The Doctrine of Original Sin
I can’t really say that I was “raised in the church” like some of my friends, but growing up in the “Bible Belt South” certainly meant that at least half of the time I’d find myself in a service on Sunday morning, my sweaty legs resting uncomfortably against a hard church pew in a dress that I hated. The older ladies wearing their best hats, waving fans on themselves because summer in Georgia is more humid than people are comfortable talking about. The gentleman behind me in a worn suit, singing bass slightly off-key to a hymn I don’t think I’ll ever learn and the Reverend standing so close to the pulpit he’s leaning on it. He stands, Bible in hand, fist raised, shouting hellfire and brimstone at every believer in that room as well as anyone close enough to the open windows in the sanctuary to hear him. This was church for us Southern Baptists. And boy, when our preacher felt like he had gotten a word from the Lord, you better believe that he was going to tell everyone. (Can I get an Amen?)
One of his favorite things to preach on, aside from how R rated movies and teenagers were single-handedly responsible for ushering in the Great Tribulation, was the doctrine of original sin. He loved the idea so much that I thought he might have been a sadist. When I was a young child, I didn’t know to question such things, but as I grew both in age and in Yeshua, I learned to question everything. Because of this, I feel that it’s relevant to discuss an ideology so prevalent in the mainstream evangelical world that it could almost be likened to a sacred cow. The doctrine of original sin, or as some call it ancestral sin, states that because of Adam’s disobedience in the Garden of Eden that every single human being that has been born since Cain and Abel are born under a curse. That the very fabric of our humanity carries with it a scarlet letter that can never be washed away. We are all, every one of us, doomed at birth into a fallen and wretched state, bent on disobeying Elohim and relegated to paying for the sin of one man all the way back as far as recorded time.
I don’t know about you, but with something this potentially devastating for all of us, we really should study this one out. Where did the idea come from? Is it Biblical? Are all men born sinners, and if we are…then how do we explain Yeshua?
Let’s unpack this.
First things first, we need to see where this idea was birthed and began to grow, and then we can see how it fits within the framework of both the early church and the Bible.
Augustine of Hippo was born in Algeria in 354 AD in a Roman province called Numidia. He was born to a mother who was a devout Roman Christian and a father who was a pagan, only converting before his death. At the age of 11 he was sent to school and became friends with a group of boys. One afternoon, they decided to steal some fruit from a local farmer. As he recounts in his work, “Confessions”, he says that he wasn’t interested in the theft out of need or hunger, but because it was wrong to do it. He said that he loved his own indecency, and because he felt his own inclination toward sin he concluded that all humans must be the same way. Augustine of Hippo would go on to become a prolific writer, philosopher, and theologian who both knew the scriptures as well as the pagan concepts that he had learned from his father and the school that he attended as a boy. He dabbled in several other religions including Manichaeism and Neoplatonism before converting to Roman Christianity at the age of 32.
After becoming a celibate Roman priest, he began writing several papers that would become seminal works to both the early Roman Church as well as central to the ideologies of the fathers of the Reformation, particularly Martin Luther. His approach was unique, including points of belief from philosophy, the pagan religions with which he was familiar, and his own interpretation of the idea of grace and man’s will. With this information, he helped to formulate the doctrine of original sin within the Roman church, and because they already held his work, “On the Trinity” with high regard they very much esteemed this work as well. In fact, it was readily accepted into the Church and thus was born The doctrine of original sin. The idea that all men are born into sin, and predisposed to disobedience.
Augustine of Hippo was named a Saint by the Roman Church, given a place of prominence in western theological society and viewed as one of the most influential writers and fathers of the early church. This was, of course, after the famous councils of Nicaea and Constantinople that nearly gutted the beloved teachings of Yeshua and the Apostles in the first century. These were a series of ecumenical councils that abrogated the original teachings of the Holy Writ as defined in the Law and the Prophets, including Sabbath, dietary and ceremonial laws, doctrines and precepts. At these councils, nearly all previous teachings and theology were deemed “Jewish”, looked down on, and surreptitiously removed from church culture and instruction. This left an indelible mark on the way that almost the entire church body viewed Adam’s sin altering our notion of the grace of Messiah and how we are able to carry out our God-given function as believers (only contested by the Eastern Orthodox Church to this day). What began as a small idea in the mind of an 11-year-old boy has become one of the most widely believed tenets in the Church. But does it have its foundations in scriptural truth?
Aside from the fact that the concept of Hippo’s doctrine of original sin is nowhere taught in the entirety of scripture, believing it forces us into the odd position of doing theological gymnastics to reconcile scriptural inconsistencies. For instance, if all men are born into such a state then the idea itself implies that we, as irrevocably damaged, would deserve pity instead of punishment for our sins. It also implies that if YHVH doesn’t pity us then He is mean and unjust, and we would then understandably deserve protection from such a cruel and impersonal God. Most importantly, it keeps us from being able to believe in the humanity of Yeshua. Either he was human (and therefore born guilty under this doctrine like the rest of us) or He wasn’t human. Ask any self-respecting believer and they will tell you that one of the most important foundations of our faith is the fact that Yeshua was both human and divine. Otherwise, He could never have experienced the same human condition as ourselves, therefore making it impossible for Him to intercede on our behalf and to intimately know our struggles.
