Sins of the Father

The story in the biblical book of Genesis about Adam and Eve’s original creation in the Garden of Eden, and their subsequent fall from that happy state, has comparatively little importance to Judaism. However, it has become thoroughly incorporated into Christianity and now constitutes a major part of the theology of that belief system. We are all all tainted by the original sin of our progenitors, Christian apologists declare, and therefore we all need the forgiving power of Jesus Christ, regardless of how our lives are lived[1]. Since their religion is largely based on this doctrine, then, it seems only fair to put it under the lens of critical analysis.

One interesting point arises straightaway. As elucidated in “One More Burning Bush“, Christians often claim that the reason God does not reveal himself in some suitably dramatic fashion, such as giant crosses of fire in the sky, a voice booming down out of heaven, or angels appearing for theological debates with atheists, is that he wants us to have faith and choose to love and obey him freely, and if he manifested himself his existence would be impossible to doubt and our obedience would be compelled.

However, this doesn’t seem to be true of Adam and Eve. Despite being almost constantly in God’s presence, and presumably having no doubts whatsoever about his existence, they were still able to disobey him. (For that matter, the same is true of Satan.) This fact alone destroys the free will argument. And indeed, it makes more sense. According to this theology, God will damn people who made an honest mistake. Assuming God exists and wants people to follow him, wouldn’t it be more logical for him to reveal himself unambiguously so that there could be no doubts about his existence? That way, people who chose to disobey would know exactly what they were doing and what the consequences of their decision would be. Their choice, in other words, would be an informed one.

In any case, let us return to the Garden. As our story begins, Adam and Eve are living in Eden, an antediluvian paradise where there is no sin and no death. Their only restriction is a commandment given to them by God: “Of every tree of the garden thou mayest freely eat, but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, thou shalt not eat of it” (Genesis 2:16-17). This rule seems to have chafed the first couple not at all; initially they were happy to obey. Then, one day, they have a visitor:

“Now the serpent was more subtil than any beast of the field which the Lord God had made. And he said unto the woman, Yea, hath God said, Ye shall not eat of every tree of the garden? And the woman said unto the serpent, We may eat of the fruit of the trees of the garden: But of the fruit of the tree which is in the midst of the garden, God hath said, Ye shall not eat of it, neither shall ye touch it, lest ye die. And the serpent said unto the woman, Ye shall not surely die.” –Genesis 3:1-4

Later generations of Christians, reading this story through what historian Earl Doherty calls “Gospel-colored glasses”, assumed that this serpent was Satan in disguise, trying to tempt man into evil. (Such a connection is explicitly made in John Milton’s epic Paradise Lost, for example.) However, such a conclusion is not supported by the text; it is imposed on it. There is no hint in this chapter or anywhere else in Genesis or the Old Testament that this snake was anything other than a snake, albeit a particularly clever and verbose one. It’s not the Devil, just the most subtle of all the beasts God made. As proof of this, note that God’s curse on the serpent – which was, in part, to crawl on its belly all the days of its life – apparently holds for modern snakes, and does not hold for Satan, who “walketh about” according to the New Testament book of 1 Peter 5:8. Why did God curse the real snakes if this one was only a demon in disguise? And why would the curse fail to affect the Devil if he was the one genuinely at fault? Unless Christians are to conclude that God was fooled, the conclusion must be that it was the serpent alone that was responsible.

Now, this immediately raises some questions. Why did God create the serpent at all? Failing that, why did he create it with the capacity for speech? After all, he is omniscient; he knew this was going to happen. If God does not desire that his will be disobeyed, why did he tell Adam and Eve not to eat from the tree of knowledge of good and evil, and then create an animal whose express purpose, apparently, was to tempt them into eating from the tree of knowledge of good and evil? On an icy winter morning, would you warn a friend to be careful and not slip as he leaves his house, and then pour slippery oil on his front step?

Also, we are not told from where the serpent got the idea to tempt Adam and Eve. Did God control its actions and force it to do this, or did other animals originally have free will and the ability to make moral choices similar to humans? If the latter, why do they not have those qualities now? Adam and Eve lost neither their ability to speak nor their moral free will as a result of their sin. To be consistent, Christians should impute original sin to snakes as well as human beings – why do they not do this?

