Msgr. Charles Pope: The Anatomy of Original Sin

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James Tissot (1902)

By Msgr. Charles Pope,  February 14, 2019

In the readings at Mass this week we are pondering the account of original sin. Let’s explore the stages of sin that are manifested in Adam’s and Eve’s struggle.

Many tend to describe original sin merely as the eating of a forbidden fruit. While this accurate, it is incomplete and leads many to wonder why all this trouble came just from eating a piece of fruit. I believe it is helpful to consider the sin of Adam and Eve more richly. While the eating of the fruit is an external act, like any human act it proceeds from the heart and admits of some complexity.

I will use the following passage from the Book of James to help frame our reflections:

Let no one say when he is tempted, “I am being tempted by God,” for God cannot be tempted with evil, and he himself tempts no one. But each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire. Then desire when it has conceived gives birth to sin, and sin when it is fully grown brings forth death (James 1:13-15).

From this, we can distinguish the following stages of sin:

  1. The lure of temptation

  2. The engagement of desire

  3. The conception of sin

  4. The birth of sin

  5. Spiritual death

When we examine the sin of Adam and Eve we can see these stages at work.

Preamble – God put Adam in the garden even before Eve was created:

The LORD God took the man and placed him in the Garden of Eden in order to have him work it and guard it. And the Lord God commanded the man, “You are free to eat from any tree in the garden; but you must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for when you eat from it you will certainly die” (Gen 2:15-17).

Adam’s task was to work the garden as well as to guard (keep watch over) it. There was also a boundary that God told Adam not to cross. He did not explain why but simply noted the danger and asked Adam to trust Him.

Adam was to tend, till, and trust. Adam will fall short in two of these, and they are aspects of what we have come to call original sin.

1. The Lure of Temptation – The story opens with the description of the serpent, the most cunning of all the wild creatures God made (Genesis 3:1). While most of us imagine a snake of some sort, that description is given only after God curses Satan, whom the creature allegorically represents. Exactly what it looked like before the fall is not stated, and hence we need not imagine a talking snake. Whatever the creature, it is representative of the way in which Satan interacts with Eve.

Cunning and subtle, Satan uses intellectual arguments to appeal to aspects of what would later come to be called pride and sensuality. He also seeks to undermine her trust in God’s goodness.

Satan begins by attempting to make God seem unreasonable, suggesting that He forbade them from eating from any of the trees in the Garden. Eve easily deals with this temptation and dismisses it, correctly stating that it is only one tree that has been proscribed. This is a common tactic of Satan’s even today: presenting God as unreasonable, demanding too many things, and forbidding too much. This accusation wholly ignores the fact that God has given incredible liberty to human persons: unlike any other creatures except angels, human beings are permitted to say no to God.

Satan’s second attack is more successful. He declares that God is not telling them the truth. In effect, he says that God (who has given them everything) is holding something very important back from them. Satan argues that God is restraining them from being the gods they deserve to be. In effect, he says, “Why do you allow anyone to have power over you? Why do you let anyone tell you what to do? Why do you not instead say, ‘I will do what I want to do and I will decide whether it is right or wrong’?” Satan appeals to their incredible pride by saying, “You will be gods!”

Thus, Eve is in the first stage of sin, the lure of temptation. One may well wonder where Adam is. Satan has been talking to Eve, but where is Adam? The text says that he is right there with her! (Gen 3:6)

This is a problem integral to Adam’s sin. He was told, among other things, to guard the garden, to keep watch over it. It is arguable whether he could have prevented Satan from being there at all (he probably could not), but surely he could have tried to protect his wife! Satan is there and Adam says and does nothing. He does not try to ward off the evil one nor does he assist his wife in resisting the tempting thoughts. No, he stands there quietly, a passive husband.

As the head of his family, Adam was obligated to come to his wife’s aid, to protect her, to assist her in this grave temptation and threat, but the text reports that he does nothing. Indeed, Adam is so unobtrusive that when I point out the sixth verse, which says that he was with Eve, people are surprised. Even many a passive husband would intervene if he were to see some strange individual speaking to his wife.

“But Father, but Father! Are you saying that Adam already sinned even before original sin was committed?” No, not necessarily. The point is that original sin is more complicated than merely biting into a piece of fruit. Like many sins, it has layers. Adam may not yet have sinned, but his silence is surely puzzling; indeed, it is troubling. It is not a sin to be tempted (even Jesus was tempted), but to do nothing in the face of temptation is to at least open the door to the next stage of sin.

2. The Engagement of Desire – The text says, the woman saw the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise(Genesis 3:6).

