All people are morally flawed. Daily living confirms that brokenness sits at the center of each human being.
The Bible’s anthropology (study of humanity as it relates to God) explains the moral breakdown by revealing that all human beings are captive to the debilitating force of original sin. The Handbook of Basic Bible Texts defines “original sin” as “the sinfulness, guilt, and susceptibility to death inherited by all human beings [Christ excepted] from Adam”1 (Psalm 51:5; 58:3; Proverbs 20:9; Romans 5:10–12).
While this moral calamity affects people universally, the doctrine of original sin remains controversial. Some people push back against it for various reasons. Let’s look at some objections that I have received recently on social media and my response to them.
An Objection from a Muslim
I recently had a brief discussion with a Muslim on Twitter who took issue with an earlier article I wrote, “Does Original Sin Explain the Human Condition?” Islam denies the doctrine of original sin and instead asserts that people are born morally good. So Muslims reject the Christian doctrine of the fall. The Muslim I interacted with said that original sin was a false doctrine introduced by the apostle Paul.
In my response, I asked the Muslim commenter why, if people are born good as Islam claims, he did not simply stop being selfish, envious, and lustful. This seemed to me to be a fair response given Islam’s categorical denial of humankind’s sinful nature. Unfortunately, the Muslim did not respond to my moral challenge.
An Objection from an Eastern Orthodox Christian
As I noted in my earlier article, Christendom is not in full agreement about the doctrine of original sin. For example, Eastern Orthodoxy affirms that while all people are born with a proclivity to sin (ancestral sin), they reject the idea that people bear Adam’s guilt.2 Eastern Christendom tends to view original sin as a Western church doctrine with close ties to St. Augustine.
On my Facebook page, an Eastern Orthodox Christian responded to the earlier article. He thought original sin was incoherent and he had two specific objections (paraphrased here):
I’m still trying to get my mind around the concept of original sin. Inherited guilt seems to me to be a logical absurdity.
1. Original sin, as described in the article, seems stronger than simply a universal proclivity to sin such as is conveyed in Romans 3:23 (“For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God”).
2. If God actually blames or punishes people for inherited guilt, then it seems to reflect a profound character flaw in God himself.
In my response, I pointed out that theologically conservative Orthodoxy, Catholicism, and Protestantism share much common ground, as is reflected in the Nicene Creed. With that in mind, here are a few points for consideration.
First, of course the central issue, at least for me, is whether original sin is a biblical teaching. Western Christendom (Catholic and Protestant) has generally concluded that the biblical data is very strong. So I invite believers of all backgrounds to study the individual biblical passages cited in my article and in my book 7 Truths That Changed the World (specifically chapters 9 and 10).
Second, the idea of a single person representing a group of people for good or bad makes sense to me as an American and as a parent. As citizens and parents we often bear the burden and sometimes the punishment of actions done by others in our country and in our family. From a biblical perspective, a case can be made that the ancient Hebrews saw themselves as a collective group before God with Adam as their federal representative. God would treat all people according to the actions of Adam as representative. Some scholars view exclusive individuality before God as less biblical and more of a modern concept.
Third, if inherited guilt is a logical contradiction, then so is inherited righteousness. Yet the apostle Paul’s central metaphor concerning salvation turns on the bookkeeping analogy (credit and debit) of Christ taking our sin and giving us his righteousness. In fact, God did punish Christ for sins he inherited from us. As Paul proclaims: “God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Corinthians 5:21).
Fourth, a mere proclivity (a tendency to do something regularly; an inclination or predisposition) to sin doesn’t seem to do justice to the biblical data. In Scripture, sin is called “disobedience,” “evil,” “inequity,” “lawlessness,” “transgression,” “trespass,” “ungodliness,” “unholiness,” “unrighteousness,” and “wickedness.” Nor does “proclivity” seem to match what Jesus calls an “enslavement to sin” (John 8:34). Also, the human condition, even for the Christian, constantly shows that no one can totally stop sinning (e.g., envy, pride, selfishness, lust: 1 John 1:8).
