Is Original Sin and the Fall of Man True?

"Expulsion from the Garden of Eden" (detail) by Cole Thomas

“Expulsion from the Garden of Eden” (detail) by Cole Thomas

The Catholic Church asserts the truth that mankind has suffered a privation of grace as a consequence of disobedience. By the sin of our first parents we are saddled until the end of time with the defect of Original Sin. Man is fallen. To be born into this world is to be burdened with a life of toil, trial and torment. Adam and Eve were in a state of grace in the Garden of Eden before succumbing to temptation. The doctrine of The Fall is a most obvious proposition expounded upon by nearly every religious and philosophical tradition in history. To deny man’s fallen nature is an unprecedented narrowness based on implausible pathology grounded in the denial of the most vital attributes that make us fully human.

Man is more than just material; he has an interior and transcendent nature recognizable by his intellect and will. When Adam and Eve were expelled from the Garden for disobedience, God described the consequences of their rebellion in Genesis 23:17-19 when He said, “Cursed is the ground because of you; in toil you shall eat of it all the days of your life; thorns and thistles it shall bring forth to you; and you shall eat the plants of the field. In the sweat of your face you shall eat bread.” This is an obvious statement about the physical difficulties all men have faced throughout the millennia of human existence. What may not be so obvious is that this is analogous to the two other realms of human existence as well, those two dimensions of interiority we know as intellect and will. It is as difficult to cultivate the right use of reason and our moral sensibilities as it is to till hard earth. Agriculture on material soil is like education and spiritual formation on the inner soil.

It is real labor to cultivate the inner landscape. Just as there was no need for agriculture in the Garden of Eden, there was no need for education before the Fall. Education is after all intended to be the cultivation of habits of being most fully expressed by the acquisition of virtue and the deracination of vice. Adam and Eve had preternatural gifts of perception, clear intellectual sight, an acuity of judgment, a precision of the senses, and astounding memory retention. They were also gifted the infused knowledge of things as they pertained to their station in the divine economy. There was no need for virtue because the appetites were properly subordinated to the right use of reason.

The sin of our first parents resulted in the loss of sanctifying and sanitizing grace. We even find ourselves bereft of the original preternatural gifts. Our natures have been corrupted by the original sin and we are left with three wounds of The Fall, a darkened intellect, a weakened will, and an inclination towards evil. Our lot in life became dreary, toil against the soil for man and painful childbirth for the woman. Strife, hatred, and enmity now characterize this vale of tears as we struggle to rediscover our purpose when dark shade prevents us from seeing clearly. Although the fall of man is expressed most comprehensively by the Catholic Church, the truth of the doctrine of The Fall is by no means exclusive to Christianity.

Many traditions hold myths depicting the fallen nature of man. In Gnosticism, there is gratitude for the snake revealing hidden knowledge to Adam and Eve which liberates them from the “demiurge’s” constricting control. In Islam, Adam and Eve are deceived by Shaitaan who promised them immortality and other delights, but even after having been warned, they gave into Shaitaan’s temptations. In Zoroastrianism and Persian Myths, humankind is created to resist and endure through degradation and decay by cultivating good habits of charitable deeds, the correct use of speech and by the right use of the intellect.

The Hindu tradition has prayers to Varuna, Indra, and Agni which allude to a corrupt human nature by constantly asking forgiveness of their sins and for their offenses against the gods and their neighbors. In Buddhism the predominate theme is suffering and falleness, in the words of the Buddha in the Dhammapada, 147-8, “Behold this painted body, a body full of wounds, put together, diseased, and full of many thoughts in which there is neither permanence nor stability. This body is worn out, a nest of diseases and very frail. This heap of corruption breaks in pieces, life indeed ends in death.” Even Confucius in his Analects stressed the importance and difficulty of cultivating the virtues to live the moral life. He called for men to constantly remind themselves of the inverse golden rule. This is similar to the Ancient Greeks who clearly understood the need to cultivate virtue to combat man’s natural inclination towards evil.

Perhaps the most notable non-Christian tradition to elucidate man’s fallen nature is found in the myth of Pandora. The Titan Prometheus was charged with making man out of dust. Man was a feeble creature with a poor lot in life. Prometheus had pity on man and asked Zeus if he could give them fire. Zeus refused but Prometheus stole fire from Zeus anyway and got caught. Zeus had Prometheus chained to the side of a mountain while he planned revenge on Prometheus’ family.

