Is there such a thing as original sin?
I can think of little else more horrifyingly unjust than to send an innocent child, a newborn even, to an everlasting, godless existence in hell. A babe just out of the womb, or maybe not even seeing the light of day, banished to eternal darkness and separation from God for no fault of its own. Or a toddler, a sweet little boy or girl who learns and loves and trusts and doesn’t yet know right from wrong, condemned to eternal punishment simply for being human.
Yet that is the inescapable reality one must accept if holding to the traditional teaching of original sin as developed by some Church fathers including Augustine, Martin Luther, and John Calvin. And it is, I believe, one of the most formidable stumbling blocks to faith in Christ. Why would anyone want to believe in a God who sends innocent babies to hell? I wouldn’t.
Now, I’m not a professional theologian, and I shudder at times when I consider that I am opposing the likes of Augustine, Luther, and Calvin. These were great men of God whom he used for his purposes…gifted theologians with wisdom and insight far beyond my best efforts, and Christianity is greatly indebted to them. But they were fallible men subject to error. Though we stand on the shoulders, so to speak, of those who went before us, it’s imperative that we resist the temptation to equate their writings with Scripture.
So to any unbeliever for whom the doctrine of original sin is a stumbling block, I say, if you’re understanding of it is as I’ve described above, know that it is not a core doctrine of the faith and, in fact, is and has been rejected as such by many Christians, great and small. It is a doctrine that was deduced and developed after the time of the apostles and the completion of the biblical writings. Though its proponents interpret certain Scriptural passages as teaching the doctrine, it is not at all clearly seen in them.
One passage in particular that’s frequently mentioned as teaching original sin is quite obviously not when the context and literary style are taken into consideration. Psalm 51 is David’s confession and lament before God over his sin with Bathsheba. In verse 5 he writes, “Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity, and in sin did my mother conceive me.” As the Psalms are poetic in style, it’s relatively easy to recognize that David, in an effort to express the enormity of his grief over his sin, describes himself as sinful from birth. It’s not a doctrinal statement but exaggeration as a literary device. If we are to take this as teaching guilt from the womb, we must also interpret Psalm 58:3 – “The wicked are estranged from the womb; they go astray from birth, speaking lies.” – as depicting fully cognizant, verbally expressive newborns. But here again, it’s clear that the author is using hyperbole to communicate something very grave and great in measure.
Other passages, like Romans 5:12-19, are more difficult to understand, but the point is that Christians disagree on their meaning, and a doctrine of original, or inherited, or ancestral sin, that says because Adam sinned we all sinned with him, and are guilty of condemnation simply by being of the human species, is not part of the core Christian dogma.
Now, there is another understanding of original sin that says we are all born with a sin nature. We have a propensity to sin that will eventually be actualized, at which point we become culpable, but not before. I believe there’s more Scriptural support for this, as well as experiential evidence. We all know how natural it is for us to go our own way and do our own thing without regard for God or others.
So, though we can be confident that God does not consign little children to hell, we are not little children, and we know that there is nothing really original about sin. We are all guilty of disobeying God. But the Good News is…”though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow.”1 Because “God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” 2
1 Isaiah 1:18 2 Romans 5:8
This post was originally published in April, 2014.