You are flawed. You are worthless in your current state. You're going to Hell for all of your actions. You have deliberately chosen to act wrongly: you deserve to die. You are disgusting and have no value to anyone. God hates what you've done to him. God hates your disobedience. God's wrath is coming upon sin, and guess what? You're a sinner.
Lucky for you, God loves you, despite the fact that you're a mangled, despicable wretch. He made a way for your cowardly, arrogant heart to be saved from the total desolation that is coming on everyone for their wickedness. Just admit that you're a bad person and that only Jesus can save you, and all will be forgiven. Just cry out to God and confess that you are a low-down, rotten, filthy mess of a creature who has no place in anything good, and you will be saved. C'mon, sinner, pray to Jesus. It's your only hope.
More than 300 million people suffer from depression every year, around 5% of the world's population.[i] According to NIMH, in 2015, 16.1 million adults in the U.S. (6.7% of the population) experienced a major depressive episode that year, which is described as "A period of two weeks or longer during which there is either depressed mood or loss of interest or pleasure, and at least four other symptoms that reflect a change in functioning, such as problems with sleep, eating, energy, concentration, and self-image."[ii] Other signs and symptoms of depression include:
- Persistent sad, anxious, or “empty” mood
- Feelings of hopelessness, or pessimism
- Feelings of guilt, worthlessness, or helplessness
- Loss of interest or pleasure in hobbies and activities
- Decreased energy or fatigue
- Moving or talking more slowly
- Feeling restless or having trouble sitting still
- Difficulty concentrating, remembering, or making decisions
- Difficulty sleeping, early-morning awakening, or oversleeping
- Appetite and/or weight changes
- Thoughts of death or suicide, or suicide attempts
- Aches or pains, headaches, cramps, or digestive problems without a clear physical cause and/or that do not ease even with treatment.[iii]
Let me start by saying that I am not an expert in psychology. I have many friends who are pursuing degrees in that field, whether that be a Bachelors, Masters, or Ph. D, but I have not taken much personal time to research depression or its causes. My only degree is a Bachelor of Arts in Biblical and Theological Studies, so I hope you understand that I am not claiming to know everything, or even anything, about depression.
What I do know is that many of my family and friends suffer from depression, whether they be persistent or infrequent episodes. Recently, after going to a seminar on the topic, I realized that I myself had symptoms of depression just as recently as last year. I experienced many of the things on that list above - including pessimism, hopelessness, and irritability, just to name a few - and those symptoms continued for months, albeit inconsistently. I don't think that I had "depression," but I have no doubts that I experienced at least a few minor episodes. Because of these personal experiences, as well as the destructive toll I've seen it take on those I hold dear, depression is a very important topic to me and I am compelled to do anything I can to improve the life experience of all who battle this disease. As someone who is experienced in theology, I make this proposal:
We must abandon the idea of "The Fall."
When I say this, I am not saying that we should get rid of the idea of “sin.” What I’m saying is that we must move past the theological doctrine of The Fall, which has greatly influenced not only our theology, but the way we interact with people.
In Christian theology, the Fall starts with the belief that humans were created perfect: flawless in every single way. This is known as the Original Creation, and because of its perfect state, it is considered the height of human existence. In this world, humans were in perfect harmony with God, fellow humans, and the rest of the creation. Everything was ordered perfectly according to God's will and there was not a hint of evil to be found. There could be no improvements on the creation, nor on humanity, for everything worked as it should.
Within the perfect creation, God placed a tree, and told the first human that he should not eat of it, or he would die. However, in humanity's arrogance and pride, they took and ate from the tree, deliberately and unabashedly disobeying the one thing that God told them not to do. They did this to reject God and take up a life on their own, apart from God and God’s will.
This is what is understood as The Fall. This disobedience to God, called "Original Sin," creates chaos out of perfect order. Everything that was perfect is now broken. Humanity, which was flawless, now is tainted and cracked. Sin enters the creation in this one act and defiles what was once good. From here on, every person born is personally subjected to the oppression of sin. No one is born perfect anymore; everyone is born a sinner and is alienated from God.
It is all humanity's fault.
Reading the Bible through the lens of the Fall, we see humanity as despicable and worthless rebels who deserve the worst death. Think about it: if God created humanity as perfect as it could be, and we deliberately threw it away, we deserve the worst punishment one could think of, a.k.a. eternal damnation in an unquenchable fire. To return to the first two paragraphs: those are all words which I have heard used to describe humanity, whether from the pulpit or from fellow Christians. In this model, humans are scum, and God is bringing wrath upon them for their putrid choices.
If the Bible is read this way, then we will certainly begin to see those around us in the same way. People are flawed and broken, and their only hope is turning away from themselves and turning to God. We fail to value human life, especially human experience, and seek to escape this frail body to return to a perfect existence.
It can cause us to hate ourselves because we truly believe that we are, first and foremost, sinners. I often find myself apologizing to God for being limited: for not understand his ways or trusting in his plan. I have confessed for not helping all the people I can and for not preaching the gospel to those who needed to hear it. I constantly refer to myself as "stupid" and "an idiot" because I do not understand something that I have never had the chance to learn. Every time I think of something evil or perverted, I fall on my face and pray that God would save me from myself. No matter how much I try to trust in Christ and claim him as my identity, only one identity in constantly stuck in my head: sinner.
