As the Heavens are Higher than the Earth

Job accuses God:

It is all one; therefore I say,
    he destroys both the blameless and the wicked.
When disaster brings sudden death,
    he mocks at the calamity of the innocent.
The earth is given into the hand of the wicked;
    he covers the eyes of its judges—
    if it is not he, who then is it?

Ezekiel 18 seems to say something very opposed to this:

The word of the Lord came to me: What do you mean by repeating this proverb concerning the land of Israel, “The parents have eaten sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge”? As I live, says the Lord God, this proverb shall no more be used by you in Israel. Know that all lives are mine; the life of the parent as well as the life of the child is mine: it is only the person who sins that shall die.

If a man is righteous and does what is lawful and right— if he does not eat upon the mountains or lift up his eyes to the idols of the house of Israel, does not defile his neighbor’s wife or approach a woman during her menstrual period, does not oppress anyone, but restores to the debtor his pledge, commits no robbery, gives his bread to the hungry and covers the naked with a garment, does not take advance or accrued interest, withholds his hand from iniquity, executes true justice between contending parties, follows my statutes, and is careful to observe my ordinances, acting faithfully—such a one is righteous; he shall surely live, says the Lord God.

If he has a son who is violent, a shedder of blood, who does any of these things (though his father does none of them), who eats upon the mountains, defiles his neighbor’s wife, oppresses the poor and needy, commits robbery, does not restore the pledge, lifts up his eyes to the idols, commits abomination, takes advance or accrued interest; shall he then live? He shall not. He has done all these abominable things; he shall surely die; his blood shall be upon himself.

But if this man has a son who sees all the sins that his father has done, considers, and does not do likewise, who does not eat upon the mountains or lift up his eyes to the idols of the house of Israel, does not defile his neighbor’s wife, does not wrong anyone, exacts no pledge, commits no robbery, but gives his bread to the hungry and covers the naked with a garment, withholds his hand from iniquity, takes no advance or accrued interest, observes my ordinances, and follows my statutes; he shall not die for his father’s iniquity; he shall surely live. As for his father, because he practiced extortion, robbed his brother, and did what is not good among his people, he dies for his iniquity.

Yet you say, “Why should not the son suffer for the iniquity of the father?” When the son has done what is lawful and right, and has been careful to observe all my statutes, he shall surely live. The person who sins shall die. A child shall not suffer for the iniquity of a parent, nor a parent suffer for the iniquity of a child; the righteousness of the righteous shall be his own, and the wickedness of the wicked shall be his own.

But if the wicked turn away from all their sins that they have committed and keep all my statutes and do what is lawful and right, they shall surely live; they shall not die. None of the transgressions that they have committed shall be remembered against them; for the righteousness that they have done they shall live. Have I any pleasure in the death of the wicked, says the Lord God, and not rather that they should turn from their ways and live? But when the righteous turn away from their righteousness and commit iniquity and do the same abominable things that the wicked do, shall they live? None of the righteous deeds that they have done shall be remembered; for the treachery of which they are guilty and the sin they have committed, they shall die.

Yet you say, “The way of the Lord is unfair.” Hear now, O house of Israel: Is my way unfair? Is it not your ways that are unfair? When the righteous turn away from their righteousness and commit iniquity, they shall die for it; for the iniquity that they have committed they shall die. Again, when the wicked turn away from the wickedness they have committed and do what is lawful and right, they shall save their life. Because they considered and turned away from all the transgressions that they had committed, they shall surely live; they shall not die. Yet the house of Israel says, “The way of the Lord is unfair.” O house of Israel, are my ways unfair? Is it not your ways that are unfair?

Therefore I will judge you, O house of Israel, all of you according to your ways, says the Lord God. Repent and turn from all your transgressions; otherwise iniquity will be your ruin. Cast away from you all the transgressions that you have committed against me, and get yourselves a new heart and a new spirit! Why will you die, O house of Israel? For I have no pleasure in the death of anyone, says the Lord God. Turn, then, and live.

If life and death here refer to physical life, then the passage indeed would be opposed to Job’s claims, and Job might well respond:

How often is the lamp of the wicked put out?
    How often does calamity come upon them?
    How often does God distribute pains in his anger?
How often are they like straw before the wind,
    and like chaff that the storm carries away?
You say, ‘God stores up their iniquity for their children.’
    Let it be paid back to them, so that they may know it.
Let their own eyes see their destruction,
    and let them drink of the wrath of the Almighty.
For what do they care for their household after them,
    when the number of their months is cut off?
Will any teach God knowledge,
    seeing that he judges those that are on high?
One dies in full prosperity,
    being wholly at ease and secure,
his loins full of milk
    and the marrow of his bones moist.
Another dies in bitterness of soul,
    never having tasted of good.
They lie down alike in the dust,
    and the worms cover them.

Oh, I know your thoughts,
    and your schemes to wrong me.
For you say, ‘Where is the house of the prince?
    Where is the tent in which the wicked lived?’
Have you not asked those who travel the roads,
    and do you not accept their testimony,
that the wicked are spared in the day of calamity,
    and are rescued in the day of wrath?
Who declares their way to their face,
    and who repays them for what they have done?
When they are carried to the grave,
    a watch is kept over their tomb.
The clods of the valley are sweet to them;
    everyone will follow after,
    and those who went before are innumerable.
How then will you comfort me with empty nothings?
    There is nothing left of your answers but falsehood.

