Original Sin

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ORIGINAL SIN


Some Christians believe all of humanity is born with a built-in urge to do bad things. They believe original sin stems from Adam and Eve's disobedience to God. According to the BBC: Original sin is an Augustine Christian doctrine that says that everyone is born sinful. This means that they are born with a built-in urge to do bad things and to disobey God. It is an important doctrine within the Roman Catholic Church. The concept of Original Sin was explained in depth by St Augustine and formalised as part of Roman Catholic doctrine by the Councils of Trent in the 16th Century. [Source: September 17, 2009 BBC |::|]

“Original sin is not just this inherited spiritual disease or defect in human nature; it's also the 'condemnation' that goes with that fault. Some Christians believe that original sin explains why there is so much wrong in a world created by a perfect God, and why people need to have their souls 'saved' by God. Original sin is a condition, not something that people do: It's the normal spiritual and psychological condition of human beings, not their bad thoughts and actions. Even a newborn baby who hasn't done anything at all is damaged by original sin. |::|

“In traditional Christian teaching, original sin is the result of Adam and Eve's disobedience to God when they ate a forbidden fruit in the Garden of Eden. |Original sin affects individuals by separating them from God, and bringing dissatisfaction and guilt into their lives. On a world scale, original sin explains such things as genocide, war, cruelty, exploitation and abuse, and the "presence and universality of sin in human history". |::|

Some Christians believe that human beings can't cure themselves of original sin. The only way they can be saved from its consequences is by the grace of God. The only way people can receive God's grace is by accepting his love and forgiveness, believing that Jesus Christ died on the cross to redeem their sins, and getting baptised. |::|

“Secular ideas of original sin: 1) Modern thinkers don't think the doctrine of original sin is literally true, but they do think it contains real truths about the human condition: 2) The world is not as good as we want it to be; 3) We are not as good as we want to be Individual behaviour is greatly influenced by things outside the individual's control; 4) Many of these are historical things: 5) events in the individual's past; 6) events in the past of the individual's family; 7) customs that their culture has built up through history. These things affect humanity as a group as well as individuals |::|

Websites and Resources: Christianity Britannica on Christianity britannica.com//Christianity ; History of Christianity history-world.org/jesus_christ ; BBC on Christianity bbc.co.uk/religion/religions/christianity ;Wikipedia article on Christianity Wikipedia ; Religious Tolerance religioustolerance.org/christ.htm ; Christian Answers christiananswers.net ; Christian Classics Ethereal Library www.ccel.org ; Bible: Bible Gateway and the New International Version (NIV) of The Bible biblegateway.com ; King James Version of the Bible gutenberg.org/ebooks ;

Early Christianity: Elaine Pagels website elaine-pagels.com ; Sacred Texts website sacred-texts.com ; Gnostic Society Library gnosis.org ; PBS Frontline From Jesus to Christ, The First Christians pbs.org ; Guide to Early Church Documents iclnet.org; Early Christian Writing earlychristianwritings.com ; Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Christian Origins sourcebooks.fordham.edu ; Early Christian Art oneonta.edu/farberas/arth/arth212/Early_Christian_art ; Early Christian Images jesuswalk.com/christian-symbols ; Early Christian and Byzantine Images belmont.edu/honors/byzart2001/byzindex

Doctrine of the Fall and the Traditional Story of Original Sin

According to the BBC: “Original sin is part of the Doctrine of the Fall, which is the belief that when Adam and Eve disobeyed God, they 'fell' from perfection and brought evil into a perfect world. For Christians, the fall is inseparable from redemption - the act by which human souls are washed clean of the stain of original sin. [Source: September 17, 2009 BBC |::|]

“Christians believe that the story of the fall and redemption is a story of two Adams, and sometimes refer to Christ as the "Second Adam". The first Adam sins and causes humanity to fall; the second Adam atones for that sin with his death and redeems humanity.

The story behind original sin is told in the Old Testament book of Genesis: God originally made a perfect world. He created Adam and put him to live in the Garden of Eden — a blissful place where he had nothing to do but take care of the garden. God told Adam that he could do anything he wanted, except eat the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.


Everything cool in Paradise

"Later, God created Eve to be Adam's wife. Eve was tricked by the serpent into eating the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of life and death. She gave some of the fruit to Adam and he ate it too. Adam and Eve realised that they were naked and hid in shame. When God next visited the Garden he realised that they had disobeyed him. God banished them from the Garden of Eden into the harsh world outside. God also banned them from eating the fruit of the tree of life, and so death entered the world.”

