Sin & Disorder Prior to ‘The Fall’ in Genesis 3?

In my last post, I shared about a blogging series at Jesus Creed, which has gone live with part 2 this week, and a book on the varying readings of the creation narrative that have existed throughout church history. That book is entitled Beginnings: Ancient Christian Readings of the Biblical Creation Narratives, by Peter Bouteneff.

Of course, while throughout church history, there have been various proposals of how we should understand and interpret the early chapters of Genesis, it is in the past century and a half that Christians have had to deal much more in the ever-developing fields of the sciences. The church has always had to engage science, no doubt. It’s just that there is quite a bit more to engage with today, with some pointers towards the ever-condemned E-word, evolution.

Now, though I’ve not yet had the opportunity to read Bouteneff’s books, what he seems to be offering is varying interpretations for the early chapters of Genesis within church history even before discussion is brought up around modern-day science. Therefore, when Christians today, that also hold to evolution, approach Genesis 1-3 within the genre of non-factual/non-historical literature, it does not mean they are out to diminish the God-breathed and authoritative nature of Scripture. Some might be, true. But this is not the framework of all. Some of them are simply trying to faithfully deal with the findings of good science as well as understand what Genesis was originally communicating.

I mentioned in my last article that there are two major problems evangelicals have when discussing the possibility of evolution being the means by which God brought about the good creation: 1) We must believe in a literal and specific first human, namely Adam, and 2) We must hold to a literal ‘fall’ into sin.

I want to address these 2 points over 2 articles, but start with the second one here and then point one in the next post.

A usual approach to Genesis 3 is that, from this point and this point alone, sin enters into the picture and, as a result, death also enters the picture. Both sin and death were nowhere in Genesis 1 and 2. But evolutionary biology would argue that death existed even before the first homosapiens/humans. Or to say it ‘theologically’ – some Christians who hold to evolution say that death was present before the reading of ‘the fall’ in Genesis 3.

So, does Genesis 1 and 2 present the pristine picture typically seen?

Not necessarily.

First off, I would refer you to a short video – 6 mins and 45 secs. I would embed it here in my article, but the owner of the video will not allow it to be embedded in other websites. The video is simply a snippet from a longer production by Highway Media called From the Dust. It is a 66-minute film interviewing a wide selection of Christian theologians and scientists on the issues related to Genesis and science.

This short video selection that I have left a link for deals with discussion around the fall. I particularly appreciated the brief thoughts of Dr Michael Lloyd from St Paul’s Theological Centre in the UK. His input comes in minutes 1:23 to 2:32.

He offers 3 thoughts as to why many Christians see disharmony (and, therefore, possibly sin and death) even before Genesis 3. I summarise below:

  1. The serpent is already present and actively working against God. Now, many would explain this as the devil, the Satan, who is a fallen angel. But even this is to recognise that we already have a problem within the created order.
  2. The command to fill the earth and subdue it. Something must be out of order if something needs subduing.
  3. There is a garden. God is offering a bit of order within a disordered world. (My extra thought – This is not unlike what God was offering to Israel with the promised land in the midst of a broken world, a microcosm of the kingdom of heaven on earth. Hence why many theologians see the early chapters of Genesis as being finalised in later times, mainly to speak to the exiled community of Hebrews that had also been expelled from their land, like Adam.)

Not only that, but one thing Lloyd did not mention is the idea that Gen 1:2 tells us the earth (which somehow is already spoken of as existing though God has not created it yet in the layout of Gen 1) is formless and void. The Hebrew words tohuw (formless) and bohuw (void) – a nice rhyme there – are interesting to consider. Particularly, this word for formless speaks even more of desolation. Again, why is there desolation in the earth when, according to a literal timetable, the earth hasn’t been created and, according to one reading, sin and death don’t enter in until a couple of chapters later?

I think it is quite possible that the author is telling us that things are not actually perfect, and this only from the second verse of Gen 1. Order needs to be brought in to the creation. This also relates to the point brought out in my last article about Ps 72:12-14, mainly that salvation was already needed in Gen 1.

