The Lie and the Curse

But the serpent said to the woman, ‘You will not surely die. For God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.’ So when the woman saw that 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, she took of its fruit and ate, and she also gave some to her husband who was with her, and he ate. Then the eyes of both were opened, and they knew that they were naked. And they sewed fig leaves together and made themselves loincloths. GENESIS 3:4-7


WHAT IS WRONG WITH THE WORLD? Is it superficiality? Is it a conspiracy? Is it in the genes? Is it organized religion? Is it corporate greed or other exploitation of the weak? Is it everything—everything except the one staring you in the face in the mirror every morning? Do not misunderstand. I do not mean to suggest that this question of ours about the world is entirely a smokescreen. It is just that it is the wrong place to start. The Bible gives us a better vantage point. In the first few chapters of Genesis, the Lord had placed man and woman in the Garden of Eden, and told Adam:

You may surely eat of every tree of the garden, but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die [Gen. 2:16-17].

Theologians call this the “covenant of works,” and the terms were quite simple. God would reward Adam with life if he obeyed and punish him with death if he disobeyed. Something went terribly wrong. It is important to see that nothing that happened here caught God by surprise. It was all part of his plan. Note that “the serpent was more crafty than any other beast of the field that the Lord God had made” [3:1]. Hence it was the Lord who created the serpent and placed him in the Garden and the Lord specifically made him crafty. What transpires is tragic in one sense—God hated it—and infinitely wise in another sense—God ordained it to his own glory:

For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of him who subjected it, in hope…[Rom. 8:20].

The Nature of the Serpent’s Lie

Every lie is a twisted truth. It must be so. Just as darkness and death are merely the absence of light and life, so deception is the tale of a parasite on the real world. Lies are only as alluring as they are because every word of them is true about something, just not about the matter at hand. Jesus said about this ancient serpent that,

He was a murderer from the beginning, and has nothing to do with the truth, because there is no truth in him. When he lies, he speaks out of his own character, for he is a liar and the father of lies [Jn. 8:44].

This statement suggests that the devil fell in some state prior to becoming the serpent. And while that may be an interesting notion, our task is to see the exact nature of the lie that was told that plunged the human race into so much misery. According to Jesus, the devil’s business of deception does not exist in a vacuum. It is coupled with his murderous opposition to the truth. Satan was serious when he seduced Eve that day. And something of this seductive lie rings down through the ages into our own souls. There were three main elements to the lie, all in the form of a question: a dragon-like question. 1) What is truth? 2) What is good? 3) What is rightfully yours? Spanning the three questions of philosophy—How do you know (epistemology)? What is real (metaphysics)? How should we then live (ethics)?—the serpent redefined what it meant to live a life worth living. His clever newspeak characterizes the culture in which we live today. You will recognize all three parts.

First, the serpent very ‘innocently’ inquired:

Did God actually say, ‘You shall not eat of any tree in the garden’? [3:1]

How cautious of the serpent: a gentleman and a scholar! ‘Are you ssssure? How can you be so ssscertain? How can you be so arrogant as to presume to speak for the God of the universe! So everybody else is wrong and you are right? You are at the center? You are the final word?’ Now does all that sound familiar? Postmodern man has no corner on the market of false humility. It is an old card trick. It is what R. C. Sproul called “studied ambiguity.” The strategy is simple. It is,

an intentional ambiguity in which words and phrases are left blurry enough for antithetical views to be safely held by both sides in a debate…Church history testifies that the studied ambiguity is the refuge of the heretic. If he can blur his meaning, he can safely continue to slither along on his belly.”[1]

Once the rock-solid authority of God’s word is pulled out from under us, the rest of the house will fall in due time. Without a clear word from God, we can never truly know the nature of God or anything good. Satan also took aim at the character of God himself in that initial strike. Note that the devil subtly moved the fences that God had set down: “Did God actually say, ‘You shall not eat of any tree in the garden?’” The devil knew as well as they did that God did not forbid every tree. He forbade only one. This assaulted the goodness of God. ‘How restrictive! How arbitrary!’ was the suggestion. After Eve had momentarily (and only partially) refuted the devil, by pointing out that they would die if they rebelled, the serpent went in for the kill with a third area of redefinition:

You will not surely die. For God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil [3:4-5].

