Theologic Musings: What about original sin?

Jesus and his interface with sin and the world was brought up on another post, and thought it would be appropriate to discuss how original sin relates, not only to Jesus, but also as a doctrine often brought up in opposition to the idea of a non-literal Adam and Eve. it seems a common question people have who are coming from a more literal interpretive tradition. Biologos has several resources that address it, one a review by Jim Stump, and another a podcast with Loren Haarsma.

Doctrines are man-made, but are still important as they represent the study and ideas of Christians through the ages. How then do we see the doctrine of original sin if Adam were not a historical individual? What was Paul’s trying to communicate in Romans 5:12-21?
Original sin was not a thing until Augustine, and later became incorporated into the church doctrine.
Regarding Jesus, as the son of Mary, and by becoming flesh and being fully human as well as fully God, how can you consider him touched by the taint of sin? Or does original sin just refer the first recorded sin, and the tendency to fall to sin but not being cursed by sin itself from conception?
Any thoughts?


This is how I approached the question when I was in the church . . .

For me, the touchstone was always Romans 3:

It says that all have sinned. It doesn’t say that all were born with sin because of Adam and Eve. To me, it is clearly stating that all have actively sinned themselves. To me, this makes the idea of Original Sin moot, especially given the Christian doctrine (at least the one I was raised on) that throughout history only Jesus was perfect.

Paul was trying to explain where death came from. We all experience death because of what Adam did. That one act brought death, but in the same way one act on the part of Jesus can bring life. I don’t see it as saying that everyone carries the sin of Adam, only the punishment of death in this life. I think this metaphor works equally well if Adam was an allegory.


Where do I start? haha.

I missed the other post, but my reply to Jesus’ interface with sinfulness and the world (which amount to the same thing) is fairly straightforward. A cultural model of the “transmission” of sinfulness is the only one that makes sense. “Original Sin” certainly isn’t physically or genealogically inherited. Both those answers are speculative nonsense. Contrary to Augustine et al., sinfulness isn’t passed in semen, nor is it conferred by lines on a family tree. The fruit in the garden represents the Knowledge of Good and Evil. Knowledge passed from one generation to the next is the very definition of culture. All of us, from first to last, have been born into particular times, places, families and cultures. In short, everyone grows up surrounded by examples of good and evil attitudes and behaviors. Jesus was no exception to that rule, and for that matter, neither were ha’adam (the man) and ha’issah (the woman).

Yes, Christianity isn’t a static thing. It also grows and evolves over the generations. New historical situations give rise to new questions not previously considered. Doctrines like the Trinity (Nicaea 325) and Original Sin (Augustine 354-430) were prompted by early church fathers arguing against “heretics” and splinter groups. Denying original sin certainly isn’t on the same level as denying the Trinity, but both are part and parcel of what the Western Church (Protestant and Catholic) has inherited from its thinkers and theologians through the centuries. What I appreciate about that theological tradition is that it doesn’t give precedence to the early church fathers in everything, as most Orthodox churches do.

As I said, new historical circumstances prompt Christians to ask new questions. From the evidence that the earth isn’t the center of the solar system (astronomy) to the discoveries of fossils and the “new” sciences such as geology and DNA, the church writ large has had to grapple with its previous interpretations. Returning to your OP, this is how I summed up the first chapter of Haarsma’s book in my review in Christianity Today:

Science doesn’t dictate interpretation, but “scientific discoveries are one of several ways that the Holy Spirit has prompted the church to reinterpret specific passages.”

The “fully God” aspect was set aside during the incarnation. Jesus had to grow and mature and be subject to the same temptations as the of us in order to represent us before God.

Now you’re asking the same question as Kierkegaard. I explored that in an essay a few years ago.

In The Concept of Anxiety , Kierkegaard explored the question of whether original sin is identical to “the first sin, Adam’s sin, the Fall.” [1] His interest was not the bare fact that “sin came into existence, but how it can come into existence.” In other words, why would Adam and Eve sin? What could possibly motivate them to transgress?..
In the first paragraph of his treatise, Kierkegaard complains that traditional conceptions of original sin introduce “a fantastic assumption, a state which by its loss involved the Fall.” What was that state? Most of us have heard it from childhood: Adam and Eve were created perfect and lived in a sinless, deathless paradise. Everyone agrees that such a situation doesn’t exist today, but as Kierkegaard pointed out, the theologians “forgot that the doubt was a different one, namely, whether it ever had existed — and that was pretty clearly necessary if one were to lose it. The history of humanity acquired a fantastic beginning. Adam was fantastically put outside. Pious sentiment and fantasy got what it desired — a godly prelude — but thought got nothing.”

