What was “The Fall”?


Jim Naughton, our fearless leader over on Episcopal Café has posed a wonderfully interesting question for discussion today:

“Let’s say that you neither read the story of Adam and Eve as a report on a historical incident, nor believe in the inherent goodness of human nature. What is your concept of The Fall?”

From here.

I suppose I should post my answer over there. (I probably will once I get a chance. I’m writing this hurriedly before the Eucharist at the Annual Clergy Retreat here in Oklahoma at which I’m one of the presenters.)

What is the Fall? I guess I take a very Girardian view.

For me the fall, our “incurvatus in se”, is humanity’s unwillingness to recognize that we so covet the qualities of others that we are willing to kill or destroy the innocent in our desire to maintain social status quo.

And that we apparently willfully close our eyes to the mechanisms by which we accomplish this.

The story of Adam and Eve and the serpent in the Garden of Evil is a story that expresses in mythological archetypal images this fundamental human quality.

Did we actually fall from a prior “un-fallen” state? I don’t know, but I doubt it. I think our brokenness is our heritage. Our only hope out of this is the Words of Life and the unmasking of the powers that Jesus taught and accomplished.

What do you think?

The Author

Episcopal bishop, dad, astronomer, erstwhile dancer...


  1. There’s no evidence to suggest a prior un-fallen state.
    What we deplore as our innate ‘sinfulness’ seems more like simply tunnel vision, a tendency to focus single-mindedly on what we desire.
    That tendency could be the result of evolutionary pressures. Recall the story a few years back about a Hudson Bay woman who physically attacked a polar bear to rescue her child. She disregarded what any “sensible” person would have recognized as mortal risk to herself. But in doing so, she preserved the copy of her genetic heritage as expressed in her child.
    I see an analogy to the human immune system, which likewise has its evolutionary advantages — but when it gets out of whack, it can cripple us with lupus and other autoimmune diseases.

  2. If we regard the Fall mythologically (I do), where does that leave the question of a broken universe – one in which the very pre-condition of life is the death of star systems? What does that tell us about the nature of God? And is it at the Cross where God – for our species, at least, shares in the broken world he’s put us in?

  3. Matt Gunter says

    If Christianity is anything like true as opposed to a spiritual gloss on a fundamental materialism, I’m not sure there is any way to talk about the origin of things or their consummation that is not mythological. To read it “literally” as straightforward history is a genre mistake. But, I am wary of attempts to get at what it is “really” trying to say in any other language, e.g., modern psychology or biology. However much our engagement with the mythological imagery needs to be informed by what we think we know otherwise, those myths are not simply quaint, colorful ways of saying things that we can say just as well in more prosaic terms.
    The Story teaches us that God’s creation (or at least God’s intent for creation) was good. But, creation as we know it is not so good. A sort of virus infects the program and each of us in it. That virus, i.e., sin, is more than just an expression of the natural limitations of human nature. It’s not just that we don’t always do good and resist the evil when we see them. The deeper problem is that it is precisely when we think we know the good that “evil lies close at hand.” On our own, we are hopelessly lost in a lost in futility groaning with expectation for wholeness.
    I find it fascinating that the “virus” of rebellion against the goodness of God is there prior to the Human in the character of the Serpent. Is it too much of a “God in the gap” (or Devil in the gap) to speculate that “the Fall” of Satan? What that looks like is beyond our knowing. Milton took a stab at it. Tolkien took a stab at it in the first chapter of the Silmarillian with Morgoth/Satan singing discord into the harmony of creation at its inception. This might be piling mythological language upon mythological language, but it makes sense of what we’ve received by way of revelation and accounts for the fact that there is no room, given what we know of evolution for a pre-Fall Human state.

  4. Kristina Maulden says

    I think it does bring up an interesting point. It challenges the notion that we inherit sin from an event outside ourselves, when the fall might instead be an event that happens within each human. At some point, when do we reach for the symbolic apple and experience our own fall. Or is human nature intrinsically flawed so that individuals have no alternative but to fall into sin? And at what stage of our emotional, physically and mental development does this willful, conscious act count against us? And, then, are there those who lack the mental capacity to make such decisions – are they exempt? In any case, I think redemption is necessary to close the fault inside us, one way or another.

  5. Reading the comments and thinking a bit more overnight – I wonder if I had used the adjective “mythic” rather than “mythological” to describe the forms contained in the Fall narrative, would it have made it easier to understand what I mean?
    I mean to say I don’t believe there was literal apple in the same way I don’t believe there was a literal serpent in a garden. But that doesn’t mean that I don’t believe that what the story expresses isn’t both true and deeply profound.
    The rabbi on the radio show with me on Sunday night made the point (almost chidingly to the group given our setting) that it would be foolish for anyone to imagine that the meaning of the Holy Scripture was to be found in a literal reading. I liked him very much for that.
    But I wanted to interject that I don’t think that means that there are parts of the Bible that are literally true. We just need not insist that all of the bible is literally true when we come across parts that clearly have a conflict with what we are pretty darn sure is what happened.

  6. “Genre” is a concept that seems to be alien to all creationists and many atheists, when applied to the Bible. Maybe because the 66 (or 80-odd plus, according to your tradition) books all appear within one set of covers.

  7. ruidh says

    I think there’s tons of evidence for a prior, unfallen state of being in the fossil record. We don’t conceive of animals being capable of “evil” in any real sense of the world. Animals act on instinct and in self-preservation. They aren’t aware of good and evil motivations or actions.
    At some point in our evolution, we went from a state of innocence and ignorance of the difference between good and evil to a knowledge of the difference. With knowledge, comes the ability to sin. At or before this point in human development, God must reveal herself.
    The Fall, then, is a story which explains that we moved from a state of innocence to one of complicity through gaining knowledge of good and evil. I find little else of theological value in the story.

  8. Matt Gunter says

    “G”: You are correct to point out this fundamental blindess/denial. Though even the most Fundamentalist of literalists is unlikely to believ the sun actually rises from a pavillion in the sea as per Psalm 19.
    Not only do many have a hard time recognizing genre, both Fundamentalists and atheists fall for the modern denigration of imagination as being a means of accessing the true and real. Makes them both rather dull.

  9. I guess I would see fundamentalists as being like people who like the sound of the notes in music, but have no concept of rhythm. And atheist scientists as people who are tone deaf, but have rhythm. One group sees the colour in the world but not the organisation behind it; the other sees the rules in beautiful detail, but has no concept of meaning.
    God preserve us from compartmentalised minds.

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