According to the Bible, the sinful choice of one man and his wife thousands of years ago profoundly affected the course of every human life after theirs, including your own. As Romans 5:12 puts it, “sin came into the world through one man, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all sinned.” I Corinthians adds simply, “in Adam all die” (15:22). We are not told the precise mechanics of the Fall and how it influences us today, but the Bible makes it clear that it had debilitating effects on every one of Adam’s race. We still make real, meaningful choices whether to sin or not, but there is something ugly in us now; something which draws us to sin and keeps us from the innocence and freedom that Adam and Eve enjoyed, and squandered, in the Garden.
It’s easy to feel this isn’t especially fair. Why should the rebellion of the first humans have any effect whatsoever on their descendants? Why should we be tied to our first parents by metaphysical cords which pull us down after them?
On one level, the answers to these questions are simply a mystery. Perhaps we will understand more in Heaven, or perhaps not. Perhaps this is one of the ways in which God’s ways are not our ways, and our finite understanding cannot plumb the depths of divine wisdom. But that does not mean we cannot understand at all. As we consider why the Fall had such a morally crippling effect on the rest of the human race, something which appears at first glance to be another, different “problem” with the biblical account is both clarifying and comforting.
This second problem is a logistical one. Skeptics are fond of asking how Jesus’ sacrifice could have an atoning effect for any other human being, let alone every human being who ever believes in him. It’s not an unreasonable question. At first glance, it is not obvious why one innocent person dying sacrificially, even a person who was also God, should be able to cancel out all the sins of other people who had no connection to him; who were not even born yet, or had died hundreds of years earlier. How does it work?
As with our earlier question about the Fall, part of the answer is simply that we don’t know. As C.S. Lewis put it in Mere Christianity, one can eat and be sustained without understanding nutrition, and one can believe and be saved without being able to diagram how the atonement works. When God himself becomes man and says, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life,” demanding a flowchart before you’ll believe seems a bit unreasonable. But I won’t deny that it is still curious. Why should one man’s sacrifice save the rest of us?
I don’t have any brilliant answer to these questions, but I believe that holding them up together can allow each to cast an illuminating light on the other. And the Bible itself encourages us to do so. When Adam’s sin is mentioned in the New Testament, it is usually in company with the salvation which is offered through Adam’s only perfect Son. Romans 5:15 declares, “For if many died through one man’s trespass, much more have the grace of God and the free gift by the grace of that one man Jesus Christ abounded for many.” And after Paul’s blunt assessment of Adam’s role in the Fall in I Corinthians 15:22, the apostle adds, “…so also in Christ shall all be made alive.”
How are Adam’s fall and Jesus’ atoning death related? Among other things, they both depend upon the idea that there is some sort of mysterious, metaphysical bond which joins all human beings together, so that the actions of one can have real moral implications for others. In Adam, all died. In Christ, all are made alive. Adam’s story establishes the mechanism through which Christ’s sacrifice works, and Christ’s sacrifice turns the bonds which pull us dying into the depths with Adam into lifelines of mercy that draw us out again.
As far as we can tell, whatever metaphysical bond joins us to all other human beings did not have to be part of our makeup. The Scriptures give no indication that the angels, for example, are similarly interconnected in their moral condition. When some angels followed Satan in rebellion, there was no apparent imputation of guilt on the others. And we receive no hint of any purification for the race of angels like that offered by the Son of Man. We should be cautious about pushing our assumptions into the gaps of what Scripture reveals, but the Bible gives us grounds to say that angels and men were created along different lines. Why? “But who are you, O man, to answer back to God? Will what is molded say to its molder, ‘Why have you made me like this?'” (Rom 9:20). All I can say is thanks be to God that I was born bound to other men so that one Man could draw us through death and out on the other side.