But if we understand Ezekiel to refer to happiness and misery, there is surely some truth in his claims, because happiness consists in activity according to virtue. So one who lives virtuously, at least to that degree, will be happy, even if he did not always live in that manner. At the same time, there is some qualification on this, both because human life is not merely an instant but a temporal whole, and also because even if virtue is the most formal element of happiness, it is not the only thing that is relevant to it.

Job and Ezekiel’s opponents seem to agree in an important way, even if they disagree about the facts. Both seem to be saying that God’s ways are bad. Either God’s ways are indifferent to good and evil, or worse, God supports evil himself. Either God treats the good and evil alike, and thus he is indifferent, or he gives better things to the evil, and is thus evil. Or, according to Ezekiel’s opponents, he unjustly spares the lifelong wicked on account of a moment of repentance.

In the passage from Ezekiel, God responds that it is not his ways that are unjust, but their ways. In the context of the particular dispute, the implication is that people fear this account because it implies that even if you have lived a good life for many years, a single evil deed may result in your condemnation. That is only bad, God responds, if you plan to do evil, in other words if your ways are evil, not his. Isaiah says, speaking of the same thing, namely the repentance of the wicked,

For my thoughts are not your thoughts,
    nor are your ways my ways, says the Lord.
For as the heavens are higher than the earth,
    so are my ways higher than your ways
    and my thoughts than your thoughts.

As I pointed out earlier, Jesus presents Job’s characterization of God as something to be imitated:

“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same?  Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.

God is perfect, Jesus says, and consequently his activity is perfect towards all. And that results in apparent indifference, because it means that God treats all alike. Jesus is quite explicit that this applies to the very kinds of situations that Job and his friends are concerned with:

Or those eighteen who were killed when the tower of Siloam fell on them—do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others living in Jerusalem? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did.”

This would be inconsistent if it meant that “unless you repent, a tower will fall on you or some similar evil,” because Jesus is saying that the ones are no different from the others. It may be that nine of the eighteen were repentant people, and the other nine wicked. Or it could be broken down in any other way. The whole point is that the virtue of the people involved was not relevant to the physical disaster. The implication is that the physical disaster should be understood as a representation of the moral disaster that necessarily overtakes anyone who does evil. And that same disaster is avoided by anyone who does good.

More importantly, however, Jesus’s understanding is that God treats all alike because of his love towards all. And this implies that even the disaster of the tower resulted from love, just as the rain and sun do in the other examples.

How can this be? This will be the topic of a later post. Of course, a reasonable inductive inference, which may or may not be mistaken, would be that it might be not only later, but much later.

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Zimmerman’s Response to the Catechism

As I suggested previously, it is possible that the statement on original immortality in the Catechism was directed against Zimmerman’s opinion. Whether or not the authors of the Catechism intended this explicitly, Zimmerman surely noted the conflict with his own views. Wishing to remain an orthodox Catholic, he substantially toned down his opinion in a subsequent work. He discusses the text of the Catechism in chapter 7 of his book Evolution and the Sin in Eden: A New Christian Synthesis:

Today the Church goes ones step further than Trent by the teaching in CCC 1008 and again in 1018 that physical death was brought about by original sin: “As a consequence of original sin, man must suffer ‘bodily death, from which man would have been immune had he not sinned'” (CCC 1018, cf. GS #18).

The CCC is “a sure norm for teaching the faith and thus a valid and legitimate instrument for ecclesial communion… This catechism is given to (the Church’s pastors and the Christian faithful) that it may be a sure and authentic reference text for teaching doctrine and particularly for preparing local catechisms” (Apostolic Constitution on the publication of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, John Paul II, October 11, 1992).

Despite the refusal of the Council of Trent to define the doctrine that Adam would have been immune from physical death if he had not sinned, the Church today proclaims it as part of its catechesis. Actually, Trent did not oppose the common belief, and only refused to make it binding once and for all.

The CCC’s inclusion of the doctrine is of great teaching value to dramatically emphasize the evil of sin, of disobedience to God. Death follows sin, so beware! Genesis certainly does the same by pairing death with sin. This is an excellent teaching aid, already begun in Genesis, now continued in our Catechism.

There may be theological reasons of great depth in the teaching that bodily death is a consequence of original sin, aspects of a truth which remains to be mined and discovered. Sin is moral corruption of the sinner’s soul, and corruption of the body through death may be mystically associated with sin in the eyes of God as well as of man.

While apparently accepting the teaching of the Catechism here, Zimmerman may be implicitly questioning it in the last paragraph, suggesting, “Perhaps the teaching is there not because it is true, but because of another truth that we haven’t yet made explicit.” In any case, he continues to recognize that there is some evidence against the claim, and consequently remains dissatisfied with the teaching of the Catechism:

Are we puzzled by the fact that our present cosmos is not designed for human life which is immune from physical death? One response to the puzzle can be that God already foresaw that Adam would commit original sin, hence there was no need for God to design the cosmos for a condition which would never become real. I confess that this solution, although proposed by some people, does not please me.

