Monday, June 20, 2005

The Dilemma of the Fall

Recently Tom Gilson of Thinking Christian made a comment to me about human freedom. I wish to follow up on it now. I'll pose my response as a dilemma.

First let me make my assumptions explicit. They are quite explicity Christian and thus the dilemma, if real, is a worry for Christians only.

1. We human beings were created by a God in a state of perfection, for all that God makes, all that God does, He makes or does perfectly.
2. We human beings were created free. Indeed our freedom was essential to that perfection we enjoyed before the Fall, i.e. a creature not free that is yet as much like us it can be is not as good as we.
3. We human beings brought about the Fall through a misuse of that freedom God bestowed upon us. So, then, responsibility for the Fall lies with us, not God. God acted as perfectly as He might, but we rebelled and brought evil into the world.
4. God, through Christ, will heal the breach created in the Fall. Through Christ He will raise we human beings to a state of perfection. (Whether it will be some or all that are perfected is irrelevant.)

Now, the dilemma is this. Human perfection, i.e. the greatest good that we human beings can exemplify, requires that we be free. But the possibility of the Fall was entailed by our freedom. Thus when the breach is healed, a new Fall is possible, for the perfected ones then alive will no less free than the ones who first fell.

Why then should we not expect that the history of the world will be a repetition of the sequence Fall, Incarnation and Redemption repeated ad infinitum?

Of course something must have gone wrong here. The saints in Heaven cannot fall again.

But why can't they? What virtue do they have that the pre-Fall human beings did not have? Why couldn't God have bestowed this virtue upon those who lived before the Fall? Surely He would have had to do so if that virtue is necessary to human perfection.

Again, if the saints in Heaven are not free, how can they be perfect? Do they merely have a certain measure of freedom but have been so transformed by God that they cannot rebel as did the first humans? But surely such partial freedom is an imperfection, for the highest expression of our freedom is to love God. How can a freedom be perfect that is free to choose only the small things but cannot help but choose the large, i.e. to love God? Musn't it be the case then that the saints in heaven have a complete freedom and so can both freely choose to love God and freely chose to rebel? But if this is so, the Fall can happen again.

At present I see only dimly a way out of this. It is to say that the first human beings could not have been created in a state of full perfection. Rather they had to first be as children. The world, then, is their school, and heaven is their full maturity.

But why couldn't God have created humans fully mature? Surely this does not lie outside His power. Perhaps, but might it be better to ourselves reach after perfection than to have it simply bestowed upon is?

One consequence of this line of thought it likely to disturb my Christian readers. It is this. On this line, 'The Fall' refers not to a certain event wherein we rebeled against God. Rather it refers to the moral and spiritual infancy of humanity. Moreover, on this line of thought Christ and Christ's death have a pedagogical role, not a redemptive one. Christ did not come so that sins might be forgiven. (Sin is an inevitable outgrowth of spiritual immaturity and thus is not to be condemned but corrected.) He did not come so that He might balance the scales of justice by His death. Rather He came so that He might provide a perfect example and so lead us to perfection.


C Grace said...

As usual you leave us a lot to think about here.

Let me say straight out that though I will attempt to explore answers I don't think anyone can fully understand some of these issues. Our reason is not sufficient to grasp an eternl God who is outside space-time because we are finite and limited. Therefore there are many things that we have to believe because God has told us it is so. It is like the child trying to understand the motives and actions of an adult, they don't have the context for it.

Two quotes from Augustine (He says it so much better than I can)

"But when we come to divine things, this faculty (reason) turns away; it cannot behold;it pants and gasps, and burns with desire; it falls back from the light of truth and turns again to its wonted obscurity, not from choice but from exhaustion."

"But because the minds of men are obscured by familiarity with darkness, ... and cannot percieve in a way suitable to the clearness and purity of reason, there is a most wholesome provision for brining the dazzled eye into the light of truth under the shade of authority" (he is refering to the Bible here)

Since you don't accept the authority of the Bible, How can you expect to figure out God from your own meditations? Even if we have matured to the point of say a preteen in our individual understanding of God, can we really understand his motives and the burdens under which he is operating without him telling us? A small child doesn't question their parent's actions they just trust that whatever the parent does is right. But a teen has started to form their own ideas of how the universe is supposed to operate and much of the conflict between teen and parent is because the teen thinks they know things but are blind to their own lack of experience and knowledge.

