According to tradition this world is fallen and under a curse brought about by Adam’s sin (1* See, for example, Chris Wright, pp.198,395). However, there seem to be serious problems with this view as I have indicated in my Cosmic Curse?, Romans 8:18-25 and Romans 8:18-25 In Brief.
For a start, it is important to distinguish between a permanent cosmic curse and ordinary curses that follow on any infraction of law (cf. Heb. 2:2). Even a superficial examination of Scripture will reveal that the latter abound. Good examples are provided by Leviticus 26 and Deuteronomy 28. It should be noted, however, that in both of these books blessings appear alongside curses. On the assumption of a general cosmic curse the presence of blessings is difficult to explain, not to mention a Promised Land flowing with milk and honey (Ex. 3:8; Num. 13:27; Ezek. 20:6). At the very least they are viewed in violent contrast with curses in general. Indeed, they are usually presented as alternatives dependent on moral conduct (e.g. Dt. 11:26-28; 30:15-20; Jer. 21:8).
First, the garden of Eden as portrayed in Genesis 2 and 3 is a place of blessing and remains so throughout scripture (Gen. 13:10; Isa. 51:3; Ezek. 28:13, cf. 31:8f.; Joel 2:3). It re-appears in enhanced form in Revelation 21-22 and provided we allow for the difference, we can readily regard salvation as involving paradise lost and paradise regained. But there is a wilderness in between.
So far as the individual rather than the race is concerned, on the assumption of recapitulation the Garden of Eden appears to be the antitype of the womb which serves as a place of idyllic blessing. Both Job (ch. 3) and Jeremiah (20:14-18) who suffered much wished they had remained permanently in their mother’s womb. Whereas in Genesis 3 it is sin that causes Adam and Eve’s ejection from the womb or Garden to confront the harsh world outside, it is not necessarily so with his offspring. Was it so with the Lord Jesus who was also born of woman? In Job (5:6f.) Eliphaz claims that though trouble does not sprout from the ground, man is nonetheless born to trouble. His thesis is that sin is the problem but Job himself whom God has already declared to be righteous more accurately insists that man has to endure hard service on the earth (Job. 7:1) and that man who is born of woman is few of days and full of trouble even apart from sin (14:1, cf. 10:18; Eccl. 2:18-23). Could this not stem from the cultural mandate that required man to exercise dominion over the earth? After all, even the sinless Lord Jesus had to toil under the sun and experience hunger and thirst and other trials that characterize every-day human life. And Paul who was also the object of persecution had problems with nature quite unrelated to sin as passages like 2 Cor. 6:4-10 make plain. It is interesting to note that in the world to come the pains associated with the physical universe disappear. There the suffering, the curses and the afflictions are forgotten (cf. Rom. 8:18; 2 Cor. 4:17).
After Genesis 8:21 there is no mention of the curse on the ground. Why? The impression gained is that the covenant with Noah spelt the end of it (cf. Isa. 54:9f.). Clearly this covenant is a covenant of grace and blessing as all the covenants with man are. Even the heathen were blessed as Paul roundly told them in Acts 14 and 17. While the covenant of law with Moses led to curse if broken, it was clearly meant to be a blessing if kept (Dt. 5:33). It separated the Israelites from the heathen (cf. Rom. 3:2; 9:4) and it was intended to set the former above the latter (Dt. 28). When it was kept as it was in Jesus’ case it proved a blessing of no small importance, for to him and those who followed him it was the gateway to life (Mt. 7:13, cf. Lev. 18:5).
The Promised Land
The Promised Land, like bountiful Egypt (Num. 11:5; 16:13) and Assyria (2 K. 18:32; Isa. 36:17), would surely have been impossible if a universal curse was in operation. Psalm 65:9-13 among other references makes it plain that God rewards obedience with blessing. Even more to the point, the pleasant land which resembled Eden (Isa. 51:3) only became a desolation when the people rebelled and went their own way even into exile (Zech. 7:14, cf. Jer. 7:24,34). While the latter was punishment like a return to Egyptian slavery (Hos. 8:13), it was not permanent but involved eventual restoration to the Promised Land. (Jer. 29:10f.).
