All my life I’ve been told that humans are born sinful—we have a predisposition toward wickedness from our first breath, from conception. People point toward the willfulness of toddlers as proof of this. They say that because a man named Adam sinned 6000 years ago, we’re all now programmed to choose selfishness and violence and manipulation and a myriad of other evils. I say, let’s look at Adam’s story again. I think we may have misunderstood it.
We find Adam and his wife Eve in the early chapters of Genesis. God created a man and a woman, and after he created them, he said “It is very good.” God created them, and they were good. They were not defective or displeasing to Him. They were good.
I suspect there was a historical Adam and a historical Eve, the first people created by God and the first to sin* (see note below). However, I think that their story is included in scripture not simply as historical detail but also as an “everyman” myth that gives us insight into how each of us was created and how we are supposed to relate to God and our world. By myth, I don’t mean something that didn’t really happen. I mean a story that is bigger than its own details, a story that reflects and informs the reality of an entire group of people, in this case all mankind. C.S. Lewis refers to the Gospels as “true myth” and Madeleine L’Engle says, “Myth is the closest approximation to truth available to the finite human being. And the truth of myth is not limited by time or place. A myth tells of that which was true, is true, and will be true.” We see ourselves in myth; we are reflected in the characters and their nature and their choices. We are Adam and Eve. And just like them, we were, I believe, created good.
Later Adam and Eve sin as a direct result of temptation presented by a serpent. It’s interesting that they never seem to have a thought of disobeying God’s ordinance until this snake shows up and paints God in a bad light. If there had been no temptation from an outside source, there is no reason to think they would have mistrusted and disobeyed God. I can’t help but wonder, if we were each created and put down in a perfect world where all our needs were met and we had nothing to fear and no one to lie to us and tell us that God was our enemy, would we ever choose to trust in something other than God? It seems to me, at least according to this story, that the answer is no.
Adam and Eve were good, but they were not impervious to temptation. They were not sinful; but they were weak. Often we assume that to be good is to be strong. But this story shows the opposite to be true. We were created to be weak, to be dependent. We were, and are, intended to be fully reliant upon God at all times. There have been many attempts to label the essence of Adam and Eve’s sin—many say it was pride, but I think a clearer way to put it is to say that they chose not to be dependent on God.
As it is, we are born into a world that is crammed so full of sin and its many consequences—fear being, I think, the primary one out of which all or most other negative emotions and actions arise—that we are, in all practicality, pre-destined to sin. Not because we are born with a proclivity to sin, but because, as Hitler (supposedly) said, “If you repeat a lie often enough, people will come to believe it.” We are inundated from birth with a million variations on the lie that God is not Good. And so, at an early age most of us come to believe this lie and our actions reflect that belief—and that is sin. We choose to rely on something or someone other than God.
(Now, whether God holds us accountable for that sin when we are still ignorant of the fact that we are sinning is a whole different matter, one that I’m not prepared to discuss here, both because I need to study it further and because this post is going to be a long one as it is.)
So, why, if we all sin eventually, is it necessary to make a distinction between being born with a sinful nature and being born good but acting sinfully? It’s important, because if we are born with a sinful nature, then that is our essential identity. It means that God created something broken, something evil. And both my conscience and my understanding of Scripture seem to rebel against that idea.
There are two big reasons that I believe this philosophy of inborn sinful nature needs to be questioned.
First, it makes for a tendency in those who already identify as Christians to feel powerless against the temptations and sinful urges they feel on a regular basis. How many times have I heard someone say “I’m just a sinner saved by grace”? No! No you’re not. You’re a saint. You’re a new creation! The same Spirit who raised Christ from the dead dwells in you and empowers you to live righteously and with joy and peace and hope and all the fruits of the Spirit. (I have spoken with some Christians who, while believing that we are born with a sinful nature, do agree that the sinful nature is completely eradicated once we accept Jesus into our lives as savior and lord. In that case, this point doesn’t necessarily stand. Still, my reading of the Bible doesn’t support their assertions of inborn wickedness.)
Secondly, I think that when we want to speak to someone about God and we start with “You are a terrible, ugly, twisted creature, disgusting from birth, but God will forgive you for who you are and love you anyway,” it is a major turn-off. And the reason it’s a major turn-off is because it doesn’t ring true and it beats you down in your soul. But if you tell people, “You were a glorious, beautiful, noble, good creature—that’s who you were created to be—but you’ve chosen bad, hurtful actions and thoughts, and as a result you are now separated from God by those actions, but there is a way to be good again”—that makes people lift their head. It speaks Truth to the core of their beings and makes them hope again. And then they can turn to God and allow Him to do the work in them that will restore them to what they were created to be.
Now, don’t get me wrong. I don’t think we should ever espouse a philosophy or theology just because it’s attractive to people. There are plenty of things that the Bible is very clear about that aren’t popular. And Jesus also makes it clear that God’s Truth will bring contention between people. But if the reason that something rankles is because it isn’t true, then it needs to be reevaluated. Tables need to be turned over. People need to know what God really says about them. They need to know Who their creator is and what His character is really like. And if God only creates good things, if he created us good—not the evil, twisted, sick creatures we’ve been told that He created—well, that changes everything. It changes how we see ourselves, and most importantly, it changes how we see Him.
I welcome honest feedback on these thoughts. I am not an expert in Hebrew or Greek, and though I have done a good deal of research in the Scriptures, I am quite open to the idea that there are things I may have missed or misunderstood. My goal in publishing this post is to hopefully open discussion with others who might be wrestling with these or similar subjects, and I do not claim to have come to any conclusive answers about these things, even for myself. But I think discussion is nearly always valuable, so I thought I’d start with this. If you’ve read this far, wow. I’m honored. Please feel free to comment here or on Facebook.
*As R.C. Sproul notes in his book Chosen by God, “There are strong elements of historical narrative literature in Genesis 3….The account of Adam and Eve contains a significant genealogy….In Jewish writing, the presence of genealogy indicates historical narrative.” Also noted by Sproul is the fact that Paul and Luke in the New Testament treat Adam and Eve as historical figures and their story as historical events. This being said, it does not in my opinion detract from the mythic nature of their story—it is still a story of each man [Adam means “man” in Hebrew] and woman.