“Scholar as preacher leaps into my mind,” said Helmut Thielicke’s translator in trying to describe him. John Doberstein, who translated Bonhoeffer also, notes that Thielicke combines “deep, scholarly, biblical and theological mastery with strong, vividly colorful, pictorial utterance, eschewing the worn cliché.…Thielicke’s sermons have been heard in bombed-out churches during Hitler’s regime, on contemporary radio and TV, and by overflowing crowds at his large Lutheran church in Germany. His sermons are considered by many to be among the finest ever preached. This selection is abridged from chapters nine and ten of the sermon collection entitled “How the World Began,” published by Fortress in 1961, and is used by permission.

I still have a vivid memory of one night during the war. On a height near Stuttgart there were some twenty boys from a Latin school manning an antiaircraft battery. They were anxious to have me come and give them religious instruction. But since this was prohibited and their request was not granted, they went on to a higher commanding officer and finally, by their spirit and persistence, secured his permission. So I walked out to visit them regularly and we sat down among the guns and talked about the “last things.”

But on this occasion they had called me for another reason. Their position had been hit by a low-level attack and the father of one of the boys, who happened to be visiting, was killed while his boy was manning the gun.

The boy carried his dead father away in a wheeled stretcher. The youngsters—for that’s all they were—crowded around me deeply shocked, almost like chicks around a hen. They were completely broken up and they looked to someone older for protection from a world whose dark enigma had suddenly leaped upon them for the first time. I spoke some words of comfort to them, though I myself felt utterly helpless.

But then the thing happened that accounts for my relating this incident at all. On my way home the moonlight lay upon the quiet valley, the white flowers of the trees shimmered in this soft light, and an unspeakable peace and stillness rested upon the landscape. The world was “like some quiet room, where wrapt in still soft gloom, we sleep away the daylight’s sorrow.”

I mention this, not to be romantic or to gain a sentimental effect, but rather because for me this hour was a parable of the dark threshold which, the account of the Fall says, man has crossed. Before me lay the seemingly whole and healthy world of a springtime night. But in that moment its very peace was like a stab of pain. For I knew that the peace of nature is delusive, and that I had just spoken, encompassed by a sea of blossoms, with boys whose eyes were filled with dread even though they bravely swallowed their tears.

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No, this world was not sound and whole, because man had invaded it with his murderous instruments and despoiled it of its peace. And will it not grow even worse? How long will men be able to refresh themselves by looking at the starry heavens and their majestic calm? Will man disturb even this peace with his space ships and cosmic spies?

The story we shall discuss shows us how from this one point in the world—where man stands—evil streams out like an icy breath into the world, into a world that once was sound and whole, a world over which there rang the joy of the Creator: “Behold, it was very good; behold, it is very good.”

That wonderful serenity of the first man under God that rings out in Joseph Haydn’s radiant duets between Adam and Eve is suddenly ended. Their frank and open candor is shattered. Now they have something to hide, and they hastily make themselves aprons. And when they hear the voice of God as he walks through the garden, they go into hiding like culprits caught by surprise and with palpitating hearts watch to see what will happen.

We can only stand in amazement at this age-old story, for it summarizes in exemplary fashion what we see happening all around us and especially within ourselves. Surely all of us feel as I must confess I do when I hear these words. At first, as an intellectual living in the atomic age, one is inclined to take offense at many of the mythical features of this story—for example, the idea of a serpent that can speak. But scarcely has this skepticism begun to stir than we are so compelled to listen to what the serpent says that the feeble protest of our intellect is simply thrust aside.

Do not all of us know certain scenes in our lives that recur in this story of a temptation? Is it not something like a concentrate of the whole art of temptation? How can one capture in a few pages the great profusion of shapes conveyed in this story?

So I can do nothing else but deal with it several times, in order that in this way we may slowly work our way to the arch-question of all mankind—the question that even fourteen-year-olds ask and that still pursues people in their old age: the question of how evil came into the world.

