'The Fall'

Printer-friendly version Printer-friendly version

How many times have you heardthis question: “Why is there sin and evil in the world?” Although the question of evil is difficult, we must address it realistically in the light of faith. Conversely, any attempt to explain the Christian faith that downplays the reality of sin and evil will fall short.

Of course, serious questions about suffering and evil are nothing new. Many of the Psalms ask why God-fearing people often suffer while the lawless seem to have it easy. The question is posed most sharply in the Book of Job. Again and again, Job is tempted to denounce the God who allowed him to experience evil and suffering in so many forms. Job does not curse God, but neither can he offer a definitive answer. As we shall see in future columns, it is Jesus Christ who offers the real answer to human suffering, especially by his passion, death and resurrection. For now, however, the question that concerns us is where did sin and evil come from in the first place?

Angels and Demons Back to Top

Many today would claim it is out of touch to explain the existence of evil on the basis of an ancient biblical story. Ruling out biblical wisdom in favor of science, they prefer to explain sin “as merely a developmental flaw, a psychological weakness, a mistake, or the necessary consequence of an inadequate social structure” (CCC, 387). To be sure, these factors help explain a lot about human behavior — but they do not answer the question of where sin and evil originate. As the Compendium of the Catechism of the Catholic Church puts it, “This reality of sin can be understood clearly only in the light of divine revelation and above all in the light of Christ the Savior of all” (73; see Rom 5:20).

Revelation helps us see that evil and sin are more than defects in humanity or creation. Clearly affirming the goodness of God’s creation, Scripture and sacred tradition teach that sin and evil first began with the rejection of God by Satan and other fallen angels. Angels are pure spirits, who though invisible, are real, immortal and personal beings created to contemplate God’s glory and serve as his messengers (see Compendium, 60). The angels have also been endowed with freedom and thus are moral beings. Some of them made an irrevocable decision to reject God and his kingdom. In doing so, they chose to be live in their own godless “space,” their own hell.

To be sure, we believe in the existence of angels as a matter of faith. Science can neither prove nor disprove their presence. Nonetheless, Satan’s rejection of God helps us understand the magnitude of the battle between good and evil, a battle that human history continually verifies. In describing the victory of Christ over sin and death, the Church’s liturgy says: “Death and life have contended in that combat stupendous: the Prince of life, who died, reigns immortal” (Easter Sunday Sequence, Victimae Paschali). This hymn helps us see redemption not merely as our own private escape into paradise, but as a struggle of cosmic proportions.

The third chapter of the Book of Genesis teaches that human beings are not immune from the fallen angels’ original rejection of God. Human beings, like angels, were created in freedom. When that freedom emerged in an original couple at the dawn of human history, it was well attuned to God and to all that was good in creation. Adam and Eve exercised their freedom in harmony with God and experienced his friendship. The description of the verdant garden in Genesis not only depicts the goodness of creation, but a sense of communion between God and man, and between man and the rest of creation. Yet, in his cleverness, Satan gradually seduced our first parents to doubt God’s friendship and to replace it with something else.

The Original Sin Back to Top

In creating the universe and beings that share in his own freedom, God takes the risk of love. He has endowed both angels and human beings with freedom because he willed into creation a world where love is possible. Love means the lover freely chooses the beloved and vice-versa. It also means that the lover can love someone or something else in place of the beloved. Adam and Eve, who are our representatives at the daybreak of human history, chose to replicate the sin of the fallen angels. They chose be “like God” on their own terms — that is to say, the masters of their own lives and destiny apart from God. This was the original sin. It was a monumentally poor choice with lasting consequences; lasting not because God is vindictive, but because human beings all share a common history.

In spite of talk about a “global village,”Western culture still promotes rugged individualism and fails to recognize the solidarity of the human race. Scripture, however, grasps that our first parents, in rejecting God, lost something very precious for those who would come after them: “the original grace of holiness and justice” (Compendium, 75). Although human dignity and goodness was not lost completely, the natural harmony and friendship between the human family and God was radically disrupted. All human beings — save the Blessed Virgin Mary, by a singular grace — are born with original sin, that is “the state of deprivation of original holiness and justice” (Compendium, 76).

In a classic TV episode of All in the Family, Edith tries to persuade Gloria and “Meathead” to have their baby baptized. Unhelpful as usual, Archie asks what sin a four-month old child couldhave committed. Among the many things Archie did not understand is that original sin is not a personal act butrather an inherent part of the human condition. This inherited sin speaks to the shared human tendency to rejectGod and to choose what is evil. Even those who do not accept the Church’s teaching about original sin can see theresults of it in concupiscence (thehuman inclination to sin), ignorance, suffering and the enigma of death.

In the face of both angelic and human rejection of his love, God, the consummate lover, did not choose to withdraw his love but rather to lavish it all the more. “God did not abandon man to the power of death.” Instead, we find in Genesis 3:15 an initial proclamation of the Gospel: “that evil would be conquered and that man would be lifted up from his fall” (Compendium, 78). This was the initial announcement of the coming of the Redeemer, born of a woman (see Gal, 4:4). So great was this Redeemer that on Holy Saturday the Church sings of the sin of Adam and Eve as a “happy fault.”

Discussion Reflection Questions for Council Use Back to Top

1. Why would an attempt to explain the Christian faith fall short if it downplayed the reality of sin and evil in the world?

2.Where in Scripture are series questions asked about sin and evil? What do the passages, and Scripture as a whole, have to say in response?

3.Why can’t sin be adequately explained in terms of science —i.e.,“as merely a developmental flaw, a psychological weakness, a mistake, or the necessary consequence of an inadequate social structure” (CCC, 387)? Why is divine revelation necessary to clearly understand the reality of sin?

5. If God created the world as good,why is there evil in the world? How does the creation of personal, moral beings — i.e., angels and humans — help to explain the origin of evil?

6.What is original sin, and why might it be a difficult concept for modern Western culture to understand and accept? How does this concept relate to the Church and to Redemption?