The fall of man

By Brandon A. Evans

Second in a series

After Lucifer and his angels fell from heaven forever, that dark angel turned his eyes toward the creation of God.

As we read in the first chapters in the Bible, the place where Satan undoubtedly placed the focus of his efforts was on the first man and woman—created in the image and likeness of God.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church tells us that the lives of our first parents—of Adam and Eve, so to speak—was different than ours.

Msgr. Stuart Swetland, director of the Newman Foundation at the University of Illinois in Urbana/Champaign and vicar for social justice in the Diocese of Peoria, offered a vision of that life.

“What we can tell, both from Revelation and from what’s remaining,” he said, “is that, at the beginning of it all, man was in what I like to refer to as original harmony, original justice: harmony between himself and God, harmony between the original human community—however that’s understood—harmony between us and subpersonal creation, the earth, and that internal harmony in the human person—the mind, the intellect, the emotions and the will lined up in a way that they don’t right now.”

Still, there is not too much that we can know about the life of our first parents.

“There’s a boundary between us and that condition,” said Msgr. Swetland, borrowing a phrase from Pope John Paul II.

Original sin is that boundary that brought that life to an end and ushered death into human history.

When our first parents chose freely to turn away from God, they fell from grace and shattered the original harmony that they were created in.

“The stories from Genesis seem to tell us that [man] was seduced into believing that God was holding out on him—that God did not have his best interests at heart,” Msgr. Swetland said.

“John Paul II says that the primordial moment of the man of lust,” Msgr. Swetland said, “… is that moment when he doubts the goodness of the gift, when he doubts that God really has his best interest at heart, when he believes the father of lies who lies to him and says that God is keeping him from achieving greatness.”

Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, said in a homily that Adam and Eve were not tempted first to doubt the existence of God, but rather the goodness of his covenant.

“It is so easy to convince people that this covenant is not a gift, but rather an expression of envy of humankind, and that it is robbing human beings of their freedom and of the most precious things of life,” the cardinal said.

“It is then,” he said, “that they make the decision not to accept the limitations of their existence; it is then that they decide not to be bound by the limitations imposed by good and evil, or by morality in general, but quite simply to free themselves by ignoring it.”

The problem was that Adam thought he could make himself like God.

“The real irony, of course,” said Mark Shea, senior content editor at, “is that if Adam had actually paid attention to God, what he would have discovered is that God wanted him to be like God.”

“And we’re still about that project today,” Shea said. “We tend to view God as a harsh taskmaster that is holding us down.

“And we’re so afraid of that that we embark on a thousand different schemes for becoming who we really are, and in the process we imprison ourselves, we thwart ourselves,” he said. “It’s quite ironic. But we seem to never get tired of it.”

The only way to happiness, peace and joy, Msgr. Swetland said, is the way that God sets out for us.

But Adam and Eve were not alone in their choice against God’s path—Scripture says that they were seduced by the devil in what one can only assume he considered to be a great victory.

God’s angels serve to communicate his goodness to us, Msgr. Joseph F. Schaedel, vicar general, said. But there is a flip side to that coin.

“The devils are going to be just the opposite: [they will] try and convince us of the absence of God, the attractiveness of evil, and to sometimes guide us onto the evil path.”

But why would the devil care to enter into human history and coax us to join him in a pointless rebellion?

“The devil has … an intellect far surpassing our own,” Shea said, “and yet he’s missed the point of existence and so perpetually uses his intellect in stupid ways.”

Sin makes you stupid, he said, and that goes for angels as well as people.

Even among humans, he said, whenever there are people that are profoundly evil, they often “don’t get a clue when they’re defeated.”

“So what do you see?” Shea asked. “You see profoundly evil people going down in blazing gun battles rather than surrender, you see the Nazis calling for a scorched earth policy even when it’s obvious that they’re defeated.”

Msgr. Swetland said that part of the devil’s motivation is likely because “misery loves company.”

He also suggested a motivation for the devil by making use of some of the same ideas that appear in C.S. Lewis’ TheScrewtape Letters.

“[The demons] really don’t understand God or God’s love,” Msgr. Swetland said. “If they did, they wouldn’t have rejected it. In that sense, they can’t understand love … they believe that love is consumption. To love another is to consume them.

“And so they turn to devour others, thinking that that’s unity with others. If you reject love as self-giving, then you’re left with love as consumption, which is, of course, no love.”

Our parents’ choice to believe Satan changed not only their condition, but the whole human condition: each one of us down through the ages.

It left us marred with a tendency to turn away from God.

Cardinal Ratzinger said in his homily that “nothing seems to us today to be stranger or, indeed, more absurd than to insist upon Original Sin, since, according to our way of thinking, guilt can only be something very personal.”

Still, he said, the accounts of Scripture show us that “sin begets sin, and that therefore all the sins of history are interlinked.”

“The whole human race is in Adam ‘as one body of one man,’ ” the catechism says (#404).

It continues by saying that, “Original Sin does not have the character of a personal fault in any of Adam’s descendants. It is a deprivation of original holiness and justice, but human nature has not been totally corrupted: it is wounded in the natural powers proper to it, subject to ignorance, suffering and the dominion of death, and inclined to sin—an inclination to evil that is called concupiscence” (#405).

Thus, once that “original harmony” was broken, it was beyond our power to fix it. Only one could fix it; only one could overcome “the chasm caused by our sin,” Msgr. Swetland said.

When Jesus Christ became man, he did so to heal humanity, to change us from fallen to fallen yet redeemed.

“In taking on our nature,” Msgr. Swetland said, “… he lived a life of perfect obedience; he established a new community of obedience that overcame the disobedience of Adam.”

This is why the catechism says that “the doctrine of Original Sin is, so to speak, the ‘reverse side’ of the Good News that Jesus is the Savior of all men” (#389).

St. Paul writes that “through one person sin entered the world, and through sin, death,” (Rom 5:12), thereby showing that while Original Sin is universal, so is salvation—unless we reject it.

And in Christ we see the mystery of why God allows for evil in the world.

The catechism quotes St. Thomas Aquinas as saying that “There is nothing to prevent human nature’s being raised up to something greater, even after sin; God permits evil in order to draw forth some greater good” (#412).

St. Paul, too, writes that, “Where sin increased, grace abounded all the more” (Rom 5:20).

Shea said that while we might not see the fruitfulness of free will when faced with the evils of the world, all we know is that God has permitted it and that “he seems to think that the game is worth the candle.”

In Jesus Christ, the plans of the dark angel were confounded, and the destruction he wreaked when causing our parents to fall triggered the happiest of all events: the Incarnation.

“O happy fault,” the Church sings together during the Exultet at the Easter Vigil each year. “O necessary sin of Adam, that gained for us so great a Redeemer!”

Still, despite our fallen and redeemed state, sin has left our world in shambles—and evil persists ever more ferociously into the third millennium of Christ.

(Next part: The devil, the flesh and the world haunt our earthly life and cause the inevitability of suffering.) †


Local site Links: