Tuesday, March 4, 2008

The Truth about Adam and Eve

You know, it is quite remarkable that Adam and Eve still feature prominently in sermons at all [they do – the “intro” demonstrated this]. Adam and Eve are treated with very little respect outside the church. People seem to like to make fun of the story of the Garden of Eden as much as they possibly can, and treat it like there is no truth in it at all. This morning, I’m going to tell you about the truth in the story of Adam and Eve.

But before we talk specifically about Adam and Eve, I’d like to address the reason why folks make fun of the story we are about to discuss. If you meet someone on the street who says they don’t believe in God, and you ask them “why not?” The most common reply that they will give you is something like “science makes God unnecessary.” What they are really claiming is that the story of evolution is true, and that the story of Adam and Eve is not. Typically, however, the people who say this don’t know very much about either the Bible or about science. I am going to stick my neck out this morning and claim that I know something about both. If you’d like to challenge that claim, I’d be delighted to discuss it with you over dinner tonight. Especially if you pick up the tab. Vinnie Gambini’s is nice. ;-)

But before I get to the facts, however, I’d like to ask my Christian friends at Bethel to go easy on those in the world who believe in evolution. I’m serious. Belief in evolution should be no grounds for choosing friendships or sharing a meal. When we arrive in heaven, there will be plenty of surprises for all of us. And God will forgive those who have a poor understanding of origins just as he forgives me for my many faults.

Having said that, let me remind you of Genesis chapter one. In this chapter, the Bible describes how God created everything. But there are actually two different actions in the original Hebrew, and they are translated as two different words in English, as well. In English, the words used are “create” and “make”. In Hebrew, the word for “create” is rarely, if ever used anywhere else. It is a word that means “poof” – something out of nothing – almost something magical. The word “make” on the other hand, means to “rearrange”, like you “make” dinner: the raw ingredients are rearranged to make something else. Please understand that God’s rearranging biological material could very well be related to what scientists call evolution. So let’s not worry too much about the times that the Bible says “God made” – let’s concentrate on the times that the Bible says “God created”. There are only three times when this word it used: verse one, verse twenty-one, and verse twenty-seven. And interestingly enough, these times just happen to coincide with the three events in history that science has the very most difficulty explaining. In fact, each of them is represented precisely in the list of twenty-five “big unanswered questions of science” that was published a few years ago in the journal Science. Let me repeat that – a millennia-old story that people make fun of just happens to call out three of the biggest mysteries of modern science – pretty cool, huh?

The first time that the Bible uses the word “create”, obviously, is the creation of the universe: “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth”. Some folks talk about a “Big Bang”, but even if there were such a thing, the creation of the universe involves what led to the Big Bang. Science has no tools to measure what might have happened that far back.

The second time the Bible uses the word “create” it refers to the creation of life. Did you know that the scientific community is completely befuddled by the origin of life? In Science the “big question” is “How did life on Earth arise?” Sure, the textbooks say that some interesting compounds can be synthesized in the lab. But there is a huge, enormous, gigantic chasm between those compounds and a living organism. In fact, there is a standing one million dollar prize for anyone who can come up with a scientifically coherent theory for the origin of life (it even has a website that you can visit www.lifeorigin.org). That’s right – a scientifically coherent theory is worth a cool one million dollars – but nobody has come close to that prize yet. This simply means that all existing theories of the origin of life are scientifically incoherent! Sure, there are guesses. But just because the person who is guessing calls themselves a scientist doesn’t change the fact that it is just a guess. Science simply cannot explain how life began. Don’t believe anyone who tells you otherwise.

Those are the first two times the Bible uses the word “create”, and anybody who is at all familiar with science is willing to concede that both of them represent events for which there is no scientific explanation at all. Something quite remarkable happened at the very beginning, and something amazing happened to start life going. People agree on those. The tricky one – the big flashpoint – is the third time the book of Genesis uses the word “create”.

Verse twenty-seven “So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.” And here, we run directly into Adam and Eve. You see, the third big scientific question is: “What is it that makes us uniquely human?” We call this a question about “human nature”. And yet scientists will never be able to bottle human nature; they will never be able to see it under a microscope. Human nature, in its essence, is nothing more and nothing less than the image of God. You see, the greatest evidence for God in the universe isn’t the snowflake, or the daffodil, or the sunset, or a puppy, or even lemonade. The strongest evidence for God is the image of God that he has created in you.

