Leaving Home, Returning Home
One of the greatest stories ever told is the story of a man trying to go home again. He’d been off fighting in the greatest war of his age, but now his biggest challenge lay ahead of him: getting home. His name was Ulysses, and his story is told in Homer’s great work, The Odyssey.
Ulysses’ problem is not merely that he didn’t know the way. It’s that somehow, having left, the world had gotten bigger. The obstacles had become harder (would he outwit the Cyclops or become his dinner?). The choices had become more agonizing (would he lose his entire ship to Charybdis or just a few men to Scylla?). And the temptations had become stronger (not just Sirens, but the beautiful Calypso tempting him to abandon home altogether). At several points in the story, you wonder if Ulysses will ever make it back. Not only that, will he find his wife and his son, his home and his kingdom, as he left them? Most important of all, will they find him the same man he was when he left 20 years before?
2500 years later, that story still resonates with us. Despite all of the advances in technology, medicine, and knowledge which have added to our “quality of life,” deep down the feeling that we live out our lives in a place which is habitable, but finally inhospitable, is as inescapable to moderns as it was to the ancient Greeks. As Thomas Wolfe famously wrote, “What befalls man is a tragic lot. There is no denying this in the final end. But we must deny it all along the way. Mankind was fashioned for eternity.” Fashioned for eternity, and yet we find ourselves here, in a world that—for all its beauty—is savagely cruel and unforgiving. We sense that this world is not the way it’s supposed to be, and yet we cannot figure out what happened, or how to fix it. All the while we know that Wolfe’s conclusion was right, that even with great effort “you can’t go home again.” We’re not even sure where home is.
This story of leaving home and needing but not knowing how to get back again resonates with us because it’s a story far older than Homer’s epic poem, and far more personal than Wolfe’s novel. It’s older, because it’s a part of The Story, the narrative God tells of his actions and words that stretches from the beginning of history to its very end. It’s more personal because it’s our story, yours and mine. It’s the story of the restlessness, the longing, that just won’t go away no matter how good life gets.
A few months back we began a series of articles on biblical theology. The purpose of these articles is to understand the Bible as a single divinely inspired narrative, a revelation of God’s purpose and plan for humanity that unfolds in time and space. If you missed the first article, which introduced the series as a whole, you might find it helpful to start there. That article was about creation and can be found here. This month, we want to look at the problem that stands at the heart of the biblical story, what Christian theologians refer to as the Fall. As we consider the entire story of the Bible from this perspective, I hope we will understand better not only our own condition—what it means that we have all truly left home—but also how we can actually make it back again.
THE STORY OF THE FALL
The story of the Fall begins in Paradise. God has created Adam and Eve and he has put them in a perfect world in order to be a reflection of his glory. He’s provided them with everything that they need. He’s given them meaningful, enjoyable, and satisfying work. He’s given them each other. And he has established them as rulers over all creation under him. In fact, there’s only one limit he has placed upon their freedom and authority. There is one tree in the Garden of Eden—the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil—that they are not to eat from. Into this setting comes Satan inhabiting the body of a serpent. He tempts Adam and Eve to do the one thing that they are not to do, to eat from this forbidden tree. Incredibly, they fall for his scheme and choose to disobey God. In doing so, they fall from a state of blamelessness before God and each other into a state of shame, disgrace, and moral condemnation.
Immediately everything changes. Because of their decision to rebel, God judges Adam and Eve. Life will be filled with pain, toil, and sadness. What’s more, they are kicked out of Paradise and exiled from their home. No temporary banishment, an angel wielding a flaming sword is put at the entrance of the Garden to make sure that they will never return alive. But their physical expulsion is just the prelude to a far more profound exile that will affect not only them, but all of their descendants. We who were created to live forever–fashioned for eternity, as Wolfe put it–are subject to the eternal exile of death.
At this point, many in our culture want to put the story down. They react against the story because it seems to present a picture of a mean and petulant God who is overreacting to what amounts to catching his children with their hands in the cookie jar. Men called to preach and teach this story need to be prepared for that reaction and ask people to withhold judgment. It’s only as the story unfolds and the magnitude of this rebellion becomes clear that God’s curse is vindicated.
