About Sin & Death
The Fall & Ancestral Sin
In the Old Testament account of creation, God created mankind and established a place for him called Paradise. He also gave him a commandment regarding the tree of the knowledge of good and evil: “And the Lord God commanded Adam, saying, ‘You may eat food from every tree in the garden; but from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you may not eat; for in whatever day you eat from it, you shall die by death’ ” (Gn 2:16,17). In that Adam and Eve did not physically die the day they ate from the tree, the words “you shall die” indicate a spiritual death through separation from God.
Ancestral sin is the disobedience of Adam to God’s command regarding the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Adam willingly disobeyed this commandment and diverted himself, or fell, from God’s path to perfection, thus separating himself from His Creator, the Source of life.
- This Fall of Adam caused mankind to become subject to mortality. While this is often seen mainly as a punishment, or penalty, the emphasis concerning God’s judgments on Adam and Eve at the Fall is best understood in terms of His mercy. So, for example, concerning man’s mortality (Gn 3:19), St. Gregory the Theologian states, “Yet here too He provides a benefit – namely death, which cuts off sin, so that evil may not be everlasting. Thus His punishment is changed into a mercy.”
- We who are of Adam’s race are not guilty because of Adam’s sin, but because of our own sin. However, because all of mankind fell away from the grace of God through Adam’s disobedience, man now has a propensity, a disposition, an inclination towards sin, because just as death entered the world through sin, now sin enters through fear of death.
- Mankind’s strong propensity to commit sin reveals that in the Fall, the image of God in man (Gn 1:26, 27) is also fallen. However the ancient Fathers emphasize that the divine image in man has not been totally corrupted or obliterated. Human nature remains inherently good after the Fall; mankind is not totally depraved. People are still capable of doing good, although bondage to death and the influences of the devil can dull their perception of what is good and lead them into all kinds of evil.
- Adam’s Fall not only brought mortality and sin into the world, but also sweat, toil, hunger, thirst, weariness, sorrow, pain, suffering, sickness, tribulations, tragedy and tears.
- Even after the Fall, the intellectual, desiring and incensive (forceful or driving) aspects of the soul are natural and therefore neutral. They can be used in a good way, or in a bad, harmful way. For instance, desire is very good when one directs it towards God. But when desire is out of control, one may use it in very inappropriate ways, such as becoming gluttonous or desiring another person’s spouse. The classic analogy is that these powers of the soul are like iron, which can be made into a plow to help grow food, or into a sword to be used to kill someone.
Christ, by His Death and Resurrection, conquered the devil and death, freeing mankind from the fear of death (Heb 2:14-15) and making possible a more complete communion between God and man than was ever possible before. This communion allows people to become “partakers of the divine nature” (2Pt 1:4), to transcend death and, ultimately, all the consequences of the Fall.
Further Reading on The Stages of Sin
“But every man is tempted, when he is drawn away of his own lust, and enticed. Then when lust hath conceived, it bringeth forth sin: and sin, when it is finished, bringeth forth death.” – James 1:14-15