And folks who want nothing to do with God or His claims on their life are always in serious denial about the image of God in people. That’s why they like it when people behave like animals: “see!” they say, “no image of God there.” That’s why they like it when people behave like computers: “no image of God there either!” But people aren’t animals and people aren’t computers. We’ve been created in the image of God, and it is our calling to live up to our true nature. Incidentally, here’s a book [The Blank Slate by Stephen Pinker] written by a scientist trying to explain human nature. And near the end, he says something very interesting – let me read it to you: “paradoxically,” he writes, “poets and novelists have [greater power] to speak the truth about human nature [than any scientist].” Please understand his point. He is saying that there can be much more truth about human nature in stories than there is in numbers or in molecules. If we really want to understand the essence of what it is to be human, we need to listen to stories – specifically, we need to listen to the story of Adam and Eve.

So let’s understand that we’ve been created in the image of God. What’s more, we’ve been created in the image of God for a purpose. In the story of Adam and Eve, God and Adam talked together – just like you talk to your best friend. This purpose: this ability to share friendship and communication is something that the story of Adam and Eve allows. And, strangely enough, science can’t touch that. According to the “scientific” stories, friendship is an illusion – it isn’t real. According to “scientific” stories, communication is just an accident – it isn’t a gift from God to enable friendships. If friendship and communication are important to you, and you think that they are “true” aspects of human nature then you must believe that in at least this one respect, the story of Adam and Eve is more true than the stories of “science”.
To learn about the important aspects of human nature, it won’t help us to study the genome. If won’t help us to study the behavior of monkeys or fish. It won’t help us to scan the brain. For thousands of years, one of the best ways to understand human nature is to read the story of Adam and Eve. We don’t have time to examine it all, but let me give you a Reader’s Digest of one essential part.

Adam and Eve were placed in a beautiful garden. The Bible says that it was Adam’s job to be the gardener even before sin entered the picture. We sometimes forget that. Work can really and truly be a blessing rather than a curse. I pray that my children might learn the value and the blessing of work done well. In the Old Testament, the Bible says, “Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with all your might.” In the New Testament, we read, “Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord.” Following this advice might not be enough to make you happy, but ignoring this advice might just be a guarantee that you won’t be happy!

Anyway, back to our story…in the Garden there were a number of trees, and God said to Adam that he could eat the fruit from any of the trees – any of the trees except for one. That tree was very special. But God didn’t want Adam and Eve to touch it. Was that because the fruit of the tree was bad? Not at all. The fruit of this tree was good! This is important to remember. Just because something is good doesn’t mean that we can have it or should have it. That’s right: there are plenty of good things in life that it is not our business even wanting. In any case, this special tree had its own name. And it was a funny name, too! That tree was called the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil.

And Adam and Eve stayed away from that tree; just as they had been told. At least they stayed away until the serpent came along. You remember that there was a serpent in the story, don’t you: a talking serpent to go with a tree with a funny name. This is the other reason that people make fun of the story of Adam and Eve. We don’t typically name our trees, and we very, very rarely encounter talking animals… But in the story we find both! Now some people, as soon as they hear about talking animals, they don’t pay any more attention. It seems to them like a cartoon. And trees with special powers? That doesn’t sound real to them either. And it is a real shame that they stop paying attention, because if they would pay attention, they’d notice that the most important thing in the story is very real indeed … but we’re getting ahead of ourselves.

So the serpent said to Eve, “Did God say you mustn’t eat from any tree in the garden?”
And Eve said, “Of course not, there is just one tree that we aren’t to eat from.
God said that if we eat the fruit from this tree, we will die.”
Now notice what the serpent says:
“You won’t die.”
Stop right there! Red flag! Warning! If anyone makes fun of what God says, you better be really careful about what they say next.
“You won’t die,” said the serpent.
“If you eat the fruit of this tree your eyes will be opened. You will be like God, knowing Good and Evil.”

