Ep 12 – Original Sin

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I’m a sinner.  You’re a sinner.  We are all a bunch of sinners.  We can’t help it.  It is in our very DNA, it is our nature to sin or at least that is what one would think if they subscribe to the doctrine of original sin.  In episode 10, I took a look at the Adam and Eve story and how genetics, anthropology and archeology do not support the claim that all modern humans came from two people over six thousand years ago.  To most modern Christians, original sin appears to be a concept as old as Adam (who again, never existed) but they might be surprised to know that the doctrine of original sin was not invented until the second century CE.  That is over two hundred years after Jesus’s crucifixion. Researching this episode there are so many nuanced claims about original sin, it would be impossible to cover them all here.  We are going to cover this topic with a broad stroke.  So sit back, relax and enjoy the ride as I tell you what a sinful little creature you are, through no fault of your own of course.

I am going to make a bold claim and state here that most Christian’s are ignorant of the origins of their bible, their faith and their traditions, surprising for a religion that puts some much emphasis on faith instead of empirical evidence.  We are to have faith that the Bible we read today was the same bible that was written two thousand years ago.  We are to have faith that the writers of the bible are who they say they are and God used them to write his message to humanity, two thousand years ago, before science.  We are to believe, on faith that the message back then applies to us now.  Do you see the problem with this?  Do you see how dangerous this type of dogmatic thinking can be?  Do you see why it is a ridiculous notion to think that first century Jews and Greeks understanding of the world can apply to twenty first century?

So why is original sin such an important doctrine for Christians?  There are several reasons, here are two:

  1. It exonerates God from the responsibility for the existence of evil.  Try to blame God for creating evil and God will say “Look, I tried to create a place with no evil but Adam and Eve had to go eat the fruit from the tree of knowledge of good and evil.  Don’t blame me, blame them.  My hands are clean.” and
  2. It is the basis for sin being a universal trait so that everyone, no matter when or where they were born, is in need of salvation.  God created the disease and then offers the only cure, Jesus.

Original sin creates a foundation for later theological works.  It is at the heart of Christianity.  I know many liberal Christians that get uncomfortable when talking about hell.  They have a hard time reconciling their belief in God and Jesus with the concept of hell but theologically, that was the whole purpose of Jesus dying on the cross (allegedly).  Why believe in Jesus at all if you do not believe in the concept of hell?  What is the point?  Was he a good moral philosopher? Did he possess some universal truth that was not known by any other thinker of his time or before his time?  Hardly!  Jesus was rejected by his fellow Jews because they expected a messiah that would break the yoke of Roman rule.  His sole purpose was to reconcile the relationship between God and man which was caused by original sin.  If you do not accept Jesus, you go to hell.  Some will use the annihilation loop hole.  They will say that God will not torture you for eternity, instead will just make you not exist anymore.  There is more “proof” and I use that term loosely, for a physical hell than annihilation.  Again, why believe in Jesus at all?

Sorry about that tangent, back to the topic at hand.  There are at least three varieties of fall-theory and they are:

  • Inherited guilt
  • Inherited corruption and
  • Individual falls

Inherited guilt is based on corporate responsibility.  We are all guilty of the sin that Adam committed even though we are far removed from his actions.  It is as if we committed the sin ourselves.  This can be broken down even further into three sub-layers or explanations.  The first is corporate identity which suggests that we and Adam are one and the same.  The second is participation which suggests that we were all in Adam at the time of his sin.  It would make for a pretty crowded party but maybe the soul can fit into small, confined spaces easier than a human body.  The third is representation which suggests that Adam was our representative in the Eden. If this is true, we are screwed because Adam was essentially a man-child.  We got no say in who represented us.  I would have preferred Satan, it least he was honest.  Can we posthumously vote Adam out of office?  Does God practice representative democracy?

Inherited corruption states that we are not guilty of Adam’s sin but we are corrupted because of Adam’s sin.  You see, if Adam and Eve are the first two human beings, then all humans are their decedents.  Along with their DNA, the also passed sin onto us.  Makes perfect sense to me, well at least it would if Adam and Eve were the first two humans and we are descend from them.  Listen to episode 10 for more detailed information and why this is wrong, besides the obvious.  In a weird twist, some Christians believed we descended from Adam and Eve, you know, the idea of common descent.  What other theory states common descent?  Why, evolution of course.  It’s sad in a way that believers have no problem thinking we came from two people over six thousand years ago but the idea that we evolved from lower animals is outrageous to them.  I guess I’ll never understand the mind of the believer.