In the meantime, the gods made beautiful Pandora out of clay. Pandora means “all gifts” and she is named so because Zeus had all the gods and goddesses each give her a gift as he made her a live person. Hera gave Pandora an insatiable curiosity. Zeus offered Pandora as a wife to Prometheus’ dimwitted brother Epimetheus and gave them a box for a wedding present with the instruction that she was never to open it. Of course Zeus knew she wouldn’t be able to resist and when she opened the box and let loose its contents, Zeus’ punishment was complete, for in the box were all the evils, sicknesses, and sins that ushered death irrevocably into the world. Of course, man has lived in this fallen state ever since.

There is further corroboration in philosophy.

In book two of The Republic, Plato alludes to man’s fallen nature by having Glaucon assert that it is good to perpetrate injustice for gain but bad to suffer it. Glaucon further proclaims a fallen notion of justice by a compromise between the distorted notion that doing injustice without punishment is a benefit and suffering an injustice without the ability to retaliate is a great evil. Glaucon suggests that conventional laws are asserted to protect victims, “not as a good, but as the lesser evil, and honored by reason of the inability of men to do injustice” without interference. Plato has Glaucon further assert that concerning the conventional law, “no man who is worthy to be called a man would ever submit to such an agreement if he were able to resist; he would be mad if he did.” To illustrate his point, Glaucon tells the myth of Gyges ring to demonstrate that the just and unjust man alike will find themselves on the same road if only given the right circumstances.

Plato later demonstrates that because of our fallen nature we are called to cultivate virtue and commit to moral formation for excellence if we are going to do the right thing for the right reasons. There is no doubt that most men in Gyges position would take advantage of invisibility for personal gain, even though it is immoral. This is an illustration of man’s fallen nature because our uncultivated inclinations do not square with natural law of goodness and truth.

All the major philosophical and religious traditions in the history of the world acknowledge the fallen nature of man. The obvious incongruity between the natural good and man’s inclination to do evil is a most evident thing. The history books are a record of the strife, sin and death that have plagued all peoples in all lands and at all times.

The Modern Denial of the Fallen Nature of Man

We are in a unique time when a growing number “educated” souls operate in fields that systematically deny the fallen nature of man. Professions such as education, psychology, the social sciences and several more operate as if all of humankind’s strife has its root causes in genetic accidents and material inequalities.

Why such a radical break from the preponderance of history and evidence?

Aristotle said, “The least initial deviation from the truth is multiplied later a thousand fold.” The problems we face today began in the Garden with one bite of the fruit of the forbidden tree. That first deviation is the source of incalculable error multiplying a thousand fold in every subsequent generation. In the modern era, the movement to deny the fallen nature of man is the artifact of another original error. At the end of the period known as the scholastic philosophical tradition, William of Occam (1287-1347) asserted an initial deviation known as nominalism. He used his razor to begin to cut real things off from their real explanations. Universal realities had been severed from their images or signs.

By identifying the contrivance that universal truths revealed by God are mere names, we can observe one initial deviation that serves as the root for countless philosophical errors today. Specifically, the denial of universal truths is the first step to cut the image off from the reality. Since the advent of Occam’s nominalism in the 13th century, the ground was laid for the enlightenment which embodies the thousand fold errors instituted by Occam. In excising reality from images and images from shadows, the Enlightenment ushered in the philosophical age of inversion. Sir Francis Bacon’s Novum Organum inverted Aristotle’s deductive method based on first principles to the inductive method of scientific inquiry grounded in the idea that “man is the measure of all things.” The misapplication of the scientific method to philosophical, moral and educational concerns has made a wasteland of modern notions of interiority.

Pope St. John Paul II said in May of 2003 that the “drama of contemporary culture is the lack of interiority, the absence of contemplation. Without interiority culture has no content; it is like a body that has not yet found its soul. What can humanity do without interiority? Unfortunately, we know the answer very well. When the contemplative spirit is missing, life is not protected and all that is human is denigrated. Without interiority, modern man puts his own integrity at risk.” We risk exponentially expediting societal decay by the denial of man’s fallen nature, but we also risk incalculably more: eternity.

