Skip to content

The Desire for Certainty As Original Sin

Detail from Adam and Eve (1526), Lucas Cranach (public domain)

During a Sabbath School class a while back, we were studying 2 Corinthians chapters 5 and 6. Here Paul talks about how his readers ought to treat each other, which became a springboard for talking about how we treat each other in the church, in society, in relationships, in business, in politics, etc. An observation was made that many of the problems we encounter seem to arise from a need for certainty. We humans appear to have a strong drive for certitude. The Oxford English Dictionary defines certitude as: “Subjective certainty; the state of being certain or sure of anything; assured conviction of the mind that the facts are so and so; absence of doubt or hesitation; assurance, confidence.”[1]

Then I asked the class: “Is it possible that the demand for certainty was really the original sin?” It was like a bomb exploded. The whole tenor and tone of the class changed as we explored the implications of this question. The class leader asked me to expand on the question. I answered by suggesting that we go back to the Garden of Eden—that we try exploring what it felt like for Adam and Eve when God talked to them about the garden, about their free access to everything but the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. That we put ourselves in their place in the garden. It becomes clear that we don’t have all the information. We are uncertain. Now add a character (the serpent in this case) that suggests that God is withholding knowledge from us that is essential, knowledge that will allow us to know everything—to be certain.

“But,” we might respond, “God said the fruit is toxic and will kill us.”

“If that were so, how come I am able to eat it without harm?” replies the serpent. “God is merely trying to keep certain knowledge from you.” He continues, “If you eat this fruit, then you will know everything, just like God does, and you will then be certain, like he is. He just doesn’t want you to be equal with him.”

“Knowing everything” sounds a lot like certainty, so could we say that the real temptation in the garden was the temptation of attaining certainty? Is it possible that this same issue is the one that Lucifer struggled with and lost? I think so.

I would like to make some challenging statements and then engage you readers in discussion and dialogue.

Uncertainty is built into the very structure of the universe by God.[2]

Further, this is a necessary condition to true freedom.[3]

We in this world of fallen humanity are so used to living with very limited and limiting freedom that we tend not to give much thought to the greater question of true and complete freedom. Since we are incapable of experiencing this, it hardly seems relevant to our lives. However, I would suggest that true freedom is extremely relevant to the question of the origin of sin.

If God had not allowed true freedom, then sin should never have occurred, since God could have kept Lucifer and us from having the freedom to sin. But with freedom comes uncertainty and risk.[4]

There are long drawn-out arguments about the implications of this concept, but it is not my intent to carry on those arguments here. My intent is to open the question about certainty. Lack of certainty involves risk. To what extent are we willing to risk and let go of certainty? I suggest that the less we are willing to risk, the more we demand certainty, the less Christ-like we become.[5]

On the other side of this discussion, we are told that there are some things we can know with strong assurance or certainty. So where is the balance in this? I do not want to be one-sided by not recognizing the place for some certainty. To go back to my initial reference to Heisenberg: the level of uncertainty he talks about is not what we experience in our daily lives. We live with a high degree of certainty that if you jump off a cliff you will fall to the bottom, unless you have taken some very specific precautions to ameliorate the laws of gravity. The author of Hebrews talks about our certainty in the promises of God and calls them “faith.”[6] This too is a double-edged tool, as it seems that while he is talking about certainty, he is also talking about uncertainty. We love our certainty. We even sing of it. “Blessed assurance, Jesus is mine.”[7] Is there balance to be had in this question? What is that balance?

It seems that a further point needs to be made on this. If you look at all the wars fought over religious differences, all the martyrs killed, in various ways, over religious certitude; it is hard to avoid the conclusion that religious certainty has caused a lot of evil in our world. On the other hand, we don’t want to be tossed about in our thinking by every idea that is proposed (including this one), so how do we arrive at a place where we can safely “test the spirits”, yet not be dogmatic in dealing with others. We daily live with lots of uncertainty, must we have certainty about everything we believe to maintain faith, or is there a reasonable place for uncertainty that leaves our faith strong and intact?

So here are my closing questions: What is the role of certainty and uncertainty in the Christian life? When does certainty become sin to us? When does uncertainty become sin to us?


Notes & References:

[1] As with most definitions, the part I quote is only one of several options. However, they don’t stray far from this one; they mainly expand on it. Both certainty and certitude are closely tied together and share very similar definitions. Look for yourself.

[2] Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle (HUP) is just one example. “The more precisely the position is determined, the less precisely the momentum is known” (Über den anschaulichen Inhalt der quantentheoretischen Kinematik und Mechanik). Werner Heisenberg (1927), Zeitschrift für Physik (in German) 43 (3–4): 172–198.

I fully recognize that this principle is largely limited to the quantum mechanical realm and is not only not applicable to the macroscopic world we daily live in, but is argued about vehemently even among scientists, so if you want a relatively quick read on the various arguments about the application of HUP then I would suggest you read the Wikipedia article or any good introduction to physics book for the general public. I recommend God and the New Physics, by Paul Davies, Simon & Schuster, New York, 1983. This is a good, though old, basic intro to physics, with a discussion on how modern physics affects our view of God, which I found quite useful. I make no effort to either attack or defend any of the discussions on higher physics, quantum theory, chaos cheory (another area of uncertainty in our universe). Recommended further reading: On Being Certain: Believing You Are Right Even When You’re Not, by Robert A. Burton, MD (St. Martin’s Press, 2008).

[3] I suggest two books that look at this, both with the same title. Richard Rice, The Openness of God (Review and Herald, 1980). Clark Pinnock, Richard Rice, John Sanders, William Hasker, and David Bassinger, The Openness of God: A Biblical Challenge to the Traditional Understanding of God (InterVarsity Press, 1994).

[4] I’m going to call this Dave’s corollary to Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle: You can either have freedom, or you can have certainty, but you can’t have both simultaneously.

[5] I suggest reading Ellen G. White on the topic of the extent to which God in Christ was willing to experience risk. See Desire of Ages (Pacific Press, 1898/1940): 49, and Christ’s Object Lessons (Review and Herald, 1900/1941): 194, par 4.

[6] Hebrews 11:1. I would suggest reading this in a number of different translations. There are some very interesting variants in reading. See: TEV, RSV, KJV, NEB, NIV, HCSB, NRSV, Weymouth, and Tyndale, for example.

[7] “Blessed Assurance, Jesus Is Mine!” by Fanny J. Crosby (1823-1915).


Dave Reynolds is a retiring emergency nurse who belongs to a Sabbath School class that has been going through the Bible a chapter at a time for 40+ years.

Title image: Detail from Adam and Eve (1526)Lucas Cranach (public domain).

We invite you to join our community through conversation by commenting below. We ask that you engage in courteous and respectful discourse. You can view our full commenting policy by clicking here.


Subscribe to our newsletter
Spectrum Newsletter: The latest Adventist news at your fingertips.
This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.