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THE PROBLEM WITH ORIGINAL SIN
One of the foundational principles of modern Christianity aside from the deity of Christ, the atonement, and the resurrection, is the concept known today as "original sin." A tradition from the earliest days of the Roman church, original sin is the belief that because of Adam's fall, every human since Adam is born "into" sin which, like a genetic defect, is spread from generation to generation, ensuring that every man and women are born condemned from the moment of conception. Even before we take our first step or coo our first syllable, then, eternal separation from God is already upon us, all because of Adam's single moment of careless disobedience. And, of course, who could argue with the notion that we live in a fallen world awash in corruption and wickedness as a result of it, making the concept self-evident?
All is not as bleak as it appears, however. Fortunately, Christ's atoning death on the cross breaks the power of this curse and restores us to the Father through Christ's obedience unto death. In effect, just as through one manAdamsin entered into the world, so through another manChristthe curse of sin was taken away, effectively restoring us spiritually and bringing eternal life for those willing to embrace that forgiveness. That, in a nutshell, is the basic thrust not only of the theory of original sin, but is the essence of Christianity.
It is my opinion, however, that the entire concept of original sin is not only lacking any solid, scriptural support, but is, in fact, lacking from both a rational and moral standpoint. Before we examine this idea more closely, however, a quick history of where the idea of original sin came from may be in order, for from it we find some interesting variables at work.
Interestingly, the idea of original sin did not originate with the Bible specifically, but is a later teaching of the church. While the idea of being born of corruptible seed goes back to the earliest Bible times, it was not clearly defined and articulated as such until around the fourth century, when Saint Augustine made it an important element of his faith structure. Finding significant acceptance in the church at large, it soon became a doctrine of Roman Catholicism, resulting in the later practice of infant baptism. Later, it was reintroduced in Protestant circles some twelve centuries later by John Calvin, one of the most influential theologians of the sixteenth century, until today it has become a basic tenant of Christianity through the vehicle of "Calvinism" (although it is not universally embraced by all Christians. Arminianism, for examplethe counter to Calvinismdoes not hold to the concept of original sin though it does acknowledge its existence and destructiveness.)
Where did these gentlemen get their ideas about original sin? Most point to several passages in the Bible where writers such as King David confess to "being sinners from their birth, conceived in sin" and Paul writing of being the "chief among sinners." Augustine apparently warmed up to the idea because of his own wicked pre-conversion life, considering himself worthless from birth. In each case, though, we are dealing not with the words of God but with contrite heartsmen so aghast at their own sinfulness that they imagine they were always sinners, even from birth. It's a type of mistaken humility to imagine one has always been "bad to the bone" from the moment of their conception; it is simply a way of amplifying orif you preferexaggerating, ones sorrow for their transgressions. This idea is further exemplified by Old Testament statements that "...every inclination of his [man's] heart is evil from childhood" (Gen. 8:21 NIV) which is neither supportable nor a demonstration of original sin in that it doesn't say whether the "child's heart" was born wicked or became that way at some point. In other words, a heart may become wicked just as easily as it can be born wicked, which actually seems to be the normally observed process. As such, it is only through the most biased reading of scripture that the case for original sin can be made, and even then it is more a matter of tradition than sound exegesis.
Of course, the first problem the original sin idea presents us with is in defining, exactly, just what "sin" is. It is normally assumed to be any action that runs contrary to our moral nature or that is are in some way displeasing to God. Some build upon this by maintaining it is more than merely misdeeds, but that it runs much deeper than that to encompass certain attitudes such as selfishness, indifference, or pridefulness. Interestingly, the word actually has to do with archery and means "to miss the mark" or "target." Using this definition, then, sin becomes the tendency not to live up to our own standards or expectations, which, of course, most of us are guilty of. (This often doesn't sit well with fundamentalists, however, for it seems to imply that one might overcome sin by simply trying harder in much the same way that an archer becomes more accurate with more practice, which would seem to diminish the power of Christ's sacrificial death, but that's another discussion.)
That's all fine as far as it goes, but original sin doesn't simply maintain that we do things wrong or possess certain attitudes that displease God, but that it is inherent to our very nature. In effect, original sin maintains that we are guilty of sin before we've even taken our first step. In other words, we're sinners not because of something we've done, but simply by the mere fact of our existence.
But is this what the Bible really teaches? Are we already doomed from the moment of birth, destined to die in our sins apart from the atoning blood of Christ?
I don't believe so. We may be born with the potential to sin (and, in fact, may be almost impelled to sin), but we are not born a "sinner" because sinning is an act we do; not a condition we inherit. Further, we are born, not as an act of our own will but due to circumstances entirely beyond our control, into a particular culture at a specific point in history. Some of us, if we are born "lucky," arrive into a time and place of enlightenment, while others find themselves thrust into a world of darkness and superstition. Neither circumstance, however, is better than the other, for we are already tainted goods, so to speak, awash in sin and doomed from birth as unregenerate sinners. Whether we are born to kindly, altruistic parents who spend their lives for the betterment of others or to brutal, self-absorbed pagans makes no difference; we are still eternally condemned.
