In the previous blog, The Relationship of God to Life and Death, we found that both the Scriptures and early Church Fathers understood that from the beginning God worked to limit the power of sin and death in the lives of His beloved human creatures.
“As I live, says the Lord GOD, I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but that the wicked turn from his way and live; turn back, turn back from your evil ways; for why will you die, O house of Israel?” (Ezekiel 33:11; see also Ezekiel 18:23)
God continues to act in love toward humanity even after the Fall. God is love, and that truth is not altered by human behavior, even sinful behavior. God is love which means God chooses to act toward His world in love, His love is not a conditional reaction to the world based on our behavior.
Now the serpent was more subtle than any other wild creature that the LORD God had made. He said to the woman, “Did God say, ‘You shall not eat of any tree of the garden’?” [And the woman said to the serpent, "We may eat of the fruit of the trees of the garden; but God said, 'You shall not eat of the fruit of the tree which is in the midst of the garden, neither shall you touch it, lest you die.'" But the serpent said to the woman, "You will not die. For God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil." (Genesis 3:1-5)
Part of the serpent’s deception of Eve is to confuse her by calling into question God’s intention. God warns the humans that eating the forbidden fruit will lead to their death – He is not threatening them, but revealing His love and concern for them by warning them about the consequences of their behavior. The serpent however tells Eve that God is trying to limit her, not sin. He tricks her into thinking that God is trying to hide something from her – a power that God alone has. Eve readily abandons Her God and Creator in order to pursue unlimited power for herself. She falls for the ruse and experiences both sin and death, consequently and tragically she becomes a limited, mortal being. Eve grasps for godlikeness and in so doing loses her humanity. As a result of her and Adam’s disobedience, they and all of us their children fall under the power of death. [Thus also we see in Christ the undoing of Eve and Adam's sin for Christ does not grasp divinity but rather empties Himself (Philippians 2:5-11) revealing to us that to become truly human we must empty ourselves and to be godlike we must empty ourselves.]
Death, intended by God to prevent the unlimited growth of evil, itself becomes distorted in the world of the Fall and usurps its role becoming a cancerous, insatiable power on earth working with Satan. The limit put on Eve did not originate with God, as the serpent falsely implied. Rather the limit which comes upon Eve and Adam is death – it comes upon them by their own choosing. God in His love for humanity had warned them about this limit – eat the fruit and you will die. The limit God had imposed was to limit evil, not to limit the humans. Eve however in falling for the serpent’s deception, imposes the limit of death on herself by choosing evil disobedience to God.
The limit on the humans was initiated by the humans choosing sin. Sin was limited by God’s love – namely by imposing death on sin to contain it. Only the Resurrection of Christ will crush the power of both sin and death. The limits imposed on the humans by choosing sin are lifted by the God of love who never wished these limits on the humans in the first place and rather even warned Adam against them.
The text itself in Genesis 2-3 does not use the word “punishment” in relationship to the consequence of eating the forbidden fruit. The Hebrew does not demand that we read the coming of death as punishment by God, nor that God is causing the death which follows disobedience. Additionally, God mentions that the humans will die if they eat the forbidden fruit but does not threaten them with hell – neither a temporary or eternal one – which certainly would have implied punishment. The serpent entices Eve with a deception: telling her God has limited her and is withholding something from her. Eve thinks it is desirable to rid herself of this God imposed limit, but it is her disobedience which imposed the limit of death upon her. Death which is to contain the effects of sin and evil, instead come upon the humans in order to prevent them from continuing to grow in sin.
In Romans 5-6 and in I Corinthians 15, St. Paul’s discussion of the Fall in Genesis 3 focuses on death being the consequence of sin. He does not focus on punishment and hell as being God’s reaction to sin. In this St. Paul follows the Genesis text which never mentions the words punishment or hell. Remember that according to St. Paul, the wages of sin is death – He does not mention an eternal hell (Romans 6:23). Eve and Adam fall from Paradise to earth to Sheol, the place of the dead. St. Paul writes:
“Therefore as sin came into the world through one man and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all men sinned—sin indeed was in the world before the law was given, but sin is not counted where there is no law. Yet death reigned from Adam to Moses, even over those whose sins were not like the transgression of Adam, who was a type of the one who was to come. But the free gift is not like the trespass. For if many died through one man’s trespass, much more have the grace of God and the free gift in the grace of that one man Jesus Christ abounded for many. And the free gift is not like the effect of that one man’s sin. For the judgment following one trespass brought condemnation, but the free gift following many trespasses brings justification. If, because of one man’s trespass, death reigned through that one man, much more will those who receive the abundance of grace and the free gift of righteousness reign in life through the one man Jesus Christ. Then as one man’s trespass led to condemnation for all men, so one man’s act of righteousness leads to acquittal and life for all men.” (Romans 5:12-18)