The Fall

Most Christians have always thought that at the Fall we fell comprehensively, though many don’t like the category of “total depravity.” But, as Cornelius Plantinga put it in his brilliant Not the Way It’s Supposed to Be, is there any doctrine more demonstrable by experience? Isn’t our messed-upness clear to each of us?

Maybe this will help us think of it anew: death itself shows that our bodies are broken and decaying and fallen; WW2 and Vietnam and international strife and international terrorism and family abuse and petty jealousies show that there is something cracked in the heart of humans; and does not the postmodernist push that even our knowledge is limited by who we are and where we are and what we ask evidence that even the mind is fallen?

Death reveals us our mortality, wars our distorted yearnings, and postmodernism our mental limitations.

About Scot McKnight

Scot McKnight is a recognized authority on the New Testament, early Christianity, and the historical Jesus. McKnight, author of more than forty books, is the Professor of New Testament at Northern Seminary in Lombard, IL.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/980193 Len

    But that argument from experience neglects another whole dimension of experience.. the self-sacrificial actions of a man like Gandhi, and for most of us, others we know personally who are not believers but who demonstrate great love.This is why, while there is much to admire about Reformed theology, when it comes to anthropology I choose the Anabaptists and Hans Dencks position: ein dopelerb. Man is fallen but retains his former glory, and has a twin nature that is truly good and truly fallen.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/8517534 hyperorbiter

    i also wonder about the idea that our sin masks our imago dei. if we weren’t at some level intrinsically good to make us worth all the effort of redemption, then why would God bother? and we need to answer that question without venturing into abstract ideologies of the nature of God’s love being incomprehensible : that actually ends up being a sort of argument from silence.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/6076304 simon

    John Gray, the non-Christian professor of European thought at London School of Economics, told an audience of Christians at the London Institute for Contemporary Christianity earlier this year that Christians ought to talk more about original sin because it was a key insight from Christian theology that made sense of our experience of the world.I don’t know whether this suggestion has appeared in print, though it might be in Gray’s Straw Dogs.I don’t think the Fall and original sin means that human beings are incapable of good, that people like Ghandi et al aren’t very impressive; just that all our good thoughts and actions are tarnished with selfishness and imperfection. We are a frustrating mixture of light and dark

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/6241739 Mark

    I’m pretty sure it isn’t so obvious as you seem to think since I could look at the world and live in it for a good many years and never make the connection to the junk out there (and in here, my own interior junk, so to speak) and anything like Adam and Eve eating some forbidden fruit.It’s a bit like growing up in a dysfunctional family… dad and mom drink, fight and yell at their child… and still the child grows up loving them and thinking that is simply normal. Sometimes, anyone who comes along and tells them that mom and dad aren’t such angels… well they might get the pop in the eye.

  • http://www.theoblogian.org Brian

    Given our mannifest messed-upness, we often don’t bother consider what the Bible actually says about the fall. It is easier to take a non-sequiter segue into pointing at all of the bad stuff man has done, is doing, and will do later on this evening.The Bible is explicit about the consequences of Adam’s sin. The serpent was cursed, the ground was cursed, man would have body odor, and child would be a pain in the neck. That may be a little flippant, but point to me where mankind is cursed. It is not there in the Genesis account. God explicitly curses two things, and they aren’t human. We should be careful about impugning God’s image or overstating the consequences of Adam’s sin.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/8111113 Scot McKnight

    Good comments, these.My comment has to do with the so-called idea of “total depravity,” and that it is a consequence of the Fall. And I’m thinking along with Cornelius van Til’s Not All It’s Supposed to Be, and my ideas are tracking with his on the fact that evidence exists that humans are messed up body, heart, and mind. And that postmodernism has brought each of us face to face with the limitation of the mind.The specific meaning of the curse of Genesis 3 is a slightly different issue.And I’m totally with Len on humans retaining the eikon of God and that God wants the eikons restored.