Note that while he is still undermining true goodness, he is also redefining what freedom means. Our first parents were placed into a Garden (eden) that means “delight.” It was to be a theater of worship. In becoming “one flesh” [2:24], the first couple was telling several great things about God. In the command to multiply [1:28] they were to reproduce more image-bearers, filling the earth “with the knowledge of the glory of God like the waters cover the sea” [Hab. 2:14]. In the command to dominate [1:28] they were to guard against corruption almost in anticipation of the fall. The wildlife was to be under the watchful care of human beings. Man was a medium between heaven and earth, showing forth the preeminence of supernature over nature. In cultivating [2:15] the ground the man was conditioning the world to the invisible norms of heaven. And we should not forget that Moses wrote Genesis to the children of Israel just recently leaving slavery in Egypt. Unlike the faceless citizens of ancient monarchs, like Pharaoh (who would never let a foreigner tend his garden), this King let everyone experience the fruit of his garden! In the vocation where Adam was to know [2:20] the animals by name he would be thinking God’s thoughts after him. And so we have the sciences. In finding that this was unsuitable Adam would move from mere intellectual knowledge to a fifth calling—intimacy. Was any better life imaginable than to glorify God in these ways?  

The Essence of Sin

What Satan sold to our first parents, in simple terms, was to trade in the destination for the journey, the ultimate Good for their own blank canvas. They were given “free will”—what we superficially hail as the ability to do or do otherwise—but God is the One who gave them their will and in whom was real freedom. The serpent was suggesting that so long as this only meant one good already set out for them, they were not truly free. A British statesman named Edmund Burke saw the folly of this when he saw the French talking up the same game in their revolution at the end of the Eighteenth Century:

The effect of liberty on individuals is that they may do what they please: we ought to see what it will please them to do, before we risk congratulations.[2]

He understood that the only freedom that is ever free is one that is moving toward infinity. Only a self-sustaining freedom is true freedom. Consider for a moment why this is. One requirement for freedom is life. One has to be there in order to be free. The man who is dead tomorrow will be less free than he is today. The drunk who is nauseously sprawled out over the porcelain goddess is less free than when he sipped his first beer the night before. Freedom is not a cheap slogan; it is a state of being. Most importantly, however, by fashioning the golden calf of a “finite freedom,” the devil had redirected their attention span from up to down, from God whose image they were, to their own reflection in the mirror. The new value was to author their own story, regardless of how it turned out or where it would lead them. Nothing could more openly defy God since nothing could stand in more stark contrast to God’s reason for making them. If I promise to open your eyes no matter what you see, and convince you that this is more valuable than seeing and enjoying God, then what I have done is nothing less than to purchase from you God in exchange for anything but God. This slander is the very same thing as this treason. Your heart is already at war with him. Thus, the Lord prosecutes Israel, through the prophet Jeremiah:

Has a nation changed its gods, even though they are no gods? But my people have changed their glory for that which does not profit. Be appalled, O heavens, at this; be shocked, be utterly desolate, declares the Lord, for my people have committed two evils: they have forsaken me, the fountain of living waters, and hewed out cisterns for themselves, broken cisterns that can hold no water [Jer. 2:11-13].

The law of God cannot really be understood unless we understand that it takes a real adulteress to make a true rebel. We shake our fist at God only because we have first turned our back on his raging fountain of pleasure in which the back of our necks are still dripping. There are two famous biblical definitions of sin; and it can be hard to see exactly how they go together without this backdrop. Paul tells us that “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” [Rom. 3:23] and John adds that “sin is lawlessness” [1 Jn. 3:4]. Sin is a falling short of God’s ultimate enjoyment of himself and it is a violation of his law. It is experiential and it is legal. It is whoredom and it is warfare.

We all know this to be true about evil. Another thing I try to teach my children is that if they do something wrong, there is already something wrong with their heart that caused it. To demonstrate, I look at my son and walk over to my little girl, saying: ‘Now Josh, if you go over and hit your sister (I use my finger to poke her lightly on the shoulder) where is the evil? Is it on her shirt? Is it in my finger?’ No, no, they’ll shake their heads while they giggle. ‘So where is it?’ Now if it is in the heart, then is that not the same as saying that the sin of omission causes the sins of commission? In other words, I transgress the law of God because I first failed to be and do what God requires. If you love your sister as you ought, then your evil desires would have no place: “So whatever you wish that others would do to you, do also to them, for this is the Law and the Prophets” [Mat. 7:12]. The same is true with man’s relation to God. We sin “out there” because we fail to pursue our satisfaction in God “in here.” In short, the thing that Jesus called the Greatest Commandment sums up the whole law.

James connects all the dots for us in his epistle:

For whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point has become accountable for all of it. For he who said, “Do not commit adultery,” also said, “Do not murder” [2:10-11].

Note that James gives the reason why one infraction of the law is an infinite infraction: it is because we have violated an infinite Person of infinite worth—for He…What is so evil about doing something evil? Answer: God is so great! What is so great about this or that point of the law? God! What is so great about obedience? God! What were those six “goods” in the six days of creation? God! What is God’s chief end in creating the world? God! What makes our action meaningful? God! What makes a person valuable? God! Why do you keep on saying ‘God’?—God.

