“Therefore as sin came into the world through one man and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all men sinned.” Romans 5:12
What the Apostle meant when he wrote these words, what images of death flitted through his mind, or what metaphysical implications he supposed he was conveying, are questions which, I believe, we shall never answer in this world. Many men spend years studying what this or that thinker believed about Paul’s words here. Thus we have schools of what this or that theologian taught, and how such teaching fits into a system, with its various cogs and wheels. I do not see Paul in this passage, or, for that matter, very often at all, trying to create a definite system, except insofar as “systematizing” means to preach Christ crucified. Indeed if Paul did mean to teach any system, I think it no disrespect to say, his writing would have been a good deal more systematic.
As if a set of syllogisms, pegged up on the classroom board of the mind, could give life! Could we make a system out of life? Could we form compartments tight enough in our classifications for God’s grace not to seep through them and interpenetrate into each other?
Nothing but the living, working, human Christ in us can give life; and, if we are not in the midst of such relation with the Son of the Father, no collection of points could suffice to communicate such a thing essential. Words are poor, stunted things, hemmed and cramped by the necessity of their finite reality. When the richer medium of thought is forced to present itself in the smaller medium of word, word – at least, human word – cannot but misrepresent thought. At the very best, it hopes to avoid mistake. At the very worst, it belies grossest distortion. For the higher reality of thought has more subtlety and finer feeling; while the lower is dull and monotonous, having a kind of tasteless constancy, not rightly fit to convey the elegance of what it carries.
To know what another man thinks or teaches about St. Paul’s words is, in one respect, a very important matter. For insofar as another may see the truth in Paul’s writings that he cannot see himself, that other can help us. Yet it is of the utmost necessity to remember that our main task in reading other men’s commentaries on the apostle, is not to listen to these other men themselves – nor is our main task even to listen to Paul – but rather to listen to the truth in each. What good would it do to know what Luther or Aquinas thought about what Paul said, if that truth which Paul was straining to convey and which we were, in our inner being, grasping after, remained altogether hidden from us? Christ is the truth, and he came to give this to us. That is, he came to give us himself. This is our life. It is only insofar as we are drawing truth from the Son of man into our hearts, and only to the degree in which his truth is interpenetrating our being and saturating our brains, that reading the words of Paul or any other thinker are to us any good. Before any man think I am disparaging Paul by making such a statement, I would ask him to consider, whether or not Paul himself would have agreed with what I have said: namely, that our allegiance is first and foremost to Christ; and only to another man insofar as he conforms to the Son of Man.
If we cannot see the truth in some theologian of Christianity, though he shows us what seem the logical deductions of the words Paul or Christ, we cannot believe his teaching. This is because, in that theologians words, we cannot see the truth: that is, we cannot actually see Christ himself, who is the truth. I do not say we cannot think we believe such a man’s teaching – we may think we believe all sorts of things – but I say we cannot actually believe what another man teaches if we cannot see it as true. For how can one say he believes a thing as true which, to all his honest thinking, appears to him either intelligible, or false? Our hearts cannot beat with another man’s rhythm, nor can we feel what another feels. Unless we truly feel the truth itself, and know it as true, the light that is in us is darkness, if we so try to call it what it is not. Oh friends, we must speak of what we know. I desire beyond utterance a complete synthesis of feeling and thought: between what appears and what seems to appear, between psychological experience and brute metaphysical fact. But until we see clearly, if we speak in mists and ambiguities, if all we can do is but say “I do not see the truth, but whatever it is, it cannot be that,” if, I say, that is but all we can say and think, so we must say and so we must think. Else we call another Christ who does not seem to be Christ, in our heart of hearts.
It is with this thought that I turn, not to what some current system of theology holds to be, but what I hold the apostle’s meaning to be in this passage.
The apostle says that sin came into the world through man. I take this to mean that the ultimate source and root of all sin, and therefore of all evil, is the creature. Indeed, where else could such come from? Mark you, I do not say sin and evil’s possibility comes from man: all possibility must ultimately come from God. But their actual occurrence – their entering into the world – comes from the created will freely resisting the good which God has asked it to assent to.
