First Mercy: A Reflection on Adam’s Fall

Researching a college essay on mercy, my daughter recently asked me about the seeming absence of God’s mercy at Adam’s fall. Certainly, it is a query worth considering. In the Year of Mercy can we see God’s mercy in the fall of Adam and Eve? Can a world that equates love with good feelings begin to understand why a loving God did not throw his arms around the errant couple and welcome them back to Eden? Instead of bolstering the first couple’s self-esteem, God’s parting words to Adam and Eve promise pain, toil, and dusty death (Gen 3:16-19). These hardly seem words of love or mercy. God even mocks Adam as a potential usurper with pretensions to divinity (Gen 3:22). Why would God be so mean when all the first couple needed was love? Why did man have to wait thousands of years for Jesus to offer redemption? Where was Jesus when Adam and Eve needed him? Where was the love? Where was the mercy?

The answers lie in the beginning, in the creation of man himself. Creation is an act of love. It is love that cannot be contained. The creation of man is an act of love like no other. Man alone was created for his own purpose. Unlike animals that live by instinct, God created a man and a woman who could identify themselves in the first person as their own subjects with their own wills. Gaudium et Spes tells us, “human beings are the only creatures on earth that God has wanted for their own sake.” In Love and Responsibility, Karol Wojtyla, the future John Paul II, explains, “no one may use a person as a means to an end: neither any man nor even God the Creator.”

While man’s will is not an end in itself, it remains an essential characteristic of any creature created in God’s own image. As God is love, he created man as a lover, as one capable of communion with God himself. But love is only possible if it is also possible to not love. Only in creating man free to reject love could God create man free to choose love. Without a free will, one beyond the reach of even divine authority, man is a pawn played on a divine chessboard, not a lover but a game piece moved at another’s whim.

I am not sure that in this world, we can fully understand a God who creates others in his own image. But there was one man at the beginning of the human story who could, because he walked with God, face to face, in paradise. Adam begins as a junior partner with God, sharing the love of creation in a custodial role, naming the animals and tilling the garden. But God sees that he can give Adam even more. God recreates Adam as Adam and Eve, two parts of one whole.

With mankind recreated as man and woman, Adam becomes a full participant in God’s gift of creation. Adam could love in a way that, previously, only God could love. Like God, Adam and Eve united would create others through an act of will. They would create children who would be persons created for their own purposes. These children would grow in Adam’s shadow, like he grew in God’s shadow, to be free to love. He could not own these children. He would give them life, guide them, and then set them free. Only in doing so could they also answer God’s invitation to love. When Adam first saw Eve he knew love unimaginable. He knew a God who willingly shared his gift of creation with one of his creatures. In the unity of Adam and Eve God created mankind in his own image. All that God could give he gave to the first couple. In their unity they became one with God. In this unity what they saw, what they knew, and what they understood could be explained in three words: God is love. In this communion of Man and God lay the paradise of Eden.

The end of Eden begins with the serpent’s offer to Eve: “You will not die. For God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil” (Gen 3:4-5). It is customary to focus on the first lie, “you will not die,” by pointing to the corporal and spiritual death of both Adam and Eve. But Satan is the prince of lies. To assume a half-truth where none is offered is to swim in dangerous waters. The real whopper is the second lie, that “your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.”

In accepting the serpent’s lie, Adam and Eve became less like God, they no longer knew good, and their eyes were opened to evil. To know evil is not to know more, but to know less, because evil is something less than good. It is an absence of something that was. In their blindness they no longer saw the beautiful but the ugly, seeking fig leaves to cover beauty’s absence. Their blindness was not partial but complete. The serpent’s lie, a lie hidden behind the illusion of promised knowledge, challenged the very essence of Adam’s existence in Eden. Everything Adam knew by the three words “God is love,” the lie denied. The serpent’s offer implied that God’s gift of himself was neither complete nor gratuitous, that something was held back. It implied that they were not truly free. Like an arrow well aimed, the lie attacked trust and free will, piercing the very heart of love. The serpent invited Eve into a new world, a world where God is not love.

With the forbidden tree violated, the transformation was immediate. The serpent’s ruse sundered the communion of Adam/Eve/God. Adam/Eve becomes Adam and Eve, each embarrassed by their nakedness before the other, each vulnerable before the other. Their newly discovered nakedness shamed them also before God. They now feared the presence of the very source of paradise. A world where “God is not love” cannot exist in the light of a world where “God is love.” As God walked the garden Adam and Eve cowered in the light of truth and beauty, hiding themselves from his sight. The serpent promised a new vision, but it was blindness that Adam and Eve received, a blindness to love itself. In taking the fruit, Adam and Eve no longer saw God as love, as one to be trusted. Rather, God became a power to fear.

Adam lost more than the vision of a God who loves. In response to the original sin, the original couple offered the original excuses: it was the wife’s fault and it was the serpent’s fault. In disavowing responsibility, they denied their free will. Without free will love is not possible. Not only did Adam no longer see God as love, he could no longer see himself as a lover. Not only could he no longer see who God was, he could no longer see who he was.

And so Eden ends with a sordid exit. With promises of misery God drives the first couple, mocked and forsaken, from the garden that was paradise.

Where Was the Mercy?
Where was the group hug, the slap on the back, and the invitation to come back home? Where was Jesus? Where was the mercy?

