From Paradise to the Fall
The Church has always read Genesis as the foundation of a number of doctrines and also as foreshadowings of Christ and Christian salvation. The doctrines grounded in the Genesis stories include creation ex nihilo (from nothing – God at the first created from nothing, he did not merely shape something preexisting); creation of humanity by divine inspiration or ensoulment; the monogenetic origin of humanity (we have a common ancestor); and the fall. Contrary to what the world would have us believe, none of these doctrines rooted in Genesis conflict in substance with modern science or history.
The Big Bang sounds very like creatio ex nihilo, to the extent that a prominent physicist described its effect as “let there be light!” Likewise with ensoulment. If one believes in evolution, then one believes that at some point, that which was not human became human–evolutionary theory is simply an explanation of the mechanics of that ‘becoming.’ As for the monogenetic origin of mankind, modern genetics suggest that there is, in fact, one common human ancestor–the so-called ‘mitochondrial Eve’. And the reality of man’s fall into sin is amply demonstrated by watching the nightly news. The question of science versus scripture is really a red herring that distracts us from pondering what the Bible actually teaches about the human condition. If we put unnecessary speculation aside, we find the message of Genesis to be as such.
When human beings came into existence as rational and moral beings endowed with free will, aware of the realities of truth and love, they simultaneously became capable of knowing Love Himself: this is part of what it is to be made ‘in the image of God’. Our Creator, who had designed and caused this to be, immediately revealed Himself to the first such beings in His image. However, at some point in the relationship, Mankind chose to reject God, break communion with Him, and attempted to become his own god.
From this pride, rebellion and self-deception came the corruption of human nature due to its disconnection from God and loss of the supernatural blessings of this relationship. Humans continue to seek short-term pleasure over long-term happiness and continue to undermine their specifically human dignity and purpose by allowing animal instincts to rule over the reason and will, rather than the other way around. We retain a life of the body and soul, but have lost the spiritual life which alone could inspire and strengthen their will and safely order their reason.
Our fundamental problem is that we cannot consistently love God or neighbour from the heart and are lost in selfishness. This is the truth of the Fall.
The Good News
However, all is not lost. God, being Love, wants to rescue us from our evil and bring us back into fellowship and friendship with Him. By word and deed He revealed himself to and through a chosen portion of humanity (a particularly oppressed portion: those descendants of Abraham known as the Israelites) and showed them the way of love and goodness. But the weakness of mankind led to rejection of His love, and so, having prepared the way using prophets and the few other faithful ones, He came down to our level, given we are not capable of reaching up to His. God the Son took human nature upon Himself as part of a plan to restore us to the divine family, giving us a share in his relationship with the God the Father in the power of God the Holy Spirit.
Through this Incarnation (literally en-fleshment), God in the person of Jesus restored our human nature by taking it on Himself and absorbing the terrifying consequences of our sin (as seen in the suffering and death of his torture and crucifixion) without, of course, being or becoming sinful. At the Cross we see the collision of pure, forgiving love with pure, hating evil. Thus, on the Cross, Jesus Christ overcomes the evil in us on our behalf: and with his divine life destroys human death in the Resurrection. His act of perfect, self-sacrificial obedience fulfils God’s holiness and righteousness and has the power to undo and reverse our disobedience and its results.
This victory is a victory for all of us, if we will only accept and receive it by saying ‘yes’ to God’s offer of love and mercy. We do this by joining ourselves in loving trust to Jesus as our Lord and Saviour, as our very Life — and carrying this ‘yes’ to God through our lives. The final result is reunion with God forever, as the free gift we have accepted is in fact the Life of God, the Holy Spirit, who is able to make us share in the Resurrection of Jesus.
A Change of Heart
Pope John Paul II once said, “conversion means accepting, by a personal decision, the saving soverignty of Christ and becoming his disciple.” To be converted is to make a personal choice of faith, the choice to trust and follow Jesus. It is to say ‘yes’ to God. God wants us to turn away from the darkness of selfishness, self-obsession and self-worship and turn towards His light by accepting the forgiveness of sins and new life offered through Christ’s crucifixion and resurrection. This is a significant step, and even a difficult one to take, for two main reasons.
First, it does not happen by default, just because we are baptised and/or go to church. It is possible to go to church every week out of habit, convention, obedience or fear and never take advantage of the grace God offers there. It is possible to be a ‘Christian’, but only in appearance; to know and recite the creeds but not know God because you have never sought Him. This is not something anyone else can do for you. You have to choose, you have to make a commitment. Second, admitting we are not self-sufficient and need God’s mercy because of our sinfulness goes against the grain. It goes against our pride. We have to admit to the dark corners of our hearts and we have to admit that God is in charge.
So, why bother? Why not just carry on regardless? Because to ignore and treat with disdain God’s crucified love is not only terrifyingly dishonest, ungrateful and loveless; it is the kind of sin that spiritually kills us by hardening our hearts. This is serious business. It is not a game, it is life and death. But more importantly, it is because what God offers, we need. In the end, many things in this world will claim to offer us ‘fulfilment’, but, to quote a prayer of St Augustine, “You made us for Yourself, and our hearts are restless until they find their rest in You.”
Who needs to be converted? Anybody who is not spiritually connected to Christ through faith and love, either because they have never had that relationship or because they have lost it. What does conversion involve? It consists of three parts, will, word, and action, each involving two aspects, faith and repentance.
From Thought, to Word, to Deed
In the Old Testament of the Bible God says, “cast away from you all the transgressions you have committed against me and get yourselves a new heart” (Ezekiel 18:31); elsewhere the prophet Hosea says, “take words with you and return to the Lord: say to him, take away all guilt” (14:2). In the New Testament St Paul states “if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved” (Romans 10:9). We need to turn our backs on everything opposed to God and follow the living Lord.
Once we have walked the path of penitance and prayer, we make it a practical reality by allowing God to work in us by his sacraments, and through us by our good deeds. For those not yet baptized and/or confirmed this means receiving these sacraments to unite them fully with Christ and his Church by the power of the Holy Spirit. For those who have received these sacraments, but who have drifted or fallen away from God, the normal way to come back to him is the Sacrament of Reconciliation (Confession & Absolution).
For all of us what comes next is to live the Christian life in earnest, obeying the commands to love God and neighbour. We can only manage this if we are continually sustained spiritually by the Eucharist, prayer and meditation on the Scriptures. We are called, then, to repent…and be converted, that…sins may be wiped away, [and] that times of refreshing may come from the presence of the Lord (Acts 3:19).