7.16.2013

The Fall of Man and the Ecological Consequences of Sin

In the first post of this series on the Fall of Man in Genesis 3 and the widespread devastation of sin, I mentioned that we tend to focus on the theological and personal consequences of Adam and Eve’s sin while ignoring some of the other areas. I think the most ignored of those other areas is the ecological consequences associated with the sin in the Garden of Eden. 

Men and women were created to live in relationship with God and with one another, and, in a sense, with creation as well. This is clear in the early chapters of Genesis. Genesis 1.26-30 recounts how Adam and Eve were to have dominion over creation, and Genesis 2.15 mentions that they were to work it and keep it. So in effect, Adam and Eve were to rule over creation, but to do so as stewards who would take care of what God had made. 

But following their disobedience to God’s command to not eat of the forbidden fruit in Genesis 3, the ecological consequence is evident, as a curse is placed on creation in Genesis 3.17-19: 
“And to Adam he said, ‘Because you have listened to the voice of your wife and have eaten of the tree of which I commanded you, ‘You shall not eat of it,’cursed is the ground because of you; 
in pain 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, till you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken; for you are dust, and to dust you shall return.’” 
This curse makes it clear that the relationship between man and creation has been destroyed as well. And that’s pretty easy to see, right? Rather than embrace our role as stewards of God’s earth, we tend to exploit creation to satisfy our own selfish desires. There are countless examples of companies which have carelessly polluted in order to cut corners and maximize profits, and even “little” problems like widespread littering show a basic lack of respect for the home God has created for us. 

And I think there is significant indication in Scripture that the problem isn’t all one-sided: creation itself doesn’t operate the way it was intended to. In Romans 8.20-22, Paul makes this point, speaking of creation in personified terms: 
“For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of him who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to corruption and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. For we know that the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now.” 
A creation that is subjected to futility, bound to corruption and groans in the pains of childbirth seems distinctly different from the creation that God made and called “good.” I suppose this is ultimately unprovable, but my personal opinion is that the natural disasters that plague our lives—tornadoes, hurricanes, earthquakes, tsunamis, etc.—are symptomatic of the problems Paul refers to, as creation lives out a cursed existence different from the one for which it was intended.1 

In sum, sin has devastated this aspect of our existence as well. Creation is less than the good and hospitable home for humanity for which it was created to be, and we fail to care for it as we should.2
• • •
1If my thinking on this is correct, then it stands in judgment against the hurtful things that some religious people say in very public ways following a natural disaster such as “Hurricane Katrina was God’s judgment against the wickedness of New Orleans”. Natural disasters are a condition of our broken world, rather than God’s wrath against a specific people/place. Incidentally, I think the promise made to Noah following the flood (Genesis 9.8-17) that man and creation would not again be judged by a massive flood (and perhaps, by extension, other natural disasters) supports this idea.
2I mentioned the general neglect of this topic, and I think that neglect is itself evidence of the distorted relationship we have with creation. In a significant portion of Christendom, discussion of the creation care is considered to be a “political” or “liberal” idea, despite the fact that environmental stewardship is a clearly biblical principle!

3 comments:

Nathan Myers 7/16/13, 4:01 PM  

Luke,
I am really glad you are writing this series. It is a much needed and neglected subject.

I would encourage you to read two works that wrestle with and challenge both of the conclusions you reached in footnote 1: Terence Fretheim, Creation Untamed: The Bible, God, and Natural Disasters and Douglas John Hall, God and Human Suffering: An Exercise in the Theology of the Cross.

I think it goes too far to argue that natural disasters in and of themselves are the result of the bondage of creation. God's "midwifing" of Adam, Eve, and the Serpent's consequences suggests that their sin made things worse,intensified things, not introduced new problems into the situation (Eve's pain in childbirth is "increased"-which suggests that there was pain to begin with- and Adam already had to work the land, his sin made it more difficult. There was already potential for pain in the pre-sin world, and natural disasters were a part of that world as well. In the flood story, the focus is not so much on the flood as it is on the intensity of the flood due to the sin of humans.

