Metaphysical Rebellion from Cain to Camus
Perhaps more than any other twentieth-century thinker, Albert Camus submitted a daunting challenge to the position of humanity in the cosmos. His concept of “absurdism” explored “the desperate encounter between human inquiry and the silence of the universe”  and the human desire for something that the universe will not deliver—he refers to this situation as the absurd. The uncaring world greets us with no more than suffering and death, according to Camus, and if a God exists, He consorts with the universe to the detriment of man. Those who resist the “mass death sentence” of the human condition can only shake their fists at God “as the father of death” in the knowledge that if He exists, we cannot but hold Him accountable. Because death is the only way out of the human condition, resistance means the use of lethal force—a step Camus was unwilling to endorse. Instead, Camus proposed mere acceptance of human fate.
Camus believed that Christianity revolutionized Western thought in its response to metaphysical rebellion. For metaphysical rebels, the principal innovation of Christian faith was the introduction of a personal God. Man could not expect Classical deities or forces of nature to care about his sufferings, but “a personal god can be asked by the rebel for a personal accounting.” Camus identifies Cain, the oldest son of Adam and Eve, as the first rebel against a personal God—Cain killed his brother Abel in an act of resistance to “a God of hate… a divinity who prefers, without any convincing motive, Abel’s sacrifice to Cain’s.” The Christian God recognized the need to answer the Cains of the world, and did so through Christ. Camus argues that the death of Christ sent rebels the message that everything, including God, must suffer and die, thereby turning the Old-Testament “God of hate” into the New-Testament “God of love” and absolving Him of all responsibility for the human condition. Christ’s sacrifice universalized death, extending it even to God, and virtually silenced rebels for centuries, until Nietzsche and Dostoevsky began to rebel against the idea of a loving God.
If Camus is right, then God is a capricious narcissist, Cain is the hero of a lost cause, and Christ changes nothing. Christianity must answer with an alternate narrative. Camus accurately identifies the violent personal God and the suffering Christ as key to the story of man in the silent universe, but he mischaracterizes Cain and thereby misunderstands all three. Close exploration of the story of Cain and Abel in Genesis 4 unlocks the relationship between God’s violence and Christ’s suffering and reveals a fatal error in how humans have thought of God, from Cain to Camus.
The fate of Cain and Abel hinges on God’s choice of Abel’s offering over Cain’s. The usual explanations for God’s behavior only demonstrate Camus’ accusation of arbitrariness. Christians generally subscribe to one of two answers. The first, and weaker, answer is that Abel’s offering required the spilling of blood, and was therefore costlier than Cain’s. In other words, while Cain spent too little on God to earn recognition, Abel spent enough on God to earn recognition, and the God to whom Christians commit their lives only shows His face to the highest bidder. Or perhaps God simply prefers shepherds over gardeners, since the former trade in blood and gore for sustenance (let us overlook that God does not give humanity meat for food until Genesis 9:3). There is truth in this answer—Abel’s sacrifice will prove more costly, though not to him—but it assumes that Cain and Abel had information about God’s preferences that the Bible does not state until much later.
The more common understanding of God’s decision is that Cain’s heart was not in the right place, while Abel’s heart was. This vague answer rings truer for a Christian, but it stops short of answering even the most basic questions, most importantly: what was the condition of Cain’s heart, or of Abel’s? This explanation advances the reader no further than the original problem of the difference between the offerings, and almost any answer (for example, that Cain was less obedient to some unwritten command about sacrifices) will revert to the weaker explanation of God’s preference. It is obvious that Cain and Abel had different cognitive approaches to the act of sacrifice, or else God allows man to sway His affections with the material goods of His own creation. The simple claim that Cain and Abel felt or thought differently reveals no more truth about God’s decision than the simple fact that God made a decision.
In either case, common explanations suggest that Cain ought to have acted better, thought better, or felt better, to achieve his salvation. He could have done, thought, or felt correctly, and he would have seen the face of God. Cain held full responsibility for his salvation or damnation, but he did something wrong. From this perspective, escape from the human condition (salvation) depends on acting in such a way as to appease God (works), which is false to a Christian and nonsense to an Absurdist. Camus could only make sense of God’s decision by calling it arbitrary.
Unfortunately for those who believe in these common explanations and for Camus, Cain did everything right. In choosing to work the ground, he did the work God assigned to Adam in Eden, and he did it well. His work to cultivate creation succeeded to the degree that he could offer the fruit of his efforts as the first sacrifice in Scripture. More importantly, he sacrificed without any discernible encouragement or instruction. Whichever way he came to the decision to sacrifice, the text suggests that he decided on his own.
Cain must have seen himself not as a rebel but as an obedient man, even as the first obedient man in history, and for good reason. Contrary to his father, he devoted his life to divinely-mandated work, and his work shaped his thoughts. His relationship to the ground, to creation, year in and year out, was law-governed and mechanical. Inputs in one season led to predictable outputs in the next. His work had reliable and positive outcomes. He came to God expecting a similar, if not identical, relationship.
“In the course of time Cain brought to the Lord an offering,” not a ritual sacrifice. Cain’s offering had a purpose. It was an input, for which he expected to see the face of God as his parents had before the Fall and restore relations between God and the human race. As with the soil, he expected a mechanistic response from God.
