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Genesis 3: The concept of original sin:

Christian faith groups that believe/don't believe in in
"original sin" (Cont'd). Some ethical problems with
"original sin." A modern-day parable.

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This topic is continued from the previous essay

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Original sin: which faith groups believe in it and which rejects it? (Cont'd)

  • Early Christianity and the Roman Catholic Church: Phil Roberts, writing in Truth Magazine, wrote:

    "The doctrine had its beginning among Christians in the early Patristic period. Tertullian, Cyprian, and Ambrose all taught the whole human race somehow participated not only in the consequences of Adam's sin but in the sin itself. Ambrosiaster claimed biblical support for the doctrine by translating Romans 5:12 "in whom all sinned" in reference to Adam. But it was Augustine of Hippo (commonly St. Augustine) who integrated the doctrine into a fully developed system of theology. ..."

    "Augustine taught that the whole human race was present in the first man Adam, and thus, in his sin, we sinned. Each descendant of Adam and Eve is born just as much a sinner as they were. Not only that, but the impairment of their nature which God inflicted on Adam and Eve in punishment for their sin 'became a natural consequence in all their descendants.' 1 Moreover, it is not just a corrupted physical nature that we have inherited from Adam, but our "human nature was so changed and vitiated that it suffers from the recalcitrance of a rebellious concupiscence. ... " 2

    "Augustine was not exactly a Roman Catholic, but only because he lived around AD 400 and Catholicism was still in the formative stage. But Augustine was very much a part of that formation, and his theology soon became the dominant theology of Catholicism."

    The Catechism of the Catholic Church deals thoroughly with the topic of original sin. They link the transmission of original sin from Adam (while ignoring the role of Eve) to the Roman Army torturing Jesus to death which they believe gave every person the opportunity to be saved:

    Man's first sin:

    "397: Man, tempted by the devil, let his trust in his Creator die in his heart and, abusing his freedom, disobeyed God's command. This is what man's first sin consisted of. All subsequent sin would be disobedience toward God and lack of trust in his goodness. ..."

    "399: Scripture portrays the tragic consequences of this first disobedience. Adam and Eve immediately lose the grace of original holiness. They become afraid of the God of whom they have conceived a distorted image - that of a God jealous of his prerogatives.

    400: The harmony in which they had found themselves, thanks to original justice, is now destroyed: the control of the soul's spiritual faculties over the body is shattered; the union of man and woman becomes subject to tensions, their relations henceforth marked by lust and domination. Harmony with creation is broken: visible creation has become alien and hostile to man. Because of man, creation is now subject "to its bondage to decay" Finally, the consequence explicitly foretold for this disobedience will come true: man will "return to the ground", for out of it he was taken. Death makes its entrance into human history.

    401: After that first sin, the world is virtually inundated by sin. There is Cain's murder of his brother Abel and the universal corruption which follows in the wake of sin. Likewise, sin frequently manifests itself in the history of Israel, especially as infidelity to the God of the Covenant and as transgression of the Law of Moses. And even after Christ's atonement, sin raises its head in countless ways among Christians. Scripture and the Church's Tradition continually recall the presence and universality of sin in man's history:

    What Revelation makes known to us is confirmed by our own experience. For when man looks into his own heart he finds that he is drawn towards what is wrong and sunk in many evils which cannot come from his good creator. Often refusing to acknowledge God as his source, man has also upset the relationship which should link him to his last end, and at the same time he has broken the right order that should reign within himself as well as between himself and other men and all creatures.

    The consequences of Adam's sin for humanity:

    402: All men are implicated in Adam's sin, as St. Paul affirms: "By one man's disobedience many (that is, all men) were made sinners": "sin came into the world through one man and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all men sinned." The Apostle contrasts the universality of sin and death with the universality of salvation in Christ. "Then as one man's trespass led to condemnation for all men, so one man's act of righteousness leads to acquittal and life for all men."