“A modern interpretation of the fall might go like this: Adam was created in the image of God with the potential to be perfectly fulfilled through his existence and his relationship with God. But Man failed to fulfil his potential and opted to go it alone and estrange himself from God. Jesus as the "Second Adam" re-established the relationship with God and showed how man can become perfectly human - which puts him in right relationship with both the creator and his creation.” |::|

The Fall and the Origin of Evil

According to the BBC: “Christians believe that when Adam and Eve sinned in Eden and turned away from God they brought sin into the world and turned the whole human race away from God. The doctrine absolves God of responsibility for the evils that make our world imperfect by teaching that Adam and Eve introduced evil to a perfect world when they disobeyed him. An alternative understanding of the story of the fall emphasises that Adam and Eve did wrong because they 'gave in' to the temptation of the serpent in the Garden of Eden. [Source: September 17, 2009 BBC |::|]


Eve Tempts Adam

“These two versions offer radically different ideas about the origin of evil: in the first version Adam and Eve bring evil into the world by disobeying God in the second version evil already exists, and Adam and Eve bring sin to humanity by giving in to it This second understanding fits well with human psychology. Looking at it this way, original sin becomes the tendency for human beings to 'give in' when tempted by the prevailing evils of the society around them, rather than standing up for good, and it helps explain why each individual finds temptation so hard to resist. As the Bible puts it:... I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate... — Romans 7:14-15 A third understanding teaches not so much that Adam's sin brought sin into the world, but that it removed from humanity the gift that enabled people to be perfectly obedient to God. |::|

Original sin is a difficult doctrine, and a rather gloomy one, but it had some key theological benefits that have kept it as a mainstream Christian teaching: 1) Universality: Original sin teaches that all human beings are flawed and sinful - no-one is better than anyone else; 2) Non-dualist: Original sin explains evil without having to portray God as having a bad side, or an evil partner, responsible for the badness in the world; evil comes from human rebelliousness; 3) Non-designed: Original sin explains how a world that God designed to be perfect is actually full of evil; 4) Not inevitable: Original sin teaches that the world could have remained perfect - it was not inevitable that Adam and Eve would disobey God; 5) Mechanism: Original sin demonstrates a mechanism that enabled the original disobedience to damage everyone|::|

Sex and St Augustine's Theory on Original Sin

According to the BBC: “St Augustine, who largely devised the theory of original sin, thought that original sin was transmitted from generation to generation through sexual intercourse. Augustine did not say exactly how this happened. He said that it was transmitted by "concupiscence", when people had sex and conceived a child.Concupiscence is a technical theological word that Augustine used to refer to sexual desire as something bad in the soul that was inseparable from normal human sexual impulses. [Source: September 17, 2009 BBC |::|]


“Sexual desire was bad, he taught, because it could totally overwhelm those caught up in it, depriving them of self-control and rational thought. This disapproving view of passion was quite common among Christians of Augustine's time. Augustine thought that concupiscence was present in all sexual intercourse. He thought that it was just as bad and uncontrolled in a marriage as it was in non-marital sex, but that an excuse could be made for it within marriage because its purpose was to produce legitimate children. |::|

“This bad element in sex provides the means by which original sin is transmitted from father to child. It transmits both humanity's guilt for Adam's crime and the sickness or defect that gives human beings a sinful nature. ...whenever it comes to the actual process of generation, the very embrace which is lawful and honourable cannot be effected without the ardour of lust.... [This lust] is the daughter of sin, as it were; and whenever it yields assent to the commission of shameful deeds, it becomes also the mother of many sins. Now from this concupiscence whatever comes into being by natural birth is bound by original sin... — Augustine, De bono coniugali |::|

Council of Trent and Getting Rid of Original Sin

According to the BBC: “The Council or Trent (1545-63), or Trentine councils were a series of Roman Catholic theological meetings in response to the Reformation. The Council of Trent gave the official stamp to the idea that original sin was transferred from generation to generation by propagation - which means during the sexual act that led to conception. This formalised the notion of Original Sin as part of Roman Catholic doctrine. [Source: September 17, 2009 BBC |::|]

“The Council explicitly ruled out the idea that original sin was transferred by "imitation"; in order to block the idea that human beings just copied the bad example set by their parents and others. Imitation and mimesis are closely related ideas teach that original sin is passed on by copying the sinful tendencies of other people. The Council of Trent decreed that this idea was false.


