Were Adam and Eve Bad Parents?

An Ancient Lesson for Modern Parenting

Were Adam and Eve bad parents? It may seem like a bizarre question, but the challenge of parenting plagues many Catholics who are striving to raise their kids in the Church. Each fall, parents drop their sons and daughters off at college, pleading with God to keep them attending Mass even somewhat regularly. But when adolescents begin to drift away or reject the Faith, their parents sometimes begin asking themselves: have we failed?

Faced with such a challenge, we ought — as always — to seek guidance from divine revelation (see 2 Tim 3:16-17). From the beginning, Scripture has much to say about parenting. Genesis 1–4 presents us with narratives about Adam, Eve, and three of their children, including the infamous story of Cain and Abel. Rereading these passages with an eye to their relationships, I believe there is a lesson to be drawn for today’s parents in the lives of our first parents. This reflection can provide neither a blueprint nor a script, but it does seek to reveal an easily overlooked dimension of the creation narrative. It is the hope that this brief exegesis can provide some consolation and direction in the face of such a daunting task.

The Apple Doesn’t Fall Far From the Tree

Adam and Eve, once robed in glory, are stripped of their innocence when they fell to Satan’s trickery. They disobeyed God in the Garden and thereby brought the curse of original sin upon all of humanity. Original sin, we know, is not some personal sin we somehow commit before birth; rather, it describes a lost inheritance of grace and the disorder that leaves us in spiritually. They immediately recognize their nakedness, a bareness in both flesh and spirit. Their sons and daughters are then born with this self-same defect.

Cain and Abel inherited from their parents a nature already marred by sin, deprived of the holiness that might have been theirs by right. Yet, despite this condemnation, God remains close to them. Having walked with their parents “in the cool of the evening” (Gen 3:8), he continues to walk with their sons in their hearts. When Cain begins to resent Abel for his acceptable offering, the Lord speaks to Cain, encouraging him: “If you do well, will you not be accepted?” (Gen 4:7).

Like his parents before him, Cain rejects the Lord’s loving guidance to follow his own envious designs. Without the graces he would have otherwise received in the original state of man, was he not doomed to succumb? Isn’t it therefore the fault of the parents who left him without the proper power to do right? Was it Adam and Eve’s failure as parents which led to Cain’s demise? Certainly not (see Ezek. 18).

Adam and Eve did hand on a wounded nature, but that’s not all they passed down. Implicit in the Genesis stories is the fact that Adam and Eve not only gave birth to these sons, but they also loved them, raised them, and instructed them in the primeval faith. Adam and Eve taught their children to pray and to live the good life of faith, even if Cain chose to shirk it (see Wis 10:1–3; 1 Jn 3:2).

We can see similar signs in the life of Seth. We are told almost nothing about him but that “at that time men began to call upon the name of the Lord” (Gen 4:26). It was Seth and his family who prayed and worshipped God in righteousness, who remained faithful to God and gave rise to holy figures like Enoch, Noah, and Abraham (see also Sir 49:16). Through this chosen family God established covenants with His people in order to lead and sanctify all nations (Gen 22:18).

From what we can gather, Adam and Eve actually seem to have been rather good parents. Yes, they sinned and lost original holiness for all humanity. But then, knowing full well the weakness of human nature and even more so the abundance of God’s mercy, they raised their sons and daughters to have a relationship with the Lord God. An ancient tradition holds that, having lived out the rest of their mortal days atoning for their sin, they were the first in Sheol to greet the victorious Christ, the New Adam who had crushed the serpent’s head (Gen 3:15).1

As For Me and My House, We Will Serve the Lord (Josh 24:15)

In the end, the question isn’t so much “Were Adam and Eve bad parents?” but “What can we learn about marriage and parenting from their story?” There are three key principles in this assessment: the nature of parenthood, the dignity of human freedom, and our adoption in Christ.

First, children receive far more than just eye color from their moms and dads. The love between a husband and wife is one of the greatest witnesses to the possibility of love and mercy in the face of sin and weakness.2 The Catechism asserts, “Parents are the principal and first educators of their children,” who must hand on “the fruits of the moral, spiritual, and supernatural life” (CCC 1653). Like Adam and Eve, all parents are to be loving and faithful to one another and to accompany their children diligently and tenderly in their growth in holiness. “Spouses are therefore the permanent reminder to the Church of what happened on the Cross; they are for one another and for the children witnesses to the salvation in which the sacrament makes them sharers.”3

Parents who fear for the eternal well-being of the children worry not so much because of their own sinfulness per se, but because they discover it in their children. Perhaps it is hardest when they see their son or daughter struggle with the same faults as they did (or do) and feel at a loss to help. Despite all likeness of personality and years of intimacy within a family, each person retains the capacity to choose their own path. Human dignity is rooted in our likeness to God through the blessing of rationality and freedom, and it is by these powers that we choose to serve God or not. If God permits us to sin out of a love for us in our freedom, so, too, must all parents. In the same spirit, they must also imitate the Father by awaiting their return with expectant hope and compassion (see Lk 15:20).

