Second rate earth?

by Phil Johnson

The dominant interpretation by Christian thinkers during the course of the past 2,000 years of the two Genesis creation stories (1:2–3 and 2:4–3:24), which make up the Hebrew creation epic, portrays humans and creation, after a glorious beginning, as second rate compared to what it was before human sin. This is what Augustine of Hippo (353–430 CE), perhaps the foremost of those who have proclaimed this anthropology, thought. He believed that there would be neither sin nor evil in the world if it were not for the first humans who, quite literally, screwed things up.

Augustine spelled this out with great clarity. His was a male perspective. Being well acquainted with sexual experience as we know from his Confessions, he concluded that there is no free will for males when it comes to sex. Erections, he pointed out, arose spontaneously. Men don’t control them, as men know.

Why is this the case? Why are we this way? Augustine answered that he, like you, I, and every human, male and female, have, in fact, been conceived with polluted sperm. Once Adam “fell,” his sperm, now infected with sin, has been, and always will be, the source of all human sperm. Subsequently, every human, currently over seven billion of us, whether he or she knows it or not, has been born by these means.

It’s strange and somewhat amusing, don’t you think, that this conclusion—that human sperm has been biologically polluted with sin by Adam and Eve’s act—has pervaded our understanding? The consequences of understanding this brief Genesis story in this way have been beyond dismal. Because of the tremendous influence of this epic, billions of humans have regarded themselves as second rate, “fallen,” and currently living in a second-rate creation, because of the first human sin.

Interpreters such as Augustine found no room for any joyous, jubilant sex in the story. It never existed. But, not everyone thought this. John Milton for example envisioned the man and the woman enjoying blissful love-making as he described in Paradise Lost.

We are indebted to the scholarship of Elaine Pagels in her book Adam, Eve, and the Serpent: Sex and Politics in Early Christianity, and, more recently, The Rise and Fall of Adam and Eve by Stephan Greenblatt. Each traces the history of the interpretation of the stories of Genesis chapters one through three.

Jews, Christians and Muslims agree that this story is universal—meaning the story precedes even their own religions and applies to all humans. Christians, for the most part, regard Adam as a bad guy; the Muslims are not so hard on him. Among Muslims, he has honorable standing as the first prophet. Many, maybe most, Christian theologians over the millennia, Thomas Aquinas among them, lay the blame on the woman and, subsequently on all women. “The woman, [Aquinas] wrote, is a vir occasionatus, a defective or mutilated man” (Greenblatt, 129).

“No surprise,” my women friends may say as they roll their eyes “That’s men for you.”

Many thoughtful people have considered the Genesis creation account a story rather than history and science for some time. Reinhold Niebuhr called it, a “supra scientific myth,” meaning a story that reveals truth beyond the limits of human knowledge and immerses us in the deep mystery of life that science can never uncover. Niebuhr distinguished supra scientific myths like Genesis from “pre-scientific myths that are replaced when either a better myth or better science explains things and replaces it. For instance, the conviction that thunder is caused by giants bowling in the mountains is abandoned when people learn more about weather.”

Those who believe that these Genesis stories are literal history unwittingly make the story pre-scientific, and they are not convinced otherwise by science. For them, if the stories are not the factual history of creation, they are nothing, and, therefore, can’t be true.

As far as the heavens are higher than the earth, so far is the Hebrew creation epic higher than they realize. It is great literature! It’s a brilliant story! I imagine that you are swept away, as I am, when you read the account of the first seven days in chapter one out loud—the creation story that the final editor of the Hebrew Bible put first. It’s not the way things happened in this unfolding universe, but the story is beautiful, and creation is bountiful—which indeed it is to this day, despite centuries of careless exploitation of the earth. This very day creation still swarms with fish and birds and fruit, sunshine and moonlight, plants for food, all making the heart glad.

To challenge Augustine’s doctrine of human depravity which he and others derived from the second story, beginning in Genesis 2:4, is not to deny that there are awful things going on in our world or that humans do nasty stuff and that neither nature nor society are particularly benign. Vast destruction, wars, murders and great hazards cannot be denied. Nor can evil acts that I and others do—acts of horrific violence—be denied. Original sin may be a spurious interpretation of the Genesis stories, but perpetual sin seems a reality.