  • Anonymous

    Does all of this take into account that the imago Dei is simply a term for representation (as in being a representative)? It has nothing to do with goodness. Therefore even wicked men are created as the imago Dei, even though they do not use it for God’s glory and to represent His rulership as they were supposed to do. The question seems to be whether or not man still has any goodness left in him, and if so, his salvation is based on how good he is and how he uses that good part of himself to connect to God through faith. In the end then, Reformed theology and other views like the Anabaptist one are miles apart. One gives sole glory to God for salvation. The other gives most of the glory to God and saves a little praise for the human who used his “goodness” correctly. Is this Biblical?

  • http://homepage.mac.com/conrad.gempf/blog.html ConradGempf

    I told Zondervan that the time was ripe for Philip Yancey to write the sequel to What’s So Amazing about Amazing Grace?, to be called What’s So Original about Original Sin?

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/8517534 hyperorbiter

    i think it’s a little simplistic to say that imago dei is about being representatives. surely it is much more to do with the intrinsic make-up of being human. when God said ‘let us make humans in our image’ he’s talking about imbuing more than status, or function : he’s making our essence different to the rest of creation. we are created but distinct. this is what i think God is wanting to redeem. i agree with the idea that we are fractured by the fall, but that we are ‘very good’ (not in the moral sense, but in the appraisal sense) is still a vital part of what it means to be human. if we didn’t think it were possible to reclaim this, then i would suspect that the gospel would be less meaningful. I firmly believe that Jesus is disappointed by the tainting, the tarnishing, the black-washing of sin if you will, this is what the God head detests. but our essence is not totally depraved, our essence is lovable in a way that transcends sin.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/8111113 Scot McKnight

    In the history of this discussion some have turned “total” depravity into “scum” or some such level of depravity, but (as I understand it) “total” means that every part of who we are has been affected by the Fall. Indeed, we are God’s prized Eikons etc.

  • Anonymous

    The idea of the Fall is not a unique insight of Christianity but a common theme in cultures that located utopia in the past. The idea of the Fall has a social function that is often ignored in discussions of the Fall by Christians, though us atheists feel its force immediately: its purpose is control: “you are depraved and must submit”. I think many of the more liberal churches instinctively feel that, and shy away from a Fall-centered theology. It’s not a coincidence that theologies of humans-as-the-depraved are central to authoritarian, control-oriented fundamentalist versions of Christianity. I do not believe that the ethical dimensions of human behavior can be captured by simplistic two-value modes of God-stuff and sin-stuff. The idea of Original Sin may make sense of the world, but then so will any conspiracy theory that reduces things to everything to “things are because that’s the way they are.” Its explanatory power is illusory.V

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/8517534 hyperorbiter

    do you think that every part of who we are has been affected by the Fall? can this be proven? isn’t love that we choose and feel a purity that is actually against the fall? what about desire for faith, is that tainted too? a desire for redemption? (these are just queries, not polemic! i wish it could be discussed face to face so you don’t get the wrong idea).i agree that depraved is an unfortunate term, misleading in fact, but as anonymous above observes, it has served to control people well.i’m not at all keen on 5 point calvinism and i think it’s actually a counter productive way of framing the gospel in a po-mo context. i think calvinists in the fundamentalist camp tend to ignore the flow of narrative of the bible in favour of verses that support their structures. if we present the Jesus story as shown in the gospels, 5 point calvinism doesn’t really register there and yet the gospel writers figured that they were giving enough (not ‘all’ but ‘enough’ is for certain) information to provide ways to connect with the wonder of jesus’ life and ministry and cosmic office. the fall is a good starting point and regardless whether anonymous believes in it or not, at least it gets us all acknowledging that there is something fractured in this human project. even athiests figure evil into their cosmology.(BTW i’m enjoying this discussion very much indeed…)

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/6870910 Michael Turton

    Actually, I only posted as anon because I was at school…don’t like to leave my passwords in computers here.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/6870910 Michael Turton

    There IS something fractured in the human project, but I think it is rather like the Curse of Chalion (see book of same name by L M. Bujold), it turns all our attempted good to evil. LOL. Rather, we seem to be helpless ‘bots of our social and cultural programming, endlessly replaying the mistakes and errors, like abusers whose children also abuse. Perhaps the Fall is simply the inability to learn from our mistakes!*****can this be proven? isn’t love that we choose and feel a purity that is actually against the fall? what about desire for faith, is that tainted too? a desire for redemption?******I don’t believe humans are inherently evil; we just are. I’ve lived in Kenya and Taiwan, and traveled all over. The way I see it, we act in our self-interests in highly complex ways. To me the Fall is basically the counsel of despair — no matter what we do we’re doomed. Even getting Jesus is merely treating the symptom, turning the Fall into a cancer that goes into remission for the duration of our Jesus belief. But people can be taught. Look at the progress in human rights, women’s rights, democracy….all things that barely existed even 200 years ago. Is the Fall part of Jesus’ own beliefs, or is it part of the beliefs about Jesus?

