The Story of Adam and Christ

From Participation to Participation

Abjan van Meerten
11 min readAug 24

Throughout his writings, but especially in Romans 5–8, [1] Paul recounts a story of cosmic proportions [2], a battle between evil and good: Sin and its allies on the one hand, and God, his Messiah and Spirit on the other hand. However, this is not a dualistic worldview, as if there are two kingdoms battling over control in the cosmos. The starting point for our theologizing is the endpoint: God in Christ has defeated the powers (see points 3–4 below), and done that for all created beings, out of love.

Moreover, this victory is transtemporal, not just encompassing all of space but also all of time, and therefore God in Christ has, paradoxically, retroactively always defeated the powers. [3] Thus we can say that humans have always been — or, rather been being — created in the image of the crucified and resurrected Jesus. But this could not have happened except through the incarnation, death, and resurrection of Jesus at a specific point in time and space. In other words, Jesus has always been Lord over history, but this could only be so because he entered it and conquered it at one point. [4]

But where did this cosmic story begin? Where did the evil powers come from? How did they enslave humanity? And how did Christ effect liberation?

Looking ‘back’ from Christ, the farthest glimpse we get is Adam. Paul is obviously aware of the Genesis accounts of Adam’s creation and ‘fall’ (1 Cor 15:45 [Gen 2:7]; 2 Cor 11:3 [Gen 3]), but he never provides a clear explanation of the latter. How could someone created by God, and thus ‘perfect’ or at least ‘good’, choose evil? (one of the classic theodicy questions).

The closest Paul comes to an answer can be found in the Adamic narrative of Romans 7: “I was alive without the Torah once, but when the commandment came [i.e., ‘You shall not covet,’ v. 7] Sin came alive and I died” (v. 9). Sin then used the commandment as a “base of military operations” to “produce” sin and “kill” (v. 8, 11).

If this is really about Adam, [5] or at least about ‘Adamic’ humanity in some sense, it is a radical reconstrual of the ‘fall’ as recounted in Genesis. Not Adam but Sin is the evildoer, weaponising the divine commandment to produce countless sins; death is not a divine penalty but is worked by Sin as ‘wages’ for its slaves (cf. 6:23); and Adam/Adamic humanity is the victim, crying out for deliverance (v. 24) from a slavery it did not choose (v. 17, 20).

Excursus: Theodicy

Such an account of the ‘fall’ seems to implicate God, who was after all the creator of humanity and the giver of the commandment. However, Paul notes carefully that “there is nothing good in me, that is in my flesh” (7:18), which does not denote created human nature but a cosmic power inhering in humanity (see below). Also, Paul is quick to point out that there was nothing inherently wrong with the Torah/commandment either; it was “holy and righteous and good” (v. 12). However, it could be turned into a weapon of mass destruction by Sin, and it was, and this still seems a severe theodicy problem. Didn’t God know the Torah/commandment would be used that way? Didn’t he know its arrival would essentially ‘create’ the power of Sin (cf. v. 9) and catalyse its oppressive regime? We can only answer ‘yes’. God knew. Then why did he still allow it to happen?

The ‘Irenaean’ answer to this [6] is that, to understand the beginning, we have to look at the end, and God’s ‘end’ for creation is voluntarily obedient — that is, loving — people, in communion with himself and each other. But to reach that end, he cannot create them as such; he can only create them as potentially loving. Love is learned and cannot be implanted, as lovers are not robots. This meant that the fall was predictable, maybe even inevitable, as humans were immature in love and fell away from obedience. Thus, humanity’s relational potentiality — what is often understood to be related to ‘the image of God’ — was quickly obscured due to the ‘fall’, and only recovered through the liberation of Christ (cf. 8:4). But apparently this was the only way to God’s desired end, and God thought it worth it.

As I see it, the only way this would indeed be justifiable is if the gift of liberation is superior in quality and equal in scope to the slavery to Sin and Death (cf. here). That is, the glory must outweigh the suffering (as Paul clearly states elsewhere; see 2 Cor 4;17), and it must extend to every human (as Paul also clearly states elsewhere). If not, God is not justified in creating humans. But he is.

After Sin used the commandment to produce sin and death in Adam/Adamic humanity, Sin and Death reigned as kings over the cosmos (5:17, 21), together with their allies, the Flesh and the Law, although in other letters Paul also mentions “Satan” (Rom 16:20; 1 Cor 5:5, etc.), “the god of this world” (2 Cor 4:4), “demons” (1 Cor 10:20–21), “angels … heavenly rulers (archai) … powers” (Rom 8:38), and “elements of the cosmos” (Gal 4:3), all of which work closely together in oppressing humanity.

But what does this oppression look like ‘on the ground’?

