The day that the universe fell apart, the second worst day in history, dawned like every other day before it, warm and refreshing. Sunlight filtered through the lush canopy over Eden, mixing with cool shadows and pleasant breezes to create a dazzlingly beautiful day. Just warm enough that you’d never be chilly, just cool enough so that you’d never be sweaty. An eternally bright spring morning, just like every other day. Birds sang happily in the trees, sending up their song of praise to the Creator.
Adam and Eve had already begun their labor for the day, having returned from their morning walk with God (which was always Eve’s favorite part of the day). They were busily tending to the menagerie of animals that made the garden their home, gathering food for the evening meal with the Creator, and more. There was so much to do… and all the time and energy in the world to do it. Work was a joy; how could it be anything else, when all creation bent to their will, strength flowed through their veins, and everything they did brought the Creator pleasure? The man and the woman were beautiful, strong, confident, innocent. With no shame to cover up and no imperfections to hide, they were unabashedly naked and free. Adam looked at his wife, marveling again at the kindness and creativity of God, who had provided someone so perfectly suited for him. Her intelligence, humor, kindness, and beauty dazzled him. God had truly outdone himself with her. “Very good, indeed,” Adam thought happily to himself. Eve looked up from her labors, met Adam’s eyes, and smiled playfully.
It was going to be a good day.
A COSMIC COUP
Look around the world today, and things don’t seem so rosy. In the words of Joni Mitchell’s song, “Big Yellow Taxi,” it appears that we have indeed “paved paradise and put up a parking lot.” Those bright, warm spring days of Eden seem few and far between, and even when they do come, you’re probably too distracted and discouraged to notice. Instead of beauty and joy, life is filled with days and seasons and even years when nothing goes the way it should. In fact, sometimes it feels like everything is conspiring against you: the whole world, other people, even your own body is out to get you. You tell yourself that you’re only imagining it, that things aren’t really that bad, that there’s a light at the end of the tunnel. But I’m here to let you in on a secret: you’re not imagining it, and yes things are that bad. All of your darkest fears are true, and you don’t even know the half of it. One day, you’re going to die and your body will decay and disappear and no one will remember you. And between now and that day—whether it comes tomorrow or in a hundred years—the creeping forces of entropy are slowly and relentlessly grinding you into oblivion. Everything from arthritis and allergies to cancer and dementia are the battle lines of your body at war with itself. The hurricanes, earthquakes, and floods you see on the news are the angry thrashings of a world out of control. Divorce courts, orphanages, and funeral homes stand as somber monuments of a war with the universe that we are losing.
Where did it all go wrong?
The story of the Bible traces the chaos of our present world back to a cosmic coup that dethroned God’s appointed authorities and installed a rival government on the throne of the creation. The familiar story of the Fall in Genesis 3 is more than a fairy tale about a talking snake and magical fruit. It’s more, even, than the true story of the first humans stumbling into sin. It is the retelling of a stunning coup d’état, in which a cunning usurper tricked the king and queen into joining his rebellion, and in the process robbed them of their authority, stole their kingdom, and embarked on a reign of terror that continues to this day. It is the event which makes sense of everything in our world, giving a powerful answer to the bitter question, “Why is the world so broken?”
Open up Genesis 3 and ponder what is going on here in conversation between creation’s queen and the satanic serpent. God has delegated authority to the man and woman over all of his creation—including this snake. As long as they exercise dominion in proper submission to the Creator’s command, the gears of the universe will continue turning as they were designed to do. But a wrench is thrown into the works with a whispered doubt: “Eve, I thought you and Adam were in charge around here. Why is this supposedly good God holding out on you?” And with the introduction of that novel thought, the fabric of reality began to unravel.
Now the serpent was more crafty than any other beast of the field that the LORD God had made. He said to the woman, “Did God actually say, ‘You shall not eat of any tree in the garden?’” And the woman said to the serpent, “We may eat of the fruit of the trees in the garden, but God said, ‘You shall not eat of the fruit of the garden, neither shall you touch it, lest you die.’” (3:1-3)
Trace the conversation and take particular note of what Satan promises Eve:
But the serpent said to the woman, “You will not surely die. For God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” So when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was desired to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate, and she gave some to her husband who was with her, and he ate. (3:4-6)
Do you see what the promise was? “Eve, if you eat this, you’ll be like God!” The bitter irony here, of course, is that Eve was already like God; she was his image, his reflection, his representative. Everything about her was like God. Her wisdom, her beauty, her creativity, and her authority all mirrored and extended his. She didn’t need what the snake was selling, because it was already hers. And yet the enticement sounded so good: “Eve, you can be like God!” And isn’t this, at the very root, what every one of us is still running after today? To be master of our fates, captain of our souls, sole arbiters of right and wrong, to be autonomous and unaccountable kings is the mirage that every human heart has been chasing since Eden.
