Nearly every theologian agrees that Adam’s first state in the garden was never meant to be his final. Adam (though he was created in innocence) was created in a state of testing. He was created in a state of probation. It was a state that was meant to be confirmed through obedience.
How do we know this? Well, we can see this from the fact that God placed Adam in the garden with the choice of obedience or disobedience. In other words, Adam could have obeyed God, or rejected God. And, should Adam obey, he would be confirmed in eternal life. Should he disobey, God told him he would “surely die” (Gn 2:17).
What this indicates is Adam’s actions were meant to confirm him in a state of life or death. In a state of condemnation or eternal reward. This tells us that God was testing Adam. That he was putting him on trial, as it were. And that his final state rode on the outcome of this test.
Now, most of us know that God’s testing of Adam involved him permitting Satan to enter the garden and threaten the safety of him and his wife. We cannot overstate the threat that Satan posed to the couple. We cannot overstate the deadly desires that Satan had for this small family.
One might question, why all this testing? Why the probation? Why the threatening presence of Satan? What exactly was God’s purpose in it all?
Scott Hahn, in his excellent A Father Who Keeps His Promises, proposes a grand purpose for this testing. Hahn suggests that God tested Adam’s safety and security to see just how far his obedience would go. In other words, God confronted Adam with a trial, to see if he would love and obey his Father, even at the threat of violence and death.
The Father who called Adam to life first confronted him with death as a test of sacrificial obedience, a trial by ordeal. If Adam had given consent to death in this situation, by cooperating with God’s indwelling grace, he would have realized and perfected faith, hope and love. The earthly gift of grace would have been transformed into heavenly glory. (pg 74)
In other words, Hahn proposes that God allowed Adam to be left vulnerable in the face of the devil, in order to see how he might react. Would he love God even if it meant that he martyr himself (hypothetically)? Would he trust in God’s strength? Would he protect his bride even if it mean confronting the face of evil? Would Adam, ultimately, give of himself in love for his bride to the Father?
Of course, we know that Adam did none of this. In fact, as the serpent entered the garden, he approached Eve and not Adam; and rather than stepping in and confronting the serpent, Adam stood by doing nothing. Adam was entirely passive, choosing comfort rather than martyrdom; choosing the wide road to destruction rather than the narrow to life.
And so what Adam failed was a test of sacrificial love and obedience. He failed to love God even unto death. He failed to risk his comfort, even his life, for his beloved. Ultimately, we see that Adam’s “fall from grace” was not outright rebellion, but cowardice and passivity.
Hahn, commenting on Adam’s sin, says:
Ultimately, we should chalk up Adam’s sin to a failure of nerve. By not deciding he really decided; since once Eve ate the forbidden fruit, Adam had already failed, even before eating it himself. He should have never allowed things to go that far. If he had intervened from the outset, the entire exchange could have been prevented… (pg 71-72)
And so, Adam failed by refusing to risk his neck and fight the serpent in sacrificial love. Adam failed by loving his own comfort rather than loving God above all else. Adam failed by protecting himself rather than protecting his bride.
God had tested Adam by calling him to imitate Divine self-giving love; the same love communicated in the Trinity. And rather than confirming his love for God, and ascending into glory, he chose to love himself. And for that, humanity fell into a state of sin and cursedness.
Now, what is interesting here, is that what Adam feared in disobedience (death and pain), he reaped as a result of disobedience (death and pain). We see this in God’s curse of Adam and his progeny. God sentenced Adam to spiritual and physical death; to toil and pain. And so, in attempting to protect himself, Adam lost his life. And not just his own, but the life of his descendants was lost as well. All humans born, are born devoid of righteousness, in sin, apart from God; all because Adam chose to love and protect himself.
With this testing in mind, Scott Hahn explains God’s purpose in the curse of humanity: He says,
Willingness to give ourselves out of love, even if it entails suffering, is what makes us fruitful. When we refuse to love to this extent, we sterilize ourselves. Our Father still wants us to be fruitful; that is why he imposed the curse of suffering, in order to keep alive our potential to become supernaturally fruitful. (pg 74)
What is so fascinating about this text by Hahn, is that he is saying that God imposed on us what would not willingly do ourselves. Since Adam would not willingly die, God cursed us with death. But he did not do this to avenge himself: as Hahn says, he did this that we might become fruitful. God imposed death on us, that we might learn to what extent love goes. Hahn says, God cursed us with death to “to teach us love”.
Ultimately, of course, this test comes to fulness in Christ. Hahn ends his chapter on Adam by saying,
This (the background of Adam’s failure and the curse) gives us the key for unlocking the redemptive power of Christ’s suffering and death. As the new Adam, Jesus was tested in the garden, where “his sweat became like great drops of blood” (Lk 22:44). Jesus then had a “crown of thorns” placed on his head (Mt 27:29), before he was taken to the “tree” (Gal 3:13), where was stripped naked (Mt 27:31). Then he fell into the deep sleep of death, so that from his side would come forth the New Eve. Christ dealt with sin; he took it out at its source… Christ undid Adam’s deed by doing what he should have done (pg 75)
So we see Christ as the new Adam, who in love, went to the point of death. He confirmed his obedience in love, even to the point of death, that we, his church, might come from his rib as his protected bride. And ultimately, as ones redeemed by a death of love, we are now called to suffer “even to the point of death” (Rev 2:10) for the world.
In Christ, then, God’s curse is teaching us how to love as Adam failed to do!