The Myth of Original Sin

The doctrine of original sin says that as a result of Adam’s sin all of Adam’s posterity besides Jesus are born with a “sinful nature,” whereby they are physically unable to do anything but sin; they cannot do good. For example, the Catechism of the Catholic Church states, “By yielding to the tempter, Adam and Eve committed a personal sin, but this sin affected the human nature that they would then transmit in a fallen state.”

Calvinist and other Reformed churches add to this a second element, namely, all of Adam’s posterity besides Jesus are from the moment of Adam’s sin-so even before they are born-regarded by God as guilty of Adam’s sin. Not only is Adam guilty for the sin, in other words, but everyone is deemed by God to be guilty of the sin. Thus, the Westminster Confession of Faith states, “They [Adam and Eve, “our first parents”] being the root of all mankind, the guilt of this sin was imputed; and the same death in sin, and corrupted nature, conveyed to all their posterity descending from them by ordinary generation.”

Is any of this true? Well, what’s the evidence? Does revelation teach it? Does philosophical reasoning teach it?

Revelation does not teach it. Advocates appeal to select “proof texts” (for example, Job 14.4, Job 15.14, Psalm 51.5, Psalm 58.3, Ephesians 2.3, and especially Romans 5.12-19) that they misinterpret. Usually this entails taking a poetic statement as strictly, or rigidly, literal. Thus, it will be observed that the majority of proof texts listed above come from the poetic books of the Scripture. But poetry is not to be read as prose! When the author(s) of Psalm 51 exclaims, “Behold, I was formed in iniquity; and in sin did my mother conceive me,” the author(s) is not literally saying they were born in a sinful condition. Rather, the author(s) is using symbolic, hyperbolic language to emphasize the depths of the felt sin and guilt. The Hebrews were fond of such strong language. In the Book of Job, after the destruction of his family and property, Job is said to have cried out, “Naked came I out of my mother’s womb, and naked shall I return” (Job 1.21). Did Job mean he would literally reenter his mother’s womb (at death presumably)? Of course not. Then why would we take similar hyperbolic (and poetic!) statements like Psalm 51.5 literally? To support a pre-conceived theory or original sin it would appear.

Besides these poetic texts from the Hebrew Scriptures, Ephesians 2.3 and Romans 5.12-19 are appealed to. In Ephesians 2.3, the Christian readers are told that they were formerly, “by nature children of wrath (τεκνα φυσει οργης), like the rest.” But, within the context of the letter and the broader thought world of the first century, it is clear enough that the author is simply referring to his Christian readers’ former lifestyle or character, a “living as the Gentiles do” as the author puts it later in the letter (4.17), that unchanged would have resulted in condemnation at the final judgment (“wrath”). The apocryphal Wisdom of Solomon, a Jewish writing dating from the 2nd or 1st century B.C.E., furnishes a good parallel. The author writes, “Surely vain are all men by nature (φυσει), who are ignorant of God and unable out of the good things that are seen to know him that is; neither by considering the works did they acknowledge the workmaster” (Wisdom 13.1). In this text too, it is the nature of such people in terms of their character that is in view, not nature in terms of their physical constitution. To live a life of willful disregard for God is to be vain by nature-“nature” in the sense of one’s character resulting from one’s (own) choices. We all know from experience this meaning of nature as character. Choices form habits and habits eventually form a certain nature or character-and a sinful character unchanged will mean wrath at the final judgment. This is the complex of thoughts behind the phrase “by nature children of wrath” in Ephesians 2.3.

Romans 5.12-19 is more extensive and deserves a post of its own. But, in short, Paul is simply drawing a comparison-and not a strict comparison-between the effects of the transgression of the First Adam and the effects of the obedience of the Second Adam, that is, Jesus. Adam’s sin had a devastating effect on the world by starting a snowball of sin that entangled all, except Jesus, within its grasp. But God’s provision in Jesus is equal to the task. Through the obedience of this Second and Last Adam, the righteousness of God is abounding to many, to Jews and Gentiles who are turning from their slavery to sin to a new slavery to righteousness-a life of righteousness, that is, as modeled by Jesus. To seize upon Paul’s sweeping, nontechnical comparison and turn his statements regarding sin and Adam into a technical doctrine of original sin is to do him, as well as his God, an injustice. As the great 19th century Bible commentator Albert Barnes (a Calvinist!) said, “The meaning of the passage [Romans 5.12-19] in its general bearing is not difficult; and probably the whole passage would have been found far less difficult if it had not been attached to a philosophical theory on the subject of man’s sin [i.e., the dogma of original sin], and if a strenuous and indefatigable effort had not been made to prove that it teaches what it was never designed to teach [i.e., that it teaches the dogma of original sin].” The progenitor of the doctrine of original sin is Augustine of Hippo, not the Apostle to the Gentiles. (For more on Romans 5.12-19 not teaching the doctrine of original sin, see further from the commentary by Albert Barnes here.)

So much for revelation, what about philosophical reasoning. One strains to find philosophical arguments for the ideas of original sin, because frankly they are nonsensical (see further below). The only real argument made is to point to the fact that all people (besides Jesus) as a matter of fact sin. And this, advocates of original sin aver, can only be explained, or is at least best explained, if people are actually born with sinful natures.

The problem with this argument is that it is not true. Original sin is not the only explanation for the universal sinfulness of humanity, nor is it even the best explanation, given that the doctrine breaches fundamental axioms of moral intuition. Personal guilt and righteousness cannot be transferred between people. Like lottery winnings, they are nontransferable. Likewise, sinfulness is not a physical attribute or quality but a moral one, and moral quality can neither be inborn nor transferred. One becomes sinful (again, a moral category not a physical one) when one chooses to sin. It’s that simple, and we all know this until we are indoctrinated with the ideas of (bad) theology. Indeed, all of these points are axiomatic to moral reason and thus taken for granted in legal and moral philosophy and practice. It is a blanket category mistake to treat sin and righteousness as anything other than what a moral agent himself or herself freely chooses to do.

Then why do all sin if not born with a sinful nature? Experience indicates that part of the explanation is that we are all born in weakness, with strong desires that are difficult to keep in check (Paul’s “flesh”). These desires of the flesh wage war against what we know, via reason and conscience, we ought and ought not to do. And so we easily succumb to temptation. The Apostle gives poignant, and painful, expression to this in Romans 7.14-25. The other part of the answer stems from what we know from the philosophy of learning, specifically, how we learn so much through the modeling of behaviors by others. Thus, in the case of sin, the more sinful the environment that one is born into-that is, the more the world one is born into is characterized by sinners and their sinful practices-the greater the likelihood, given how much we learn by modeling, that the person will become a sinner. And this makes for a snowball effect of sin. Beginning with the sin of Adam (and Eve), the world has more and more been characterized by sinners and sin, as one generation of sinners has begotten another generation of sinners, and so on. More and more the environment has become one of universal sin, so that sin has become more and more universal.

In sum, then, when we step back and critically examine the dogma of original sin, we find a doctrine that violates our most basic moral intuitions and relies on a misinterpretation of a handful of proof texts culled from the Scriptures. Therefore, rather than following Augustine and the tradition he began, we do better to stick with the wise words of that ancient Jewish philosopher and poet: “Behold, I have found only this, that God made men upright, but they have sought out many devices” (Ecclesiastes 7.29).