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Would Jesus Have Come If Adam Had Not Sinned? Why Did He Wait So Long Before Coming?

December 11, 2018 21 Comments

Reproduction of image by Georg Cornicelius (1888)(original destroyed)

Continuing our series of questions related to the Incarnation, we next ponder whether Jesus would have come at all had we not sinned in the garden. We also consider why He waited thousands of years before coming to our rescue.

Would Jesus have come if Adam had not sinned?

St. Thomas Aquinas (in his Summa Theologica) first states that there are different opinions on the matter. He also notes that God’s power is not limited and therefore God could have become incarnate even if sin had not existed. However, St. Thomas believes that if man had not sinned then the Son would not have become incarnate. As I often do, I’ve presented St. Thomas’ words in bold italics, while my commentary appears in plain red text.

For such things as spring from God’s will, and beyond the creature’s due, can be made known to us only through being revealed in the Sacred Scripture, in which the Divine Will is made known to us. Hence, since everywhere in the Sacred Scripture the sin of the first man is assigned as the reason of Incarnation, it is more in accordance with this to say that the work of Incarnation was ordained by God as a remedy for sin; so that, had sin not existed, Incarnation would not have been (Summa Theologica, Part III, Question 1, Article 1).

While theological speculation may have its place, it is certain that the Incarnation was instituted by God first and foremost as a remedy for sin. While the Incarnation offers more than is required to remedy sin (e.g., an increase in human dignity (because God joined our family), God’s visitation, the opening of a heavenly (not merely earthly) paradise), Scripture presents remedy for sin as God’s primary motive. In remedying our sin, God shows the greatness of His mercy because He does not merely restore us but elevates us to a higher place. The least born into the Kingdom of God is greater that the exemplar of the Old Covenant, John the Baptist. Had we not sinned and had God merely wanted to elevate us, He could have done so in other ways. It seems to me that St. Thomas’ position is best suited to the evidence.

If the Incarnation is a remedy for sin, why did God wait so long to apply it?

St. Thomas provides a sensible answer that addresses aspects of the question we might not have considered. His answer is found in the Summa Theologica (part III, question 1, article 5). First, he addresses why the Incarnation did not happen before sin:

Since the work of Incarnation is principally ordained to the restoration of the human race by blotting out sin, it is manifest that it was not fitting for God to become incarnate at the beginning of the human race before sin. For medicine is given only to the sick. Hence our Lord Himself says (Matthew 9:12-13): “They that are in health need not a physician, but they that are ill … For I am not come to call the just, but sinners.”

Next, St. Thomas addresses why the Incarnation did not happen quickly, soon after Original Sin, rather than thousands of years later. He sets forth four reasons:

First, on account of the manner of man’s sin, which had come of pride; hence man was to be liberated in such a manner that he might be humbled and see how he stood in need of a deliverer. … For first of all God left man under the natural law, with the freedom of his will, in order that he might know his natural strength; and when he failed in it, he received the law; whereupon, by the fault, not of the law, but of his nature, the disease gained strength; so that having recognized his infirmity he might cry out for a physician, and beseech the aid of grace.

Quick solutions to problems do not always permit proper healing to take place. Most parents know that if they solve every problem a child has, important lessons may be lost. It is often beneficial to live with our questions for a while so that the answers are more appreciated and more effective.

Indeed, it took us humans quite a while to acknowledge the seriousness of our sin and pride. Shortly after Eden, the tower of Babel indicated that human pride was still a grave problem. Even when given the Law, a good thing, the flesh corrupted it, turning its perfunctory observance into an occasion for pride. The prophets then had to keep summoning Israel and Judah back to the Lord and away from prideful self-reliance. The Assyrian invasion of the Northern Kingdom and the Babylonian Captivity only further illustrated the depths of our sin, so that this cry went up: “O Lord, that you would rend the heavens and come down” (Is 64:1).

We had to be led gradually to recognize our profound need for a savior. Otherwise, even if the remedy were offered, too few might reach for it.

Secondly, on account of the order of furtherance in good, whereby we proceed from imperfection to perfection. Hence the Apostle says (1 Corinthians 15:46-47): “Yet that was not first which is spiritual, but that which is natural; afterwards that which is spiritual … The first man was of the earth, earthy; the second man from heaven, heavenly.”

