One of the persisting questions in theological interpretation is what actually happened to our forebears as sin entered the world. A long tradition speaks of “total depravity,” which means we are rendered incapable of any good as our wills are in bondage to evil. Others will speak less of an intensive view—as rotten as can be and still be human—preferring to speak of an extensive view, e.g., there is no part of us untouched by sin. I think the latter more accurately captures God’s preservation of the image of God in humanity.
The “fall” has been a figural narrative for understanding how our good God created a good world with good people in it, yet something went terribly wrong. Even though the Hebrew Bible never returns to the Genesis story to explain why the people of covenant disobey and “forget” their Maker, there is a resounding dirge of rebellion within its pages.
It was Augustine who delineated the precipitous outcomes of the fall: all desire is infected by concupiscence; we are born into estrangement from God; we are not able not to sin; we pass on this sinful state to all our progeny, to mention only a few of the comprehensive disorder brought about by Adam and Eve. It appears that Augustine thought we were worse off than Scripture describes.
Acts provides one of the readings for the Third Sunday of Easter. Peter’s powerful sermon has a gentle note as he recounts the killing of the “Author of life, whom God raised from the dead” (3:15). He observes that they (Israelites hearing this post-Pentecost message) most likely acted in ignorance, as did their rulers. So now God grants them a new opportunity: “Repent therefore, and turn to God so that your sins may be wiped out” (3:19).
Sin does not have a strangle-hold on those who put their lives in the care of the resurrecting God. Our baptism proclaims newness of life, and we are liberated to live in freedom of conscience according to the way of Jesus Christ. A gradual healing takes place as we pattern our lives after his example, and salvation flowers.
This past week I took a bad fall (not equivalent to Genesis, of course) as I tumbled down the steps here at school. In my characteristically hurried way, always on a mission, I missed the first step and fell headlong, resulting in a mild concussion. It has slowed me down more than I wanted, yet provided some time to think about how God and others treasure us even when we are not being productive. Like many, I measure myself by productivity, and usually when asked how I am, I launch into chronicling my schedule, as if keeping a torrid pace somehow justifies my right to exist.
Sin, fundamentally, is the refusal of grace. If I cannot accept that God (and others) regard me as beloved while taking time to recover, then the sin of pride lurks at my door.
Most important is the biblical teaching that we humans must acknowledge our frailty and that the light of God’s face shines upon us (Psalm 4:6b) nevertheless. Sin’s grip is lesser than God’s strong hand. This is a helpful lesson as we age.
Molly T. Marshall
Central prepares leaders who seek God, shape churches, and serve the world.