As the story proceeds, we find that the consequences of Adam and Eve’s rebellion are even more profound than at first appeared. Children are born, but not in innocence. Adam and Eve’s very nature has been corrupted and twisted. Augustine described it as a “turning in on itself,” so that now human nature no longer reflects God’s glory but only its own cramped sense of self. And that nature, along with the guilt it earns, is passed on to their children. And so the Fall didn’t simply happen and we move on. Rather it continues and deepens as creation succumbs to death and decay. As W. B. Yeats famously said and as Chinua Achebe illustrated, “things fall apart, the center does not hold.” Satan had managed to murder the souls of Adam and Eve. Now Cain actually murders his brother Abel. Satan had managed to drive a wedge between Adam and Eve as they each blame the other for their predicament. A few generations later, Lamech abandons any pretense at marital union, and takes for himself two wives. Cain murdered out of jealous passion, Lamech murders for a mere injury. And so it goes, until humanity’s wickedness had become so great that “every inclination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil all the time” (Gen 6:5). God decides he must finally judge the very men and women he had created in his own image.
God sends the Flood to destroy humanity, sparing only Noah and his family, and the world gets a fresh start. It would seem that Noah is a new Adam who gets to “try again” in a freshly scrubbed world. The only problem is that Noah and his family still have the fallen nature they inherited from Adam. Once again the progress of sin picks up right where it left off. Eventually humanity is back where they stood on the eve of the Flood. This time the object of their evil intent is not so much violence against each other but against God, as they attempt to establish their utter and complete independence, as symbolized in the Tower of Babel. Once again God judges humanity, this time not by destroying it but by frustrating it. In Genesis 11 humanity’s language is confused, dividing us from one another. God scatters humanity across the face of the earth and so frustrates our idolatrous designs.
In this context of division, frustration, futility, and death, God calls out for himself a special people. Beginning with Abraham, God separates from the mass of humanity a people of his very own. This people–a corporate Adam–are to be called by his name. They are to obey him and know him as their God. But even here the Fall continues to make itself felt. Lot and his family choose the wickedness of Sodom and Gomorrah over the godly society of Abraham. Esau chooses the comforts of this world rather than the promises of God. Finally, even after God has rescued the nation of Israel from slavery in Egypt and brought them into the edenic Promised Land, the nation of Israel choose first to worship God in the form of idols, and then eventually to abandon God altogether for the idols.
What Israel did corporately, her kings did representatively. Israel demanded a king in order to be like the nations that did not know God, and their first king, Saul, proved to be worthy of their desires. A later king, Solomon, began well, but his heart was eventually turned to idols through loyalty to his foreign wives. Jeroboam, the first king of the northern kingdom, deliberately set up idolatrous worship to weaken the ten tribes’ loyalty to Jerusalem. Ahaz, king of the southern kingdom Judah, demonstrated where his loyalties lay by building a copy of the altar to Baal in Damascus and setting it up inside Israel’s Temple.
In response to this, God repeatedly visited his own people with judgment. In a replay of Genesis 11 and Genesis 3, God first divides them and then finally kicks them out, exiling them from the Promised Land. Seventy years later, the southern kingdom of Judah returns from exile, but it’s clear that her spiritual exile continues. God does not re-inhabit the rebuilt Temple, and the Holy of Holies stands empty. Eventually, even the prophets fall silent. At the end of the Old Testament, God’s visible people seem no better off than the Gentiles. Both alike stand under threat of God’s judgment. In fact, the final words of the Old Testament are an echo of Genesis 3, warning that God will come and strike the land with a curse.
As the New Testament opens a new prophet, John the Baptist, appears on the scene and picks up where Malachi left off, warning the people of the judgment that is to come. But it would seem that no one is listening. God sends his own Son, Jesus, who leads a life of perfect love and perfect obedience, a life that should have offended no one. But humanity has become so wicked that now Jew and Gentile plot together to put to death the only man who never deserved to die. Together they nailed him to a tree, a cross, and they declared that their only king was Caesar.
That was two thousand years ago. Since then, humanity’s corruption and evil has known wider scope and greater efficiency. But nothing has really changed. All the wars, including the ones going on now, all the assaults and murders, the slavery, the genocides that have repeatedly marked the last hundred years, the exploitation of women and children for purposes of sexual gratification, even the cruel indifference of the rich for the poor, all of that has just been commentary on that first rebellious declaration of independence from God.
