Original Sin or Original Self-Centeredness?

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.

Recently, I shared that the story of Eden is not an historical account but a marvelous reflection on our human condition. In the following article I determined that ‘original sin’ does not exist.

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-Centeredness

Early Man

Possible face of prehuman ancestor. By Losdelpalito (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0], via Wikimedia Commons

One 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?

See also:

What Does Jesus Think of Sinners Today?

*****

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48 Responses to Original Sin or Original Self-Centeredness?

  1. Thank you for your message. It is challenging to an old fundamentalist. But I know I need such challenges.

    Liked by 2 people

    • sheila0405 says:

      I know what you mean. I was raised as a fundamentalist. It took fifty years for me to really start examining my faith.

      Liked by 1 person

    • jesuswithoutbaggage says:

      Robert, welcome on board the Old Fundamentalist Club. I was such a fundamentalist! Fortunately, I began questioning my fundamentalist beliefs when I was in my 20s. It has been slow, but I have come a long way; I am 64.

      I hope you continue to visit us and interact as you are inclined.

      Like

  2. sheila0405 says:

    I’d like to see you explore this topic more deeply. How does Jesus enable people to embrace loving others rather than hurt others? Other religions also teach this concept of loving others. What makes Jesus special, in that sense?

    Liked by 1 person

    • jesuswithoutbaggage says:

      Good question, Sheila.

      I believe what Jesus says about a God who loves us fully and unconditionally. If we try to love people only because Jesus commanded us to, then that is not much different than legalism and neither are the results.

      But when we begin to internalize God’s immense love for us and his/her desire to heal our emotional wounds and to bring about our reconciliation with ourselves and with him…and when we begin to see other people as God sees all of us…Then love with its empathy, compassion, and care rushes up from our heart so that we can love ourselves and other people–all other people.

      Awareness of God’s love leads us to love others and counters the predation, fear, and hate we have for them. Did I help answer the question, or can you clarify further?

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Chas says:

    Tim, I really liked your post, because it sums up the situation on earth pretty well. It seems to me that mankind has been well served by its women, but it is the men who have been the originators of war and conflict. As you have stated, this almost certainly came from the territorial behavior of animals, and we can easily see that hunters in a hunter-gatherer society would regard territory as their own. By contrast, the women would be in a tight-knit group from their own village and would rarely meet women from other villages. The time that society would begin to change would come with the development of agriculture and its associated trade and marketing. When this came, the men would need to meet and co-operate, rather than posture or fight.

    In regard to self-centredness, a significant problem in our society is that certain forms of suffering during in childhood cause an increase in self-centredness, so some of our problems in society are increasing, through a ‘feedback’ loop. It is of significance that we have been through similar times in the past, when criminal activity has been high. The more recent of these have been brought to an end, or severely reduced, when Christian revivals took place and brought about social reforms or other improvements. Usually, these revivals made people become more conscious of their own behavior and how adverse behavior on their part could affect the well-being of others.

    Liked by 1 person

    • jesuswithoutbaggage says:

      Good stuff, Chas. I think you are right that men tend to be responsible for most of the visible and massive damage to other people with war and fighting. Many men seem to like conflict and battle, whether in war or on a day to day basis.

      This probably comes from the fact that violence against others helped ancient males maintain their territory, gain new territory, and protect their assets including their women. On the other hand, women can sometimes be quite hurtful to others in their own village, that you mention, as they seek their own advantage. I think self-centeredness applies to us all.

      You make a good point that bad experiences in early life can intensify our problems as adults and create a feedback loop. This is part of why I think child-rearing should be done as appropriately as possible, and also why we should always present proper behaviors and responses in front of our children. Yelling, hitting, and other negative behaviors repeat themselves; children copy those behaviors and the world becomes more alienated.

      Like

  4. fiddlrts says:

    Good post. One of my thoughts in the matter is that I have always found it easier to believe in pure evil than in pure good. In other words, it seemed to me that it was easier to find an evolutionary explanation for altruism than it was for senseless hurting of others. If you look hard enough, you can nearly always find an advantage to altruism (at least in the sense of what is good for the tribe is good for the individual in some sense.) Where Christ goes beyond is in his ideal of love where there is no apparent advantage whatsoever. Love as an end, not a means.

    On the evil side, the proof to me that evil exists in some form beyond simple selfishness is the human tendency to harm others where there is no advantage – and even serious disadvantages. This is the killing of a stranger for thrills, with no gain. This is the abuse of children. The things that seem to bring no “advantage” in the evolutionary sense, merely some sort of sick psychological payoff. (Not that this isn’t found in nature – watch a cat torment a mouse…) But this is where a purely Darwinian explanation is hard to find. Since we are rational and moral creatures, if there is no evolutionary advantage and no personal advantage to be had, one is left with insanity or evil, and I don’t find that insanity covers sociopaths entirely.

