In the marvelous land of story, nothing is more important than the inciting incident. The inciting incident is the essential point that evokes plot, the cause of ensuing chaos, and the key factor to understanding a story’s meaning. The interpretation of a story’s inciting incident therefore, deeply contours and colors how a person reads a story. Furthermore, a person’s understanding of the inciting incident influences what a person makes of a story. If, near a story’s end, the climax resolves the inciting incident, the story is a comedy. However, if the climax of the story fails to resolve the inciting incident, the story is a tragedy.
Importance of a Story’s Inciting Incident
As an example of how important discerning a story’s inciting incident is, consider Peter Pan. The inciting incident is that Wendy, Jonathan, and Michael, struggle with growing up. And so, they fly off to Neverland where pirates and children are chased by time. Through plot filled with hilarity, play, romantic interest, and sword fighting, Wendy, Jonathan, and Michael make the difficult decision to return home in order to surrender to the very difficult but very normal task of maturing. For certainly, they have grown to understand that surrendering to time is a better choice than running from it and becoming perpetually ludicrous pirates or infantile children. This interpretation of the inciting incident makes continual sense of the plot throughout the story, which results in a comedy. I.e.: It is better to surrender to time than it is to run from time.
Consider a different interpretation of the inciting incident. Wendy desires to win Peter Pan’s heart, and so, joined by her devoted brothers, they follow Pan to Neverland where they come to realize that Captain Hook, lost children, and every other swimming, dancing, and flying character are also in love with him. Over time, Wendy realizes that she will never completely win Pan’s heart and so she, along with her brothers, return home to live out their lives. This interpretation of the inciting incident results in a tragedy. I.e.: Pursuing love, even to a far-off world, promises a world of disappointment and sorrow.
Now, this latter interpretation is obviously wrong. A romantic interest exists between Wendy and Pan. And yet, such a reading begins to make less sense as the story unfolds. Hook is not in love with Pan; he wants to kill him. The lost boys clearly love Pan, but not in a romantic kind of way. They appear to love Pan like Jonathan and Michael love Wendy. Furthermore, although Wendy, Jonathan, and Michael are somewhat melancholy about returning home, they are resolute that it is both good and right.
If these interpretive clues are thoughtfully noticed then an incorrect inciting incident needs to be re-examined. Otherwise, the story’s plot will be regularly perplexing and ultimately fail to make sense as a whole. Perhaps worse, is a person who is unwilling to thoughtfully notice a story’s incoherence in light of the perceived inciting incident and who soldiers on despite ongoing dissonance.
Re-examining the Bible’s Inciting Incident
I believe this Peter Pan example is important. Many of us have misinterpreted the Bible’s inciting incident, which has resulted in a misunderstanding of its plot, chaos, and overall meaning. Yet, despite the incoherence that this misunderstanding causes a person who reads the Bible, many of us were taught to put our heads down, believe it with all of our hearts, and by all means necessary, don’t ask questions–soldier on! This reflection intends the opposite response. It purposes to provide an ancient understanding of the Bible’s inciting incident, which results in a wonderfully coherent reading of the story, from beginning to end. I begin by debunking a misreading of the Bible’s inciting incident called “original sin” and then proceed to offer a more ancient interpretation that I’ll refer to as “wisdom grasping.”
Central to misreading the Bible’s inciting incident is a theory called “original sin.” Original sin is perceived to occur in Genesis chapter 3, which tells the story of Adam and Eve disobeying God by eating fruit from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. As a result, God curses Adam and Eve and sends them outside of the garden–east of Eden. Based on this inciting incident, the theory of original sin states that the world was abruptly and catastrophically altered and human beings became inherently depraved.
The term “original sin” was coined by Augustine (354-430CE) in the Latin, peccatum originale. According to Augustine, after eating from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, Adam and Eve, and the world along with them, fell into utter depravity (City of God, 13.3). Furthermore, according to Augustine, this “fallenness” or “guilty nature” is transmitted through sexual union to Adam and Eve’s offspring (City of God, 13.14).
Original Sin Complications
Besides the incredible amount of pain and violence that this theory has caused by telling human beings that they are intrinsically depraved, utterly despicable, and born in wrath, at least three other glaring problems exist as a result of misinterpreting the Bible’s inciting incident. First, the theory of original sin is in conflict with much of the Bible, biology, evolution, theology, genre classification, and contemporary translation work. Second, original sin creates an interpretive lens for the Bible’s plot that is perplexing and ultimately fails to make sense of the overall story. Finally, those who hold to original sin often fail to appreciate more ancient and coherent readings of the Bible that derive from a different interpretation of the inciting incident.