God like a good parent has not left us blind with only our own understanding. He explains as best he can. Not only through our own nature- which because it is made in his image -helps us understand certain things about him, but also through history and revelation.

That said, back to your point - We don't hold children accountable for their actions -we correct, not punish because of their lack of maturity, that doesn't mean we don't feel angry. That anger comes (in unselfish moments) because 1. they have broken the moral law and 2. our love makes us angry because they may hurt themself or others

There is a difference though in God's dilemma because although maybe Adam and Eve were children in a sense, they have still broken the absolute moral law. The consequences of that are something i don't think we can fully understand because we are children. Jesus himself says that he came so our sins could be forgiven - Isn't it kind of inconsistent to say Jesus is a perfect moral example and refuse to accept what he tells us about himself?

Franklin Mason said...


That I believe Jesus is a perfect moral example does not imply I must believe that the written record we have of his life is, as it were, God through and through, with no tincture of the human authors. As said in my post on Biblical inerrancy, I think it likely that God makes use of the whole man in revelation and does not treat the one to whom he reveals Himself as a human stenographer.

And I think it wrong to become angry at someone when they are not responsible for what they do. Of course we often do, but that seems irrational to me. (I don't mean that I don't do it. I do, but am always sorry.) And of course children might act contrary to the dictates of the moral law; but they know not what they do and thus are not really responsible for it. They have not sinned and we should not become angry.

I very much liked the passages from Augustine. It's remarkable how much they recall Plato's myth of the cave. I very much believe that what he says is true. But good Catholic that he was, we would say that Bible study alone cannot by itself provide the tools necessary to live righteously. One must also place one's trust in the authority of the tradition in which one works. The notion that Bible study alone is sufficient for righteousness was a much later development. It was bequethed to the world by Luther.

C Grace said...

So if I am understanding you correctly you are saying that the many time in the gospels where the writers have Jesus talking about the resurrection or about the atonement are places where they have put words in His mouth that he did not say? I must be misunderstanding because this seems absurd to me. So is the account of the last supper totally fictional? and John must have been lieing throughout a good chunk of his gospel about what Jesus taught.

What motive have they for making this huge of a lie up if Jesus didn't teach it? It's not as if the gospels claim to be someone's direct revelation from God. The apostles are writing down what they heard a living person say. I would assume they would keep truely to the essence of his teaching even if it is not his exact words. However, to deny the resurrection and antonement is going way beyond a quibble of exact words.

How can a heresy of this magnitude have sprung up so quickly, without being contested? All of the apostles had to be in on the conspiracy. How can it be that not one would remain faithful to His true teaching? This is absolutely too far fetched for me to accept.

C Grace said...

about the children, I guess I wasn't real clear. I don't think we should get angry at someone when they are not responsible for their actions. But children can understand that they are breaking a law and thus be held responsible. For example, my child breaks a precious heirloom of our family. If I have never told her not to touch it, I can not hold her responsible no matter how upset I am, and it would be wrong of me to be angry at her. However, If she has been told not to touch it and did it anyway, then I have a right to be angry. (I am only talking about the actual emotion here not about any actionsI might take)One more caveat here - if I have told her not to touch it, but am asking something beyond her current level of self-control then it is my fault and I have no right to be angry.

I love Augustine and to some extent I would agree with you about traditions. A friend who was Orthodox and I had a long debate with some Calvinists on this issue once. I learned a lot from him.
the quotes are from "The Morals of the Catholic Church" well worth reading if you haven't already.

Franklin Mason said...


There is a space between deliberate fiction or outright lie and plain unvarnised truth that you seem not to admit.

My recall of events is often quite different than my wife's. This is often the case after an argument. It's not that either of us deliberately creates a fiction; and I would suspect that neither of us always says it exactly the way it happened. Rather both of us filter what happened and produce a truth-like story that each reflects our own unique personality and state of mind during the argument.

This is how I think of the Gospels. The Resurrection did happen, I think. But as for matters theological, the writers of course had a certain conceptual set by which to understand what had happened, and they surely put that to use in the writing of the Gospels. Is the result a lie? Of course not. Is it the literal truth as God Himself understands it? From my point of view, that's almost surely false.

Tom Gilson said...

Interesting stuff going on here!

Franklin, I think c grace is on the right track. If we don't rely on Scripture as authority, we're in a fog on these things.

Your most recent answer applies to the vast majority of human events--human memory is not always reliable, nor are human motives.

