It’s a question that puzzles new converts and terrifies Sunday school teachers. Indeed, it’s a conundrum most of us have wrestled with, and for good reason. The fall of Adam wasn’t merely the first human sin. It was a calamitous act for the world and the human race. Because of the fall, “All mankind . . . lost communion with God, are under his wrath and curse, and so made liable to all miseries in this life, to death itself, and to the pains of hell forever” (Westminster Shorter Catechism, Q19).

Why would God permit such a tragic event, such an act of flagrant rebellion, in full knowledge of its horrific consequences?

A friend of mine quipped, “I can answer that one in three words: I don’t know!” Joking aside, his response does raise an important issue. Would it be a big problem if we didn’t have a good answer to that question? Would our inability to answer it give us any reason to doubt Christianity?

Hardly. In reality, every worldview raises some questions its advocates can’t answer, so the mere existence of an unanswered (even unanswerable) question doesn’t necessarily count against a worldview. It may simply imply a lack of information, which, in the context of a Christian worldview, would mean a lack of divine revelation on that particular point. We might justifiably reason like this:

  • God allowed the fall.
  • God has good reasons for everything he does, including what he allows.
  • Therefore, God had good reasons for allowing the fall, whether or not we can discern them.

Scripture doesn’t tell us directly why God permitted sin to enter the world. But it does provide us with materials from which we can construct a consistent and reasonable explanation.

One Bad Answer

One popular answer among Christians is superficial and deeply flawed. It says God allowed the fall because he wanted to make room for human free will. Free will is necessary for moral virtue and meaningful relationships, the argument goes, but it opened up the possibility we would choose evil rather than good.

This answer falls short for many reasons. I’ll mention three.

  1. Having free will does not necessarily entail the possibility of doing evil. God has free will, is morally virtuous, and can enter into meaningful relationships, yet it’s impossible for him to do evil. Couldn’t God have granted the same kind of non-evildoing freedom to us?
  2. Christians generally agree that God foreknew Adam would sin. But did God foreordain it? If we answer no, because we think human free choices are beyond God’s control, it makes little sense to ask why God permitted Adam’s sin. Any future event God foreknows must be already settled, such that not even God can change it. It’s “too late” for God to either prevent or permit it.
  3. The Bible makes clear that human free choices are not beyond God’s sovereign control (Gen. 50:20; Ezra 1:1; Prov. 21:1; Acts 4:27–28; Eph. 1:11). It was within God’s power to ensure that Adam freely obeyed rather than disobeyed. Hence, it was within God’s power to give Adam free will and to ensure that Adam did not fall, which means God must have had some other reason for allowing the fall than merely a desire to bestow free will on his creatures.

Why Does God Do Anything?

It’s vital to consider a broader question: Why does God do anything at all? What is his overarching purpose in all he does? If we can answer that, it will shed some light on our more specific concern: God’s reasons for allowing the fall.

Regarding God’s purpose in creating the world, no better answer has been given than the one developed in Jonathan Edwards’s powerful essay The End for Which God Created the World. Edwards argues that the Old and New Testaments present one consistent picture: God created the world not primarily to promote human happiness, but to manifest his own glory. Indeed, God’s purpose in creating the world had to be his own glory, because God is by nature the greatest good and the ultimate end of all things. He is surely concerned about human happiness—it’s not a zero-sum game—but our happiness serves a higher purpose by finding its true fulfilment in God’s supreme goodness and beauty.

Scripture also gives direct insight into God’s purpose in redemption, most clearly through Paul in Ephesians 1. The apostle uses three purpose clauses to describe the salvific blessings God has lavished on us: “to the praise of his glorious grace” (v. 6) and (twice) “to the praise of his glory” (vv. 12 and 14). As in creation, God’s ultimate purpose in redemption is that his glorious attributes be showcased and celebrated.

The same theme surfaces in Romans 9:22–24, where Paul speaks of God’s purpose in election:

What if God, desiring to show his wrath and to make known his power, has endured with much patience vessels of wrath prepared for destruction, in order to make known the riches of his glory for vessels of mercy, which he has prepared beforehand for glory—even us whom he has called, not from the Jews only but also from the Gentiles?

God’s overarching purpose in all he does, then, is the manifestation of his glory and the delight of his creatures in his divine splendor.

O Blessed Fall

If God’s primary purpose in creation and redemption is the display of his glory, what does that tell us about why he allowed the fall? Both logically and chronologically, the fall comes between creation and redemption. Without a creation there could be no fallen creation; without a fallen creation there could be no redeemed creation. Salvation presupposes sin; restoration presupposes a fall. Thus it’s reasonable to infer that God’s primary purpose in allowing the fall was to showcase his glory both in the original creation and also in his powerful and merciful restoration of that creation from its rebellion and corruption.

But was redemption really necessary for God to be glorified? Couldn’t an unfallen creation glorify God as much as a restored creation?

Reflecting on this question has prompted a number of Christian thinkers to develop what’s called the “O Felix Culpa” theodicy. (Literally “O blessed fault,” and “theodicy” is an explanation of how God can justly allow evil.) The basic idea is this: While the fall was a great evil, it made it possible for God to bring about even greater goods in its wake: the God-glorifying goods of the incarnation, atonement, resurrection, and all the salvific blessings that flow from them.

One might think an unfallen creation would be preferable to a fallen creation—and all else being equal, that’s true. But all else is not equal, for our world is not merely a fallen creation. It’s a fallen creation into which the eternal Son of God has entered, taking on human nature, perfectly expressing God’s likeness in our midst, living a morally flawless life, making atonement for our sins through his sacrificial death, rising in triumph from the grave, and ascending into heaven, where he continually intercedes and secures for us an eternal joyful dwelling-place in God’s presence.

A world with no fall and no salvation is altogether less God-glorifying than a world with a tragic fall but also a wondrous salvation.

A world with no fall and no salvation is altogether less God-glorifying than a world with a tragic fall but also a wondrous salvation.

Does It Matter?

God has ordained a world in which we can know and intimately live with him—not only as Creator, but also as Redeemer. Theological analogies are always hazardous, but perhaps this gestures in the right direction: While adultery is a grievous sin, the grateful love of an unfaithful husband who has been completely forgiven and reconciled to his wife will be deeper and richer even than the love he experienced and expressed on their wedding day.

To know fellowship with God as a creature made in his image is a great blessing; to know fellowship with God as a redeemed sinner restored in his Son’s image is immeasurably greater.

Once we grasp that such eternal glories could not have been realized apart from the fall, we can begin to appreciate the foremost reason why our wise and gracious Creator allowed it.

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