Thus, Gen 1 is not so much about creatio ex nihilo (creation out of nothing), but more about brining order into the disjointed creation.

I know this is hard for many Christians to comprehend, possibly because we’ve only ever considered a ‘literal’ Gen 1-3 and that things were perfect prior to the narrative found in Gen 3. Yet, while some points might come forth as more valid, I think there is definitely room to consider that we possibly need to rethink our approach to the early chapters of Genesis. It’s a rethinking for some of us, but it’s not a rethinking for all. Nor is it completely removed from readings that have been acceptable throughout church history, as Bouteneff points out in his work.

The whole point is not to say that evolutionary science has the answers. I still have much to grapple with in this area. But my whole point in engaging this area is 3-fold. I believe we need to 1) give space for a non-literal reading of the early chapters of Genesis, since that’s been acceptable for 2000+ years, 2) give space for Christians to faithfully engage in evolutionary science and 3) if evolution is the way by which God brought about his creation, then some of us will need to rethink things theologically – about Adam, the fall, etc. And that is mainly what I am doing myself and want to help other Christians do as well.

I’m convinced Genesis 1-3 wasn’t given to answer all the origins questions, nor was it given as a straightforward, literally historical account of how things happened in the beginning. And I am convinced that God is a God of process (think about how long it took for Christ to arrive, think about sanctification over our entire life, think about a pregnant woman’s gestation period, think about the writing of Scripture and forming into a canon, etc). None of these prove evolution. Of course not. It simply shows that our God revels in processes, long processes, and that, if the process of evolution was the way God actually chose to do things, then his creation is no less magnificent because of it.

Were things out of order prior to Gen 3? It’s probable. And it’s likely that Genesis carries a very ‘non-literal’ perspective, in that it isn’t a factual-historical accounting of the creative process (which oddly enough still continues today each time a baby is conceived or a seed is planted). And knowing these things, it allows us the space to engage with the arena of science…even today’s scientific developments.

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24 thoughts on “Sin & Disorder Prior to ‘The Fall’ in Genesis 3?

  1. Scott, I think there is some middle ground that needs to be considered. First, there is the theory of a primordial existence in Gen 1 that God took and made his creation. That doesn’t necessarily imply evolution nor does it have to be reconciled to science as it is pre-scientific. Second, if there was some sort of pre-existent chaos in need not preclude an actual existence of Adam and I think we should take his historic existence serious and the avenue through which sin entered the world. We also have to take into consideration that “it was good”. In other words, I think you are creating too sharp of a contrast between creationism and evolution that leaves either one or the other as valid. But I can’t think straight now as there is incessant chatter in my ears. May be back.

    • Lisa –

      Thanks for interacting.

      Of course, I do recognise there are many theories on how to approach this. I think that actually underlines the importance of allowing for a non-literal reading and space to engage with the sciences and rethinking (for some) their approach to Genesis (and the Bible as a whole).

      I will say I’m not a fan of something like what you suggested in your first point. Some try and explain that there was this primordial mess and God took it and formed that into what we read in the rest of Gen 1. I think it is still an attempt to read Gen 1 as an account of how things exactly unfolded – we move from nothing, to primordial existence, to an account of the creation, to it all being finished at the end of ch.1. It’s quite like people trying to put forth a ‘gap theory’ – there being a gap between Gen 1:2 and 1:3, so maybe that’s why things are much older than a young-earth view. It sounds nice, but I think it is working too hard to make something happen because we feel the need to always reconciled Scripture and science. I think if we step back and realise/admit that the early chapters of Genesis are not talking straightforward history in the first place, it’s not trying to give any scientific details, then we don’t have to try and make it fit with science and modern findings that suggest the earth is billions of years old. I love the subtitle of Enns’ book, The Evolution of AdamWhat the Bible Does and Doesn’t Say About Human Origins. It’s not given to address the many questions we can try and make fit into the text.

