3.7 Problems with Original Sin

Adam and Eve: Michelangelo

The doctrine of the Fall offers a reconciliation of the imperfection of the world and the perfection of its Creator. God’s creation was originally good, according to this doctrine, but then the first man, Adam, sinned. As a result of this Fall, sin entered the world, and now all suffer the the affliction of original sin.

This doctrine is an important part of the Christian tradition: not only does it exonerate God from responsibility for the existence of evil, it also grounds the idea that sin is universal and so that every one of us is in need of salvation. The doctrine of original sin does a lot of theological work.

There are at least three varieties of fall-theory, three ways in which original sin can be understood. First, it can be understood in terms of inherited guilt; second, in terms of inherited corruption; third, in terms of individual falls.

Each of these forms of the doctrine, though, has its problems; it is very difficult to make sense of original sin, to explain it in plausible terms. It may be that the doctrine, despite its traditional importance, must be abandoned. If this is the case, then it is a massive blow to Christianity, and so a powerful weapon in the armoury of the atheist.

Inherited Guilt

Some have proposed accounts of original sin in terms of inherited guilt, according to which mankind bears a corporate responsibility for the first sin of the first man. On this approach, each of us is guilty of Adam’s sin, just as if we had committed that sin ourselves.

How this can be divides those who advance this version of the doctrine. Some appeal to the idea of corporate identity, suggesting that in some significant sense we and Adam are one and the same, and so that we bear the guilt for his sin. Others appeal to the idea of participation, suggesting that we were all in some sense in Adam at the time of the Fall, and so that we fell along with him. Still others appeal to the idea of representation, suggesting that although we were not directly involved in Adam’s sin, Adam was our representative in Eden and so in sinning acted for all of us.

Inherited Corruption

A second approach to original sin explains it in terms of inherited corruption. According to this approach, we are not sinful because we are guilty of the first sin of Adam, but rather we are corrupted as an effect of that transgression. In what sense we are thought to have been affected by Adam’s sin varies.

Some accounts of this kind hold that we are corrupted through physical heredity, that Adam’s sin corrupted his nature and that this corruption was then passed on to us. Others describe the transmission of Adam’s sinfulness in terms of social heredity, suggesting that Adam’s sin set a bad example which humanity has subsequently persistently followed.

Individual Falls

A third group have pursued an altogether more mysterious line of thought. Groups within Christianity have long thought that the account of Genesis 3 does not tell the literal truth; the story of Adam in the garden of Eden has often been taken to be an allegorical description of the real fall of mankind. This perspective leaves a lot of room to develop a different account of the real fall allegorised in Genesis.

Some have taken this opportunity. Typically, the accounts developed have postulated individual pre-natal falls for each of us. On these views, original sin is seen as the result of moral errors that each of us committed before our lives began, rather than as the result of a sin committed by a distant ancestor in Eden. Whether our moral errors are thought to have been made in a prior physical existence, in a prior spiritual existence, or somehow outside of time, depends on the particular version of the theory in question.




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