What will be the end of the Fall? What will be the end of this story? Another prophet named John, the apostle John, tells us. In Revelation 18 we see the final Fall, a day yet in the future when this world will fall under God’s final judgment, never to rise again. On that day, all those who throughout history who persisted in their rebellious declaration of independence, who chose to worship idols rather than God, will be left outside of heaven, and the tormented anguish of their exile in hell will last for eternity.
THE CAUSE OF THE FALL
There is perhaps no more difficult question about the story of the Fall, nor more often asked by both Christian and non-Christian, than who or what caused it. On the one hand, we want to know who to blame. On the other hand, we want to make sure we’re not. The Bible doesn’t tell us everything we’d like to know about the Fall’s cause, but it does make two things clear that challenge how we understand both the world and ourselves.
First, the Fall was instigated by Satan’s malice and deception. The Bible doesn’t tell us a lot about Satan, other than that he is a fallen angel, and therefore a creature himself. Though a powerful, supernatural being, he’s not God’s opposite number, God’s evil twin. As a creature, his power is limited. But that power is real, and it was used to devastating effect in the Garden of Eden. The apostle Peter describes him as a “roaring lion, seeking whom he may devour.” In Genesis 3, where Satan first shows up on the scene, we’re told of his craftiness and cunning. We witness him lie, manipulate, and deceive in order to frustrate, if he can, God’s good purposes by precipitating humanity’s downfall into death. From the beginning the Bible makes clear that Satan has an implacable hostility towards God and an unending hatred for humanity.
One of the things we need to understand is that we do not live in a spiritually neutral universe. This world and our lives are a battlefield, not a playground. True to his form as a liar from the beginning, Satan would deceive us into thinking that nothing is really amiss, at least nothing that we can’t take care of ourselves. He would deceive us into thinking that we’re better off without God, that our best interests are served by pursuing our own desires and enlarging our liberty from anything that would restrict us from meeting those desires and fulfilling them. But Satan was lying on that day when he deceived Adam and Eve, and he is still lying. Satan intends, not our freedom, but our enslavement. He doesn’t intend to enhance our lives, he intends to hasten our death. He means to murder us, both body and soul, and to drag us down with him in his own condemnation. In our teaching and preaching, we need to expose the false sense of peace that this world offers, peace through pleasure or wealth or autonomy. That peace is not the peace of Paradise, but the peace of the morgue.
We should also consider well the Bible’s warnings that Satan would deceive even the elect if he could. It’s not just non-Christians that hear Satan’s lies. Christians also hear lies: lies about the gospel, about God, about the world, about the church and fellow Christians, about themselves. We need to train our ears, and the ears of our people, to listen for the truth and to hold on to sound teaching. Our ears need to be saturated with the Bible and our minds shaped by the worldview the Bible creates, so that we will recognize the lie when it’s whispered softly and sweetly in our ear.
Second, not only was the Fall instigated by Satan, it was also freely chosen by Adam and Eve. The Scriptures are achingly clear on who is finally responsible for the disaster we are in. Satan may have lied, but no one forced Adam and Eve to eat that illicit meal. This is what makes their sin so heinous and earns such lasting and devastating consequences. You and I sin in part because it is our nature to sin. We’re also surrounded by a corrupt and corrupting world. But not so Adam and Eve. They were standing in the middle of Paradise. They lacked nothing, and everything around them testified that Satan was lying and God was good and to be trusted. For the first and the last time in history, there in the Garden, humans sinned in utter freedom.
Many are tempted to blame God for the mess this world is in. I understand the feeling, but we need to know that according to Scripture, that is just another one of Satan’s subtle lies. Adam and Eve were created in such a way that they were able to say no to sin and Satan’s temptation. They had every natural help and aid you could want. They were standing in Paradise. They had each other. They had a clear, unequivocal, simple command from God. It wasn’t hard to understand. No, there is nothing gained by trying to turn the tables and shift the blame to God. We’re in this mess because the finest examples of the human race ever to draw breath made an utter and complete hash of it. It’s only arrogance that whispers, “If I had been there, I would have done better. I would have chosen different.”
As Christians, this realization should lead us to a profound humility. Too often we are rightly accused of self-righteousness and arrogance. But we of all people should know better. We are in this mess because we put ourselves there. When we witness someone else’s sin, we know as Luther said, “There but for the grace of God, go I.” Understanding the Fall should produce humble Christians.
