Sin and our ultimate demise are the two great outcomes of the Fall in Genesis, and they don’t seem very kind or fair until we start to examine them both a little closer.
The people of New Zealand have a saying: “The only good possum is a dead possum.” Some Kiwis colloquially call possums ‘squishims’ in reference to drivers’ habit of swerving to hit any possum they spot on the road, the inverse of most American’s reaction to suicidal squirrels darting in front of their cars.
The hatred is not unearned. Possums are an invasive species to New Zealand, first introduced as part of ‘fur farms.’ Naturally, they didn’t stay on the farm for long. Despite looking like an innocent South Pacific teddy bear, possums have destroyed swathes of forestland, decimated New Zealand’s famed bird population and created a wildfire of bovine tuberculosis among livestock (they’re basically the marsupial version of Typhoid Mary). For a country that depends on tourism as well as sheep and cattle farms, possums aren’t just an ecological annoyance; they’re a devastating economic problem.
Efforts to clear out the possum have seen the most success on the islands, as noted by one writer for New Zealand Geographic. “It took six years to destroy Kapiti’s 20,000 possums, but the effects have been startling. Possum removal has led to a renaissance in vegetation—especially of the highly possum-palatable plants such as fuchsia, toro and kohekohe.” He noted, “Tim Lovegrove of the Zoology Department at Auckland University has been monitoring birds on Kapiti for many years. ‘Total numbers of birds doubled between 1982 and 1986,’ reports Lovegrove. ‘Bellbird, wood pigeon, kakariki, robin, whitehead and kaka all increased dramatically…’”
The main islands, however, don’t look like they’re going to be rid of their possum problem anytime soon, and that only seems to fuel people’s frustration. “The animals have a bad reputation in Aotearoa, where they are regarded as pests,” a writer for The Guardian dryly observed, “but some say they are scapegoated for human failures.”
No one likes to pay for someone else’s mistake. Most Kiwis are furious at the decimation of their country’s natural beauty and possibly their own business’s profits, thanks to this invasive pest.
We all find it very easy to self-righteously protest when people try to lay responsibility for past individuals’ issues at our door. One of the most popular questions from both believers and nonbelievers alike is “Why do we have to suffer because of someone else’s sins? Why do we feel the effects of Adam and Eve’s sin? They chose to eat the forbidden fruit. Not me.”
The almost equally popular response — Adam was the most perfect of humanity, so we’d have no chance of succeeding where he failed — feels unsatisfactory. It’s no less true for seeming slightly threadbare. Paul makes this clear in his letters. “Therefore, just as sin came into the world through one man, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all sinned — for sin indeed was in the world before the law was given, but sin is not counted where there is no law. Yet death reigned from Adam to Moses, even over those whose sinning was not like the transgression of Adam, who was a type of the one who was to come” (Romans 5:12-14, ESV).
The Apostle includes an interesting turn of phrase here. Even though Adam’s failure was unique on some level and infected the whole world with sin and death, we have also all sinned. While we complain about being given the unwelcome gift of corruption, we choose to sin ourselves hourly. It’s like someone complaining about how cancer runs in the family as they chain-smoke cigarettes and occasionally pause their diatribe against the unfairness of it all to hack up the tar in their lungs.
All of our sins do great damage to the world around us. Even when we earnestly try to do good, our plans often seem to backfire. The phenomenon even has a name: the ‘cobra effect.’
In 1911, Britain moved India’s capital to New Delhi, but government officials were appalled to find the city infested with hooded cobras. One official had the bright idea to offer a bounty for every dead cobra turned in and to sell the snake skins for fashion accessories. Business was booming. The only problem was the snake population wasn’t decreasing. As it turned out, the locals had started breeding cobras and making great money until the British government scrapped their program. All the domesticated snakes were set free, and the situation was worse than ever. The road to hell seems to be paved in good intentions and snake-skin purses.
The cobra effect can be seen in nearly every aspect of life, as a writer for Farnam Street Media noted, “In The Gene: An Intimate History, Siddhartha Mukherjee writes that unintended consequences can be the result of scientists failing to appreciate the complexity of systems: ‘The parables of such scientific overreach are well-known: foreign animals, introduced to control pests, become pests in their own right; the raising of smokestacks, meant to alleviate urban pollution, releases particulate effluents higher in the air and exacerbates pollution; stimulating blood formation, meant to prevent heart attacks, thickens the blood and results in an increased risk of blood clots to the heart.’”
It’s almost as if all the work of our hands is… Dare we say it? Cursed.
If we’re familiar with the biblical story, we know the origin of all this. God told Adam after the very first sin, “Cursed is the ground because of you; in pain you shall eat of it all the days of your life” (Genesis 3:17). He wasn’t the only one who has both suffered and contributed to this curse. Paul called all of us the ‘sons of disobedience’, noting, “among whom we all once lived in the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind” (Ephesians 2:3).
We’re the possums in the forest, protesting, “It’s not my fault I’m here. I’m not really doing anything too bad. I’m only following my heart, my nature.” Our nature, however, has often proven to be inimical to everything good and lovely around us. This desperate condition we have must be acknowledged; otherwise, we have no particularly powerful need for God, as David Wilkerson mused in one of his newsletters. “Do you remember what your life was like before you surrendered to Christ? You were an enemy of God living in blindness, a lost soul without hope. You were ungodly, guilty; and the wrath of God was "abiding on you" (see John 3:36).
“How did you find forgiveness and acceptance before God? How did you enter into the blessed assurance you were saved, rejoicing in the love of Jesus Christ? Was it because God saw something good in you? Did you possess some inherent righteousness that attracted him to you? Did you earn his favor with obedience and kindness?
“No, absolutely not. No one is ever saved by his own works or merit.”
David goes on to explore the idea that even many believers still struggle with accepted the full view of their own corruption from sin. “There are many sincere believers today who have not yet submitted to the righteousness of Christ. They still go about trying to please God by their good deeds. They accept salvation by faith but then they want to take over from there.”
What was the root of the original sin? Humanity believed that they could be gods, self-sustaining and good apart from him. In our hubris, we continue to believe that on some level. I’ll atone for this broken relationship. I’ll discipline myself until that sin that clutches at me finally lets go. I’ll make sure to exercise my spiritual gift all the time so I get really good at using it and I can bless people with it. Where is God in this sanctimonious picture?
We’re so adverse to the idea that we might be the problem, we’ll happily find any excuse to not need God, or at least not need him so much.
On this subject of sanctification, the eminent C. S. Lewis wrote in his seminal work Mere Christianity, “If He does not support us, not one of us is safe from some gross sin. On the other hand, no possible degree of holiness or heroism which has ever been recorded of the greatest saints is beyond what He is determined to produce in every one of us in the end. The job will not be completed in this life: but He means to get us as far as possible before death.”
The hardest part of that to accept is that I’m constantly vulnerable to the worst deprivations of sin if I trapse off onto my own path. That unappealing realization only just barely trumps the second-most unsavory truth, which is that this purification process God’s undertaking will be life-long and not completed until after death. Wouldn’t be nice if we could cross over some unseen barrier and achieve perfection without the pain and uncertainty of passing beyond life?
Our sin, though, has to be exterminated by the most relentless methods possible. God will accept nothing less as he roots the sin out of us and pulls us through death, the final barrier that will ultimately set us free. Nothing can be left behind. No speck of sin may be ignored.
After all, the only good possum is a dead possum.