God did not oblige. “For Cain and his offering he had no regard. So Cain was very angry, and his face fell.” God then confronts Cain’s metaphysical error, saying, “if you do well, will you not be accepted? And if you do not do well, sin is crouching at the door. Its desire is for you, but you must rule over it.” God’s answer merits a close reading. Conventional interpretations tempt readers to answer God’s question with a “yes,” but it is obvious that Cain did well, but was not accepted. God’s question is hypothetical; it challenges Cain’s approach to his place in the universe and his assumptions about God. Cain had believed that if he worked the ground as God had requested, he would receive God’s favor as payment for his work. In fact, after Cain kills his brother and God banishes Cain from his labor, Cain replies “you have driven me today away from the ground, and from your face I shall be hidden”; even after God repudiates his approach, Cain still associates God with the ground. On the other hand, if Cain does not do well (i.e., sins), he will have to master sin on his own. The expectation that God will mechanistically answer human effort with His favor generates a lose-lose situation for Cain.
Cain’s approach did not work because the only offering that could pay for sin is human life—all of it. The price of living is the “mass death sentence”; “the wages of sin is death.” If the relationship between man and God must be the same as that between man and the universe— a mechanistic, law-governed, input-output relationship— the only input sufficient to escape the human situation is what Camus called “absolute negation”: the mass murder-suicide of the human race. Cain, as the firstborn of all mankind, legally and metaphorically represents the entire race (indeed, he accepts this representative role by making an offering in the first place). Cain must go on the altar, or else condemn himself.
Like Cain, Camus conflates God with the universe. In Camus’ system, God, if He exists, creates evil and death while silently ignoring human pleas for justice or escape. From this perspective, Christ’s association with man was only a pretense. If God sides with the universe against humanity, He leaves humans with the options of metaphysical rebellion or acceptance of the absurd. Metaphysical rebellion inevitably means violence, both against oneself and others, in order to end the predatory human-universe relationship through death. Camus opposes violent rebellion against the universe and advocates quiet acceptance, even contentment, of the human condition in order to cultivate “scorn of the gods,” “hatred of death,” and “passion for life.” Silent acceptance of the absurd is the only chance for human happiness, even though it renders life repetitive and meaningless. Genesis 4 takes readers a step further and offers a true way out.
Abel, perhaps seeing his brother’s predicament, came with a different offering. As a shepherd, his work had not trained him to think of inputs and outputs. He tended his flocks in exchange for no mechanistic, law-governed return, and hoped that God would take a similar approach to man. Thus, he “brought of the firstborn of his flock and of their fat portions,” which was the closest analogue to his brother that he could offer—Cain was the firstborn of the human “flock” and fatness in the pre-modern world meant one was blessed with plenty, as Cain had been blessed with a plenteous crop. Perhaps this substitute would answer the necessity of death and restore relations between God and creation.
In Genesis 4, the first generation born into sin came to God with two approaches to their condition. The first expected that an input short of death would fix the broken race. The second, more realistic (in acknowledging the necessity of death) and idealistic (in its faith in substitution), put no hope in man’s efforts but also showed no silent “acceptance of the desperate encounter between human inquiry and the silence of the universe.” Although choosing Cain’s approach would have cost God nothing, He chose Abel’s approach, which in the end would cost Him everything.
Cain and his efforts met “the silence of the universe” because he expected silence. He conflated God with the universe, and God surprised him by not being a black box, by not responding to inputs as Cain expected, by not being silent. God was supposed to comply silently to Cain’s inputs and thereby trade salvation for work. Camus makes the same mistake—equating God with the universe. If a creator God exists, he must exist and operate independently of creation. In this case, He is more capable than humanity of reacting against a hostile universe. God does not impose the same things on humanity that the universe or the human condition does, simply because He is not equivalent to the universe. If He were, rebellion against Him would be as justified as rebellion against death. Camus dismisses metaphysical rebellion too easily because he assumes it is futile, which it is, if humans are the only possible rebels. Only God could dethrone death, and the wonder of Christianity is its insistence that God did dethrone death. God fought the battle against the “mass death sentence” by becoming the ultimate substitute, the only sufficient input.
Which brings us to Christ. Christ did not suffer to silence those who hated Him but to save them. He died not to universalize death but to de-universalize it. Genesis 4 reveals the falsehood of the common dichotomy between “Old-Testament violent God” and “New-Testament loving God”; the violent wrath that the Father inflicts on Christ in the New Testament fulfilled the loving promise of a substitute and answered the longing of a human race trapped in the absurd.
1 Albert Camus, The Rebel: An Essay on Man in Revolt (Vintage, 2012).
5 Bruce K. Waltke and Cathi J. Fredricks, Genesis: A Commentary, Vol. 216 (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2001).
6 Genesis 4:3, ESV.
7 Genesis 4:5.
8 Genesis 4:6.
9 Genesis 4:14.
10 Romans 6:23.
11 Camus, The Rebel.
12 Albert Camus, The Myth of Sisyphus, and Other Essays (Vintage,
13 Genesis 4:4.
14 Camus, The Rebel.
Phil Jeffery (CC’17) is a history nerd from Portland, Oregon. He enjoys Panang Curry, the music of Sufjan Stevens, and spending time with a certain someone. He is also President of the Veritas Forum at Columbia and a member of Columbia Faith and Action.Abel, absurdism, Albert Camus, Cain, death, Dostoevsky, metaphysics, murder, Nietzsche