Temptation is a thought that either occurs to us or is presented to us by another.If I were to say to you, “Why don’t we go down to the corner store and rob it?” I have simply presented you with an idea or proposed course of action, which may or may not appeal to you. Temptation of itself is merely a thought.

In the second stage of sin, the tempting thoughts of Satan stir up Eve’s desires.The fruit engages her sensual desires; it looks tasty and delights the eyes. It also engages her intellectual desires, for it has been described to her as a source of empowering wisdom.

Thus, temptation moves from being a mere thought to becoming a kind of force or power. Eve’s desires are engaged and ignited, making things more difficult. A purely intellectual response will not be enough; her will must be engaged so that her desires can be curbed and subject to truth and right reason. Either she will obey God (who has given her everything), and thus decide reasonably, or she will yield to temptation and desire by deciding to accept the proposal of Satan, who has given her nothing but an appeal to her sensuality and pride.

Again, note the silence of Adam. How tragic this is! Eve seems quite alone and without support. One would hope that in any marriage in which one spouse is struggling, the other would be strong. Adam remains silent; he is no leader. He seems to wait to see what his wife will do. Adam is a passive husband.

3. The Conception of Sin – The text simply says, she took of its fruit (Genesis 3:6). In reaching out to take hold of and possess this fruit, Eve conceives sin in her heart. Her husband will do the same thing, taking hold of it before he eats it.

What are they taking hold of? Several things.

First, there is a colossal pride. Satan said, “You will be gods.” Now, Adam and Eve are laying hold of and thinking about this idea. They are laying hold of the prideful and rebellious notion that “I will do what I want to do and I will decide whether it is right or wrong. I will be under no one’s authority. I will do as I please. I answer to no one. I am god.”

They also sin against gratitude. God has given them everything, but even paradise is not enough; they want more. Ungratefully, they reject God. They turn to Satan, who promises more, but has delivered nothing.

Finally, and most problematically, they sin against trust. Note that the tree is called “The Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil.” In the Bible, “knowing” refers to more than simple intellectual knowing; it means knowing something by experience. Thus, in naming this tree “The Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil” and commanding them to stay away from it, God is saying, in effect,

“I am asking you to trust me to tell you what is good and what is evil and not to demand to know this personally for yourselves. I want you to trust me and to trust that I tell you this for your own good. If you take from that tree, you are insisting on knowing for yourself what is good and what is evil, and more importantly, you are insisting on knowing and experiencing evil.”

Adam and Eve refuse to trust God by insisting on knowing (experiencing) for themselves the difference between good and evil. The Catechism describes original sin in this manner:

Man, tempted by the devil, let his trust in his Creator die in his heart and, abusing his freedom, disobeyed God’s command. This is what man’s first sin consisted of. All subsequent sin would be disobedience toward God and lack of trust in his goodness (CCC # 397).

So, we see that at the heart of original sin (and all other sin) is a refusal to trust God and His infinite goodness and it is an abuse of our freedom. All of this has been conceived in the hearts of Adam and Eve as they lay hold of this fruit.

4. The Birth of Sin – Little needs to be said of this stage: the sin is engaged. Note that Eve eats first and then entices her husband to do so as well. I will discuss this topic further in Monday’s post, in which I will reflect on St. Paul’s commentary on the “Sin of Adam.” For today, suffice it to say that the sins of Adam and Eve are described somewhat differently. Eve is described as being deceived while Adam is described as being, in effect, seduced. Neither of them is without blame, but the nature of their temptation and the way in which their desires are engaged is different.

5. Spiritual Death – Adam and Eve do not immediately die a physical death; rather, they die spiritually. This is symbolized in many ways in the verses ahead.

As they become aware of their nakedness, they feel exposed, no longer innocent.They feel vulnerable and ashamed. Righteousness and integrity have died in their hearts. They are now “dis-integrated” and disoriented, turned away from God and turned in on themselves.

Most seriously, they are cut off from God, who is the source of life. When God walks through the garden at the usual time, they do not run to Him, but from Him; they are afraid. Having died spiritually and embraced the darkness, they now fear Him who is Life and Light. They cannot endure His presence.

Recriminations follow and then prophecy of suffering, strife, and ultimately death; the wages of sin is death. Had they been willing to trust Him, God would have spared them of this, but Adam and Eve wanted to know for themselves. Mysteriously, they sought a “better deal” than paradise, even knowing that its price would be death—so tragic, foolish, and horrifying!

Too often, original sin is reduced to the mere eating of a piece of fruit. In fact, far more was at stake and far more was going on beneath the surface in the subtleties of the story. There were many moving parts and numerous layers to the sad reality we call original sin.

Cross-posted at the Catholic Standard: The Anatomy of Original Sin