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Theodicy Roots in the Garden of Eden - Bruce Atkinson

Theodicy Roots in the Garden of Eden

By Bruce Atkinson
Special to Virtueonline
June 22, 2013

This article is written as an addendum to my recent teaching essay "Apologetic Theodicy: Why is there so much suffering?" Whether one believes that the Garden of Eden story is literally true or symbolically true (or both) it is important to understand its meaning. This article focuses on the origin of sin and suffering.

Imago Dei

God often gives us characteristics and abilities long before we are aware that we have them. We don't have any idea what it would be like to not have them. For example, we recall the story of Solomon as a child asking God for wisdom. God was pleased and granted his request. However, it takes no rocket scientist to understand that God had already given Solomon wisdom beyond his years, or else the boy would never have asked for such a thing.

When we examine the story of the Garden of Eden (Genesis 1:26-27, 2: 7-9, 15-25, 3: 1-24), we see a similar situation. Clearly, even before their sin, the innocent humans in their pristine environment were no mere animals without choice. They were already far beyond that; compared to the beasts, they were godlike. They were made in "God's image" (imago Dei) and were provided with the choice to trust and obey God (or to distrust and disobey) by how they dealt with God's one and only proscriptive rule. They chose to obey for some unknown length of time - until they were cleverly tempted by Satan in the guise of the serpent.

Original Sin

I am convinced that much of the real mystery of theodicy, that is, the unfathomable elements embedded in God's purposes regarding evil and suffering, are associated with the history of God's relationship with Satan and the other fallen angels--- and His plans to deal with them. The Book of Job indicates this reality in its prologue. Both the acts of Satan (and God's response) certainly affect us. However, we are not provided much information in scripture regarding this particular mystery; perhaps it is none of our business.

Jesus described the fallen archangel this way: "for there is no truth in him. When he lies, he speaks his native language, for he is a liar and the father of lies." (John 8:44) It is clear that the father of lies was intimately involved in the fall of humankind. He is referred to as the "tempter" in Matthew 4:1-3 and 1 Thessalonians 3:5, and he is clearly identified as the "dragon" and "ancient serpent" in Revelation 12 and 20.

The satanic serpent deceived Eve by suggesting that they were not already like God and that they would only become so by disobeying Him (as Satan himself had). Some people (like Rabbi Harold Kushner) still follow the serpent's lead in suggesting that it was actually good for them to disobey God and to exercise the negative choice so they could "grow up."

Because of the consequences of that ancient act, human beings now have the 'wisdom' that comes from firsthand experience of separation from God and the resulting terrible evil and suffering in the world. We see the effects of the Fall on every side. Is this a good thing? Is such knowledge truly wisdom? No; in fact, apart from Christ, instead of growing up, human beings have been 'growing down,' that is, away from God and away from true maturity. I must underline this truth: if the original sin situation was actually a good and God-inspired event, we would expect that God would have made it clear in the scriptures. But such a view is not to be found there.

Remember, prior to the Fall, everything was pristine perfect in the Garden. But then the serpent suggested that God was untrustworthy and a deceiver ("Did God really mean ... ?") and suggested that becoming wise meant disobeying God. Then they would really know evil. Satan was suggesting indirectly that to be like God was to do evil and that God Himself was evil (since God knew both good and evil). Understand that this is impossible since the definition of evil is rebellion against God, and God does not rebel against Himself. God cannot be other than all good. A practical definition of good is "of God." Only a creature who is NOT God can be and do evil. God knows evil in the sense that He experiences something that is totally alien from and outside of Himself. He doesn't have to DO evil in order to know about it. But this was what Satan was suggesting, that we could not truly be like God unless we did evil and disobeyed; it was a huge sneaky lie that is still going around. The truth was that Adam and Eve could not be like Satan unless they disobeyed.


I think that the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil (Gen 2: 9, 17) might also appropriately be named "the Tree of Sin." For once Adam and Eve were told to not eat of it, the presence of the forbidden fruit represented only one clear thing - the possibility of sin and its consequences. God's word about this should have been enough warning for Adam and Eve. The Tree only represented wisdom if they obeyed God and avoided eating it. So Satan's lie about wisdom is also revealed.

Human disobedience was initially about trust and belief; it was disbelieving God and believing Satan instead. Augustine believed that the fruit of that tree was not likely to be dangerous or evil in itself because everything that God created was good (Gen 1:12). It was the disobedience of Adam and Eve who had been told by God not to eat of the tree (Gen 2:17) that caused disorder in the earthly side of the creation. God may have inserted this dynamic into the very essence of being human - that is, once they knowingly chose against God, they necessarily would die (immediately in the spiritual sense, and in the physical sense, eventually). And until they died biologically, they would wander aimlessly in their self-chosen spiritual darkness and beget children who inherited this same tendency. Note that no children had yet been born prior to the Fall. So due to the Fall, the divinely created DNA was corrupted and all future generations would be born spiritually dead, existing only in the spiritual darkness preceding their biological death. And so all of us are born as the dying extensions of Adam and Eve. This is why the concept of original sin is so true, and why being "born again from above" is so vitally necessary.

