The Anatomy of Original Sin

James Tissot (1902)

In the readings at Mass this week we are pondering the account of original sin. Let’s explore the stages of sin that are manifested in Adam’s and Eve’s struggle.

Many tend to describe original sin merely as the eating of a forbidden fruit. While this accurate, it is incomplete and leads many to wonder why all this trouble came just from eating a piece of fruit. I believe it is helpful to consider the sin of Adam and Eve more richly. While the eating of the fruit is an external act, like any human act it proceeds from the heart and admits of some complexity.

I will use the following passage from the Book of James to help frame our reflections:

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 (James 1:13-15).

From this, we can distinguish the following stages of sin:

  1. The lure of temptation
  2. The engagement of desire
  3. The conception of sin
  4. The birth of sin
  5. Spiritual death

When we examine the sin of Adam and Eve we can see these stages at work.

Preamble – God put Adam in the garden even before Eve was created:

The LORD God took the man and placed him in the Garden of Eden in order to have him work it and guard it. And the Lord God commanded the man, “You are free to eat from any tree in the garden; but you must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for when you eat from it you will certainly die” (Gen 2:15-17).

Adam’s task was to work the garden as well as to guard (keep watch over) it. There was also a boundary that God told Adam not to cross. He did not explain why but simply noted the danger and asked Adam to trust Him.

Adam was to tend, till, and trust. Adam will fall short in two of these, and they are aspects of what we have come to call original sin.

1. The Lure of Temptation – The story opens with the description of the serpent, the most cunning of all the wild creatures God made (Genesis 3:1). While most of us imagine a snake of some sort, that description is given only after God curses Satan, whom the creature allegorically represents. Exactly what it looked like before the fall is not stated, and hence we need not imagine a talking snake. Whatever the creature, it is representative of the way in which Satan interacts with Eve.

Cunning and subtle, Satan uses intellectual arguments to appeal to aspects of what would later come to be called pride and sensuality. He also seeks to undermine her trust in God’s goodness.

Satan begins by attempting to make God seem unreasonable, suggesting that He forbade them from eating from any of the trees in the Garden. Eve easily deals with this temptation and dismisses it, correctly stating that it is only one tree that has been proscribed. This is a common tactic of Satan’s even today: presenting God as unreasonable, demanding too many things, and forbidding too much. This accusation wholly ignores the fact that God has given incredible liberty to human persons: unlike any other creatures except angels, human beings are permitted to say no to God.

Satan’s second attack is more successful. He declares that God is not telling them the truth. In effect, he says that God (who has given them everything) is holding something very important back from them. Satan argues that God is restraining them from being the gods they deserve to be. In effect, he says, “Why do you allow anyone to have power over you? Why do you let anyone tell you what to do? Why do you not instead say, ‘I will do what I want to do and I will decide whether it is right or wrong’?” Satan appeals to their incredible pride by saying, “You will be gods!”

Thus, Eve is in the first stage of sin, the lure of temptation. One may well wonder where Adam is. Satan has been talking to Eve, but where is Adam? The text says that he is right there with her! (Gen 3:6)

This is a problem integral to Adam’s sin. He was told, among other things, to guard the garden, to keep watch over it. It is arguable whether he could have prevented Satan from being there at all (he probably could not), but surely he could have tried to protect his wife! Satan is there and Adam says and does nothing. He does not try to ward off the evil one nor does he assist his wife in resisting the tempting thoughts. No, he stands there quietly, a passive husband.

As the head of his family, Adam was obligated to come to his wife’s aid, to protect her, to assist her in this grave temptation and threat, but the text reports that he does nothing. Indeed, Adam is so unobtrusive that when I point out the sixth verse, which says that he was with Eve, people are surprised. Even many a passive husband would intervene if he were to see some strange individual speaking to his wife.

“But Father, but Father! Are you saying that Adam already sinned even before original sin was committed?” No, not necessarily. The point is that original sin is more complicated than merely biting into a piece of fruit. Like many sins, it has layers. Adam may not yet have sinned, but his silence is surely puzzling; indeed, it is troubling. It is not a sin to be tempted (even Jesus was tempted), but to do nothing in the face of temptation is to at least open the door to the next stage of sin.

2. The Engagement of Desire The text says, the woman saw 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 (Genesis 3:6).

Temptation is a thought that either occurs to us or is presented to us by another. If I were to say to you, “Why don’t we go down to the corner store and rob it?” I have simply presented you with an idea or proposed course of action, which may or may not appeal to you. Temptation of itself is merely a thought.

