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The Entire Human Race Struggles Against the Forces of Evil

General Audience — December 10, 1986

In the introduction to the Constitution Gaudium et Spes of the Second Vatican Council we read: "The Council focuses its attention on the world of men, the whole human family along with the sum of those realities in the midst of which it lives; that world which is the theater of man's history, and the heir of his energies, his tragedies and his triumphs; that world which the Christian sees as created and sustained by its Maker's love, fallen indeed into the bondage of sin, yet emancipated now by Christ, who was crucified and rose again to break the stranglehold of personified evil, so that the world might be fashioned anew according to God's design and reach its fulfillment" (GS 2).

It is the world we have before our eyes in these catecheses. As you know, they deal with the reality of evil, of sin, both in its beginning and throughout the whole history of the human family. In seeking to reconstruct a synthetic image of sin we make use of all that we learn of it from humanity's varied experience down the centuries. We do not forget, however, that sin in itself is a mystery of evil. Its historical beginning and successive development cannot be fully understood unless we refer to the mystery of God the Creator, and in particular to the Creator of the beings made in his own image and likeness. The words of Vatican II already quoted tell us that the mystery of evil and of sin, the "mystery of iniquity," cannot be understood without reference to the mystery of redemption, to the "paschal mystery" of Jesus Christ, as we noted from the first catechesis of this series. The most ancient creeds already expressed this "logic of faith."

From the first announcement of redemption which we find in Genesis, we are already introduced to this view of the truth about sin, constantly professed and proclaimed by the Church. After the transgression of the first commandment, on which God the Creator had established his most ancient covenant, Genesis presents us with the following dialogue: "But the Lord God called to the man and said to him 'Where are you?' And he said, 'I heard 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 of 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 of the tree, and I ate.' Then the Lord said to the woman, 'What is this that you have done?' The woman said, 'The serpent beguiled me and I ate'" (Gen 3:9-13).

"Then the Lord God said to the serpent, 'Because you have done this, cursed are you.... I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your seed and her seed; he shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise his heel'" (Gen 3:14-15).

This passage of Genesis 3 fits in harmoniously in the "Yahwist" context of which it forms a part. It fits both in regard to style and the mode of presenting the truths which we already know from the examination of the tempter's words, and from the description of the first sin. Notwithstanding the appearances which the style of the biblical account may create, the essential truths are sufficiently clear in it. They can be understood in themselves, and still more in the context of all that is said on this subject in the entire Bible, from beginning to end, through the fuller sense of Sacred Scripture (sensus plenior).

Thus the passage of Genesis 3:9-15 (and also the continuation of this chapter) contains God's response to man's sin. It is a direct response to the first sin, and at the same time it is a response viewing in perspective the whole future history of humanity on earth until the end. A real continuity and at the same time a profound consistency in the truth revealed by God exists between Genesis and the Book of Revelation. To this harmonious consistency of revelation there corresponds "the logic of faith" on the part of the person who consciously believes. The truth about sin is included in the development of this logic.

According to Genesis 3:9-15, man's first sin is described, above all, as "disobedience," that is, opposition to the commandment which expressed the Creator's will. We have already seen that. Man (male and female) is responsible for this act, since Adam is completely aware and free in doing what he does. The same responsibility is found in every personal sin in the history of man, who acts for one purpose. In this regard it is significant that we are told by Genesis, that the Lord God asked both—first the man and then the woman—the motive of their behavior: "Why have you done this?" From this it follows that the essential significance of the act is in reference to this motive, that is, to the purpose of the act. The "why" of God's question signifies for what motive? But it also means for what purpose? Here the woman (together with the man) refers to the prompting of the tempter: "The serpent beguiled me." From this reply one must infer that the motive suggested by the serpent: "You will be like God," contributed in a decisive manner to the transgression of the Creator's prohibition, and gave an essential dimension to the first sin. This motive is not directly mentioned by God in his sentence of punishment. But it is undoubtedly present and dominates the whole historical and biblical scenario as a reminder of the gravity and stupidity of the pretension of opposing God or of substituting oneself for God. It indicates the most essential and profound dimension of original sin and of every sin which has its primary root therein.

It is significant and fitting that in the wake of the response to man's first sin, God should turn his attention to the tempter, "the ancient serpent" of which the author of the Book of Revelation will say that "he deceives the whole world" (cf. Rev 12:9: "the deceiver of the whole world"). According to Genesis, the Lord said to the serpent: "Because you have done this, cursed are you." The words of the curse addressed to the serpent concern him whom Christ will call "the father of lies" (cf. Jn 8:44). But at the same time, in that divine response to the first sin, the struggle is announced which will be waged throughout all of human history between "the father of lies" and the woman and her offspring.

The Second Vatican Council declared itself very clearly on this subject: "A monumental struggle against the powers of darkness pervades the whole history of man. The battle was joined from the very origins of the world and will continue until the last day.... Caught in this conflict, man is obliged to wrestle constantly if he is to cling to what is good, nor can he achieve his own integrity without great efforts and the help of God's grace" (GS 37).

"Man finds that by himself he is unable to overcome the assaults of evil successfully, so that everyone feels as though bound by chains." But to this strong expression the Council sets out in juxtaposition the truth about redemption with an affirmation of faith no less strong and decisive: "The Lord himself came to free and strengthen man, renewing him inwardly and casting out 'the prince of this world' (Jn 12:31), who held him in bondage of sin" (GS 13).

These observations of the Magisterium of the Church today repeat in a precise and homogeneous way the truth about sin and redemption, expressed initially in Genesis 3:15, and later in the whole of Sacred Scripture. Let us hear once again the words of Gaudium et Spes: "Although set by God in a state of rectitude, man...abused his freedom at the very start of history. He lifted himself up against God, and sought to attain his goal apart from him" (GS 13). Evidently it concerns a sin in the strict sense of the word, whether in the case of the first sin or in that of every other human sin. But the Council does not fail to recall that the first sin was committed by man "enticed by the evil one" (GS 13). As we read in the Book of Wisdom: "Through the devil's envy death entered the world, and those who belong to his party experience it" (Wis 2:24). It seems that in this case "death" signifies both the sin itself (that is to say, the death of the soul as the loss of divine life conferred by sanctifying grace), and also the death of the body deprived of the hope of the glorious resurrection. Man who transgressed the law regarding "the tree of the knowledge of good and evil," has been separated by the Lord God from the "tree of life" (Gen 3:22), in the perspective of his whole earthly history.

The Letter to the Ephesians describes this well: "For we are not contending against flesh and blood, but against the principalities, against the powers, against the world rulers of this present darkness, against the supernatural hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places" (6:12). But also the thought of the appalling reality of sin which weighs on the whole of history but particularly in our time, forces us back to the tremendous truth of those biblical and conciliar words on "the monumental struggle against the powers of darkness." But we should not forget that a light is shed on this mystery of the powers of evil from the very beginning which frees history from the nightmare of an inexorable condemnation—the announcement of the Savior.