The Enigma of Sin’s Origin
While the biblical story of the fall into sin provides an answer to the question of the origin of sin in human history, it does not provide an easy solution to the enigma of the origin of sin and evil. Whereas the theory of evolution tends to ascribe the presence of sin and evil to an earlier stage in the evolutionary process, out of which the human race emerged over a great period of time, the biblical worldview proceeds from the conviction of the existence of an originally good and well-ordered creation. Within the framework of an evolutionary worldview, the question of the origin of sin can never be properly addressed. For the theory of evolution, the human race did not fall from an earlier state of integrity into sin, but rather is evolving into a higher and more advanced form of existence. The history of the human race is not a history of devolution, but rather a history of evolution from lesser to greater, from lower to higher, or from an earlier primitive state to a later, more sophisticated state of existence.
It is only within the framework of a Christian worldview, which starts from the conviction of an original good creation and of the existence of the first human beings in a state of integrity, that the “enigma” of sin becomes most pressing. What possible explanation is there for the introduction of sin into God’s good creation and the human race through the original “fall” of Adam and Eve? For Bavinck, this enigma, the question of an explanation for the origin of human sin, is among the most difficult questions confronting Christian theology. “The question of the origin of evil, second to that of existence itself, is the greatest enigma of life and the heaviest cross for the intellect to bear. The question, Whence is evil? has occupied the minds of humans in every century and still waits in vain for an answer that is more satisfactory than that of Scripture” (RD 3:53).
For some in the history of Christian theology, the explanation for the enigma of sin resides in the “sensual nature” of the human race. Rather than explain the origin of sin in terms of a “creaturely act of will,” some have argued that there is something in the nature of humanity, the fleshly or carnal dimension of human existence, that gave birth to all the sin and evil that are discernible in human life and history. Oftentimes, this explanation proceeds from the assumption that human beings are composed of a “higher” and a “lower” or sensual aspect. When this lower or sensual nature assumes a position of ascendancy, it draws human beings down from their higher inclinations, which have their source in the human mind or spirit, in order to enslave them in the passions and appetites of the flesh. In an evolutionary perspective, human progress occurs as human beings subordinate these lower or fleshly passions to the higher aspirations and affections of the mind.
In Bavinck’s estimation, this explanation for the origin of sin has no biblical warrant. In the biblical understanding, the “flesh,” when it is opposed to the “Spirit,” does not refer to the material or fleshly aspect of human nature in distinction from an immaterial or spiritual aspect. Rather, the “flesh” usually refers comprehensively to human life in its misdirection and orientation away from or against the service of the true and living God. The “flesh” is a biblical way of denoting “the sinful life-orientation of humans who in soul and body turn away from God and toward the creature. The Pauline use of the word ‘flesh’ becomes clear to us when we abandon the familiar Greek contrast between the material and the immaterial and replace it with the biblical contrast between the earthly and the heavenly, the divine and the creaturely, between what is below and what is above” (RD 3:55).
Since the explanation for the origin of sin that appeals to some aspect of human nature, particularly the weaker and lower “fleshly” aspect, as the occasion and source for the weakness and sinfulness of human beings, is unsatisfactory and unbiblical, others have sought an explanation for the enigma of sin in the inevitable contrast between the finite nature of human beings as creatures and the infinite being and power of God. There is an inevitability about sin and evil in human life that stems from the limitations that belong intrinsically to the life of a creature, even one created in God’s image, who does not enjoy unlimited freedom and power to do what is good and virtuous. Human finitude and sinfulness are inseparably joined; sin is embedded in the fabric of human creatureliness.
In addition to this explanation, which appeals to the inevitable limitations that attend the life of a finite creature, it is also suggested that there may be a kind of “dark nature or blind will in the divine being itself” that explains the origin of sin. Not only is man a finite creature whose limitations inevitably give rise to sinful and evil actions, but God’s inscrutable being and nature offer an ultimate explanation for the origin of sin. Though it is entirely perplexing and unfathomable to us, some suggest that perhaps God himself, who is the source and origin of all things, is somehow the author of evil and sin.
Bavinck notes that in both of these explanations for the enigma of the origin of sin, there is a kind of inevitability to the introduction of sin in the world and human history. Since human beings are finite creatures, and since God is the unfathomably deep and incomprehensible source of all things, sin must find its origin either in the necessary limits of human nature or in the deep (and dark) purposes of God’s unsearchable will. Or perhaps the explanation lies in some combination of these accounts.