There is a kind of theology of grace implicit in this answer. Grace builds on our nature, and it is our nature, physically and spiritually, to grow gradually. While sudden conversions and growth spurts have their place, the best and most typical growth is that which occurs steadily and in stages.

Thirdly, on account of the dignity of the incarnate Word, for on the words (Galatians 4:4), “But when the fullness of the time was come,” a gloss says: “The greater the judge who was coming, the more numerous was the band of heralds who ought to have preceded him.”

Here is underscored the dignity of the Son of God, that many should precede Him, announcing Him. There was also a need for us to be prepared to meet Him, so that we would not miss Him or refuse Him when He came. As Malachi says, See, I will send the prophet Elijah to you before that great and dreadful day of the Lord comes. He will turn the hearts of the parents to their children, and the hearts of the children to their parents; or else I will come and strike the land with total destruction (Mal 4:5-6). Those who were prepared were able to abide the day of the Lord’s coming and heed His call.

Fourthly, lest the fervor of faith should cool by the length of time, for the charity of many will grow cold at the end of the world. Hence (Luke 18:8) it is written: “But yet the Son of Man, when He cometh, shall He find think you, faith on earth?”

This is an interesting aspect of the question that many might not consider; we typically ponder more what is good for us than what is good for succeeding generations. It is sadly true, though, that fervor, both collective and individual, can fade as a wait becomes lengthy. Therefore, St. Thomas suggests that God appointed a time for the Incarnation within human history such that the greatest possible number of people could be saved.

Comments (21)

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  1. For medicine is only given to the sick. That’s perhaps the best explanation I have heard on the topic. It was necessary for the world to face the impossible challenge of our “works” not being enough to wipe away our sins – hence the need for the redeemer. Great and informative piece.

    • But the best medicine is a development of that which is already, by very nature, our food – our very Bread of Life, in all senses, because “we were chosen in Christ Jesus before the foundation of the World.” He is our Redeemer because He is our Saviour (giver of life — “and life in abundance”)

  2. Damian says:

    Aquinas is wrong on this one; Scotus is right — Jesus would have come either way, and Jesus’ ultimate plan with the Incarnation was not merely Redemption, but Divinization: as all of the Fathers of the Church make clear and which is finally beginning to be realized again in Catholic Theology. I recommend “Called to be Children of God”, Ignatius Press, written by Fr. David Meconi and Carl Olson.

    • Matt says:

      If Adam and Eve had never sinned, if all of mankind was still totally innocent, even frolicking fancy free in the Garden (with no shame), would God still have become man?

      Certainly He would not do so for salvation purposes, there would be no need to, but could there be another reason that God became man?

      I’m with the Church Fathers in saying that Thomas Aquinas has gone off the rails here.

      Despite the “what if” and highly speculative nature of the question, there are good reasons for thinking that Jesus would have come and become one of us. Salvation is not the only reason for Emmanuel, God with us. He became man also because He loves us and wanted to join us to Him more fully.

      Pope Benedict speaks of the Annunciation as a marriage proposal. There is something in that — that Jesus wanted to “marry” humanity. God wanted to establish, not merely a parental relationship with us, but a spousal relationship as well, the fullness of love in a communion of persons that is both unitive and fruitful. In love, He wanted to join fully with humanity, not merely spiritually, which is only partially, but in the fullness of our being, spirit and body, two become one, wholly apart from the issue of salvation (See also CCC 456 et seq.).

      As Pope Benedict said on Christmas 2005, “The Incarnation is the culmination of creation.” From the very beginning, before God ever scooped up the mud and dust and formed humanity and breathed into us, it was God’s plan that He would in time enter into His creation in such a way that we could be one with Him.

      Creation did not end with Adam and then Eve. And God’s plan for man does not stop at his redemption and salvation, that is, reconciling man to God, but continues toward our sanctification, that is, making men more like God.

      • Anne says:

        That is so beautiful I think it must be true.