  • Sin might be the easiest to understand: the act of sinning is the opposite of obedience to God (cf. Rom 14:23), which consists of loving others (cf. 13:8–10) — the two tables of the Law. So, the power of Sin enslaves humans to disobedient and unloving patterns of behavior. Moreover, these are often closely related to ‘impurity’ (6:19), the opposite of ‘holiness’ (6:22).
  • This ‘impurity’ pulls one away from the presence of the holy God, who is the source of life. Thus, sinning is intrinsically connected to death. [7] It is destructive, going against the fiber of our being, ‘the image of God’. Thus, the logical end of the sinful road is death or, as Paul says it, the “soldiers’ wages of Sin is death” (6:23). Thus, the power of Death can be said to represent the destruction of God’s good creation, and thus constitutes God’s ultimate enemy (cf. 1 Cor 15:26).
  • The Torah as evil power is more complicated to understand. Firstly, as we saw in Romans 7, the Torah could be used as a ‘base of operations’ of Sin, seemingly by evoking sinful desires (7:5). Moreover, if Martyn is right, [8] the Torah could oppress through the pairs of ‘Greek/Jew’ (i.e., ‘uncircumcision/circumcision’), ‘slave/free’, male/female’ (Gal 3:28) which it enforces. These probably constitute the enslaving elements of the Adamic cosmos to which Paul refers in Gal 4:3, 9 (cf. Col 2:20). However, other than this, the oppressive function of the Law, so bluntly expressed by Paul at times (see here and here), seems largely beyond reconstruction. What is clear is that it aggravated the problem of humanity as it facilitated the oppression of Sin, Death, and the Flesh.
  • The Flesh is a realm in which humans and communities live and by which they are ruled (cf. 7:5; Gal 5), while at the same time something that resides in humans (7:18), just as Sin is said to “dwell” in humans (v. 17, 20). The Flesh mainly seems to denote “sinful passions” (v. 5), which sprout forth “works of the Flesh” (see Gal 5:19–21). These are of course closely related to the body — so that the Adamic person can even refer to ‘my’ flesh (7:25) — but should not be equated with it; nor should it be understood as a corruption of human nature, but rather as a cosmic oppressive relation.
  • Finally, there is Satan, presumably the one referred to as “the god of this world”, whose primary way of oppressing humans seems to be through temptation (1 Cor 7:5), blinding minds (2 Cor 4:4), and deception (2 Cor 11:3). The oppressive methods of heavenly rulers, powers, demons, angels, etc., is, again, largely beyond reconstruction. The only thing we can say for certain is that they advance the agendas of Sin and Death.

All of this comes down to a horrendous situation for humanity: it is enslaved, oppressed, and destroyed. It is doomed. Paul seems to express this with his legal language of ‘judgment’ and ‘condemnation’ (see Rom 5:16, 18; 8:1). In context, these terms do not denote divine retribution but evil oppression. That is, the ‘judge’ who renders the ‘judgment’ and ‘condemnation’ is not God but Sin and/or Death, and thus these legal actions are not (retributively) just but oppressive and tyrannous. ‘Judgement’, then, should probably be metaphorically understood as imprisonment, and ‘condemnation’ as execution. Humanity is in prison, waiting to die. However, death itself ends the imprisonment and is therefore paradoxically liberative, something which Paul makes creative use of.

Now we have arrived at the gospel proper, so to speak. In ancient times, ‘gospel’ (euaggelion) referred to a royal message, often about a military victory of a king or the birth or ascension of a new king. In this case, it is both: Jesus defeated the ‘kings’ of this world and became king himself. That is the gospel: Jesus is Lord. [9]

But how did he get there? First, he became an Adamic human, and thus a slave (Phil 2:7) — yes, a slave of Death (Rom 6:9) and even of Sin! (6:7) — although he knew not sin (2 Cor 5:21). Christ fully participated in and thus was fully solidary with oppressed humanity. Just as humanity was under the curse of the Torah, he came under its curse and endured it for them, so that they could be redeemed by sharing in his resurrection (cf. Gal 3:13).

In more traditional terms, Christ assumed humanity and then terminated its Adamic existence at the cross. Sin was condemned (i.e., executed) in his death (8:3); Death was defeated in his resurrection. The old age came to an end; the new was inaugurated. And just as Christ took the false, distorted Adamic humanity with him to the grave, he raised it up as it was meant to be — in the image of God. Thus, humanity is deified, ‘becoming by grace what God is by nature’, and restored into loving communion.

So where are we now? People often call it the ‘already/not yet’, but most of the time this ends up shifting the emphasis to the ‘not yet’, because, when people look at the world around them, it doesn’t seem like things have changed much since Christ. Moreover, when they look to their own lives, they still struggle a lot with sin (and death, obviously). But actually, this is a form of doing natural theology — of reasoning from experience or the world to God, instead of the other way around.

