Did God forgive Adam and Eve for eating the forbidden fruit?

Q. I noticed in the Genesis account of the Fall that God didn’t clothe Adam and Eve with animal skins until they said, “I did eat the fruit.” This reminded me of what John wrote in his first letter: “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” Can we conclude that Adam and Eve repented, and that God forgave them?

To be honest, as least I read the account of the Fall and its aftermath, I don’t see Adam and Eve really making the kind of “confession” that John seems to be talking about. Rather, they each try to blame somebody else for what they did. God asks Adam, “Have you eaten from the tree that I commanded you not to eat from?” He replies, “The woman you put here with me—she gave me some fruit from the tree, and I ate it.” (Adam is practically blaming God for what he did!) And Eve, for her part, says, “The serpent deceived me, and I ate.” These are confessions of a sort, but they’re definitely trying to spread the blame around.

We would want to see people take much more responsibility for their own actions if they expected to be forgiven.* Nevertheless, after explaining what the consequences of their actions would be, God clothes Adam and Eve in animal skins. Many Christian interpreters note that this required the animals to be slaughtered, that is, sacrificed. They hold that this sacrifice, like others in the Old Testament, looked forward to the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross, which would have been the ultimate basis on which Adam and Eve were forgiven for their sin. But how could they be forgiven if they didn’t really repent and confess, but instead tried to blame somebody else?

I think there’s a clue in the passage. God had told them earlier, “You shall not eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die.” But they didn’t actually die on this same “day.”

Many interpreters account for this by explaining that the Hebrew phrase “in the day” can refer to a period of time beginning with a named event. For example, after Jacob returns safely to Canaan after twenty years of exile, he dedicates an altar at Bethel, where he encountered God as he was first fleeing. He wants to do this, he says, because God “answered me in the day of my distress, and was with me in the way which I went.” The “day of my distress” isn’t just the one day on which he had to flee; it’s the whole twenty years that began with that event, “the way which I went.” Similarly, for Adam and Eve, “the day that you eat of it” could mean “the period of time beginning with when you eat the fruit.” (Accordingly, some versions translate the command, “When you eat from it you will certainly die.”) Since part of Adam’s curse was that he would be expelled from the Garden of Eden and have to work himself to death just to survive, that could be the meaning.

However, there’s another possibility. God may simply have shown mercy to Adam and Eve by sparing their lives on this day. And the passage tells us that right after God announced the consequences of their disobedience without including immediate death as one of those consequences, “Adam named his wife Eve, because she would become the mother of all the living.” Previously he had named her ishshah, “wife,” and at the same time given himself a new name, ish, “husband,” when he recognized a new aspect of his own identity in relationship to her. But now, by giving her this proper name, Adam may be expressing the realization, “We’re not going to die—at least not right now—we’re going to live on! We’re even going to have many generations of descendants!”

In other words, Adam (and presumably Eve with him) was accepting God’s mercy, which ought to mean that he was also accepting the judgment that was tempered by this mercy, and thereby acknowledging his own fault. And right after this, the passage tells us, “The Lord God made garments of skin for Adam and his wife and clothed them.” This would be forgiveness—what some traditions call “assurance of pardon”—on the basis of their repentance.

Now I admit that the passage doesn’t say this explicitly, and that other interpretations are possible. Celebrating receiving mercy may not always be the same thing as accepting the judgment that may come with that mercy. This may simply be a description of Adam and Eve being spared, rather than forgiven upon repentance and confession. Still, I think that all the specific details in the passage are important and potentially significant, and so I believe we do have a basis, in the naming and the clothing, on which we could conclude that Adam and Eve did repent and were forgiven—even if their verbal “confessions” were not all that one might hope for.

A medieval illustration of Adam and Eve dressed in animal skins as they are expelled from the Garden of Eden. The Latin text at the top is a paraphrase of the statement in Genesis that the first pair left the Garden, which was then guarded by an angel with a flaming sword.

*I’m speaking here of forgiveness in the sense of reconciliation, that is, the wrongdoer admitting fault and taking responsibility, so that it’s safe to begin rebuilding and restoring the relationship. However, as I explain in this post, it’s actually possible for someone to forgive another person internally, and so be set free from anger and bitterness, even if that person doesn’t admit their fault.

Author: Christopher R Smith

The Rev. Dr. Christopher R. Smith is an an ordained minister, a writer, and a biblical scholar. He was active in parish and student ministry for twenty-five years. He was a consulting editor to the International Bible Society (now Biblica) for The Books of the Bible, an edition of the New International Version (NIV) that presents the biblical books according to their natural literary outlines, without chapters and verses. His Understanding the Books of the Bible study guide series is keyed to this format. He was also a consultant to Tyndale House for the Immerse Bible, an edition of the New Living Translation (NLT) that similarly presents the Scriptures in their natural literary forms, without chapters and verses or section headings. He has a B.A. from Harvard in English and American Literature and Language, a Master of Arts in Theological Studies from Gordon-Conwell, and a Ph.D. in the History of Christian Life and Thought, with a minor concentration in Bible, from Boston College, in the joint program with Andover Newton Theological School.