Individual falls tries to reconcile the fact that the story in Genesis is an allegory.  Adam and Eve may have not been real but the idea of original sin sure is.  The people in this camp try to explain that we all choose to sin prior to our physical existence.  This is very close to the Mormon doctrine of creation, which simply put we all existed in a pre-existence.  We may not inherit original sin from a literal Adam but at some point in time or above time in the physical or spiritual realm, prior or during our physical exist, we decided to sin…makes perfect sense to me [1].


Origins of Original Sin

Now that we have the definition of original sin out of the way, the next step is to examine where this doctrine actually came from.  An important concept such as this must be clearly defined in the bible and if I know my bible, the one thing it does well is clearly define things (no it doesn’t).  Most of what we know of Christianity comes from Paul and to date; he is the only writer to have actually written some of the books attributed to him.  I am not going to go into details here, that will be another podcast but for the sake of progressing the original sin narrative, know that Paul did exist and he did right some of the books of the New Testament.  Paul lived in the first century CE and is probably the most influential Christian.  Augustine of Hippo is the most famous writer on the concept of original sin.  His writing influenced the early Orthodox Church and many of his ideas persist today.  There were some other early writers on original sin but Augustine was the first to use the New Testament to justify the concept of original sin.  The three most influential early church fathers of the second century were:

  • Irenaeus thought that Adam and Eve did not rebel against God, no; they failed to rise to greater things, not a loss of original perfection.  He also thought that evil came from God and without death and evil, we would have no reason to repent.  He suggest that such things help us learn about good and evil by experience and that we will ultimately learn to choose freely what is right [2].
  • Origen reinterpreted the Genesis account of Adam and Eve using Platonic allegory and saw sin deriving solely from free will.  He thought sin was a lack of pure knowledge and that Jesus was essentially an example on how a human life should be lived [3].
  • Tertullian believed that Adam’s sin introduced an irrational element into human nature.  He believed that individuals should be held responsible for their misuse of freedom and the sin Adam brought on impedes freedom and impels wrongdoing.  He thought sin was an impurity, stain or corruption [4].

Up until this point, the only scripture that was used to even remotely discuss original sin was the story of Adam and Eve.  Augustine was the first to actually use the New Testament to flesh out his idea of original sin.  Now that we have all the players in place, let’s take a closer look at Augustine and his concept of original sin, which is probably the most familiar to all of us.

Augustine of Hippo

Augustine of Hippo lived from 354 CE through 430 CE.  He was a Latin philosopher and theologian from Roman Africa and is generally considered one of the greatest Christian thinkers of all time [5].

The verse that Augustine used as a reference point for his concept of original sin is Romans 5:12

  • “…sin came into the world through one man, and death came through sin, and so death spread to all because all have sinned.”

What Augustine introduced to the world was the idea that we deserved whatever punishment we got in this life.  He tried to explain human suffering and guilt, using the fall and original sin to justify such behaviors.  He stated that we deserved to suffer because Adam made a poor decision.  He uses this to help us understand that God would love to help us but he can’t because he is just and righteous.  God says, “Look, I would like to help but my hands are tied here.  Adam made a stupid decision and now you all have to pay.  I’m just obeying the rules I set up.”  He also used original sin to explain why humans have an almost irresistible pressure to behave badly, he wanted to justify baptizing babies as soon as possible after birth and he wanted to demonstrate that we are totally reliant on God’s grace and all-powerful goodness.  So why does Adam’s sin affect every one of us?  Here is Augustine’s argument:

  • The whole essence of human nature was contained in Adam
  • When Adam disobeyed God, the whole of human nature disobeyed God
  • Thus the whole of human nature became sinful
  • Thus the whole human race was damaged for all time

He states the following:

  • Nothing remains but to conclude that in the first man all are understood to have sinned, because all were in him when he sinned; whereby sin is brought in with birth and not removed save by the new birth… it is manifest that in Adam all sinned, so to speak, en masse. By that sin we became a corrupt mass.

