Original sin

One of the core doctrines of Christianity is that of original sin. Supposedly, original sin is a condition all humans have inherited from Adam and Even, the progenitors of our species (whether viewed paleoanthropologically, historically or mythologically). The various branches of Christianity differ on how they interpret the Bible’s statements on original sin. Some groups lean toward seeing humans as totally depraved and utterly incapable of goodness, even from birth. While other groups lean more toward treating original sin as a congenital sickness, an innate predisposition to do wrong. Opinions also vary on when original sin goes into effect: are we sinful at birth (conception?) or at an ‘age of accountability’ when we became able to consciously choose between right and wrong?

As if being born into essential and inevitable wrongness weren’t bad enough, Christians are also taught that as a result of this inherited wrongness, all humans are automatically deserving of everlasting punishment in hell. Those who believe infants are under the full effects of original sin also believe that an infant who dies in that condition goes to hell. Those who believe that children at the age of accountability (roughly ages 6-12) bear the responsibility of sin also believe those children who do not repent and get saved go to hell if they die in that condition.

So, according to this doctrine, all human beings are born into an essential nature so corrupt they are automatically destined for an eternity of conscious torment.

Let that sink in for a moment.

How then, according to the Bible, did we poor wretched creatures end up in this state? The story of Adam and Eve is taken to show that humans were once perfect, sinless beings who communed with God, each other, and Creation in total innocence and peace. Then, as we’ve all heard, Satan in the form of a snake tempted Eve to eat fruit from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, which she did, as did Adam. This original act of disobedience against God brought a curse on all the offspring of the First Couple. Henceforth all human beings are born under that curse by virtue of ancestral lineage.

That part never made sense to me. Why am I held responsible for what someone else did thousands of years ago? Why would an all-loving, all powerful, all-good creator god create me only to damn me to hell in the same act? I mean, whose fault is it, really? It looks like God is the one who screwed up, not us. And yet we have to pay for it?!

This is the part when God intervenes by sending himself/his son to pay for it for us…

Let me get this straight: God created a type of cosmos in which his beloved creatures (most like him) could be tempted by something good and natural (delicious fruit) that would launch them into a state of affairs in which they and their offspring would forever be deserving of conscious torment unless God himself intervened and saved them from the very situation God himself got them into in the first place by a) creating them and b) putting them in the kind of cosmos in which they would naturally get into this mess?

Yes, you heard right.

For what it’s worth, here’s my current take on ‘original sin’:

Human beings are complex organisms. Like the animals, they operate from the natural instincts of self-preservation, self-perpetuation, and self-pleasure but are also naturally wired for contact, connection, community, and communion. Just like the birds and beasts, newborn babes are designed to find and achieve a sometimes delicate balance between life as an individual and as a member of the group into which they are born.

As sociologist Peter Berger wrote, humans are not born into a prefabricated world. Animals have no existential angst: they live by instinct without reflecting on, judging, and changing their instinctual behaviors. Animals are born into ready-made animal worlds: wolves are born into a wolf world and that’s that; woodpeckers are born into a woodpecker world and that’s that; wasps are born into a wasp world and that’s that. By contrast, humans are born into a world that has yet to be made. It will be made for them and by them over the next two decades. Their world is constructed over time through signs: language, gestures, and other meaningful events and experiences.

The worlds of all living creatures are formed at the nexus of innate instinct and outer environment. Wolves everywhere have an innate wolfish nature, but this nature will adapt to changing environments. These dynamic changes can result in micro-evolutions within the wolf lineage or macro-evolutions leading to the development of new species (so evolutionary thought would put it anyhow). Likewise, all human beings (anomalies notwithstanding) share a human nature at some level but differ significantly in their ways of being. Various genetic groupings have slightly different physical and/or physiological features that presumably arose in response to different symbiotic relationships with human (social) and non-human environments. At this level – at the level of bodily life in physical environments – humans and animals are similar.

Language has often been cited as one of the defining features of humankind. Interestingly, new fields of academic study are emerging (like biosemiotics) that seek to show how communication with signs characterizes not just humans but all life-forms! (And, I suspect, a cosmosemiotics will eventually show that communication with signs is at the heart of all the cosmos – organic and inorganic). In any case, what is clear is that semiotics or signage – communicating with shared meaningful forms – burst out with new levels of complexity and beauty in the kinds of languaging unique to our species.

