A question arose some time ago in the course of conversations during the Theology Department’s end of semester party. The question surrounds how to relate the will of God to sin, given that the Christian expectation is for God to bring man back into the fellowship of God, which man enjoyed in the garden of Eden and subsequently lost. The point was made that, as the hymn goes, “Felix culpa” – In other words, blessed be the fall, for it purchased for us so great a saviour. In a sense it purchased for us the whole Christian story.
The argument, then, was that God willed Adam and Eve to sin, so as to bring about a greater good, since according to the Christian story, God doesn’t only want to redeem man to the state he enjoyed in the Garden of Eden, but into a higher state including the fullness of the beatific vision. This state, it is argued, could not have been available to man without the fall. Since God always wills for the greatest good, and since the fall purchased for man the good of a salvation and redemption which was greater than what man would have been able to receive otherwise, it is therefore argued that God willed the fall.
The interlocutor in the argument, intelligent though he was, mistakenly attributed his view of the fall to Augustine, who he argued also believed that God willed the Original Sin. My response to this was to suggest that God did not will sin, as sin is defined as “missing the mark” (the word in Greek literally means missing the mark, and etymologically comes from an archer shooting at a target). The mark is set by the will and nature of God, such that to say that something is sinful is just to say that it is opposed in principle to morality, which is identified as a standard set by the very nature of God. I used a distinction I hadn’t used in a while, and which I’m sure is peculiar to me: between God’s ‘absolute’ will and his ‘complete’ will. I maintained that God’s absolute will can be satisfied without his ‘complete’ will being satisfied. C.S. Lewis once provided an excellent analogy for this, where he imagines that a preschool teacher wishes for all the children to put their things away at the end of the school day, but to do so of their own free will. She thus gives them the decision of whether or not to put their things away, and as a result, some freely choose to disregard the teacher’s invitation to put their things away. Now, while the teacher is not completely satisfied with the response of some of her pupils, her absolute will requires her to allow such a reaction. In similar fashion God willed for man to choose to love him freely, and as a result man was given a free choice, which God knew man could respond to by rejecting God in place of some other perceived good (which is what the Genesis narrative teaches). Therefore, although it is true to say that the Fall purchased for mankind a saviour which it would otherwise never have received, and a Gospel (good news) which would not otherwise have been so exceedingly ‘good’, so it is also true to say that the greater the sinner the more glorious the story of repentance and transformation (one thinks of figures such as Saul/Paul or St. Augustine). Neither one of these entail that God willed the sin in order for Grace to increase.
What then are we to say? Should we continue in sin in order that grace may abound? By no means!
In fact, as Pope John Paul II reiterated (in the context of taking such arguments into account, I might add), sin is always opposed to the will of God, and it would always be better for there to be an absence of sin than a presence of it. So God willed that man accept the beatific vision in the state of pure innocence – and (I take it) man did have that choice before him in the Garden of Eden, and declined. An interesting implication of what I just said is that the Christian story was God’s “contingency plan” such that if man chose against beatitude then God would pursue man all the way to the cross. Thus, God willed for man to come to love him without sin, but also willed that if man did fall into sin, God would pursue him by introducing him to the ‘Christian story’ through the incarnation.