Humans post-Christ are liberated, but they do not know it. ‘Fleshly eyes cannot see the kingdom of God,’ Paul might have said. Therefore, human slavery as we still seem to experience it is a lie. It is a slavery of ignorance, not of cosmic ontology. This is where the truth of the gospel comes in, piercing the veil of our minds through the Spirit — and where the Spirit is, is freedom (1 Cor 2).

However, humans are not data processors. We have been habituated into sinful dispositions (cf. Eph 2:1–3), and thus we need a community where we can grow into relationally loving dispositions. [10] This is where the church comes in, as the locus of the Spirit’s transformative work to bring about his ‘fruit’ (Gal 5:22). Together we learn to live out who we — and all humans — are.

So, although there remains a distinction between the church and the world, between ‘believers’ and ‘unbelievers’, it is not a salvific distinction. In a sense, the church is the world as it really is [11] — and one day the whole world will be the church, confessing Jesus as Lord (Phil 2:11).

Excursus: Sin and Death Post-Christ

Finally, I should note a difference between the role of Sin and Death in the post-Christ life. [12] Sin is defeated; it has no role in the Christian life, being the opposite of love and the image of God. Death, on the other hand, is redeemed (if that is not too strong a word). It — and here I include Paul’s discourse of suffering and ‘weakness’— becomes the locus of God’s life-giving power. Through it, people are shaped into the image of Christ as they learn to love faithfully as he loved them faithfully on the cross (cf. Rom 5:3–4; 8:17, 29).

Moreover, this formative process is consummated in the death at the end of everyone’s life, which therefore no longer functions as the “wages of Sin” (6:23), but as the ultimate liberation from sinful dispositions and subsequent entrance into perfect communion in the age to come. [13] A similar dynamic seems to apply to the natural world: it “has been groaning in the pains of childbirth” (8:22 NIV), but it is those very pains that are necessary to birth new life. Thus, even here death is ‘redeemed’ and receives a liberative function, although, of course, it will itself disappear in the end after it has done its job (see 1 Cor 15:26). When humanity will be glorified, the world will be glorified with it (cf. Rom 8:21), and death will be no more.


[1] As can be shown from an analysis of the contingency of Paul’s letters, Romans 5–8, together with Ephesians, presents Paul’s most ‘coherent’ thought, i.e., what we would loosely call ‘systematic’; see Douglas A. Campbell, Framing Paul: An Epistolary Biography (Eerdmans 2014), in loco. (The language of ‘contingency’ and ‘coherence’ is derived from J.C. Beker.)

[2] I use the term ‘cosmic’ roughly in the same way as Origen does, namely as referring to all rational creatures (humans, angels and demons).

[3] For the tight connection between time and space in Origen’s thought, see P. Tzamalikos, Origen: Cosmology and Ontology of Time (Brill Academic Publishers 2005).

[4] This line of thinking is roughly based on a similar (though immensely more sophisticated) argument by Jordan Daniel Wood, The Whole Mystery of Christ: Creation as Incarnation in Maximus Confessor (Notre Dame Press 2022).

[5] Campbell notes the following hints at the Genesis narrative:

  • “desire” in vv. 7 and 8;
  • “commandment” in vv. 8, 10, 13;
  • passage from life to death in vv. 8–11;
  • and “deceived” in v. 11.

In: The Deliverance of God: An Apocalyptic Rereading of Justification in Paul (Eerdmans 2013), 141.

[6] For the terminology of ‘Irenaean’ versus ‘Augustinian’ types of theodicy, see John Hick, Evil and the God of Love, repr. ed. (Palgrave Macmillan 2010; orig. 1966).

[7] See Matthew Thiessen, Jesus and the Forces of Death: The Gospels’ Portrayal of Ritual Impurity within First-Century Judaism (Baker Academic 2020).

[8] See his Galatians: A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary, AB 33A (Doubleday 1997), in loco.

[9] See my future article on faith and obedience in Romans 10, in which I also treat Paul’s gospel.

[10] Cf. John Barclay on a Christian ‘habitus’, in Paul and the Gift (Eerdmans 2015), ch. 16.3.

[11] See Douglas A. Campbell, Pauline Dogmatics: The Triumph of God’s Love (Eerdmans 2020), 411.

[12] Bart Ehrman notes this in his Introduction to the New Testament, 4th ed. (Oxford University Press 2017), 261, although I disagree with his specific argument (i.e., that Sin is completely defeated and Death not).

[13] As I see it, human experience is bound up with the body, so it does not and cannot continue after death, disembodiedly, but is ‘only’ resumed after the resurrection. However, for humans themselves, there is no interval; they are ‘immediately’ resurrected after death.



Abjan van Meerten

Thoughts on the liberating theology of Paul and the universal love of God