A Difficult Question
The question of how two perfect people could sin is one that has been raised countless times throughout church history. Typically the question is phrased as follows —
If God made everything, and he saw that it was good — i.e. without either structural or moral corruption and evil — then how could Adam and Eve have sinned?
For some of the church fathers, the answer lies in the free creature’s capacity to choose that which is not-God, i.e. non-being or, what is the same thing in our parlance, the existential state of spiritual and material corruption and decay.
[N.B. – For more on this subject of non-being in the writing Athanasius and Irenaeus stay tuned to BiblicalTrinitarian.com. I will be publishing an article on Athanasius’ theology and why he was not an annihilationist.]
The distinction between God, who is being and goodness itself, and his creation which is only good and only exists to the degree that it participates in God’s goodness and, therefore, being, goes a long way in helping us understand how the act of sin could be possible. Because he is not God, man is not ontologically simple. His being and his attributes are distinct from one another. He was created, moreover, a mutable creature, capable of becoming worse or better. But does this help us understand how it could be morally possible for a perfect man and woman to be tempted to sin?
The Moral Problem of Adam and Eve’s Temptation to Sin
Adam and Eve’s temptation is seemingly impossible given that they was created righteous, without sin, and with intellectual capacities as of yet not tarnished by the Fall. Considering a key text of Scripture that addresses the origin of temptation in the human soul, viz. James 1:13-15, this is problematic. James writes:
Let no one say when he is tempted, “I am being tempted by God,” for God cannot be tempted with evil, and he himself tempts no one. But each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire. Then desire when it has conceived gives birth to sin, and sin when it is fully grown brings forth death.
If Adam and Eve were tempted by their own desires, does it not follow that their desires were for that which is against God’s law? It does. And if the desire to do what is against God’s law is itself a sin against God’s command for us to love him with all of our minds, does it not follow that Adam and Eve were in sin before they broke God’s commandment? This also appears to be the case.
Then what do we make of our first parents’ temptation to sin?
Well, considering that the apostle James is addressing post-lapsarian (i.e. post-Fall/already-fallen) men and women, we have to ask: Does James 1:13-15 even apply to Adam and Eve?
And the answer, I think, is — No, it does not.
Adam and Eve were externally tempted to sin, even as our Lord Jesus Christ was externally tempted to sin. That is to say, they were all tempted by an external agent, not by their internal corrupt desires, to do what is against God’s Law. However, just as our Lord was born a perfect, sinless man, so too our first parents were created perfect, without sin.
James 1:13-15, then, is not a text that we can apply to Adam and Eve’s temptation in the garden.
A Category Error
Put another way: The moral problem of Adam and Eve’s temptation arises from a logical fallacy known as a category error. Non-fallen man’s experience of internal temptation (whatever that might be, if indeed it could be anything at all) is not recorded for us in Scripture; therefore, the description that James gives is not applicable to Adam and Eve. These two kinds of temptation are, of course, related, but in precisely what way they are related has not been revealed by God, nor need it be in order for us to know that the Fall of man was not due to a defect in Adam and Eve’s constitution as rational, moral creatures.
The problem, then, is not really a problem at all, unless we mis-apply James 1:13-15 to Adam. How Adam and Eve could be tempted and fall into sin is not a question that Scripture allows us to answer, seeing as it only describes temptation as it occurs in already-fallen mankind. Scripturally, we have the following revealed to us —
- God created Adam and Eve upright.
- Adam and Eve were mutable.
- Adam and Eve were capable of sinning.
- Adam and Eve were also capable of refraining from sin.
- However, Adam and Eve chose to sin.
- Fallen man now experiences temptation in the manner described in James 1:13-15.
Then What About Eve?
In Genesis 3:6, we are told that
…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 who was with her, and he ate.
Does this scenario match the one described by James 1:13-15? I don’t think so.
Let me explain.
Firstly, the scenario in Genesis 3 is an external temptation. In other words, the serpent tempts Eve to do what is in her capacity to do, but which God forbids. It was within Eve’s physical, mental, and volitional capacity – as one who is mutable, ontologically distinct from God – to disobey the divine commandment and eat of the forbidden fruit. James, however, is dealing with the desires of one’s heart. That is to say, James 1:13-15 is dealing with internal temptation that arises from one’s own inner corruption. Neither Adam nor Eve were internally corrupt when facing the temptation of the serpent.