God has established a moral order in creation (e.g. Job 38-41)-aspects of that creation which are admittedly wild and out of God's "control." Thus, I think it goes too far to remove God completely from complicity and say that he has no involvement whatsoever in using natural disasters to keep the moral order. But the danger, as always, is to say that any natural disaster was the specific act of God to punish sin. We don't know that. But we can't let God off the hook either.

Luke Dockery 7/17/13, 10:10 AM  

Nathan,

Thanks for the comment. I respect you as a Bible scholar in general, and appreciate your specific interest in OT and creation theology, so you’ve given me some good things to think about.

Here are some brief responses:

(1) Thanks for the book recommendations. I have added both to my (long) Amazon wish list. I know you are a big fan of Fretheim, and I really need to read some of his stuff (beyond articles).

(2) Let’s start with where we agree, that at the very least, Adam and Eve’s sin intensified things and made them worse. That affirms the general point of this series—that sin has far-reaching and devastating effects, some of which we tend to ignore. I think it would also support the specific ideas that natural disasters are worse than they would otherwise be, no?

(3) Maybe my opinion on this will change after reading the works you suggested, but ultimately, I think issues like this (i.e., are natural disasters a consequence of the Fall or are they built into the fabric of creation) are fun to talk about but ultimately unknowable this side of eternity (I tried to indicate that tentativeness in the original post but perhaps was unsuccessful).

Was there pain in pre-sin creation? Your reference of childbirth pain being “increased” would seem to suggest that there was (although, childbirth hadn’t occurred yet, so it seems like it was more of a hypothetical pain for Eve rather than one she had experienced thus far). Maybe a more basic question: if Adam was running in the garden and tripped and fell, would the impact hurt? Surely it would.

But at the same time, does all pain really qualify as “suffering”, or does it have to be intense before it really qualifies as “suffering”? Maybe this sounds like a semantic argument (although I don’t intend for it to be), but I question if there was actual suffering in the world before sin (regardless of whether or not there was the potential for pain). The (admittedly limited) biblical account indicates that everything was good prior to sin, except for the fact that Adam was alone (a problem which God quickly remedied).

It seems clear, at least to me, that regardless of the origins of natural disasters, suffering only really began after sin entered into the picture (but perhaps in this case, correlation doesn’t equal causation).

(4) I especially appreciate your comments in regards to the first footnote. The Bible is absolutely clear that God is sometimes involved in the rise and fall of kingdoms and empires, and that He intervenes in nature and uses things like the Flood to bring about His purposes.

His covenant to Noah makes clear that He would never again destroy the world through a flood, and I raised the possibility that this could extend to other natural disasters, but I didn’t intend to make an absolute claim. I definitely affirm that God could be involved in “using natural disasters to keep the moral order”; I’m just not certain about it.

Regardless, you point out that even if we adopt this perspective, it’s impossible to discern specifically what God is doing through a natural disaster and thus, to speak out about it with certainty. Pastorally, that was the point of the footnote, and so I think it is achieved either way. To put it another way, it is folly to say, “Hurricane Katrina was God’s judgment on the wickedness of New Orleans” either because God doesn’t work that way, or because God does sometimes work that way but we can’t know exactly what He is doing. Regardless of the reason, it is still folly.

Again, thank you for your comment; you’ve given me some things to think about (and read). Hope you and Stacey are doing well!

Luke Dockery 7/17/13, 10:22 AM  

Oh, and one more thing, regarding “letting God of the hook.”

You’re right of course. If you believe that God created all things (which I do), ultimately, the buck stops there. I believe that sin is a powerfully destructive force that entered the world through our free will, but even so, it was God who created us with free will in the first place. So from that standpoint, God doesn’t get let off the hook.

Still I think there’s a significant difference between that perspective—that ultimately, as creator of all things and the one who dealt out the curse following the Fall, God has “culpability”—and the perspective that causes people to look at the death of a child and say things like, “Well, God took him because He needed another angel up in heaven.”

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