And I'm a born-again Christian! If I am prone to self-loathing and a poor self-image, in part because of this rhetoric, how does it sound to those who do not have hope in Jesus Christ?
More importantly: how do these words sound to those struggling with depression?
Please do not mistake me: I am not claiming that the doctrine of The Fall leads to depression, nor that it necessarily makes it worse. What I'm claiming is that it certainly does not help. If someone, whether Christian or not, has been battling with pessimism, guilt, and hopelessness for weeks on end, confronting them with the fact that they are irredeemably flawed because of their sin is obviously not beneficial. Someone struggling with thoughts of suicide because they think that they have no value will not be comforted in knowing that humanity is intrinsically worthless. We do not even need to confront the person directly in order for it to negatively affect them: if we speak of humanity in this way from the pulpit, who knows the amount of lives that will be turned away because of it.
There is a better way.
What makes us Christians is not our pessimism toward human nature, but our hope in God and Jesus Christ. Too often, we try to point out our failure as people in order to elevate the glory of God; call me crazy, but I don't think that God needs to be compared to us to be perceived as glorious. Instead of trying to prove our incompetence, why don't we start with God's competence?
With that in mind, I introduce you to an alternative way of understanding Genesis 1-3. By no means is this a new way of reading it – I’m simply passing along what I have learned from many others – but by looking at this passage in a new light, we can begin to move past the doctrine of The Fall and be better witnesses for the gospel of Jesus Christ.
My first problem with the doctrine of The Fall is that it is not directly found in the Bible: it is passed down to us from the father of Western Christianity, St. Augustine. If we look at the first three chapters of Genesis, we see that nothing in the creation is ever described as "perfect" or "flawless," but only as "good" and "very good." Secondly, the only things that we know about humanity is that they are made in the "Image of God" (Gen 1:27) and that they “were naked, and they felt no shame" (Gen 2:25).
As many theologians have pointed out (Irenaeus, to name one), the fact that they are naked does not seem to indicate perfection, but innocence. They are like children who do not understand how the world works, yet are not ashamed of it. If we understand them in this way, they are nothing like the pristine, perfect humans whom Augustine spoke of, but kids who must still grow and learn. When looking at other parts of this passage, we see that this can be said of the entire creation as well. Humans were placed in the Garden of Eden to "work it and take care of it,” in other words, to help it grow (Gen 2:15). Just as God calls them to “be fruitful and increase” (Gen 1:28), God’s command to humanity is to make sure the earth experiences the same blessing. The world is a canvas, and God has given humanity the paint to use as they see fit.
Sadly, humanity does not use this paint well: they decide to eat of the tree that God told them not to. We can only make guesses as to the purpose of the tree or about what it means, but what we do know is that when they eat of it, they realize that they are naked and they feel shame; they come to an understanding of who they are and they hide because of it. If we understand them as though they are children, the fact that they eat of the tree is indeed disobedience, but out of curiosity and lack of trust, rather than out of cold-hearted rebellion. They do not trust that God is looking out for them and has their best interests in mind.
Do not be mistaken: many problems arise because of this act. When God comes looking for them, they each point fingers: the man at the woman and the woman at the serpent. They are disciplined with increased pain in "labor" and they are both kicked out of the garden, but it is not because they have disobeyed or sinned, but because they know too much and are at risk of even more danger because of it (Gen 3:22). It is clear that things are not the way they once were, but they are not broken beyond repair. They have fallen, but like any child, they get up and walk away with only scrapes and bruises.
They have acted against God, but God does not abandon them nor does he abandon humanity in the following years. What is clear from the remainder of Genesis is that God is constantly seeking a relationship with humanity, no matter how far they continue to walk away. They keep going down the wrong path, but God calls out to them the whole way. Like a parent attempting to correct the errors of a child, God disciplines and scolds, but never leaves them alone. No matter where they go, no matter how poorly they paint they earth, God persists in loving them.
This story continues, and culminates, in the birth of Jesus. Not only does God refuse to leave humanity alone, but he deliberately chooses to become a human being. The Creator becomes the creation; the incorporeal becomes the physical. God is human, and guess what? It's not a problem for God to be this way.
If we want to keep the Fall, we have issues with the Incarnation. If we truly believe that Jesus is 100% God and 100% human, then humanity is not only worth something, it is worthy of being the home of God Almighty. Humanity is not despicable and broken beyond repair, for in Jesus we see humanity in its fullest, and it is beautiful beyond words. Humanity is not perfect in the Garden: humanity is perfect in Jesus. We must stop looking back at the Garden and start looking forward to glorious return of our Lord and Savior.
It is true that all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. It is true that all of us deliberately choose to act against God on many occasions. It is true that we as humans are not fully who God created us to be. But what if our limitations are not the effect of sin, but simply part of the good creation? What if our humanity is not something to be apologetic about, but grateful for? What if our own skin is not just something we should be comfortable living in, but something that God feels comfortable living in?
If the incarnation, life, crucifixion, and resurrection of Jesus Christ proves anything, it's that God truly, fully, and wholeheartedly loves and values humanity for no other reason than the fact that we are his creation. If God himself places such a value on us, we should not only value every other human life on this planet, but we should value ourselves. We should trust ourselves. We should believe in ourselves.
You are valued.
You are loved.
You are sought-after.
You are worth it.
God says so.
This is the gospel of Jesus Christ.