it even then? We struggle to comprehend it anew with each new loss and, in truth, the struggle never ends. From children to philosophers in ivory towers, we all for the course of our lives struggle with the meaning of death. Yet not only had Adam and Eve never seen death, but prior to the Fall, they lived in a world in which death did not exist. Like children warned not to touch a hot stove lest it “burn” them, how could the first man and woman understand what it is to “die” before death?

Having as yet no concept of evil (which also did not yet exist in the world), the questions and new possibilities offered by the serpent (Gen 3:1–5) would have appeared as entirely novel thoughts freshly placed in the minds of these free-thinking and (no doubt) curious creatures created in the image of God. New possibilities. Not good, not evil, only new and different. (For an excellent imagining of what the temptation of a pre-fall innocent might look like, I heartily recommend C. S. Lewis’s novel, Perelandra!) The fruit was, as Eve saw, desirable… Why not? Like children, once more, they would learn the answer to this question only by experiencing for themselves the sad consequence of their actions.

At this point, I may sound as though I’m saying Adam and Eve did nothing wrong; they simply didn’t know any better. Nothing could be further from the truth. Innocent though they were, innocence, in every sense of the word, ended with the decision to believe the lie over God. Understanding is not a prerequisite of obedience. Parents regularly expect their children to obey without understanding for their own good. Whether they understood or not, Adam and Eve were told the truth by God. The very essence of sin from the beginning was to choose to believe some other word over that of God himself. They “chose poorly,” to quote everyone’s favorite knight from Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. The essence of sin is still a choice: every time we sin, we choose, like our first parents all over again, to disbelieve what God said: “you will surely die.”

Yet, given Adam and Eve’s innocence (meaning also their inability to comprehend either evil or death), it seems likely that the Fall was inevitable. All that was needed was for the serpent to place the question in their minds, “Did God really say …?” (Gen 3:1). To a free-thinking child with as yet no understanding of the stakes, it is hard to imagine any other outcome.

This, of course, leads naturally to our second question, Why did God create a world in which everything could so easily go so wrong? To explore two possible answers to this question, I invite you to read Part 2 of this series.