The atheist problem of denying man’s fallen nature is one of denying a proper understanding of the interiority of man. To believe that man is not fallen is also to deny the nature and existence of virtue and vice, which is a denial of the objective standard of truth goodness and beauty. To deny the Fall is also to deny the reality of nearly all of human history as well as to collected wisdom of nearly every philosophical and religious tradition. To deny the fallen nature of man is to arrogate to oneself the possibility of constructing a heaven on earth. The efforts have been made on a massive scale and they have produced catastrophic results sure to proliferate as the foolish rush towards an impossible utopia based on the false assumption of man’s natural goodness. These reductive utopian schemes are picking up even more momentum in this ever darkening age. The only possibility of surviving the denial of man’s fallen nature is for souls to hope to transcend humanity itself, and by the single trick of applied technology, this is a most impossible endeavor.

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  1. Great, great article! Loved reading it. Rigor of thought and reason. Because of that, I trust the writer’s judgment and pose a question for his opinion, thoughts, belief:
    Did Adam and Eve have knowledge of good and evil before disobeying God by eating of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil which He forbad them of touching or eating?
    Was there decision…..:
    1) a moral choice of right versus wrong, “right” being obedience to God’s directive and “wrong” being the knowledge that disobeying God holds a moral character / value of being “wrong”??
    Or, rather,
    2) was their decision a purely rational decision executed by their free will, based entirely on their pure reason, not influenced by anything like “pride” or “jealousy” or “hate” or “anger” or “lust” or “greed”. This latter scenario would be akin to the character of the decision of free will that some of the first angels made (Satan and others) to reject God. In this case, the Catechism says Satan’s and these angels’ decision, resulting in their everlasting eternal damnation was an irrevocable result not because of some defect in God’s infinite mercy to save them but because they “knew what they were doing” so-to-speak, with perfect clarity and a perfectly functioning and enhanced intellect. So, was A&E’s decision similar??

    I have a few thoughts that weigh heavily on my own personal “opinion”:
    First, Free Will. God gave man completely free will. Which means God knows man could choose to reject Him and reject His Will, which, at one and the same time, is not His Will; ie HIs Will is for us to have our will, and in turn, He wants our will to be that we want to know and love God, of our own free will…….which is God’s Will…..(arrrggg my head hurts). Which further means, that there must be something else in the universe that God created, besides God, that man might, if he chose, to trust in, to “love” and embrace (ie satan, himself (man), a serpent ???).

    My next thought that weighs on me: If the answer is “yes, A&E already knew right and wrong, and their decision was a moral one”, then it SEEMS the account contradicts itself? If A&E possesses knowledge of good and evil already, then, it would makes no sense that they would gain knowledge of good and evil by eating of it. Further, it makes no sense that God present the tree with such a name in the first place, because, they already knew good and evil.

    My next thought is my understanding from official Catholic Church doctrine (which, perhaps, I don’t understand correctly) that A&E had “preternatural gifts” prior to The Fall. Those gifts included “infused/enhanced knowledge”, a perfectly ordered harmonious/”just” and holy soul, bodily immortality and beatific vision (they could actually see God, see the perfect absolute Good, Beauty and Truth) (I might have that last part wrong….please correct me if so). I think they also had sanctifying grace. The bodily immortality, (I think??) is a consequence of the “perfect harmony” and perfect order of their non-corporeal souls with their corporeal bodies (the soul being perfectly ordered with the body, no discord). So, there was no corporeal decay or age or disease or pain or aches. I suppose, the same could be said of their relationship with each other and their environment…that is, that God set those relations in perfect harmony….due to the condition that all His created being in this new physical world of His, and man’s invisible soul, drew their being from The Perfect Good, ie God. So, all was perfect. (We cannot conceive of this today because, since The Fall, man changed the perfection God set in place using his free will, disrupting the perfect order and creating “discord”…… ie “dis-harmony” thus, inviting things to go “wrong”/”bad”, ie, not according to God’s will, which is other than perfect good…which is “bad”).
    So, in A&E, because of the perfect harmony of their souls, their intellect “reigned supreme” in the “state of their soul” (as Plato might say) and was not informed or influenced by passions (pride and others) or appetites (lust, and others). So, when I here a priest say, or read in a Catholic text and the Catechism, something to the effect of “it was A&E’s pride and arrogance to want to be like God, but without God, that influenced their will and their decision”, when I hear that, I raise an eyebrow, because it seems to contradict other doctrine that says their souls were in perfect harmony and, therefore, NOT influenced by pride or any other passion or appetite. So, there is another contradiction…..
    Another thought: Today, the Church teaches God gives our souls today some degree of infused knowledge of morality, a moral compass. We Catholics believe God created our souls and “imprinted” upon them something of a “homing device”, or “moral compass”, and the capacity to come to know and love God, and an inner desire to do so….a “conscience” and a desire to seek Him out (“Him” perhaps understood, by some, to be “The Truth” or “The Good”, by those who, perhaps, might not even understand it is actually God drawing them to Him). This capacity we call the human “intellect” and capacity to “reason” and understand our place in the universe, self awareness, past and future, complex thoughts, and a desire for “Truth” and “Goodness” and “Happiness”. So, if God gives us that knowledge of right and wrong today, when we are born, it might SEEM to follow that He would also certainly give that same “moral compass” to A&E as well, wouldn’t it?? But, perhaps not, since the Church also says, A&E had and enjoyed these “preternatural gifts”, that we do not, thus giving us a need for a moral compass, where, by contrast, A&E may not have needed it?? The writer himself in one of his articles says words to the effect, “A&E didn’t need virtues because their soul was perfectly ordered….”. I agree. So, accepting that premise, it would follow that God did NOT imprint A&E’s souls with this same “moral compass” of right and wrong. So, one might be inclined to answer the question with “no”.