So what is wrong with the world? In a word—You. You are the problem; and I am too. And the problem is worse than we might have thought. The problem goes all the way down to the depths of the heart, to a place that no mere mortal has ever even seen of himself:

The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick; who can understand it? [Jer. 17:9]

Something catastrophic happened when Adam and Eve sinned that has changed things from that day onward. If we do not understand how radical this event was, we will not see anything else for what it is.

In Adam’s Fall, We Died All

Just how bad is the situation? Well if we remember, God threatened Adam with death if he disobeyed. He did disobey, and so he died. “But,” someone may object, “He did not die that very day. He lived on for centuries according to Genesis.” However, he died a deeper death than mere physical death. He died spiritually: “the soul who sins shall die” [Ez. 18:4] and “the wages of sin is death” [Rom. 6:23]. When Adam became separated from God by the abuse of his own image, he shattered that image for everyone in his loins—that is, all of his descendants who were yet to be born, which is everyone, since God “made from one man every nation of mankind” [Acts 17:26]. So, as the old New England Primer paraphrased to Puritan children, “In Adam’s fall, we died all,” or in Scripture, “in Adam all die” [1 Cor. 15:22][3]. Paul draws the lines even more clearly in Romans:

Therefore, just as sin came into the world through one man, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all sinned [5:12].

So whose sin causes my death? Answer: Adam’s and mine. Adam’s sin was the ultimate cause in history and mine is the material and instrumental cause, yet just as real and blameworthy. We cannot declare independence here. Think about it. When Adam and Eve rebelled, the distortion of their souls reshaped the race born to them, and all their children became natural-born sin-factories. Now what does a sinner produce but sin? Therefore we are not sinners because we sin; we sin because we are sinners. It’s in our nature. We can do no other. The Psalmist confessed: “Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity, and in sin did my mother conceive me” [Ps. 51:5].

In spite of the fact that the Bible is very clear about this, modern religion teaches that we are born into this world in a very weak state, but certainly not dead and unable to help ourselves. In fact, when the modern world and modern religion want to blame something they always point the finger at something “out there.” We are born innocent, they say, and we become infected and corrupted by society. Now if that is true, we ought to be able to find some small exception of one kind or another: either a good individual or a good society. There ought to be at least a fifty-fifty mix of good and bad people. No one ever argues that there is a good society, except perhaps off in the future. As to the good person, well, that dream goes out the window the moment we have children! G. K. Chesterton, who was a bit confused on this doctrine himself, nevertheless commented:

The strongest saints and the strongest skeptics alike took positive evil as the starting-point of their argument. If it be true (as it certainly is) that a man can feel exquisite happiness in skinning a cat, then the religious philosopher can only draw one of two deductions. He must either deny the existence of God, as all atheists do; or he must deny the present union between God and man, as all Christians do. The new theologians seem to think a highly rationalistic solution to deny the cat.”[4]

Too many professing Christians do not seem to understand this essential doctrine of the faith. We are still looking for the innocent native on some lost island who, we are assured, will go to heaven without passing Go because he has never heard the name of Christ. The trouble with this is that there is no such person. The Bible teaches that we are guilty because of how we have slandered God’s glory from the very beginning:

For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth. For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse [Rom. 1:18-20]. 

The truth is that if God had never sent Jesus into the world for sinners, we would still be guilty of violating God’s law in all that we do. Jesus said that “whoever does not believe is condemned already” [Jn. 3:18]. Mishandling Jesus adds a new and awesome level of guilt to the sinner, but it is not the source of his sin and judgment. That is a modern religious fiction.

And let us suppose just for the sake of argument that we were born into the world completely innocent. Let us suppose that there was an “age of accountability” in which someone either becomes corrupt or begins to assume the debt of any external corruption. Then why on earth would we not end all life before such time? Why would we not then quarantine all of the islands of innocence, so that they are not corrupted by the message of Jesus? The only reason we would not is if we do not take seriously the biblical doctrines of heaven and hell. But since Christianity is utterly committed to such beliefs, then a belief in some state of innocence or age of accountability or innocent native is simply incompatible with our worldview.

The whole human race has been affected with this depravity in the whole of their being. Some people will use words like “sinners,” but then talk about how willing and able we are to seek after God. They say things like: “Well no one is perfect, but the Lord knows my heart.” That is not exactly comforting. What exactly does the Lord see when He looks down upon the hearts of human beings?

The Lord saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every intention of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually [Gen. 6:5]

The Lord looks down from heaven on the children of man, to see if there are any who understand, who seek after God. They have all turned aside; together they have become corrupt; there is none who does good, not even one [Ps. 14:2-3].

What does God see when He looks down “the corridors of time” to see if there are any who are willing and able to do the right thing toward him? He sees nothing but filth so offensive to him that his eyes are too pure to look upon it: “all our righteous deeds are like a polluted garment” [Is. 64:6].