So that’s what the fruit of this tree with the funny name represents – it represents a temptation.
It represents a very important primal temptation. In fact this temptation is a picture of exactly what is wrong with people today. In a nutshell, that temptation is this: “By choosing Good and Evil we get to play God.” This temptation is real.
You see, we’ve all fallen into this temptation, and we’ve all failed miserably. We’ve all wanted to play God by judging the good and evil in our neighbor and we’ve all wanted to play God judging the good and evil in ourselves. And guess what? We almost always evaluate our neighbor worse than they deserve, and we almost always evaluate ourselves better than we deserve. That’s wrong – but that’s what we do all the time. There is not a single person on the planet; not a single person in this building who is not guilty. When my children were little, I was shocked to observe that even my otherwise perfect daughter was really, really unfair when she was in a conflict or competition with others.

This is the problem at the root of human nature: human beings are really, really bad at knowing Good and Evil. We are even bad at being able to tell which things are best for ourselves! Things that we think are most terribly evil can result in great blessing; things that we think are most wonderfully good can lead to great suffering. In Man’s Search for Meaning, the author mentions “prisoners of…the Vietnam war [whose] captivity was…filled with torture, disease [isolation, and] malnutrition…nevertheless benefited from the experience, seeing it as a growth opportunity.” Sometimes terrible things can lead to great blessing. 

On the other hand, nobody gets married thinking that they are going to get divorced. Sometimes wonderful things can lead to great pain. The Bible says, “There is a way that seems right to a man, but in the end it leads to death.” Basically, we make choices about Good and Evil based upon limited knowledge and how we feel at the time. And we aren’t very good at it.

Do you know that they actually did a study comparing the happiness of people that won the lottery with people that lost the use of their legs in an accident? It is true. And (surprise!) a year after the event, by every known measure these two groups of people were identically happy. I’m serious. A year after winning the lottery, those winners were no happier than they would have been if they had been in a terrible accident instead. (*Dan Gilbert has since walked back this presentation of the results of his experiment)

We are really, really, bad at knowing Good and Evil. And that’s why God didn’t want Adam and Eve to eat the fruit of that tree: he knew what we are like (after all, he made us), and he knew that we couldn’t handle it – at least we couldn’t handle it correctly. God knew that while it would be a great gift to humanity to know about Good and Evil, it could also be a great curse. What’s more, this is precisely the part of human nature that causes so many problems. It is not so much the knowing Good and Evil that hurts us, it is thinking that we know Good and Evil when we really don’t – when we don’t really know enough to judge or aren’t really smart enough to judge. In fact, only God knows enough and is smart enough. And we’re not God.

Adam and Eve ate that fruit, and they were immediately troubled and confused – they didn’t suddenly become like God, but they did suddenly start to set their own standards of behavior. And we, too, have been so tempted; and we, too, are guilty. We want to play God, setting our own standards, and all of our relationships suffer for it. Because (guess what) when two people both want to play God, they are going to clash, big time. Only God should ever be allowed to play God.

But how can we fix this problem? There is something broken inside each one of us. And it is too broken to fix. Every single one of us likes the business of deciding what’s good and what’s bad, what’s right and what’s wrong. And it is that very business that represents our brokenness. Well, suppose you had a very special toy. It was your favorite toy. But it was broken. There are two things that you can do. You can either try to fix it, or – that’s right – you can get a new one. And that’s the option that God provides for our brokenness this morning.

Do you remember right at the beginning of this sermon, I told you about a word that means something almost magical – can anyone tell me what that word was? That’s right: the word was “create”. And that’s exactly the same word that is used in Psalm 51:10, where David writes “create in me a pure heart, O God.” That’s right. David is smart enough not to ask God to fix his heart. He knows better. He doesn’t ask just to be tidied up, or duct-taped together. He knows that he needs God to poof something new into his life: “Create in me a pure heart, O God.” And that is exactly what we need this morning, too. We read the same sort of thing in the New Testament, too. Paul writes, “If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation.” The heart of Adam is replaced with the heart of Jesus. Instead of wanting to be like God and taking the forbidden fruit, Jesus did not consider equality with God something to be grasped. Instead of wanting to be the standard for everything, Jesus became the servant of all, accepting the judgment of God in our place.

Folks want to avoid the story of Adam and Eve, and they will try to make fun of it. But they don’t make fun of it because it isn’t true; they make fun of it because is too true – its truth hits them where it hurts – it challenges their desire to be their own God, by choosing Good and Evil. It tells them of their brokenness. But the good news this morning is that there is a remedy for that brokenness. God is in the business of supplying his children with new hearts. Ask God to create a new heart in you this morning.