Friday, February 12, 2010

A Few Thoughts on Original Sin

Someone asked to explain the doctrine of original sin. It would take a lot longer than a blog post.

I am only going to give you the highlights:

The idea of original sin really is a creation from the pseudepigraphical texts. It was a theology that started within small groups of Jews who could be considered “eschatological” or apocalyptic. They believed that the world was an extremely sinful place and this world was going to come to an end. However they needed to also explain how the world got so sinful. So, they blamed it all on the fall of Adam and Eve (and for the most part the larger blame fell on Eve, laying the cornerstone for Christianity’s misogyny). Then, over time, it becomes a staple part of Christian doctrine.

What happened was that Paul wrote a letter to the Romans answering some theological questions. He was trying to explain why & how the death of Jesus was needed to save the world. So he came up with the explanation that is summed it with (read Rom. 5)
Rom. 5:18-21: Then as one man's trespass led to condemnation for all men, so one man's act of righteousness leads to acquittal and life for all men. For as by one man's disobedience many were made sinners, so by one man's obedience many will be made righteous. Law came in, to increase the trespass; but where sin increased, grace abounded all the more, so that, as sin reigned in death, grace also might reign through righteousness to eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Then Augustine of Hippo gets into the act. If anyone, he is the one responsible for putting it all together and creating the theology of original sin in its grandest form. It was his debates with Pelagius over whether or not “man” had free will explain the basis of original sin. The issue is whether human beings can do good without the intervention of “grace” given by the death of Christ on the cross. It also revolved around whether or not infants needed to be immediately baptised at birth to free them from this original sin. Augustine even worked out how “original sin” was transmitted from one human being to the next generation. He was obsessed with this. Turns out that original sin in transmitted during orgasm because men lost all rational thought when they were in the throes of orgasm. He even worked out that if Adam and Eve had had sex in the Garden of Eden, there would have been no lust. Sex with the rational mind.

So how does original sin work. For Roman Catholics, everyone is born into original sin. Therefore, they need the sacrament of baptism to wash away original sin. This removes the stain of original sin and then human beings are responsible for the sins that they commit. This solves the free will/predestination debate. For Protestants, there are different solutions. Generally speaking, baptism does not wash away original sin – it only mitigates it. Thus Protestants need grace to help them do good. Even then, they are always prone to sinning because that is the nature of humans. Ultimately, they can only do evil or bad things, if you want.

Therefore, Jesus had to die on the cross to save us from our sins (or original sin). God demanded this sacrifice, because only someone who was without sin (hence the development of the idea of the “virgin birth”) would be a perfect enough sacrifice to appease the anger of God at our sinful nature. You could extrapolate from this that if there weren’t any human beings, then there would be no sin, and God would be happy? It also sets up guilt as the proper response for living. It also sets up the idea that living is a burden, and that suffering is what human beings deserve for being so sinful.

Now this is modified by many Christians., but the previous paragraph is still the most common explanation for why Jesus had to die on the cross.


  1. That was really good. It was smart. It was edifying. It was well-written. It was all those things and more.

    There have been a few Jewish scholars and poets -- like Chofetz Chaim and my man Karl Shapiro -- who have argued, very persuasively, I think, that the idea of original sin as it's presented in Genesis is nothing more (or less) than a metaphor: specifically, a metaphor for the human species evolving a conceptual faculty, which is to say, a rational faculty, which is to say, the uniquely human faculty of intelligence. The philosophical psychologist Rollo May, in his 1969 book Love and Will, explained free will in the following terms, which I regard as perfectly consistent with the human evolution of a conceptual faculty:

    When we analyze will with all the tools that modern psychology brings us, we shall find ourselves pushed back to the level of attention or inattention as the seat of will. The effort which goes into the exercise of will is really effort of attention; the strain in willing is the effort to keep the consciousness clear, i.e. the strain of keeping attention focused.

    From this perspective, the idea of "original sin" does have a legitimate usage -- insofar as the act of thinking is an act of choice that each individual must make: specifically, the act of paying attention or not, which is the most fundamental choice there is, "the choice that determines all the others" (as I say on page 157 of my novel, which I strongly encourage all readers to run out and purchase as rapidly as possible, and which does explicitly deal with these and other noetic and eschatological questions and so much more); and insofar as each human born healthy is originally born with a conceptual faculty; and insofar as sin may be defined as a willful or deliberate departure from that which fosters and enhances human life.

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  3. Thank you for the comment.

    I'll comment in a blog, shortly.

    I think that my next blog here should be on guilt.

    P.S. Good plug for the book! One of these days, I'll rush out and buy it on-line when I have some extra moolah.