Fifth, in Christian redemption, God is both the offended party and the one who pays for the offense (analogous to parents who attempt to help their children even while suffering loss). This quality seems to reflect not a God of flaws but of love and grace.
Thus in conclusion I think original sin is a clear biblical doctrine and a coherent idea that carries great explanatory power and scope when it comes to the human condition. In my book 7 Truths That Changed the World, chapters 9 and 10 are devoted to sin and salvation.
A Call for Clarification about Original Sin
In reply to my points, the Eastern Orthodox Christian then asked for further clarification (paraphrased here): The information seems to be that we are born sinners and cannot save ourselves, and the explanation seems to be that we are born sinners that cannot save ourselves. Restating the information does not seem like a good explanation of the information. I must be missing something here.
In my reply I said to explain Christianity’s extraordinary explanatory power and scope, we need to broaden the topic to include the fuller Christian anthropology. As a student of the world’s religions and philosophical systems of belief for more than 30 years, I’m confident in saying that only historic Christianity’s anthropology seems to fit with the enigmatic human condition.
To reference Blaise Pascal in the Pensées, human beings are a strange and freakish mixture of “greatness and wretchedness.”3 The greatness comes from the imago Dei (Genesis 1:26–28). Humankind’s philosophical, scientific, aesthetic, and spiritual abilities and accomplishments place human beings in a different category. Even leading secular evolutionary scientists now note that humans are different in kind (human exceptionalism), not just in degree from all other life-forms.
The wretchedness comes from the fallen condition and extends far beyond a mere proclivity to sin, evidencing itself in a universal deep-seated inward corruption. The reality that all people are infected with sin and cannot not sin fits well with a universal fallen nature that operates something like a hereditary disease. Original sin says all human beings have inherited a fallen nature and corporate guilt through their representative ancestor, Adam. Worse still, human beings in their morally depraved condition sometimes use their giftedness to commit atrocities like slavery, the Holocaust, human trafficking, and abortion (even infanticide). Islam doesn’t believe in a fallen humanity, nor does modern Judaism. The Eastern religions don’t offer an anthropology that corresponds well to the human condition. And human beings seem both better and worse than what secular evolutionary theory would predict.
Thus I think the biblical or historic Christian anthropology best fits with the actual human condition (explains the enigma) and thus makes historic Christianity plausibly true. Moreover, the fallenness of the human condition is proved every day (confirming the abductive inference). I develop this approach in more detail in my books A World of Difference and 7 Truths That Changed the World.
If you also find original sin a mysterious doctrinal claim then consider Pascal’s words on both its mystery and its unique explanatory power.
“It is, however, an astonishing thing that the mystery furthest removed from our knowledge, namely, that of the transmission of sin, should be a fact without which we can have no knowledge of ourselves. For it is beyond doubt that there is nothing which more shocks our reason than to say that the sin of the first man has rendered guilty those, who, being so removed from this source, seem incapable of participation in it. This transmission does not only seem to us impossible, it seems also very unjust…. Certainly nothing offends us more rudely than this doctrine; and yet, without this mystery, the most incomprehensible of all, we are incomprehensible to ourselves. The knot of our condition takes its twists and turns in this abyss, so that man is more inconceivable without this mystery than this mystery is inconceivable to man.”4
So while original sin is a mystery that some people, even some Christians, object to, it has solid biblical support and it helps explain the great enigma of human nature.
Reflections: Your Turn
How do you see original sin manifested in your life? Visit Reflections on WordPress to comment with your response.
- For more about original sin and God’s cure in the gospel of Jesus Christ, see my book, 7 Truths That Changed the World (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2012), chapters 9 and 10.
- See my article “Blaise Pascal on the Human Condition.”
- John Jefferson Davis, Handbook of Basic Bible Texts (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1984), 56.
- Fr. John S. Romanides, “Original Sin According to St. Paul,” Orthodox Christian Information Center, accessed December 3, 2020, http://orthodoxinfo.com/inquirers/frjr_sin.aspx.
- Blaise Pascal, Pensées, trans. A. J. Krailsheimer (New York: Penguin, 1966), 117/409.
- Pascal, 434.