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And the first thing that strikes us is this. The drama of temptation, which now begins and puts a sudden end to the vision of a sound and healthy world, begins not with the crash of the kettle drum but rather with the sound of oboes. One might even say that it has in it hymn-like motifs.

The overture of this dialogue is thoroughly pious, and the serpent introduces himself as a completely serious and religious beast. He does not say: “I am an atheistic monster and now I am going to take your paradise, your innocence and loyalty, and turn it all upside down.” Instead he says: “Children, today we’re going to talk about religion, we’re going to discuss the ultimate things.”

Well, something like that immediately inspires confidence. After all, blackguards and rascals do not dabble in such topics. When you talk about pious things you immediately secure for yourself the alibi of serious-mindedness and sincerity.

So he begins by asking, “Did God—this God whom we all revere; even I, the serpent, honor him dearly—did our revered God say that you should not eat of any tree of the garden?”

In other words, the serpent is trying to start a discussion, something like a theological discussion about the “Word of God.” So there is not a trace of doubt—oh, no! The devil himself believes in God. He takes his stand on the fact of “God.” …

So this is the first point that we must note here: the Tempter always operates in disguise. He hides behind a mask of harmless, indeed pious benevolence. All temptations in life begin in sugared form.…

So this is the first idea that the serpent insinuates into our hearts with all the arts of suggestion. God is different from what you think. He is not at all a narrow-minded, moralistic God who is always getting in your way. Rather he is the God of life, the God of abundance. Take everything you can get, for God is handing it out to you. Act according to the laws of life, even when they are cruel, for God made life. Take advantage of the rights of the stronger, for God is always on the side that has the heaviest artillery. Keep shoving down and climbing up; that’s the way to get ahead. After all, that’s what this life God created looks like! Take away the hidden irony of that famous song of Bert Brecht’s and make it the principle of your life: “If anybody does the trampling, it’s me; and if anybody gets trampled, it’s going to be you.” C’est la vie—life is like that—and that’s probably what he who made it is like, too.

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It is quite apparent that the serpent has well-reasoned arguments. He is far too subtle to appeal only to the baser instincts. His ambition is not to persuade but to convince.

And yet we have not even touched upon the shrewdest point in this temptation. The serpent not only does not suggest to Eve that she rebel against God; he actually gives her the chance to champion God and break a lance for him, as it were, to become religiously active. The serpent actually fires Eve’s piety; he activates her belief in God.

“Did God say, ‘You shall not eat of the trees of the garden’?” So runs the question with which the serpent introduces this pious exercise.

“No,” says Eve, thus becoming God’s defender, “he did not forbid that at all. He even permitted a great deal and gave us a lot of choice. We are allowed—most generously!—to eat of all the trees in the garden. God excepted only the one tree in the midst of the garden; we’re not even supposed to touch that one.” …

Now the woman in her conversation with the serpent has mentioned the critical point on which her destiny with God will be decided. It is really only “one point,” namely, a single tree, and on that tree, only one apple. God put at man’s disposal the whole breadth of his creation: the multitude of plants and animals are at his service, the laws of nature are there to be explored and technologically utilized, and the whole cosmos is offered as his dominion. Only one single spot in all this infinite expanse must remain tabu, inviolable, and reserved to God himself, namely, this one tree. And at this one point the serpent now begins to fire away.

Thus he is actually very careful not to try to tempt Eve with an atheistic suggestion. He does not say: God is an illusion; the only things that are true are what you can see and taste and touch. He makes only one modest, almost hesitant objection to Eve: after all, this one paltry point cannot matter that much! What is this one apple compared with the peaches and melons and strawberries and apricots, to which God has no objections! If you conform to God in 999 points in a thousand and more in the area he has assigned to you, surely, Eve, this one point in a thousand isn’t going to upset your peace with God!