What’s the point? While both animals and humans live according to the dictates of their genetic code (DNA) in conjunction with their environment, humans have the added challenge of living according to their cultural code (language, religion, worldview). Just as genetic code is passed on from generation to generation of bodily living beings, cultural code is passed on from one human generation to the next. Just as genetic code can mutate and saltate either spontaneously or in response to environmental exigencies, cultural code can do the same. And just as a physical environment can determine which genes are switched on or off epigenetically, social and relational as well as physical environments can determine which semiotic genes are switched on and off.

Given enough time and stability, organisms adapt organically to their environment through genetic and epigenetic changes. This is why we find so many creatures so amazingly well-suited to their ecological niches. In the same way, I believe, humans adapt their semiotic genome to their environment. Evidence for this comes from places like Papua New Guinea, for example, where 700+ ethnic groups evolved in mountainous terrain where most groups settled in a particular place in relative isolation from other groups. Over time, their languages, cultures, religions, and worldviews adapted to the particular circumstances of their lives and consequently drifted farther apart from those of neighboring groups. Eventually each group (hypothetically at least) reaches a degree of equilibrium in which their physical and cultural ‘bodies’ are well-suited to the ecological and psycho-sociological niches they inhabit.

Things change when this equilibrium is ‘punctuated’ by disrupting events like climate change, earthquakes, volcanoes, contact with other groups, war with other groups, slavery and conquest, migration, exploration, epidemics, etc. When such things befall a previously equilibrated ethnic group, they have no choice at first but continue living in their current physical and cultural ‘bodies’. But given the time and opportunity, their physical and cultural bodies can adjust and achieve a new period of stability.

A major factor of psycho-social evolution and adaption – reaching a state of relative equilibrium – is parenting. The creation of the human world falls primarily to a newborn’s parents, extended family, community, church, tribe, village, nation, etc. Historically, the parenting process has been partly subconscious (instinctual, unreflective) and partly conscious (by plan). Just as your physical body runs according to a genetic and epigentic ‘plan’, the social ‘bodies’ that our families, communities, churches and nations constitute are also run according to a plan, a cultural blueprint.

The trouble with all this is, as I see it, when those responsible for creating the human world for the next generation fail on one or both of the following fronts: 1) in adapting the human code to human instinct; 2) in adapting the human code to changing contexts.

To survive, any organism must be able to adapt to its environment.

To thrive, any organism must be able to live according to its instinct and nature.

I propose that ‘original sin’ is a theological label for the state we find ourselves in when one or both of the above conditions are not optimally fulfilled.

So much damage is done to young children when the cultural code impressed upon them denies, suppresses, shames, and punishes natural instincts like DESIRE, AMBITION, SELF-ASSERTION, AUTONOMY, and CURIOSITY. Why do world-makers like parents, preachers, and teachers repress these drives? Often, I think, because they were repressed in their own experience of world-inheriting. The drives being so powerful, one can hardly manage them in a child when one has not managed them in oneself. What is driven into the shadow of the world-maker will be driven into the shadow of the world-heir(ess).

Unless there is a conscious intervention.

Note that I am not advocating for unrestrained instincts. We all know what that looks like, for human desire, ambition, and curiosity can ran amok very quickly. There is a crucial distinction between repressing instinct and guiding or channeling it. In the process of making a human world for our children, we must take care not to suppress and shame the instincts, but teach the children to master and employ them.

Driving natural instincts into our children’s psychic shadows leads to all manner of emotional, mental, spiritual, and social issues that in traditional Christian parlance would be labeled ‘sinful’, in secular terms, ‘criminal’, ‘dysfunctional’, ‘disordered’.

To summarize the first point: out of ignorance and knee-jerk reactivity, world-makers create toxic conditions for world-inheritors when they fail to make a distinction between a) judging, shaming, and punishing an ‘evil’ human instinct and b) learning, training, mastering, and deploying those same instincts to make a better world. World-makers like parents, preachers, priests, and teachers have a cosmic responsibility to study human nature, to explore their own shadow, and teach children how to harness their drives.

As for the second condition, damage is done to young children when the cultural code impressed upon them has lost touch with the ever-changing environment. The cultural code itself – like the genetic code – and how the cultural code is interpreted and applied in specific situations – like epigenetic flexibility – must be dynamically interacting with the context and free to fluidly co-evolve with it. It’s a delicate balance, an intricate dance in the most favorable conditions. Whenever the dance partners (organism and environment) fall out of step, problems arise. An organism (physical or social) that allows its intimate reciprocity with the environment to slip risks rigidification, ossification, and ultimately death. So many of the world’s greatest cultural codes, whether religious, political, or philosophical, have resistance to change built into the code themselves. Of course some resistance to change is called for, otherwise chaos would ensue at the slightest fluctuation in the environment. Continuity is crucial. It’s only when continuity is clung to stubbornly out of fear of discontinuity that organic mutability becomes endangered.