Secondly, the Scripture’s don’t tell us that Eve was led astray by her desires. Rather, they tell us that she was deceived by the serpent. This stated by her in Gen 3:13, and reiterated by the apostle Paul when he explains that “the serpent deceived Eve by his cunning,” (2nd Cor 11:3), and elsewhere states that “…the woman was deceived and became a transgressor” (1st Tim 2:14). Note that Eve’s “seeing” is not entirely wrong. She saw that the tree was “good for food,” and, strictly speaking, it was good for food. There was nothing intrinsic to the nature of the forbidden fruit that made eating it a sin. As Geerdhardus Vos explains —
God chose one tree from among many and “arbitrarily” told man not to eat of it…If the tree of the knowledge of good and evil had been naturally different from other trees it could not have served its unique purpose. That the commandment might appear as purely “arbitrary” the specially chosen tree had to be naturally like other trees. For the supernatural to appear as supernatural the natural had to appear as really natural. The supernatural could not be recognized for what it was unless the natural were also recognized for what it was. There had to be regularity if there was to be a genuine exception.
1. By this tree it would be made known and brought to light whether man would fall into the state of evil or would be confirmed in the state of immutable goodness.
2. By this tree man, who for the present knew evil only as an idea, could be led to the practical knowledge of evil. Or also because he, remaining unfallen, would still, by means of temptation overcome, gain clearer insight into the essence of evil as transgression of God’s law and disregard of His sovereign power, and likewise would attain the highest knowledge of immutable moral goodness.
From the true conception of the purpose of the tree we must distinguish the interpretation placed upon it by the tempter according to Gen. 3.5. This carries a twofold implication: first that the tree has in itself, magically, the power of conferring knowledge of good and evil. This lowers the plane of the whole transaction from the religious and moral to the pagan-magical sphere. And secondly, Satan explains the prohibition from the motive of envy. … Again, the divine statement in Gen. 3.22 alludes to this deceitful representation of the tempter. It is ironical.
Moreover, Eve saw that the tree “was a delight to the eyes,” and it clearly was, given the absence of corruption in the physical world and God’s pronouncement that all he had created was indeed “very good” (cf. Gen 1:31).
What she thought about the tree was correct, then, insofar as the tree was considered in and of itself (i.e. apart from its symbolic function in the covenant of works). But here is where she went wrong —
She believed the serpent’s claim that the tree was to be desired to make one wise.
And this came from outside of herself. The tree neither appeared nor actually had the capacity to actually make one wise. It was a beautiful tree (we can safely say this, I think, given the divine pronouncement in Gen 1:31). And it was a tree that could be eaten for the sustenance of physical life. This last point is not theological speculation, but implied by Gen 1:29-30. Animals were not forbidden from eating of any tree in the garden. They could eat of the tree and not die, for death entered into the creation through Adam’s sin.
Eve’s desires, as leading her away from obedience to God, are not mentioned in Gen 3. Yes, there is a mention of the fruit’s desirability, but it comes in the context of Eve evaluating the tree in light of what she knows about it via natural revelation (i.e. it is a beautiful, edible creation of God), and what she thinks is true of it given the serpent’s lie (i.e. it is desirable to make one wise).
Given that the temptation spoken of in James 1:13-15 arises from the internal corruption of already-fallen man, it is clear to me that James 1:13-15 is not applicable to Adam and Eve’s situation. It seems, in fact, that an attempt to read the Fall narrative in light of James 1:13-15 constitutes a category error that, unintentionally, places sin in the hearts of Adam and Eve prior to their sin corrupting them fully internally, i.e. in their hearts.
Why is this significant?
I think it is significant because if it is the case that Adam and Eve’s temptation to sin cannot be accounted for by an appeal to James’ description of fallen man’s internal temptation to sin, then the question of why Adam and Eve would sin, despite their moral and physical goodness, needs to be properly identified as one that we cannot answer on the basis of Scripture, since Scripture doesn’t reveal this to us. It’s true that some may, as did Irenaeus, speculate that man’s fall into sin was partly due to his ignorance and spiritual infancy. And maybe there is some merit to that theory. But what we definitely cannot do is say that our progenitors were internally compelled, by virtue of some unbridled desire, to sin. This would make God the author of sin in an ontological sense, as he would be the one who implanted within them a corruption leading them to disobey his law.
The simplest answer, I think, is the best —
Why and how physically and morally good persons would and could sin is not something that we have revealed to us in Scripture. What is revealed is simply that we are now sinners who are tempted in the manner presented in James 1:13-15 and, therefore, are in need of a Savior.
Are we trusting him to deliver us from our sins?
If you would be saved from the sin in your heart that drives you to lust after that which is forbidden, then turn to Christ in repentant faith and believe the Gospel.
Today is the day of salvation.
Soli Deo Gloria