Augustine taught that even though you may never commit a single sin in your life, you were damned because of Adam, every…single…person…ever born was and is damned.  He even applied this theory to new born babies, who have no capacity to sin but if they died before being baptized, straight to hell for eternity.  What is the solution?  Why Jesus H Christ of course.  Only God can solve the problem he created but what about the Bible?  Surely there is some reference to original sin in the Bible, right?

What set Augustine apart from his contemporaries was the idea that sin was passed on biologically through the act of sex.  To Augustine, sex was at the root of all sin. Augustine thought sex separated us from God but during the time the New Testament was written, by this I mean when Paul wrote his letters, sex was not evil, God had decreed it good in Genesis 1:31, the writers of Hebrews said the marital bed as undefiled and pure (Hebrews 13:4).  In his letter to the Corinthians, Paul stated that married sexual relationships, partners should focus on providing benefits to the other, not just on his or own satisfaction.  Augustine attempts to make the connection between sex and sin by tying it back to Adam and Eve but this is not what the New Testament writers had in mind.  Here we are again; the fact that these passages can be interpreted in some many different ways leads one to believe they were not divinely inspired or inerrant.  Augustine lived three hundred years after Jesus and he can’t even get the interpretation right, what makes twenty first century Christians believe they can get it right [6]?

So where did the New Testament writers think sin came from?  To Paul, sin was connected to the spirit world.  Paul believed that we are all held captive by Satan and that Adam eating the fruit was him submitting to Satan.  When they were kicked out of the garden, they enter into the sin-filled world ran by Satan and the garden was off limits.  We are not born of sin but rather born into a sinful world, a fallen world.  According to Paul in Romans 6:13-23, we have a choice of either following Jesus or not.  The battle of sin was done at the spiritual level not the physical and we had a choice, it is our responsibility to choose not to be sinful, it’s not a hereditary condition like Augustine thought.  This is most apparent when Jesus is compared to Adam.  Adam was given a choice, God said “Obey me and my commands or don’t but if you don’t, you will die!”  We know the story, Adam disobeyed God and was cast out of the garden or out from the presence of God, he was separated from God, he fell to Satan’s temptation.  Jesus was presented with the same temptation from Satan but he did not “eat” as Adam did.  He believed God and obeyed.  Jesus was sent to replace Satan in this world, to defeat sin, which enslaves humanity as told in Romans 16:20 [7].

I know most listeners of this podcast understand that the idea of original sin is bullshit.  It is important to remember that even though the Bible is a jumbled mess of books compiled over hundreds of year by mere mortals, we have to place claims about certain dogma up against it because whether we believe in their tales or not, it is the only way to understand the minds of believers.  Before we sign off, what does God have to say about all this?  You know the old man from the Old Testament.  Ezekiel 18:19-20 states the following about multi-generational sin:

  • “Yet you say, ‘Why should not the son suffer for the iniquity of the father?’ When the son has done what is just and right, and has been careful to observe all my statutes, he shall surely live. The soul who sins shall die. The son shall not suffer for the iniquity of the father, nor the father suffer for the iniquity of the son. The righteousness of the righteous shall be upon himself, and the wickedness of the wicked shall be upon himself.


Researching this episode left my head hurting.  I tried to get into the mind of a fourth century apologist.  I tried to see things from his angle.  Augustine, whether you believe in his teachings or not, left a huge mark on our world.  Sin and guilt are integral parts of religious belief.  Did he have some divine knowledge the rest of his contemporaries didn’t have?  No, he was just a mortal trying to understand the world filtered through the lens of a fourth century Christian apologist.  It just so happened that he had the backing of the winning church on his side.  The Catholic Church adopted his brand of theology and ran with it.  Might does not make right but regardless of this, his influence and writings are still quoted today by modern apologist.  This just goes to show you how much the bible is just another human book of earthly, natural origins.  So I say, go forth and sin as long as you are not hurting anyone else.  Drink and be merry because tomorrow you may die

This has been C-Webb’s Sunday School.  Find us at atheistsocialworker.org or at dumbassmedia.info.  We are on iTunes, search C-Webb’s Sunday School and while you are there, leave us a review.  We can be found on stitcher, Zune and most other podcatchers and don’t forget to follow me on twitter @cwebb619.  Join me next time when I take on more religious claims both holy and unholy