Adam's Feet

If I choose to kill myself today, my body parts must go along with my choice, whether or not they agree. My feet must die as well. They may be totally innocent of my mental decision, but none-the-less they too will reap the consequences - collateral damage, you might say. This situation would be patently unfair to my feet, but they are part of me and so they must follow where my head leads, even to the death.

This metaphor can help us understand a difficult theological concept. We are like Adam's feet. As I have said, we are all living extensions of Adam and Eve. All of our genes come from them (and from their children and grandchildren and great grandchildren and so forth). In the biological sense, in the flesh and in the aggregate, we ARE them.

Adam and Eve essentially committed suicide by disbelieving God. It is not possible for me to personally remember choosing or eating the forbidden fruit. However, I would have done the same if I had been there--- because I am like Adam; I come from Adam's genes. And thus, as Adam's foot, I have to reap the consequences as well. I must deal with my inherited sin nature and with illness, suffering, and death. Having a sin nature, I also have to deal with a final judgment. The Day of Judgment is necessary because no sin can exist in God's perfect ultimate Kingdom. So, without remedy within myself, I am already condemned in Adam- even before my birth. Such is the fate of humanity...without Christ.

As Paul taught: "... sin entered the world through one man, and death through sin, and in this way death came to all people, because all sinned..." (Romans 5:12)

It is likely that Adam died a spiritual death immediately and was no longer able to relate to God, as indicated by his trying to hide from Him. However, by his choice, Adam became intimately related to Satan, as a slave to sin. And so we too, as living extensions of Adam, are born enslaved.

Release of the Hostages

There IS hope for us, however, since God provided a remedy outside of ourselves. Isaiah prophesied this eventuality and as Jesus began His ministry, He quoted the prophecy and said it was fulfilled in Him (Luke 4:17-20): "The Spirit of the Sovereign LORD is on me, because the LORD has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim freedom for the captives and release from darkness for the prisoners, to proclaim the year of the LORD's favor..." (Isaiah 61:1) Jesus is called the "Light of the world" and "the Way, the Truth, and the Life." He overcomes our darkness and ignorance with His light of truth, He makes a way for us out of our impossible dilemma, and He brings life to our deadness.

Some of us "have ears to hear" and can receive the good news of the Gospel: "God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish but have everlasting life." (John 3:16) By the power of God, we can be grafted into a better, more perfect "Adam" (Christ) and receive regular transfusions of His pure blood, His Holy Spirit. We go from being condemned sinners (extensions of Adam) to sinners saved-by-grace-and even children of God (extensions of Christ). We become like individual cells in the larger Body of Christ.

By faith, we exchange our temporal history "in Adam" for an eternal destiny "in Christ." By adoption and infusion of Christ's divine DNA, we inherit a new family tree. By becoming partakers of Christ's life, we become participants in His death, burial, Resurrection, ascension and seating in the heavenlies (Romans 6:3-6, Galatians 2:20, Ephesians 2:6).

"For since death came through a man, the resurrection of the dead comes also through a man. For as in Adam all die, so in Christ all will be made alive. But each in turn: Christ, the firstfruits; then, when he comes, those who belong to him." (1 Corinthians 15:21-23) "The body that is sown is perishable, it is raised imperishable; it is sown in dishonor, it is raised in glory; it is sown in weakness, it is raised in power; it is sown a natural body, it is raised a spiritual body. If there is a natural body, there is also a spiritual body. So it is written: 'The first man Adam became a living being'; the last Adam, a life-giving spirit. The spiritual did not come first, but the natural, and after that the spiritual. The first man was of the dust of the earth; the second man is of heaven. As was the earthly man, so are those who are of the earth; and as is the heavenly man, so also are those who are of heaven." (1 Corinthians 15:40-48)

Unnecessary Sin

As you may have noticed, I strongly reject the idea that Adam and Eve needed to eat of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil in order for humanity to develop as children of God. That idea was exactly Satan's lie. We do not know what God's plan would have been had they not sinned, but it would have been very good for all concerned - but different - without all the pain and tragedy.

No darkness can produce light. By definition, darkness is the absence of light and evil is the absence of good. No kind of evil can produce good. But God, being God, can bring His light to eliminate the darkness. He can bring good out of bad situations. But that does not make the evil that caused the situation in any way "good."