    So, the alternative is “no, A&E did not have knowledge of good and evil and, therefore, their choice was NOT a moral choice but a choice of pure intellect. In this scenario, A&E’s choice was akin to that of Satan and his angles who chose to reject God. This latter possibility seems more and more to make more sense to me and be logically consistent. True, in this scenario, the decision would not be a moral choice of right vs wrong but it would be a decision nonetheless, but one based purely on A&E’s enhanced and infused reason. Their choice was door number one –keep trust in God— and stay as you are, or, door number 2 ((reject trust and belief in God (“forbidden; do not eat of it lest surely you will die”), and instead, trust in something “other than God”))– and the expectation (a lie, actually) that they would be “better”. In this scenario, I see A&E’s choice of free will as a “cold blooded” (ie abscense of passion,)calculated decision to no longer trust in God. Clearly, it was “the wrong answer” of all wrong answers. I think of a benevolent teacher giving her young children students a multiple choice test. One of the questions she actually gives away the answer ahead of time (I’ve had this happen in school before, actually). She says to her students. “question #5 has two choices, A or B. Whatever you do, do NOT choose B or you will fail the whole test and be expelled from school.” But the students meet another, older student, in the hallway before the test and he lies to them and says, “You know that teacher does that every year to mess with the kids. She always says “don’t choose B on #5″. But guess what? whatever you do, don’t choose A. If you choose B you actually get 50 extra points and you get advanced to the next grade because you would be so smart, plus you get access to the teacher’s lounge for lunch. ”
    I my little “allegory”, do the kids have a moral choice or a choice of trust? I find it difficult to separate in my mind the morality of rejecting God’s trust. In the little example I gave, it was not really an choice of morality (although, clearly, it was “wrong” (ie “bad”) not to trust the good teacher…..but the kids didn’t know that). Yet, the teacher was correct and, in fact, the outcome was failing the test and expulsion from school. So, the teacher held to her word because she’s perfectly “just” teacher, even though she truly wishes the kids just did what she said.
    In the latter scenario also, AFTER eating of the tree, it makes sense and is consistent that A&E would, actually, come to understand good and evil when they did not before. Another way of saying evil might be (total confusion of your thoughts to cloud your good judgment and send you into a life of confusion and chaos……but that would be too long….so the serpent just said “evil” instead). God didn’t say anything either because He simply want to know if his creature would trust in Him, autonomously, of his own free will. So, the outcome was man’s material “being” being guided and “fed” by “other than the perfect good”….resulting in a chaos, disorder and disfunction……that is, evil.
    I have concluded, tentatively and cautiously, for now, although open to discussion by those smarter than me, that A&E did NOT know good and evil, their choice was NOT a moral choice, they were NOT being Proud and arrogant in their attempt to be like God but without God (although that actually what they were doing, in hindsight). I conclude, tentatively, that their choice was a purely rationale choice, uninformed by passion or appetite, but a choice nonetheless, to not trust in God, which had catastrophic consequences NOT of God’s willing, but of which God had total foreknowledge, and tried to warn A&E, out of love. But, God gave them free will, so God had to respect their choice of pain and suffering over Him. yet, again, due to His infinite love and mercy, He didn’t give up on us and gave us another chance to make the choice He wants us to make, but to make the choice of our own fee will and come to the conclusion ourselves, of our own reason and mind, (not “ordered or forced” by God, like the other creatures) to enter into a loving communion with Him.
    What do you think of my thoughts??? I look forward to your comments and thoughts.
    Thank you

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