      Let’s not forget about Gen 1 and 2 already ‘contradicting’ one another, like I noted in our conversation earlier. I couldn’t believe you were using the c-word! Gen 1 tells us 1) animals were created and 2) then male and female were created together. Gen 2 tells us 1) man was created, 2) then animals and 3) then woman. We usually try and explain this away by saying Gen 1 is all about the wide view, while Gen 2 comes in closer on the details. Whether we like it or not, one account has animals first and one account has them coming second, before the female. But I don’t believe that’s how it is working. Again, we are trying too hard to silence science (good natural theology). I think it’s viable that the author/compiler of Genesis was drawing upon 2 traditions and used BOTH to teach some theological importances about creation, humanity, etc – giving the God perspective.

      On Adam being the one through which sin entered the world – Yes, I am fine for a specific point where sin entered, through the first ancestors. I’m even fine if the first ancestors were actually called Adam and Eve. But I think this completely misses the point of why the Hebrew author/compilers were constructing the account. It’s still trying to read things way too literally, rather than as a storied account to teach other important things, one being the shaping of the story to speak to exiled Israel.

      I like your point about everything being created ‘good’. How is it created good when there is already disorder? I suppose one way to approach it is seeing that, in the midst of disorder, God is bringing order in and it has brought about good restoration to his creation. Think exiled Israel – the prophets were already speaking restoration into their world. Again, I’m not so bound to try and think of Gen 1-3 as a chronological, literal approach to origins – primordial soup, then creation of all things, then perfect utopia somewhere in northeastern Africa, then a talking serpent dupes Adam & Eve into sin, then expulsion from a utopian place, etc, etc. My engagement with discussion around the ANE origins accounts sees the Hebrew account as a response to that, as well as also speaking into the exilic Hebrew situation. For me, this gives a better framework than a chronological, bullet point listing of how things played out in order.

  2. Indeed, theologically-biblically and spiritually, Satan, as the great Adversary of God, is already on the scene in Genesis, 1 and chapters 2 & 3! “And he said unto them, “I beheld Satan (the Adversary…Diabolos, is the more frequent term in the N.T. ; both are in Rev. 12:9) fallen as lightning from heaven.” (R.V.) – “fall” (KJV) = having fallen.

    As I have said before, perhaps the best notes and commentary I have read here (Gen. 1-3) are from E.W. Bullinger’s: The Companion Bible! See also his book: Figures of Speech Used In The Bible. And too his notes on Gen. 1:2 are well worth the read. For those that forget or won’t use E.W.B., they are losing ground “biblically” and certainly “textually”! He was a great “biblicist” scholar!

  3. A theory that I have heard that appealed to me regarding the “formless and void” passage has it that the Earth was originally constructed as something to cast Satan and the fallen angels down TO. It was formless and void because Satan is not a creator being, so he hadn’t done anything with it.

    Why God would then choose this place as the home of most of the rest of His creation, I don’t know. Maybe He is making a point with it that I just don’t understand yet.

    I still believe in a fairly straightforward literal interpretation of Genesis, but I have an open mind to God using evolution (a natural process that he began) to “create” life over some period of time. I DON’T hold to one type of species spawning another however, as I believe that God started each type of creature — sea, air, beasts of the field, and finally man — as separate distinct acts (uses of His direct influence or power), which then continued on “after their own kind”.

    I also believe there were many animals that are lost to us today, namely unicorns and dragons. I also believe that Satan possessed a dragon (which was then “brought low” and made into another species (snake) at the fall), and that dragons (and likely other animals as well) had at least rudimentary speech capabilities and were much smarter than they are today (and many are VERY smart) because they have been corrupted by the fall as well.

    I mean if a snake started talking to me, I would be freaking out, not having a debate with it about my relationship with God. Obviously, for Eve, it wasn’t a completely unusual occurrence.

      • Btw, I would somewhat agree that “Satan” has been allowed by God to be the “god” of this world (age).. (2 Cor. 4:4). But GOD is not dualist, and HE is sovereign over all and everything! As Luther said, ‘Satan is God’s satan’!

      • Well, I’m not saying that interpretation is wrong, but I think it’s almost as much a stretch as my fantasy scenario. 🙂

        It matters not in the end exactly what form Satan took, but what the result was, and what God’s response was.

