It is important to distinguish between the putative fact of human fallenness and the various theories and doctrines about what this fall consists in and how it came about. The necessity of this distinction is obvious: different philosophers and theologians and denominations who accept the Fall have different views about the exact nature of this event or state. I use 'fact' advisedly. It is unlikely that we will be able to peel back to a level of bare factuality uncontaminated by any theory or interpretation. Surely G. K. Chesterton is involved in an egregious exaggeration when he writes in effect that our fallen condition is a fact as "plain as potatoes." (See here for quotation and critique.) But while it is not a plain empirical fact that we are fallen beings, it is not a groundless speculation or bit of theological mystification either.
It is widely recognized that there is something deeply unsatisfactory about the human condition, and that this deep unsatisfactoriness is both universal across time and space and apparently unameliorable by anything we do, either individually or collectively. Indeed, the prodigious efforts made in amelioration have in notable cases made things vastly worse. (The Communists, to take but one example, murdered 100 million in their ill-starred attempt at fundamentally improving the human condition.) This sort of 'ameliorative backfire' is a feature of our fallenness as is the refusal of many to admit that we are fallen, not to mention the cacophany of conficting theories as to what our fallenness consists in. We are up to our necks in every manner of contention, crime and depravity. One would have to be quite the polyanna to deny that there is something deeply wrong with the world and the people in it, or to think that we are going to set things right by our own efforts. We know from experience that there is no good reason to believe that. The problem is not 'society' or anything external to us. The problem is us. In particular, the problem is not them as opposed to us, but us, all of us.
So that's an important first distinction. There is the fact or quasi-fact of fallenness and there are the various theories about it. If you fail to make this distinction and identify the Fall with some particular theory of it, then you may end up like the foolish biologist who thought that the Fall is refuted by evolutionary biology according to which there were no such original human animals as Adam and Eve. To refute one of the theories of the Fall is not to refute the 'fact' of the Fall.
Lev Shestov, the Russian existentialist and irrationalist, has an interesting theory which it is the purpose of this post briefly to characterize and criticize. I take as my text an address he delivered at the Academy of Religion and Philosophy in Paris, May 5, 1935.
Start with the 'fact' of deep, universal, unameliorable-by-us unsatisfactoriness. Is this unsatisfactoriness inscribed into the very structure of Being? Is it therefore necessary and unavoidable except by entry into nonbeing? Shestov thinks that for the philosophers of West and East it is so: "In being itself human thought has discovered something wrong, a defect, a sickness, a sin, and accordingly wisdom has demanded the vanquishing of that sin at its roots; in other words, a renunciation of being which, since it has a beginning, is fated inevitably to end." (p. 2) Buddha and Schopenhauer serve as good illustrations, though Shestov doesn't mention them. Shestov, of course, is one of those for whom Athens and Jerusalem are mortal enemies ever at loggerheads. And so it comes as no surprise that he opposes the revealed truth of the Book of books, the Bible, to the wisdom of the philosophers. For the philosophers, the deep wrongness of the world is rooted in its very Being and is therefore essential to it; but for the Bible the world is good, as having been created by a good God, and its deep deficiency is contingent, not necessary:
What is said in it [the Bible] directly contradicts what men have found out through their intellectual vision. Everything, as we read in the very beginning of the Book of Genesis, was made by the Creator, everything had a beginning. But this not only is not seen as a precondition of the decay, imperfection, corruption, and sinfulness of being; on the contrary, it is an assurance of all possible good in the universe. (2)
Since the source of all being, God, is all-good, to be, as such, is good. But whence then evil? The Bible-based theist cannot say that being itself harbors imperfection and evil; so where did evil come from?
Scripture gives a definite answer to this question. God planted among the other trees in the Garden of Eden the tree of life and the tree of knowledge of good and evil. And He said to the first man: "Of every tree of the garden thou mayest freely eat: but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, thou shalt not eat of it: for in the day that thou eatest thereof thou shalt surely die." But the tempter . . . said: "No, ye shall not die; your eyes shall be opened, and ye shall be as gods, knowing." Man succumbed to temptation, ate of the forbidden fruit; his eyes were opened and he became knowing. What was revealed to him? What did he find out? He learned the same thing that the Greek philosophers and Hindu sages had learned: the "it is good" uttered by God was not justified—all is not good in the created world. There must be evil and, what is more, much evil, intolerable evil, in the created world, precisely because it is created. Everything around us—the immediate data of consciousness—testifies to this with unquestionable evidence; he who looks at the world with open eyes," he who "knows," can draw no other conclusion. At the very moment when man became "knowing," sin entered the world; in other words, it entered together with "knowledge"—and after sin came evil. This is what the Bible tells us. (p. 3, emphasis added)
Whence the horrors of life, the deep-going unsatisfactoriness that the Buddha announces in the first of his Noble Truths, Sarvam dukkham? The answer from Athens and Benares is that being is defective in itself, essentially and irremediably. And it doesn't matter whether finite being is created by God or uncreated. Finite being as being is intrinsically defective. The answer from the Bible according to Shestov is that "sin and evil arise from 'knowledge,' from 'open eyes,' from 'intellectual vision,' that is, from the fruit of the forbidden tree."
This is an amazing interpretation. Shestov is claiming that the Fall of Man consists in his embracing of philosophy and its child science, his discovery and use of reason, his attempt to figure things out for himself by laying hold of law-like and thus necessary structures of the world. The Fall is the fall into knowledge. Like his mentor Kierkegaard, Shestov rails against the hyper-rationalism of Hegel who "accepts from the Bible only what can be 'justified' before rational consciousness" (p. 5). "And it never for a moment entered into Hegel's mind that in this lies the terrible, fatal Fall, that 'knowledge' does not make a man equal to God, but tears him away from God, putting him in the clutches of a dead and deadening 'truth.' (p. 6)
My first problem with this is the substitution of 'tree of knowledge' for 'tree of the knowledge of good and evil.' I don't find any justification for that substitution in the text under examination. Surely moral knowledge, if knowledge at all, is but a proper part of knowledge in general.
But it is worse than this. Shestov thinks of God as a being for whom all things are possible. This is connected with his beef with necessity and with reason as revelatory of necessity. "What handed man over to the power of Necessity?" (p. 12) He quotes Kierkegaard: "God signifies that everything is possible, and that everything is possible signifies God." But this leads straightaway to absurdities -- a fact that will of course not disturb the equanimity of an absurdist and irrationalist like Shestov.
If God is defined as the being for whom all is possible, then nothing is necessary and everything that exists is contingent, including God, all truths about God, and the moral laws. And if all things are possible, then it is possible that some things are impossible. Therefore, possibly (All things are possible & Some things are not possible), whence it follows that it is possible that some contradictions are true.
So the position Shestov is absurd, which fact will not budge him, he being an embracer of absurdities. But it does give us a reason to ignore him and his interpretation of the Fall. So I consider his theory of the Fall refuted.