by ProfDave, ©2021
(Dec. 28, 2021) — We come to the third of the four mega-questions that every worldview must answer: origin, meaning, and now morality. How should we live? With sentience comes choices. Someone has said, “Mankind is the only animal that can blush – or needs to.” Other creatures operate by instinct, according to their nature. Mankind, not so much. Our natural instincts are weak and broken. We have the capability to go against our nature – routinely. We have ‘should’ and ‘ought’ in our vocabulary. We know guilt and shame. Almost daily we know what we ‘ought’ to do and don’t do it, what we ‘should’ not do and do it anyway. The faculty of conscience is hard-wired, though its content may be malleable. We discussed the existence of right and wrong in chapter 3. It’s a fact.
But how are we to make those moral choices? Do we go by our glandular secretions or override them? How do we know what is right and wrong, what we ‘should’ do – whether we actually do it or not? In a random, meaningless universe, there would be either no ‘should’ and ‘ought’ at all, or we would have to make up our own rules. Imagine a world in which every man would have to decide for himself whether rape was right or wrong? Hmmh. Sounds a bit like situation ethics. The powerful might enact and enforce laws that forbade sexual violence (except for themselves), but the consensus would depend on shifting balances of power and women would usually lose. A Christian worldview has a ready alternative: God.
A Christian worldview affirms a moral universe. We have a conscience, a moral faculty, because a moral law objectively exists. The moral question is inseparable from the origin question and the meaning question. There is a moral law Giver, a Creator who has built His law into the fabric of the cosmos – just as real as the laws of physics and even deeper. That law, in turn, is built upon the nature of God himself. When we make moral choices we are, in effect, choosing to accept or reject His nature – our ultimate relationship at the core of the meaning and purpose of our lives. This is huge.
Judeo-Christian revelation has a lot to say about moral law. From the Garden of Eden to the New Jerusalem the Bible is the story of the relationship between mankind and God. Obedience is second only to love in that story. Creation is the unilateral expression of divine agape – unconditional commitment love. Disobedience to divine guidelines is the human rejection of that love, setting up the dysfunction of the human condition. Moses explained it all 4000 years ago.
In the Christian worldview, morality is based on the origin and purpose of mankind. Our Maker built morality – a reflection of His nature – into the universe and our purpose determines what is right and wrong. You don’t use a screwdriver to slice apples.
The Paradigm of Eden
What does Judeo-Christian revelation have to say about right and wrong? Indulge me while I explore two paradigms given to Moses, the Garden of Eden and Mt. Sinai – and one more given by Jesus, the Sermon on the Mount. We do not know how much of the first chapters of Genesis was directly revealed by the Almighty and how much came from family records on clay tablets. The Eden account would be profoundly true even if it weren’t history, but it is represented as history – and is not at all impossible. Seals from Nineveh 3000 BC show a man, a woman, an erect snake, and a tree. The Gilgamesh Epic of Babylon has the same elements, though the story is different – and less meaningful. In any case, we see that the original nature of creation – fresh from the hand of God – was significantly different from what we see today. The first human pair knew only the good: perfect harmony with God, with each other and with nature. We do not see those harmonies today, do we? What happened?
Science tells us that the cosmos is a finely tuned system (does that sound random?) adjusted to impossible tolerances. Think piano or fine orchestra. Mankind is out of tune. We sound like a grade-school recorder choir. Call it evil. One instrument out of tune spoils the symphony. Moses addressed the origin of evil, so far as mankind and nature (at least on earth) is concerned. In their delegated autonomy, mankind had the option to cooperate with God in the governance of the planet or to rebel against Him, to love or to resist, to trust or to distrust. C. S. Lewis, in his Problem of Pain, explains how love could not be love unless a choice was made. Given the ideal conditions of the garden and the close relationship with God, a catalyst was necessary to make the choice real. There had to be a test. Hence the tree and the serpent (nachash in Hebrew – snake, crocodile, dragon or sea monster; implied Satan). How evil entered into that creature’s heart, Moses does not tell us.
Digression. What would it be like to be perfectly innocent? To love and trust God completely, to take Him at His word? To work with and for him freely and gladly, without hint of self-will? We are told that Adam was given the naming of the animals without any limitations. “You like the sound of cat? A cat it is!” They were companions of God and in harmony with nature. His glory was the only clothing they needed. I can’t remember such a state of innocence, can you?
The serpent was necessary for the opening wedge: doubt. “Has God said?” The correct answer would be, “Of course.” Only the serpent could think it odd, but Eve fell for it. While she tries to explain, the serpent sets the example of unbelief: to doubt the truth of the one who is Truth. This doubt was not intellectual (“Did we hear Him right?”) but bold treason. The implication is that God is deceiving mankind, that His interest in them is not honest.
Pretty absurd, when you think about it, to suppose that His purpose is not good for mankind. If God is not good, he is not God. You can’t trust Him. If Eve goes there, the companionship is finished, the harmony broken, and the innocence is gone. God is still who He is, but not for Eve. The Sovereignty of God over the cosmos does not run in Eve’s heart. Checkmate. The cosmos shorts out. The government of space and time unravels. God, who is Lord over every atom in Her brain, is forced to a) participate in rebellion against Himself, b) revoke her freedom or her existence on the spot, or c) die on a cross to heal the breach of love and justice. The angels hold their breath!
