Once again we have found ourselves in the territory of the Fall of Man – and our inheritance. So it may be useful to examine it more closely.
First of all we ask whether it is fact and fiction. – to which the answer is ‘both’. In historical terms the story is true in the same sense through which we regard the creation of the universe. Yes, God created the world, but he did not do so through the six days described by Genesis: this is simply a story fitted to the knowledge of its original readers. So what is the most likely account of the Fall?
It is of course possible that the whole human race is descended from one couple. This is unlikely because the development of a new species normally arises through several more or less similar ancestors – but we can put that on one side. Instead we should consider what characteristics are fundamental to homo sapiens.
The first characteristic is similar to that of the lower animals. These follow their own natural law which requires them to grab whatever they need for survival, irrespective of the needs of other animals, and to breed as effectively as possible – with the result that they are able to benefit as a species through evolution. We would condemn human beings who only acted this way, but lower animals have no choice.
Human beings, however, have freewill and a sense of moral obligation. While driven at one level by their animal characteristics, they are able to recognise the good and to choose it. But, by the same token, they are able to choose the evil.
And the first instance of choosing the evil is Eve eating the forbidden fruit at the persuasion of the Serpent. So the story tells us that Man had always been fallen because at the very first temptation it succumbed. Our own tendency to choose evil comes, not from Eve, but from the fact that we belong to a species which is vulnerable to evil and has the free will to follow it.
Before we criticise the Almighty for allowing this to be so, we may think that this is the nature of freedom: we have to remember that in order for us to choose virtue we must have the freedom to choose vice. Perhaps the most extreme example is the Immaculate Conception. If Our Lady always freely turned towards the good, this would be of no merit if she did not also have the faculty of turning towards evil.
If I understand Lutheran beliefs correctly, man is fundamentally corrupt and remains so. But he may be saved by the free gift of grace resulting from Redemption. The Catholic view is summed up in St Paul’s words: “I live, now not I, Christ lives in me.” The Christian, by some process we cannot understand, takes on the person of Christ. He is no longer corrupted because of the presence of Christ within him. His vocation is to love God and to love his neighbour. This is the whole of God’s law.
But, while we are explicitly asked to be committed Christians through baptism etcetera, those who know nothing of this may still have Christ within them. That is, they believe in a moral law, and so, indirectly, believe in God. And they love their neighbour, thereby doing Christ’s work without knowing Christ’s name. On the Last Day there will be plenty of avowed atheists who will be welcomed in, and plenty of ‘religious’ people who will be left outside.