There has been a good bit of recent focus on the historical personhood of Adam. Interestingly, after Genesis 5, the Old Testament does not mention Adam. He doesn’t reappear in Scripture until the genealogy of Jesus.
There is a kind of strange silence in most of the Bible on the specifics of the narrative of the fall of humanity in Genesis 3.
It is not until we come to Romans 5 and I Corinthians 15 that we encounter vigorous consideration of the way the actions of Adam affected humanity. This discussion is placed in the context of the redemptive work of the one identified as the second Adam. Romans 5 and I Corinthians 15 answer the question:
How did the actions of Adam and Christ affect humanity?
Romans 5:12, 17-19
“Therefore, just as sin entered the world through one man, and death through sin, and in this way death came to all people, because all sinned—(12) For if, by the trespass of the one man, death reigned through that one man, how much more will those who receive God’s abundant provision of grace and of the gift of righteousness reign in life through the one man, Jesus Christ! Consequently, just as one trespass resulted in condemnation for all people, so also one righteous act resulted in justification and life for all people. For just as through the disobedience of the one man the many were made sinners, so also through the obedience of the one man the many will be made righteous” (17-19).
I Corinthians 15:22, 45-49
“For as in Adam all die, so in Christ all will be made alive” (22). “The first man Adam became a living being”; the last Adam, a life-giving spirit. The spiritual did not come first, but the natural, and after that the spiritual. The first man was of the dust of the earth; the second man is of heaven. As was the earthly man, so are those who are of the earth; and as is the heavenly man, so also are those who are of heaven. And just as we have borne the image of the earthly man, so shall we bear the image of the heavenly man” (45-49).
One of the deepest areas of discussion among biblical scholars concerns the way in which Adam’s sin affected humanity. Several observations are apparent but each one raises challenging questions.
- Sin entered the world through one man
- Death came as a result of sin
- Death spread to all people
- All people sin
How then did Adam’s sin affect us?
There is clearly some kind of solidarity with Adam and the rest of humanity in both sin and death. The exact nature of this union is what has been debated
- Are we guilty because Adam sinned?
- Are we born as sinners by nature because of Adam’s sin.
- Do we sin because we are sinners or are we sinners because (and when) we sin?
- What does it mean that “by the trespass of the one man, death reigned” and “one trespass resulted in condemnation for all people” and “through the disobedience of the one man the many were made sinners”?
- Did we sin in or with Adam?
- Did we inherit a corrupt nature from him?
- Is there corporate condemnation based on biological descent?
- What was Adam’s instrumental role in unleashing sin and death in the world?
- Does it involve judicial consequences as well as natural consequences?
- Am I guilty of all of Adam’s sin or only his first sin?
The questions seem endless and some of them are very important. We can at least say that Scripture is clear about the universal sinfulness and condemnation of all people, resulting in death.
Those who feel slighted for being affected by Adam’s sin are not likely to respond the same way when affected by the sacrificial death of Jesus. “For as in Adam all die, so in Christ all will be made alive” (I Corinthians 15:22) and “one righteous act resulted in justification and life for all people” (Romans 5:18).
What about Cain?
What is particularly curious to me is the absence of focus on the first children of Adam in ascertaining the effects of Adam’s sin on humanity. Examine the major works of theology on this theme and you’ll discover references to Cain are either completely absent or exceptionally rare. Why is this?
If (as most theologians believe) all humans are born with a sin nature and as spiritually dead, the first human to be born this way should be Exhibit A for discerning the effects of sin. It seems reasonable to look closely at what we know about Cain before reaching too many conclusions about what it means to be born with a sin nature and spiritually dead in our sins.
The first use of the word “sin” is found in God’s confrontation of Cain. God said, “You will be accepted if you do what is right. But if you refuse to do what is right, then watch out! Sin is crouching at the door, eager to control you. But you must subdue it and be its master” (Genesis 4:7).
Many teach that sin separates us from God and that spiritual death means we are unable to hear God. How does such teaching align with what we know about the first person to inherit Adam’s sin nature? Later we learn that Cain was “was of the evil one” (I John 3:12). The NIV translates it, “belonged to the evil one.” The language is related to being “begotten of” or “born of.” There is no doubt about Cain’s spiritual condition.
Yet Cain approached God to worship Him. Cain’s wrongful approach to worship is exposed by God and Cain is graciously invited to make a choice to do things as God had evidently previously instructed him. As a sinner by nature and one spiritually dead, it seems strange that Cain is given this kind of access to God and invited to respond obediently. Of Course, God must graciously confront Cain’s darkness but God allows him an opportunity to do what is right.
“In the course of time Cain brought some of the fruits of the soil as an offering to the Lord. And Abel also brought an offering—fat portions from some of the firstborn of his flock. The Lord looked with favor on Abel and his offering, but on Cain and his offering he did not look with favor. So Cain was very angry, and his face was downcast. Then the Lord said to Cain, ‘Why are you angry? Why is your face downcast? If you do what is right, will you not be accepted? But if you do not do what is right, sin is crouching at your door; it desires to have you, but you must rule over it.’”
Evidently Cain is not so deeply entrenched in his sin (inherited or actual) that further sinning (at least, in this case) is inevitable. The emphasis here does not appear to be on Cain as a sinner by nature, one totally depraved, but on Cain as one who has a freedom to make choices regarding sin’s control.
Sin is pictured as temporarily at bay and subject to the choice of the one who is facing it. Yet Cain must take it seriously. He must act quickly. Sin is ready to pounce Cain if he opens a door of opportunity to it. Cain cannot claim ignorance or helplessness regarding sin’s power. He doesn’t have to be mastered by sin but if he doesn’t repent he will be consumed.
- How should this passage influence our understanding of the effects of Adam’s sin on human beings?
- Why do theologians neglect this account when offering insight on inherited sin and spiritual death?
- Would this account challenge some theological assumptions in what is called reformed theology?
In a follow-up to this post, we must look more closely at the way God described sin and the possibility of understanding Cain’s anger as depression. We should also ask important questions about the unusual lack of gender correspondence in the Hebrew between the word “sin” (feminine) and the surrounding terms in masculine “crouching” (lurking at the door), “it’s desire, in it” (masculine).