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/8111113 Scot McKnight

    Michael,Good to have your thoughts. Short of a full-blown lengthy discussion about the Christian faith and how one knows and comes to faith, I would like to make a few observations for your consideration:First, yes, Jesus seemed to believe in the Fall — in Matthew 7:11, where Jesus is discussing making petitions to God the Father, he says, “If you, then, though you are evil…”. This text indicates that Jesus saw humans as “flawed” at some deep level. It may be said with utter fairness that anyone who lives in the narrative of the Bible (a pomo expression for believes in it), lives with the story of Adam and Eve as a story that reflects the reality of human’s as flawed.Hence, when you say its explanatory power is illusory I must say that it has helped millions over the years, and many of those it has helped have been recognizably intelligent folk. It is unfair to suggest that anyone who dwells in the Fall-Redemption narrative is in an illusion. We need to be more gracious to those around us.Second, it is quite easy to say that human use the Fall to control others, which is a commonplace among the neo-Marxist interpretations, but it is quite another to prove that humans are doing this. The neo-Marxist ideological hermeneutic has elements within it that explain some of the world I have experienced myself, but I find the turn toward the view that all things are about power and that every text, when interpreted, is done for the purpose of control to be nearly impossible to live with and simply impossible to demonstrate. I am sure that some I’ve heard wax eloquent on the Fall are deeply flawed persons who are actually using the text to control others rather than interrogate themselves. But, I’ve met so many fine people who seem (can we interpret others much beyond that unless we know them deeply?) to be persons who are vulnerable to the text, that let the text change them, and who are in other situations persons who consider themselves flawed and in need of some kind of grace for transformation.Third, I’m sure you are right to say that there is a lot of simplistic thinking in “God-stuff” and “sin-stuff,” but I’m also aware of some pretty level-headed and complex-thinkers who understand that both God and sin are highly complex and that when we try to get our minds around either we find ourselves limited. Whether we think of Augustine or even Leslie Atkinson’s Ten Theories of Human Nature, we are in the presence of intelligent people who know that the issues are highly complex.Fourth, I”m with you in seeing “goodness” in humans; humans do good things. Anyone who thinks the Fall destroys any vestige of goodness misses what the Christian and Jewish faiths have always said. This, too, is complex but I’m only responding to a smaller point you make.Fifth, can you explain a little more what you mean by saying we are not inherently evil but that we just are. Because as I read your last note, it seems you are pretty close to thinking that humans are flawed — and this is pretty close to what the Fall is all about.Sixth, and I’m sorry to go for so long here, I applaud what education has done, but nearly every postmodernist project will immediately claim back that it is in the most advanced of civilizations that the deepest of evils are perpetrated. But, perhaps you accept that and are singling out those who do transcend such evils when surrounded by them.Thanks Michael. Blessings on your day — and it appears you just might be in Taiwan.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/3254099 Michael Daling

    I really appreciate this discussion and everyone who is taking part. I know I am new to this discussion and this blog – and I am currently trying digest an absolutely enormous buffalo burger (and it was delicious), but I hope you will allow me to pose a questionor twoWouldn’t the point of original sin be, not having to do with loss of God’s image, but the fact that we are dead in transgression – and born this way? That just as Adam brought sin and death by his disobedience, that Jesus brings life? Also, what are we saying when we say good? Are we making a statement about the value of God’s creation, or a judgment on our own righteousness? I do realize that Hyperorbiter already addressed this, but any further discussion would be helpful to me. However, in the same post it was said that ‘I firmly believe that Jesus is disappointed by the tainting, the tarnishing, the black-washing of sin if you will, this is what the God head detests.’ While true, this is also reductionistic. There is far more than ‘dissappointment by the tainting…’ Sin has brought DEATH with it. Jesus gave (and gives) life. It is incredibly problematic to make the assertion that there is something within us that is worthy of God’s love. We simply aren’t. God loves because of His nature, not ours. The death and resurrection of Jesus did not just make what is evil into good. It brought we who were dead to life.If we are good (in and of ourselves) in any way in respect to righteousness, then why is there a definitive need for the cross? I ask this question hoping some of you are more than prepared to answer it, since I am certain it is a common objection.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/8111113 Scot McKnight