Since I’ve gone on far too long, I’ll sum up by saying the knowledge of good and evil isn’t instilled at birth, let alone conception. Knowledge is learned and culturally situated, just like the conscience. I use “the Fall” and “Original Sin” as shorthand to get across my meaning, but strictly speaking Gen. 2-3 tells the story of the archetypal first humans from creation to moral maturity. The man and the woman represent all of us collectively and individually.


I think the hypothesis that we have inherited ‘original sin’ that dooms someone from the birth is in conflict with many other passages in the Bible. Think for example Hesekiel 18, how does that fit into the concept?

I approach this question by thinking that what happened in the story, happens in different ways in our life: rebellion and the consequences of sin. We do not need judgement because of what our ancestors did, we earn the judgement by our own rebellion, bad acts and words, and a lack of the good acts we could have done but choosed not to do.

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I listened Loren Haarsma’s podcast with interest. I have not yet read his book but plan to do so. I would be interested in hearing from anyone who has read the book. I am wondering if he references the theories of Julian Jaynes, Ph.d. who sees the fall of mankind as a theological explanation for the rebellion of mankind following the development of an independent consciousness of self as a product of metaphoric language. He wrote the 1976 book The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind. His theories would fit into a couple of Loren Haarsma’s four possible origins of the concept of sin.

Nothing on Jaynes. Haarsma surveys the views presented in 12 recent books on the subject.

Thanks for checking.

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No problem. For once my memory held up. I wrote the Christianity Today review linked above. If you enjoyed the podcast, the review should be worth your time.

I appreciate this tidbit. I’ll have to look up Jaynes. The science will be dated, but his view of the “fall” sounds similar to mine. Genesis 2-3 (actually all of Gen 1-11) is a theological explanation for “how we got to now,” which is to say it fits the genre of mythology.

I wouldn’t apply the term “rebellion” to the fall. That reminds me too much of parents who try to stamp out a child’s independence by calling every rule violation a “rebellion” against their authority. James Dobson and the “strong-willed child” comes to mind.

I do agree that consciousness of the independent self, i.e. self-consciousness, relies on brain-language coevolution. Tomasello has documented that chimps have first-order Theory of Mind on the level of human toddlers. I’ll just quote myself on the rest, cuz I’m lazy. haha




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Okay, nevermind. I took one look at this article from the NIH and didn’t need to read any farther. The origins of consciousness in 1000 BC? Ludicrous.



Really interesting question. I interpret Genesis as mythro-history (William Lane Craig has a take on this which I found really interesting). In particular, the main message of Genesis seems to be that humans have the capacity for reason, plus knowledge of good and evil. I define evil as doing the “wrong” thing with full knowledge of what the right thing to do is (hence it requires knowledge of what is “right”).

The whole story of the Bible in my opinion is Jesus offering himself as a sacrifice to restore us to a “right” relationship with God. We cannot be in the presence of an all powerful and all-good God in our current state with desires to harm others, jealousy, anger, judgement, etc.

Therefore original sin, in my interpretation, would be the first sin in which humans made a “wrong” choice with awareness of right and wrong, a choice that in some way represents rebellion against God. The whole story of Genesis seems to convey this is what leads to death, both of ourselves and of nature.


There has been a lot of discussion on original sin. There is at least one post that is several thousand responses long. There is even a post dedicated to a book. I skimmed the posts here and it seems that Jay’s podcast has been mentioned already. I’ll also definitely check out the article.

My denomination, The Churches of Christ, don’t believe in original sin. Prior to that the church I went to on and off did believe in it, but not everyone did and I landed on the not believing in it side prior to being baptized into Christ and joining the CoC.

In short I don’t believe that there is any good biblical evidence for original sin. Original sin started off as a catholic belief with a big emphasis on baby baptism and purgatory. That unbaptized babies went to purgatory or hell. The belief is that because of Adam, we are all born with this evil nature and are sinners before birth. I just don’t see that. The only sin we are guilty of is the sins we choose to commit. Jesus was born of a woman. So unless original sin is passed down through just men to their kids, Jesus would have been born with it as well. Sin is just choosing to willfully disobey God , including going against our convictions. Babies can’t do that.

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Good thoughts. I mostly agree with a few nit-picks.

I appreciate the fact that WLC grappled with the scientific evidence and went at least as far as labeling Genesis 1-11 as “mytho-,” despite feeling forced to tack on “history” at the end. It’s a tiny step forward, but locating a literal Adam & Eve around 750,000 years ago as the origin of “humanity” is jumping the shark. @glipsnort wrote a good review for Science.

