Fear, pain, guilt, shame…
Misery, insecurity, conflict, alienation…
Greed, hate, exploitation, violence…Death.
This is the world we live in. It has been this way in all times and all places. It is our human condition. Sometimes it is somewhat bearable; other times it is severe beyond measure.
How did we get this way? Some tell us it is because of Adam.
They say when the world was young everything was perfect, life was easy, and conflict and death did not exist. But Adam, they say, destroyed perfection with a single act of disobedience, and since then the world is broken, evil abounds, and death is a constant threat to all of us. Not only that, but we face an even worse prospect in that most of us will burn eternally in hell.
All because of what Adam did—once upon a time, because his ‘sin’ is transmitted to all of us in a form called ‘original sin’. We now have a sinful nature. We are all guilty of Adam’s sin, and that is why burning hell is prepared for us if we don’t discover the secret of avoiding it.
Why would they think this?
Adam and Paul
This dread and depressing scenario is based on two major passages from the Bible. The first is the story of the Garden of Eden. As we discussed last time, the story of Eden is a sage reflection on the human condition using fanciful storytelling; it is quite good, actually. But it is not historical, and in my opinion it wasn’t intended to be taken that way.
But many misread the story as literal and conclude that it is historical: Adam and Eve had a perfect world and lost it due to disobedience. This is a widespread interpretation, but there is nothing in the story to suggest transmission of ‘original sin’ from Adam to his descendants. In fact, Ezekiel 18 suggests that, ‘The child will not share the guilt of the parent, nor will the parent share the guilt of the child.’
The second foundation of the idea of original sin comes from Paul. Romans 5 reads:
If, by the trespass of the one man, death reigned through that one man, how much more will those who receive God’s abundant provision of grace and of the gift of righteousness reign in life through the one man, Jesus Christ!
Paul is talking about Adam and Jesus. But notice that the contrast here is not between original sin and salvation but between death and life. In the story of Eden, death was the consequence for Adam’s disobedience; in contrast, Jesus brings us eternal life: For the quality of our current lives and also in our resurrection.
Jesus conquers death.
Consequently, just as one trespass resulted in condemnation for all people, so also one righteous act resulted in justification and life for all people. For just as through the disobedience of the one man the many were made sinners, so also through the obedience of the one man the many will be made righteous.
Many believers say this proves the existence of original sin inherited from Adam. But others say, ‘Not so fast!’
What Is Paul Talking About
In these chapters, Paul makes a sustained argument about the superior power of Jesus’ work in our lives as opposed to the weaker power of our sinfulness. In passing, he compares the impact of Jesus to the impact of Adam. I believe he is simply giving an illustration—not making a doctrinal statement. Making it a doctrinal statement goes beyond Paul’s intent.
Notice that he says that, just as the many were made sinners, the many will be made righteous. It is the same many. Paul speaks of condemnation for all and justification and life for all; it is the same all. Pressing his illustration too hard leads to universalism.
But in this same chapter Paul says:
Sin was in the world before the law was given, but sin is not charged against anyone’s account where there is no law.
Before the law of Moses sin was not charged to anyone; and the implication is that, because of Jesus, sin is no longer charged to us.
Now some will challenge my opinion that Paul is only making an illustration, but it does not matter. Even if Paul did think Adam was historical it doesn’t mean he was. Like every writer in the Bible, Paul wrote from the limitations of his time, culture, and comprehension. Even though I think Paul had tremendous insight and we would be at a tremendous loss without him—he was not inerrant.
If you believe Paul was inerrant and that these passages teach original sin, then questioning this understanding might lead to considerable discomfort. It certainly did for me; as a literalist and an inerrantist, it was dealing with this very passage that plunged me into more than a year of terrible anguish and mourning the loss of God—until I found Jesus as the foundation of all my belief instead of an inerrant Bible—or an inerrant Paul.
If you are interested in my crisis and its resolution, you can read it at Grieving the Loss of God.
What Other Explanation Can there be for Our Tendency to Sin?
The essence of what we call ‘sin’ is not breaking God’s rules (that is Law–legalism); it is the way we treat each other causing pain, alienation, and all the other words mentioned at the beginning of this article.
There is no doubt that we are messed up, that we are inclined to hurt each other in small ways, serious ways, and sometimes extreme ways. If this is not due to the sin of Adam, then what reasonable explanation can there be for our condition? We will talk about that next time.
Articles in this series: Sin and Forgiveness
The Story of Sin and Salvation—Common Baggage Version (CBV)
What is Sin but Pain and Alienation?
Addressing Sin in the Old Testament
The Prophets Begin to Talk about Sin in a New Way
What Does Jesus Say about Sin? Not Much!
The Misguided Concept of ‘Loving the Sinner and Hating the Sin’
What does Jesus’ Death on the Cross Do for Us?
How Substitutionary Atonement Fails
Why Did Jesus Die on the Cross?
Does Jesus Tell Us to Judge People in Matthew 18?
Are Sins Primarily Sins against God?
“If There’s No Hell then I Will Sin All I Want!”
Problems with the Sinner’s Prayer
What does the Story of Eden Tell Us? Is it about Sin?
We Do Not Inherit Original Sin from Adam
Original Sin or Original Self-Centeredness?
Who Does God Refuse to Forgive?