    I very much agree that there is a problem in Fundamentalism (and most of American Christianity at present) where sin is considered breaking the rules. This focus draws attention away from the ways we harm others – and allows us to rationalize that harm.

    Liked by 1 person

    • jesuswithoutbaggage says:

      “Where Christ goes beyond is in his ideal of love where there is no apparent advantage whatsoever. Love as an end, not a means.” Wow, Fiddlrts, what a statement! Well said, and I think it connects to the problem of fundamentalism you mention.

      Why do fundamentalists who work hard to follow God’s’ rules’, including loving the ‘sinner’ so often hurt other people in the name of God? I think part of it is because the ‘love others’ in response to God’s command, not because love wells up in their hearts. It is as though we must love sinners by bashing them until they straighten up. Maybe their advantage is getting to heaven by keeping a rule they don’t understand.

      As to the difficulty of seeing an evolutionary reason for killing a stranger for the thrill, you may be right, but I would suggest two possibilities. The first is a feeling of power, which is often central to self-centered people–even well-known pastors.

      The second is the result of genetics or early trauma in childhood; these would not necessarily assist in survival, but there are always those who don’t survive in every generation. And those who would not survive in archaic times can survive nonetheless because the risks of poor survival behaviors are less powerful in modern times.

      Of course, I don’t know an exhaustive answer to the question; I am just thinking off the top of my head. You might think of a better answer to the question that does not involve our evolutionary heritage of survival. Any thoughts?

      Like

      • Chas says:

        Tim, I too have been challenged by fiddlrts’ points querying the application of Darwinian thinking to doing things that the perpetrator knows will cause suffering. Unlike, fiddlrts, I am firmly of the view that the reason is mental illness, rather than simply ‘evil’. If we look at the effect of extreme violent behavior, in primitive societies, such a person would likely be killed by the others in the society, because they were feared, and/or seen as a threat to the society. So such persons would be eliminated from the society. However, since we have developed compassionate societies, we no longer kill people in this way. In extreme cases, in which it is judged that a person is a serious and ongoing threat to the wellbeing of people, society finds it necessary to lock them away and keep them there.

        As I have written before, there appears to be increasing evidence that smoking cannabis can lead to chemically-induced changes to the brain that result in behaviors like those of psychopathy. In particular, this seems to apply to many of the suicide-bombers, who also have a history of minor criminality before they started to smoke cannabis; does this show that were they already damaged in some way?

        It is in the area of relatively mild behavior that the line is more blurred. I know of a case in which someone willfully behaved badly in order to get his brother into trouble with his mother, although it meant that he himself had to suffer too (both were smacked ‘in order to get the right one’). Why did he do that? Was it ‘evil’ in him, or was he actually mentally ill in some way? Are we able to say that his behavior was abnormal and so suggest that it might have been mental illness? All I know is that he was my uncle and the victim was my father, who was intelligent enough, and humble enough, to start to cry as soon as my grandmother laid hand on him, so she stopped smacking him. I also know that I did not feel very comfortable in my uncle’s company when I was a child, and never really tuned into his humor when I became a teenager and an adult.

        Liked by 2 people

        • sheila0405 says:

          Go to You Tube and search for Sam Harris in Sydney, where he discuses the concept of free will. He gives a thought experiment to the audience, and builds on that experiment for his argument that the concept of free will isn’t so clear as we have always accepted it to be.

          Like

          • Chas says:

            Sheila, I am sure that we have a degree of lack of free will, because we have been pre-programmed by the circumstances of our upbringing to an extent, so our response to a given situation will be influenced by that.

            Liked by 1 person

        • jesuswithoutbaggage says:

          Chas, the complexities of our behavior run very deep. I think you ask good questions and provide good suggestions, and this is a topic we can ponder and discuss with profit for a long time.

          Of course, the evolutionary model I propose is too simple to address the entire question of why we are ‘messed up’. But my objective is specifically to counter the, what I consider to be misguided, explanation of those who teach original sin from Adam and a terrible penal substitution atonement that completely twists the character of a loving God.

          I really like your reflections on this important, but difficult, question.

          Like

      • fiddlrts says:

        Definitely an interesting thing to think about, and I appreciate all of the responses.

        I guess what is most troubling to me is the love of infliction of pain on others for its own sake. Whether there is a satisfactory evolutionary explanation or not, it would seem front and center to Christ’s ethic – senseless cruelty is the antithesis of senseless love, as “love your enemies” would seem to be on first glance. I’ll be thinking about this for a long time – perhaps forever. As Clive James said, “When we talk about the imponderables of life, we don’t really mean that we can’t ponder them. We mean that we can’t stop.”