Other considerations remain to be solved. We note that the CCC does not state that Adam was already immune from physical death before he sinned. Nor does it teach that he enjoyed perpetual youth and freedom from various natural hardships during his life before sin. Many things remain unsaid and unresolved, if man’s natural condition of dying a biological death began only after original sin.

A number of reasons converge to indicate that man’s immunity from bodily death, as taught in GS 18 and the CCC, has the fuller meaning of eternal death of body and soul. The context of GS 18 is about man’s yearning for eternal life, not for mere biological continuity on earth. Furthermore, footnotes 14 and 15 of GS 18 refer to biblical texts that pertain to spiritual death invoked by evil deeds; they do not treat about biological death. Finally, the Council of Trent yolked together death from original sin and captivity under the power of the devil. But saints who die a bodily death in holiness are not captives of the devil. GS 18 and CCC 1008 therefore point more plausibly to eternal death than to temporal biological death. If that is correct, then neither Genesis, nor the rest of the Bible, nor Trent, nor Vatican II, nor the Catechism of the Catholic Church indicates with certainty that man was ever immune from natural biological death before original sin. However, I remain open for correction on this point.

Of course, his opinion here is not plausible at all, if he means to suggest that this might have been the actual intention of the authors of the Catechism. That intention was obviously to refer to biological death. However, the opinion is not necessarily completely unreasonable from the point of view of development of doctrine.

In any case, Zimmerman remains dissatisfied with the teaching. The teaching of the Church may prevent him from asserting as a positive opinion that man would have died even without sin; but it cannot prevent him from noticing that there is evidence in favor of this.

Original Immortality and the Order of the World

Earlier we discussed an argument against the idea of the fall, taken from the nature of the order of the world. This will apply in a particular way to the idea that man was immortal before the fall, if only because this is one concrete way that the idea of the fall can be understood.

It is a common young earth creationist claim that before the fall, there was no animal death at all:

Death is a sad reality that is ever present in our world, leaving behind tremendous pain and suffering. Tragically, many people shake a fist at God when faced with the loss of a loved one and are left without adequate answers from the church as to death’s existence. Unfortunately, an assumption has crept into the church which sees death as a natural part of our existence and as something that we have to put up with as opposed to it being an enemy (1 Corinthians 15:26) that came into God’s very good creation. This paper will argue that the biblical understanding of death, whether animal or human, physical or spiritual, views it to be a consequence of man’s disobedience towards his Creator and an intrusion into His “very good” creation.

This is not a very reasonable view, and St. Thomas argues against it in principle:

In the opinion of some, those animals which now are fierce and kill others, would, in that state, have been tame, not only in regard to man, but also in regard to other animals. But this is quite unreasonable. For the nature of animals was not changed by man’s sin, as if those whose nature now it is to devour the flesh of others, would then have lived on herbs, as the lion and falcon. Nor does Bede’s gloss on Genesis 1:30, say that trees and herbs were given as food to all animals and birds, but to some. Thus there would have been a natural antipathy between some animals. They would not, however, on this account have been excepted from the mastership of man: as neither at present are they for that reason excepted from the mastership of God, Whose Providence has ordained all this. Of this Providence man would have been the executor, as appears even now in regard to domestic animals, since fowls are given by men as food to the trained falcon.

The creationists however have correctly perceived that the original mortality of other animals would be evidence for the original mortality of man. It would be more likely that other animals would have died, given that man was going to die as well, than given that he was not going to die, and this means that animal death is evidence for human death. The creationists are probably also correct to suppose that the story of the fall, considered as a story, implies the original absence of both animal and human death, although this is not explicitly stated. They are mistaken, however, to suppose that Genesis is intended literally.

The existence of animal death before the existence of humanity is confirmed by geology, and this does not change much with the acceptance of the theory of evolution. However, the issue at least becomes more noticeable. Given that the first humans had ancestors, this implies that whoever was first meant to be immortal, had parents and possibly siblings that were not immortal. And since evolution proceeds gradually, it is possible that the first man who was capable of moral action was not the first human (with a human soul) to exist. This would suggest that the death of human beings happened even before anyone was capable of choosing good or evil.

In any case, the particular argument considered in the previous post on the fall and the order of the world, was that an elevation of nature to a condition obtainable through secondary causes, without actually using such causes, is unlikely.

Absolute immortality does not seem to be a condition obtainable through secondary causes, or at least there is no clear evidence of such a possibility. Consequently the argument discussed there does not apply to an elevation to absolute immortality, although it would still apply to the fall from that state (namely, it would argue that this is contrary to the usual order of the world.)

However, being elevated to immortality also includes aspects that in fact can be produced by secondary causes. In principle it is not impossible for an animal to be free of biological aging, and there may be some species in nature that are very nearly so. In practice this was not possible for human beings because they descended from a species which already had death by aging. St. Thomas however notes that it is possible to produce freedom from death in this sense through secondary causes:

