For most of my life, I viewed the primary thing wrong in the world as sin, particularly a brokenness in our individual human relationships with God. The most important thing, then, was to get people right with God. Get people saved.
Now, I still believe that sin distorts and breaks our relationship with God. It does. Forgiveness and reconciliation are at the heart of the good news that Jesus offers. But it’s not everything.
The Bible presents us with a bigger problem than individual sin. And thankfully, it offers a more comprehensive solution.
I had been coming to this conclusion on my own, so I was relieved to read Christopher Wright’s The Mission of God’s People, where he states that the Fall isn’t just Genesis 3, but Genesis 3-11.
For years, I’d wondered why Genesis 4-11 was in the Bible. If Genesis 3 was the Fall and Genesis 12 was the beginning of the story of redemption through the call of Abram/Abraham, then what were these other chapters about?
Genesis 3-11 presents us with the dimensions of the Fall, the landscape of all that’s wrong with the world, the description of what has fallen apart that God will be bringing back together in the rest of the story of salvation.
And yes, the first thing we’re presented with is a brokenness in our relationship with God himself. In our desire to be little gods of our own lives (and the lives of those around us), we reject God’s good rule and go our own way. The breakdown is immediate and catastrophic. We “die” to God and are separated from him. And the rest of the Scriptures tell the story of God seeking hidden, shame-faced humanity and going to extreme measures to restore our broken relationship.
But we also see in Genesis 3 and 4 a brokenness in the husband-wife relationship. What was so gloriously created in Genesis 2 — the man even composes a song on the spot, he’s so enthralled with the woman — is torn apart in Genesis 3 through hiding and hurling accusations at one another. And in Genesis 4, we see violent and proud Lamech marrying two wives and further severing the unity of monogamy. And though we see significant biblical characters with more than one wife later on, it never works out well for any of them. Wise Solomon is shown to be a fool by it.
Also in Genesis 4, we see the breakdown of the rest of the family, with Cain’s murder of his brother Abel. Jealousy and the desire for favor rot the heart, and what should be the closest and safest of all relationships becomes the source of death. And just as we see marriages broken throughout the Scriptures, we see the children of Isaac, Jacob, David, and others at each other’s throats. Sibling rivalry is part of the Fall.
Next, we get to Genesis 5: the genealogy of death. The consequences of the Fall are evidenced in our bodies. In many ancient languages, the largest number is 1,000 (in Roman numerals, for instance, that would be M), and because of this, the number 1,000 often had a sense of the infinite. So, when we read of Methuselah reaching 969 years, we’re supposed to think: “Ah! He got so close! But even for him the curse of death brought him down.” And yes, there’s the fascinating case of Enoch. The Hebrew idiom “he was no more” means “he died,” though the ambiguity of the text with “because God took him away” could mean some miraculous ascent to the realm of God. But it could just mean that he died. In any case, this is the genealogy of death, with physical death being a part of the Fall.
In Genesis 6, we come across the arrogant “sons of gods” (the Hebrew word elohim is a plural word meaning “gods,” but it is also used as a singular to refer to the one God of Israel; here, I take it as a plural). No, these aren’t angels. Only one place in the Scriptures does that term refer to angels (Job 38:7), members of the heavenly court. Everywhere else it refers to a king or a princely character. In the gospels, when Jesus is referred to as Son of God, it’s almost always in conjunction with him being referred to as the Christ/Messiah, which means “one who is anointed to be king.” (Ironically, while Son of God refers to Jesus as the human descendant of King David and thereby heir of all the Davidic promises, it’s the term Son of Man that points to his divinity, pulling from the term’s use in the book of Daniel.)
All of that to say, these “sons of gods” are the princes and heroes of that day, the superstars and movie stars and celebrities of today. And what do they do? They take any woman that they want. Doesn’t that sound like the treatment of women we see by football stars and other celebrities today? And so, Genesis 6 points to the battle of the sexes as part of the Fall that continues to divide us even now (especially the sexualized ill-treatment of women), despite our legislation and education against it.