First, we must see that Eden was never really a place, though there may be a place that was once Eden. Rather, Eden was the communion of Man and God. Without that unity, no place can ever be paradise. With that unity, any place can be paradise. It was not the mythical apple eaten that destroyed Eden but goodness doubted. The paradise that was Eden vanished before the first bite. The proverbial apple consumed was simply a period to a sentence already spoken.

Second, we must understand the creation of man as an act of gratuitous love, a love in which God denies even himself the power to use man for his own purposes. Eden could only exist as a relationship of love freely chosen between Man and God. God could not compel Adam’s love. Nor could he destroy Adam and start over with a new model. To rescind the gift of Adam’s creation would both contradict God’s own nature and deny Adam’s humanity as one made in the image of God.

Only in seeing God’s hand extended could Adam return to Eden. Only in trusting God’s love could the unity of Eden return. Only in knowing himself capable of love could Eden be reborn. But Adam could neither see God’s hand nor, see in himself, a man who could reach out to take that hand. As Adam lived with God in the garden, so he also lived with Jesus. What Adam lost he could no longer even imagine. Jesus is the hand of God and Adam could not see him. He could only see that he was naked and vulnerable.

God does not take away gifts once given. He only gives more. In Eden, a world in complete unity with God, mercy and nakedness were beyond conception. Only in light of each other do they make sense. Only in a world where nakedness exists is mercy needed. To be naked is to be incomplete and vulnerable. Mercy is the gift that clothes and completes. It is the gift of the spurned lover seeking a renewed relationship. God’s gift of mercy was immediate and infinite.

Why Adam Remained Outside Eden
But why did Adam remain outside the garden gates? All of God’s infinite mercy was available to Adam. Why didn’t Adam accept it? In doubting God’s love Adam had rejected the infinite for the finite. He could no longer conceive of infinite love and, consequently, could not understand the reach of God’s mercy. Adam could only see the mercy he chose to receive. Adam could not see his sin; he could only see that he was naked. He could not see the God he rejected; he could only see that he had no clothes. And this was the only perceivable mercy that God could give him. He could give him clothes to cover his nakedness: “And the LORD God made for Adam and for his wife garments of skins, and clothed them” (Genesis 3:21). Such was the mercy Adam could see. He could understand a God who had the power to make clothes. He could no longer understand a God who would forgive.

But God’s mercy was larger than clothes made of animal skins and more than Adam could see. God gave Adam time. Mercy requires time, because mercy is an invitation to change what is broken; and change can only happen in time. Only in time could Adam make his way back to Eden. Only in time could Adam re-learn love and begin, once again, to see God as love and himself as a lover. God then gave Adam a route to return by, one that led through pain and toil, not because they are a punishment, but because without them love cannot be learned. And God gave Adam death, because only through death was a return to eternity possible. Finally, God gave Adam a promise that through his progeny the Serpent would be crushed, that good would ultimately prevail.

But why did it take so long for Jesus to come? Adam, enslaved to his pride, could not see his sin. In his blindness he no longer knew himself as a lover or knew God as love. Adam, who knew Jesus in the garden, could no longer recognize him. Because a blind man cannot pass on what he cannot see, what Adam no longer saw his descendants would not know. Only through time could Man see anew a God rendered inconceivable by Adam’s original sin.

The Old Testament is the story of mercy realized through time, of God revealing himself as love while teaching Man that men were lovers and not slaves. It is the story of a God whose face was covered because Man could not understand the face uncovered. Perhaps that face could only be uncovered when some men were ready to see it. Or perhaps the revelation of God’s face waited for only one young woman, a woman who finally knew what Adam and Eve before the fall had once known, that God is love. Only through time, through millennia multiplied, could Mary come to be. Mary is not an arbitrary act of God in time, but the culmination of God’s grace working through history. Her fiat restores the trust lost and the free will denied in Adam’s fall. In a single person, full of grace, the blindness of Adam’s original sin falls before a beatific vision of Man and God again united.

Whereas Adam closed Eden’s gates behind him, closing God in, Mary opens the gate, inviting God incarnate into time. Through Mary Jesus is born and God removes the veil covering his face. We see a man, who like Adam was mocked and forsaken; only Adam was leaving the garden, and Jesus was entering the garden. Adam left the tree of life behind. Jesus hung on the tree of life. In the ultimate act of mercy, God becomes man and fully assumes Adam’s burden, neither transforming it nor rejecting it, but showing it in the light of love as mercy, as the path back home. God/Jesus shows himself not as a power that mocks Man but as a God who will share Man’s sorrows. In Jesus we see a God who will descend to Man’s level to elevate Man to God’s. We see the invitation to love renewed. We see a God who beckons us back to Eden.

Mercy is the love that mends broken relationships, restoring unity among men and between Man and God. It is the infinite renewal of God’s invitation to love, an invitation we can refuse but never lose. Through Jesus we see God at the gates of Eden in a new light. Rather than the God Adam could see, we can see the God Adam could no longer see. Perhaps in the story of Adam and Eve we can see in clothing offered the invitation to a new relationship. But maybe, in this Year of Mercy, we can also see what Adam could not see, that pain, toil, and death were not retribution but mercy, the invitation to Eden renewed. The invitation could only happen in time, because only in time can a broken relationship be repaired, not because God needed time, but because Man needed time. When Adam left Eden, God’s mercy followed him into history.

Editor’s note: The image above is a detail from “The Rebuke of Adam and Eve” painted by Domenichino in 1628.

Pete Jermann

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Pete Jermann is a self-employed craftsman and former homeschooling father.

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