      • And this does fit with scripture. He comes “that we may have life and life in abundance”. Saviour primarily means giver of life. St Paul says we were “chosen in Christ Jesus before the foundation of the world” (Tim & Eph.s). The Gk fathers said “God became Man, that Man might become God”. Because we have a Jesus shaped hole, His flesh is our Bread of Life.

        Because He is our food he can be our medicine. Colossians says Our Lord is the “first born of creation” and therefore “the first-born from the dead”. The Greek/Scotist vision explains best how the Crucifixion works, that is how Christ shares our human nature (taking it off a Platonic peg in heaven post-sin, as an emergency rescue plan, as if natures are abstract Forms, does not work in a scientific world). The flesh of Christ is already the cornerstone of creation, and therefore the fullest act of love and sanctification is Christ’s death. (hence the scriptural references to the high point of the Incarnation, in a fallen world, being Our Lord’s death.

        Christ is Saviour, in the Greek sense of giving life. He is our Redeemer by healing and sanctifying from with our very being.

        We need such a vision in our post-Greek scientific culture, to explain how Our Lord shares our nature.

        • Michael Siddle says:

          There must be more to our humanity and creation that we are not grasping. We are told that our sinfulness is due to original sin. However, Adam and Eve were born without original sin and yet, exercising their free will, they sinned so there must be a necessity for God to bring about a change in us at least after death otherwise we would still be capable of sinning throughout eternity, that is, if we still have free will after death. Perhaps the Incarnation was always necessary to bring about that change in humanity? Something to ponder.

    • St. Thomas represents the majority position on this question in the Western tradition, but when you take the Fathers and (especially) the Eastern tradition into account, I agree with you that the absolute predestination of Christ is the more fulfilling doctrine. But I wouldn’t make Duns Scotus its proponent, because his peculiar take is problematic. There are far better voices on this in the Western tradition. There’s the other Scotus — John Scotus Eriugena; or St. Albert the Great, Thomas’s teacher; heck, even St. Thomas himself took the position of absolute predestination in his Scriptum super sententiis, before reversing course in the Summa.

      For me, the Scriptural motivation comes by reading Genesis 1 in light of John 1. The most natural reading is to understand humankind’s creation in the image and likeness of God to point forward to the Incarnation, independent of the Fall. The Incarnation is the fullness and perfection of creation.

      In that regard, one of the best voices in the medieval tradition is that of St. Hildegard of Bingen (like St. Thomas, a Doctor of the Church), especially in her “Book of Divine Works.” She demonstrates there that one can hold the two motivations for the Incarnation–reparation for sin and its absolute predestination–together, without needing to choose one or the other. Although her idea that the imago Dei is the Incarnate Christ’s flesh is woven throughout the book and comes especially to the forefront in her commentary on Genesis 1 in Part 2, she gives an excellent summary of her idea in Part 1, Vision 4, ch. 14: https://books.google.com/books?id=euF0DwAAQBAJ&printsec=frontcover&dq=isbn:0813231299&hl=en&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwj_6qnllorfAhUGoYMKHTHpCEYQ6AEIKjAA#v=onepage&q=Therefore%2C%20God%20himself&f=false

  3. Tom says:

    See also the exultet: O Felix Culpa!
    “O happy fault
    that earned so great, so glorious a Redeemer!”

  4. Darren says:

    Funny that the parochial vicor as the church I attend had mentioned to me that theologians ponder this question. I pondered it for a week or so. I didn’t think about either redemption or divinization but as a personable God. I also thought about the book written by Sr. Mary Agreda who wrote “The Mystical City of God”. In it, God revealed that the 2nd person of the Trinity would become incarnate to the angels. In this, Lucifer thought he should be the chosen vessel and thus rebelled. This happened before sin. God knows all and I guess He knew sin would enter the world with this knowledge to the angels and thus a savior was needed. But I don’t hold to this.

    Lucifer had a choice. God stated the incarnation before Lucifer’s downfall. So, if Lucifer would of been humble and not rebelled, Jesus would of come anyway. God doesn’t change on His Word.

    Just my thoughts on the subject.