As indicated by Augustine's theodicy, sometimes God allows evil - because otherwise He would have to take away our ability to freely choose, He would have to take away our most essential "image of God" human characteristic. Taking away our capacity to choose would surely mean termination - killing what humanity really is, making us into merely genetically and environmentally programmed beasts who are unable to truly relate to their Creator.

Despite the Fall, God Wins

I happen to believe that God's original plan was to have a multitude of divine children of His own; so sooner or later, when the time was right, Adam and Eve would produce children. But in disobeying, they "ran ahead of God", not trusting in His word ("Don't eat of the tree or you will die.") and not trusting in God's heart and plan. Ever since that disobedience, the entire universe has suffered the effects of sin: "We know that the whole creation has been groaning ... right up to the present time." (Romans 8:22) It did not have to be. That is the nature of true free choice.

However, in God's divinely efficient economy, nothing is wasted. Because evil does exist (due to the bad choices of free-will creatures), God has been working tirelessly to give those made in His image a second chance, that is, redemption. He did it at the Cross and is doing it today. His plan is to allow all those (His beloved) who would so choose, to symbolically return to the Garden by choosing to trust in Jesus Christ rather than in the world, the flesh, or the devil. Then they can begin receiving what He had planned all along for Adam and Eve and their children.

Calvin's Oops

I understand that John Calvin's many sermons on the book of Job reveal a complete justification of God - which is a good thing. However, he also justified evil in the overall divine picture. His writings contain a consistent emphasis on the sovereignty of God. He didn't budge on omnipotence, he was against any hint of Arminianism, and he didn't even fully accept the Augustinian free-will theodicy. For Calvin, even the choices of Adam and Eve in the Garden were not truly 'free.' Rather, he asserted that all events are part of God's will, and therefore although the acts of humans and angels may involve evil in themselves, they are intended by God for morally justified purposes. Thus, all evil, including original sin, is ultimately subsumed under His gracious and righteous plan and designed for ultimately positive purposes. Paolo de Petris ("Calvin's 'Theodicy' in his Sermons on Job and the Hiddenness of God", 2008), after an in-depth analysis of Calvin's writings on theodicy, put it this way: "If the doctrine of Providence had the advantage of giving comfort, it also ran into deep difficulties. If whatever happened in the universe was governed by God's incomprehensible will, then God was indictable for the evil that is in the world. Calvin had two choices: either attribute the existence of evil to God's permissiveness concerning Satan's activity, or admit that God actually causes evil. Unwilling to draw back from his premises, Calvin chose the second solution."

So to Calvin, evil was not so evil after all (being caused by God), which to me was a rare theological misstep by the great Reformation leader. I am convinced that evil (or sin) is actually a much more horrible thing than we humans can comprehend. Therefore, any successful theodicy must be consistent in proclaiming three foundational truths: the sovereign omnipotence of God, the amazing goodness of God, and the terribleness of sin. It all resolves, of course, at the Cross - and perhaps nowhere else. If evil were not so horrendous, why would God have sent His Son to be tortured and killed in order to end it? His sacrifice also reveals God's unfathomable love for us. (This was stated well by William Dembski in his book The End of Christianity: Finding a Good God in an Evil World.)

Another fairly common question concerns whether or not God knew that Adam and Eve would sin. Of course He did. Our omniscient God knows everything and He had His gracious plan of salvation already prepared. However, that does not mean that what actually happened was the best possible scenario. To suggest that--- would be to say that evil is not all that bad or that it may even be a necessary good; nowhere in the Bible do I hear a hint of such a message from God. Satan hints at it (note the serpent's suggestions) and it is perpetuated by some liberal theologians and post-modern "emergent church" pastors. As Jesus told Simon Peter when Peter suggested a reasonable falsehood, "Get behind me Satan."

So now what?

Finally, I must remind readers that in this age, leaders in the churches in the West tend to avoid sound doctrine. They are attracted to Pelagianism and want to deny the reality of sin, both original sin and personal sin in their own lives. They ignore the Garden stories in Genesis. Therefore, Bible-believing Christians still have to fight off the same old lies from the Enemy - words that now come from the mouths of human serpents, many of whom wear robes and miters. This is why some of us are called to "Preach the Word; be prepared in season and out of season; correct, rebuke and encourage- with great patience and careful instruction. For the time will come when men will not put up with sound doctrine. Instead, to suit their own desires, they will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear." (2 Timothy 4:2-4)

Dr. Atkinson is a graduate of Fuller Theological Seminary with a doctorate in clinical psychology and an M.A. in theology. He is a licensed psychologist in clinical practice in Atlanta and also works as a clinical supervisor training Christian counselors for Richmont Graduate University. He is a founding member of Trinity Anglican Church (ACNA) in Douglasville, Georgia.

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