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A Skeptic’s Guide to the Paradox of Humanity — Excerpt from “A Doubter’s Guide to the Bible” by John Dickson

Categories Theology Book Excerpts

Doubter's Guide to the BibleHuman nature is a bundle of contradictions.

In the words of Scot McKnight, we are both brilliant and bad: we give our time to the local PTA and cheat on our spouses; we donate to disaster relief funds and cheat on our taxes; we shovel our elderly neighbor out of a snow storm, and cheat our employers out of an honest forty-hour work week.

In his brilliant new book, A Doubter’s Guide to the Bible, John Dickson agrees:

"Despite the unpopularity of the word 'sin, the Bible’s premise that humanity is the glory and refuse of the universe, as Pascal put it, does resonate…we see examples of this human paradox all around us." (36)

While we still bear God’s image, that image is cracked. In the excerpt below, Dickson explains why, offering skeptics a solid explanation for why “a dark thread runs not only through the world, but the very heart of humanity.” (35)

The Christian vision of life is grounded in the idea that the world is a good creation — it is the intentional, deliberate artwork of an orderly, loving God. Our experiences bear this out. We see the threads of beauty woven into the fabric of our existence.

But, of course, this is a patchwork world. There are threads of disaster, disease, and heartbreak, too. Here is another truth of the biblical narrative: a dark thread runs not only through the world, but through the very heart of humanity. These glorious creatures are also rebels and sinners. The seventeenth-century French mathematician, physicist, and philosopher Blaise Pascal put it like this: “What sort of freak then, is man! How novel, monstrous, how chaotic, how paradoxical, how prodigious! Judge of all things, feeble earthworm, repository of truth, sink of doubt anderror, glory and refuse of the universe!”

Two hundred years later, the great German philosopher and atheist Friedrich Nietzsche despised Christianity for putting such an awful idea in the head of so great an intellect as Pascal: “the most deplorable example,” Nietzsche wrote in the aptly titled Anti-Christ, is “the depraving of Pascal, who believed his reason had been depraved by original sin while it had only been depraved by his Christianity” It is one of the most confronting ideas of the Bible, yet it is one that illuminates as much as disturbs: God’s glorious creatures are profoundly fallen.

Christians call this chaotic feebleness “sin.” It is a deeply unfashionable term. On the one hand, it is sometimes stripped of its meaning and power, as when “sinfulness” means nothing more than a cheeky tendency to overindulge in ice cream or chocolate. On the other hand, for some the word “sin” brings to mind a pulpit-thumping, fire-breathing preacher who wants to crush people into an acceptance of their abject worthlessness. Either approach diminishes this key biblical concept.

Despite the unpopularity of the word “sin,” the Bible’s premise that humanity is the glory and refuse of the universe, as Pascal put it, does resonate. Nietzsche can decry the concept as much as he likes, but we see examples of this human paradox all around us. Soon after the fall of the ruthless dictator Saddam Hussein, private photos were released that showed him as the doting grandfather of little ones who loved him. We read stories about people who act with great courage and seeming altruism who become corrupted or act terribly toward their families in private…If we are honest with ourselves, most will acknowledge a similar paradox in our day-to-day lives. We love our children intensely, give generously to charity, or work hard for little thanks. But then there are moments when we lose our temper (toward these loved ones), speak words that wound or deceive, and find ourselves selfishly neglecting the plight of the poor. We are confronted with the dark and selfish twist to the human heart.

The Bible opens, as we have seen, with a story about the manifest goodness and beauty of the world. The next story, however, explains the wicked, the wretched, the dark streak in humanity. It is the story of the fall. It is such a classic narrative…

The Lord God took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to work it and take care of it. 16 And the Lord God commanded the man, “You are free to eat from any tree in the garden; 17 but you must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for when you eat from it you will certainly die."...

Now the serpent was more crafty than any of the wild animals the Lord God had made. He said to the woman, “Did God really say, ‘You must not eat from any tree in the garden’?”

The woman said to the serpent, “We may eat fruit from the trees in the garden, but God did say, ‘You must not eat fruit from the tree that is in the middle of the garden, and you must not touch it, or you will die.’”

“You will not certainly die,” the serpent said to the woman. “For God knows that when you eat from it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.”

When the woman saw that the fruit of the tree was good for food and pleasing to the eye, and also desirable for gaining wisdom, she took some and ate it. She also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate it. Then the eyes of both of them were opened, and they realized they were naked; so they sewed fig leaves together and made coverings for themselves.

Then the man and his wife heard the sound of the Lord God as he was walking in the garden in the cool of the day, and they hid from the Lord God among the trees of the garden. But the Lord God called to the man, “Where are you?”

He answered, “I heard you in the garden, and I was afraid because I was naked; so I hid.”

And he said, “Who told you that you were naked? Have you eaten from the tree that I commanded you not to eat from?”

The man said, “The woman you put here with me—she gave me some fruit from the tree, and I ate it.”

Then the Lord God said to the woman, “What is this you have done?”

The woman said, “The serpent deceived me, and I ate.” (Genesis 2:15 – 3:13)

The story begins with God bestowing on Adam and Eve authority and immense freedom. They are made in the “image of God” and are told to rule over the whole world. God tells them that they may eat from any tree in the garden of Eden, except one — the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.

…Many scholars suggest that “knowledge,” as it is used in Genesis 2:17, has the nuance of “to determine.” This is the tree of the determination of good and evil. It is not that God does not want Adam to know the difference between good and evil; that wouldn’t make sense of the narrative, in any case, since God’s command not to eat from this particular tree presupposes that Adam was able to comprehend that it would be wrong to go against God’s wishes. The real point seems to be that God does not want Adam to imagine that he is free to choose what is good and what is evil. That prerogative belongs to God alone.

When Adam takes a piece of fruit from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, it is an act of defiance that usurps God’s authority to reveal — as the reflection of his own character — what is right and what is wrong. The biblical way of thinking says that God himself is “the Good,” and that he ordered the world as a reflection of his own good character. As a result, that which God commands and that which is inherently good are one and the same. Whatever moral law there is in the universe is simply a reflection of his own nature. To defy God, as Adam did, is to defy the Good.

When Adam and Eve defied God, according to Genesis 3, everything promptly falls apart — socially, physically, and spiritually. This threefold pattern is crucial to the unfolding biblical narrative.

Socially, their relationship with one another, which was previously full of intimacy and joy, is now filled with blame and embarrassment.

The physical dimension collapses too. The land, which previously provided easily and abundantly for Adam and Eve’s needs, is now difficult and becomes a place of enmity with humanity….

Most profoundly, Adam and Eve’s spiritual relationships, their relationships with God, are now fractured. Before Adam and Eve sinned, Genesis offers a picture of the Creator and human beings in fellowship in the garden together. However, after they eat the fruit, God comes walking through the garden, and, in a poignant and disturbing scene, Adam and Eve hide from their Maker. We are probably right to detect some “comedy” here, a tragic irony that humans would imagine they could hide from the omniscient Lord of the world! How much of life involves a petty hiding from the Almighty!

When God told Adam and Eve not to eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, he said that the consequence for doing so would be death. While Adam and Eve did eventually die, before they died, they saw the breakdown of their spiritual relationship, social relationships, and relationship with the physical environment. This is true death — the destruction of that which is good in the created world, that for which we were made. (Pgs. 35-41)

A Doubter's Guide to the Bible

By John Dickson

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