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Original Sin Causes a Fundamental Change in Mankind

General Audience — September 10, 1986

The description of the first sin, which we find in the third chapter of Genesis, acquires a greater clarity in the context of creation and of the bestowal of gifts. By these gifts, God constituted man in the state of holiness and of original justice. This description hinges on the transgression of the divine command not to eat "of the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil." This is to be interpreted by taking into account the character of the ancient text and especially its literary form. However, while bearing in mind this scientific requirement in the study of the first book of Sacred Scripture, it cannot be denied that one sure element emerges from the detailed account of the sin. It describes a primordial event, that is, a fact, which according to revelation took place at the beginning of human history. For this reason it also presents another certain element, namely, the fundamental and decisive implication of that event for man's relationship with God, and consequently for the interior "situation" of man himself, for reciprocal relationships between people, and in general for man's relationship with the world.

Underlying the descriptive forms, the fact that really matters is of a moral nature and is imprinted in the very roots of the human spirit. It gives rise to a fundamental change in the human condition. Man is driven forth from the state of original justice and finds himself in a state of sinfulness (status naturae lapsae). Sin exists in this state, which is also marked by an inclination to sin. From that moment, the whole history of humanity will be burdened by this state. In fact the first human being (man and woman) received sanctifying grace from God not only for himself, but as founder of the human family, for all his descendants. Therefore through sin which set man in conflict with God, he forfeited grace (he fell into disgrace) even in regard to the inheritance for his descendants. According to the Church's teaching based on revelation, the essence of original sin as the heritage of our progenitors consists in this privation of grace added to nature.

We shall understand better the nature of this inheritance by analyzing the account of the first sin as contained in the third chapter of Genesis. It begins with the conversation between the tempter, presented under the form of a serpent, and the woman. This is something completely new. Until then the Book of Genesis had not spoken of the existence in the created world of other intelligent and free beings, apart from the man and the woman. The description of creation in chapters 1 and 2 of Genesis concerns the world of "visible beings." The tempter belongs to the world of "invisible beings," purely spiritual, even though for the duration of this conversation he is presented by the Bible under a visible form. One must consider this first appearance of the evil spirit in the Bible in the context of all that we find on this subject in the books of the Old and New Testaments. (We have already done so in the previous catecheses.) Especially to be noted is the Book of Revelation (the last of Sacred Scripture) according to which "the great dragon was thrown down upon the earth—that ancient serpent [this is an explicit reference to Genesis 3], who is called the Devil and Satan, the deceiver of the whole world" (Rev 12:9). Because he "deceives the whole world" he is also called elsewhere "the father of lies" (Jn 8:44).

The human sin at the beginning of history, the primordial sin of which we read in Genesis 3, occurred under the influence of this being. The "ancient serpent" tempted the woman: "Did God say, 'You shall not eat of any tree of the garden?'" She replied: "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 shall 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" (Gen 3:1-5).

It is not difficult to discern in this text the essential problems of human life hidden under an apparently simple form. To eat or not to eat the fruit of a certain tree may itself seem irrelevant. However, the tree "of the knowledge of good and evil" denotes the first principle of human life to which a fundamental problem is linked. The tempter knows this very well, for he says: "When you eat of it...you will be like God, knowing good and evil." The tree therefore signifies the insurmountable limit for man and for any creature, however perfect. The creature is always merely a creature, and not God. Certainly he cannot claim to be "like God," to "know good and evil" like God. God alone is the source of all being, God alone is absolute Truth and Goodness, according to which good and evil are measured and from which they receive their distinction. God alone is the eternal legislator, from whom every law in the created world derives, and in particular the law of human nature (lex naturae). As a rational creature, man knows this law and should let himself be guided by it in his own conduct. He himself cannot pretend to establish the moral law, to decide himself what is good and what is bad, independently of the Creator, even against the Creator. Neither man nor any other creature can set himself in the place of God, claiming for himself the mastery of the moral order. This is contrary to creation's own ontological constitution which is reflected in the psychological-ethical sphere by the fundamental imperatives of conscience and therefore human conduct.

In the Genesis account, in the guise of an apparently irrelevant plot, we find man's fundamental problem linked to his very condition as a creature. Man as a rational being should let himself be guided by the "First Truth," which is moreover the truth of his very existence. Man cannot claim to substitute himself for this truth or to place himself on a par with it. If this principle is called into question, the foundation of the "justice" of the creature in regard to the Creator is shaken to the roots of human action. The tempter, "the father of lies," calls in question the state of original justice by insinuating doubt on the truth of the relationship with God. In yielding to the tempter, man commits a personal sin and causes the state of original sin in human nature.

As we see from the biblical account, human sin does not have its primary origin in the heart (and in the conscience) of man. It does not arise from his spontaneous initiative. It is in a certain sense the reflection and the consequence of the sin that had already occurred in the world of invisible beings. The tempter, "the ancient serpent," belongs to this world. Previously these beings endowed with knowledge and freedom had been "put to the test" so that they could make their choice commensurate with their purely spiritual nature. In them arose the "doubt" which, as recounted in the third chapter of Genesis, the tempter insinuates in our first parents. Already they had placed God in a state of suspicion and accusation—God who as Creator, is the sole source of the good granted to all creatures, and especially to spiritual creatures. They had contested the truth of existence, which demands the total subordination of the creature to the Creator. This truth was supplanted by an original pride, which led them to make their own spirit the principle and rule of freedom. They were the first who had claimed the power "to know good and evil like God." They had chosen themselves over God, instead of choosing themselves "in God," according to the demands of their existence as creatures, for "who is like God?" By yielding to the suggestion of the tempter, man became the slave and accomplice of the rebellious spirits!

According to Genesis 3, the words which the first man heard beside the "tree of the knowledge of good and evil" contain all the assault of evil that can arise in the free will of the creature in regard to him who, as Creator, is the source of all being and of all good—he who, being absolutely disinterested and authentically paternal love, is in his very essence the will to give! This gift of love meets with objection, contradiction and rejection. The creature who wishes to be "like God" concretely realizes the attitude expressed so well by St. Augustine: "love of self to the point of contempt of God" (cf. De Civitate Dei, XIV, 28; PL 41, 436). This is perhaps the most penetrating explanation possible of the concept of that sin at the beginning of history, which occurred through man's yielding to the devil's suggestion—contemptus Dei, rejection of God, contempt of God, hatred of everything connected with God or that comes from God.

Unfortunately it is not an isolated event at the dawn of history. How often is one confronted with facts, deeds, words and conditions of life in which the legacy of that first sin is evident!

Genesis places that sin in relation to Satan, and this truth about the "ancient serpent" is later confirmed in many other passages of the Bible. How is man's sin presented against this background? We read also in Genesis 3: "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, and he ate" (Gen 3:6).

So detailed in its own way, what does this description reveal? It attests that the first man acted against the will of the Creator, under the influence of the tempter's assurance that "the fruits of this tree serve to acquire knowledge." It does not seem that man had fully accepted the totality of negation and hatred of God contained in the words of the "father of lies." Instead, he accepted the suggestion to avail himself of a created thing contrary to the prohibition of the Creator, thinking that he also—man—could be "like God, knowing good and evil."

According to St. Paul, man's first sin consisted especially in disobedience to God (cf. Rom 5:19). The analysis of Genesis 3 and the reflection on this marvelously profound text show how that "disobedience" can come about and in what direction it can develop in the human will. It can be said that the sin "at the beginning," described in Genesis 3, in a certain sense contains the original "model" of every sin of which man is capable.