Third, we confess not only that in Adam all men inherit death, but also that we regain life through the New Adam (see 1 Cor 15:22). In Jesus we are adopted as sons and daughters of the Eternal Father “from whom every family in heaven and on earth is named” (Eph 3:15). As it pains parents to see their children suffer, so too does our heavenly Father long for us to find strength and healing in Him. By creation and then by grace, He adopts us into greater intimacy and conforms us to Himself through Faith, Hope, and Charity. As our Creator, our Savior, and our Sanctifier, it is He alone who will ultimately bring us into his eternal embrace. Parents concerned for the salvation of their children must recognize His providence and our need to cooperate with His grace. Patient intercession unites us to the image of the Father who awaits each of us to respond to Him and abandon the ways of sin and sadness.

The Scriptures are replete with examples or lessons on parenthood: Abraham and Sarah, Tobit and Anna, Mary and Joseph, the parables of Jesus, and the exhortations of Paul. Tradition also extols a number of saintly parents who struggled with faithless family members, especially mothers like Saint Monica and Saint Rita. Meanwhile, Saints Louis and Zélie Martin raised five saintly nuns, including the Little Flower. The Eastern Church especially celebrates the family of Saints Macrina and Basil the Great, whose grandmother, parents, and siblings are all extolled as great models of faith and familial devotion.

Undoubtedly, these saints are constantly interceding for all families to be dwelling places of the Spirit. “The more that Christian spouses and parents grow in the awareness that their ‘domestic church’ participates in the life and mission of the universal Church, so much the more will their sons and daughters be able to be formed in a “sense of the Church” and will perceive all the beauty of dedicating their energies to the service of the Kingdom of God.”4 Where lives of unfaithfulness, lust, pride, and negligence teach children the ways of corruption, homes that are marked by prayerfulness, humility, diligence, and affection offer fertile soil for them to grow in holiness.

No matter the circumstances, the pain felt by parents as a child distances themselves from God is a real cross, and there is precious little that can be said to alleviate this suffering. As one of Sigrid Undset’s most poignant characters imagines her growing children: “Had she conceived in her womb a flock of restless fledgling hawks that simply lay in her nest, waiting impatiently for the hour when their wings were strong enough to carry them beyond the most distant blue peaks? . . . . They would take with them bloody threads from the root of her heart when they flew off, and they wouldn’t even know” (Kristin Lavransdatter, III: The Cross, 154).

Until such a time as they should return, the deep sorrow must become part of the offering and the cause for our deeper reliance upon “the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies, and the God of all consolation” (2 Cor 1:3). Parents should always strive for holiness and hope for it from their sons and daughters, but intercession and a sincere example will forever be the greatest assets in leading children to heaven. Only the Spirit may speak in the heart of hearts, calling each person to faithfulness. “This means that we need to ask God to act in their hearts, in places where we ourselves cannot reach” (Pope Francis, Amoris Laetitia, 287).

  1. This is beautifully depicted in Fra Angelico’s The Harrowing of Hell and in many icons of the Resurrection.
  2. See Alan Cooperman, “One-in-Five U.S. Adults Were Raised in Interfaith Homes,” Pew Research Center (October 26, 2016), www.pewforum.org/2016/10/26/.
  3. St. John Paul II, Familiaris Consortio, 13.
  4. St. John Paul II, Christifideles Laici, 62.
Kevin Weiss About Kevin Weiss

Kevin Weiss teaches Morality and Philosophy at Bishop Ireton High School in Alexandria, VA. He earned his BA in Philosophy from Franciscan University in Steubenville, OH and his MA in Theology from the Dominican House of Studies in Washington, DC.