In the second stage of sin, the tempting thoughts of Satan stir up Eve’s desires. The fruit engages her sensual desires; it looks tasty and delights the eyes. It also engages her intellectual desires, for it has been described to her as a source of empowering wisdom.

Thus, temptation moves from being a mere thought to becoming a kind of force or power. Eve’s desires are engaged and ignited, making things more difficult. A purely intellectual response will not be enough; her will must be engaged so that her desires can be curbed and subject to truth and right reason. Either she will obey God (who has given her everything), and thus decide reasonably, or she will yield to temptation and desire by deciding to accept the proposal of Satan, who has given her nothing but an appeal to her sensuality and pride.

Again, note the silence of Adam. How tragic this is! Eve seems quite alone and without support. One would hope that in any marriage in which one spouse is struggling, the other would be strong. Adam remains silent; he is no leader. He seems to wait to see what his wife will do. Adam is a passive husband.

3. The Conception of Sin The text simply says, she took of its fruit (Genesis 3:6). In reaching out to take hold of and possess this fruit, Eve conceives sin in her heart. Her husband will do the same thing, taking hold of it before he eats it.

What are they taking hold of? Several things.

First, there is a colossal pride. Satan said, “You will be gods.” Now, Adam and Eve are laying hold of and thinking about this idea. They are laying hold of the prideful and rebellious notion that “I will do what I want to do and I will decide whether it is right or wrong. I will be under no one’s authority. I will do as I please. I answer to no one. I am god.”

They also sin against gratitude. God has given them everything, but even paradise is not enough; they want more. Ungratefully, they reject God. They turn to Satan, who promises more, but has delivered nothing.

Finally, and most problematically, they sin against trust. Note that the tree is called “The Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil.” In the Bible, “knowing” refers to more than simple intellectual knowing; it means knowing something by experience. Thus, in naming this tree “The Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil” and commanding them to stay away from it, God is saying, in effect,

“I am asking you to trust me to tell you what is good and what is evil and not to demand to know this personally for yourselves. I want you to trust me and to trust that I tell you this for your own good. If you take from that tree, you are insisting on knowing for yourself what is good and what is evil, and more importantly, you are insisting on knowing and experiencing evil.”

Adam and Eve refuse to trust God by insisting on knowing (experiencing) for themselves the difference between good and evil. The Catechism describes original sin in this manner:

Man, tempted by the devil, let his trust in his Creator die in his heart and, abusing his freedom, disobeyed God’s command. This is what man’s first sin consisted of. All subsequent sin would be disobedience toward God and lack of trust in his goodness (CCC # 397).

So, we see that at the heart of original sin (and all other sin) is a refusal to trust God and His infinite goodness and it is an abuse of our freedom. All of this has been conceived in the hearts of Adam and Eve as they lay hold of this fruit.

4. The Birth of Sin Little needs to be said of this stage: the sin is engaged. Note that Eve eats first and then entices her husband to do so as well. I will discuss this topic further in Monday’s post, in which I will reflect on St. Paul’s commentary on the “Sin of Adam.” For today, suffice it to say that the sins of Adam and Eve are described somewhat differently. Eve is described as being deceived while Adam is described as being, in effect, seduced. Neither of them is without blame, but the nature of their temptation and the way in which their desires are engaged is different.

5. Spiritual Death Adam and Eve do not immediately die a physical death; rather, they die spiritually. This is symbolized in many ways in the verses ahead.

As they become aware of their nakedness, they feel exposed, no longer innocent. They feel vulnerable and ashamed. Righteousness and integrity have died in their hearts. They are now “dis-integrated” and disoriented, turned away from God and turned in on themselves.

Most seriously, they are cut off from God, who is the source of life. When God walks through the garden at the usual time, they do not run to Him, but from Him; they are afraid. Having died spiritually and embraced the darkness, they now fear Him who is Life and Light. They cannot endure His presence.

Recriminations follow and then prophecy of suffering, strife, and ultimately death; the wages of sin is death. Had they been willing to trust Him, God would have spared them of this, but Adam and Eve wanted to know for themselves. Mysteriously, they sought a “better deal” than paradise, even knowing that its price would be death—so tragic, foolish, and horrifying!

Too often, original sin is reduced to the mere eating of a piece of fruit. In fact, far more was at stake and far more was going on beneath the surface in the subtleties of the story. There were many moving parts and numerous layers to the sad reality we call original sin.