I answer that, The tree of life in a certain degree was the cause of immortality, but not absolutely. To understand this, we must observe that in the primitive state man possessed, for the preservation of life, two remedies, against two defects. One of these defects was the lost of humidity by the action of natural heat, which acts as the soul’s instrument: as a remedy against such loss man was provided with food, taken from the other trees of paradise, as now we are provided with the food, which we take for the same purpose. The second defect, as the Philosopher says (De Gener. i, 5), arises from the fact that the humor which is caused from extraneous sources, being added to the humor already existing, lessens the specific active power: as water added to wine takes at first the taste of wine, then, as more water is added, the strength of the wine is diminished, till the wine becomes watery. In like manner, we may observe that at first the active force of the species is so strong that it is able to transform so much of the food as is required to replace the lost tissue, as well as what suffices for growth; later on, however, the assimilated food does not suffice for growth, but only replaces what is lost. Last of all, in old age, it does not suffice even for this purpose; whereupon the body declines, and finally dies from natural causes. Against this defect man was provided with a remedy in the tree of life; for its effect was to strengthen the force of the species against the weakness resulting from the admixture of extraneous nutriment. Wherefore Augustine says (De Civ. Dei xiv, 26): “Man had food to appease his hunger, drink to slake his thirst; and the tree of life to banish the breaking up of old age”; and (QQ. Vet. et Nov. Test. qu. 19) “The tree of life, like a drug, warded off all bodily corruption.”

Yet it did not absolutely cause immortality; for neither was the soul’s intrinsic power of preserving the body due to the tree of life, nor was it of such efficiency as to give the body a disposition to immortality, whereby it might become indissoluble; which is clear from the fact that every bodily power is finite; so the power of the tree of life could not go so far as to give the body the prerogative of living for an infinite time, but only for a definite time. For it is manifest that the greater a force is, the more durable is its effect; therefore, since the power of the tree of life was finite, man’s life was to be preserved for a definite time by partaking of it once; and when that time had elapsed, man was to be either transferred to a spiritual life, or had need to eat once more of the tree of life.

From this the replies to the objections clearly appear. For the first proves that the tree of life did not absolutely cause immortality; while the others show that it caused incorruption by warding off corruption, according to the explanation above given.

Two problems with this considered as a direct response to the argument from the order of the world, however, are first that the tree of life in Genesis cannot be understood literally, and second that the tree of life itself does not have natural secondary causes. In practice the only realistic way to achieve freedom from death by aging through secondary causes would be through human medical technology, as is hoped for by Ray Kurzweil. But this implies that it is also the mode which is most fitting to the order of the world, which argues that human immortality should be in the future, not in the past.

Nor would the fact that absolute immortality cannot be produced by secondary causes negate this evidence, for absolute immortality could also be in the future, even given that it is to be obtained. And if there could have been rational animals without the capacity for moral choice who lived and died before man was offered immortality, then the proposal that absolute immortality be put off long enough to allow the obtaining of imperfect immortality through the action of secondary causes would be entirely reasonable.

In addition, positing a complete immortality at the beginning of the human race implies the addition of an indefinite number of miracles to the order of secondary causes, which necessarily makes this order less perfect. St. Thomas, noting that man’s body could be affected by other bodies, says that, “Man’s body in the state of innocence could be preserved from suffering injury from a hard body; partly by the use of his reason, whereby he could avoid what was harmful; and partly also by Divine Providence, so preserving him, that nothing of a harmful nature could come upon him unawares.” But such a use of divine providence effectively implies being miraculously preserved from the possibility of accidental death.

The Magisterium and Original Immortality

A council of Carthage (418 – 419) approved the following canon:

That whosoever says that Adam, the first man, was created mortal, so that whether he had sinned or not, he would have died in body— that is, he would have gone forth of the body, not because his sin merited this, but by natural necessity, let him be anathema.

The council of Orange in 529 published the following:

CANON 1. If anyone denies that it is the whole man, that is, both body and soul, that was “changed for the worse” through the offense of Adam’s sin, but believes that the freedom of the soul remains unimpaired and that only the body is subject to corruption, he is deceived by the error of Pelagius and contradicts the scripture which says, “The soul that sins shall die” (Ezek. 18:20); and, “Do you not know that if you yield yourselves to anyone as obedient slaves, you are the slaves of the one whom you obey?” (Rom. 6:16); and, “For whatever overcomes a man, to that he is enslaved” (2 Pet. 2:19).

CANON 2. If anyone asserts that Adam’s sin affected him alone and not his descendants also, or at least if he declares that it is only the death of the body which is the punishment for sin, and not also that sin, which is the death of the soul, passed through one man to the whole human race, he does injustice to God and contradicts the Apostle, who says, “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” (Rom. 5:12).

These canons are concerned with establishing that original sin affects man spiritually, but nevertheless they take it as an absolute fact that bodily death is a result of sin.

The council of Trent published these canons:

1. If any one does not confess that the first man, Adam, when he had transgressed the commandment of God in Paradise, immediately lost the holiness and justice wherein he had been constituted; and that he incurred, through the offence of that prevarication, the wrath and indignation of God, and consequently death, with which God had previously threatened him, and, together with death, captivity under his power who thenceforth had the empire of death, that is to say, the devil, and that the entire Adam, through that offence of prevarication, was changed, in body and soul, for the worse; let him be anathema.

2. If any one asserts, that the prevarication of Adam injured himself alone, and not his posterity; and that the holiness and justice, received of God, which he lost, he lost for himself alone, and not for us also; or that he, being defiled by the sin of disobedience, has only transfused death, and pains of the body, into the whole human race, but not sin also, which is the death of the soul; let him be anathema:–whereas he contradicts the apostle who says; By one man sin entered into the world, and by sin death, and so death passed upon all men, in whom all have sinned.