Either way, this episode does not reflect well on the God of the Bible. He created an evil, talking snake, set it loose in Eden, and neglected to warn Adam and Eve about this danger. This seems very careless, to say the least. However, this apparent carelessness takes on a more sinister aspect when one considers that the serpent was apparently the only animal other than humans which God created with the capability for speech. How can this be explained? Did God want Adam and Eve to sin?

But if there is no good explanation for why God created the serpent, there is even less explanation for why he created the tree. If he didn’t want Adam and Eve to eat from it, then why did he put it in Eden in the first place? This boggles the mind! Why create such a dangerous yet alluring object and place it right in the middle of Paradise, unprotected, where it could readily be eaten from? He could have put a fence around it at the very least! Like the evil, intelligent, talking serpent, there is no obvious reason why God would have created such a thing, and the Genesis story offers no justification. Did God set a trap for his creations? Did he want to have an excuse to exile them from Paradise?

Some Christians have stated that the reason for the tree’s existence was to give Adam and Eve a choice, either to obey God or to reject him. However, if God wanted to give them this choice, he could have done so in a far more straightforward manner: he could have thrown open the gates of Paradise and said to them, “It’s up to you two. You’re free to choose. Stay in here or go out there.” To clearly lay out their options to them in such a fashion would have been fair and would have made good sense. In that case, if Adam and Eve had ultimately chosen to leave Paradise, their sin could rightly have been blamed on free choice. However, the way God did use, if the Genesis story is to be believed, was essentially entrapment. With this setup, sin could arise as the result of a mistake – because Adam and Eve did not understand what they were doing – and in fact, that was precisely the case.

After all, in the Genesis story, the first humans did not come up with the idea to eat from the forbidden tree all by themselves. The serpent was the one who proposed it and tricked Eve into violating God’s command. But keep in mind what tree this is! This is the tree of knowledge of good and evil. But what is evil, if not disobeying God? Adam and Eve had no conception of good or evil before they ate from the tree. As the serpent said, “in the day ye eat thereof, then your eyes shall be opened, and ye shall be as gods, knowing good and evil” (Genesis 3:5). They couldn’t possibly have understood that disobeying God was wrong – they had no reference point from which to judge! They had no way of understanding that eating the fruit was evil until they had already eaten it, and without this understanding, God’s injunction would have been meaningless. Without any knowledge of good or evil, why should they have known to trust God rather than the serpent? The situation they were placed in was a catch-22.

Already it looks more and more as if God was stacking the deck against his creations, but there’s still more to come. What was the warning Adam and Eve were given? “But of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, thou shalt not eat of it: for in the day that thou eatest thereof thou shalt surely die” (Genesis 2:17). What kind of threat is this supposed to be? Before Adam and Eve ate from the tree, there was no death in Eden. Such a concept was utterly outside the realm of their experience. How were they supposed to understand what it even was, much less know that it was a bad thing?

A decision cannot be said to be truly free if there is no informed choice, that is, if the person making the decision is not fully cognizant of all the possible outcomes and their ramifications. Such is the situation here. Adam and Eve had no knowledge of what death was, let alone evil; they could not possibly have understood why not to eat the fruit or what would happen if they did. It is patently unfair for God to punish them for decisions they were not competent to make.

What we have so far is this: God deliberately created a dangerous, forbidden tree and put it into Eden with no protection, then created an intelligent, evil, talking serpent to tempt Adam and Eve, and gave them an ineffective instruction they could not have known not to disobey along with a threat of punishment they could not have understood. This bizarre behavior can only be explained as the result of malice or extreme stupidity. But granted for the moment that all this happened as written – that God could have intervened at any step of the way to stop what was about to unfold, and yet he did not. The serpent tempted Eve, and God kept silent and did not intervene. She reached out to eat from the tree, and God didn’t stop her, although he could have. She ate, and gave the fruit to Adam, whom God also did not stop from eating. Only then – once their sin was complete – did God finally show up. And instead of simply forgiving them and undoing what had happened, which he also could have done, he kicked them both out of Paradise and cursed them, condemning them to mortal lives of toil, suffering and death.

