Many Christians believe humanity is so broken, and nature so violent, because of Adam’s disobedience in the garden. They say the world was originally perfect but Adam ruined everything. Furthermore, all Adam’s descendants are born with ‘original sin’ and alienated from God because of Adam.
Other believers cannot accept this explanation of our brokenness. Yes, the world is very imperfect and often harsh. Yes, we are subject to the human condition of pain, suffering, conflict, alienation, and death, but none of this is caused by Adam’s alleged sin.
But if our problems are not caused by original sin from Adam, then how can we account for them?
What Do We Mean by Sin?
First, I think we must determine what we mean by sin. Many define sin as violating God’s rules (legalism), but I think Jesus’ teaching and example indicate otherwise. I think sin is our behaviors that hurt people.
Sure we need to align ourselves with God, but Jesus’ focus was never on keeping rules; instead his focus was on genuinely loving people, and he demonstrated it with empathy, compassion, and reconciliation. This was the product of his alignment with God.
And he taught us to do the same. In fact, the well-known Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7) is all about how to treat people rather than following rules. Jesus, himself, makes the contrast.
So sin is not breaking God’s rules; it is causing pain and suffering. We hurt people out of hate, greed, and hunger for power; or from fear, insecurity, and retaliation. But these all boil down to self-centeredness. Sin is a self-centeredness that puts our needs and desires above other people, whether it is aggressive or defensive.
So we hurt people; and people hurt us.
We live in a difficult world, and we ask why are things so tough. Why is suffering, alienation, and death so widespread? This is the question, but original sin from Adam is not the answer.
The Origin of Original Self-CenterednessOne source of our suffering is from natural forces; but nature is not hostile because Adam’s sin corrupted a perfect world. Nature is dangerous because of the way the world works: lightning, fires, floods; droughts, tornadoes, hurricanes; earthquakes, tsunamis, and volcanoes are all natural events for an active planet.
This is not a broken world; this is what happens on a living world. If these things were to stop we would have a dead, uninhabitable planet.
But the greater source of suffering is people hurting people, and I think the reason we do this so much is quite simple: it is a product of our evolutionary development. The driving force in life is survival; we see it clearly in animals.
This drive for survival requires a strong sense of self-centeredness, so there is rampant violence as animals search for both food and security. The most successful animals often have a strong sense of self-protection, protection of territory, and predation. This leads to violence against other animals in order to best assure survival.
We see these same issues among humans. But what distinguishes us from other living things is that we have a tremendous self-awareness that enables us to hurt others while being fully aware of what we are doing. Whereas animals prey on other animals for their own benefit, they do so without awareness of morality. When humans do the same thing, we do so knowing the pain and suffering we cause. But we do it anyway.
We learned long ago that we can survive peacefully with cooperation rather than conflict, yet we still bring harm to others as we exploit them to our advantage. In our greed we want to take their resources and potential for ourselves. In response, those who feel vulnerable resist with violence in defense of their own preservation.
The Remedy for Self-Centeredness
I believe when humans grew beyond the animal stage we retained our self-centered sense of survival and only gradually developed a stronger moral sense. We began to realize other people are like us and experienced empathy.
But far too many continue to exploit others for selfish purposes. Greed, power, and hate still drive us to slavery, genocide, war (and hurting people in smaller ways) because of our continuing self-centeredness. But there are those who lead us against this way of pain and violence.
Jesus is among the most significant. He demonstrates this most clearly in his example of embracing the marginalized and offering genuine love, healing, and reconciliation. But his teaching adds words to his actions.
Jesus teaches us to genuinely love other people—all other people, even those who are our enemies. He teaches us to forgive instead of retaliating. He teaches us to be agents of reconciliation rather than perpetrators of hate and violence.
Loving people with empathy, compassion, and care is the opposite of ‘sin’ and should be the guiding principle of our lives as followers of Jesus.
Now Jesus is not unique in saying these sorts of things, but he is unique in other ways. As a representative of God, he teaches us that God is not angry, wrathful, and thin-skinned as many suppose, and he resolves our feelings of guilt and alienation. Jesus also tells us of eternal life, which he secured by his resurrection.
Jesus’ teaching and example empower us to drastically reduce our self-centeredness as we genuinely care about other people—all of them. Our greed, hate, and exploitation is replaced by empathy, compassion, and care. Our guilt, fear, and alienation is healed by God’s love, which allows us to embrace other people—all other people.
This is the remedy for our human condition. We are human, and we are no longer bound by the self-centeredness we inherit from our evolutionary development. We are free to replace our aggression with love.
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?