Of course, the problem with this idea is that it redefines sin from being something we do to being something we are. Obviously, no one can deny that we live in a world of corruption, pain, and hatred. If we refrained from doing half the things we do out of selfishness and greed, the world would be a much better place, so obviously the world is "broken" in some ways and desperately in need of repair. The real question in this case, however, isn't whether Christ's death at Calvary paves the way towards fixing what's wrong in our world, nor is there any argument per se with the idea that we live in a "fallen" world (however one cares to define "fallen"). The real question is whether we live in a fallen world because we must sin, and whether we have the capacity not to sin at all. While this may seem on the surface to be a minor point, it is extraordinarily important, for if we do not have the capacity to resist sin because of being born into it, how can we be held accountable for it to God? In other words, in order for us to be held accountable for our sins, we must have the capacity not to sin, otherwise, we are no more responsible for the things we do than a predator is morally liable for tracking, killing and eating its prey.
I submit that sinfulness is not inherited in the same way that one is born with blue eyes or blond hair, but that it is a natural consequence of having been born with a moral conscience. In effect, it is actually a nasty habit we fall into, much like tobacco or infidelity. No one is born addicted to tobacco nor do people enter the world with a proclivity towards promiscuity; they are habits one develops over a lifetime. And, just as various addictions can ultimately lead one down the road to destruction (in these cases, physical, emotional, or financial ruin) sin likewise leads one down the road to spiritual destruction. Also like a bad habit, the more one sins, the more comfortable they grow with it until finally, in the end, they areas Paul saida "slave to sin."
Putting aside for a moment the question of whether one should be punished by God for their transgressions as is generally assumed, the biggest problem with the notion of being a "born sinner" is considering in just which way is a child truly capable of sinning? I recall years ago hearing a Christian expositor of some renown maintain that the sin nature could be heard in the wailing of an infant, who was simply expressing its selfishand, hence, sinfulnature, but that, of course, is pure nonsense. In an infant, selfishness is not only normal, but necessary for its very survival. A newborn is aware only of itself and its needs; its cries for food and comfort are simply the means of ensuring its basic needs are met. Later, as a toddler, it may manifest selfishness in the form of fighting over possessions or attention from parents, but this too is no more a manifestation of one's sin nature than is an adult stopping a burglar from stealing their possessions. In effect, one would not normally consider a man confronting a burglar a sin anymore than we should consider a child clinging to his bear while another child tries to wrestle it from him to be a sin.
Further, for the concept of original sin to remain consistent, we must conclude that the child who dies in infancy without being baptized is eternally lost because of this genetic "defect" called sin. To overlook their sinfulness, even if it isn't fully matured and manifested, would be a slap in the face of justice, for God cannot overlook some sin while holding others accountable for theirs. As such, it is only just that the child be condemned alongside the criminal, for both have slipped out of this world without Christ. But few people really believe this. Most realize how unjust holding an innocent responsible for their sinfulness really is, and so few Christians seriously imagine an infant spends an eternity in hell (although there are those who still do, which remains the rationale behind infant baptism within Catholicism). Therefore, the infant, the very young, and the severely retarded, are no more "sinners" than a hamster is capable of being one. Their moral natures and, hence, their sin nature, is not yet realized or matured; God's grace, then, is not necessary for such as these for there is no "sin" in them in any real sense of the word. In other words, most maintain that God's grace extends to the innocents as an element of grace outside themselves as a sort of "original salvation." That is, God does not hold those incapable of distinguishing right from wrong responsible for their sins, so the child who dies in infancy (or, presumably, through the first few years of life) would be immediately ushered into the presence of God ("for such is the kingdom of God made up of such as these.")
But consider the dilemma this puts us in. First, does this presumed grace also cover children who are cognizant of sinning yet are still not old enough to truly understand the eternal ramifications of doing so and, secondly, doesn't this repudiate the idea of original sin in its entirety by its mere suggestion? Additionally, the question could be asked at what point does sin become destructive to one's salvation? After all, if everyone is born essentially forgiven, then they must by necessity lose that salvation at some ill-defined later point in life. Therefore, if we are to take this line of reason to its logical conclusion, we are not born into original sin at all but into original sinlessness-precisely the opposite of what is taught. What Christ came to save us from, then, was not "original sin", but "habitual sin"-the type that eats away at your soul over decades until it finally destroys you utterly and completely.
In the end we must conclude for the sake of logic that the two concepts are mutually incompatible and contradictory. Either a person is saved as soon as he is born, or he is not; he cannot be both, and that is the underlying weakness behind the original sin question that I suspect has no ready answer.
(Note: my views on the nature of sin and God's forgiveness has changed over the years and this piece no longer reflects my current understanding. I only include it here as a counter to fundamentalist arguments from an Evangelical perspective that some may find helpful.)
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