How do you read the biblical account of the Fall? For many Christians, the Fall of mankind goes something like this:
A common account of the fall (and the plan of salvation)
Adam and Eve lived in a beautiful paradise. God put an arbitrary test in the middle of the garden together with a consequence for disobedience. Adam and Eve failed the test. As punishment, God exiled Adam and Eve from their beautiful garden home. God loves them but cannot simply forgive them. Instead, He puts into action a plan for a perfect sacrificial substitute to die in place of Adam and Eve. Only once this perfect substitute has died is He able to forgive Adam and Eve’s sin.
While this is a reasonably common reading of the Fall of mankind, it is not at all how the Orthodox understand it. Why don’t we understand the Fall this way? Because we read the account of the Fall through the lens of the Gospel.
The character of our Heavenly Father
The Gospel of Luke (15:11–32) records a parable in which Jesus taught about the character of God. It goes something like this.
There was a father, a rich landowner, who is insulted, rejected and abandoned by his son. The son demanded his inheritance (implying he wished his father already dead). Yet despite this rejection, day after day the loving father gazes longingly down the road hoping against hope that his son will return. After many fruitless years, he spots in the distance a bedraggled figure that he instantly recognises as his own son.
Now, the son has a prepared speech that he has been rehearsing all the way home. He assumes he’s going to need to beg his father for the tiniest sliver of mercy. But he doesn’t even get a chance to say a word of it.
Instead, as he looks up from the road, he sees his father abandon all dignity, hoist his robe and positively sprint toward him.
As soon as the father reaches him, he throws his arms around the son and embraces him. The Father kisses him on the cheek and, removing his own ornate robe, wraps it lovingly around the son, covering the son’s tattered garments. The Father takes the ring from his finger and places it upon the son and declares that now is the time for a celebration.
The son didn’t even get to utter a single word of his prepared speech.
The father was so keen to see his son, to forgive him, to embrace him, and to welcome him home, that all the son had to do was to come home.
This, says Jesus, is what our Heavenly Father is really like.
Comparing the two stories
Do you notice the massive difference between the character of God in the first story compared with the character of God in Jesus’ parable?
In the first story, God either won’t or can’t forgive sins without someone suffering. Yet in the second story, the loving father carelessly disregards the sin and welcomes the son home. It’s as if the first story and the second story are talking about a totally different character.
How can these stories possibly be talking about the same God?
The Orthodox would argue that these two stories are not talking about the same God. And that’s because the first story is a misunderstanding of the fall of mankind.
What the Orthodox teach about salvation
The Orthodox have always read the story of the Fall through the lens of the Gospel. When we do that, we understand that God was always ready and eager to forgive sin.
Around a thousand years ago, St. Symeon the New Theologian taught that the Father was ready and waiting for Adam and Eve to repent of their sin. He said that if either Adam or Eve had have repented, they both would have been restored to a position of greater honour. The problem was that neither Adam nor Eve repented. Instead, they blamed everyone but themselves.
Seven hundred years before that, St. Athanasius taught that Adam and Eve’s sin was readily forgivable until their sinning corrupted their being. Once corruption set in, it wasn’t simply a matter of forgiving sin but in healing a broken and corrupted humanity.
When we take this Gospel perspective into account, we understand that Christ’s mission to earth wasn’t about securing our forgiveness from the Father, but in healing us from the corruption of sin and death.
Jesus taught that our Heavenly Father is eager, ready and waiting to forgive sins. He always has been—and always will be—ready to abandon His dignity and sprint toward any of His children who want to return to Him. Our Heavenly Father quickly and easily forgives anyone who desires His forgiveness.
The key to understanding the Fall of mankind (and the plan of salvation) is that we humans need to be healed from the corruption of sin and death. Salvation is healing.
This is the character of God that is celebrated, explained and taught in every Orthodox service.