Good morning, brother. We sure appreciate you and all your hard work! Do you have a talk on “Original Sin”? This is what has messed up Evangelicals like me for 50 years!
“Original sin” is a doctrine rooted in Augustine’s misinterpretation of Romans 5:12. The text actually says, “…”
Augustine famously interpreted this verse to say we have all inherited the guilt of Adam from birth and personally bear its damning consequences (the wrath of God) from the womb (massa damnata). As a result, we are born in sin, and therefore, as Calvin will point out, totally depraved, children of wrath destined for destruction. Evangelicals inherited this teaching, modifying it with an ‘age of accountability’ clause because they didn’t like infant baptism. But the bottom line is that ‘original sin’ is seen as a genetically transmitted guilt (which, in that system, must be punished).
You can’t inherit guilt
But what does the Bible say about inherited guilt? Think of Ezekiel 18, where God rejects the idea of generational guilt. The whole chapter lays out God’s case but here are the highlights:
1 The Lord’s message came to me: 2 “What do you mean by quoting this proverb concerning the land of Israel:
“‘The fathers eat sour grapes,
And the children’s teeth become numb?
3 “As surely as I live, declares the Sovereign Lord, you will not quote this proverb in Israel anymore! 4 Indeed! All lives are mine—the life of the father as well as the life of the son is mine. The one who sins will die.
19 “Yet you say, ‘Why should the son not suffer for his father’s iniquity?’ When the son does what is just and right, and observes all my statutes and carries them out, he will surely live. 20 The person who sins is the one who will die. A son will not suffer for his father’s iniquity, and a father will not suffer for his son’s iniquity; the righteous person will be judged according to his righteousness, and the wicked person according to his wickedness.
Briefly, any accounting for sin and guilt is for my own choices and missteps. Eastern theology continues to see something essentially good in humanity, an innate morality that reflects our Creator. We continue to be and to bear the image of God but through our own sins, we lose his likeness (literally, don’t look like his image, who is Christ). That is, the misshapen way of our being is frequently out of step with the beautiful truth of our being.
Yes, we do frequently see sins ‘passed down’ for generations in a family’s broken ways of nurture, perpetuated and ingrained via imitation or rebellion. But it is only as we choose to participate in familial sin that we become guilty of it.
So, are we born free, unscathed by Adam’s (humanity’s) great fall? Not exactly. Rather than ‘original sin’, some theologians speak of ‘ancestral sin’— that all children of Adam do seem to share a common propensity to misuse our energies and agency for selfishness. We may see it as our collective fall into egotism and self-centeredness. The toxin of this self-will does seem to flow through our veins and lies at the root of humanity’s problems and misery, expressed as turning our own way. You can see it in Romans 5, so long as you don’t trip over Augustine’s assumption of inherited guilt:
18 Consequently, just as condemnation [i.e. death] for all people came through one transgression, so too through the one righteous act came righteousness leading to life for all people. 19 For just as through the disobedience of the one man many were constituted sinners [as we participate], so also through the obedience of one man many will be constituted righteous [as we participate]. 20 Now the law came in so that the transgression may increase, but where sin increased, grace multiplied all the more, 21 so that just as sin reigned in death, so also grace will reign through righteousness to eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.
Dying and Death
No, we are not born guilty nor were we damned to hell because of Adam’s sin. But Adam’s sin did have repercussions on human nature: we don’t inherit Adam’s sin or guilt, but through sin, human nature is confronted with death (Rom. 5:18, 21). And this is means something quite different than dying.
In chatting with my godfather, David Goa, he reminded me that the Fathers made a distinction: even if there had been no primordial fall, humans would have still died, because we are finite, created beings. We die and so would ‘Adam and Eve’ (whether we think of them as proto-human ancestors or human archetypes). But death. That’s another matter.
Goa cited this distinction between dying and death in E.E. Cummings’ poem, “Dying is fine” (no, these aren’t typos. It’s how Cummings wrote):
dying is fine)but Death
Death if Death
when(instead of stopping to think)you
begin to feel of it,dying
cause dying is
it mildly lively(but
& artificial &
evil & legal)
we thank thee
almighty for dying
(forgive us,o life!the sin of Death
Dying is fine. But death. There’s the problem. You see, we are not eternal by nature (see point 2 below); we are creatures after all. Only God is eternal and so we are only eternal in union with God, in God’s grace, in God’s love. And apart from that union, death reigns.
So we die, said the Fathers, but the good news is that in Christ, we do not taste death, because ‘death’ has to do with separation from God and the downward spiral out into nonbeing.
And for this very reason, Christ came. Jesus Christ came to cleanse us of the disease of egoism and self-will, to reorient us toward surrender to his Father’s love and to once-and-for-all solve the problem of death for us all. He established this path for a new humanity-in-Christ and summons us to participate in eternal life, which is to say our union with God.
1. Original vs. Ancestral Sin: What’s the difference? In terms of “so what?” the assumptions between ‘original sin’ and ‘ancestral sin’ (even if you didn’t know the terms) are enormous to our anthropology. Will we see people with the dehumanizing lens of Augustine and Calvin or the humanizing lens of Ezekiel, Paul and Christ? Do you see children as depraved clones of Adam destined for wrath and in need of punishment? Or do you see them as precious children of God, beloved but vulnerable to the same self-will in Adam and in you? And for those who have inevitably and repeatedly stumbled, what is the good news? I’ll leave that last question to one of Paul’s responses.
“As in Adam, all died, so in Christ, all shall be made alive.” –Paul, 1 Cor. 15:22
2. Dying vs. Death: What’s the difference? We aren’t simply eternal souls who take up a temporary embodied existence (as in Hinduism). That’s not the historic Christian faith. That would badly devalue the great significance of this embodied life, a nullifying view of the real arc of our existence. And it certainly takes the edge off the Incarnation.
No. This is our life, this is what God gave us, and how we “spend that coin” is of enormous consequence now. Eternal life, kingdom life, life in grace, life in love (whatever we call it) is established through the Incarnate God’s union with humanity, his conquest of death and this gospel profoundly informs this life, your life. Eternal life has far more to do with your life today than your notions and fantasies about the afterlife.
To dig a little deeper, see David Bentley Hart, Traditio Deformis HERE.