  5. I think the real question is, “If Adam had not sinned, would Jesus still have come, but would He have had to sacrifice Himself and die for us?” If Adam had not sinned, mankind would have inherited the preternatural gifts, including immortality, enjoyed by Adam and Eve. At some point, any of their descendants could sin as Adam and Eve did, but it would not affect all mankind, just them and their descendants. That would result in a fractured mankind and would likely require the Incarnation to save that fallen segment of mankind. It would also bring the Eucharist to the non-fallen segment of mankind. If no one fell, Jesus could still have come to bring us the Eucharist, even if He did not have to sacrifice Himself and die.

    Why did Jesus wait so long. Jesus came to atone for the sins of man. He came at the fullness of time, meaning He waited until all sins that man would commit had to have happened before He could atone for those sins. If you think about it, every sin we have, even though we have new variations on a theme, had happened by the time Jesus came.

  6. J.P.G. says:

    Thank you dear Rev.Msgr . , for helping many to stay in the great adventure of seeking God , as mentioned by St.Augustine ( thank you EWTN for that quote today ), by inviting many to ponder these topics.
    Along with the many related thoughts shared above, there is also the one given by Bl.Emmerich , who came much later than St.Thomas A.; she mentions that the Incarnation was ‘delayed’ due to the efforts of the enemy to destroy the holy family line that The Father was preparing , to bring forth The Woman who would be conceived in the PreFall plan of purity and holiness , just as Adam and Eve would have had holy children , free of the enemy induced lies in this area .
    In His great mercy and generosity , we are given the graces of the Immaculate Conception of our Mother, in our baptism , our priests being the channels of those graces .

    God had provided the Tree of Life in The Garden and thus conceivable that He could have used same , to bring the blessings and graces , even as given in the Eucharist may be , yet , loved us enough , even after having foreseen what it would cost , to take up the debts of our rebellion against that Father , as manifested in our hatreds of each other , upon Himself , in The Son and to forgive us .

    May He bless us to receive that love and its fruit of mercy , in so many occasions faced by us all daily .
    Thank you .

  7. Fr Luke Mary Fletcher CFR says:

    I usually love your articles. You are way off on this one. How is it that you gave no mention to the Scotistic view? Scotus was correct on the Immaculate Conception. Scotus was correct on the primacy of Christ. I would love for you to study the Scotus’ view and return to this topic in a future article. Thank you and God bless!

  8. Steven Merten says:

    Hello Msgr. Pope,
    I think we should consider free willed Adam being God’s ‘First Contact’ with intelligent life, other than Himself.

    Second Psalm puts Jesus’, ‘Eternally Begotten of God’, at Jesus’ Resurrection. If we consider Jesus being Eternally born into Omni-Presence to all physical time, past, present and future, upon His Resurrection, Jesus can go from His Resurrection, to bring all of Creation into existence, as Omni-Present to all physical time, Eternal, God. Spiritually, the physical Incarnation could have happened after Jesus’ Eternal birth to God the Father, upon His Resurrection into the Spiritual Realm.

    The Book of Job indicates the saints, ‘Sons of God’, were present at Creation. It seems saints, becoming Eternally begotten of God, at the end of physical time, from then on, also live in Spiritual omni-presence to the whole of physical time, and can watch God bring Creation into existence.

    JOB 38:7
    Where were you when I founded the earth? Tell me, if you have understanding. Who stretched out the measuring line for it? Into what were its pedestals sunk, and who laid the cornerstone, While the morning stars sang in chorus and all the sons of God shouted for joy?

    Why did God create man, Adam, and then recreate man, Adam and Eve? There seems to be a learning curve for God, once ‘First Contact’ is made and God discusses with man what needs to be done to correct the situation. God seems to cherish His relationship with man, in which the future is not yet laid out.

    To us, presently existing in the physical time realm, God Exists in Omni-Presence to the whole of physical time. To our God in the Spiritual Realm, He seems to watch and learn how free-willed man’s actions play out, after ‘First Contact’, upon Creation.

    What do you think?

  9. According to Blessed Jon Duns Scotus and St Maximillian Kolbe, the Incarnation was predestined for the sake of Love. The Immaculate Conception is Uncreated Love Holy Spirit and Created Loved Virgin Mary. The Incarnation was coming through these two forms of Love.