“The only way a person can 'cleanse' their soul from sin is to: |1) “accept that Christ's death on the cross atoned for this sin; 2) accept that only God's grace can cure this sin; 3) confess their sins and ask for forgiveness; 4) be baptised. Many churches accept that infants can be cleansed of original sin by being baptised soon after birth. The other elements required are carried out by adults on the baby's behalf during the ceremony.

“Redemption In St Paul's letter to the Galatians, he wrote: "Christ has set us free; stand fast therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery". This conception of Redemption as freedom from bondage is crucial for Judeo-Christian thought.

Problems with Original Sin

According to the BBC: 1) “The unanswered question: On the face of it, original sin doesn't answer the question as to how evil got into the world; instead it leaves other questions to be answered. As one writer puts it: Why is there original sin? Because Adam sinned? Then why did Adam sin? If it was because of the serpent, why did the serpent sin? If the serpent is supposed to have been a fallen angel, why did the angel sin? And so on. And there is a second, but related, question. If evil did not exist before Adam sinned, how could Adam know that what he was about to do was evil - how was he to know that it was wrong to disobey God?” [Source: September 17, 2009 BBC |::|]|

2) “It's unfair: For modern people the idea of being punished for a crime committed by someone else is unethical and unacceptable. Original sin belongs to each of us because it belongs to all. 3) It's misogynistic: The doctrine of original sin blames Eve for tempting Adam into sin and has been responsible for centuries of Christian bias against women. 4) It's anti-sex: Augustine's theory of original sin was so intrinsically tied up with his disapproval of human sexual love that for centuries it contaminated all sexual passion with the idea of sin. 5) It's too pessimistic. Some Christian thinkers are unhappy with the idea that human beings start out so bad that they can't become good without God's help. |::|

6) It's not literally true: Science shows that the Biblical creation story is not literally true, and demonstrates that Adam and Eve and the Garden of Eden are myths and not historical figures. This destroys the idea of original sin as being caused by the misbehaviour of the first man and woman, and the idea of inheriting guilt or punishment for that misbehaviour. Most modern theologians don't think this a good reason to abandon the doctrine of the fall. They believe that although the story is not historically true, it does contain important truths about the state of humanity. |::|


God Says Get Out of Here

7) “It's contradicted by evolution: The doctrine of original sin is based on the idea that God created a perfect world, and that humanity damaged it and themselves by disobeying him. Evolution, on the other hand, suggests that life in the world is steadily changing and becoming more diverse. Scientists do not tend to think of this as a moral good or evil, but in a sense evolution sees life on earth as moving closer to 'perfection' - becoming better adapted to its environment. |::|

“The biblical story of the perfect and finished creation from which human beings fell into sin is pre-Darwinian mythology and post-Darwinian nonsense. — Bishop John Shelby Spong, A Call for a New Reformation, 1998 A more modern idea is to give an ethical spin to the evolutionary idea and suggest that humanity should not be concerned about a past fall from grace, but concentrate on becoming more ethical beings and thus bringing about a better world. |::|

“What about unbaptised babies? Bishop Richard Holloway has described the idea that unbaptised babies go to hell as "one of the most unsympathetic of the Christian doctrines," and not greatly improved by the teaching that there is a special "limbo" for unbaptised babies on the outskirts of the inferno. |::|

Is Guilt Good?

According to the BBC: “Original sin has been criticised for inspiring excessive feelings of guilt. The 18th-century politician and philosopher Edmund Burke once said: "Guilt was never a rational thing; it distorts all the faculties of the human mind, it perverts them, it leaves a man no longer in the free use of his reason, it puts him into confusion." [Source: September 17, 2009 BBC |::|]

“Is the feeling of guilt a vital part of our moral lives or can it do more harm than good? Discussing the question are Stephen Mulhall, Fellow and Tutor in Philosophy at New College, Oxford; Miranda Fricker, Senior Lecturer in Philosophy at Birkbeck, University of London; and Oliver Davies, Professor of Christian Doctrine at King's College London. Unbaptised babies |::|

'Limbo': A Way to Deal with the Death of Unbaptized Babies

According to the BBC: “One of the biggest problems the Catholic Church faced over the years was the problem of children who died before they were baptised. Before the 13th Century, all unbaptised people, including new born babies who died, would go to Hell, according to the Catholic Church. This was because original sin had not been cleansed by baptism. This idea however was criticised by Peter Abelard, a French scholastic philosophiser, who said that babies who had no personal sin didn't even deserve punishment. [Source: September 17, 2009 BBC |::|]