Genesis 6 points out the corruption of human thoughts and hearts, bent toward evil and violence — sins against other humans and the created world, not directly against God. And stunningly, we’re told that God was sorry that he’d made us at all. Gen. 6:7 may just be the most chilling verse in the Bible. We expect humans to sin, but to see God regretting making us …
In Genesis 6-9, we get the story of the flood and of Noah saving humanity, saving animals, and planting a vineyard (vineyards being the work of years and the height of agriculture in the Hebrew mind, since it is more difficult and is a sign of wealth, not subsistence farming). Just like Methuselah, who came just short of living “forever,” Noah is a sign of hope in these bleak chapters, who unsurprisingly comes up short in his drunkenness.
Noah’s care for creation (humans, animals, and plants all thrive under his care), highlights the brokenness with creation in Genesis 3 (painful human birth, enmity with serpent, and struggle with growing plants). We see more of this brokenness later in Genesis 10, with Nimrod the hunter. He wasn’t a hunter “before” the Lord as most translations have it, but more literally “in the face” of the Lord. I take this as excessive killing that taunts the Creator. That character is confirmed as Genesis notes that most ruthless of Israel’s foes are said to have him as their forbearer. And topping off our broken relationship with creation, we have the fear of humans put into all creatures in Genesis 9.
In Genesis 9, we also have that odd nakedness of Noah passage. Included in a husband’s nakedness is also his wife’s nakedness; though whether it was his father or his mother that Canaan looked at, I’m not sure it matters much. What we have is the breakdown of parent-child relationships which will later require the 5th Commandment for the sake of getting us to honor our parents, especially our elderly parents who will need the care of those they cared for.
Genesis 10 gives us the table of nations and Genesis 11 (non-chronologically) gives us the Babel story, showing the arrogance that leads to the scattering of people into nations and languages. Neither of these is positive. This is the start of war and racial/ethnic division — nation against nation as part of the Fall. But, again, there is hope with the introduction of Abram and the end of Genesis 11, the man whose family will be a blessing to all nations.
So, here we have all the dimensions of the Fall laid out for us. There is brokenness in all of our relationships: human-God; husband-wife; sibling-sibling; men-women; human-creation; parent-child; and nation-nation.
So, when we come to the New Testament, what do we find? God has created a new humanity in Jesus where all of these relationships are being brought back into unity.
We see this most clearly in the book of Ephesians. In Ephesians 1:8-10, we read the key statement of the book:
With all wisdom and understanding, he made known to us the mystery of his will according to his good pleasure, which he purposed in Christ, to be put into effect when the times reach their fulfillment — to bring unity to all things in heaven and on earth under Christ.
What is God’s goal? A Jesus-shaped unity. By undoing the Genesis 2 self-as-king problem and making Jesus the king, God is able to bring unity to the many divisions our selfishness creates.
So, what do we see in the rest of Ephesians, as this theme of unity in Jesus is fleshed out?
In Eph. 2:1-10, we see unity between God and humans restored in Jesus.
In Eph. 2:11-3:21, we see the coming together of the nations in Jesus (the Greek word translated as Gentiles is ethne or “nations”). So, we read things like “he himself is our peace, who has made the two groups one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility” (Eph. 2:14) and “through the gospel the Gentiles are heirs together with Israel, members together of one body, and sharers together in the promise in Christ Jesus” (Eph. 3:6) and “I kneel before the Father, from whom every family in heaven and on earth derives its name” (Eph. 3:14-15). All of this long passage points toward a unity between peoples who were so deeply divided in the Fall.
If we didn’t get that unity is God’s goal, it’s restated as an imperative: “Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to one hope when you were called; one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all” (Eph. 4:3-6). I’ve highlighted both the words “unity/one” and “all” to emphasize that this unity is to be all-inclusive of our relationships. The rest of the chapter and spilling over into chapter 5 is a call to stop doing the things that break apart the unity that Jesus has forged, especially within the church, which is to be a single body, a unit, a new humanity where this unity is lived out.
Then in Eph. 5:21-6:9, we get to three case studies for this unity, three relationships that Genesis has shown us often fly apart. If we don’t see them in this context of the divided becoming united, they seem arbitrary. But these three case studies show how Christians can live in unity within the most difficult of our relationships — husband-wife, parent-child, and master-slave (employer-employee in our context) relationships are made new in Jesus.
