Why I Believed, Let Go, and then Returned to the Doctrine of Original Sin
This past weekend, two of our church participants, Laurel and Christian, asked the following questions:
“Did Adam and Eve understand the concept of evil prior to eating the fruit?
Otherwise, how would they even understand
the gravity of sin/all the consequences that came afterward?
To us, it seemed a little puzzling that sin could be such a severe punishment
if they didn’t fully understand that yet.
This brought to question as to whether humanity
truly had a fair choice/chance prior to the introduction of sin?”
Most Christians I know talk about the problem of evil this way:
A long time ago, God created the Heavens and the Earth.
And on the Earth, God fashioned a garden and placed two humans inside: Adam & Eve.
God told them they were free to eat from any tree in the garden, except one.
Everything was perfect in this garden.
There was no death.
There was no discrimination.
There was no heartache.
Everyone and every thing lived in perfect harmony.
But then, Adam & Eve rebelled.
They ate from the forbidden tree.
Their rebellion led to the introduction of sin on the earth.
And all of the devastation
that we know about today
occurs on the Earth as direct result of Adam and Eve's sin
But God sent God's one and only Son.
Who died on a cross for Adam & Eve & Everyone's sins
so that anyone who might believe in the Son
will then inherit a new, second Earth that God is creating.
This second earth will be like the garden of old
and all who are worthy will live in harmony once again.
While most Christians I know believe that this is true,
at some point some of us, like Laurel and Christian, pause and say,
"All of this sin... seems like a pretty harsh punishment for eating a piece of fruit."
This thought calls into question the theology behind the story.
And the theology has a name: The Doctrine of Original Sin.
There are two parts to this widely-accepted doctrine:
All sin, evil, and suffering entered the world through Adam & Eve’s first sin in the garden.
Every human being inherited the fallen nature of Adam & Eve and requires a Savior.
For the majority of my life, I agreed with this doctrine. It brought me a great amount of comfort as I faced the indiscriminate wrath of suffering in the world.
But what I did not understand when I believed in this doctrine,
is how this doctrine came to be an official belief of the church.
Where Did the Doctrine of Original Sin Come From?
Shortly after the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, a man named Paul wrote a letter to the church in Rome. In that letter, he said, "Therefore, just as sin came into the world through one man, and death came through sin, and so death spread to all because all have sinned..." (5:12)
Paul's argument here is that the law is what makes us aware that we are not perfect people, and to seek perfection is a fool's errand. But even before the law existed, the people of the earth lived imperfect lives as well.
About 300 years later...
An unknown theologian, who scholars refer to Ambrosiaster, attempted to translate Paul's letter into Latin, but they mistranslated the Greek phrase ἐφ᾿ ᾧ as "in whom" rather than "because" as shown in the translation above.
Because of this mistranslation, Ambrosiaster developed a theology in which one inherited sin rather than committed sin. They wrote, "So it is clear that all have sinned in Adam collectively, as it were. (Adam) was himself corrupted by sin, and all that were born were therefore all born under sin. From him therefore all are sinners, because we are all produced from him."
Just a little while later...
St. Augustine of Hippo read the work of Ambrosiaster and he quoted it directly when he was discussing a new idea: Original Sin. Augustine wrote, "Human nature was certainly originally created blameless and without any fault; but the human nature by which each one of us is now born of Adam requires a physician, because it is not healthy...But the weakness which darkens and disables these good natural qualities, as a result of which that nature needs enlightenment and healing, did not come from the blameless maker, but from original sin…For this reason our guilty nature is liable to a just penalty."
Augustine is considered the father of the concept of Original Sin, and he developed this theological idea over 300 years after the life of Jesus.
However, not everyone agreed with Augustine. A theologian in Rome, named Pelagius, pushed back on Augustine's ideas. He wrote, "We are not born in our full development, but with a capacity for good and evil...we are begotten without virtue as much as without fault... and before the activity of the individual will there is nothing in humans other than what God has placed in them."