A Bible Problem
The words “original sin” are not in the Bible. Let’s start with that. And then, consider this: Judaism does not have a concept of original sin. In fact, following Genesis 3, Adam and Eve are rarely mentioned in the Hebrew scriptures. Isn’t that interesting? Much of western Christianity is grounded in a theory that is based on Adam and Eve who, outside of Genesis 3, receive almost no attention when they supposedly, according to the theory of original sin, physiologically changed the universe and depraved the souls of every human being. Besides being absent from the Hebrew Scriptures, Jesus does not mention original sin (that seems important to notice) nor do the remaining New Testament books in the Bible.
A Biology Problem
As previously mentioned, according to Augustine, after eating fruit from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, Adam and Eve fell into utter depravity. Furthermore, according to Augustine, this “fallenness” or “guilty nature” is transmitted through sexual union to Adam and Eve’s offspring. Based on this theory, some thoughtful questions have been asked such as, can a guilty nature really be passed on through sexual union? That is to say, does this make sense in light of what we know today about DNA and the creation of a child? Do semen and an egg carry the weight of spiritual guilt? In my mind, the obvious answer to these three questions is no. Augustine was fashioning theology based on archaic and erroneous biological insights.
An Evolution Problem
Continuing with science, many scholars do not think that there was an actual Adam and Eve. But for a moment, let’s say that they existed. Were Adam and Eve the progenitors of every human being? And if not, what about the humans who didn’t come from Adam and Eve? Did their sexual union pass on spiritual guilt? And if so, how, since these other human beings weren’t in the hereditary line of Adam and Eve? And speaking of evolution, was there ever a world without death? And if so, does this mean that carnivorous animals didn’t kill other animals prior to the world “falling” because it appears that there have been carnivorous animals in the world from the earliest stages of creatures in evolution.
A Theology Problem
The theory of original sin raises questions about Jesus’ nature. In order to support a theory of original sin theologians have argued, according to Augustine’s theory, that Jesus was pure because his father is God, not Joseph. However, the theology of incarnation tells us that Jesus was fully God and human. And so, was Jesus fully human without the depraved nature, which makes Jesus less like all of us and more like Adam and Eve before they ate the fruit? Or, is Jesus like all of us, fully depraved? Neither option fits well within the theology of incarnation.
A Genre Classification Problem
The theory of original sin is a genre classification problem. Is the story of Genesis 1-3 literal and scientifically accurate or is it a creation narrative that speaks literarily? If Genesis 1-3 is literal then cosmology becomes problematic. For example, there is no firmament in the sky (Gen. 1:6-7), there could be no day and night on Day One of creation (Gen. 1:3-5) if the sun, moon, and stars were not created until Day Four (Gen. 1:14-19), and clearly, the world was not created in seven literal days. Also, if we’re reading the text honestly, snakes do not talk and trees do not contain fruit that when eaten alter the state every created thing.
For reasons like these, most scholars today read Genesis 1-3 as “functional origins.” Functional origin stories focus on order and function rather than literal materiality. And so, the creation and fall stories are not literally explaining what happened in the earliest days of our world; they are literarily explaining meaning. I.e.: Ultimate Reality is generative, creative, and personal; Ultimate Reality invites human kind into creative work, etc.
A Translation Problem
Lastly, the theory of original sin is a translation problem. Augustine was working from a latin translation of Romans 5:12, which led him to believe that all sinned “in Adam” (John H. Walton, The Lost World of Adam and Eve, Proposition 17). However, the Greek text reads “because all have sinned” indicating that we all sin in the way of Adam rather than indicating that we all sinned in Adam (Walton; Douglas J. Moo, The Epistle to Romans, 314-350; James D.G. Dunn, Word Biblical Commentary, 271-274). This distinction is significant. In the former reading, we are all, because of original sin, depraved at conception. In the latter reading, Adam is a typology for humankind—we all, like Adam, sin. Moo explains that this latter interpretation has nothing to do with original sin. Rather, it has to do with the way in which we all sin, like Adam, and this is the meaning adopted by most commentators today (Moo, 321).
Original Sin Is A Problematic Interpretive Lens
If the theory of original sin explains the inciting incident then the climax of the story can be nothing more than transactional. That is to say, in Adam we are all depraved but in Christ we are all redeemed. Original sin as an interpretive lens simply says, “Yes, those people, patriarchs, nations, judges, and kings are bad, very bad. Our only hope is another Adam who gets it right and undoes what the first Adam got wrong.”
Unfortunately, for many people this is the precise meaning of the gospel, which is understood to be the resolution to the inciting incident. But is this good news? One guy got it terribly wrong; another guy, albeit divine, got it right. And so, everyone living between Adam and Jesus were depraved, wretched, and without hope while our responsibility today is to simply trust in Jesus who somehow enters into our depraved souls and makes us clean. This doesn’t feel like good news.