Ultimately the Fall resulted from Adam and Eve’s idolatrous desires. The telling phrase is Genesis 3:6. “When the woman saw that the fruit of the tree was good for food and pleasing to the eye, and also desirable for gaining wisdom, she took some and ate it. She also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate it.” Wasn’t there any other fruit in the Garden that was good for food and pleasing to the eye? Of course there was, on every single tree. But Adam and Eve chose to eat from this tree because they believed Satan’s lie. Satan had said to them, “if you eat of this tree, then your eyes will be opened and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” There’s the cause of the Fall. Not content to be mere creatures; not content to be the highest of all creatures, ruling over God’s creation; not content to have a mere relationship with God, reflecting back to God his glory, Adam and Eve desired to be like God. In other words, Adam and Eve desired to be beside God as his peer, indeed, they desired to be gods themselves.
The Bible calls this idolatry: the substitution of the creature for the Creator as the object of our loyalty, desire, and worship. It’s not that Adam and Eve were hungry or deprived or ignorant. Plain and simple, it’s that they weren’t God and they decided they wanted to be. They wanted to set their own rules, be their own authority, and pursue their own glory. It was an act of self-worship, and therefore an act of utter and complete rebellion against God, the One who alone is to be worshipped and obeyed.
Like Adam and Eve, most of the time the final object of our worship isn’t some creature out there, it’s this creature right here. In the end my idolatry centers on me. What’s more, if I can persuade you or bully you or manipulate you, my idolatry will include you worshiping me as well.
Here is why God’s judgment of sin is not the irrational over-reaction of a hot-headed parent. As long as we think of sin as simple rule-breaking we will never understand the enormity of sin, the incredible offense that it gives to God, and the justness of his response. Fundamentally, sin is not a matter of our behavior, though it eventually shows up in our actions. Fundamentally, sin is a matter of our hearts, for as fallen creatures our ruling desire is to remove God from his throne and to sit there instead. Were it not so devastatingly real, it would be laughable, like a child playing dress-up in his father’s closet. Were it not so evil it would be pathetic, like Don Quixote tilting at windmills. But idolatry is neither laughable nor pathetic, for its effects are devastating, and its course is terrifying. Sin is no trifling matter. There is no more deadly lie that Satan would have you believe.
THE EFFECTS OF THE FALL
What effects have come from the Fall? The immediate and most obvious effect is that humanity was banished from God’s presence. This is what it means that Adam and Eve were expelled from the Garden and exiled into a world that had turned hostile.
The Bible is clear in its testimony that God is a holy God. He can neither tolerate sin in his presence nor can he allow sin to go unpunished. So Adam and Eve are expelled from his presence in the Garden of Eden and a flaming sword prevents their re-entry. This scene of sinners being expelled from God’s presence lest they be utterly destroyed is repeated again and again as the Bible tells the story of the Fall. In Exodus 32, God has rescued Israel from slavery in Egypt and Moses is on Mt. Sinai, receiving God’s word for the benefit of God’s people. And what do the people do? They immediately turn from worshipping God as he would be worshiped and instead make for themselves idols! In response, Moses calls the Levites to his side at the gate of the camp. The camp of the Israelites was to be a holy place, a veritable moving Garden of Eden. But just as sin had entered the Garden of Eden, so it had invaded the camp. Recalling Genesis 3, Moses tells his brother Levites to strap swords to their sides and to go throughout the camp executing God’s judgment.
What follows is the banishment. We see it in the very architecture of the Tabernacle and the Temple. Both were signs of God’s presence with his people, but also signs of his separation from him lest they come into his presence and be destroyed. Only one man could ever really go into the presence of God in the Holy of Holies, and that only once a year. Later Jewish literature tells us they tied a rope to him so that they could drag out his dead body, should God in justice break out against that man’s sin.
The effect of sin is to cut us off from God, to banish us from heaven. It’s not that sin requires God to engage in some moral calculus, to see if our good outweighs our bad. It’s that at this very moment our sin requires God to patiently restrain himself, lest he justly destroy his rebellious creatures. And he will not always exercise such restraint.