    403: Following St. Paul, the Church has always taught that the overwhelming misery which oppresses men and their inclination towards evil and death cannot be understood apart from their connection with Adam's sin and the fact that he has transmitted to us a sin with which we are all born afflicted, a sin which is the 'death of the soul'. Because of this certainty of faith, the Church baptizes for the remission of sins even tiny infants who have not committed personal sin.

    404: How did the sin of Adam become the sin of all his descendants? The whole human race is in Adam 'as one body of one man'. By this 'unity of the human race' all men are implicated in Adam's sin, as all are implicated in Christ's justice. Still, the transmission of original sin is a mystery that we cannot fully understand. But we do know by Revelation that Adam had received original holiness and justice not for himself alone, but for all human nature. 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. It is a sin which will be transmitted by propagation to all mankind, that is, by the transmission of a human nature deprived of original holiness and justice. And that is why original sin is called 'sin' only in an analogical sense: it is a sin 'contracted' and not 'committed' - a state and not an act. 3

  • Baptists generally deviate markedly from the Westminister Confession with regard to original sin. The Calvinistic Second London and Philadelphia confessions stress a person's "... actual sins rather than inherited guilt." 4

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The ethical problem of personal vs. collective responsibility:

An ethical dilemma is posed by several parts of the Genesis 3 story: In most of the world's religious and secular ethical systems, a person who commits a crime or who engages in sinful behavior must accept the full responsibility for their act(s). If one person robs a bank, the police arrest the person, not their father, their child, a neighbor, or a person down the street of the same religion, etc. If a man commits a criminal or otherwise outrageous act, it is usually considered immoral to blame all males for the actions of one person. Similarly, it is normally considered immoral to blame all persons of the same nationality, religion, race, sexual orientation, gender identity, etc. along with the person who actually did the deed. In a just society, only the individual would be punished .

Yet, if we assume that Genesis 3 is an accurate description of a real event in the Garden of Eden, then - according to some Christian interpretations of the passage -- we observe three profoundly unethical consequences of Adam and Eve eating the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil:

  • The sin of Eve in disobeying God's command is imputed or transferred to her children, her grand children and even to the entire present human population, some 240 generations removed. All are punished for Eve's sin, even though all were born after she ate the fruit.

  • The similar sin of Adam is also imputed to all present day humans, some 6,000 years later.

  • Of considerably less concern to humans is that present-day snakes are being punished for the actions of a single ancestor, circ 4004 BCE.

Imputation or transference of responsibility for a sinful or criminal act from one person to a group of individuals  appears unjust and irrational to most modern individuals who live in a country where individual human rights are paramount. However, original sin is merely the first example of a scapegoating theme that runs throughout the Bible. There are numerous examples in the Bible which imply that it is OK to blame or punish an innocent person for the sins of a guilty person.

Some Christian faith groups who believe in original sin have attempted to explain the process of imputation in a number of ways:

bullet Some suggest that it flows logically from the covenant that God made with Adam as a representative of all humanity. Even though other humans did not give their consent to the covenant, they are considered still bound by it.

bullet

According to the concept of traducianism, Adam and his descendents are one. Each human's soul is derived from the souls of their immediate parents. This implies that God only created one soul: Adams. Eve's soul and the souls of all of their descendents were derived from Adam's. 5 Thus all people who have ever lived have shared Adam's soul and thereby his original sin. Paul support this belief when he wrote Romans 5:12:

"Wherefore, as by one man sin entered into the world, and death by sin; and so death passed upon all men, for that all have sinned." 6

Yet in spite of every effort by theologians, original sin seems to many people to be a really fundamental violation of natural justice.

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A modern-day parable:

Author Paul Alan Laughlin, a liberal Christian, drew an analogy between the story of Genesis 3 and "a more modern scenario." 7 The following parable is based on his tale:

A woman bakes a batch of cookies for a party. She warns her twins, aged 3, to not eat any. She explained to them, deceitfully, that If they did, then she would kill them. Not thinking things through carefully, she placed the cookies on a table, easily accessible to the twins. A brother who was older, wiser and more mature that the twins asked whether their mother had forbidden them to eat anything in the house. The girl twin, Edna, said that mother had only forbidden them to eat the cookies -- on pain of death. The older brother chuckled and told his sister that parents did that a lot. He said: "Of course she wouldn't kill you. She simply wants to deny you the pleasure of munching on the cookies. She doesn't want to share the cookies. She wants to keep them all to herself."  Edna does exactly what any adult could predict: she eats one. Then, she persuades her twin brother Albert to eat another.