Furthermore, reading the Bible through the lens of original sin makes little sense of Genesis 4 through the end of each gospel when Jesus is crucified, buried, and resurrected. What is the purpose of the stories, poems, prayers, and prophetic messages spanning Genesis to Jesus’ crucifixion? What about Abraham, exodus out of Egypt, wandering in the wilderness, life in the promised land, messages from prophets, exile in Babylon, and the majority of Jesus’ life before his death? Is the story of the Bible just one long narrative awaiting the anti-Adam? And does the gospel proclaim nothing more than Jesus’ sacrificial death reverses Adam’s curse? And finally, if this is the gospel then I’d like to ask, why is the human-Adam able to catastrophically deprave all of humankind and the creation while the divine-Jesus is only able to “save” humans who “believe” and the “fallen” creation continues on unaltered? In my mind, this is not only a misreading of the Bible, but at its best this misreading culminates in a tragedy because Jesus does not resolve everything that supposedly went instantaneously wrong due to Adam.
An Ancient Interpretation of Genesis 3
If you’re still with me, well done and thank you! Now I’d like to provide a more biblical and ancient way of reading the fall of Adam and Eve, in Genesis 3. Prior to the notion of original sin was the notion that humans are tasked with growing up from infancy to adulthood. About this process of growth, Irenaeus (130-202CE) explains:
But created things must be inferior to Him who created them, from the very fact of their later origin; for it was not possible for things recently created to have been uncreated. But inasmuch as they are not uncreated, for this very reason do they come short of the perfect. Because, as these things are of later date, so are they infantile; so are they unaccustomed to, and unexercised in, perfect discipline. For as it certainly is in the power of a mother to give strong food to her infant, as the child is not yet able to receive more substantial nourishment; so also it was possible for God Himself to have made man perfect from the first, but man could not receive this, being as yet an infant (Ante-Nicene Fathers, Irenaeus Against Heresies, 4.38.1).
Because it is physiologically impossible for humans to immediately grow up we must surrender to a life-long process of maturation. It is this very process that God invited Adam and Eve into, from the beginning. However, as Genesis 3 explains, they attempted perfect knowledge or what I call “wisdom grasping” by eating the fruit. Theophilus of Antioch (approximately 169CE) writes:
For there was nothing else in the fruit than only knowledge; but knowledge is good when one uses it discreetly. But Adam being yet an infant in age, was on this account as yet unable to receive knowledge worthily. For now, also, when a child is born it is not at once able to eat bread, but is nourished first with milk, and then, with the increment of years, it advances to solid food…. Besides, it is unseemly that children in infancy be wise beyond their years; for as in stature one increases in an orderly progress, so also in wisdom (Ante-Nicene Fathers, Theophilus to Autolycus, 2.25).
Based on this perspective–which very much aligns with Eastern Orthodoxy’s interpretation of Genesis 1-3–the invitation to every person is to grow up into the wisdom and knowledge of God. However, when Adam and Eve attempted to gain perfect knowledge without going on the very human journey of life, they came to know shame, guilt, and the experience of distance from the Divine who invites us each to, over time, grow up into the wholeness and goodness of God.
This interpretation of the Bible’s inciting incident changes many things. I’ll highlight two really important changes. First, Adam and Eve did not cataclysmically alter humankind and the creation; they are simply an example of humankind’s wisdom grasping to become like God without living life. This is good news. You are not inherently depraved. You are wonderfully glorious and full of potential. And yet, we humans have a proclivity to be perfect now, always now. But this merely leads to shame and guilt because we are not perfect. And so, like Adam and Eve, we hide in trees and cover ourselves with leaves. Let us be patient with ourselves and with each other. Wholeness and goodness take a lifetime to grow up into, which is the Divine invitation to every person.
Second, this interpretation of the Bible’s inciting incident helps to make sense of the story as a whole. The Bible’s stories, poems, prayers, and prophetic messages spanning Genesis to Jesus’ crucifixion bear witness to humankind’s slow march toward mature life in God, which is love. Jesus’ life then becomes a revealing of what mature life in God–perfect love–looks like. And finally, as opposed to wondering why Jesus’ death and resurrection didn’t immediately reverse the effects of original sin, we can interpret Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection as the anti-Adam narrative that demonstrates a loving way of being that ultimately, over time, results not only in our own wholeness but in this world’s wholeness, which is what we see at the end of the story:
Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, bright as crystal, flowing from throne of God and of the Lamb through the middle of the street of the city. On the ether side of the river is the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit, producing its fruit each month; and the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations. Nothing accursed will be found there any more. But the throne of God and of the Lamb will be in it, and his servants will worship him; they will see his face, and his name will be on their foreheads. And there will be no more night; they need no light of lamp or sun, for the Lord God will be their light, and they will reign forever and ever (Revelation 22:1-5).