    Michael, it gets a little tricky to talk about human “goodness,” I’ll admit. My point is that we are asking what it is about humans that leads God’s love to restore. Not about inherent righteousness or something of that order. And, yes, “life” and “death” are the Pauline categories (I say Paul is a coroner or a mortician), but when we enter this discussion through the lens of being Eikons of God, a few other issues ask for some attention.

  • Anonymous

    I’m pretty sure I’ve heard of quite a few authoritarian atheistic regimes as well. Maybe that’s an abuse instead of the reason to be.my point with the imago Dei is simple because the text in which it appears first is simple. The image really is just representation. If it were translated “idol” I think it might be better since this is what the “image” is talking about. It’s not talking about reflection like in a mirror. The man is the image because creation is God’s temple in Gen 1. The man represents God’s Sovereignty and rule over all things (as is the theology of Genesis). All other views of the imago Dei really stem from philosophical or theological or anthropological speculations later on. It is possible of course to speculate further, but it is probably important first to understand it in its context in order to also place boundaries on its applications. So all men retain the image, but not all men use it for God. I do think we are cracked, but the fact that we represent God’s rule by our existence and superiority over other creatures remains. Having said that, it is true that the further theology of it helps us understand then that when we utilize are difference between ourselves and the animals (theological and moral mind to commune with God), we use it to God’s glory, but when we become ruled by our passions/emotions and place our spiritual minds in submission to them, we become no better than the beasts over which we were to rule. Just some thoughts:)

  • Anonymous

    If good is any word, action, etc. that lifts up God through Christ as Lord and gives Him the credit for the good, then how can anyone out of a relationship with God do good? Aren’t we really talking about two goods? One which is true good and of eternal benefit (glorifying to God, reconciling a person to God, testifying and pointing to God as its author) and the other temporal good (that which is beneficial for another person for the moment, but will ultimately testify of a false religious or belief system, damn men, lift man and his goodness up instead of his need to be connected to God to do good)? In other words, the purpose of all life is to glorify God in a relationship with Him and I hold a view that will lead someone away from God or testify of myself, but give a hungry man a piece of bread, is it truly an eternal good work or a temporal one?

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/8517534 hyperorbiter

    i’m not sure if the fall brought death in the mortal sense. and here’s where i stray into the well trodden territory (and frankly it’s quite tedious now) about the literal interpretation of Genesis. i’m not a creationist and i believe scripture is of utmost importance. but without getting into THAT argument, then it seems to me that Death in the mortal sense did not come after the fall. if you are that interested in what i think then you could check out an essay on my theodicy and also my essay on annihilationism. you’ll find that i have more time to elaborate on the fall.it’s a really useful metaphor to explain human nature. it works, that somewhere there is a fracture, a dischordance with God that catapults us into an ‘uncreation’, chaos and disorder : driven not by God’s word, but by our own whims and desires. i could go on, but i won’t. i don’t dismiss the fall, but understand if people think i do. i think it’s essential for illustrating the great disconnect between us and God. but to be honest, the fact that we need redemption is evident with or without the fall story. i don’t think anyone would argue that.i find that leaving it to God’s choice to love us (in spite of us) is unfortunate. while i like how it embraces God’s sovereignty, it makes him look a bit desperate. there is surely something worth saving here. surely that’s a huge part of biblical narrative, restoration. and the thing about restoration is there has to be something to be restored to : and whatever that is in our human context, i believe that it is the essence of the imago dei. (sorry scott, but i haven’t quite got the metaphor of eikon yet. any urls to help me out there?)i do like how anonymous fleshed out his/her meaning of representative : thankyou. we are probably more on the same page than i first realised.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/8517534 hyperorbiter

    why can’t good be good? surely giving someone a piece of bread when they are hungry is God inspired—tapping into the imago dei even? why this ‘even the best kindness we do is wicked in God’s sight?” (a la Jonathan Edwards)? i thought we’d moved beyond that. i think that the fact that even the ‘wicked’ can do good significantly contributes to God’s desire to redeem us. sure, we are evil, but we are not evil incarnate.