        Liked by 1 person

  5. mandibelle16 says:

    I agree with much of what you said. I think you focus on one sin ‘hurting other people’ then sin as a whole. Sin is the twisting of what is good. Literally, translated in the bible as “to miss the mark” or fall short of God and his son Jesus who are perfect. Romans 3:23 – ” All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God,”

    Also, we do have original sin and this effects our entire universe, each other, our souls. We are not innately good because of this original sin and our own. We can still do good things. Jesus makes us good, he takes what is bad and turns it for the good of all. Ephesians 2:1-3 – ” . . . You were dead in your trespasses and sins, which you formerly walked according to the Prince of power of the air, of the spirit that is now working in the sons of disobedience. Among them we too all formerly lived in the lusts of our flesh, indulging the desires of the flesh and mind, and were by nature children of wrath, even as the rest.”
    Thanks

    Liked by 1 person

    • jesuswithoutbaggage says:

      Hi Mandibelle. You say that I focus on only one sin among others, and that sin is the twisting of what is good. I like your idea that sin involves twisting that which is good, but what are a few examples of what you mean by this tern? I am very interested to know.

      Liked by 1 person

      • mandibelle16 says:

        Hi, while my main view is that sin is ‘a mark’ as I stated that we do not measure up to God’s perfection (what he asks of us in the 10 commandments) and thus sent Jesus as a sacrifice, so we might be blameless before God, when we have faith; the twisting of what is good is something I learned from Paradise Lost by John Milton.

        Though, I recognize Milton’s epic is not “The Bible,” he uses a great deal of theology in his work. I think we very much twist what is good throughout our lives. We lie about where we are going, we have twisted the truth. We tell ourselves it’s alright to have four more beers when are already at our limit, we are twisting having beer which in itself is fine in moderation and becoming drunk/passing out etc. which isn’t alright. We tell ourselves we are alright to drive home drunk, we are twisting the truth, and the law, that says don’t drink and drive. We manipulate another person into doing some of our work for us, another twisting of what is right, simply asking the person to do something or doing our work ourselves. We listen to other people on TV, friends etc who cause us to believe things we know God has said in the Bible as wrong.

        There is Biblical validation for this. I’m just not really sure where. It’s been a few years since I’ve studied Paradise Lost.

        Thanks.

        Liked by 1 person

        • jesuswithoutbaggage says:

          Mandibelle, I agree with your perspective. The concept of ‘missing the mark’ and all that is involved in it cannot be captured by any one simple thought; it is more complex than that, I often focus on the hurting of others in order to counteract the misguided ideas of legalism. Were I writing a book, rather than short articles, I would love to explore it more broadly.

          I really appreciate the way you express it. Good examples!

          Liked by 1 person

  6. Roger Wolsey says:

    Indeed. Sin didn’t enter the world magically, or mythically, but rather, organically. “..sin is a way of life that is readily ingrained through the negative role-modeling of our families, leaders, and peers and the inertia of the past. With repetition, it becomes a destructive habit of the heart – both on the personal level and on the societal one.” — “A Progressive Christian view of Sin and Sinners” –
    http://www.patheos.com/blogs/rogerwolsey/2014/03/a-progressive-christian-view-of-sin-sinners/

    Roger Wolsey, author, “Kissing Fish: christianity for people who don’t like christianity”

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Jayneann says:

    Thank you, thank you! I just found your blog and will be returning to read more.
    Here’s my own, if you (or anyone) is interested. http://fiercejoyandhope.blogspot.com

    Liked by 1 person

  8. michaeleeast says:

    Love leads us to the other.
    To sacrifice for the other.
    Ultimately we experience the love of God.
    God teaches us to love.
    This is shown in Jesus.
    This is the way to life.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. Pingback: New Theological Ideas | DirtyHands

  10. luckyotter says:

    Reblogged this on Lucky Otter's Haven and commented:
    This is a wonderful post about the origins of narcissism, written by one of my new favorite bloggers.

    Liked by 1 person

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  27. Sorry, bit late to the party on this one! I like the approach you’re taking, and that’s a very interesting point about being on a living planet rather than necessarily a broken one.

    I’ve never really taken to the doctrine of original sin, and I personally prefer Irenaeus’s approach that creation, including humanity, was created immature and needs to grow up into perfection. Rather than that we are all born evil because of Adam.

    As a believer in biological evolution, I think that humans have a lot of traits hardwired into us from our evolutionary heritage as animals. Many of these make sense from an evolutionary standpoint but are no longer very helpful to us (violence, lust, greed etc), so as part of growing as people and communities we need to work on overcoming or accommodating them.

    What gets me about the classic evangelical teaching is that it smacks badly of unfairness. According to the doctrine, we’re born helplessly into sin without any choice, and we have no choice but to go on sinning until Christ saves us. Then unless we actively choose Christ as our saviour we’re damned – and in this view, God is right and just to punish us. Yet we never chose to be born into sin and we couldn’t help ourselves sinning – so the whole thing seems terribly skewed. Particularly if you buy into extreme Calvinism where you have no choice at all!

    Liked by 1 person

    • jesuswithoutbaggage says:

      I like your comments, Harvey. And I agree with your thought that the classical evangelical view smacks of unfairness, which you described very well. This view is not really good news–it’s bad news, even if we are able to make the best of it.

      Like

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