All this raises the question of the interpretation of Romans 8:18-25. After all 2 Cor. 4:17 clearly points to the fact that this age is an ‘evil’ age (cf. Gal. 1:4) which will pass away (Heb. 1:10-12). In other words, whatever is made ‘by hand’ (all created things) are by nature problematic for humankind. Adam’s sin reflected knowledge, for apart from law sin doesn’t exist (Rom. 4:15), but knowledge of good and evil is not just moral but natural. In the womb we know nothing (cf. Rom. 9:11). Even as infants we know nothing (Dt. 1:39) but when law, knowledge, sin and faith come, we become aware of creation including our own bodies (2* Clearly, the fleshly precursors of Eve who knew nothing did not know pain. If Eve was capable of transgression, she must have known the commandment (law), and if she knew the commandment she must have known pain, Gen. 3:16. See further my Nature Red in Tooth and Claw.) and its need to be controlled and subdued. A cosmic curse is quite unnecessary to explain many of its difficulties which include natural disasters. For this is a defective, ‘hand-made’ (cheiropoietos) and shakable world by nature even apart from sin as Hebrews 12:26-28 plainly shows. It will eventually pass away (Mt. 24:35), since that is the destiny for all created things (cf. Rom. 1:20 and Heb. 12:27). Its temporary nature was implied in the very first verse of the Bible, for a beginning implies an end in direct contrast to the eternal God who has neither (Ps. 102:27; Isa. 43:10; Heb. 7:3). For Paul all that is visible is temporary (2 Cor. 4:18), so that our hope of glory in necessarily an invisible one (Rom. 8:24f.).
The Covenant with Noah
So the question must be posed: why is there a covenant with Noah if there is a permanent universal curse in place? The truth is that the so-called cosmic curse is a temporary phenomenon. It culminates in the flood which is manifestly not intended to bring creation to a full end (Jer. 4:27; 5:10,18, cf. 30:11) or the salvation of all who were destined to follow it would be impossible (cf. Jer. 31:35-37; 33:19-26). By the grace of God the end is stayed until the plan of salvation is complete (cf. Luke 17:26-30). Only then does consuming fire do its work (cf. Heb. 12:25-29). In clarification of this we need to recognize that, first, creation is temporary and transient by nature; second, that we to the extent that we are fleshly human beings who are the products of creation need to escape (be rescued) from it (cf. Gal. 1:4), and, third, that its shakable and destructible nature exacerbated by sin will be used to punish the wicked. This is made especially clear in Luke 21, Hebrews, 2 Peter and Jude.
But why was there a putative cosmic curse in any case at Adam’s exodus from the Garden of Eden if sin was not its cause? Certainly Adam (seen as an individual epitomizing mankind the race) is told that his sin will result in a (temporary) curse on the ground (Gen. 3:17) and by implication that his dominion will be difficult. Why? Why, we might further ask, Adam’s change of circumstance and indeed location or environment? If we see the idyllic Garden of Eden or paradise as the womb of the race, then we can make some convincing deductions. Outside of Eden (regarded as the womb of the race) we infer that life is difficult by divine design (cf. Gen 1:26-28). We know this from our own experience. For us, however, gestation and infancy occur in blissful ignorance. It is only as we develop the understanding of childhood that we become aware of problems and the difference between pain and pleasure or, as the Bible puts it, the difference between good and evil. Prior to that time we do not know these (Rom. 9:11, cf. Job 3; Jer. 20:14-18) either on the moral or physical level. But while all this may be plain in our own personal experience, what about the early chapters of Genesis where man is physically adult and cognizant to a degree, and the curse is prominent?
Let us look first at Cain. He is presented to us as the offspring of Adam and is traditionally regarded as sinful ‘in Adam’ at least according to a dubious inference from Genesis 5:1-3. The problem here is that sin like all moral qualities cannot be transferred (see e.g. Ezek. 18 pace believers in original sin!). Cain appears to sin for himself, that is, on his own account (cf. John 8:34; Rom. 7:9f.), but the question is: how? Since he was a worker of the ground (Gen. 4:2), his offering would surely appear to be in order or appropriate. His failure to figure in the roll of the faithful in Hebrews 11, however, suggests that his problem is his attitude or frame of mind – an important consideration in light of later scriptural teaching like Proverbs 15:8; 21:27; Isaiah 1:11,15, etc.
Once he has failed to master sin (4:7), murdered his brother Abel and polluted the earth with his blood (Num. 35:33) all of which reveal his character, his punishment involves his alienation not only from God but from the ground that he was called (Gen. 1:26-28) to work (4:11-13). But land that is not tilled or cultivated is inevitably a desolation and a wilderness (Isa. 6:11f., etc.) as it was during the exile later on in Israel’s history.
It is useful at this point to gain perspective. While Adam (mankind) lived in Eden knowing neither good nor evil, he clearly experienced an animal-like existence and lived off the land, so to speak (cf. Gen. 2:16). When like a child he eventually came to knowledge, that is, an understanding of the commandment and broke it, such a manner of living was no longer acceptable or even viable. As today, mankind has to work the resources of creation to attain the kind or style of life that befits our status as mature creatures made in the image of God. If he does not work, he does not eat (2 Thes. 3:10, cf. Gen. 3:19). To illustrate this we have merely to remind ourselves that initially man lived as a herbivore as a baby lives on milk. Only later as he developed did meat come on the menu (Gen. 9:3f., cf. Heb. 5:12-14). Nowadays we think of ourselves as being omnivores rather than merely carnivores.