  • Anonymous

    To say that good is good on its own and not something which flows from one in relationship with God is to say either that good is inherent in man a part from God or that good is not dependent on the nature of God and can be derived from elsewhere. Am I missing anything there?For instance, I tried to give this example: If I preach a false god and give you a piece of bread to eat when you’re hungry, and because of that kind act you believe in the false god that I teach you (the point of contact and witness of your being lead away from the true God and glory to Him in relationship with Him), how can I call the very act that ripped you away from God and stole His being exalted by your coming to Him away, good? It really must simply be temporal “good.” It was temporal good in that it was beneficial to you for the moment. It gave me warm feelings and you warm feelings. We grew to have a bond through it, but ultimately it was a tool to damning you and stealing God’s being glorified by your submission to Him.I think we may have a different view on why God redeems. The Scripture seems to indicate it is for His glory, not because we are worth redeeming. If all men are evil, and totally evil (for why would God ever condemn something that was even partially good?), then there is nothing attractive to God about us. Instead He displayed His love and mercy to the unloveable and those who provoked Him to wrath. That’s part of why I stand in awe of Him. I don’t think I would stand in so much awe of one who saved me because I was worth it and should have been saved. Instead, I stand in awe because I wasn’t and should have been damned. The Scripture seems to teach that the reason for God saving us is within Himself, His kindness and good nature, not in man at all.So I don’t believe in anything intrinsically good outside of a communal relationship with God. Is that not palatable in our day?

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/8111113 Scot McKnight

    Anonymous, in many wasys I sense you are preaching to the choir but perhaps being a little too insistent on your definition of goodness. I agree completely that God is good (even goodness) and there is no goodness in humans apart from God’s goodness. And I think the Eikon’s responsibility is to live a life that reflects God and for God’s glory — and the term Eikon leads us into precisely that category for living

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/8517534 hyperorbiter

    anonymous, i too am in awe of God’s redemption, but i don’t need to be absolutely unloveable for this to be so. i’m not arguing for the extremes here : that kind of polarity is probably not palatable today, but in spite of that, it’s not a threat to God’s history of salvation.surely there is good outside the relationship with God, it’s evident. temporal or not, my point was that kindness is part of our makeup too (image of God). my thinking would be that if there is the ability to commit evil within the relationship with God (and all the blurry lines of that terminology) then why can’t there be good outside of the relationship?i also wasn’t for a moment implying that the ‘temporal’ good as you put it, was a means for salvation. i’m simply saying that we should be celebrating any act of kindness in this world that is so messed up. calling that kindness into question by loading it with theological speculation about its merits really (at least i think anyway) misses the point.i’m suggesting that these very acts of kindness are points of contact for the gospel to be built upon. for christians who have a reputation in this world of being highly critical and judgemental, the encouraging words would certainly not go amiss.i have no less awe of God. i’m deeply moved and grateful at many points throughout my day. but i’m moved not just because he ‘saved’ me, but because he has hope in me : more hope than i could ever have in myself. but let me finish my rant with this question : why in your view does God love us? give me some non-abstract and speculative reasons to ponder…i’m not buying the mystery here.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/3254099 Michael Daling

    I am not so certain that you can appropriately understand the disconnect between God and man without the story of the fall. I say this simply because it is integral to the overall narrative of the Bible – climaxing where Jesus very pointedly reverses it. It cannot be extracted. However, I would probably agree that the full weight of any doctrine on sin cannot be held up only by Gen. 3. I suppose it also makes a big difference in how we approach this issue. We have obviously been taking a more anthropological direction (and thank you Scot for your post on the Eikon. I am still not altogether tracking with you, but it really helped – any sources I might use to get a better understanding?). Why is it, though, that this is not primarily (but not exclusively) a soteriological category?


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