“Ask a Priest: Why Did God Allow the Fall of Adam?”

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Q: Before the fall of Adam, Scripture says there was no death. Did that mean that humans were to remain on Earth and not ascend to heaven? This all goes back to the question some people ask, “Why did God allow all of this?” Yes, we have free will, but why would the “tree of life and the tree of knowledge of good and evil” even be placed in the garden in the first place? According to my research through Catholic sources only, one answer is to test us through our free will, but another answer posed the thought that God already knew what would happen even though it was our free will. This makes sense to me because a logical human being would have a backup plan just in case Adam did eat from the tree. God is infinitely greater than us. So I’m sure God was prepared for either result or even already knew it. Perhaps the temptation was allowed not only to test us, but to allow the human spirit to enter heaven where there is absolutely no evil? I understand that Eden was a paradise and God walked with man, but the fallen angels were still cast out of heaven, and temptation, in this case through the serpent, was clearly in the garden; therefore, man would have never been truly “safe” from the fallen angels or completely one with God in heaven. There might not be definite answers you can offer, but theories and philosophies are more than welcome. – F.M.

Answered by Fr. Edward McIlmail, LC

A: It is good to see that you are thinking and asking these deep questions. That is part of the purpose of Scripture: to draw us deeper into the mystery of God and of salvation history.

Let me say upfront that I won’t have definitive answers for all your questions. Some of these matters are mysterious, which is why we never quite figure out everything. Nevertheless, there are some observations that might help you.

First, let’s say that the temptation – the serpent, and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil – was a test that allowed man to affirm his love and obedience to God. Man failed the test, but that doesn’t mean he lost forever the chance to be united with God in heaven.

As to your questions: First, people would not have remained on earth for all eternity. Our real home is in heaven, so before original sin came along the plan was probably that we would go from this world to the next world fairly smoothly.

As for free will and why God allowed the fall to happen, this is certainly one of the most perplexing questions. God knows all things from eternity. So, yes, he knew man would misuse his free will and sin.

But God’s foreknowledge of man’s fall doesn’t mean God caused the sin. Moreover, God can bring good out of bad, and in this case man’s fall meant that a redeemer would be needed.

That redeemer was Jesus, the Second Person of the Trinity who took on human nature and suffered and died for us. God became one of us, in other words.

That is why in the Easter Vigil Mass, at the Exsultet, we hear that line about “O felix culpa” (O happy fault). The fault of man (sin) brought us so great a redeemer (hence the cause for joy). This is a very profound insight, the kind we could meditate on for a lifetime. We could say that the sending of a Redeemer was God’s backup plan.

As for the trees in Eden: the tree of life could be seen as a symbol of immortality (that is, the absence of death). After the fall, man is barred from the tree of life. This reflects the fact that man will now face death.

The tree of the knowledge of good and evil can be seen as a symbol of the test that God put man to. Eating the produce of this tree is in itself an act of disobedience — which is why man has knowledge of good and evil after disobeying God and partaking of the forbidden fruit.

Maybe your deeper question is why God put man to the test in the first place.

Testing is the way we can grow. Every time we resist a temptation, we grow stronger. To leave someone untested is to leave him a baby all his life. God didn’t want man to remain a baby, but to be a responsible adult who would freely choose to love and obey his Creator.

Man was safe from the influence of the fallen angels to the extent that he obeyed God. Being “safe” isn’t the point of life, by the way.

Imagine a child whose parents never let him out of the house, never let him play with neighborhood kids, so that he would be “safe.” Would that be a happy child? Would that be a healthy child? Maybe not. It might be a child who never learns, never grows, never knows how to deal with real-world problems.

Perhaps you still have questions. That’s good, because these aren’t meant to be exhaustive answers. These are the kinds of questions you can pray about for years. If such praying and questioning brings you closer to God, then that is good.

For more reading, you might want to take a look at Frank Sheed’s Theology and Sanity as a possible next step.

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One Comment
  1. I don’t agree with the idea of a Redeemer being God’s “Backup Plan”. See 2 Peter 1:1-5.

    Also, even though it is not emphasized as much in the Western Church (which tends to get all hung up about justification and atonement), I much prefer the concept of “Divinization”. See Richard Rohr’s blog about “At-one-ment”.

    Lastly, this quote, from Kallistos Ware (“The Orthodox Way”), sums it up the best, imho:

    God’s original plan was to make us like himself. God made man that man may become God. Thus Jesus wasn’t plan B. God becoming man wasn’t simply a response to our sin. God always planned on becoming one of us in order to make us like himself.

    God partakes of human nature completely so that you and I might partake of the divine nature. As the priest says at Mass while he mixes the water and wine, “May we come to share in the divinity of Christ who humbled himself to share in our humanity.”

    “St Isaac urges, God’s taking of our humanity is to be understood not only as an act of restoration, not only as a response to man’s sin, but also and more fundamentally as an act of love, an expression of God’s own nature. Even had there been no fall, God in his own limitless, outgoing love would still have chosen to identify himself with his creation by becoming man. The Incarnation of Christ, looked at in this way, effects more than a reversal of the fall, more than a restoration of man to his original state in Paradise. When God becomes man, this marks the beginning of an essentially new stage in the history of man, and not just a return to the past. The Incarnation raises man to a new level; the last state is higher than the first. Only in Jesus Christ do we see revealed the full possibilities of our human nature; until he is born, the true implications of our personhood are still hidden from us. Christ’s birth, as St Basil puts it, is “the birthday of the whole human race”; Christ is the first perfect man—perfect, that is to say, not just in a potential sense, as Adam was in his innocence before the fall, but in the sense of the completely realized “likeness”. The Incarnation, then, is not simply a way of undoing the effects of original sin, but it is an essential stage upon man’s journey from the divine image to the divine likeness. The true image and likeness of God is Christ himself; and so, from the very first moment of man’s creation in the image, the Incarnation of Christ was in some way already implied. The true reason for the Incarnation, then, lies not in man’s sinfulness but in his unfallen nature as a being made in the divine image and capable of union with God.”

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