To summarize the second point: world-makers create sub-optimal conditions for world-inheritors when they fail to make a distinction between a) maintaining healthy continuity in response to periodic minor environmental fluctuations and b) maintaining harmful continuity in response to major disruptive environment shifts. It is not easy for world-makers to know which response is best. But how well they handle this delicate distinction determines how well-suited the world they make is for their descendants.

In closing, ‘original sin’ is inherited from our forefathers and foremothers, but not in the way usually thought. It comes in the form of a human world(view) handed down to young children that thrusts them into less-than-optimal conditions in which their full range of human instinct and emotion is not integrated and in which there is a disconnect and dysfunctional relationship with a (now rapidly) changing historical context.

One thought on “Original sin

  1. Some interesting ideas Terrill. I do appreciate the deep thinking you have done, and the thorough research carried out. I do not have knowledge in some of the areas you address. Nevertheless, with regards to the Christian doctrine of Original Sin, I would like to commnt if I may.

    Whether the Genesis account is historical or mythological, it is less about the tyoe of fruit eaten, and is mostly about Eve’s response to the temptation and Adam’s complicity therein. Human beings were created autonomous by the Creator for a reason, not as a major blunder by a foreknowing, all-knowing Creator. It is logically impossible for a divine and personal being, who is eternal in space-time and knowledge, to make a mistake. The spiritual test for Adam and Eve was that of character, and particularly that of obedience. Yielding to the temptation to be “like God” (Gen 3:5) was demonstrated in the eating of the fruit, contrary to clear and consequential instructions. Pride is at the core of their sin, wanting to be like God. This remains the test for us all, as to whether we eill submit to our Creator’s perspective, or whether we will pridefully consider ourselves to be completely independent of his authority, and become our own god. Sin certainly originated with our first human parents, but is subsequently and instinctive dormant in every human heart. It does not require inculcation by external forces, but is innate in every human heart. It is only a matter of time before it manifests itself, one way or another.

    In the words of the New Testament, “the acts of the sinful nature are obvious; sexual,immorality, impurity, debauchery, idolatry, witchcraft, hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions, envy, drukkenness, orgies,and the like. I warn youas I didbefore, that those who live like this will not inherit the Kingdom of God.” (Galatians 5: 19-21). Perhaps Apostle Paull is perceived as perpetuating his own religious conditioning. What if he is right,and what if that which he wrote is true, and what if it was actually inspired by the Holy Spirit of God? That is certainly how Peter, an eyewitness to Christ, viewed Paul’s writings (2 Peter 3:15f). He says that “his letters contain some things that are hard to understand, which ignorant and unstable people distort, as they do the other Scriptures, to their own destruction.”

    The suppression of positive natural drives, such as autonomy, unselfish ambition, and curiosity, is not something I have experienced being suppressed by preachers or my parents, and I grew up in a very conservative Christian worldview. Christians are usually encouraged to study, get a career, and serve, so as to transform the world in which they live. I have certainly been given hard warnings as to the consequences for taking certain actions, based on the Christian text, the Bible. These positive drives are not the greatest challenges found in our natural inclinations. The greater challenge, which you alluded to, are the negative actions caused by the dark side, or shadows, of human nature, found in every person (biblical examples mentioned above). Theologically, no genetic explanation discounts the consequences of negative actions taken by an autonomous human being. All are accountable for their behaviour at one level or another,whether it be children to parents, citizens to the laws of the land, or creatures to their Creator.

    I once had a conversation with a missionary who had not been in Uganda very long. I encouraged them to get their immigration issues sorted out and cease to be tourists, by getting a work permit. They responded by saying they were Americans and therefore not subject ot Ugandan law. I reassured them that if they wished to continue living here, they would need to subject themselves to Uganda’s laws, because they did not have diplomatic immunity. Similarly, from a biblical perspective, human beings are occupants in a land owned by the Creator. He makes the rules, not us. He has given a text by which we are clearly informed of the requirements necessary to enjoy living in his Heaven forever. We didn’t make them up. They were given to us. If we autonomously choose not to work with his Law, we will not be permitted to stay in his home. It’s that simple.

    “We must pay more careful attention to what we have heard, so that we do not drift away. For if the message spoken by angels was binding, and every volation and disobedience received its just punishment, how shall we escape if we ignore sucha great salvation? This salvation, which was first announced by the Lord, was confirmed to us by those who heard him.”


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