In the circumstances it would be reasonable to conclude that Cain’s exile and failure to work led to territorial neglect or curse as when Adam left Eden. We also need to recognize that Cain belonged to the infancy of the race and infants in normal life are hardly noted for their industry. They rely on the nurture of their adult parents, but Cain’s parents though physically grown up were also infants on the spiritual level. Judging by Abel and Enoch who were also immature in understanding, they could offer little more than faith like children trusting their parents, as Hebrews 11:4-6 suggest. But faith according to the Bible brings the all-important righteousness.
The Bible says little about Lamech. Genesis 4:23f. suggest that he is in the same mould as Cain but worse. Genesis 5:29, however, implies the second Lamech’s distinct aversion to work and he looks for eventual relief from Noah as we look to Christ. This being so, in light of the description of the sluggard in Proverbs 24:30-34 we can safely conclude that the curse he like Cain experiences stems from his failure to work the earth as he should. He simply illustrates the fact that untilled ground results in a wilderness or desolation (cf. e.g. Ezek. 36:26-36). That desolation remains unrelieved until obedient (Gen. 6:22; 7:5,9,16) and faithful (Heb. 11:7) Noah takes over. From his time on, by the grace of God the threat of another cataclysm is permanently removed (cf. Is. 54:9f.). But that does not mean, as Jesus himself indicates, that there is no threat at all. On the contrary, though the flood did not completely destroy the unproductive earth at the beginning because God chose to make a covenant of grace with Noah until his plan of salvation was fulfilled (Gen. 8:22), cosmic fire at the end will (Luke 17:26-30; 2 Pet. 3:7,10-12).
This prompts the question of why. The answer seems to lie, first, in the fact that creation is by divine intention temporary and transient (Gen. 1; Mt. 24:35; 2 Cor. 4:18, etc.) and, second, that when it is untilled (as when it is uninhabited) it is useless. This requires further explanation. At the beginning, the earth was barren or under a curse because it was not worked. At the end, however, as Jesus clearly intimates in line with Genesis 8:22, while it will continue to produce food and drink, it will largely fail to produce its intended harvest of souls (cf. 2 Sam. 23:6f.; 2 Thes. 1:7-9; 2:7-11; 2 Tim. 3:1-9, etc.). As the author of Hebrews asserts, ground that is blessed but unproductive is fit only for burning (Heb. 6:7f., cf. Mt. 22:7). Jesus makes basically the same point in Luke 13:6-9 where the fig tree symbolizing the Jews is unfruitful (cf. Mt. 21:19; 7:19; Mark 11:13; Luke 3:9; 14:35; Isa. 5:1-7). The truth is that this world is meaningless apart from man made in the image of God.
A Transitory Creation
The reason why it is necessary for us to avoid laying up for ourselves treasures on earth to the exclusion of those in heaven is simply that the former are transitory (Mt. 6:19f.). As the secretary of the church of which I was a minister in Melbourne used to say: a shroud has no pockets. At the end of the day, neither flesh nor world is profitable (John 6:63; Rom. 7:18). Not without reason did Paul claim to have crucified both (Gal. 5:24; 6:14) and chosen to know Christ and the power of his resurrection (Phil 3:8-11).
In the early church the idea of recapitulation, the belief that the experience of the individual re-enacted the history of the race, was, according to Kelly (pp. 170-174,187f.,376, etc.), quite widespread and not confined merely to Irenaeus of Lyons. However, when Augustine arrived on the scene and propounded his views, even Catholic writer Denis Minns admits that Irenaeus underwent an eclipse from which he has not yet recovered (see espec. pp.134ff.). However, if we accept the idea that the individual is in some sense the race in miniature, we can then begin to appreciate aspects of the early chapters of the Bible which are otherwise difficult to understand. Just as Jacob epitomized Israel, so did Jesus as the true vine (John 15). But we can go further. Jesus was man perfected in a way that no one else was and as the second Adam he epitomized the race. The author of Hebrews in particular stresses this. What Jesus did was to sum up mankind in himself (cf. Eph. 1:10 and note Phil. 3:12-14). Gregory Nazianzus is famous for saying that what has not been assumed cannot be healed. And that is why it was necessary for Jesus to become man. For he was not only perfected himself but having made universal atonement for our sins (1 John 2:2), he embodied our own perfection and thus opened up for us the door of heaven itself (John 14:3; Heb. 2:10f.; 5:9). Thus his prayer was that we should be with him to see his glory (John 17:24). And we can be sure that that prayer will eventually be answered. (3* For a brief summary of Irenaeus’ doctrine of recapitulation, see B.B.Warfield’s chapter on The Human Development of Jesus, ch. 22.)
See further my Epitome – Jesus The Epitome Of Recapitulation.
J.N.D.Kelly, Early Christian Doctrines, London, 1958.
Denis Minns OP, Irenaeus, London, 1994.
B.B.Warfield, Selected Shorter Writings 1, Nutley, 1970.
C.J.H.Wright, The Mission of God, Nottingham, 2006.