This post is a chapter excerpted from my upcoming book, “Gory Stories of the Bible.”
Sin came into the world through one man, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all sinned. -Romans 5:12
The story of Adam and Eve does not, at first glance, appear particularly “gory.” A talking snake and a fruit tree are not exactly elements of a gripping thriller movie. And yet this is, perhaps, the goriest story of them all, because all of the violence and sorrow in the entire world flow from this original tragedy. Pastor and author John Piper puts it this way: “History is a conveyor belt of corpses because of Adam’s sin.” The death toll from that single bite of fruit dwarfs every other calamity—and is in fact the origin of those calamities. Every time you turn on the evening news and are assaulted by the day’s fresh miseries, remember: these are simply the latest casualties in a chain stretching back to Adam and Eve’s rebellion. Genesis 3 is the match that lit the fuse of every horror and heartache in history.
This original horror story begins in the opening pages of the Bible on a promising, hopeful note (don’t worry, that doesn’t last long). God creates a beautiful, perfect universe, unstained by sin, unmarred by death, untrammeled by entropy. Into this world God brings forth mankind to be rulers over all creation. To these image-bearing regents God gives marching orders: “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it.” (Genesis 1:28). This command is what theologians call the “cultural mandate,” the beating heart of human nature to build and make and grow and spread. Humanity’s mission was to cultivate creation, improve the world, and bend its latent potential into blessing until Eden extended to the ends of the earth. This, in seed form, is the Bible’s vision for human flourishing and human culture as it was meant to be: fruitfulness, benevolent dominion, divine regency, and vibrant creativity expanding to fill the whole world, the glory of God refracted through a billion image-bearing prisms.
This is the vision that was shattered in Genesis 3 by a shocking insurrection, in which creation’s caretakers sided with a serpentine usurper against the Creator and, in doing so, wrecked the entire world. As image-bearing royalty, the fate of the cosmos hung on Adam and Eve’s obedience, and when they fell, so did creation. In response to the human rebellion, God turned the cultural mandate into a curse; humanity would still be fruitful and multiply and expand, but now that mission would be carried out with pain and blood and sweat and tears and, ultimately, would short-circuit in futility and death. The purpose for which we were created now remains just out of our grasp, and each one of us end up slowly killing ourselves trying to reach it.
The book of Romans in the New Testament assesses Adam and Eve’s collateral damage like this: “Sin came into the world through one man, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all sinned” (Romans 5:12). The world’s mortality rate—which is still holding steady at 100% despite decades of medical advances—is a silent witness of how the tragedy of Genesis 3 still ravages us.
But the damage goes further than the graveyard. After its human masters rebelled, the creation itself was placed under the sentence of judgment. “Cursed is the ground because of you,” God told Adam. Death and decay and entropy were unleashed into the cosmos. Like an old pocket watch, the universe would now start winding down towards oblivion. Nothing works the way it was supposed to anymore; things now break and fall apart and die. “The creation was subjected to futility,” Romans 8:20 says. Frustration, not fruitfulness, is now the starting point for life in this broken world. From a baby’s first cry to final ragged breath, this futility and “bondage to decay” (Romans 8:21) governs our experience of life on a rebel planet. The natural order, which was designed to submit to God’s regents, no longer obeys us. Instead of bringing forth blessing, all creation is now bent on beating humanity back into the dust from whence we came.
Why linger here on the very first tragedy? Because, though it might not be initially obvious upon first reading, the story of Adam and Eve’s sin gives a better accounting of the world’s sorrows than any other origin story, whether religious or secular. Neither secular materialism nor any other philosophy can answer the deepest questions of existence. Why is the world so beautiful, and yet so broken? Why do bad things happen? And—more importantly—why do we hate those bad things so much? If entropy and disease and death were simply “the way the world is,” we should have adapted to them long ago. And yet we rage against the darkness, we grieve and we groan, refusing to conform to a world that is falling apart. Something deep inside of us cries out, “This is not the way it’s meant to be.”
Slow down enough to evaluate your surroundings, and you’ll sense the disconnect. There is something deeply, fundamentally wrong with the world, something we are always aware of but can’t quite articulate. Turn on the news and you’ll be assaulted by a macabre parade of tragedies and outrages, strung together without any storyline or meaning. Walk the halls of a hospital and ponder the strange intermingling of heroic healing and senseless suffering all around. Drive past courthouses and prisons and billboard advertisements for personal injury lawyers; you’ll see a longing for justice and yet sense something defective and diseased in our application of that justice. Stand in a funeral home or a cemetery and see lives reduced to slideshows on a television or dashes on a tombstone.
