Taking On Theology Pt. 1:Original Sin, And Why I Think Christians Have Misread Scripture.
Authors Note: Before deciding to comment on this post, please read other posts on this blog. I was going to hell (or not) before I wrote this post, and my personal opinion of a longstanding Christian doctrine is the least of my problems, assuming you have some brilliant insight into the veracity and mind of your God. This post is meant to challenge the doctrine of original sin, and if you think it falls short-the comment box gives you a place to argue your case.
From What Is Clearly Seen…..
When I was a boy, my mother used to read “Bible Stories For Children” to me at bedtime. The second story in the book was about Adam, Eve, and a talking snake. It was a watered down but engaging version of the story of “The Fall” from Genesis 3. When you are a child, you don’t worry yourself with talking snakes, or eternal curses. What I took away from it is four simple things:
- When you are given an order, even if it seems stupid and unreasonable, you may not fully understand the reason why it was commanded, or the consequences
of disregarding it.
- Peer pressure can get you in trouble.
- If a snake starts talking to you, you should really just walk it off.
- God should have made the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil bear walnuts instead of fruit, at least then it would have made it difficult to eat. Or at the very least mangoes, because they taste like crap.
As I got older, and started becoming active in church, I learned that other people had interpreted the story entirely different from myself. There were a few new lessons that I guess I was supposed to garner from Genesis 3.
- Women ruin everything. They are incorrigible. Men are the head of the household because just look what happens when you let women get their way.
- I am born evil. Adam passed his evil homunculus down to every succeeding generation, making me and my progeny forever culpable from conception for displeasing God. Way to go, Jackass!
Here’s the thing though. I read that story in my storybook and in my bible. I just was not seeing it at all. So I read it again. Still not seeing it. I asked someone else. They said “Ahh, read Romans 5 and 1 Corinthians 15, and it will all make sense.” So I ran to my bible, thinking I had finally got the key that was going to unlock this whole issue. I read Romans. Then 1Corinthians. Then Romans again. Then I thought, “really?”.
I’m looking at the text, and I’m not seeing man as having a “curse of Adam”, or being born sinful, or depraved. I think there is something instructive about the comparison between the two, or else why would Paul draw the comparison. Something is being taught here, I just want to examine what that is. Let’s go verse by verse (All passages in red are from NKJ Version):
12 Therefore, just as through one man sin entered the world, and death through sin, and thus death spread to all men, because all sinned
Sin entered the world. It was not passed down, it was a reality of being cast out of a place where there was no inevitable capacity for sin. Death came into the world as a result of “sin”, and I think this is a hint of what we are supposed to get out of the passage. I’m going to come back to this passage in a minute, because the last three words are the strongest case that can be made for original sin, but I want to put them in perspective.
13 (For until the law sin was in the world, but sin is not imputed when there is no law.
I’m going to say that this verse makes an elegant case against “Evil Infants”. I’ll let you folks discuss this.
14 Nevertheless death reigned from Adam to Moses, even over those who had not sinned according to the likeness of the transgression of Adam, who is a type of Him who was to come.
So sin could not be imbued on those who did not have the law, yet sin existed, and death, before the laws of God were passed to Moses. Also important: Adam is a
contrasting parallel to Jesus….
15 But the free gift is not like the offense. For if by the one man’s offense many died, much more the grace of God and the gift by the grace of the one Man, Jesus Christ, abounded to many.
Here is where we get into what makes them different. I’m going to argue that either “by one man’s offense many died” is a gross understatement, or that “the grace of the one Man, Jesus Christ, abounded to many” was a gross overstatement. Either that or they are not parallel. OR….sin is not automatic but the result of a choice (granted a forced one) just as grace is the result of a choice.
16 And the gift is not like that which came through the one who sinned. For the judgment which came from one offense resulted in condemnation, but the free gift which came from many offenses resulted in justification.
More differences. The offense resulted in condemnation, the free gift was the borne of a need to wash the slate clean. Check.
