Some people may remember the blood and thunder days of the church—when the emphasis in every sermon was to put the fear of God into people. Indeed, stories were told of the consequences of unbelief—with all the description of the fires of hell and eternal damnation. In contrast, many people today may be more used to the more modern approach of churches—with an emphasis on the love of God, and of a truly loving and caring God.
Now I know I’ve just been guilty of over-generalisation, because in the old days not all preachers spoke in terms of eternal damnation. And modern preachers don’t always emphasise the love of God either. But I think you know what I mean. Over the years preaching in churches has been noted by two extremes: The fire and brimstones approach of scaring people into the kingdom, and the alternative of loving people into the kingdom.
Now, of course, both approaches have their values. But what I want to do today, is to look at both perspectives, and see which, if any, describes best the kind of God that we believe in. And to do so I want to refer to the very first story of man’s disobedience to God—the story of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden.
B. THE FIRST SIN
1. Background (Genesis 2:8-9, 15-17)
Now the background to the story begins with God caring for Adam and Eve. As far as God was concerned he didn’t want his creation to be laden with hard work, he wanted to care for creatures. He wanted them to enjoy what he’d created for them in the garden. So, in addition to providing a place to live—free of cost—he provided food to eat as well. And, in that way, Adam and Eve could have spent all their time enjoying the garden and interacting with God, which, after all, was the reason he created them in the first place.
As a consequence, even before Eve was created, God told Adam that he could eat any of the fruit in the garden, from any tree, except for the one in the middle of the garden—the tree of the knowledge of good and evil (Genesis 2:17). Because if he ate from that one, he would die.
Now it is not recorded why God put such a tree in the garden—maybe it was a test of Adam’s loyalty—but regardless of that, there was plenty of fruit for them both to eat without going near that particular tree.
So, do we have a picture of a loving God, who went to extraordinary lengths to care for his creation? Absolutely! But even at this early stage there’s a hint of a God who doesn’t like being messed with. And there’s also a hint that there are consequences to be paid if we reject his loving approach.
2. Exaggeration and Temptation
Now progress the story forward, and the focus shifts firstly to a serpent, then to Eve, and then to Adam.
Because, firstly, the serpent grossly exaggerates God’s prohibition. Indeed, he claims that God had said that none of the fruit, from any of the trees, was to be eaten. It wasn’t just one tree, but all of them. And in response Eve comes to the rescue of the facts. She corrects the serpent, by stating that it was only the fruit from one of the trees that wasn’t to be eaten. But then she goes on to exaggerate the situation herself. She states that they weren’t even allowed to touch the tree—which wasn’t what God was recorded as having said at all.
And then, secondly, the serpent, claiming to know God far better than Eve, twists God’s prohibition around. And so he suggests that far from dying, the deliberate disobeying of God’s command would bring them positive blessings. They would become god-like—knowing good and evil.
At which point Eve looked at the forbidden fruit, which looked good to eat, a delight to the eyes, and desirable in acquiring wisdom. And she took some, ate from it, and gave some to her husband.
Now at this moment their with relationship with God was destroyed. They had effectively indicated that they weren’t satisfied with all that God had lovingly and generously provided. They wanted more. They wanted to be equal with their creator—all knowing and all powerful. And so, in doing the one and only thing they had been told not to do, they wrecked their whole relationship with God—their relationship with their maker died.
Now is it any wonder that immediately Adam and Eve began to realise what they had done? For the first time they realised they were naked—both physically and spiritually. And so they tried to hide from God.
But even when confronted with God, they compounded the problem they had created, by trying to pass the blame to someone else. Adam blamed Eve, and Eve blamed the Serpent. Neither was willing to take responsibility for their actions. So, God expelled them from paradise. In addition, he put guards on the garden, to stop them from getting back in.
Which meant that life for Adam and Eve suddenly became hard. They could no longer rely on the protection of God in the garden, and they wouldn’t be given the food that they needed either. They would have to work hard to physically survive—and it wouldn’t always be easy.
Having said God didn’t just kick them out of the garden and abandon them. No! Adam and Eve were sorry for what they had done. So, God made clothes for them—clothes fitting for the environment they would have to live in. And he continued to interact with them, but just not at the same perfect level that they had had in the garden.
So, do we still have a picture of a loving God? One who would go to extraordinary lengths to care for his creation? Yes, absolutely. But we also have more than a hint of a God who doesn’t like being messed with. Indeed, we have a clear picture of a no-nonsense God, who means what he says.
And it is on this note we need to go back to the issues I outlined at the beginning. Because there are two extremes when it comes to preaching in churches. There is the fire and brimstone approach of scaring people into the kingdom, and there is the idea of loving people into the kingdom. So, which one, if any, describes best the kind of approach that we should take?
Well, I don’t believe that either of them reflects accurately the kind of God that Christians believe in. Because in the story of Adam and Eve, right from the outset, God showed that he was generous and that he cared. But even so, he signalled there were consequences should they do the wrong thing. So, when Adam and Eve did the wrong thing, yes, God punished them. But he knew they were sorry for what they had done, and he didn’t totally abandon them.
Fire and brimstones, then, is only part of the story. But the idea of a loving God is only part of the story too. The true God that we see in the story of Adam and Eve is one who loves and cares; the kind of God who wants the best for us. But not at any price, and certainly not at the cost of his integrity.
The destruction of the relationship with God was Adam and Eve’s choice—no one forced them. But it created a situation where God had to act. Because, if God had done nothing, even pretended it hadn’t happened, then things would only have got worse.
As a consequence, if we get stuck on either extreme—the idea of fire and brimstone, or the idea of a loving God—we tend not to get the whole picture. Because, yes, there are truths encapsulated in both ideas, but individually they don’t tell the whole story.
The story of Adam and Eve, then, is a typical story of how we relate to God, and how God relates to us. It deals with the ideals of the perfect relationship, but it also deals with the consequences of what happens when we get it wrong.
It’s a story of a God who loves us, but for his own integrity and our salvation, needs to respond to our mistakes.
Posted: 4th April 2018
© 2018, Brian A Curtis