Satan’s ploy here was certainly the greatest swindle of all time. A typical con man will sell you something that isn’t his to sell (“take advantage of this limited time offer to purchase your very own skyscraper!”). But a truly great con man will sell you something that already belongs to you. Satan here is pulling off a masterful bait-and-switch by selling Eve the very thing she already had. Of course, that was his only option; he didn’t have anything to offer them that they didn’t already own (what do you get for the king and queen who own everything?).
But Satan’s goal was far more crafty than simply wrecking Adam and Eve’s nascent reign or enticing them to join his rebellion. He was pursuing more than just their downfall; he was after their crown. Satan’s ultimate plot—a successful plot, it should be added—was to rob humanity of its dominion. Like most good plots, however, the full extent of his scheme isn’t immediately clear from the beginning; uncovering his conspiracy requires tracing clues along the storyline of the rest of the Bible.
THE ORIGINS OF EVIL
Let’s start with the murky origins of this reptilian foe. In Genesis, we aren’t told where this adversary came from—he simply shows up, unexplained, as a lying snake. And truth be told, the Bible doesn’t paint a complete picture of the origins of evil. But we do get glimpses. In the little New Testament book of Jude, we are told that “the angels who did not stay within their own position of authority, but left their proper dwelling, he has kept in eternal chains under gloomy darkness until the judgment of the great day” (Jude 6). In the distant, primordial past a rebellion took place within the ranks of the angelic host, a rebellion born out of a desire for greater authority. These angels were cast out of heaven into hell, although apparently retained some freedom of movement on earth. What prompted this rebellion?
We’re not told explicitly, but there are clues. The book of Hebrews applies the dominion language of Psalm 8 directly to the relationship between humans and angels, with a surprising conclusion that “it was not to angels that God subjected the world to come” (Hebrews 2:5). The passage then goes on to quote Psalm 8 as evidence for this design of God, “You made him for a little while lower than the angels; you have crowned him with glory and honor, putting everything in subjection under his feet.” God’s design was that humanity, not the angelic host, would have dominion over creation. And one day, human dominion would even extend over the angels themselves (note the phrase “for a little while” in Psalm 8, as well as Paul’s bombshell in 1 Corinthians 6:3 that “we will judge angels.”). It was to be humans, not angels, who ruled the cosmos.
There’s something else important to see here in the story of humanity’s downfall. By the time Satan shows up in the garden, he’s obviously already twisted and evil. This means that sin has already sprung into existence before Adam and Eve fell. And yet even as rebellion has apparently wracked heaven, the harmony of the universe remains unbroken, reality untroubled by the demon’s disobedience. But the moment Eve’s mouth touches the fruit, everything breaks. The collateral damage of Adam and Eve’s sin was nothing less than the ruin of the entire universe. Angelic disobedience broke nothing; human disobedience broke everything. This shows us something profound: the fate of the cosmos hung not on angelic authority, but rather on human authority. Thus we see the crucial role of human dominion—far superior to the angels—in the fabric of the universe.
That is all the information that the Bible gives us, so moving beyond those facts is speculative. But let’s engage in some biblically-informed speculation anyway. To review: we’re told that God’s design was to place humans as the capstone rulers over all his creation, including over the angels, and we know that Satan and his minions became discontent with their position of authority and wanted more. Could it be that this divine hierarchy, which placed the most glorious archangel in subjection under the feet of these plodding sand sculptures, was what infuriated Satan and drove him to rebellion? He was the most exalted, most beautiful of all the angels, the crowning achievement of heaven (Ezekiel 28:12-17)… at least until God made some fleshy animals out of dirt and installed them as king and queen over him. How the thought must have galled him! These puny mud pies, made to reign over him?! He would have none of it. And so his beauty and position curdled into pride and hate. If God would not give him his rightful due, he would take it by force. He gathered sympathetic followers to his cause and launched an insurrection. And as we all know, his rebellion failed miserably.
Or did it?
The next time we see the fallen angel, he is hell-bent (literally) on wrapping Adam and Eve into his rebellion. Why? Does evil just like to burn stuff down for the heck of it? Is Satan offering the happy couple the opportunity to invest in his new startup? Is he just mad at God and trying to get back at him? Or is this assault on God’s regents actually his plan? Given that the only description he’s given in Genesis 3 is “crafty,” I suspect that Satan knew what he was doing.