“It was Abelard who introduced the idea of 'Limbo'. The word comes from the Latin 'limbus', meaning the edge. This would be a state of existence where unbaptised babies, and those unfortunate enough to have been born before Jesus, would not experience pain but neither would they experience the Beatific Vision of God. Abelard's idea was accepted in the 13th century by Pope Innocent III, the most powerful Pope in Roman Catholic history. The idea of Limbo was defined in 1904 by Pope Pius X in his catechism. |::|

“Babies dead without baptism go to Limbo, where they do not enjoy God, but neither do they suffer, because, having Original Sin alone, they do not deserve Paradise, but neither do they merit Hell or Purgatory. — Pope Pius X However, unease remained over reconciling a Loving God with one who sent babies to Limbo and the church still faced much criticism. The Church, which has never claimed to definitely know who will go to Heaven apart from the Saints, or Hell, has said that the issue has long been one of speculation in the Church. This speculation has led to an oversimplification of the matter, and some people have regarded it as fact when it was never the case. |::|

“Catholics are only sure of the following two pieces of information in this matter: 1) that God is merciful; 2) that baptism is necessary for salvation Catholics feel sure that God won't impose punishment on babies who are free from personal guilt, but they do admit they don't know what their afterlife will hold. |::|


Purgatory (a Catholic concept) with limbo for children in the lower left


State of Limbo Revised

According to the BBC: “In 1992, Pope John Paul II had Limbo removed from the catechism and both Pope John Paul and Pope Benedict XVI urged further study on the concept. In April 2007 Pope Benedict XVI approved the findings of a report by the International Theological Commission, a Vatican advisory body, which found grounds that the souls of unbaptised children would go to heaven, thus revising traditional teaching on Limbo. [Source: September 17, 2009 BBC |::|]

“The report said there were "reasons to hope that infants who die without baptism may be saved and brought into eternal happiness" Parents were urged to continue to baptise their children, as the Vatican stressed that baptism is still considered necessary to achieve salvation; the report emphasised that "there are reasons to hope that God will save these infants precisely because it was not possible" to baptise them.

St Augustine and Original Sin

According to the BBC: “St Augustine was Bishop of Hippo, in what is now Algeria, from 396 to 430. He was one of the greatest theologians in history and his ideas still influence Christian thought today. Although he didn't invent the doctrine of original sin, his ideas about it dominated Western Church teaching. Augustine's theory shows great understanding of human psychology. It provides an explanation for human suffering and guilt by teaching that those human beings somehow deserved these things. |::|

“Human beings deserve to suffer because the first parents sinned. And since humanity deserves the bad things it gets, humanity can comfort itself with the idea that it has a just rather than an unjust God.This made the presence of evil in the world easier to understand, and answered the question of why a benevolent God would allow such a state of affairs to exist. |::|

“Augustine developed his idea of original sin for several reasons: 1) to explain the almost irresistible pressure to behave badly that troubles even the most saintly people; 2) to justify the need to baptise babies as soon as possible after birth; 3) to demonstrate that human beings are totally reliant on God's grace and all-powerful goodness; 4) to defeat the ideas of Pelagius, an English theologian. [Source: September 17, 2009 BBC |::|]


Saint Augustine by Goya

Augustine saw original sin as working in two ways: 1) inherited guilt for a crime and 2) spiritual sickness or weakness. Augustine thought that humanity was originally perfect ("man's nature was created at first faultless and without any sin"), immortal and blessed with many talents, but that Adam and Eve disobeyed God, and introduced sin and death to the world. |::|

“Augustine didn't see any need to provide a good reason why Adam, who had originally been created perfect, chose to sin, or why God hadn't created a perfect being that was incapable of sin. As far as Augustine was concerned the point was that Adam had sinned and humanity had to deal with the consequences. Modern people would think it unjust that human beings should suffer for something that happened long before they existed, but to people in Augustine's time the idea of punishing later generations for their parents' crimes was familiar. |::|

“Augustine developed the following argument: the whole essence of human nature was contained in Adam, the first man when Adam disobeyed God, the whole of human nature disobeyed God thus the whole of human nature became sinful thus the whole human race was damaged for all time. Nothing remains but to conclude that in the first man all are understood to have sinned, because all were in him when he sinned; whereby sin is brought in with birth and not removed save by the new birth... it is manifest that in Adam all sinned, so to speak, en masse. By that sin we became a corrupt mass. Bible scholars think that this element of Augustine's theory was partly based on a mistranslation in the Latin version of the Bible. However, Augustine does not base his entire argument only on that particular text, and his theory is not wrecked by this error. Having established that every human being had inherited guilt from Adam, Augustine taught that this was why that all human beings were damned, even if they didn't commit any extra sins of their own.” |::|

“Augustine was certain that the consequence of original sin was damnation. This even applied to people who hadn't committed any sins, like newborn babies, if they died before their souls were cleaned by baptism. People could only escape damnation through God's grace, and the sacrifice of Jesus on the Cross for their sins. God's grace was passed on through baptism (or martyrdom - but this was a route that few would choose). Unfortunately there was no guarantee that everyone who was baptised would be saved from damnation, merely the certainty that those who weren't baptised would go to hell.