People are not helped if our churches and preaching allow them to think of God as they would like to think of him. What they need is to think of God as he really is, a holy God who judges sin justly. This is why the New Testament takes so seriously the character of our fellowship in the local church. Paul asks in 2 Corinthians 6:14, “[W]hat do righteousness and wickedness have in common? Or what fellowship can light have with darkness?” It’s not that Paul didn’t want believers to talk to unbelievers. Quite the contrary. In every conversation, in every interaction, in every encounter, he wanted unbelievers to see the difference between the church and the world, so that God’s character would be accurately displayed and known.
Banishment from God’s presence is not the only effect of the Fall. We are also corrupted in our nature. The Bible is clear that the problem of sin is not fundamentally one of behavior or education. No, it is far more radical. The problem is our heart. The Psalmist said in Psalm 51 that we are conceived in iniquity and born in sin (Ps 51:5). We come out of the womb as sinners. Jeremiah warns that the heart is “deceitful above all things and desperately corrupt” (Jer. 17:9). We aren’t sinners because we sin; we sin because we are by nature sinners!
This does not mean that the Bible teaches we are as bad as we could be. But it does mean that there is no aspect of our lives, no aspect of our thinking, desires, or behavior that is untouched by the stain of sin. Even our best deeds, says Isaiah, are as filthy rags since they come from hearts that are committed to our own glory rather than God’s (Is 64:6). That means that, unlike Adam and Eve, when you and I sin we are doing just what comes naturally to us. It is our nature. As Jesus said, “out of the overflow of the heart, the mouth speaks” (Matt. 12:34). This in no way excuses our sin; we can’t say “I have to sin. I have no choice.” But it does mean that we should abandon the notion that we are basically good people who have just lost our way. Paul tells us in Ephesians 2 that we are dead in sin; he tells us in Romans that we are by nature objects of wrath. When we sin, we are simply proving ourselves to be the children of Adam, chips off the old block.
This also helps us understand what the Bible means when it says we are slaves to sin, which is an image that Paul uses in Romans 6 and 7. Some people are fond of debating whether or not we have free will. The Bible’s answer is that it depends on what you mean by “free.” If by “free” you mean that we do what we want to do, that nothing forces us to believe or to act against our will, then the Bible’s answer is “yes.” Our wills are always free to act in accord with their nature. But if by “free” you mean that somehow our wills are morally neutral and above the fray, able to choose between good and evil on their own merits, independent of predisposition or motive, then the answer is a clear and unequivocal “no.” Our nature is corrupted and, as Paul says, we are sold as slaves to sin. We can no more choose not to be sinners than a fish can choose not to be a swimmer. It’s our nature.
Therefore we need more than a self-help program. We need something far more radical than a make-over that helps us straighten out our lives. All those things do is make for prettier, more presentable slaves. What we need is freedom. We need a nature that is freed from the corruption and bondage of sin. We can no more fix ourselves than a slave can free himself. A slave must be freed, and so must we.
This has profound implications for everything from our evangelism and preaching to our understanding of the Christian life. It means that conversion is a work of the Holy Spirit, changing our nature, not the result of a seeker making a decision. It means that real Christians have a new nature that results in their lives looking different than the world around them, because this nature says no to sin. It also means that the Christian life is a life of conflict, as the new nature battles against the old. The Bible calls these two natures the old man and the new man, and they are in deadly conflict with one another. I think often we grow discouraged that this war continues, but what we need to understand is that this war is not going on in the heart of someone who has not been born again. Conflict with sin is one of best evidences that someone has been given spiritual life. This is Paul’s point in Romans 7. Rather than pretending there is no struggle, our churches should be places that encourage this conflict. Rather than shooting the wounded, our churches should be places that bind up those who are injured in the fight. Above all, our churches should be communities that hold out the hope of Christ, who alone can free us from these bodies of death.
THE PROGRESS OF THE FALL
One of the biggest mistakes we can make about the Bible’s story of the Fall is to think of it merely as a tragic historical event that happened in the past, analogous to the Christmas tsunami of 2004 but with biblical proportions. The problem with this way of thinking is that we are accustomed to picking up and recovering from setbacks. It took a while and a lot of effort, but Chicago was rebuilt after the fire of 1871, and the same will be true of Banda Aceh, Indonesia after the 2004 tsunami. But the Fall is not simply a tragedy that happened. While certainly an historical event, the Fall is also an on-going reality that continues to develop and affect our lives. Like a disease that begins at a point in time, but then progresses and runs its course, so the Fall has a trajectory, a goal that it has not yet reached. And if we’re ever to wake up from the deadly illusion that the worst is past, we must understand the course of the Fall.