We can discern Satan’s agenda by examining both the immediate and long-term consequences. The moment the man and woman’s mouth hits the fruit, the fabric of reality begins to unravel. The first thing to break is the comfortable freedom they have within their hearts, the contented joy of innocence. Shame wells up in their minds with slowly dawning horror, and in a moment the free and glorious nakedness of innocence is replaced by dark and terrible exposure.
Then the eyes of both were opened, and they knew that they were naked. And they sewed fig leaves together and made themselves loincloths. (3:7)
Adam and Eve feverishly try to cover up the evidence and mask their guilt, but the damage is already done and is spreading through the garden and their hearts like a stain. They hear God’s voice calling them, and another new emotion grips them: fear. The next casualty of sin, after their own innocence, is their unity and fellowship with God. Where before they loved the Creator—loved his voice, loved his presence, loved to be with him—now a driving, base instinct for self-preservation takes over. Instead of running to the Creator, the king and queen run from him.
And they heard the sound of the LORD God walking in the garden in the cool of the day, and the man and his wife hid themselves from the presence of the LORD God among the trees of the garden. But the LORD God called to the man and said to him, “Where are you?” And he said, “I heard the sound of you in the garden, and I was afraid, because I was naked, and I hid myself.” God said, “Who told you that you were naked? Have you eaten of the tree of which I commanded you not to eat?” (3:8-11)
In response to God’s question, the next link holding the universe together snaps: Adam, tasked with protecting and cherishing and strengthening and leading his wife, immediately throws her under the bus of divine judgment.
The man said, “The woman whom you gave me to be with me, she gave me the fruit of the tree, and I ate.” (3:12)
“The woman whom you gave to me.” The disrespect and scorn rising in Adam’s defensive voice ripped the harmony of human relationship apart—a tear that has yet to be fully mended. Every relational hurt—every destroyed marriage, every broken heart, every wrecked friendship, every betrayal—flows out of this wound. At the moment when it most mattered, when perhaps an act of selfless repentance could have reversed the spread of the poison, the king of the cosmos collapsed into self-serving cowardice.
Eve, of course, was no better. God addresses her next, and she blame-shifts just like her husband. “The serpent deceived me, and I ate,” she said. Thus was born the classic “the devil made me do it” excuse. It didn’t work then, and it doesn’t work now.
Amidst the rapidly spreading wreckage of their once-glorious kingdom, the man and woman stood exposed, ashamed, guilty… and pointing fingers, blaming one another and God, as the perfection and harmony of the garden disintegrated around them. Satan must have been smiling. It was all going according to plan.
THE CULTURAL MANDATE, CURSED
The purpose for which humanity had been created—to reign as regents of the divine, to represent the Creator, to extend blessing and life to all creation—had been shattered. A humanity no longer submitting to God could no longer remain on the throne or enjoy the presence of the Creator. And so God’s response to the man and woman’s fall was to seal and ratify the brokenness of the world with the finality of divine judgment—to strip them of their privileged position and cast them away from his presence.
To the woman he said, “I will surely multiply your pain in childbearing; in pain you shall bring forth children. Your desire shall be for your husband, and he shall rule over you.”
And to Adam he said, “Because you have listened to the voice of your wife and have eaten of the tree of which I commanded you, ‘You shall not eat of it,’ cursed is the ground because of you; in pain you shall eat of it all the days of your life; thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for you; and you shall eat the plants of the field. By the sweat of your face you shall eat bread, till you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken; for you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” (Genesis 3:16-19)
Read the words of the curse and the first thing you may think is that they only address pregnancy and farming. So, don’t have babies and don’t plant vegetables, and you’ll be fine, right? Wrong. There’s much more going on here than that. The poetry of God’s judgment (and, surprisingly, it is poetry) takes aim at the cultural mandate itself, the very meaning of human existence. The dimensions of the curse applied to Eve in the words, “I will multiply your pain in childbearing” turn the mandate “be fruitful and multiply” inside out. Fruitfulness and multiplication—whether in childbearing or through any of the other ways that the human project expands and improves—will no longer be an unmitigated joy; the task will now be carried out with pain and blood and tears, miscarriages and labor pains and relational turmoil. The curse directed at Adam and his relationship with creation means that the command to “fill the earth and subdue it” will no longer unfold in the context of a tamed, domesticated world eager to serve its human kings; now the ground itself will rebel against its deposed masters, and every inch of dominion will be eked out with the same pain and blood and tears laid on Eve. The world will no longer submit to us, and instead of bringing forth blessing, all creation will be bent on beating humanity back into the dust from whence we came.