The mother returns, not aware of the twin's disobedience. She notices crumbs on the table and on the twins' lips. She correctly concludes that the twins have eaten cookies. She flies into a rage, beats them, and throws them out of the house to fend for themselves. She cuts them out of her will. She does all she can to make the lives of any future descendents of the twins miserable.

An outside observer might wonder why the mother did not have the sense to prevent the theft by putting the cookies out of reach of the twins. The observer would probably consider her an abusive parent for treating her children so harshly for simply doing what kids will naturally do. The observer might well consider the mother's actions indefensible, because the children are barely out of the toddler stage. They have no moral sense -- they cannot really differentiate between right and wrong.

Laughlin concludes that in Genesis 3:

"We call this God 'just' and 'righteous' for putting temptation close at hand and punishing people who, in their naive and childlike innocence, couldn't have known any better than to do a deed that any deity (or human) with common sense could have foreseen and prevented."

Webmaster's Comments: Bias alert!

Laughlin's parable talks about two toddlers, while Genesis 3 discusses Adam and Eve -- two adults. However the four people are morally comparable, because Genesis 3 implies that Adam and Eve were created without a moral sense -- with no knowledge of right or wrong -- just as toddlers lack such knowledge. Only gods had such knowledge at the time. It was only after the two ate of the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil that they developed a moral sense, and thus could be held responsible disobeying God. But he blamed them, and their billions of descendents, anyway.

I sometimes wonder what impact it would have had if passages in the Bible rigidly held perpetrators responsible for any wrongdoing, and condemned situations in which uninvolved, innocent people was blamed. Consider:

  • Human slavery: In the 19th century, many Christian pastors and theologians claimed that the enslavement of African Americans was just because of the "Curse of Ham." That referred to an undefined transgression by Ham -- one of Noah's sons. That led to the curse that Canaan -- Ham's son -- and all his descendents were destined to be slaves. 8 Somehow, for no obvious rational reason, Canaan's descendents became associated with Blacks. Strangely, the descendants of Ham's other sons were not held guilty for their grandfather's sin, nor was Ham himself -- the only perpetrator.

  • Islamophobia: Many people blame all Muslims for the terrorist attack by 19 Muslims fanatics at the World Trade Center, Pentagon and an unknown location in Washington DC. This has made life in America difficult for many Muslims who reject violence as a method of changing society. Even worse, many Sikhs have been attacked on the basis that they look a lot like Muslims.

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References used:

The following information sources were used to prepare and update the above essay. The hyperlinks are not necessarily still active today.

  1. St Augustine, "City of God," xiii. 3.
  2. Phil Roberts, "Hereditary Total Depravity Pervades Denominationalism," Truth Magazine, 1987-JAN-01, at: http://www.truthmagazine.com/
  3. "Catechism of the Catholic Church," The Roman Catholic Church, at: http://www.vatican.va/
  4. Dr. Lemke, "Distinctive Baptist beliefs," SBC Today, 2011-AUG-25, at: http://sbctoday.com/
  5. "Traducianism," Wikipedia, as on 2013-FEB-26, at: http://en.wikipedia.org/
  6. "Imputation - The connection of humanity to Adam and Eve," ChristianBeliefs.org, at: http://christianbeliefs.org/
  7. Paul Laughlin, "Remedial Christianity: What every believer should know about the faith, and probably doesn't," Polebridge Press, (2000), Page 153. Read reviews or order this book safely from Amazon.com online book store.
  8. Tony Evans, "Are Black People Cursed? The Curse of Ham," Eternal Perspective Ministries, 2010-JAN-18, at: http://www.epm.org/

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Copyright © 2013 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Originally written: 2013-MAR-06
Latest update: 2013-MAY-06
Author: B.A. Robinson

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