        We can find out all the particulars (if we even care at that point) when we meet God.

      • @Ken: Bullinger’s approach is very Biblical/”biblicist”, and his approach also uses a proper sense of the Bible’s own Figures of Speech. So this is not just some hobby horse approach. I wish myself more people, especially pastor-teachers, had a copy of his book: Figures of Speech Used in the Bible. Walter Kaiser has said ot it: “This book should be on every exegete’s shelf alongside the Greek and Hebrew lexicons and grammars.” I have too, Bullinger’s grand book: A Critical Lexicon and Concordance to the English and Greek New Testament. So Bullinger is indeed no lightweight here! Note, Bullinger (himself an Anglican rector) received a Doctor of Divinity degree from the Anglican Archbishop of Canterbury himself: the Rev. Arcibald Campbell Tait, in 1881..”for eminent service in the Church in the department of Biblical criticism.”

      • Bullinger sounds impressive… by worldly standards (learned degrees and the accolades of other men). But he’s still just a man subject to the same pitfalls and problems as any of us. He may be right, and he certainly has interesting things to say, but nobody has the “inside info” or “darling revelation” on Bible interpretation. Claiming to know how it all works is a pretty dangerous stance to take — on anything, particularly doctrine. I’m not saying that was Bullinger’s attitude. I’m just speaking in general.

        I don’t claim to KNOW anything (except Christ and Him crucified), but I will listen to different ideas and theories, both subjective and objective on biblical narratives and doctrines. That’s one reason why I subscribe to this blog. Scott often challenges beliefs I have long held with new insights into old doctrines. If I see a great deal of merit in it, and I can reconcile it to my understanding of God, both from what I read in scripture and my own personal experience, I might even change my viewpoint on an issue, but I still never claim to have “arrived” at any lastlng conclusions. I just don’t have all the information I need to be sure how it all works.

      • @Ken: I can see that your not familar with E.W. Bullinger! He was certainly not one for human accolades, but certainly the laborer is worthy of his effort & work! I don’t follow all of Bullinger’s lines either, like his overt dispensationalism, etc. And on Genesis I must also look too at the Ancient Hebrew Cosmology. But, when we do biblical and exegetical work, we simply must be driven by the Text itself, and also some close reality to the historical, i.e. the historical grammatical. And here also is proper epistemology. The Reformers and the Reformation simply stood here! And so must I! 🙂

      • Good for you! I’m happy you have found a comfortable “platform” to rest upon.

        I can’t say I’m there yet. Not sure I ever will be.

        I hope I didn’t offend in regards to Bullinger. I’m sure he is worthy of respect and you are certainly correct, his labor is worth looking into. I did find intriguing nuggets in the excerpt you linked to. It just wasn’t enough to convince me of the whole “the serpent was an angel of light” deal…. yet. Maybe it will wear on me, and/or I will find other sources that make the possibility seem more likely to me. I appreciate the input, truly.

    • Ken

      It all sounds more a work of the imagination rather than founded in the text. 🙂

      I don’t think we have to work so hard in filling in those gaps with super-spiritual insights and imaginings.

      • True enough. We don’t HAVE to because in the end all those particulars aren’t what’s truly important.

        But it’s certainly fun to speculate, and that’s all I was doing. I probably should have said “I think it COULD be” this and such. It could just as possibly be just like the page that Robert posted and it wouldn’t disappoint me if it was.

        But I don’t want to put God in any box and tell people it HAD to be this way or that way.

        The only “have to” is faith in the work of Christ and trust in Him for everything in life.

        The rest will take care of itself in the end.

  4. Good to see you tackling some of the more substantial implications of evolution, Scott.

    As a Christian creationist, my problem with evolution is not so much that it takes billions of years rather than days, but that it changes the biblical story of creation, fall, death, resurrection and consummation. The bible for example presents oppression, sickness and death as consequences of the fall and enemies of Jesus. But even theistic evolution usually brushes aside sickness etc. as a natural consequence of God’s (now not so good) creation.