The ramifications of the curse cannot be overstated, and extend like a poison into every facet of human life. The command to “be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it” is the beating heart of humanity, the driving passion, the instinct below every other instinct, the foundation on which all human personality and relationship and industry and creativity and culture is built. The divine judgment—the just and natural consequence for breaking fellowship with the Creator—was to inject futility into that foundation, pain into that passion, brokenness into that beating heart. Never again—at least, not until the restoration of the human project—would the cultural mandate function properly in the hearts of people. Human relationship, meant to mirror the beauty of the Creator’s own love, would now be twisted into a permanent power struggle, a wrestling and anguished echo of authority lost. Work and labor, designed to be a fountain of joy that would remake the whole world, now would refuse to be domesticated and like a rabid dog would bite the hands of its former masters with futility and frustration. The children of eternity, with hearts designed to live forever, would be stalked every day by entropy, relentlessly dragged down to the dust one wrinkle, scar, and gray hair at a time. Nothing flowing up from the wells of human nature would arrive unpolluted anymore. All ambition would be poisoned by arrogance, every joy would be pierced by pangs of longing, and industry would be choked by idolatry, with sin seeping into every motive. The curse is a death sentence executed not just once, but across every moment of human experience, a slow slaughter by ten thousand cuts.
A NEW WORLD ORDER
Adam and Eve stood guilty and condemned, deposed from their position of power as a consequence of their rebellion. But something else, something far worse, had also happened in the moment of their abdication: a new ruler ascended to the throne of the cosmos. The lying snake had successfully inverted the cultural mandate and had tricked the king and queen—who had God-given authority over him—into obeying him. And in that horrific act of obedience, the hierarchy of the universe was upset.
Romans 6:16 explains this principle, “Do you not know that if you present yourselves to anyone as obedient slaves, you are slaves of the one whom you obey, either of sin, which leads to death, or of obedience, with leads to righteousness?” As long as Adam and Eve continued presenting themselves in obedience to the Creator, everything would continue working as it was designed to. God was a gracious Master; authority and blessing would flow from him to the king and queen, who would then wield that authority and blessing for the good of all creation. But now Adam and Eve had turned to a new, cruel master, a despot who had no interest in maintaining humanity’s hold on the throne. It was their throne, after all, that he was after in the first place. And the moment that the man and woman turned in obedience to the serpent, they surrendered their dominion to the one they obeyed. The serpent now had their crown. The usurper had stolen their throne.
This is why the New Testament describes this demonic dictator in royal, almost god-like terms—“the ruler of this world,” “the prince of the power of the air,” “the god of this world”—and his minions with militaristic, kingdom titles: “the rulers, the authorities, the cosmic powers over this present darkness, the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places,” “the rulers and authorities,” “the domain of darkness.” How did that garden snake become so powerful? Those titles and descriptions—ruler, prince, authority, even “god” with a lowercase g—are humanity’s stolen heritage, our birthright (even “gods,” properly understood, is a title that belongs to us; see John 10:34). All of Satan’s authority, his reign of terror, and the foundation of his empire are built on the confiscated rights of his human subjects. We are slaves in a kingdom that once was ours.
This slavery extends from the stars to our souls. Throughout the Bible, we see the forces of creation, designed to submit to humanity, wielded by the demonic despot against resistance to his rule (see, for example, Job chapter 1). Human nature, meant to flourish in obedience to God, now finds itself stripped of the power to successfully war against temptation. Our hearts are now engaged in collaboration with the enemy. Pastor and poet John Newton, feeling this slavery in his bones, wrote to a friend, “My soul is like a besieged city: a legion of enemies without the gates, and a nest of restless traitors within, that hold a correspondence with them without, so that I am deceived and counteracted continually.” We are slaves from our desires up, conforming to Satan’s world systems and, apart from redeeming grace, not even wanting to be liberated. In the service of darkness, we are like addicts, slowly killing ourselves and yet unwilling to live free.
Turn on the news, and it does not look like the world is full of royalty. We do not look like or act like God’s regal image bearers. Instead, you’ll hear story after story illustrating how we steal and kill and destroy just like our new master. The fall, curse, and subsequent millennia of slavery have certainly shaped our hearts and world to look very different from the glorious original design of God. But even though the trauma of this present slavery might suggest the opposite, the very fact that the world is an open wound of human misery is proof that we were made for more. The philosopher Blaise Pascal wrote, “Who is unhappy at not being a king, except a deposed king? All these miseries prove man’s greatness. They are the miseries of a great lord, of a deposed king.”