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But that’s the way it is; that’s the way it really is—in your life and mine. The fact is that all of us have sectors in the territory of our life which we are quite content to leave to God. But each of us also has a point which we will by no means let God approach. This point may be my ambition whereby I am determined to beat my way to success in my career at any price. It may be my sexuality to which I am determined to give rein no matter what happens and no matter what it costs. It may be a bottomless hatred toward one of my fellow men which I literally nurse and which gives me a kind of sensual pleasure which then comes between me and God and robs me of my peace. God can have everything, but not this one thing!…

Now the curious thing is that God lets me find him only when I offer to him this one, hardest thing in my life. In other words, God never comes through the door that I hold open for him, but always knocks at the one place which I have walled up with concrete, because I want it for myself alone. But if I do not let him in there, he turns away altogether.…

The first explosive charge lies in the Tempter’s effort to bring Eve to the point where she will not take God seriously. Up to this time she had taken him seriously. She knew that when we are dealing with God we are dealing with life and death, that one can die if one crosses him; then our destiny in time and eternity is at stake.

But now the serpent says to her: “Surely it is sheer nonsense to think that God would let you die and perish utterly just because you don’t take him so terribly in earnest, but rather just partly seriously. You will not die. The question of God is not that serious, my dear lady! All honor to your respect for him. I take my hat off to your display of piety, but really now, he’s not that serious about it!” …

But there is still a second explosive charge in this remark of the serpent. He says, “God has forbidden you to eat this fruit only because he knows very well that your eating it will endow you with a secret knowledge. But knowledge is power. And God is afraid of it. He wants to keep you on a short leash so you men will not get beyond his control. He is afraid that you will compete with him and that his little divine throne may totter if you discover the tremendous potential that lies in your human reason and the enormous leverage you could bring to bear if you call a general strike like Prometheus.”

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In other words, here the Tempter is engaging in a little well-poisoning. His action can be reduced to this simple formula: he is sowing doubt of God’s goodness in Eve’s heart. He is saying: God doesn’t mean well by you when he forbids you to eat of this tree. His motives are rather jealousy and malevolence.

The serpent knows very well that, if this seed of distrust falls on receptive soil, it is only a short step from doubt of God’s goodness to doubt of his existence.…

So the Tempter sowed two poisonous seeds in Eve’s heart. First, he persuaded her that one must not take God too seriously, because what he says is by no means a matter of life and death; and second, he made her distrustful of the goodness of God.

It may surprise us—but it is typical of the course of every temptation—that at this point the conversation breaks off. We do not hear that Eve immediately reacted to these insinuations by saying, “Yes, you are right, I have been taking God too seriously. I have been relying all too naïvely and simple-mindedly upon his goodness.” No, the conversation breaks off; the poison must be given time to take effect. Besides, the Tempter is never fond of a static war of position; he prefers elastic tactics and a war of movement. So now like a fencer he suddenly changes his position.

Up to this time he has been playing with ideas, entangling Eve in a religious, philosophical discussion of the severity and goodness of God. Now he turns to a completely different area of the self, namely, to the senses and sensuality. But he knows that he has made a considerable dent in Eve’s intellectual resistance by the preceding arguments and that in this state she can be completely upset by a small sensual titillation.

So he simply proceeds—as we have said, before the discussion about God is finished—to dangle the forbidden fruit before her. There it hangs in all its luscious fulness and Eve’s eyes are sucked fast to it. Her mouth begins to water. “The woman saw,” the text says, which is to say: she meditated on the fruit, she turned it over in her thoughts.

But it was not only the sensual tickling of her palate that enchanted her. It was also the secret with which this fruit was laden: the eating of it would make one wise. So the fruit exerted a sensual and an intellectual fascination.…

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Under the pressure of this twofold curiosity, the fascination of the senses and the mind, Eve reached out for the fruit. And only as she did this, as she performed this practical act of disobedience, did she actually answer the serpent’s question whether she was really going to take God so dreadfully seriously and whether she was really going to trust his goodness so utterly—answering it almost without being conscious of answering it. Now she is going to do neither of these things any more. And therefore she is quitting—not officially, not formally, and not by flinging an emotionally charged and defiant No toward heaven—like Prometheus—but through one very small gesture, through one very harmless snatch of a tidbit.

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