This is the second blog in a series based upon my reading of Alan Jacobs’ book, ORIGINAL SIN. The first blog is How Original Sin Impacts Christianity. In that blog, we see Genesis not teaching “original sin” as some inherited sin and guilt which controls human. Rather, God finds Himself having to deal with a humans whose hearts are inclined to wickedness: no explanation is offered as to why, it is an accepted given. God attempts to drown wickedness out of humanity in the Flood story, but this effort fails, so a new plan of action is adopted by the Lord.
God gives His chosen people Torah, as a means for them to choose and embrace goodness themselves. This too does not rid the people of wickedness or of disbelief. In fact, the history of the Jews as recorded in scriptures is a fairly dismal history of failure to keep the Law by the leadership and by the people. The miracle is that despite all failure, they kept a sense of being a people, and of being a people of the Law.
Then God sends His Son into the world, which comes as a surprise to all. The incarnate God takes on the human heart, inclined toward wickedness, and the human body with its mortal nature. God brings about a new union between Divinity and humanity.
This is what stops the Pharisee Saul in his tracks, resulting in him rethinking the whole relationship of himself and the chosen people to God. Maybe it is not mere obedience that God is demanding from us. The issue is to be faithful to God, directed toward God, even when our hearts incline toward wickedness constantly. God is not demanding that we be robots perfectly grinding out each predetermined motion. God wants us to work on our hearts, to love, to resist the ways in which mortality and sin pull us away from Him. It is almost as if we are attracted to mortality, as if it has a power to draw us away from God, and in that distorted sense we use our free will to prove our freedom by showing God we are not His automatons and we can act freely and independently of Him. Bizarrely, the logic is that death proves we are free beings – freed of the domination of God. Thus by a strange rationalization, death causes us to sin, as the sure means to exert our freedom from God’s dominion: if we die it proves we are free from God’s control!
“This is how many Greek theologians read Paul’s Greek (in Romans 5:12): ‘As sin came into the world through one man and death through sin, so death spread to all men; and because of death, all men have sinned.” (p 55, note)
While all of this makes sense of Adam, and of Christ, it really is a description of the human condition rather than a prescription. There still is at work in humanity, deep in our hearts, an attraction toward wickedness, which is acknowledged by the incarnate Son of God. For Jesus taught:
“For it is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come: fornication, theft, murder, adultery, avarice, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, folly. All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person” (Mark 7:21-23).
It is the Orthodox interpretation of Paul in Romans 5:12, “that because of death, all men have sinned,” which leads the Orthodox especially to see the final enemy of humankind as death, not sin. It is death, mortality, which has lured humanity into its grasp, and which holds humanity captive. Satan’s deception is in telling Eve that disobeying God will not lead to death, but it does. The humans are willing to deceive themselves into believing that disobedience to God is freedom and will not lead to mortality. Death is our captor and jailor. It is Christ who sets us free from this imprisonment to sin, death, and self.
The problem with some of the thinking on “original sin” is that first it reduces sin to a juridical failure to keep the law, whereas the original problem is that humans chose death over God. Our ancestral sin is not mere disobeying a commandment but making a choice between God and death, and choosing death as the preferred path. The lesson of Adam and Eve is their, and as prototypes of humanity, thus our willfully choosing something other than God. Not only do we not choose something good or beautiful, but something destructive and evil: it is a total failure for humans to love and to be in the image of the Trinity of Beings which is the God who is love.
Jacobs’ book is no doubt a fair assessment of how Western Christianity came to allow a particular interpretation of “original sin” not just to be an explanation of what causes human behavior, but to dominate our thinking about what it is to be human. The history of Western Christian thinking as shaped by “original sin” can be seen in three sample quotes from the book:
“If we cannot understand how humanity got from innocence to experience, from obedience to rebellion, from fellowship with God to alienation from him, we certainly cannot imagine our way back into that aboriginal state.” (p 44)
“From time to time in Western history, a vision of the greatness of human moral potential emerges or arises, only to find an immediate counter in an equally potent and vivid picture of human bondage to the sin we all inherit from Adam.” (p 127)
“What remains – and this is the chief task of his (Jonathan Edwards) long book—is to argue that ‘the great Christian doctrine of original sin’ is the best explanation for this ‘apparent and acknowledged fact’ of human ‘ruin.’” (p138)