Apparently there was an original formulation of the first canon which specified that the death with which man had been threatened was a bodily death, but this specification was omitted in the final formulation. There is some discussion of this issue here. Regarding this point, the author of the essay concludes, “At any rate it does not seem that we can say for certain that Trent is here defining immortality as a gift to man before sin and simple physical death as a punishment for sin.” Nonetheless, the council certainly seems to take for granted that man without sin would not have physically died.

The Second Vatican Council stated in the document Gaudium et Spes,

18. It is in the face of death that the riddle a human existence grows most acute. Not only is man tormented by pain and by the advancing deterioration of his body, but even more so by a dread of perpetual extinction. He rightly follows the intuition of his heart when he abhors and repudiates the utter ruin and total disappearance of his own person. He rebels against death because he bears in himself an eternal seed which cannot be reduced to sheer matter. All the endeavors of technology, though useful in the extreme, cannot calm his anxiety; for prolongation of biological life is unable to satisfy that desire for higher life which is inescapably lodged in his breast.

Although the mystery of death utterly beggars the imagination, the Church has been taught by divine revelation and firmly teaches that man has been created by God for a blissful purpose beyond the reach of earthly misery. In addition, that bodily death from which man would have been immune had he not sinned (cf. Wis. 1:13; 2:23-24; Rom. 5:21; 6:23; Jas. 1:15.) will be vanquished, according to the Christian faith, when man who was ruined by his own doing is restored to wholeness by an almighty and merciful Saviour. For God has called man and still calls him so that with his entire being he might be joined to Him in an endless sharing of a divine life beyond all corruption. Christ won this victory when He rose to life, for by His death He freed man from death. Hence to every thoughtful man a solidly established faith provides the answer to his anxiety about what the future holds for him. At the same time faith gives him the power to be united in Christ with his loved ones who have already been snatched away by death; faith arouses the hope that they have found true life with God.

The document thus says explicitly that man would have been free of bodily death if he had not sinned. This passage is quoted by the Catechism of the Catholic Church:

Death is a consequence of sin. The Church’s Magisterium, as authentic interpreter of the affirmations of Scripture and Tradition, teaches that death entered the world on account of man’s sin. Even though man’s nature is mortal God had destined him not to die. Death was therefore contrary to the plans of God the Creator and entered the world as a consequence of sin. “Bodily death, from which man would have been immune had he not sinned” is thus “the last enemy” of man left to be conquered.

This is repeated in the “In Brief” section, summarizing, “As a consequence of original sin, man must suffer ‘bodily death, from which man would have been immune had he not sinned’ (GS § 18).”

The Catechism does not always contain specifications such as “The Church’s Magisterium, as authentic interpreter of the affirmations of Scripture and tradition,” before going on to make a statement. The purpose of this addition seems to be to recognize that some suppose that bodily death is not a result of sin, and to exclude this possibility, more or less completely. Fr. Zimmerman’s book, Original Sin: Where Doctrine Meets Science, was published about a year and a half before the publication of the Catechism. It is not impossible that the authors of the text of the Catechism were thinking of his opinion in particular.

Scripture on Sin and Death

According to the account of the fall in Genesis, one of the main effects of sin, perhaps the principal effect, was death. God assigns death as the reason that man should not eat of the tree of knowledge of good and evil: “You may freely eat of every tree of the garden; but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall die.” After Adam’s sin, chapter 3 ends with man’s exclusion from the garden and therefore from the tree of life:

Then the Lord God said, “See, the man has become like one of us, knowing good and evil; and now, he might reach out his hand and take also from the tree of life, and eat, and live forever”— therefore the Lord God sent him forth from the garden of Eden, to till the ground from which he was taken. He drove out the man; and at the east of the garden of Eden he placed the cherubim, and a sword flaming and turning to guard the way to the tree of life.

If you take Scripture as a whole and ask, “What is it about?”, one reasonable answer would be, “Sin, death, and overcoming them.” Thus we have the account here where sin and death originate, basically at the very beginning of the Bible. And the last chapter of the last book of the Bible begins thus:

Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb through the middle of the street of the city. On either side of the river is the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit, producing its fruit each month; and the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations. Nothing accursed will be found there any more. But the throne of God and of the Lamb will be in it, and his servants will worship him; they will see his face, and his name will be on their foreheads. And there will be no more night; they need no light of lamp or sun, for the Lord God will be their light, and they will reign forever and ever.

The tree of life has ultimately been restored to mankind. St. John adds a final warning:

I warn everyone who hears the words of the prophecy of this book: if anyone adds to them, God will add to that person the plagues described in this book; if anyone takes away from the words of the book of this prophecy, God will take away that person’s share in the tree of life and in the holy city, which are described in this book.

The worst thing that can happen to you is to be deprived of a share in the tree of life.

