The Universality of Death vs. the Inevitability of Sin

Every year at the beginning of Great Lent, the Orthodox Church remembers the expulsion of Adam and Eve from Paradise.  This ancestral sin affected the course of the human race.

Adam and Eve, whether or not historical figures, symbolize all of humanity in its relationship to God.  Their story is our story, and each of our lives is their story.  Sin has become part of human life, and sin has corrupted human nature such that even an act of repentance cannot heal the wound to humanity.  None of this implies that humans have lost free will or responsibility for their own sins.  We are not destined to sin, for sin comes from each human will, not from human nature.  Human nature has only been corrupted by the consequences of sin – mortality has become part of our existence.  So we can note how did the early Church Fathers understand the role of sin in our lives?  Church historian  Jaroslav Pelikan writes:

“Despite all the strong language about sin, however, the fundamental problem of man was not sin, but his corruptibility.  The reason the incarnation was necessary was that man had not merely done wrong–for this, repentance would have sufficed– but had fallen into a corruption, a transiency that threatened him with annihilation.  As the agent of creation who had called man out of nothing, the Logos was also the one to rescue him from annihilation.  This the Logos did by taking flesh.

For this theology, it was the universality of death, not the inevitability of sin, that was fundamental.  The statement of Romans 5:14 that ‘death reigned from Adam to Moses, even over those whose sins were not like the transgression of Adam,’ was taken  to prove that there were many who had been ‘pure of every sin,’ such as Jeremiah and John the Baptist.  It was death and corruption that stood in the way of man’s participation in the divine nature, and these had to be overcome in the incarnation of the Logos.”

That various people in the Old and New Testaments are considered righteous gets forgotten in the tsunami which Augustine’s idea of original sin came to represent especially in Western Christianity.  So the texts of St. Paul in Romans 3:10, 23 seem to erase the claims of the rest of Scripture: “ it is written: “None is righteous, no, not one…” and “… since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God…”   But human sinning did not mean that God no longer saw goodness in His creatures.  For even David is considered a man after God’s heart (1 Samuel 13:14).  Enoch, Noah, Abraham, Moses, Elijah, Daniel, Job, Zachariah, Elizabeth, John the Baptist, the Virgin Mary and Simeon the Elder just to name a few are righteous people in the Scriptures.  Instead of taking St. Paul’s words as the lens through which one must see all of humanity, we need to view St. Paul’s claims about all being sinners within the context of the entire Scriptures in which some people are identified as being righteous.  St. Paul himself acknowledges this in Romans 11:2-5 where he says:  “God has not rejected his people whom he foreknew. Do you not know what the scripture says of Elijah, how he pleads with God against Israel? ‘Lord, they have killed thy prophets, they have demolished thy altars, and I alone am left, and they seek my life.’ But what is God’s reply to him? ‘I have kept for myself seven thousand men who have not bowed the knee to Baal.’ So too at the present time there is a remnant, chosen by grace.” 

In 2 Chronicles 33 of the Septuagint, Manasseh prays:   “Surely, Lord, God of the heavenly Powers, You have not appointed repentance for the righteous, for Abraham and Isaac and Jacob, who did not sin against You; but You have appointed repentance for me a sinner.”

Since there are righteous people specifically named in the Scriptures, and some who may even be considered sinless, sinning is not the problem.  It is the fact that human nature has fallen under corruption, separated from God, we have become mortal beings.  It is from this that Christ comes to save us.  Focusing narrowly on “orginal sin” gives us an incomplete idea as to the salvation brought about by Jesus Christ.  Pelikan continues:

“… it is clear some fragments that have survived of a treatise AGAINST THE DEFENDERS OF ORIGINAL SIN by Theodore Mopsuestia that he ‘reiterates in effect that it is only nature which can be inherited, not sin, which is the disobedience of the free and unconstrained will.’ Despite their fundamental differences, the theory of the hypostatic union and the theory of the indwelling of the Logos both concentrated on death rather than on sin.”


Pelikan’s last point is that in the Christian East, the two main competing schools of thought in interpreting the Scriptures, the Alexandrians and the Antiochians, though their teachings conflicted were still in agreement that death and not sin was the human problem.  And though the Church East and West agreed on the theology of the hypostatic union against the indwelling of the Logos, all those disputants (Orthodox and heretic, Chalcedonian and Non-Chalcedonian) still thought the greater human problems was death rather than sin.  The Eastern tradition as a whole, and much of the West in accepting the decision of the 4th Ecumenical Council all embrace this same idea which in some ways is a rejection of the implications of “original sin” that Christ came mostly to pay the price for sin rather than to destroy death.