But the story does not end here. According to the Bible, God did not stop with punishing the ones who sinned; he also exiled all of Paradise to the mortal world of sin and death. All the plants and animals he created had to leave also, to a world where they were forced to suffer and struggle for existence and die just like the humans. In fact, he cursed the entire Earth, causing it to bring forth thorns and thistles (and, according to Paradise Lost, sending angels to push the planet off its formerly stable axis, ending its previous perpetual springtime and creating seasons – bitter winters, parching summers – as well as raging storms, scorching deserts, corrupt and pestilent swamps, and other climatic ravages). But even that isn’t enough. After ejecting everything from Eden, God curses not just Adam and Eve, not just everything currently alive, but the descendants of everyone and everything throughout perpetuity. The entire world was cursed for all time because of the transgressions of two people.

This punishment is severely disproportionate to the crime, to say the least. But more to the point, it is monstrously unfair and unjust. Why do we bear responsibility for sins committed by our distant ancestors? Why must the entire living world – millions of species, billions of living things – struggle, suffer and die for the act of a human being which they could never know about or understand if they could? Where is the justice in this? If Adam and Eve’s actions were truly deserving of punishment, then God should just have kicked the two of them out of Eden and allowed their descendants to stay. What he did instead, according to the Bible, would be analogous to the police calling in a squadron of military fighter planes to carpet-bomb an entire town because one person in it committed a crime. (“That Fateful Apple” explores this in more detail.)

But, the Christian apologists would have us believe, this is exactly what happened. All living things throughout the history of the world were cursed for the sins of two people. This curse included death, toil, suffering, and so on. However, there is another problem. Many species in nature are predators – they survive by killing and eating other living things. Presumably, this was not the case in Eden[2]; but then how did these animals develop adaptations to the predatory lifestyle so quickly – both to eat and to avoid being eaten? When did wasps and bees develop poisonous stingers? How did spiders learn to weave webs to trap prey and cocoon them in silk? When did hawks and owls develop talons and the keen eyesight required to dive and catch prey from high in the air? Where did snakes get venomous fangs and heat-sensing pit organs to guide their strike? Where did lions, wolves and velociraptors get claws and sharp teeth to tear flesh? (None of these things would have been needed in pre-fall Eden where, one imagines, everything ate fruits, nuts and berries.) The prey, too, need their own protective adaptations: camouflage colors, rapid running speed for deer and gazelles, defensive spines for hedgehogs, foul-tasting chemicals in some insects’ bodies, and so on. And where did decomposers like maggots, fungi and bacteria that play such a vital role in the ecosystem come from at all? In a deathless pre-fall world, there would have been no reason for them even to exist. Did God’s curse include all these new species and adaptations for predation springing fully formed out of nowhere, or did the post-fall world undergo a period of hyper-fast evolution?

There is another interesting point relating to this whole affair. Look again at those verses from Genesis, giving special attention to the highlighted parts:

Genesis 2:16
And the Lord God commanded the man, saying, Of every tree of the garden thou mayest freely eat:
But of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, thou shalt not eat of it: for in the day that thou eatest thereof thou shalt surely die.
Now the serpent was more subtil than any beast of the field which the LORD God had made. And he said unto the woman, Yea, hath God said, Ye shall not eat of every tree of the garden?
And the woman said unto the serpent, We may eat of the fruit of the trees of the garden:
But of the fruit of the tree which is in the midst of the garden, God hath said, Ye shall not eat of it, neither shall ye touch it, lest ye die.
And the serpent said unto the woman, Ye shall not surely die:
For God doth know that in the day ye eat thereof, then your eyes shall be opened, and ye shall be as gods, knowing good and evil.
And when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was pleasant to the eyes, and a tree to be desired to make one wise, she took of the fruit thereof, and did eat, and gave also unto her husband with her; and he did eat.
And all the days that Adam lived were nine hundred and thirty years: and he died.