17 For if by the one man’s offense death reigned through the one, much more those who receive abundance of grace and of the gift of righteousness will reign in life through the One, Jesus Christ.)
So death reigned because of a transgression, and we can beat that death through the gift of Jesus. Got it.
18 Therefore, as through one man’s offense judgment came to all men, resulting in condemnation, even so through one Man’s righteous act the free gift came to all men, resulting in justification of life.
Whoa. Just as the judgement (remember, we are talking about something that was thrust upon us by a single act) came to all men, the free gift came to all men. Is “all” the same as “all” in this verse? So my question is this: Is the similarity that these acts are applied unconditionally to all people? Is the similarity that they were both available to all people? There needs to be a similarity, or else our foundational foreshadowing from v.14 means nothing, not to mention the whole analogy.
19 For as by one man’s disobedience many were made sinners, so also by one Man’s obedience many will be made righteous.
Here is that “many” being entirely different from “many” again. Is it the same many? Or is it a different kind of many? Shouldn’t it read “For as by one man’s disobedience all were made sinners, so also by one Man’s obedience some will be made righteous?
20 Moreover the law entered that the offense might abound. But where sin abounded, grace abounded much more, 21 so that as sin reigned in death, even so grace might reign through righteousness to eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.
So the law kept track of transgressions, made them “evil”….if you will. Right. Sin abounded, and grace abounded much more (because, of course the ratio of sin:grace is not 1:1), and just as (but obviously not quite the same as) sin reigned in death, grace might reign through righteousness.
I’m telling you that there are really only three little words in Romans 5 that we can use to justify Original Sin: because all sinned.(v.12)
So That We Are Without Excuse…
I want to take this opportunity to first tell you why I read that passage differently, and then go through the steps to get there. First, I approached this text with a fixed and unwavering belief that salvation through Jesus is a choice we are given, it is not forced upon us by virtue of being born after the crucifixion. So when I read that passage, I’m looking to make parallels that fit my understanding of the gift of salvation.
So when I read Romans 5, I was contrasting two similar actions; one that condemned us to sin, the other that brought us righteousness. I walked in with the assumption that if salvation is a choice, then our sin must be a choice as well. Since the passage does not claim that the difference is one of choice, and since it rhetorically implies the opposite- that these two actions are mirrored by each other- I have to read that they are the same in this important respect.
So I made my own explanation of what Paul meant in Romans 5, just as Augustine had done when he postulated Original Sin:
Adam was cast out of the Garden into a world of sin. Sin was brought into the world by his transgression, yes. It was not written on him and his seed. God cast them out of a world where sin was not necessary into a world where sin was inevitable. How was sin created? God created economics! Read Genesis 3. Pay attention to the fact that God explicitly says that in order to breed, you will feel pain. In order to feed yourself, you will need to work the land. In other words, in order to survive, you will have to make hard choices. You will have to do something you don’t want to do in order to get what you need. In order to live, you will need to make trade offs. This is the “curse of Adam”….in order to live, you must die- in order to survive, you must trespass- in order to thrive, something must suffer. We are all sinners because we exist in a place where our choices necessitate sin.
When I think of “original sin” like this, Romans 5 makes sense. We do all sin. We can’t help it. Not because we have a sinful nature, not because we are depraved, but because we live in a world of economics- a world of trade offs. The actions of Adam left us with nothing but bad choices. The actions of Jesus leave us with a righteous, purely moral choice. They are perfectly parallel.
Could I make my case stronger? Sure.
What is a transgression? Well, one way is to define it as a breach of a law or command, a “sin”. Since Romans 5 says that sin existed with no law or command, maybe we should investigate what other meanings “transgression” has. Like to go beyond a boundary or limit. If we assume that Paul was correct, that transgressions could exist with no law, then we have to assume that sin was inherent because of natural boundaries and limits. That may sound like “fun with words”, but transgressing a finite boundary or limit seems to imply exactly what I am talking about.