    By suggesting that something had already gone wrong with creation prior to Genesis, you offer the possibility that Adam and Eve are challenging an already broken creation. That offers the tantalising prospect of combining current scientific thinking on origins with what I see as a biblical view of sickness etc.

    I think you have a couple of challenges to address, though. Firstly, have you considered the distinction between immaturity and sin? It is not good for Adam to be alone, so God brings Eve. Adam and Eve were naked, but we will wear white. Jesus was perfected on the cross. Nothing had gone wrong with Adam at this point, or with Jesus, they just weren’t finished. So in the beginning I claim that Adam and Eve were perfect in innocence but not perfectly mature and completed. The void, the garden and the command to multiply, fill and subdue the world look much more like an incomplete task than a consequence of sin.

    In response you do highlight one clear defect with creation before Adam and Eve’s fall: the serpent. You must be right to say that something has already gone wrong before the human fall. The traditional Christian response has been to suppose that the serpent is the devil; and that this fall has taken place in the heavenly realms beyond this world and Adam’s Earthly domain. It’s a bit difficult to absolutely say exactly who the devil or the serpent is, or what happened here, because so far as I know the bible doesn’t say very much about them. What though does the bible say?

    Genesis talks repeatedly of the goodness of creation prior to the fall. Adam and Eve rule over the world. Paul supposes that sin enter the world through Adam. Without going so far as to check all the relevant passages, I think I’d be right to say that scripture gives sufficient indication of a good natural world compromised by the fall; and it seems quite inappropriate to posit a broken natural world based on what we don’t know about the serpent’s fall. The traditional Christian view of the serpent as the devil does not suffer from this problem. (So Adam and Eve as a challenge to an already broken devil: that seems perfectly plausible to me, but to an already broken natural world: I doubt it).

    So to me creationism remains as the view that best fits the message of scripture (with ‘pan-creationism’, if you know what that is, being another plausible stance). But what I do like here is that you’re taking the biblical story a bit more seriously and trying to address that, rather than arguing, say, that if we all understood some simple facts about literalism and some less simple clues about genre then the problem would go right away. After all, it’s much more important to hold onto the biblical mission of jubilee than the mere discrepancy between a day and a billion years.

    • Duncan –

      Thanks for the interaction.

      You said: As a Christian creationist, my problem with evolution is not so much that it takes billions of years rather than days, but that it changes the biblical story of creation, fall, death, resurrection and consummation

      But that’s just it. I am not sure if you say my first post, mainly mentioned Bouteneff’s book and the series at the Jesus Creed blog. But the whole challenge is that the linear thinking of creation-fall-redemption has not always been the major reading of the Scripture narrative. It might even be a more recent reading from the past few hundred years.

      So, is this linear narrative we are so used to actually the biblical account? This is worth exploring more.

      I also don’t approach the early chapters of Genesis as literal, meaning I don’t think they are actually given to ultimately tell us how it all happened. I see it as a storied account of Yahweh building his temple (all the gods had a temple) in which he was to dwell and humans as his ikons (image bearers) who were to bring his rule. I also see it as some sort of polemic against some of the warring myths/accounts of the ancient near east. And I see it speaking into exilic Israel who had also been expelled from their land for disobedience, just like the account of Adam & Eve. I think the story was likely fully shaped, as we have it today, at a much later date, in an exilic time. They are ultimately trying to speak into that situation than give details of how it played out – days or ages or whatever.

      I think the main passage that will cause hiccup is that of Rom 5:12-21. It has been so ingrained in us a more Augustinian, original sin reading that we cannot see anything else. In his book, The Evolution of Adam, Peter Enns addresses the theological issues of Paul’s words in Romans. And I also have a book sitting on my shelf to one day read – Theology After Darwin. If evolution is true, and I cannot say it is and haven’t studied enough yet to say one way or the other, then there is some rethinking that has to be done theologically. That is what I am interested in. But I find solace in the fact that the creation narrative has not always been read in a western, evangelical way that I have been used to for most of my Christian life. This is what Bouteneff is getting at in his book.

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