To begin with, the Fall is progressive, not static. This is one of the reasons the story of the Fall is important. As we move from Cain’s initial murder of passion, to Lamech’s casual homicide, to the culture of violence among the men of Noah’s day, we see that things get worse. They don’t stay the same, and they don’t get better. But not only is the progression of sin and the Fall writ large on human history, it is writ small in the human heart. As Paul says in Romans 6, our slavery to sin leads us to give our bodies to ever-increasing wickedness. Paul puts it this way in Romans 1:21: “For although they knew God, they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him, but their thinking became futile and their foolish hearts were darkened.” And then three times in devastating succession Paul says, “Therefore God gave them over in the sinful desires of their hearts to sexual impurity”; “Because of this God gave them over to shameful lusts”; “Furthermore, since they did not think it worthwhile to retain the knowledge of God, he gave them over to a depraved mind, to do what ought not to be done.”
At this moment, none of us are as bad as we could be. But left to ourselves without either the restraining hand of God or the grace of Jesus Christ in the gospel, sin will take its course in our lives. It never goes backwards. It always goes forward, because the Fall has a goal. And that goal is our death and eternal condemnation. Sin will lead you and me to ever-more and ever-increasing wickedness. It’s one of the reasons addiction is such a powerful force and such a powerful image of sin. By definition, addiction is never satisfied. It always wants more. Idolatry is like addiction. Idolatry never delivers on its promises, but like an addiction it simply says, “Try again…and a little bit more. Maybe this time, you’ll be satisfied.” Like the addict left alone with his addiction, it is a terrifying thing to be left alone by God in our sin, for our sin, so tame now, means to devour us.
This is one of the reasons that God gave us law, to restrain sin in its relentless progress. As believers, we should not be afraid of the law. Though we can wrongly use the law to attempt to commend ourselves to God, we can also receive the law as a good gift from God. Having been set free from sin’s power by the gospel, the law no longer condemns us, but shows us how to live lives that reflect God’s holy character. As preachers, we need to do more than use the law to drive people to Christ. We also need to teach the law so that Christians will know how to live in a lawless and godless world.
Even as citizens, we should not be afraid of or opposed to the enactment and exercise of law, and as Christian citizens we should actively promote good laws. Romantics like Rousseau and his modern heirs, whether on the liberal left or libertarian right, are flat wrong. The state of nature is not closer to the state of innocence. Rather, the state of nature is closer to the state of viciousness and brutality. God has given us law to restrain that progress. So as Paul reminds us in Romans 13, government and its laws are a good gift from God, to reward what is right and to restrain what is evil.
But though the Fall is progressive, it will not progress forever. The day will come when the Fall is punished. Because sin is never satisfied, but always clamors for more, sin is ultimately provoking to a holy God. God describes himself to Moses as patient and merciful. But as Peter warns us in 2 Peter 3, we should not mistake God’s patience for indifference. God also says that “He will by no means leave the guilty unpunished.” Despite what we might like to think, the course of the Fall does not end in rehabilitation or gradual reform as things get better and better. According to Revelation 18, the Fall comes to the final end it deserves.
Jesus says that the Day of Judgment has already been set in the mind of God, and the vision of that day revealed in Revelation 18 is terrible. Pictured as a great city, sinful creation falls under God’s judgment never to rise again. Repeatedly the chapter echoes the phrase “never…again.” Music “will never be heard in you again.” Workmen “will never be found in you again.” Light “will never shine in you again.” Bride and Bridegroom “will never be heard in you again.” So final and so complete is this vision of judgment that the angel declares the city itself “will never be found again.”
Not only final, this judgment will be just. The same chapter tells us that God will remember the crimes of this idolatrous world and he will repay her for her crimes. He will give to each of us exactly what we are due. In its attempt to describe this awful day of God’s vengeance, of his retributive judgment, the Bible uses various images: outer darkness, endless weeping and gnashing of teeth, a lake of fire, eternal death. What is clear in all of these images is that the justice of God’s judgment is expressed in the unending punishment he inflicts. The offense of sin against an infinite and eternal God is an infinite offense. The punishment it deserves therefore justly never ends.