In the process of putting this post together, I tried to anticipate the resistance to my argument. I knew “all have sinned” would come up, and I was preparing to contrast the “all” in the case of Adam with the “all” in the case of Jesus. (v.18) I knew that someone would bring up the condition explicit in verse 18 of “the free gift came to all men”, but in Young’s literal-as well as other versions-it is not there:
18So, then, as through one offence to all men [it is] to condemnation, so also through one declaration of `Righteous’ [it is] to all men to justification of life; (Young’s Literal)
This makes my case all the more pressing. If Original Sin is understood as being borne not of action but of birthright, and as the bible says in Romans 5:14 that Adam is a foreshadowing of what was to come, then it follows that by birthright we are justified to salvation. You can’t have your cake and eat it too. If by original sin we are born depraved, then by salvation we are born forgiven. Either “all” means “all” or it doesn’t,”many” means “many”, or it doesn’t. But if “all” means that all are born into a world where we can choose to never sin-but it is impossible in practice-then all can also mean that each of us is born into a world where we can choose to
let Jesus carry the burden of our sins- the impossible is made possible. If you believe in Original Sin(in the sense that Adam’s sin was written on you from conception)- and you believe that Paul was teaching us something of value in Romans 5, if you believe that (as Paul says unambiguously) Adams transgression was a foreshadowing of the saving gift of salvation, if you believe all these things then you have to believe in universal salvation. I don’t see how you can accept one without the other.
With my conception, you can believe in heaven and hell, salvation through faith alone, that Jesus is a choice you make and not a birthright. Heck, you could even believe in universal salvation still if you want to.
Let’s take my conception of “original sin” and contrast it with the traditional understanding by plugging them into 1Cor. 15:
Me: 20 But now Christ is risen from the dead, and has become the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep. 21 For since by man(sin became a necessary choice and with it) came death, by Man also(salvation became a choice and with it) came the resurrection of the dead. 22 For as in Adam all die (as a result of their inevitable choices), even so in Christ all shall be made alive(as a result of the choice to accept grace). 23 But each one in his own order: Christ the firstfruits, afterward those who are Christ’s at His coming.
Traditional Original Sin: 20 But now Christ is risen from the dead, and has become the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep. 21 For since by man (sin became our birthright and with it) came death, by Man also(salvation became a choice? and with it) came the resurrection of the dead. 22 For as in Adam all die (as a result of their birthright), even so in Christ all shall be made alive(as a result of the choice to accept grace). 23 But each one in his own order: Christ the firstfruits, afterward those who are Christ’s at His coming.
When I plug my understanding of “original sin” into 1 Corinthians 15, we are left with a perfectly parallel story, where we will choose sin by necessity of living and we will choose Jesus in order to have eternal life. If you believe in Orthodox Original Sin, we are left with a disjointed comparison, where we are damned by birthright but saved by a choice; where “all” is not equal to “all”, where in order for me to believe the very heart of the doctrine-that all die by the inward stain of Adam’s transgression- I must by rights believe that all shall be made alive in Christ in a way that is worthy of comparison.
Most pointedly, my case is made by a plain reading of the text. If you read Genesis 3, there is no mention that Adam had any curse on his seed, other than that their relationship with the world had changed: that there would be consequences to each action from then on. There is no mention that man was to be born with an inborn stain, but an outward struggle.
In regards to Romans 5, a plain reading impels us to believe that just as through Adam our relationship with the world has changed, so too through Christ our relationship to the world has changed yet again. If we are born into a world where sin is assured, then by the same choices that create our sin we can make a choice that absolves it.
It boggles my mind that a doctrine that has spawned terms never found in the bible, “original sin”, “sinful nature”,” total depravity”: how ideas that impel us to assume the absolute worst of mankind- that babies are evil, that someone has sinned from conception…..that all these ideas are the result of two passages- just nine words in the bible. How, from a plain reading, do you get from “As in Adam, all die” to total depravity, from “because all sinned” to babies are evil?
There is no good reason to accept Original Sin as the Orthodox doctrine is established.