Catholic, Orthodox and Protestant Teachings about Original Sin

According to the BBC: “The Protestant theologian John Calvin (1509-1564) believed that humanity's unbelief and disobedience had so fundamentally changed the human race that little, if anything, of God was left in it.“We are lost, there is no means of help; and whether we are great or small, fathers or children, we are all without exception in a state of damnation if God does not remove from us the curse which weighs upon us, and that by His generosity and grace, without His being obliged to do so. — John Calvin [Source: September 17, 2009 BBC |::|]

“Many modern Protestants would not take quite such a gloomy view of humanity as Calvin, and would not regard humankind as evil in essence, without any trace of the divine image. They would still teach that human beings are 'fallen' and need to 'get right with God', by believing that Christ's death 'atoned' for their sin, accepting that they can only be 'saved' by God's freely given 'grace', and being baptised. |::|


Adam and Eve Driven Out of Eden

“The Christian Orthodox churches don't interpret original sin in the way that Augustine did. They don't accept that people can be guilty of a sin they did not commit, and so reject the idea of inherited guilt passed down the generations.|

“The Orthodox interpretation of original sin is that the way in which human beings inherit sinfulness is that human history, culture and society have created a moral climate which disposes human beings to behave sinfully; as a result, all people need God's help to avoid sin. [Source: September 17, 2009 BBC |::|]

“The teaching of the Roman Catholic Church was summarised by Pope Paul VI: “We believe that in Adam all have sinned, which means that the original offence committed by him caused human nature, common to all men, to fall to a state in which it bears the consequences of that offence, and which is not the state in which it was at first in our first parents, established as they were in holiness and justice, and in which man knew neither evil nor death. It is human nature so fallen, stripped of the grace that clothed it, injured in its own natural powers and subjected to the dominion of death, that is transmitted to all men, and it is in this sense that every man is born in sin. |::|

“We therefore hold, with the Council of Trent, that original sin is transmitted with human nature 'not by imitation, but by propagation' and that it is thus 'proper to everyone.' We believe that our Lord Jesus Christ, by the sacrifice of the cross, redeemed us from original sin and all the personal sins committed by each one of us, so that, in accordance with the word of the Apostle, 'where sin abounded, grace did more abound.' — Paul VI 1968

Paul on the Gift of Love

Paul wrote in First Corinthians: 1 Corinthians 13: 1 If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. 2 And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. 3 If I give away all I have, and if I deliver my body to be burned, but have not love, I gain nothing. [Source: Revised Standard Version]

“4 Love is patient and kind; love is not jealous or boastful; 5 it is not arrogant or rude. Love does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; 6it does not rejoice at wrong, but rejoices in the right. 7 Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. 8 Love never ends; as for prophecies, they will pass away; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will pass away. 9 For our knowledge is imperfect and our prophecy is imperfect; 10 but when the perfect comes, the imperfect will pass away. 11 When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became a man, I gave up childish ways. 12 For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall understand fully, even as I have been fully understood. 13 So faith, hope, love abide, these three; but the greatest of these is love

Image Sources: Wikimedia, Commons

Text Sources: Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Christian Origins sourcebooks.fordham.edu “World Religions” edited by Geoffrey Parrinder (Facts on File Publications, New York); “ Encyclopedia of the World’s Religions” edited by R.C. Zaehner (Barnes & Noble Books, 1959); King James Version of the Bible, gutenberg.org; New International Version (NIV) of The Bible, biblegateway.com; “Egeria's Description of the Liturgical Year in Jerusalem” users.ox.ac.uk ; Complete Works of Josephus at Christian Classics Ethereal Library (CCEL), translated by William Whiston, ccel.org , Metropolitan Museum of Art metmuseum.org, Frontline, PBS, “Encyclopedia of the World Cultures” edited by David Levinson (G.K. Hall & Company, New York, 1994); National Geographic, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Smithsonian magazine, Times of London, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated September 2018


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