The Hopelessness of Our Situation

Given the goodness of God and the depth of our sin, the Bible understands salvation to be a real dilemma. We moderns may not. We may be asking, “How could a good God possibly send anyone to hell?” Yet the biblical authors asked the very opposite question: How could a good Judge acquit anyone who has done what we have? We may tend to think of sin as a sliding scale that moves from “nobody’s-perfect” sins where respectable folks like us stand, all the way to “That filthy low-born—” heinous sin committed by social deviants. If that is the way you think, then the Bible does not share your view. The Lord tells us that,

All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned every one—to his own way [Is. 53:6].

You may be a corporate executive, a doctor, a professor, an entertainer, or something else that society bows the knee to; but the Maker of your soul says that you are like a sheep. And sheep are the most helpless, obstinate animals in the world. They would walk over every cliff and leap into the mouth of any wolf in you let them. They are soft, furry, delicious and stupid. And it seems that God made them for the central purpose of making that comparison to you. You are I are utterly helpless to make a move toward God because of the nature we have been born into:

Can the Ethiopian change his skin or the leopard his spots? Then also you can do good who are accustomed to do evil [Jer. 13:23].

For the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God, for it does not submit to God’s law; indeed, it cannot [Rom. 8:7].

Now to put this natural born evil into the best perspective, we need to see things the way God does. We have already established that when God looks down upon mankind He sees nothing but wickedness; but our question now is how He reacts to it. It seems as though we are starting from a position of obvious leniency. Of course we are! Theologian Leon Morris says it like this:

Sinful man is always ready to let bygones be bygones. He is not greatly concerned by those small sins he perceives in himself and he cannot imagine why God should be. He is quite ready to let the past remain in the past and simply be friends with God in the present. There is nothing from his side that demands that there be enmity.[5]

Naturally if man has rebelled against God he sees himself as the center. And also naturally, viewed from the center, if there is any such thing as sin, it is thought to be a self-inflicted and therefore self-atoning problem. Hence the poplar quest to forgive ourselves! But the notion that God is angry at us, that God is at war with us—that is beneath the religion of a civilized people! Now whether we have absorbed this self-centered rot or not, what we will need to see is that a good God actually cannot overlook sin. He says that He “will by no means clear the guilty” [Nah. 1:3] and the book of Proverbs even goes as far to say that:

He who justifies the wicked and he who condemns the righteous are both alike an abomination to the Lord [Prov. 17:15].

Our problem as sinners has just become infinitely thicker. What we need is to be in right standing with the God of perfect righteousness. Yet this verse is saying that a righteous God cannot do this for anyone who is not really righteous. Do you now see the dilemma? A good judge could not simply wink and call evil a mere ‘bygone,’ for then goodness itself would be conquered.

Twice in the New Testament we are given a hint that there has been a great cry for justice in heaven that seems to have gone unanswered for ages. When Paul wanted to talk about what was accomplished by Jesus he had to describe it in a way that vindicated God’s justice. You see God promised that man would die if he sinned even once. Yet man continues to sin and live—at least for seventy years or so—so what gives? Paul says to the Romans that it was necessary for God to prove his justice “because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins” [3:25], and when the Apostle visited Mars Hill in Athens, he told that crowd of Greeks that, “The times of ignorance God overlooked” [17:30]. When people are new to the Bible they see verses like those and think that there were times and places where people were innocent because they never heard the name of Jesus. We have already shown why that will not work. But what these verses are saying is that God did exercise patience to these ancient peoples and that the Bible actually sees that as a problem! You and I may not, but that is because we do not care about goodness as much as we pretend to. 

Modern religion says that “God helps those who help themselves.” But the God of Scripture says about our help-yourself-religion: “They may build, but I will tear down, and they will be called ‘the wicked country,’ and ‘the people with whom the Lord is angry forever” [Mal. 1:4].

There is no way out and nothing we can do.

Truly no man can ransom another, or give to God the price of his life, for the ransom of their life is costly and can never suffice, that he should live on forever and never see the pit [Ps. 49:7-9].

If such a deep problem is to be solved, God will have to do something for us that we cannot and will not and desire not to do for ourselves.

[1] Sproul, Introduction to Francis Turretin’s Justification (Presbyterian & Reformed Publishing,Phillipsburg,NJ 2004); xvii, xviii

[2] Edmund Burke, Reflections on the Revolution in France, in The Works of the Right Honourable Edmund Burke, vol. 2 (London: Henry G. Bohn, 1864), pp. 515-516.

[3] cf. Eph. 2:1, Col. 2:11

[4] G. K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy (Image Books, New York 1959); p. 15

[5] Leon Morris, The Atonement (InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove, IL 1983); p. 137

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