Questioning Original Sin


Creation-of-Adam

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.

Blessings,

Sarah

*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.

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5 thoughts on “Questioning Original Sin

  1. I really like this line: 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.

  2. fairbetty says:

    Thank you for these thoughts, dear. It’s nice to see someone tackle a portion of the Christian “foundation” that needs to be questioned.

    It’s one of the many problems I have slammed into with the Christian myth… the idea that we’re born “bad” and “broken” and with a nature that would only choose evil.

    Your thoughts are refreshing and bring hope.

  3. Well, this reply is a little late, but this is an interesting topic to me. Hmm, let me think out loud for a moment. Don’t expect my comment to make any sense.

    1) It seems that ultimately the story of Adam and Eve is one of innocent naivety. They seem clueless, not knowing what to trust. In some sense, it seems like the decision between believing the serpent and believing God is almost arbitrary. How do they know that God is more trustworthy than the serpent? Sin is simultaneously a matter of trusting the serpent and of distrusting God.

    And I think a similarly confusing question can be asked about good and evil. Even if they knew God was “good” and the serpent was “evil,” what exactly do those terms mean? Why should we choose good over evil? Good is basically “something you should do,” and evil is “something you shouldn’t do?” I suppose that that’s as far as they understood it from God, and I guess they lacked a solid reason and began wondering, “Why should we do something just because it’s good? Why should we listen to God’s definition of good over the serpent’s definition of good?”

    (Even though I’m not sure how a trail can be a can), this is a long rabbit trail and a big can of worms; but, in a sense, the only way we really answer this question in my opinion is to locate our innate desire to choose good over evil. If we are made in God’s image, then if we really looked at ourselves and uncovered everything except our barest essence, then shouldn’t we find a desire just like God’s? Shouldn’t we find a definition of good as something that should be done and find that our definitions are the same as His? In this sense, I find your post encouraging, as it tells us that our innate will doesn’t need a reason aside from our very identities to do good and obey God.

    Then again, the topic of willful versus accidental sin is…yet another topic. But it is my opinion that even our most willful sin is just accidental, since if we really knew ourselves and found the image of God there, we would have the same desire as God for good. Thus even flat rebellion against God’s “shoulds” is based on our being misinformed about who we are and who to trust. But then why Satan rebelled against God is a bit of a mystery, and why we are allowed to be misinformed, or if it’s still our free will, and so forth… ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

    Well, this theory is really raw and probably way off and far out, and I’m probably overthinking and underthinking this at the same time. But on to my second (and final, don’t worry,) point!

    2. From Jeremiah 1:5: “Before I formed thee in the belly I knew thee; and before thou camest forth out of the womb I sanctified thee, and I ordained thee a prophet unto the nations.” (KJV). I think there is a distinction between creation and birth. Man was created perfect, but doesn’t necessarily need to be born perfect. For instance, I wasn’t born until 1999; does that mean that God created me in 1999 and not “in the beginning”? The topic of time in God’s universe-ish thing is another big topic, but entertain this thought for a moment: what if God can create man perfect by making their inner identity, yet they can still be imperfect at their physical creation. My zigzag musing is probably hard to follow, so just consider this: what if God created us (“us” as in our identities) outside of time in contrast to our physical births (being “born”) inside of time? Thus we can be created as perfect images of God and yet born as imperfect human beings.

    Mini-timeline: The Beginning, outside of time: Jeremiah is created in the image of God. His identity and perfection are established by God…Some sort of dimension away and many years later: Jeremiah is physically born into the world, an imperfect person. The idea of sin being inherent with our fallen world and our “natural” flesh may actually be valid, since our “natural” flesh isn’t really natural if it’s born into this fallen world. That is, our selves as humans can be imperfect at birth, yet our true identities as images of God can be perfect creations all along. Mm, maybe that’s nonsense. I dunno >.> Bah! As length increases, I feel like coherence is decreasing, so I will presently stop typing 😛

    • I really like that idea of being created “good” outside of time. (My husband and I talk about the implications of God’s timelessness frequently.) As I’ve continued to study and process this topic, I’ve settled on the idea that while we may not be created as “bad” nor have an inborn tendency to sin, we are perhaps somehow “marked” at birth by sin, (which helps explain infant mortality to me), and which I think aligns with your theory? As far as all sin being done out of naivete, I see your point, but I do think there’s an element of free will as well, and I think we do ourselves a disservice if we say that we act only out of ignorance. God seems to put quite a high value on our ability to make informed decisions in this life, to the point of allowing the eternal situation of our soul to rest on those decisions. If he thinks that highly of our ability to comprehend truth (at least spiritually if not intellectually), then in my opinion we would do well to also value and put weight on our decision-making. Thanks for your thoughts!

      • I tend to agree with you, actually. Its interaction with free will is one area that makes me kinda “ehh…” about my explanation. Thanks for your thoughts on my thoughts on your thoughts!

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