It would seem that God lied and the serpent told the truth. Adam did not die on the day he ate the fruit – he went on to marry Eve, establish a home, raise a family, and live to the ripe old age of 930. These are not activities that are usually associated with the dead. Some apologists have attempted to dodge this point by claiming that God’s threat referred to “spiritual” death, but this is nowhere stated or implied in the context, and such a concept is foreign to the Old Testament generally. (If Adam and Eve were not even capable of understanding physical death, how much less could they have understood the threat of “spiritual” death! With such incredibly obscure warnings, it’s no wonder they went wrong.)

And furthermore, why was eating from the tree of knowledge a sin at all? Is it evil to seek knowledge? Is it a crime to want to be wise? According to the Genesis text, what angered God was that “the man is become as one of us, to know good and evil” (3:22). But aren’t we supposed to want to be like God according to the Bible? Or does God prefer to keep people ignorant so that they do not threaten his sovereignty? What kind of loving parent wants to keep his children forever submissive and ignorant? As this Usenet post says, a truly good god would not forbid his human children to eat from the tree of knowledge – rather, he would insist that they eat from it every day. Even if the Eden story is interpreted metaphorically rather than literally, it still implies that the desire for knowledge is a crime, and that idea is detestable.

It never ceases to amaze this atheist that some stories have been allowed to remain in the biblical canon. The Garden of Eden story is one such. Even if taken on its own terms, this story casts God in a very poor light; when examined in detail, it presents him as either an incompetent who failed to take the most basic precautions, or a malicious deity who purposely rigged things so his creations were almost certain to be doomed to a life of toil and death.

Of course, none of these arguments actually prove that the Garden of Eden story as given in Genesis did not happen. That conclusion is supplied by paleontological and genetic evidence that proves beyond a reasonable doubt that the human race did not begin from just two individuals, that new species come into being through a process of gradual change rather than being created out of the dust by divine fiat, and that all species did not exist simultaneously from the beginning. Likewise, none of the arguments here presented demonstrate that God does not exist. What this essay does purport to establish is that the events of the first three chapters of Genesis, if taken literally, are incompatible with the existence of the omniscient, omnibenevolent deity that Christians and Jews commonly claim to believe in. If there really is a god who is wise, just and good, then the Garden of Eden story either did not happen or happened substantially differently from how the Bible depicts it; and the theists who both believe in a maximally benevolent god and who believe literally in this story hold to a self-contradictory theology and should re-examine and substantially revise their beliefs. Even if interpreted metaphorically, however, this story makes several morally reprehensible points that should not be acceptable to anyone who believes in a good god. The most rational solution, I contend, is that the Book of Genesis is not the word of God, whether such a being exists or not; and as an atheist, I naturally find the latter option more plausible.

There is a lesson to be drawn here: we do not need the superstitions of ancient peoples to guide our morality or inform our understanding of our origins. We can discover both of those things on our own, through the use of the power of reasoning we possess as human beings. We as a species are mature enough to set aside the mythology invented by imaginative but ignorant people from the dawn of our civilization and find out the real answers to the most fundamental questions of existence. As an atheist, I assert that that course of action is not just possible, but by far the wisest.


[1] On a more odious note, some apologists use this doctrine to attempt to justify the atrocities of the Old Testament. Even newborn babies are depraved, evil sinners tainted by Adam and Eve’s transgression, they say, and so God is perfectly justified in killing them in violent and cruel ways if he so desires. For past and present Christians who hold this view, see the following links: [1], [2], [3].

[2] For Old Testament evidence that carnivory is contrary to the natural order of things, consider Isaiah 11:7 and 65:25, where we are told that when the messiah comes and ushers in God’s kingdom on Earth, prey and their former predators will lie down peacefully together, “and the lion shall eat straw like the ox”. Also see Genesis 1:30, in which God, following the original creation, states that all animals are to eat plants. Finally, see Romans 6:23, “the wages of sin is death”, implying that there was no death before there was sin.