Cross-posted at the Catholic Standard: The Anatomy of Original Sin

6 Replies to “The Anatomy of Original Sin”

  1. Wonderful, Monsignor. One question that I still have is what is referred to as “Oh, happy fall,”; (Felix Culpa). Does this imply that we now, due to Jesus’ crucifixion and rising from the dead, have access to something greater heaven, than what we would have had if not for the first sin?

    Thank you again. I read your blog most mornings and share them with others.

  2. Thank you Rev.Msgr . for helping many to look into own depths as well as around too, to discern the fallen traits and help to renounce same , to invoke The Blood and Water of the graces and deliverance in and through our Lord , to thus deepen in gratitude for the holiness our Lord grants us , to do away with the desires to seek after any false roles /seductions in lives of others .

    The mention of Adam being seduced ( St.Paul only mentioning Eve being
    deceived ) – good to see the Catechism explaining it well too – .

    Our Bl.Mother , asking Angel Gabriel – ‘how can this be since I do not know man’ as the occasion of using her gift of wisdom ,to ensure that the Angel is not a fallen one , but is in line with God’s plan of the virgin birth , since she too would have been well aware of such a promise .
    Thank you .

  3. Ven. Mary of Agreda went into the Creation and why Lucifer approached Eve first, away from Adam.
    The angels were told in Heaven that God would create a universe, and humankind, whom the angels were to consider brothers. Lucifer argued quietly that HE wanted to do the creating, and there was no way he would consider something that came later to be equal to the angels.
    Then God said that the Second Person of the Trinity would become a human being. Lucifer muttered to several other angels that HE wanted to be that human instead.
    Then God said that the Second Person would be “born of a woman”, and that the angels were to consider the woman their Queen. At that point Lucifer balked loudly that he would NEVER consider a mere mortal to be better than himself.
    At that, the other angels declared that he didn’t belong in Heaven and asked God if they could kick him out. God told them, “Yes, but not yet.”
    He then told Lucifer what He told the serpent in the Garden: “I will place an enmity between thee and the woman, between your seed and hers. She will crush your head, and you will lie in wait for her heel.” Then He told the angels to kick him out of heaven, along with the angels who agreed with him.
    When he slithered into Eden, Adam & Eve were already created. Lucifer, now Satan, assumed that Adam was born of Eve, and that Adam was Jesus, the one and only Son of God. He wanted to cause these two to sin, but he knew he couldn’t fool God, so he went after the woman, purposely when Adam WAS NOT WITH HER. When Eve actually bit the fruit, Satan was ecstatic, but when Adam bit it, he was rolling in the grass laughing his head off. So much for your Son and Queen, God!!!
    But God gave four curses: to Adam, to Eve, to the Serpent, and, for the second time, to Lucifer: “… She will crush your head and you will lie in wait for her heel.”

  4. Good stuff. It has seemed to me that this single rule establishes that obedience to God is good in itself.

  5. This is a poem in style of sequence that I wrote a few years ago
    The reader should have G. F. Händel’s The Messiah in memory

    A Religious Poem

    The Church will always be reformed, because the Holy Ghost is Lord, and the Devil is Prince, and they are at war with one another until the end of the world in their love and lust for our worthless souls. Who else has won victory over the Devil other than our Lady by Jesus. Pray for us sinners.

    This is a beautiful theory of Church history, which may be called the immanent plane. Human persons are made in the image of the Son of God, as were angels, and this is a true theory of the absolute plane. Thus Adam and Hava were made by reason with hope in morals to build peace. The Son is begotten from our Father, and the Holy Ghost proceeds from the Father and the Son, and this creed is a good parable of the transcendent plane.

    Now it is in the Paschal mystery that Church history is service of God’s charity, since the human persons are Christians by faith and baptism, because human sin, death, and evil must be redeemed once and for all by the Lord Jesus Christ in Jerusalem by holy law. Then those outside the catholic Church who seek God’s grace will find it with our Lady by our Lord’s humble service.

    Hallelujah: for the Lord God omnipotent reigneth. The kingdom of this world; is become the kingdom of our Lord, and of His Christ, and He shall reign forever and ever.

    17th September 2017

  6. My uncle explicitly rejects original sin. My other aunt and uncle implicitly reject original sin.
    It makes me very sad. And they tend to be very unreasonable when discussing it as well.

    I suspect it is part of modernism that has taken hold of them – and they’ve been attending Mass every week for over 60 years!
    It makes me sad. How gravely the Church has failed them.

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