While Bavinck acknowledges a moment of truth in these attempts to explain the origin of sin and evil, he maintains that they do not preserve adequately the enigma of sin as rebellion and defiance against God. In the biblical account of sin, the “ethical” character of sin as an act of the human will in opposition to God is always maintained. Sin may not be treated as a kind of “physical” phenomenon that belongs to the fabric of a finite, created order, like “darkness, sickness, death, and so on” (RD 3:57). Sin may never be treated as though it belongs to the substance of things as God created them, or belongs necessarily to human existence in its limitations. Furthermore, explanations of sin that appeal to the natural order of things or to the inscrutable nature of God suggest that sin is a kind of eternal and invincible reality, a necessary feature of the world as its exists and even authored by God himself. When sin is not referred to the creature’s willful turning away in independence from God as Creator, it becomes a part of a larger whole, a kind of “lower or lesser degree of the good” (RD 3:57). Like a loose thread in the larger tapestry of existence, sin is treated as though it had a necessary place in the created order and actually contributes in its own way to the greater good of the whole. Finally, any explanation of sin that appeals to some feature of God’s nature that is inscrutable and dark implies that God himself is, in some sense, the author of sin. But in the biblical worldview, sin always remains an enigma that is unalterably opposed to God’s righteousness and holiness, an “alien” intrusion into God’s good creation, a vincible and ultimately impossible threat to God’s triumphant will and good purposes for the world.
Sin and the Will of God
Although Bavinck rejects those explanations of the origin of sin that appeal to the nature of creation with its limitations or to God as the inscrutable source of all things, even evil and sin, he does affirm that there is an undeniable connection between God’s will or counsel and the origin of sin within the created order. “Scripture, which strongly distances God from all wickedness, firmly announces, on the other hand, that his counsel and government also extend to sin. God is not the author of sin, yet it does not lie outside his knowledge, his will, and his power” (RD 3:59). Unless we choose to deny God’s omniscience and omnipotence, we must reckon with the idea that God’s will and purpose encompass even the mystery of the origin of sin.
The difficult theological question is this: how do we explain or account for the relation between sin and the will of God? In the history of theology, many theologians have appealed to the idea of God’s “permissive” will to explain this relation. It is not that God positively willed that sin and evil be introduced into his creation. Rather, God was pleased, in order to achieve his ultimate good ends and purposes, to “permit” sin and evil to occur within the created order. The explanation of the introduction of sin by virtue of God’s permissive will is a popular one, and finds representatives among some of the early church fathers, as well as among Roman Catholic, Lutheran, Remonstrant, and modern theologians. According to this explanation, God’s will with respect to sin is a “negative act,” a “withholding of obstacles” (suspensio impendimenti). God’s will of permission is his will not to act or to intervene in order to prevent the introduction of sin into the world.
For Bavinck, the explanation for the origin of sin that appeals to God’s permissive will is inadequate and ambiguous. It is inadequate because it is does not escape the problem of the relation between God’s will and the origin of sin. If God “permits” sin, he does so in such a way that its introduction into the created world is inevitable. For if we were to say that God’s permissive will does not ensure the origin of sin, then we would have to assume a Pelagian standpoint, namely, that the creature who sins has the full ability either to sin or not to sin, and the origin of sin lies entirely outside of any real relation to the will of God.
The great church father Augustine was correct when he observed that “permission” does not remove the will of God from any connection to the origin of sin: “Nothing, therefore, happens unless the Omnipotent wills it to happen: he either permits it to happen or he brings it about himself” (RD 3:60). Even when God permits something to happen, he does so in a way that ensures its occurrence. God does whatever he wills, even though we may construe his will differently in relation to what he approves and what he disapproves. Augustine’s observation that “even what is done against His will, is not done without His will,” expresses the inescapable truth that God has included all things within the scope and embrace of his sovereign will and purpose. For this reason, Bavinck concludes that the idea of “permission” by itself offers no ultimate solution to the problem of God’s will and the origin of sin:
The issue is simply that the word “permission” conceived in a negative sense offers no solution whatever to the problem of God’s relation to sin, fails utterly to answer the objection that God is the author of sin, and in fact withdraws the whole reality of sin from the context of God’s providential government. After all, one who can prevent an evil but, while quietly looking on, lets it happen, is as guilty as one who commits that evil (RD 3:62).
Rather than attempt a solution to the origin of sin by utilizing the idea of God’s “permissive” will, Bavinck suggests that we would do better to distinguish the manner in which God governs the good and the evil, the righteous and the sinful actions of his creatures. Even though we may say that God wills the good and the evil, we must also add that his manner of government in each case is quite distinct. Whereas God delights in the good, he hates the evil.