    Ave Maria,

    Bradley Cooper
    Sugar Land, Texas

  10. Kathryn Kirby says:

    Which artist sketched that powerful depiction of Jesus, please? Thanks!

    [The image was obtained on pixabay.com, which does not provide information on who produced it. Likewise, unfortunately, neither an exhaustive Internet search nor asking a nearby docent at the National Gallery of Art resulted in finding out that information. We’ll keep looking though. — the Blog Administrator]

    • RAY - PORTSMOUTH - UK says:

      HI KATHRYN KIRBY AND – BLOG.ADMIN . . . ?? I didn’t even know we had one!! This is the very first time I have ever seen anybody other than Fr Charles himself – (and then only very occasionally!) reply to anybody’s questions . . . . . !!!
      It would have been nice to have received replies to a number of emails and other items I myself have sent to Fr Charles over the last three years!!
      Anyway – you will, I hope, be delighted to learn that the very fine artist who produced this particular ‘Christ’ (and lots of others like it) is the very excellent Russian, Ivan Nikolaevich Kramskoi (1837-1887)
      Do take a look at this link and a very simple Google search will find you many other excellent sites referring to this brilliant man’s great art work.
      http://www.19thc-artworldwide.org/autumn03/272-the-qatheismq-of-jesus-in-russian-art-representations-of-christ-by-ivan-nikolevich-kramskoy-vasily-polenov-and-nikolai-ghe
      God Bless All – and a very Happy Christmas
      PS Fr Charles knows my email address if he would care to ‘now’ reply to my emails . . . . . . . .

      [Thanks for the suggestion of Kramskoy, but in seeking verification, this 1916 book by Albert Edward Bailey confirms that the original work is by German painter Georg Cornicelius (1825–1898) and it originally depicted Satan in the background tempting Christ with a crown. It was housed in the Berlin national gallery, but other research discloses that it was destroyed in a bombing raid during World War II — Blog Administrator]

  11. Kathryn Kirby says:

    Thank you both for responding! It’s a really stunning painting (sketch?). Knowing it was in the midst of his temptations helps to explain his eyes. Really incredible. Blog administrator, will you please give the name of the book? The link didn’t work. Thanks again, and blessed Christmas.

    [The link didn’t work. Well, that’s annoying. The book is “The Gospel In Art,” by Albert Edward Bailey (1916). Try this link to Google books or this PDF, pages 131-34. It looks like it is also available at Amazon, but it is uncertain if it is the same version. — Blog Administrator]

  12. Bernadette says:

    Between Nikolaevich Kramskoi and the link provided as well as Georg Cornicelius, what a treasure trove of art to be found!

    Thank you so much. I’ve just done a Google search – What food for meditation looking at all these works of art! God bless!

  13. Martin Vu says:

    Hi All,

    I would like to repost a comment from M. Savage on this same topic from 2016, which I think is quite interesting. If anyone knows the origins of the information given, I would gladly want to know.

    Mr. M. Savage says:
    December 24, 2016 at 04:57
    In the order of things , the Incarnation was God’s primary thought. Next in order was a companion (and also the means by which it would come pass) ie Our Lady.

    If Adam had not sinned, Our Lord would still have come, but in all his glory.

    To credit Lucifer with getting one over God by requiring him to become incarnate is putting Lucifer over God.

    Lucifer’s mistake is many fold: firstly he mistook the identity of Eve with the woman he saw in the vision described in Apocalypse; secondly, he mistook Adam as the grown child of Eve and the one he would “non Servum!”, and now which he thought he had beaten; thirdly, Lucifer knew now that the Incarnation was still to happen and the Woman and the Child of Apocalypse would appear and conquer him, the dragon of Apocalypse, “I will put enmity between her ‘seed’ and yours”; and that, ultimately, the Son would be even more glorified than before given all he would suffer.

    Merry Christmas to you all!

  14. Fr Khouri says:

    Christ would have come even if Adam had not sinned to know first hand human life as well as to show the face and the way of God to His people…this is the teaching of the Christian East.

    Augustine, Anselm and Aquinas made it about Christ coming to shed blood to appease a watchful Father. Um, no.

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