Original good (Genesis 1–4)

Why do we start with “original sin” when the Bible starts with “original good”?

There’s more than one way to tell a story. Theology has its jargon. It often starts with original sin, the result of the fall. These aren’t phrases from Scripture, though Paul does say that one person got us into trouble and one person can get us out (Romans 5:12; 1 Corinthians 15:21).

I love the Christological focus at the heart of everything Paul writes, but Genesis doesn’t use our theological language for Adam’s story. It doesn’t start with original sin. In fact, the first three chapters don’t mention sin at all. It talks about good. A lot. Fifteen times.

Genesis starts with original good. What would change if we told our story this way?

Let’s see how Genesis inspires us to understand the good world and our place in it.

Genesis 1

God established two realms: the heavens as the seat of God’s sovereign authority; and the earth as his blessed and fruitful farm under heaven’s governance. At each stage God says, “This is good!” (Genesis 1:4, 10, 12, 18, 21, 25).

God gives humans responsibility for his farm, entrusting us with his sovereign care for his creatures. This partnership between heaven and earth is exceptional: it’s very good (1:31).

Crucially, God is the one defining what’s good. Creation and its creatures are good because God’s world expresses God’s character.

Genesis 2

God invites his human creature to join him in the garden where the heavenly sovereign is resident. There’s a tree symbolizing God as the source of life. There’s a river flowing out as God’s life sustains creation. There’s so much good in God’s world (2:9, 12).

All of this good God shares with his creatures. Just one thing is reserved for the sovereign alone: the knowledge of good and evil (2:9, 17). His creatures cannot decide good and evil for themselves: that’s the prerogative of the heavenly sovereign.

We can trust God with this one. Before we even know something is not good, God knows, and God acts (2:18).

Genesis 3

A devious notion creeps into God’s good creation, the feeling that God has kept something from us.

All the trees were pleasing to the eye and good for food (2:9), except the one that was not for food (2:17). The humans declare this tree to be good for food (3:6). They redefine good to suit themselves because they want to be like gods, knowing good and evil (3:5).

The results of this redefinition are tragic. As soon as good becomes good-for-me, your good conflicts with my good. We’re at loggerheads, fighting each other for the good things God provided.

The sovereign explains just how much conflict we introduced with our redefinition. We’re at enmity with other creatures (3:10-15). We dominate each other (3:16-17). Our life is a struggle against creation, a struggle we don’t survive (3:17-18).

Disconnecting from our life-source doesn’t turn us into gods; it reduces us to dust (3:19). God sees and provides for our shame, but we’re no longer trusted rulers of his palace garden and we’re no longer sustained by the tree of divine life (3:21-24).

Genesis 4

So, what’s it like to live in a world where humans twist the definition of good to mean what’s good for me? It’s tragic. A person who doesn’t get what they want can murder their brother or sister (4:1-8).

This is where the word sin turns up. It’s something God defines. He describes it as a power lurking in the background, desiring to capture us, to rule us:

Genesis 4:7 (NIV)
If you do what is right, will you not be accepted? But if you do not do what is right, sin is crouching at your door; it desires to have you, but you must rule over it.”

Sin is not “original” to our nature, even after “the fall.” Sin is external, foreign to our nature, an alien power trying to capture God’s good world.

It may feel incongruent with our theology of “original sin” but God said the descendant of the “fallen” Adam does have a choice. God calls Cain to respond so he’s not captured by this power called sin.

Cain chooses the power of sin. It takes him into exile, wandering in a land where he no longer experiences the fruitfulness God decreed for the earth (4:12, compare 1:11-12, 22, 29).

Cain does not believe God has his good at heart. By Cain’s standards of good and evil, God’s values are unfair (4:14), even though God has saved his life and protected him from the judgement of others (4:15).

Living away from God’s presence (4:16), Cain establishes a community where violence provides justice, a world of utilitarian ethics where might makes right (4:23).

This is exactly what God warned Cain about. It’s not “original sin” in the traditional sense of individual guilt, but it is a world trapped under the power of sin.

Everyone suffers in this cruel world. In a single day, the human family lost both its sons: the one who was acceptable and the one who wasn’t. Is there any future?

But God has not abdicated, leaving death to destroy them all. God gives them a new life (4:25), and this child grows up to have a child too (4:26).

Life doesn’t end in a world under sin. While others rely on violence and death for justice, this family begins to call on the name of the Lord (4:26). They recognize the authority of the one who has the knowledge of good and evil. They wait on him to rescue his world, so it can be all he decreed in the beginning.

Why does this matter?

Christians dispute how the doctrine of “original sin” works out in practice. Churches that practice “believer’s baptism” sometimes talk about “the age of accountability.” The idea is that children are safe from God’s judgement until they’re old enough to make a meaningful decision for themselves. There’s no agreement on whether this applies to the children of non-believers, or the age when children need to be converted. This isn’t taught in Scripture. It’s a modern attempt to ameliorate the damming implications of the traditional understanding of original sin for our children.

