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The word sin means literally “missing the mark.” It means the failure to be what one should be and to do what one should do.
Originally man was made to be the created image of God, to live in union with God’s divine life, and to rule over all creation. Man’s failure in this task is his sin which has also been called his fall.
The “fall” of man means that man failed in his God-given vocation. This is the meaning of Gen 3. Man was seduced by evil (the serpent) into believing that he could be “like God” by his own will and effort.
In the Orthodox tradition the eating of the “tree of the knowledge of good and evil” is generally interpreted as man’s actual taste of evil, his literal experience of evil as such. Sometimes, this eating is also interpreted (as by St. Gregory the Theologian) as man’s attempt to go beyond what was possible for him; his attempt to do that which was not yet within his power to realize.
Whatever the details of the various interpretations of the Genesis story, it is the clear doctrine of Orthodoxy that man has failed in his original vocation. He disobeyed God’s command through pride, jealousy and the lack of humble gratitude to God by yielding to the temptation of Satan. Thus man sinned. He “missed the mark” of his calling. He transgressed the Law of God (see 1 Jn 3:4). And so he ruined both himself and the creation which he was given to care for and to cultivate. By his sin-and his sins—man brings himself and all creation under the rule of evil and death.
In the Bible and in Orthodox theology these elements always go together: sin, evil, the devil, suffering and death. There is never one without the other, and all are the common result of man’s rebellion against God and his loss of communion with Him. This is the primary meaning of Gen 3 and the chapters which follow until the calling of Abraham. Sin begets still more sin and even greater evil. It brings cosmic disharmony, the ultimate corruption and death of everyone and everything. Man still remains the created image of God—this cannot be changed—but he fails to keep his image pure and to retain the divine likeness. He defiles his humanity with evil, perverts it and deforms it so that it cannot be the pure reflection of God that it was meant to be. The world also remains good, indeed “very good,” but it shares the sorry consequences of its created master’s sin and suffers with him in mortal agony and corruption. Thus, through man’s sin the whole world falls under the rule of Satan and “lies in wickedness” (1 Jn 5:19; see also Rom 5:12).
The Genesis story is the divinely-inspired description in symbolic terms of man’s primordial and original possibilities and failures. It reveals that man’s potency for eternal growth and development in God was turned instead into man’s multiplication and cultivation of wickedness and his transformation of creation into the devil’s princedom, a cosmic cemetery “groaning in travail” until saved once more by God (Rom 8:19-23). All the children of Adam, i.e. all who belong to the human race, share in this tragic fate. Even those born this very minute as images of God into a world essentially good are thrown immediately into a deathbound universe, ruled by the devil and filled with the wicked fruit of generations of his evil servants.
This is the fundamental message: man and the world need to be saved. God gives the promise of salvation from the very beginning, the promise which begins to be fulfilled in history in the person of Abraham, the father of Israel, the forefather of Christ.
And the Lord said… to Abram [later named Abraham] “I will make you a great nation… and by you all the families of the earth will be blessed (Gen 12:3; also 22:15).
Abraham believed God; and from him came the people of Israel from whom, according to the flesh, came Jesus Christ the Saviour and Lord of Creation (see Lk 1:55, 73; Rom 4; Gal 3).
The entire history of the Old Testament finds its fulfillment in Jesus. All that happened to the chosen children of Abraham happened in view of the eventual and final destruction of sin and death by Christ. The covenants of God with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob (whose name was changed to Israel which means “the one who struggles with God); the twelve tribes of Israel; the story of Joseph; the passover, exodus and reception of God’s Law by Moses; the entrance into the promised land by Joshua; the founding of Jerusalem and the building of the temple by David and Solomon; the judges, kings, prophets and priests; everything in the Old Testament history of God’s chosen people finds its final purpose and meaning in the birth, life, death, resurrection, ascension and glorification of God’s only Son Jesus the Messiah. He is the one who comes from the Father to save the people from their sins, to open their tombs and to grant eternal life to all creation.