The second point I take is this. Sin, and its consequential evils and sufferings, once injected into the human race, must of necessity reverberate back into it in its entirety, since humanity itself is one. Mankind is a giant organism. When one part suffers, the whole suffers as well. The creation itself is but a wider example of this. The universe, wherein humanity lives and breathes and has its being, is a lovely divine family-gathering of relation and being, wherein everything is effected and impacted by everything else. Once sin enters, it must, of necessity, spread to all, must touch all. I do not say it must impact all the same way. The sin of angels no doubt has far different consequences than those of men and women; and those of men and women than those of beasts. How far up and down on the chain of being this goes, I cannot tell. My point is simply that, once the pain of evil has awoken a cry in a single heart in all the universe, it must reverberate into the ears of all who can hear, of all who are themselves able to cry. Yea even the Son of Man hung upon the cross for such a thing, and, I believe, would have, but were there the slightest sin in the smallest corner of the cosmos. For the consequences of sin must necessarily be hideous; far more so to one of perfect loving heart. That very hideousness, then, would be felt most by that Great Heart that enlightens and loves every man that cometh into the world.
To speculate, therefore, on whether the apostle here meant physical death when referencing the consequences of the first sin, or spiritual, or at one place in the text physical and another spiritual, playing on the distinction between the flesh and the spirit, as he was wont to do, is but a trifle. It would not effect his argument, whether physical death occurred before the sin of Adam, or not. For I can well imagine a death spread across the whole earth for millions upon millions of years that was nonetheless a joy beyond words to the consciousness that freely yielded it. It is pain and evil – that is, it is suffering – which Paul’s argument touches upon. For there is a death that has not suffering as an essential constituent: namely, the self-abdication of the Son to the Father, from all eternity, done in greatest joy and bliss. Yet there is, on the other hand, a suffering and painful kind of death, that which the soul shrinks from in horror as an obnoxious intrusion onto its existence. This is such a death that was the result of sin.
Sin, and its consequent suffering, therefore, comes from the creature who, having the power to give back to God what God has given to it, and who is also, for that very reason, able to hold on to what it is commanded to relinquish, freely chooses to do what it ought not and therefore did not have to do. To speak of a sinful desire coming before the first free choice of sin I take to be an impossibility. The desire before sin blooms is the desire to have something good and is itself good. This desire meets both the self of the free creature and God in that self at a fork in the road. All up to here is good. But the choosing self must make a claim to one side, must assert itself in one direction: either for itself, or for God in itself. It is only if, choosing the lesser good of keeping itself, rather than giving itself, that the desire it had of keeping itself in the first place swells to an unhealthy proportion. The potency towards the distortion beforehand was not evil; for it also contained potency towards a more perfected love of self.
Who knows the true depth of the potency in sin, both towards evil and towards good? The death that reigns in us all from the sin of Adam is but a figure of the death that reigns in all creation – yea in Christ himself – from the first sin of Satan, or of whatever first creature there was that resisted the divine grace of God. And yet it is a seed that gives rise to the resurrection.
The apostle speaks of the first sin bringing condemnation to all men. He speaks of the free act of Adam as constituting in his progeny a state of trespass, a state of being “made sinners.” Does he mean, as some men say he does, that, since Adam sinned, now all humans that shall ever be born, even before they come to be, are under a necessary condemnation to eternal hell? Does he mean that, of each soul that is born, it has no choice but to follow its wicked and hellish desires into the flames, with its teeth barred in hatred of God; yea that this must certainly be unless God chooses to deliver it from the necessity of its choices and their consequent and just as unavoidable eternal punishment?