A HUMAN FOOT
Genesis 3 is the serpent’s triumph, the successful insurrection that dethroned God’s regents. The deposed king and queen were weeping, God’s judgment was rumbling, all creation was breaking, and Satan was laughing. He had won.
But right at the moment of his greatest victory, amidst the devastating judgment against his shattered image-bearers, God turned to the snake with a word of judgment, a judgment in the form of a promise. Mankind might now be under the foot of their new demonic overlord, but that subjugation would not be permanent. From the ashes of a ruined humanity a ruler would one day come, a restored king who would reverse the insurrection and crush the usurper’s reptilian skull:
I will put enmity between you and the woman, between your offspring and hers; he will crush your head, and you will strike his heel. (Genesis 3:15)
Look closely at this promise in Genesis 3:15, and you’ll see nearly the entire gospel story. Deliverance will be coming, God informs Satan. But this won’t just be Heaven riding to the rescue. No, restoring humanity’s dominion would require a human Savior. The overthrow of evil must come from within the human race in order for the harmony of the cosmos to be restored; there must be a human king to assume the throne. And so, in a twist of divine irony that must have enraged the serpent, it was announced that the Savior would be an offspring of the woman. The very woman Satan had tricked would be the vessel through which his downfall would come.
And there’s more: this human Savior would be victorious. From the very first moments of the fall, the immutable promise of God stated that humanity’s demise would be temporary. The Savior would win; he would do what Adam should have done. He would stomp the lying serpent’s head, delivering a death blow to evil.
And yet, this human victory would come with a great cost—suffering. The human foot that would crush the snake would itself be bitten: “he will crush your head, and you will strike his heel.” The act of stomping Satan would require being pierced by the serpent’s poison. The human Savior would win, but his victory would come at a high price.
A suffering, victorious, human Savior, promised at the very moment of humanity’s downfall. It’s as if God was saying, “You think you’ve beaten them, Satan? You think you’ve stolen their crown? You haven’t won. Your temporary victory will be your permanent downfall; your reign of terror will be undone by a human. It’s going to be a human foot that curb-stomps your face. Let that keep you up at night, you cowering reptile.”
This new human King, promised amidst the wreckage of the fall, would end the reign of sin, roll back the curse, and reinstate the blessing that could only flow through creation when humanity was on the throne. The great hymn writer Isaac Watts, reflecting on the reign of this human King, envisioned the day when Satan would be finally defeated and mankind’s rule restored:
No more let sin and sorrows grow,
Nor thorns infest the ground;
He comes to make his blessings flow
Far as the curse is found
THE CROWNLESS AGAIN SHALL BE KING
Out of Genesis 3:15 flows the drama of the Bible and the circuitous storyline of history. An offspring of the woman, one of Eve’s deposed sons, would one day ascend from the ashes of a ruined humanity and put an end to the reptile’s reign of terror. This is the moment to which all history inevitably flows, put into motion and pulled forward by the unbreakable mandate of God’s promise: the woman’s seed will rise up and overthrow mankind’s despotic overlords. A new king will ascend to and repair Adam’s broken throne. The ancient dragon will be slain, and a human being will rule the universe again.
There’s a reason that fantasy and fairy tales capture the imagination of children and adults alike; they are an echo of the one true story that all of history, and history’s Author, is telling. The demonic snake, grown to a dragon by the end of the story (Revelation 12), will meet its defeat at the hands of a renewed humanity, led by humanity’s perfect King. Evil will be destroyed; the Hero will claim the throne; the kingdom will be restored; and they will live happily ever after. Author Neil Gaiman, paraphrasing the great G.K. Chesterton, said, “Fairy tales are more than true – not because they tell us dragons exist, but because they tell us dragons can be beaten.” The story of the Bible is a “more than true” fairy tale, the story of the dragon being beaten.
J.R.R. Tolkien weaves this theme of humanity’s restoration through the pages of his masterpiece trilogy, The Lord of the Rings. The promise of Genesis 3:15 finds its own echo in the pages of his fantasy, as the final hope for deliverance rests on the return of the rightful king. In the first book of the trilogy, The Fellowship of the Ring, an ancient prophecy stirs hope in one of the darkest moments of the story:
From the ashes a fire shall be woken
A light from the shadows shall spring;
Renewed shall be the blade that was broken,
The crownless again shall be king.
It’s hard to see and believe the end of the story when Genesis 3, the second darkest day in history—and most days since then—is filled with such darkness, but even amidst curse and fall and judgment a glimmer of light shines: dethroned humanity will rise from the ashes, the curse will be reversed, and the crownless shall again be king.