It’s important to bear in mind that this particular story of the creation of the world is one of many creation stories. Nearly every people—every culture upon the earth, present and past, has told stories to explain how humans and the earth come to be. The story in the Bible is a four-character story: first, the creator character called “’elohim” in chapter one, and “yahweh ’elohim” in chapters two and three who created the world and guides his creatures; second and third, the male and female persons god creates in his image, the first humans (note—they are not named until late in the second story); and a serpent. The creator’s two names are translated “god” in first chapter and “lord god” in chapters two and three, thereby distinguishing them. These names for god are not capitalized in the ancient Hebrew text and thus not capitalized in this article.

It’s important to cut away the massive accretions that have grown like barnacles onto this story, so it can be the story that it actually is, and, thus, have genuine authority. It may help somewhat if we do not capitalize words that the text does not. We have learned that the universe of which we are a part is billions of years old. Even so, many people have thought—many still do—that the character “god” in this creation story created everything in six 24-hour days. I once thought so. For a time, it provided a completely satisfying answer to the question that I, along with you, and most humans, ask, “How come?”

For thousands of years, Genesis has been one of the better creation stories, certainly the best known and most widely distributed. It is the true account according to Jews, Christians and Muslims. Understanding the cosmos, humanity, and faith in god came to rest on this story as being literally true. It has swamped all other accounts in distribution and is the one most frequently told in answer to the questions: “How come?” “How come we are here?” “How did this earth come about?” “How come, if God is good and powerful, do so many bad things happen?” Questions like these arise for us humans, and specifically, for each child as consciousness dawns. As far as a child is concerned, these questions have never been asked before. There may be no such thing as original sin, but it seems there are “original questions,” new with each person.

Creation stories have responded to the question of “how come” for nearly the whole of human history. In Sapiens, A Brief History of Humankind, Yuval Harari writes that about 70,000 years ago homo sapiens became the dominant human species. As they gained superior, more supple language, they advanced in skill and power. What could be done with words must have seemed magical. The Sapiens could create worlds in their minds, as we do, being Sapiens ourselves, by means of words and the ideas that come with words. They learned to gossip and tell stories. They could more easily organize activities needed for survival than their competitors.

There must have been millions of stories told among innumerable clans of homo sapiens over the course of 70,000 years, surely many of them were origin stories explaining how we got here. Very recently, relative to the 70,000-year span under consideration, they discovered writing and wrote down some of their stories.

A brief 4,000 years ago a Sumerian carved the Epic of Gilgamesh in Akkadian script on clay tablets. The Sumerians and Arcadians formed scribal schools to train scribes to make copies of the Gilgamesh text and other stories. They created cuneiform “documents” to keep track of commercial transactions. In this process they learned to write and read. The clay tablets were hardened by sun, and sometimes fire, and, when discovered in the nineteenth century, they were uncovered mostly among the ruins of great ancient libraries. They were translated by remarkable heroes who deciphered the ancient cuneiform writing. It is improbable, but true, that you and I can read that long-lost Gilgamesh story and the creation story, Enuma Elish, in English in a handy little book. These stories might have been lost forever.

More recently, a mere 2,500 years ago, about a millennium and a half after the Sumerians, the Hebrews presented their creation story in writing.

The Bible story became the best-known creation story by far. Many Christian theologians through the years have insisted that creation was spoiled and that the earth was much better, was in fact “paradise,” before two humans ruined it. Rarely has the actual text been followed precisely in such interpretations and, therefore, the story has been misconstrued by ideas about which it has nothing to say. The list of such ideas includes original sin, paradise, and the fall, though none of these terms is in the text. Also ignored is the fact the creator does not know where the people are hiding, therefore not omniscient (if the lord god really knew where they were and was faking ignorance, as some think, isn’t the lord god guileful?). Also, as things turn out, the creator’s discipline and parenting skills do not seem particularly effective. As we acknowledge these things, the story itself begins to emerge, and we realize it is a story.

As for life and creation, this is the real world. You and I live in it and are part of it. This world has been a long time in the making. Life has been evolving on earth for billions of years powered by a deep, creative urge to live. Where and when we live—here and now is the reality that life and the universe have now come to. It is what it is—not second rate. It can’t be second rate because there is nothing to compare it to. Reality is not controlled by an ancient story that has been loaded down with external prejudices such as have been mentioned. Yet, the story itself is fascinating, rich, and worth attention. It comes alive as we penetrate the moral and religious smog covering the story and get into it.