I ask the universe – and you too, reader – will God make creatures which cannot but hate him, and then torment them for that? Look yourself in the eyes: can you believe that? To suppose such a thing of God, is to suppose him hating what he has intentionally let loose in his creation; to suppose that he creates things which of themselves cannot but sin and then torments them for doing what he has either made them do or knew that they could not help but doing. To say that the whole predicament is due to the free sin of our first parent does nothing to remove the difficulty. It only presses on it all the more. For was the first sin a free act that could have been resisted? If no, then God punishes what cannot be avoided. And if it was not avoidable by man, then it must have been avoidable by God, else God has faced for all eternity a metaphysical necessity – another law of being outside himself – which he neither willed nor created: that of an unavoidable “first sin.”
Yet it does not follow that, because we are not damned to hellfire for the sins of Adam, we nowise become, as a consequence of his actions, burdened with his sins, even in such a way that would “make” us sinners. I take it a grand mystery, interpenetrating the relations of the universe and the spirit of every soul, that the acts of one can be inside or exemplary of the acts of another. I am not speaking of a mere legal imputation: a mere covering of the one by the other, or a counting of what one did as the work of the other. I am far from suggesting the image of the dung under the snow of an imputed righteousness. In such a system the evil of my and Adam’s sin is never really cleared away. The dung is still there in the universe of God’s creation, indeed for all creation. It is only, alas, covered and hid! And yet to who? Surely not God himself, who sees all things. Nor is it to the sinner, who knows himself to be what he is. Precious little salvation that, which takes away neither the blot nor the one who blots: neither the sin nor the sinner! How could thirsting soul or heart ever be truly glad and enjoy the bliss of the Father’s universe if he remained for all eternity – along with all his loved ones – that of which he longs to be delivered from? Man wishes to be transformed: yet, he shall never really leave the old thing he is behind. The very thing he wishes pure shall never be pure! I desire no presumption, friend. Lord Christ if there be any in me, cast it from me as far as the East is from the West. I do not want to be good so that I can tell myself that I am good. I want only to be good so that I myself may be good.
The Adam living in us does not make us guilty with the same kind of guilt that comes about when we give in to the natural man. This freely giving in, this deep siding with sin in the inner self, is a thing neither conscience nor experience lets any man deny, whatever philosophical puzzles there be between the necessity and universality of sin’s occurrence and its contingency.
Certainly Christ came to save all men both from the ancestral sin of Adam, and their own personally committed sins. But the guilt from the sins we commit are very different than the state that each of us is born in. The nature that I am born with is a thing I am ashamed of, and would be ashamed of, and wish with all my heart to be delivered from and eradicated from existence, even if it was not in my very self. It would cause the same sort of feeling if it was not in me at all but in any other soul in the universe. The fallen nature ought not be. Therefore I am ashamed of it, and seek deliverance from it. The fact that it is “my” fallen nature is, in a sense, accidental. Supposing we had never fallen, we would, I believe, then being more noble and selfless than we are now, seek deliverance from such a thing for another race, and feel just as strongly, perhaps more so, than it ought to be eradicated from the cosmos. The death in us wrought by the first sin is thus a disease, a symptom of which is conscious shame, filthiness, and objective condemnation. Not condemnation to hell, but condemnation to all that is less than perfect and vital and healthy in humanity – all that is pure in thought and feeling. Such is the necessary effect on the human family of any chosen evil.
Why, you may ask, would God allow such an effect to occur, such a vast spread of suffering for the single offence of one? I have hinted on what seems to me a possibility above: that the universe is so woven together that should one string of its vast tapestry be disturbed it will effect the whole cloth. Yet if this were all, we might well end in despair. If God was not great enough to bring good out of such a thing, what would be the point of our doctrine and belief? If I cannot have trust in even a broker to invest my money because his uncertainty prevents him from guaranteeing a good return, how can I have trust in a god who himself made a world that ends, for all he knows and for all he can control, in unspeakable ruin?
Brothers and sisters. If Christ be not raised from the dead, our faith is in vain. Yet thank the Father of him that he was; for by this we see both the power and love of God. Power in that God can make all things new; love, in that he shall. In a word, God would not have let so great an evil, with such pervasive and horrible effects, into the universe and, what is more, into the conscious feeling of any of his creatures, unless he could ensure for those creates a deliverance far greater than the pains that they suffered. Where the sin in the universe abounded, the grace of God abounded far more.