To further understand the erroneous nature of this idea, let’s look at what the scriptures do actually teach us about the nature of sin.
James 4:17 So whoever knows the right thing to do and fails to do it, for him it is sin.
Mark 7:20-23 “What comes out of a person is what defiles him. For from within, out of the heart of man, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, coveting, wickedness, deceit, sensuality, envy, slander, pride, foolishness. All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person.”
1 Corinthians 10:13 No temptation has overtaken you that is not common to man. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tempted beyond your ability, but with the temptation he will also provide the way of escape, that you may be able to endure it.
Genesis 4:7 If you do well, will you not be accepted? And if you do not do well, sin is crouching at the door. Its desire is for you, but you must rule over it.”
If we are all unable to fight temptation and overcome sin because we are born into a nature that defies YHVH’s holiness and His instruction then these verses might well look very different, and the case for mankind’s redemption would be rendered hopeless. Think about it. The Bible tells us that the whole duty of man is to fear YHVH and keep His commandments. (see Ecclesiastes 12:13) If we have no hope of really doing that which is required of us because we are victims of Adam’s disobedience then we may spend our entire lives here in this earth failing YHVH and hiding from Him in shame instead of cultivating a rewarding and hopeful relationship with Him through Yeshua and His work at Calvary. In fact, this is precisely how we managed to become so familiar with the idea of hyper-grace that is found in most mainstream churches today. Despite the theology behind hyper-grace, which tells us all that we are broken sinners who are loved by YHVH no matter what we do, the Bible tells us that we are all broken sinners who are loved by YHVH no matter what we do AND we are required to go and LEAVE our lives of sin.
The scriptures tell us that Adam sinned, indeed. But actually, the idea of the entire human race somehow paying for it is absent in the curse of the Garden. Interestingly, we find that Adam wasn’t cursed in the Genesis narrative, the ground was. This, of course, meant that Adam would now have a hard time putting food on the table, whether in an agricultural setting or otherwise which we definitely still see the effects of today, but my point is that Adam wasn’t directly cursed at all, so if he didn’t even directly receive a curse for the sin incurred in the Garden, then it stands that “original sin” couldn’t have come from there. Also of importance, Adam is only briefly mentioned again in Genesis 5, and then again in the Gospel of Matthew in an effort to recount the genealogy of Messiah but otherwise, we have no mention at all. No outline of some curse that would plague humanity for the rest of time. So, where in the world did Augustine of Hippo get this idea?
Interestingly, this whole crazy machination of the original sin doctrine comes from a simple misunderstanding of Paul’s words to the Church of the Romans in chapter 5. (Let’s remember what Peter said about the words of Paul: 2 Peter 3:16 As also in all his epistles, speaking in them of these things; in which are some things hard to be understood, which they that are unlearned and unstable wrest, as they do also the other scriptures, unto their own destruction.)
Augustine read the verses in Romans chapter 5 verses 12-21:
12 Therefore, just as sin entered the world through one man, and death through sin, and in this way death came to all people, because all sinned— 13 To be sure, sin was in the world before the law was given, but sin is not charged against anyone’s account where there is no law.14 Nevertheless, death reigned from the time of Adam to the time of Moses, even over those who did not sin by breaking a command, as did Adam, who is a pattern of the one to come. 15 But the gift is not like the trespass. For if the many died by the trespass of the one man, how much more did God’s grace and the gift that came by the grace of the one man, Jesus Christ, overflow to the many! 16 Nor can the gift of God be compared with the result of one man’s sin: The judgment followed one sin and brought condemnation, but the gift followed many trespasses and brought justification. 17 For 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!
18 Consequently, just as one trespass resulted in condemnation for all people, so also one righteous act resulted in justification and life for all people. 19 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. 20 The law was brought in so that the trespass might increase. But where sin increased, grace increased all the more, 21 so that, just as sin reigned in death, so also grace might reign through righteousness to bring eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.
In his reading of this from the poorly translated Latin Vulgate, (and further misunderstanding of it) Augustine concluded that these verses can only mean that sin was inherited from Adam when instead the text tells us that death is what is inherited. Death, which is the consequence of sin (see Romans 6:23) but not sin itself. While it is absolute fact that the carnal, unregenerate mind is at enmity with YHVH and a person’s flesh will always refuse to align itself with the moral standard of The LORD, we believers have been given a new heart and a new spirit that will guide and teach us the ways of YHVH so that we can begin to walk closer to Him. The doctrine of original sin is damaging in this light because it leaves us with many questions about the fate of little ones who have been taken from us before they have been able to choose YHVH for themselves, and it also leaves us with the profoundly terrible implication that Yeshua was somehow “born into sin”. We know otherwise, so this doctrine doesn’t really hold water. It is true, that through Adam sin entered into the world, but we inherited death from our patriarchal ancestor, not original sin.