Though “materially” the creature’s actions are possible only by virtue of God’s will to grant human beings the power to act, “formally” human beings act by their own will and power. Without himself becoming the author of sin and evil, God is able to include even what is contrary to his will within his government so as to accomplish infallibly his sovereign and good purposes. “In the case of the good, God’s providence must be understood as God himself by his Spirit working in the subject and positively enabling this subject to do good. In the case of sin, it may not be pictured that way. Sin is lawlessness, deformity, and does not have God as its efficient cause, but at most as its deficient cause” (RD 3:63). God’s will and government of all things is holy and innocent, so that even when God makes use of sin within his purposes, he does so without himself “committing” the sin. Within God’s all-embracing counsel for the creation, it is possible for him to will sin and evil, knowing at the same time that he will use them to achieve his good purposes, yet in such a way as never to become party to them or liable to defeat by them.
In his treatment of the enigma of the origin of sin, Bavinck admits that we left with an apparently unsolvable problem: How can we explain the origin of sin in human life? While it is true that sin and evil are subject to God’s government and encompassed within his overarching purposes, it is never the case that the origin of sin among human beings who bear God’s image has any other explanation than in the exercise of their wills. But what remains deeply mysterious is that the will of a rational-moral creature, who was created in an original state of true knowledge, righteousness, and holiness, would turn away from God in sin and transgression. If a fresh water spring is pure at its source, how could it produce a polluted stream? In short, how is it possible that human beings, who were created in a state of original righteousness, could fall into sin and transgression? While Bavinck acknowledges the utter futility that attends any attempt to account fully for the origin of sin, he does make several observations that provide some insight into this problem.
First, though human beings were originally created good and after God’s own image, God nonetheless must be understood to have willed the possibility of their sinning against him. Since Adam and Eve were not created in a state of sinless perfection, which excluded any possibility of sin whatsoever, God did not choose to preclude from the beginning the possibility of the origin of sin.
Second, Bavinck notes that “God so created angels and human that they could sin and fall. They did not yet possess the highest [gift]; they were placed at the beginning of the road, not the end” (RD 3:66). When God first created angels and humans, he did not create them with the gift of certain perseverance in the way of obedience. Though they could remain obedient, there was no absolute certainty that they would do so. Though they were created good, they were not created as immutably good. “They did not yet possess the highest, inadmissible freedom, that is, the freedom of no longer being able to want to sin” (RD 3:67).
Third, when we consider the question concerning the origin of sin, we must reckon with the creaturely power of imagination. Before the will to sin gave birth to an act of sinful disobedience, we must assume that the creature was able to imagine or entertain the idea of sin. Though this power of imagination may not be regarded as a solution to the remaining enigma of the origin of sin, it does at least provide an explanation of the progress or movement from the contemplation of to the actuality of sin. “The mind entertains the idea of sin, the imagination beautifies and converts it into a fascinating ideal, desire reaches out to it, and the will goes ahead and does it. Thus, in the case of both angels and humans, the imagination was the faculty that made the violation of the commandment appear as the road to equality with God” (RD 3:67).
And fourth, the biblical distinction between the original man, Adam, who was “from the earth, a man of dust” (1 Cor. 15:45ff.) and the “last” man, Christ, who was “the Lord from heaven who became a life-giving Spirit,” is of special significance. This distinction corresponds to the distinction between human life at creation, which was not the end of God’s way with human beings but the beginning of that way, and human life as a result of God’s work of re-creation in Christ. The original state of humanity is a lesser and subordinate one, which does not reach its goal or end until the coming of Christ and the re-creation of fallen sinners in conformity to him. The consummate and perfected state of human life only comes through Christ, the “last” or eschatological Adam. And this difference between the original and the consummate form of human life also in its own way testifies to the possibility of the origin of sin after the first creation of human beings in God’s image.
For these reasons, Bavinck emphasizes that the “possibility” of sin existed within the framework of God’s creation of the world and human beings in his image. Though this possibility may not be construed in such a way as to diminish the enigma or riddle of sin, it at least helps us to understand how it may find its place within the all-encompassing reach of God’s providential rule and ordering of all things. No matter how mysterious the origin of sin, it must be understood to be embraced within God’s good and holy purposes for the glorification of himself through the creation and its history. Though God is not the Author or Source of sin, his eternal counsel does use even sin and evil to accomplish his unfathomable purposes to glorify himself and to redeem his people in Christ.1
1. In my summary of Bavinck’s treatment of the origin of sin, I have not considered his treatment of the question of the time of sin’s introduction into the created order, whether in the world of angelic spirits or subsequently within the context of human history. While Bavinck acknowledges that the Scriptures do not speak directly to this question, he maintains that we have to distinguish always between the original state of God’s good creation and its subsequent (in time) ruination through the introduction of sin, first among the angels and then among human beings. Bavinck also suggests that Adam likely fell rather soon after he was created, though he admits that this is at best a surmise that cannot be known with certainty (RD 3:74).
Dr. Cornelis P. Venema is the President of Mid-America Reformed Seminary in Dyer, IN. He is a contributing editor to The Outlook.