Central to the Christian message is that we are irrevocably sinful because of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. Their sin was the original sin, we inherit it, and we need Jesus to remove it.
The Garden of Eden story is one of two creation stories in Genesis. In it, God permits Adam and Eve to eat any fruit in the Garden except for that from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. Encouraged by a serpent, they disobeyed.
Four in ten Americans see the Garden of Eden story as history. Look skeptically, though, and it doesn’t even hold together as a coherent story.
As crimes go, eating the fruit was a misdemeanor. Admittedly, Adam and Eve did disobey God, but this was the first sinful act in their lives. How about a scolding instead? Perpetual punishment through the generations is out of proportion to this crime. And even if they deserved punishment, why punish all their descendants? Elsewhere, the Bible agrees, “Parents are not to be put to death for their children, nor children put to death for their parents; each will die for their own sin.” God contradicts himself in his own book and undermines the basis for original sin.
Were Adam and Eve even blameworthy? Moral knowledge in this story comes from eating from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, so before that, they couldn’t have understood morality. Blaming them for doing something wrong was like punishing a one-year-old for a moral infraction.
If we’re inheritors of Adam’s moral knowledge as well as his sin, then Man must thoroughly understand good and evil today. Why then are we so bad at figuring it out? Shouldn’t we all agree? Why are post-Eden humans divided on issues like abortion, same-sex marriage, euthanasia, and capital punishment? Christians can’t even agree among themselves.
Since the Bible makes clear that wisdom is good (“How much better to get wisdom than gold, to get insight rather than silver!”), why is getting wisdom a bad thing? Solomon was celebrated for his wisdom, and yet Adam and Eve were punished for gaining it.
Think about the illogic of a garden with a dangerous tree in it. God knew that humans mustn’t eat from the Tree, so where does he put it? In with the humans! True, God was new at parenting, but some safeguards are common sense. Why not warn Adam and Eve about the serpent or make the fruit of the tree smell unappealing or put a wall around it? God knew how to make effective safeguards, since he put cherubim with a flaming sword to keep mankind out of the Garden after the Fall, so why not guard the tree beforehand?
Even the punch line of the story fails. God said, “When you eat from [the Tree,] you will surely die,” but the serpent was right, and Adam and Eve didn’t die. Nor can this be rationalized by saying that they would now die eventually because they never were immortal—that’s what the Tree of Life was for.
The Garden of Eden story works as a fable but not as a coherent account. Not only does being burdened with an ancestor’s sin clash with our moral sense, the Bible itself agrees. Without transgenerational guilt, original sin has no basis, and without original sin, Jesus had nothing to save us from.
Continue to chapter 10.
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Four in ten Americans see the Garden of Eden story as history: “Evangelicals Question The Existence Of Adam And Eve,” NPR, August 9, 2011, www.npr.org/2011/08/09/138957812/evangelicals-question-the-existence-of-adam-and-eve.
“Parents are not to be put to death for their children, nor children put to death for their parents; each will die for their own sin”: Deuteronomy 24:16.
“How much better to get wisdom than gold, to get insight rather than silver!”: Proverbs 16:16.
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