In other words, when Pelagius looked at a baby, he saw the face of God.
And when Augustine looked at a baby, he saw the face of the Devil.
This debate between Augustine and Pelagius is known as "The Pelagian Controversy" in church history. This came to an end in 418 CE when the Council of Carthage met and voted in favor of Augustine's doctrine of original sin. The council officially declared, "If anyone says…that no original sin is derived from Adam to be washed away (by)… the baptismal formula…then let him be condemned!"
From that moment forward, the doctrine of Original Sin became an official belief of the western church.
What most Christians do not understand is this:
The church adopted the doctrine of Original Sin
largely because of the mistranslation of just one phrase.
But this doctrine becomes flimsier the closer your look at it:
The Hebrew word for sin, חטאת, isn't even in the first three chapters of Genesis.
In the words of Rabbi Simon Jacobsen, "The concept of 'Original Sin' does not exist in Judaism."
If you read Genesis 3 closely, God does not kick Adam and Eve out of the garden because they sinned. God kicks them out, because he is worried they will become as powerful as God is due to the the fact that they now understand the difference between good and evil! (Genesis 3:22
The Sanctity of Belief
Between this information, personal relationships, and rational thinking similar to the question that Laurel and Christian asked at the top of this blog, I went from believing in this doctrine wholeheartedly to completely letting go of the story of Adam and Eve
and any belief I had left in the doctrine of Original Sin.
And you know what I've found in eight years without believing this doctrine?
I have found that letting go of belief is sacred.
In fact, letting go of belief is just as sacred as believing.
Growing up, I lived under the impression that once I believed something, it would stay as a static part of my life for as long as I lived.
Instead, my experience has taught me that belief is much more dynamic in nature.
Belief always starts with trust.
And then that trust will move into doubt.
But then doubt gives way to hope.
Something like this:
The key to understanding this diagram is to always remember the human element.
So when you move from trust to doubt to hope and then return to trust again, you are never the same person.
Paradoxically, belief is cyclical in nature, but it can never be the same twice.
In my life, I trusted the doctrine of Original Sin.
Until, the suffering I witnessed became too great to rationalize.
This led to me doubting the doctrine, until I completely let it go.
Once it was let go, I started to hope that something better could happen.
And, wouldn't you know it...I think I believe in a reconstructed version of Original Sin now!
And this belief has given me great hope.
A Reconstructed Version of Original Sin
When I have spoken to other white Christians, some of them, when speaking about issues of racism, have said something along the lines of, "I don't understand what they want. It's not like I personally owned slaves!"
This statement reveals something about what the speaker believes:
They believe that they shouldn't be held accountable for the sins of their ancestors.
Which is strange,
because if you ask this same white Christian why there is evil in this world,
they will tell you,
"It's because God is holding us accountable for the sins of our ancestors, Adam and Eve!"
This is why I think it's important for progressive Christians to reclaim the doctrine of Original Sin.
Here's what I've come up with:
Any belief that someone is inherently bad, evil, and/or ignorant because they were simply born needs to be discarded immediately.
We have inherited many blessings from our ancestors (vaccines, public education, indoor plumbing, hand soap).
But we have also inherited many sins from our ancestors (climate crisis, racism, sexism, homophobia).
We must learn to harbor gratitude toward our inherited blessings.
But we must also work to make our inherited sins right.
And as we work toward making our inherited sins right, we must always do so with a posture of hope.
You may agree or disagree with this reconstructed version of Original Sin,
but in my life, I have found that this allows me to be a grateful person
while also having a strong desire to make right the sins I have inherited.
These ideas are adapted from a sermon I gave at Paradox Church. I would love for you to listen if you want to go deeper with these ideas.
The quotes from Ambrosiaster, Augustine, and Pelagius (as well as the context of the mistranslated phrase) are from McGrath's Christian Theology Read (3rd Edition)
The quote from Rabbi Simon Jacobsen is from this YouTube video.