How Original Sin Impacts Christianity

Alan Jacobs, English Professor at Wheaton College, in his book, ORIGINAL SIN, takes an in-depth look at how, since the time of St. Paul,  thoughts on original sin have shaped the history of Western thought.  The effects of “original sin” have not just been the dominate influence on human behavior as Western Christianity sees it, nor is its influence limited to theology and preaching,  but reflections on and reaction to the idea of original sin have shaped the notions of governance, hierarchy, law, punishment, the 18th Century Enlightenment, child rearing, education, philosophy, ideas of what it means to be human, debates on nature vs nurture, psychology, sociology, and evil.

Jacobs presents a detailed look at how various Christian spokespersons have applied their thoughts on original sin to their times and flocks.  This is not always a pretty picture, for the curative reaction against original sin has at times been a justification for abusive forms of punishment, the mistreatment of children, and the idea of assigning unbaptized babies to the eternal fires of hell.  Jacobs does offer a few ideas from outside of Western Christian tradition at how others have dealt with the notion of original sin in their own scriptures and myths.  He touches upon the Jewish reaction against such teachings, and acknowledges that Eastern Orthodox Christianity has not embraced the same ideas as the West, though he admits to not comprehending the Orthodox view.

The notion of original sin and its impact on Western civilization can be traced back to the writings of St. Paul and his exegesis of the Adam and Eve story in Genesis.  It is the interpretations of his writings which so influenced Christianity, and pushed notions of “original sin” to the forefront of Christian theology.

Why humans are not “naturally” inclined toward doing good, toward pleasing God, is something that has puzzled those inspired by God in the Jewish tradition from the beginning.  Logically, it has something to do with free will –  for free will to be true, there must be the possibility that humans can choose between good and evil, AND good and evil must be equally attractive, or otherwise there is no real freedom of choice.  Yet Scripture presents the disappointing story that humans do not even seem to arise to goodness 50% of the time, as mere randomness would have it.  Rather, humans are attracted to the evil.

Before the Great Flood annihilates all life on earth:

The LORD saw that the wickedness of humankind was great in the earth, and that every inclination of the thoughts of their hearts was only evil continually. And the LORD was sorry that he had made humankind on the earth, and it grieved him to his heart.   (Genesis 6:5-6)

After the Flood waters have resided:

… the LORD said in his heart, “I will never again curse the ground because of humankind, for the inclination of the human heart is evil from youth; nor will I ever again destroy every living creature as I have done.”   (Genesis 8:21)

The scriptures have it that even God the Creator does not know what to make of or how to deal with His failed human creatures.  God seems to acquiesce and accept that He will have to work with these beings He created, but who stubbornly gravitate toward wickedness, even when that harms them.  

Though Augustine and the Christian tradition tried to make sense of humanity by working out causality, God Himself does not speculate about human nature;  rather, He adapts His plans and thinking to the errant nature of these creatures He has made. In Genesis, God does not blame Satan, the serpent, or original sin for the wickedenss of humans.

God’s first attempt at dealing with human free will is simply to give them a rule – don’t eat from the Tree of Good and Evil.  But if He expected the humans to intuit goodness from this rule and to simply obey it, He was greatly disappointed.  God, however, does not attempt to stop the humans from taking the forbidden fruit, which can make us wonder why, since He will intervene and prevent the humans from taking fruit from the Tree of Life by expelling Eve and Adam from the Garden of Eden.   Humans are not automatons, and God allows them to follow their hearts and to experience the grave consequences of their behavior.  This seems part of His plan, however irrational it appears to us.   The Bible is comfortable with mystery, though Bible readers often are not.

God’s next effort at dealing with the inclination of the human heart is the story of the Cataclysmic Flood whose purpose was to drown wickedness in the world.  This too as noted in the Genesis passages above (6:5-6) does not have the desired impact on humanity.  God recognizes that there is something about humanity which defies logic (8:21). 

Next in the series:  Original Sin: The Allure of Death