In the fourth century, Augustine was a strong proponent of the doctrine of original sin. He taught that every child is born under condemnation, but baptism washes away the original sin we inherit from Adam at birth. In practice, this means that if you have not presented your child to the church to be baptized to remove their original sin, your child is forever lost if she dies. The effect of Augustine’s teaching was to put salvation in the hands of the church.

The Reformers reacted against the claims of the church, insisting it is God who justifies and all sovereignty belongs in God’s hands. Unfortunately, they didn’t always practice this. They were judgmental of Catholicism, of Judaism, and of human depravity.

Surely our theological constructs are suspect when they’re designed to put judgement in our hands, so we can manipulate people with guilt and fear. Genesis teaches that God is the only judge, and his judgements are not like ours (4:15). Our attempts at defining good and evil have not made us into gods but exposed our nakedness (3:1-7), introduced conflict (3:8-20) and mistrust (3:20-24).

We’re not to condemn others to get the justice we think we deserve (4:23-24). Instead of condemning our children, we need to treat them as good gifts from God. The children are our hope (4:25) because God has not ceded his world to sin. That’s why we call on his name (4:26).

If we can shake off the belief that we have the knowledge of good and evil so it’s our divine right to condemn everyone, we’re freed to take on the role God gave us in his story. That will lead us to proclaim a very different message about the earth and its people: The earth is the Lord’s, and everything in it, the world, and all who live in it. (Psalm 24:1)

That’s the good news Jesus taught and embodied. Under his leadership, earth is a kingdom of heaven, what God decreed in the beginning. This is the gospel of the kingdom.

This was Paul’s gospel too. The authority given to Adam (Romans 5) is restored in Christ who brings the whole earth back under God’s authority (Romans 8) by freeing us from the power of sin (Romans 6) and ending the condemnation (Romans 7). This is also the kingdom trajectory of Paul’s gospel in 1 Corinthians 15:20-28.

Should we recognize that judging people is not our role, and announce good news instead? In Christ, the good earth is becoming all that God decreed.

What others are saying

Ironically, you’re more likely to find the phrase “original good” in Augustine than in many theologians today. The City of God 22.24:

Thus, in the torrential stream of human history, two currents meet and mix: the current of evil which flows from Adam and that of good which comes from God. The original good includes two quite different things: the procreation of the body and the inbreathing of a soul.

Jonathan Edwards — known for his sermon “Sinners in the hands of an angry God” — also spoke of “original good.” In Religious Affections, Edwards said:

They whose affection to God is founded first on his profitableness to them, their affection begins at the wrong end; they regard God only for the utmost limit of the stream of divine good, where it touches them, and reaches their interest; and have no respect to that infinite glory of God’s nature, which is the original good, and the true fountain of all good, the first fountain of all loveliness of every kind, and so the first foundation of all true love.

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Author: Allen Browne

Seeking to understand Jesus in the terms he chose to describe himself: son of man (his identity), and kingdom of God (his mission). Riverview Church, Perth, Western Australia

4 thoughts on “Original good (Genesis 1–4)”

  1. Very challenging to our historic understanding regarding the Genesis.
    it certainly makes much more sense of reality and scripture.
    The literal translation (according to Young) of Isaiah 6:3 also points to this:
    “And this one hath called unto that, and hath said: ‘Holy, Holy, Holy, [is] Jehovah of Hosts, The fulness of all the earth [is] His glory.’”
    ‭‭Isaiah‬ ‭6‬:‭3‬ ‭YLT98‬‬

    Rick Watts suggests this points to the earth, in all its flourishing fullness, is God’s Magnus Opus. That he holds it up to show the whole cosmos, and declares ‘Look at this amazing creation I have made, my best, my all! Isn’t it amazing!’

    this image does not correlate with much of our original sin and judgement theology.

    Thank you Allen.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Just finished reading, In the Beginning …. We Misunderstood. An interesting read along the same lines Allan. I’ve also been working on a teaching unit on Revelation, and I was struck by the strong connection between Genesis 1 and 2 and Revelation 21 and 22. Genesis 1:1 ‘In the beginning God made the heavens and the earth.’ Revelation 21:1 ‘Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth’ In order for the world to become again the temple it was originally designed to be, a place where God and humanity dwell together, Jesus must fully establish his rule as the king who judges, who arbitrates right and wrong.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Thanks, Graham. Miller & Soden’s book looks interesting.
    The last two chapters of the Bible certainly teach the restoration of the original good from the first two, with the same language and symbols (tree of life, river flowing from God to sustain creation).
    Jesus certainly is the one judges, i.e. sorts out what’s wrong and restores what’s right. I’ll look forward to what you write on the Gen/Rev restoration theme, Graham.

    Liked by 1 person

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