The key to this unity is mutual submission as we revere Christ as our king. With Jesus as king, none of us gets to be or tries to be king, enabling us to submit to one another as we seek unity with one another.
As he winds up the letter, Paul reminds us that we’re not to battle against each other but against spiritual forces. Our Lord has provided armor and a weapon for this battle, but it’s not to be used against one another.
Elsewhere in the New Testament, different aspects of the Genesis 3-11 Fall are highlighted and dealt with in light of the gospel of Jesus.
All of this to say that what’s wrong with the world includes but isn’t limited to our relationship with God. We’ve got a whole bunch of relationships that have gone sour on us and need divine intervention to be healed.
This broadens our mission.
We long to see people in relationship with God. This is the key to everything. And yet we don’t just preach for the conversion of those who don’t know God. We seek the restoration of all kinds of relationships that are broken.
Where we see husband and wife divided, we work for restoration, not for simple-but-painful divorces. Yes, there are times when divorce is actually a good thing, since the relationship is beyond repair, and the Bible provides for that. But more times than not, it’s the gospel that’s needed, not divorce. And the healing of a marriage that no one thought could be repaired becomes a sign of God’s kingdom bursting in.
Where we see adult siblings divided and not talking to one another over years, we experience the Fall. And here the gospel leads us to reconciliation. In the words of Romans 12:18, we take our charge — “If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone.” Sometimes, it’s not possible to come to peace, because one or more parties refuses it. But the gospel prods us on, requiring us to maintain hope for reconciliation and to turn our hearts toward it.
The same is true in male-female relationships. Most of our world is a hostile place for women. In many places and circumstances, men dominate like those “sons of god” and women are treated less than the image of God humans that they are. But as we see throughout the New Testament, women are elevated to the same level of dignity as men — saved by the same Jesus, filled with the same Spirit, engaging in the same mission.
In response to the gospel, the parent-child relationship is to move from one of domination to one of care for the child and respect for the parent. Many cultures, including the one Paul was initially writing to in Ephesians, tend toward the domination of children by their parents. “Fathers. do not exasperate your children,” he writes in Eph. 6:4. On the other end of the spectrum, we tend toward the care of children at the cost of respect for parents. It’s grievous how parents are treated by both teenage children and adult children in America, and Paul reminds us of the 5th Commandment (Eph. 6:2). The gospel would see caring and mutual submission go both ways.
And then there’s the care of creation — or lack thereof. We’ve got those who would play the economy against the environment on one side, running roughshod over the natural world in order to keep costs down and profits up. And then we’ve got those who would actually prefer that there were no humans, since we’re the cause of most environmental woes. The gospel refuses both ends of the spectrum, being committed to all of the creation that God made, calls good, and loves.
Where we see physical suffering and death, we work for healing and look toward resurrection. Modern medicine and hospitals have their roots in this biblical longing for wholeness, echoing Jesus’ healing ministry and his parable of the good Samaritan. And always there is the recognition that death is the last enemy whose power has been dealt a blow by the resurrection of Jesus and will ultimately be shattered in the final resurrection. Therefore, we mourn in the face of death, but not like those who have no hope (1 Thes. 4:13-18).
And finally, the gospel comes to bear on ethnic/racial and international relations. When we get to the last book of the Bible, we read that the Tree of Life has leaves which are for the healing of the nations. And before that, in earlier chapters of the Revelation, we find every nation, tribe, language, and people group gathered before the throne of God. Every ethnicity, every race, every language and people group is precious to God. There is no us-and-them. There is only us. All are created in the image of God. All are sought after by Jesus. All become one in the church, the family of God. This is why Paul takes such issue with Peter when he stopped eating with non-Jews (see Galatians 2:11-13), for he was restoring the separation between ethnicities and giving the message that non-Jews had to become Jews to be in God’s favor.
The gospel applies to all of these relationships, because all of them are affected by the Fall and all of them are healed and brought back together again by Jesus. None of the Fall is left out by Jesus. He deals with it all and calls us to do the same.
What’s necessary is a wider view of what’s wrong with the world and a deeper call to join our Lord in repairing and renewing it. When we leave aside any aspect of this wider view of the Fall and God’s determination to restore what is broken, we reduce the gospel and our missional participation in it.