Here then is the mistake of thinking of the Fall as simply something that happened back in the past. The story of the Fall is a story of despair, like an incurable disease that leads inexorably to a painful death or like madness that drives it’s victim ever further from sanity and reason. Left to ourselves, it is our story; the story of our past, but also the story of our never ending future. In our preaching and teaching, we may find it more comfortable to downplay this aspect of the Fall. No one likes to think of loved ones in torment for ever. But ignoring the truth does not make it go away. It simply leaves eternal souls unmotivated and unequipped to deal with questions of eternal consequence.
THE CURE FOR THE FALL
When we understand the story of the Fall (and not until then), we understand why the message of Christianity is good news. In the gospel, God has accomplished a cure for the Fall, a rescue from this horrifying, accelerating descent in to hell.
Jesus is the Fall’s cure. In Matthew 4, we see something absolutely extraordinary. The Son of God has become a man. Like unfallen Adam, Jesus was not born in sin, but was conceived directly by the Holy Spirit. Also like unfallen Adam, Jesus is called to obey God in the face of incredible Satanic assault. But that’s where the similarities with Adam end. Whereas Adam stood in Paradise with a full stomach, Jesus stood in the desert of our exile from God with a stomach shrunken by 40 days of fasting. Whereas Adam had the help of a wife, Jesus stood alone. Whereas Adam had a single command to obey, Jesus had the whole law to keep and fulfill.
Beginning there in the desert and continuing all the way to Calvary, Jesus did what Adam failed to do. He resisted Satan’s temptation to exalt himself on his own terms, whether that was to turn stones into bread, or to come down from the cross. Jesus freely chose to obey God, even to the point of death (John 10:18). “Not my will but yours be done,” he said. Unlike Adam, he did not pursue his own glory, but laid that aside in order to glorify his Father. The irony is deep and rich. Unlike Adam, Jesus was in very nature God. He had every right to pursue his glory! But as Paul tell us in Philippians 2:6, Jesus “did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness.” And then, as a servant Jesus suffered the judgment of God. He did not deserve this judgment. Instead, he suffered it on behalf of those who did.
Jesus faced God’s flaming sword, guarding the way back into the Garden and the presence of God, and he walked through it at the cost of his own life. He did this so that any who repent of their idolatry and turn in faith to Christ might find forgiveness for sins and reconciliation with God. He did it in order to be able to welcome us back home. Paul says in Romans 5: “If the many died by the trespass of the one man, how much more did God’s grace and the gift that came by the grace of the one man, Jesus Christ, overflow to the many!” That gift is the opposite of the curse: forgiveness instead of condemnation, life instead of death, reconciliation instead of exile.
At the end of John’s vision in the book of Revelation, we see an incredible picture of the mercy that is found even in the judgment of God. In Revelation 22:12, Jesus says, “Behold I am coming soon! My reward is with me, and I will give to everyone according to what he has done.” Given the story of the Fall, that doesn’t sound like good news. But he goes on. “I am the Alpha and the Omega, the First and the Last, the Beginning and the End. Blessed are those who wash their robes, that they may have the right to the tree of life and go through the gates into the city.” On the day that Adam and Eve rebelled, the Son of God, the Alpha and the Omega, was there. And in the counsel of the Trinity, this determination was made. “The man has now become like one of us, knowing good and evil. He must not be allowed to reach out his hand and take also from the tree of life and eat, and so live forever.” And so Adam and Eve were banished and the flaming sword was put in place.
There is much about that verse we don’t understand, but at least this much is clear. God’s decision to prevent Adam and Eve from eating of the Tree of Life was not only judgment, it was also mercy. To live forever as an unredeemed sinner is surely the definition of hell. With that act of banishment, God forestalled hell for the creatures he’d made. Throughout the rest of history, God continues to act in judgment with mercy in view, for his temporal judgments restrain his people from provoking him beyond measure, and so bringing the story to a premature conclusion. Ultimately, Revelation teaches us that the Son of God placed a sword at the entrance to the Garden of Eden, not just to keep Adam out, but so that at just the right time, he could walk through instead, in place of sinners like you and me. Having faced and satisfied the sword of God’s judgment on the cross for us, Jesus now invites us to enter back in, to go through the gate and eat from the Tree of Life.
Christian, this is not your home. So stop living like it is. Live as one whose citizenship is in the heavenly city, the very Garden of God. Live as one who will one day walk through the gate of heaven itself. And in the mean time, tell people that they can go back home, if only they will find their home in Christ.