47 Has the creation been getting better or worse? (Part 2)

A student of the Bible might object that however true everything we’ve said so far on this subject might be, we are still introducing a naturalistic definition of the curse, which the Bible portrays instead as a spiritual influence pervading and corrupting an originally good creation. But when we re-visit the Genesis account of the fall, we discover that the curse described there consists not so much in a radical reorganization of the natural world as in disordered relationships among already-existing entities.

Whereas the animals previously enjoyed a harmonious relationship with humans, for example, there will now be perpetual “enmity” between the serpent and the woman and between their descendants. Later in Genesis, after the flood, this is expanded to include all the other creatures: “The fear and the dread of you shall rest on every animal of the earth, and on every bird of the air, on everything that creeps on the ground, and on all the fish of the sea.” The first pair, for their part, had originally enjoyed a relationship so transparent and blissful that they were “naked and unashamed.” But now, the account of the fall states, that relationship will degenerate into a contest for domination. The man and the woman used to enjoy the fellowship of God “in the cool of the evening,” but now they are driven out of his presence. Even the man’s relationship to the soil becomes disordered: Whereas the ground formerly nourished him, now it will take his life away, as he will have to work himself to death simply to stay alive. So the biblical understanding of the curse is that it consists primarily in disordered relationships, in the fracturing of God’s shalom.

Some physical changes do result immediately from the curse, according to Genesis, but they do not necessarily represent a dramatic reconfiguration of creation. The snake will now have to crawl on his belly, but does this mean that he formerly had legs that were then taken away? Or is the understanding of the Genesis author rather that he retained the same body shape but moved to a different form of locomotion? There is certainly no explicit statement that the serpent once had legs.

We are told that the woman’s pain in childbirth will be “multiplied” or “increased.” This may be an idiom that means God will punish her with “great pain” in childbearing, but read more literally it suggests that God will be increasing pain (physical discomfort) that she actually would have experienced even if there had been no fall. (Those to whom this seems implausible might ask whether they believe humans did not have the same kind of nervous system before the fall as they do now. If Adam had dropped a rock on his foot, would it have hurt?) This change, in other words, may be quantitative rather than qualitative.

We are also told, finally, that the ground will now bring forth “thorns and thistles” as humans seek to cultivate it for their daily bread. But literal interpreters will have to admit that this, too, does not represent a dramatic new development, since God had already created “every kind” of seed-bearing plant, on the third day. Thorns and thistles already existed. This part of the curse may simply mean, therefore, that instead of dwelling in a well-watered orchard, humans will now be living on the plains, tilling the soil and fending off encroaching weeds.

In none of the foregoing do I wish to minimize the importance of the “fall” as a theological doctrine. I do not believe we can understand the human condition rightly if we do not posit an essential disordering of relationships with God, others, and self that has had cumulative devastating effects on our physical, social, mental, emotional, and spiritual well-being, effects that are leading us to have an equally devastating effect on the world around us. I rather wish to combat the minimization of the “fall” through essentially physical definitions of it as something whose extent we could trace in the rocks of the earth.

Much more could doubtlessly be said about this question, as about all of the questions I have discussed in recent posts and other questions of a similar theological nature. But I hope that what I have written has been sufficient to show that adopting an evolutionary paradigm for natural history is not inconsistent with believing in the story of redemption as it is narrated in the Bible.

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