If that’s not enough to send you into an existential tailspin, keep reading. Because the problem is not just “out there.” It’s inside you as well. There is a restless discontent in the bottom of your soul that never quite goes away, no matter how comfortable you are. A little voice in the back of your head saying, “This isn’t good enough, this isn’t good enough,” no matter how much stuff you collect. Whether you’re 16 or 60, you still have that same deep-seated teenage angst, an ever-present fear that you don’t fit in and that there’s something not quite right with you (sorry kids, that angst never really goes away; adults just learn how to self-medicate with things like ‘career goals,’ ‘weekends’ and ‘family,’ until the ache turns numb or else breaks loose in a midlife crisis). As we age, we are increasingly stalked by the wrinkles and gray hairs of decay until our cells finally succumb to the relentless onslaught of entropy. We stoop, shuffle, and shrivel our way back to the dust where we decompose and are eventually forgotten.
Don’t move on from this thought too quickly. Don’t put down the book and switch to some more anesthetizing form of entertainment. Stay here and let the existential crisis brew a little bit. Consider the future that is barreling toward you. Somewhere there is a patch of ground where, one day, a hole will be dug. Your corpse or ashes will be lowered into the hole and dirt will be tossed in. For a few moments friends and family will linger with tear-stained faces. Then the mourners will go eat food and reminisce about your life, before returning to theirs. A few will come back periodically to place flowers on your grave, until Genesis 3 catches up to them, too. And there you will lie, decomposing and forgotten. You are dust, and to dust you shall return.
Let the futility of it all sink in.
These are the sobering realities that we spend our lives running from. 151,000 people will die today. You may be one of them. Since you began reading this chapter, some five hundred souls have tumbled off the precipice of mortality into eternity. Some died horrific, violent deaths, expiring in blood and gore. Others passed away in their sleep. But if you have ever sat next to the bed of a dying person, you know there are no peaceful deaths. There is the last tortured, rattling breath, the brain’s frantic signals for more oxygen that will never come, and then the cascading series of events as organs shut down, cells self-destruct, and brain activity winks out. It’s not peaceful, it’s not pretty, and it’s certainly not “natural.” Death is unnatural and foreign, an enemy imposed on us over all our protestations and attempts to escape the inevitable. If you’re not one of those 151,000 today, eventually it will be your day. Nobody gets out of this alive.
But—and this will probably come as a shock—it’s not all bad news. The whole world has gone off the rails, the diagnosis is terminal, but there’s still hope. Contained in the very darkest moment of this gory story is a seed which will one day undo the damage and restore what’s been lost.
In the aftermath of Adam and Eve’s rebellion, before the word of judgment falls on humanity, God turns to the snake and makes a promise. “I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and her offspring. He will bruise your head, and you will bruise his heel” (Genesis 3:15). An “offspring of the woman” was coming, God promised, a human Savior who would crush the serpent’s head. In a twist of divine irony, the very woman whom Satan had tricked would be the means through which his downfall would come. This snake crusher, in the act of bringing his foot down on the snake, would be bitten by the serpent (“he will bruise your heel”). And yet the deadly venom would not be enough to prevent his foot from coming down on Satan’s reptilian skull. Wounded yet winning, this Savior would triumph over evil at its source, and in doing so would reestablish the human dominion lost at the Fall.
Fast forward to the New Testament, and we meet the promised snake crusher: Jesus Christ, offspring of the woman. “When the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons” (Galatians 4:4). Jesus is the second Adam, the founder of a new humanity, through whom new life comes to all who trust in him. “As by one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners, so by the one man’s obedience the many will be made righteous” (Romans 5:19). In the same way that the first Adam’s sin ruined the world and brought down all humanity with him, the second Adam’s obedience and victory have set death working in reverse. He walked out of the grave, pulling the new humanity and the new creation out of the grave with him. 1 Corinthians 15:22 puts it simply: “As in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive.” If you’ve put your hope in the snake crusher, his resurrection life is at work with you, turning back the tide of death and futility and despair, unraveling the existential crisis with new purpose and meaning. And the same power that called him out of his grave will one day call you out of yours, reassembling dust and transforming ashes into beauty.
And then the end of the story will come, the restoration of everything we lost at Eden and more: “Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them and they will be his people and God himself will be with them as their God. He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning nor crying nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away. And he who was seated on the throne said, ‘Behold, I am making all things new.’” (Revelation 21:3-5)
This, ultimately, is where history’s conveyor belt—even with all its corpses—is heading. Every gory story transmuted into glory. Despair changed into dancing, weeping into worship. A happily ever after that goes on and on, better and better, forever. All of it won by the snake crusher’s foot coming down on the serpent’s head.
We are dust, and to dust we will return. In a fallen world, this is inevitable and unavoidable. But the promise whispered here in history’s first gory story is this: God can do new things with dust.