The ultimate temptation was and is, “you will be like God.” Our society is full of god-like choices – “I did it my way.” The first humans already were like God – made in His image, knowing/experiencing only good, walking with Him in perfect and free agreement. Why would you ever want to know/experience evil? Only the fallen (masochists) would be deluded enough to seek their own good by pushing The Good off the throne – of their own hearts, let alone of the universe. Yet this is exactly the choice Eve made! And we make it on a daily basis. Shirley MacLaine is just a little more outspoken about it than most.
By the time Eve reached for the fruit, she was already fallen. When she looked her goose was cooked. She died instantly, although she continued to lurch on like a spiritual zombie for decades (centuries?) to come. Something within was dead: the happy innocence, the joyful harmony, the at-one-ness with God and with Adam. Perhaps a measure of the grace of forgiveness would be given and a relationship with her Creator would begin again, but it would never be quite the same for her or for her children after her. This is the moral condition of mankind.
The truth is, not trusting God, humanity could no longer trust each other. Fig-leaves were just the beginning, the first expression of the profound alienation we experience from one another – even in a nudist colony. Adam became a potential predator and so did Eve. Fear entered the garden for the first time. God was dreaded. Human society is far from what it was meant to be. We can never go back, even if we cannot see the angel with the flaming sword guarding the garden.
—Then here comes God, walking in the garden in the cool of the day. He was there (and He is here) when it was hot and in the middle of the night, too. He is everywhere. All times are now and all places here to Him. But his habit (for how many days?) had been to walk with and converse with mankind audibly (and probably visibly) in the evenings. Adam and Eve had looked forward to those times, but now they feared the presence of the Holy. They hid. How we long for those special times. But we also fear them. We don’t want to get too close – because we too are naked.
“Adam, where are you?” God knew where he was and what he had done — had known before it happened. Pretty stupid, isn’t it, thinking that we can hide from God in a bush or in the dark or in the crowd or in the closet? He is looking over your shoulder as you read this. But the Omniscient wanted Adam (and Eve — and us) to admit where he (she and we) was (are) — to come out of denial. It was for them, not for God. If He had wanted to blast them, he never would have made them. But the sentence of death was already hanging over them: a spiritual death in alienation from God and a physical death beginning on the cellular level, separated from the tree of life.
Eve didn’t just steal a green apple. Adam didn’t just run a stop sign. She doubted the goodness of Goodness and the truthfulness of Truth. He set himself against the government of the cosmos. We don’t actually break the law of gravity, you know, we are broken by it. Here was revolution against the Authority that wrote the law of gravity. Something was broken, and it wasn’t God. To this day.
We know that Adam was fully human, nothing animal and nothing angelic about him, because he reacted just like us! Confronted by his guilt, his hand in the cookie jar and crumbs all over his face, he tried to pass the buck. But it is even worse. He had the temerity to blame God for his sin: “the woman you gave me . . . !” Calvin agreed with him, but I do not. Knowing Adam’s choice (even from eternity) God did not make his choice for him, although freedom to choose was unquestionably a gift of God. Incidentally, Adam was far freer than we are: he could choose to remain innocent, we, apparently, cannot.
So Adam blamed Eve (and God) and Eve blamed the snake, and the snake didn’t have a leg to stand on when God’s righteous sentence was handed down. But notice that God held all three responsible. All creation – including the snake – had been blessed of God. Everything was good. But now evil had been introduced and the blessing became a curse. The nature of the creature is to find its fulfillment in the Creator’s purpose. Service to mankind had been the purpose of all flora and fauna, but under the curse the serpent – and all similar creatures – are subjected to special humiliation and loathing by mankind. Once the fear and distrust came between God and mankind, it also came between mankind and beast. The harmony of nature was broken.
God had blessed the union of man and woman to be complementary and fruitful, so as to fill the earth with their children. Now that evil has broken the trust between Eve and God, marriage is ruined by male domination, mutual misunderstanding and deception. Children would bring women pain (and men, less literally) as well as pleasure. The day has now come when children are a burden and an inconvenience. And because we have lost our harmony with nature, we think that filling the earth with them is actually a bad thing! We have Eve to thank for that?
God had blessed the soil and the work of the garden. Man’s (and women’s, too) alienation from God alienated him from the soil, too. Nature resists our dominion, even as we resist God’s. Every gardener knows that weeds grow better than crops. It was not always so. Work became dangerous, uncomfortable, difficult, tedious. Chances are, if you have an easy and satisfying job, it doesn’t pay enough to feed you! Alternatively, jobs that pay well are unpleasant, stressful, and/or require long years of arduous preparation. We have Adam to thank for that?
And finally, mankind is cut off from the Tree of Eternal Life. God is the source of life and shalom (well-being). The Tree was the other-natural source of whatever it was (an enzyme, perhaps?) that would have kept the human body going indefinitely. Alienated from God, they began to die. This was a mercy in disguise. What kind of misery could we get into if we lived indefinitely in wickedness? We have the serpent to thank for that?
David W. Heughins (“ProfDave”) is Adjunct Professor of History at Nazarene Bible College. He holds a BA from Eastern Nazarene College and a PhD in history from the University of Minnesota. He is the author of Holiness in 12 Steps (2020). He is a Vietnam veteran and is retired, living with his daughter and three grandchildren in Connecticut.