It would be easy to show that this theme runs through Scripture from beginning to end. Thus for example Deuteronomy 30 concludes:

See, I have set before you today life and prosperity, death and adversity. If you obey the commandments of the Lord your God that I am commanding you today, by loving the Lord your God, walking in his ways, and observing his commandments, decrees, and ordinances, then you shall live and become numerous, and the Lord your God will bless you in the land that you are entering to possess. But if your heart turns away and you do not hear, but are led astray to bow down to other gods and serve them, I declare to you today that you shall perish; you shall not live long in the land that you are crossing the Jordan to enter and possess. I call heaven and earth to witness against you today that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Choose life so that you and your descendants may live, loving the Lord your God, obeying him, and holding fast to him; for that means life to you and length of days, so that you may live in the land that the Lord swore to give to your ancestors, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob.

Here we see that fidelity to God leads to life, or to overcoming death, while infidelity leads to death. But this is a very imperfect overcoming of death, since at most one can “live long in the land,” and one still dies in the end. Consequently the book of Ecclesiastes complains,

Vanity of vanities, says the Teacher,
    vanity of vanities! All is vanity.
What do people gain from all the toil
    at which they toil under the sun?
A generation goes, and a generation comes,
    but the earth remains forever.

Later, he points out that doing good and doing evil appear to make no difference at all in the end:

Then I said to myself, “What happens to the fool will happen to me also; why then have I been so very wise?” And I said to myself that this also is vanity. For there is no enduring remembrance of the wise or of fools, seeing that in the days to come all will have been long forgotten. How can the wise die just like fools? So I hated life, because what is done under the sun was grievous to me; for all is vanity and a chasing after wind.

In the New Testament, St. Paul gives a theological account of overcoming death:

Therefore, just as sin came into the world through one man, and death came through sin, and so death spread to all because all have sinned— sin was indeed in the world before the law, but sin is not reckoned when there is no law. Yet death exercised dominion from Adam to Moses, even over those whose sins were not like the transgression of Adam, who is a type of the one who was to come.

But the free gift is not like the trespass. For if the many died through the one man’s trespass, much more surely have the grace of God and the free gift in the grace of the one man, Jesus Christ, abounded for the many. And the free gift is not like the effect of the one man’s sin. For the judgment following one trespass brought condemnation, but the free gift following many trespasses brings justification. If, because of the one man’s trespass, death exercised dominion through that one, much more surely will those who receive the abundance of grace and the free gift of righteousness exercise dominion in life through the one man, Jesus Christ.

Therefore just as one man’s trespass led to condemnation for all, so one man’s act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all. For just as by the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners, so by the one man’s obedience the many will be made righteous. But law came in, with the result that the trespass multiplied; but where sin increased, grace abounded all the more, so that, just as sin exercised dominion in death, so grace might also exercise dominion through justification leading to eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.

One might understand many of these things in reference to a spiritual life, but in his first letter to the Corinthians, St. Paul makes clear that a true overcoming of death requires a bodily resurrection:

Now if Christ is proclaimed as raised from the dead, how can some of you say there is no resurrection of the dead? If there is no resurrection of the dead, then Christ has not been raised; and if Christ has not been raised, then our proclamation has been in vain and your faith has been in vain. We are even found to be misrepresenting God, because we testified of God that he raised Christ—whom he did not raise if it is true that the dead are not raised. For if the dead are not raised, then Christ has not been raised. If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins. Then those also who have died in Christ have perished. If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied.

But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who have died. For since death came through a human being, the resurrection of the dead has also come through a human being; for as all die in Adam, so all will be made alive in Christ. But each in his own order: Christ the first fruits, then at his coming those who belong to Christ. Then comes the end, when he hands over the kingdom to God the Father, after he has destroyed every ruler and every authority and power. For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. The last enemy to be destroyed is death.

We could many more indications of the same thing. The Bible as a whole can be seen as an account of the origin of death and of how it is to be overcome.

Genesis on the Fall

Given that the account of the creation and fall of man is not in a historical genre, what does the account intend to say about the world?

There are two ways in which an account like this can be taken. In one way, it would simply be a guess about the nature and origins of humanity. Taken in this way, it would present a possibility, but not claim that it is definitely the case.

The Catholic Church understands the text in a second way, namely as presenting the same possibility, but also as claiming that this possibility is actual. Thus the Catechism states,

The account of the fall in Genesis 3 uses figurative language, but affirms a primeval event, a deed that took place at the beginning of the history of man. Revelation gives us the certainty of faith that the whole of human history is marked by the original fault freely committed by our first parents.

This is a reasonable understanding of Genesis, even the first way is possible in principle. Taken as the Catechism takes it, Genesis would be saying that humanity existed in a more perfect state, and fell to a less perfect state due to human sin. St. Paul seems to have a similar understanding of Genesis, saying that “sin came into the world through one man.”

The text of Genesis, which should be understood as an image, presents this more perfect state as a situation where Adam and Eve are in the garden of Eden, living off the fruit of the trees, naked and unashamed, and with access to the tree of life, by which they might live forever.

The Catechism does not seem to summarize the more perfect state, but describes it indirectly, by contrasting it with the fallen state:

The harmony in which they had found themselves, thanks to original justice, is now destroyed: the control of the soul’s spiritual faculties over the body is shattered; the union of man and woman becomes subject to tensions, their relations henceforth marked by lust and domination. Harmony with creation is broken: visible creation has become alien and hostile to man. Because of man, creation is now subject “to its bondage to decay”. Finally, the consequence explicitly foretold for this disobedience will come true: man will “return to the ground”, for out of it he was taken. Death makes its entrance into human history.