Comments

  1. Avatar Sergio A. Prado Flores says:

    ROME, september the 10th

    Dear friends
 of Homiletic and Pastoral Review
    We know than Adam and Eve are the image of the first people in our world.
    They are not phisical persons but the symbol of the humanking origin explained with a letterature gender called “myth”. We must not interpret fundamentalisticly the Holy Scripture to beleave that they have existed really but we have to understand that we are image of God. We are not a simple result of blind evolution. We are spiritual incarnated beings and our destiny after this life is the eternal life with God.
    Certainly, today our sons and dougthers, “the new descendents of Adam and Eve”, are risking their future because the terrible consequences of the climatic disaster.
    They risk to be the last people of this world because we are destroying the environment and the conditions of life.
    That’s why we pray for many people of some States of your country that were devasted by Hurricane Ida. In this context of great climate crisis, I’ve read an article of Brad Plumer sent me by mail where he assets that: “The climate disasters have been relentless this summer. Hurricane Ida took down the power grid in New Orleans, where more than 300,000 households remain without electricity as of Wednesday. A few days later, Ida dumped 7 inches of rain on New York City, drowning people in their basements and paralyzing the subways. Deadly heat waves scorched the Pacific Northwest, a massive wildfire spurred residents to evacuate South Lake Tahoe and flash floods devastated Tennessee.”
On the same issue, another recent ECUMENICAL JOINT MESSAGE FOR THE PROTECTION OF CREATION has been published that urges us to convert from our consumism way of life to a new and more sustainable style of production and consuming of the necessary goods and services, and so on…https://www.vatican.va/content/francesco/en/messages/pont-messages/2021/documents/20210901-messaggio-protezionedelcreato.html
“Today, we are paying the price. The extreme weather and natural disasters of recent months reveal afresh to us with great force and at great human cost that climate change is not only a future challenge, but an immediate and urgent matter of survival. Widespread floods, fires and droughts threaten entire continents. Sea levels rise, forcing whole communities to relocate; cyclones devastate entire regions, ruining lives and livelihoods. Water has become scarce and food supplies insecure, causing conflict and displacement for millions of people. We have already seen this in places where people rely on small scale agricultural holdings. Today we see it in more industrialised countries where even sophisticated infrastructure cannot completely prevent extraordinary destruction. Tomorrow could be worse….”

    Today, taking more care of our families is a very great challenge, because the current emergency of the clmatic disaster ask us to act all of us more united and more effective:
“This is the first time that the three of us feel compelled to address together the urgency of environmental sustainability, its impact on persistent poverty, and the importance of global cooperation. Together, on behalf of our communities, we appeal to the heart and mind of every Christian, every believer and every person of good will. We pray for our leaders who will gather in Glasgow to decide the future of our planet and its people. Again, we recall Scripture: ‘choose life, so that you and your children may live’ (Dt 30:19). Choosing life means making sacrifices and exercising self-restraint. All of us—whoever and wherever we are—can play a part in changing our collective response to the unprecedented threat of climate change and environmental degradation.
Caring for God’s creation is a spiritual commission requiring a response of commitment. This is a critical moment. Our children’s future and the future of our common home depend on it.”
    God bless you and our whole world that is crying BECAUSE it needs to be more cared before other worst environment disasters will arrive…

  2. Sergio, what you have stated about Adam and Eve is not Catholic teaching. In fact, the 1950 encyclical “Humani Generis” specifically condemns the idea of polygenism. Instead all humans did indeed come from a single set of real humans which the Bible calls Adam and Eve. Other aspects of the book of Genesis have elements of myth, but only if that term is properly understood. Yet the idea of two physical people from which we all descend is a settled matter.

  3. Avatar Katherine Weber says:

    Mr. Weiss, as a Catholic mother of five older kids who are all imperfect, hilarious, and fairly different from one another, I am grateful for your article. Sincere example! Well said! It was also liberating to be reminded that I am not God, although not sure I entirely believe it.

    No kidding- the truth that keeps my sanity intact is knowing that Jesus died for their freedom; ok, freedom to choose the good, yes. That good will prove itself over time (which differs with each of them) and often through mistakes. As they enter the world one by one, I find myself trusting them to God more, thinking of my own mistakes (raising them) less, and ending many texts with “always here if you need me.” Miraculous! This grace reminds me that I am a child of God also, who continues to make mistakes and also needs His intercession. Ultimately, as heart-rending as some of their/our mistakes may be (Undset describes it well), we know that God only allows evil when He can bring a greater good from it. Period. So their mistakes are not something I have control over, because I’m not God. Most days.

    I anticipate sharing your article with many people.
    Thank you for your encouragement, rooted in truth.

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