9 thoughts on “Did God forgive Adam and Eve for eating the forbidden fruit?”

  1. Excellent explanation. Someone is refusing to forgive me for some words spoken in haste…not malice. I accepted the responsibility, asked for divine forgiveness, and said I was sorry. They responded, “It’s easy to cut someone’s throat, but much harder to stop the bleeding after you’ve done it.” Before this statement, they compared me to Eve and her “bad choice” in the Garden of Eden. I am a born-again Christian, saved since I was a teenager, and I know I sin every day, but I have been taught all these years that is the reason Jesus died on the cross was to cover my sins. I know when I sin, and I ask forgiveness immediately. I definitely feel better after reading your explanation. Thank you and may our Lord’s riches blessings be upon you and yours now and forevermore.

    1. I’m glad the post was helpful to you. Interestingly, tomorrow night I’m leading my church’s Bible study on the topic of forgiveness, and one of the questions I’ve been asked to address is, “What do you do if someone won’t forgive you?” I plan to say that once you’ve recognized your sin, apologized, asked forgiveness, and done (or at least offered to do) anything necessary to make up for what you did, then you’ve done your part. “The door is open on your side.” You just need to wait for the other person to come around. You can pray for God to work in their heart, and also pray for their needs as a way of investing in the relationship to the extent that you are being allowed to at the moment. May God bring about reconciliation between you and this other person.

  2. Why was satan allowed to slither around the tree of life waiting on Eve, let alone to enter the garden at all? What was satan doing there? God knew that satan was there, and he knew that satan would deceive Eve and cause a big Magilla. Why allow satan anywhere near his most cherished creations knowing how gullible they were? God also knew how much mankind would suffer down the centuries for this arrangement. So why did He do it? God knew that they would eat the apple and pass the blame for doing it. So why the harsh treatment of banishment from Eden and painful childbirth, among other things. If my 2 year old son ate from a forbidden cookie jar that I left on the floor and I caught him doing it, I wouldn’t banish him to a foster home and visit him on weekends. And I’m mortal, without the gift of foresight.
    If God is really big on forgiveness, why didn’t he just say, My Bad, forgive Adam and Eve, restore them, restore the earth, destroy satan and start anew? He did it for Jobe.
    It sounds like God was making up creation and his relationship to the human race as he went along.
    Please explain…

    1. Thank you for your heartfelt question. It is one that other readers of this blog have also had. For example, one of them wrote, “Did God really know that Satan would rebel? Why would such a monster be allowed to live? I just don’t think He would have let Satan near His other angels, or more importantly, near His earthly creation. I love my children, and if someone threatened them in any way I would do anything in my power to stop it. Satan went after Adam, and ever since then he’s been messing with people’s chances for salvation. God’s judgement was harsh on the enemies of the Israelites. Satan was and is much more wicked. Why hasn’t he been annihilated long ago?” You can read my response to this question here. Another reader wrote, similarly, “Even as an earthly father, if I had the ability to place my daughter in a perfect environment and allow her to be spotless and live forever, why would I ever create something evil to tempt her, all the while knowing she would give in?” You can read my response to that person here. I hope the thoughts I shared are helpful to you.

    2. Yes God knew all that would happen but you have to remember that God gave humanity free will and taking the snake out of the garden because he saw it coming simply means he’s violating that free will he gave humanity, God simply gave man the chance to choose his own actions, a man reaps what he shows.

  3. The main view seems to be that the skins God clothed them with represented salvation. If they were then truly saved by the grace of God it seems very strange that God would forbid them from eating of the tree of life. We have examples in Revelation that if you overcome you will have the right to the tree of life, not that you would be forbidden from eating from it. Why would God save them and then forbid them to eat of the tree of life?

    1. I think the narrative in Genesis implies that if the man and the woman ate from the tree of life and lived forever, this would enable them to persist forever in disobedience to God if they were inclined to continue disobeying. (If the clothing of skins represents sacrifices, then those sacrifices would have brought about forgiveness but not regeneration. They looked ahead to the cross, as all Old Testament sacrifices did. Only with the coming of Jesus was there regeneration.) This is comparable to what God did at the Tower of Babel. He saw that people were united in their opposition to him, so he confused their languages so that they would not continue together in opposition. Those who are saved are able to eat from the tree of life in the New Jerusalem, not here on earth. I personally think that Adam and Eve will do that there. See this post: “Was Adam saved?” https://goodquestionblog.com/2016/10/05/was-adam-saved/

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