Yet I know the thought that is on the mind of not a few of my readers:
“You say that God has made us free – free to submit to him, or free to reject him. If that is so, he cannot guarantee that any will eventually be perfected, let alone all.”
You mistake. To say that God has made us free to submit or reject him here or there, or in this or that, is not to say that he has made us free to ultimately reject him; that is, finally, in the deep recesses of our being, once our freedom has had its consequences worked out and shown to us.
“Therefore, what God gives, and what he is staking the whole labor and pain of the universe on accomplishing – namely, the free response of his creature, that which he cannot force by mere power – is something which, at length, he will in fact accomplish by mere power?”
No. God does not work now this way and that; but is one. His divine creative act is one; therefore the freedom he gives his creatures is one. He does not “allow” and then “overpower.” His allowing is but the first fruits of a kind of freedom which will eventually of itself give way to necessity; not from overpowerment, but in the freest “yes” any soul ever did utter.
“You speak in riddles and contradictions. If a man is free to come to God or not, not even God can ensure that he shall. Unless God removed that freedom, the very thing he gives. But that would be for God to undue what he did.”
The freedom God gives is not a static kind, which remains always where it began. It lives and grows and corrects itself. What was once possible for it yesterday, is no longer possible for it today. Who knows after so many years and experiences what it may solidify into. What God has made – yea what he has predestined – is this very process of the fructification of freedom.
All freedom is a seed which begins in a what could-be and flowers into a what cannot not-be. To the man who denies it, I ask, has nothing bad he has ever done, which he might not have, never resulted in him feeling a repentance which caused in him an act hatred of that very thing which he could have resisted? In a word, has your sin never led you to hate the fact that you could so sin, and hate that fact so much that you resolved never to sin again? And would it not be true that, had you not been allowed to sin, you would never have seen how horrible your own ability to sin was in the first place? If so, then what you did freely and what you could have avoided lead to that which you freely felt that you could not avoid: namely, detestation of your evil deed. And thank God! Were it not so, sin itself could never lead us to life. Having once sinned, and God now having no means to set us right, since he had made a freedom which would lead inevitably and irrevocably downward in the same way that righteousness leads upward, the whole race would, after one sin, be lead to irrevocable ruin.
To the man who who freely resists – that resistance will be taken up and glorified and interpenetrated into his spiritual being for all time. This does not mean it was better at the moment he did resist to resist. That would equate sin with righteousness and destroy the difference between right and wrong. It only means that it is better at the moment the man does resist that he was able to do so. This also means, I believe, no evil shall ultimately taint God’s creation once that creation is fully glorified. Whether that means that there will be a single completed state of glorification of the universe, or whether each conscious soul will itself reach this state as for all eternity God continues pouring forth more rational souls, is a question I do not know the answer to. But in either case, the point stands: for a man, it is better to be able to submit, and submit, than to be either unable to, or to able to and not. Submission makes unification with God easier and faster. It does not make unification, once attained, more unified; for unification is itself its own perfection. Once a man is fully united to God, he is completely God’s. No doubt, resistance makes attaining this more difficult and delayed. And yet God shall not for that reason leave any who resist Him finally outside for once and all. All tongues will freely and gladly confess and every knee shall bow to Him. This is not through a divine overpowering; for God is not standing by, begging and pleading with men to come to him, only to finally, after they have reached a certain point, take away their former power of freedom which he granted them in the first place, that which makes their coming all the more meaningful, because all the more of themselves. Our freedom is not of that kind. Rather, it is very freedom itself which is organically alive, which self-corrects and builds upon itself, which enlightens and enlivens its own clarity and desire and choosing. Freedom makes itself see that it is only most free when it can no longer say no, but only say yes. This is not a necessity imposed from without, not a trump card that God plays once he has ran out of all his tricks in wooing the soul. It is a self-growing revelation, where more and more, the could of freedom solidifies into its own self assented to would. It is like sleep. A man can resist sleep freely here and there; but not forever. Eventually he will fall asleep, and that freely. For even his resisting, which lay in his own power to do or not do, in the end only serves to increase his sleepiness and fuel what he will do of himself with sweetest and most glad necessity.