St. Thomas discusses whether the defects that resulted from sin are natural or not:

Objection 1. It would seem that death and such like defects are natural to man. For “the corruptible and the incorruptible differ generically” (Metaph. x, text. 26). But man is of the same genus as other animals which are naturally corruptible. Therefore man is naturally corruptible.

Objection 2. Further, whatever is composed of contraries is naturally corruptible, as having within itself the cause of corruption. But such is the human body. Therefore it is naturally corruptible.

Objection 3. Further, a hot thing naturally consumes moisture. Now human life is preserved by hot and moist elements. Since therefore the vital functions are fulfilled by the action of natural heat, as stated in De Anima ii, text. 50, it seems that death and such like defects are natural to man.

On the contrary, (1) God made in man whatever is natural to him. Now “God made not death” (Wisdom 1:13). Therefore death is not natural to man.

(2) Further, that which is natural cannot be called either a punishment or an evil: since what is natural to a thing is suitable to it. But death and such like defects are the punishment of original sin, as stated above (Article 5). Therefore they are not natural to man.

(3) Further, matter is proportionate to form, and everything to its end. Now man’s end is everlasting happiness, as stated above (2, 7; 5, A3,4): and the form of the human body is the rational soul, as was proved in the I, 75, 6. Therefore the human body is naturally incorruptible.

I answer that, We may speak of any corruptible thing in two ways; first, in respect of its universal nature, secondly, as regards its particular nature. A thing’s particular nature is its own power of action and self-preservation. And in respect of this nature, every corruption and defect is contrary to nature, as stated in De Coelo ii, text. 37, since this power tends to the being and preservation of the thing to which it belongs.

On the other hand, the universal nature is an active force in some universal principle of nature, for instance in some heavenly body; or again belonging to some superior substance, in which sense God is said by some to be “the Nature Who makes nature.” This force intends the good and the preservation of the universe, for which alternate generation and corruption in things are requisite: and in this respect corruption and defect in things are natural, not indeed as regards the inclination of the form which is the principle of being and perfection, but as regards the inclination of matter which is allotted proportionately to its particular form according to the discretion of the universal agent. And although every form intends perpetual being as far as it can, yet no form of a corruptible being can achieve its own perpetuity, except the rational soul; for the reason that the latter is not entirely subject to matter, as other forms are; indeed it has an immaterial operation of its own, as stated in the I, 75, 2. Consequently as regards his form, incorruption is more natural to man than to other corruptible things. But since that very form has a matter composed of contraries, from the inclination of that matter there results corruptibility in the whole. In this respect man is naturally corruptible as regards the nature of his matter left to itself, but not as regards the nature of his form.

The first three objections argue on the side of the matter; while the other three argue on the side of the form. Wherefore in order to solve them, we must observe that the form of man which is the rational soul, in respect of its incorruptibility is adapted to its end, which is everlasting happiness: whereas the human body, which is corruptible, considered in respect of its nature, is, in a way, adapted to its form, and, in another way, it is not. For we may note a twofold condition in any matter, one which the agent chooses, and another which is not chosen by the agent, and is a natural condition of matter. Thus, a smith in order to make a knife, chooses a matter both hard and flexible, which can be sharpened so as to be useful for cutting, and in respect of this condition iron is a matter adapted for a knife: but that iron be breakable and inclined to rust, results from the natural disposition of iron, nor does the workman choose this in the iron, indeed he would do without it if he could: wherefore this disposition of matter is not adapted to the workman’s intention, nor to the purpose of his art. In like manner the human body is the matter chosen by nature in respect of its being of a mixed temperament, in order that it may be most suitable as an organ of touch and of the other sensitive and motive powers. Whereas the fact that it is corruptible is due to a condition of matter, and is not chosen by nature: indeed nature would choose an incorruptible matter if it could. But God, to Whom every nature is subject, in forming man supplied the defect of nature, and by the gift of original justice, gave the body a certain incorruptibility, as was stated in the I, 97, 1. It is in this sense that it is said that “God made not death,” and that death is the punishment of sin.

This suffices for the Replies to the Objections.

Basically St. Thomas is asserting that the condition of mankind was not natural in the sense of caused by nature, but it was something that would be desirable to nature. After sin, man fell basically to the level that could be caused by nature.

St. Thomas thus suggests a reason why it was fitting for man to be created in an immortal condition. He says in the cited article:

Thirdly, a thing may be incorruptible on the part of its efficient cause; in this sense man was incorruptible and immortal in the state of innocence. For, as Augustine says (QQ. Vet. et Nov. Test. qu. 19): “God made man immortal as long as he did not sin; so that he might achieve for himself life or death.” For man’s body was indissoluble not by reason of any intrinsic vigor of immortality, but by reason of a supernatural force given by God to the soul, whereby it was enabled to preserve the body from all corruption so long as it remained itself subject to God. This entirely agrees with reason; for since the rational soul surpasses the capacity of corporeal matter, as above explained (76, 1), it was most properly endowed at the beginning with the power of preserving the body in a manner surpassing the capacity of corporeal matter.

Understood in this way, the account in Genesis asserts at least two things: that man was created in a state above the state that could be caused by nature, because this was better, and that man fell from this state due to his sin.