Sticking to Gen 1-11, I’d say the main message is that all the calamities that befall humanity are the result of human choice, not the capriciousness of the gods. (It’s a polemic against ANE mythology, in other words.)

WLC focuses on the “structural” image of God and the soul, drawing mostly from Aquinas’ concept of the “rational soul” – reason and morality. That’s true to a certain extent, unless infants and those with intellectual disabilities are taken into account. How can we say an infant is born in the image of God when they are years of normal development away from acquiring the ability to reason? And what of those who don’t develop normally? The “vocational” (or “functional”) image of God described by Middleton and others makes more sense.

Knowledge of what is “right” or “wrong” isn’t inborn. Knowledge is learned. Kids are taught from the earliest ages “don’t hit, don’t bite, don’t lie, don’t steal.” (Sounds like the 10 Commandments, doesn’t it?) Right behavior is something children learn by training, not by independent reasoning. Is it enough to tell a child the rule once and they follow it from then on? That doesn’t work in child rearing or teaching grammar. Children understand what the rules are at an early age but still require constant correction to internalize them. So the question comes down to what it means to do wrong with “full knowledge” of what right means. That requires years of training and experience to acquire, not just in terms of moral training, but also in terms of “normal” brain and language development.

I agree except for the application of “rebellion” to what happened. Logically, humanity had to progress from “innocent” animal to morally “guilty” human. Somewhere along that historical continuum, someone was the first to commit a morally responsible sin, but that’s not much different than saying one particular individual was the first to have a mutation that was eventually passed on through natural selection to the rest of the population.

I think the metaphor that makes the most sense is the parable of the Prodigal Son. I’ve leave that hanging, since I’ve gone on too long already.


Not intending to digress into a sensitive and controversial subject, so readers please refrain from pursuing said digression, Tim Keller gives an interesting thought experiment to just that point. Knowledge is learned and behaviors are chosen:

(And speaking of Keller, he also has a good book, The Prodigal God.)

I didn’t know CoC didn’t believe in original sin. Interesting.

The description you give of original sin is the strictest Augustinian version. It’s not a Catholic thing, since he predated Catholicism and the doctrine of purgatory by centuries. I agree we aren’t sinners before birth or that we inherit an evil nature. If anyone is condemned, it’s due to their own evil (selfish) choices, not a predetermined destiny. As you point out, babies aren’t capable of choice.

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I might take some exception to that. A one-month-old (I don’t remember that it was one of mine, but I’ve seen it ; - ), its fists clenched and waving its arms and kicking its feet, its face bright red and scrunched up, crying at the top of its lungs because it had not been fed soon enough and/or because it is cold and naked on the changing table, could pretty safely be said to have decided to become angry and throw a fit. Not all do that, in my limited experience. (Yes, of course all will cry to one degree or another when hungry or uncomfortable.) Others could be said to have decided to be a little more patient?

(This is not intended as an argument in support of original sin, but I expect it could be used so. ; - )

You may be right but from reading your article, it looks to me like you have more in common with Jaynes than you might think. I think it would be worth your time to read his book.

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One problem with ‘original sin’ is that the contents of the term is not standardized. For some, it means that we have a natural tendency to make decisions that are against the will of God. For others, it means that all persons born are doomed to hell, unless they get a baptism that has been accepted by the church. A third view might be that ‘original sin’ dooms our bodies to death, even if our eternity is determined by our choices, in synergy with the acts of God, not ‘original sin’.

During earlier years, many hospitals had guidelines how a nurse or midwife needs to act if a baby is about to die. Probably some hospitals still have those guidelines. If it seemed that a priest could not come before the baby dies, the nurse or midwife needed to perform an emergency baptism. The idea was that if the life of the baby could not be saved, at least the eternity of the baby must be saved.
How we think about this kind of guidelines tells quite much about our perception of the original sin.


I know that it started prior to modern day Catholics. I guess I meant that the only ones I hear arguing about original sin nowadays connected to this are Catholics. Or at least the concept of it being what causes babies to end up in hell and or purgatory. The version many Protestants argue tend to not be related to how it was used for a long time. They see it the same, just minus it carrying any actual consequences other than to make sense of why we choose evil. They tend to merge it with the sin nature vs spirit nature. But to me that’s two different concepts.

The “ spiritual vs flesh” man ( two natures ).

The accountability be all have as the seed of Adam that must be washed away , regardless of age, or it must be purified through fire. ( original sin ).