If this very thing were not true – if freedom did not lead towards its own perfection and clarity, and if it had the potential for final destruction as a counterpoise for ultimate union – this very thing must have come from God’s creative hand and by his intention. But how can an all good and powerful God bring forth that which has in it such a potential for evil? Are we to think that God actually desires such a possibility – that to everything He’s given freedom, that it could possibly end in its own eternal torment or demise, and that the life he is pouring into each creature every moment and that which He sent the son to save, could, in the end, be nothing more than a failed it-could-have-been? Shall the God whose heart throbs with a love unspeakably beautiful be met with a tragedy just as terrible, because of that love? Or shall his heart finally cool to where it never really mattered that such beings existed and were lost, such children who had in them dreams and hopes of union, and potential for everlasting joy in bliss that even the tongues of angels cannot declare? Shall, after ages and ages of years, the memory of even a single human being’s face, of its glorious eyes, of its heavenly potential – become insignificant to God? Or to us?
In the name of Jesus Christ, do not believe it brother. The evil cannot, even possibly, ever triumph over the good. Else it would be as equal, as powerful, as full of meaning and life. If it were even possibly victorious, good could possibly be defeated. But thank God, who will have all men be saved, whose might cannot be overthrown by any hand, nor intentions brooked by any will: the good shall never be defeated. Though it can for a time be resisted, yet even this resistance is there only by the good’s appointment; therefore it must serve its glorious and inevitable blossoming and assimilation into itself.
“If God has predestined the good things we do, then we cannot do otherwise. Thus the freedom you prize so highly is false, and all, even evil, falls again under the fatal divine necessity. Otherwise God cannot secure his end; otherwise he can’t make good his promise that “all things work together for good.”
No, that is not how it is. All our freedom and all its consequences are bound up and enfolded in the single creative act of God. God has predestined both our freedom and His responses to our freedom: therefore he has predestined all, and yet we are free. This “all” is not an “all” which means that what occurs must have necessarily occurred or will occur. Rather, he predestines what necessarily may possibly occur, and what will necessarily follow, supposing whatever may come to pass that need not have. The contingencies are always couched in the necessities, and every contingency, once chosen, gives rise to some particular necessity, which itself presents, in due time, the next contingency. God in creating also created an all perfect, all loving, divine response to every possibility of our freedom; yea every possibility of an infinite combination of freedoms all interworking and intermingling. He has freely and creatively decided how far our yes’s and no’s go. He has set all the limits to our freely choosing. We are free to choose what we will, not to bring to pass what we will. We are not free to make God’s creative act different than what it is. God makes the choice up to us, but the consequences of our choice are still in His omnipotent and creative hands. We can control our resistance to His nudge when he allows us. At the same time, we cannot even control the next conscious thought or feeling we have after, for such things are subject to his all-making when he made the universe and took our possible resistances into account. Thus we can have the widest freedom and God may still ensure that his will is ultimately done. For it is all – the whole game of the universe – functioning under rules which he has made. And though undoubtedly there is, at particular times, a better and a worse choice for us to make, still, the fact that there is a choice between the two in the first place is a better and necessary thing in the creation itself.
In the all encompassing and originating act of creation, the risk of freedom has already been weighed; it has already been calculated and accounted for. Its effects – even all its possible effects – have been either intended or permitted for the Father’s divine and all-glorious purpose. For an all knowing and all good God then, too, all its sufferings have already been considered. Since the divine act of creation is itself a divine “yes-ing” to the universe and all that it can possibly entail, even those evils that never come about God has already stared in the face, taken into himself, and perfected in his own heart, and said “yes” to. He has eternally known all such things and still said “let it be.” Thus there is a crucifixion – yea and do not forget a resurrection – in the very act of creation itself; and this even if there be no fall – even if there be no sin. For there still could have been a fall and could have been sin; and God, knowing this, and knowing what groaning the creation would endure because of it, felt the thing worth enduring for his high and noble end.