The Fall

Genesis 3 tells the story of the fall of the human race:

Now the serpent was more crafty than any other wild animal that the Lord God had made. He said to the woman, “Did God say, ‘You shall not eat from any tree in the garden’?” The woman said to the serpent, “We may eat of the fruit of the trees in the garden; but God said, ‘You shall not eat of the fruit of the tree that is in the middle of the garden, nor shall you touch it, or you shall 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.” So when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate; and she also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate. Then the eyes of both were opened, and they knew that they were naked; and they sewed fig leaves together and made loincloths for themselves.

Eve exaggerates God’s command, adding the precept not to touch, while God had only said not to eat from the tree of knowledge.

It is possible that the reader is intended to understand the serpent to stand for a demonic power. However, this would be a secondary level of understanding. On one level the text is presenting a story which must be understood literally in order to be understood correctly. The serpent is as truly there as the loincloths made of fig leaves, for example. This is clear later when the serpent is punished by being made to crawl on its belly. Since this can only be understood in relation to the fact that real serpents do not have legs, we must understand a real serpent in this account, even if possibly one that had legs.

Given this fact, one might ask why Eve does not appear to be surprised that the serpent speaks with her. This can be understood from two things. First, the serpent is said to be “more crafty than any other wild animal that the Lord God had made.” This could mean that the serpent could speak but that the other animals could not. More likely, however, it simply signifies that the serpent was deceitful in a way that the others were not. The second fact is the odd fact we mentioned regarding the previous chapter, namely that the other animals were brought to Adam as potential partners. The most reasonable way to understand these things together is that all of the animals could talk, and therefore in an abstract way could be viewed as potential friends and allies of Adam. But in the concrete they were found to be wanting due to a lack of other kinds of similarity, and therefore God chose to create Eve as a more fitting partner. Eve is not surprised when the serpent speaks, therefore, because all of the animals can speak.

After eating the fruit, “the eyes of both were opened, and they knew that they were naked.” As was said in the previous post, the implication is that Adam and Eve had a greater perfection before the fall and consequently were not ashamed. They lose this perfection in eating the fruit, and become ashamed.

The account continues with the consequences of their misbehavior:

They heard the sound of the Lord God walking in the garden at the time of the evening breeze, and the man and his wife hid themselves from the presence of the Lord God among the trees of the garden. But the Lord God called to the man, and said to him, “Where are you?” He said, “I heard the sound of you in the garden, and I was afraid, because I was naked; and I hid myself.” He said, “Who told you that you were naked? Have you eaten from the tree of which I commanded you not to eat?” The man said, “The woman whom you gave to be with me, she gave me fruit from the tree, and I ate.” Then the Lord God said to the woman, “What is this that you have done?” The woman said, “The serpent tricked me, and I ate.” The Lord God said to the serpent,

“Because you have done this,
cursed are you among all animals
and among all wild creatures;
upon your belly you shall go,
and dust you shall eat
all the days of your life.
I will put enmity between you and the woman,
and between your offspring and hers;
he will strike your head,
and you will strike his heel.”
To the woman he said,

“I will greatly increase your pangs in childbearing;
in pain you shall bring forth children,
yet your desire shall be for your husband,
and he shall rule over you.”
And to the man he said,

“Because you have listened to the voice of your wife,
and have eaten of the tree
about which I commanded you,
‘You shall not eat of it,’
cursed is the ground because of you;
in toil you shall eat of it all the days of your life;
thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for you;
and you shall eat the plants of the field.
By the sweat of your face
you shall eat bread
until you return to the ground,
for out of it you were taken;
you are dust,
and to dust you shall return.”
The man named his wife Eve, because she was the mother of all living. And the Lord God made garments of skins for the man and for his wife, and clothed them.

Then the Lord God said, “See, the man has become like one of us, knowing good and evil; and now, he might reach out his hand and take also from the tree of life, and eat, and live forever”— therefore the Lord God sent him forth from the garden of Eden, to till the ground from which he was taken. He drove out the man; and at the east of the garden of Eden he placed the cherubim, and a sword flaming and turning to guard the way to the tree of life.

Adam blames Eve, saying that it was her suggestion, and then blames God as well, saying “the woman whom you gave to be with me.” God then questions Eve, who blames the serpent. The serpent is not questioned, which suggests that God already understood its nature as “more crafty” than the rest of the animals.

Punishment is then announced for the three of them. The penalty for Adam consists in two things: the cursing of the ground and its consequences, and in his own return to the ground. The consequences of the cursing of the ground are that “in toil you shall eat of it all the days of your life; thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for you; and you shall eat the plants of the field.” It is possible that Adam was meant to care for the garden in the first place, but apparently it was not meant to be burdensome. From now on his work will be a burden. The ground will bring forth thorns and thistles, or in other words it will not be docile to his work. And finally, even what Adam takes from the ground will be inferior in quality, the “plants of the field.” It appears that in the garden there was enough fruit that eating these other plants was not necessary. Later in Genesis this is extended to the eating of meat as well:

The fear and 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; into your hand they are delivered. Every moving thing that lives shall be food for you; and just as I gave you the green plants, I give you everything.

This text implies that the human race was originally vegetarian, and that the animals did not begin to fear people until they started eating meat.

Adam’s second punishment is death, and God enforces it by removing the pair from the garden and preventing any possible return.