The main events of the Gospels are not the sort that are subject to these kinds of errors, however. If Jesus died on the cross and rose again, the disciples would not mis-remember it. There were too many of them in agreement, and it was (way!) too unique an event for them to have gotten cloudy on the main story.

I don't think it's psychologically credible that they made up the story. It would have required a conspiracy to hold together even while most of them were dying for an agreed-upon lie. Charles Colson of Watergate fame once spoke to this. He said he knew from experience how hard it was to hold a conspiracy together to save your skins; how much harder would it be when the point of the conspiracy was to put yourself on the executioner's block?

So if the Resurrection happened, Jesus has a great deal of authority. In several places, by his authority he endorsed the Old Testament as being the trustworthy and unending Word of God (although some of it, being fulfilled in him and its purpose being completed, is no longer normative).

This sets the stage for believing that God inspires human writers. There are other grounds for that belief, like the 300+ prophecies fulfilled in Jesus first appearance on earth.

Having that stage set, it is no great extension of thought to believe that he also inspired the human writers of the New Testament. The Holy Spirit guided them so as to write correctly, and to avoid the usual pitfalls of human memory.

So as c grace said, we have a trustworthy source that we should rely on to resolve the dilemma you've raised.

Beyond that, I think the answer is that the perfection of humans before the fall was a different sort of perfection than that after salvation and glorification in the final state. The pre-fall perfection was an untested innocence. The post-glorification perfection will be that in which believers will be allowed to live as they have chosen: in righteousness unsullied by sin. There is no longer freedom to sin, but this is not a lack of free will; it is the expression and completion of a decision freely chosen on earth. It is having a new nature, in which sin will not be a potential, but in which all kinds of freedom will.

After all, would we say God's freedom is limited because he can't sin? No! He is free to act in accord with who he is. Glorified believers will be free to act in accord with who they are: people who have chosen to pursue God and righteousness.

I'm going to take the large risk of posting it without editing... (scrunching up my eyes, I gingerly aim for the publish button and...

C Grace said...


Your recall of events might be fuzzy at times but have you ever experienced life changing events that had a signifigant meaning, that changed the way you saw the world? I will give you that even with these events the actual events might dim or get corrupted, but how likely is it that the meaning or signifigance of these events will get corrupted?

So although you might be justified in doubting the actual events, I don't think it justifiable to dispute the major teachings. To doubt any of the major teachings, including the meaning of Jesus's death is to accuse the disciples of not just misremembering but completely reinterpreting what Jesus said.

The teaching of Christ's divinty makes this clear. This to me has to be one of the most contorversial but least arguable teachings of the NT. There is no way the disciples ever would have come up with this concept on their own. I mean these are Jewish men who from birth have been steeped in the belief that the original sin was desiring to be like God. The whole Jewish culture, especially at this time when it was cleansed of the influences of Pagan religions and concentrated so much on the Law is the one least likely of any culture to have come up with a sect that deified their great moral leader. Unless Jesus actually specifically taught this and was able to back it up, this teaching never would have become part of Christian doctrine.

Franklin Mason said...


I do agree with what you have to say about the saints in heaven. Sin is no longer possible for them. In this way, they are elevated morally above the first humans, and above us now.

The lesson I take from this that sin was just as much inevitable as is a child's arithemetical errors. The first humans were, as you say, untested. They were immature. They had to come to know just what the wages of sin are if they were to learn, to rise up to that state of which they were capable. But to know this, one must witness sin. One must see it and what it does. One must experience for oneself just how much one suffers if one sins. Thus sin was necessary to the fulfillment of the divine plan for humanity. It is a pedagogical device; or rather its wages are pedagogical.

Sin this was not an interruption in the divine plan. Rather it is the means whereby we are perfected. This seems to me to imply that sin should not be condemned. Rather one shows the sinner what the sin brings about and thus corrects them.

Jesus was the great teacher of the wages of sin and the means to escape sin. This, in sum, is my Christology.

Oh, and on a side note. As I said, Tom, I agree that the saints the heaven cannot sin. But they are free nonetheless, for they are not made to do what they by some power outside themselves but rather their acts are a pure and unsullied expression of their perfect nature. So, then, it seems that freedom does not require the possibility that one do otherwise than one did. As I said in a prior post, I think that the possibility to do otherwise than love perfectly is an imperfection. One should wish to escape that kind of possibility.