In the creative act God has given us – at certain occasions and for a certain time – the ability to say yes to him, or no: to resist or submit. He provides the possibility of either – when indeed he does provide the possibility, which I do not grant he always does. What is more, he has lovingly and creatively decided just what the consequences of each yes or no – each “I submit” or “I resist” shall be for every soul. Who then can doubt his providence? He has accounted for all that you could do with all that He shall do. You may not be able to parse the difference between your created contingencies and his uncreated necessities, but that does not mean He cannot.
The whole matter can be summed up in a word: our freedom is still a freedom of and from and related to God: therefore, it must be destined for perfection. Nothing from the All Perfect could be otherwise.
On the other hand it would be a mistake to say that God is, in relation to us, standing back arbitrarily deciding whether he shall or shall not intervene. He is not picking and choosing, based on a whim, whereas now he is more hampered than he was a moment ago, or wishing he could do then what he does now. God is not waiting for a threshold of prayers to reach his ear which would move him to do some good he would otherwise be unable, and therefore unwilling, to accomplish. All God’s action with respect to his creatures is bound up in his act of creation itself, which is one: each moment and each choice and each consequence are connected, back from the beginning of time and extending forever infinitely, as one vast interconnected web of meaning of the two things – contingent man, and necessary God.
Because of the divine creative choice – because what is made comes from an all loving and powerful God – the evil which may infest the universe must necessarily be finite and limited. It must finally, of necessity, subserve the good. Since we have this God – the Christian God, the God of the Son of Man, who shows us his Father’s face – the freedom to do evil cannot result in infinite harm or corruption to the creation. Otherwise evil would be just as strong in its direction as good is strong in its. Sin and its effects cannot be counterbalanced equally with righteousness and its effects. Where sin abounds, thank God, grace abounds all the more. Thus whatever comes of sin cannot be eternal and infinite. It must be bent to the glory and beauty of Being and God; therefore of creation. All evil, even the evil of each individual choosing thing for that very choosing thing itself, must eventually be woven into the divine harmony of life everlasting. Else evil is as powerful as good and can have its own victory in the soil in which it takes root.
God is not a mere passive watcher of the universe, standing atop the high tower of eternity, timelessly receiving through his vision all that is. Nor is He the Platonic demiurge that does with the world as best he can. For in either case the question remains: how does what He is seeing get there; why is what he is working on so intractable that it will not be molded as he wants? Both images are helpful insofar as both convey some positive notion of God: the first in that he does not determine all that comes to pass; the second in that he is always working to bring forth more goodness and glory out of what is made. Yet neither image, as I say, is complete. I am not suggesting we can ever form a complete notion of God. But there must be more or less complete notions of Him, else Christ could not have revealed him in the greatest degree.
God is the universe’s loving creator and Father. Therefore, neither is he merely passive, nor impotent. The whole thing has sprung out of his all glorious, all perfect, triumphant, infinitely and creatively omnipotent heart. Whatever is, in whatever manner it is, exists only insofar as God has first given it its is. This applies both to the things existence as such, and to its manner of existing. All things are, simply through the divine choosing. Thus God is supremely and creatively active. Yet at the same time he has chosen to work with his creation; to infuse into it potencies which respond better when they align themselves with his all pervasive life-influence. Still, even these very potencies receive their could-be from his creative hand: and so God is only resisted insofar as he has created such a thing to be able to do so. Yet God has not decided, nor could he have, since he cannot deny himself, to be able to be resisted forever. No could-be from God could be ultimately evil. If God can be thwarted for a time, yet even this thwarting is only made so as to serve his glory – therefore the universe’s glory, therefore the creature’s glory, these being a reflection of himself.
All that is and all that comes to be, God has predestined from the foundation of the world. Not “before,” such as to do away with freedom, but “from,” so as to preserve it, as being from the Father’s creative action, who, by Jesus Christ, himself the first-born of all creation, made it so. For as the apostle tells us of the Son, in him “all things were created, in heaven and on earth.”