What's original in original sin?

In another thread, @aleo and @Mervin_Bitikofer had an interesting exchange that included this:

I’d like feedback on a different way of viewing Augustine’s contribution. Before him, Jewish and early Christian tradition drew two main points from Adam. First, that Adam’s story is our own story: in some sense, we are Adam. Second, that we all descend from Adam and receive something (ranging from an evil inclination to guilt) from him. Both Adam as us and Adam as ancestor sit side by side in traditional readings of Adam.

I see Augustine’s contribution as tying these two ideas together in a logical way. When he wrote, both ideas were so ingrained that neither could be dismissed while claiming continuity with tradition. But the ideas seemed impossible to put together in a literal narrative. Either Adam represents everyone, or Adam is a literal first man. Augustine saw a way get both ideas from a literal first man. Drawing from an ancient view of procreation that claimed children were present in their father in seed form before they were conceived, he saw all humankind present in Adam’s loins and, in some mysterious way, acting with him while within him. We all contributed, in Adam, to the sin that corrupts human nature. At our conception we each inherited the nature we helped corrupt. Adam is us because Adam is our ancestor.

Later scientific discoveries made the details of Augustine’s synthesis look foolish. Since a woman provides far more than “fertile soil” for a man’s “seed,” it’s apparent that people don’t predate their conception. In response, most who followed Augustine downplayed the “Adam as us” part of his view while strengthening “Adam as ancestor.” This led to Adam only being us in a loose way of speaking while the truth is that Adam was our ancestor who sinned, changed human nature, and bequeathed this fallen nature to his every descendant.

As a result, the Augustinian view has become what Augustine himself rejected. He thought it compromised God’s goodness to say God spread Adam’s sinful nature to humans who had not contributed to it. But, often through various appeals to mystery, his followers don’t feel the same tension.

Anyway, it’s probably due to Augustine that the modern church has lost half of its two-pronged explanation of Adam. He didn’t intend it, but by tying “Adam as us” to a faulty conception of conception, he made it easy for later Christians to walk away from the whole idea. Thanks to him, we’re now in the place where one prong, “Adam as ancestor,” has become the whole, making any challenge to the historical Adam a threat to the entire theological system.

I wonder how the historical Adam debate would look had the church chosen to rest the theological weight on the other prong. In Genesis, Adam tells our story, both as individuals and as the human race. Echoing Paul, we’d grapple with whether we remain in Adam or find ourselves in Christ. If “Adam as us” had been the centre of our understanding of Adam, perhaps “Adam as ancestor” could be rethought in less literal ways without jeapardizing so many other beliefs. Then, if science were to point away from a solitary first male as strongly as it points away from male-only seed, the theological stakes would not be so high.

I realize that’s a bare outline without much supporting detail. But any thoughts or push-back? What do others see as the essential thing to preserve with original sin or our view of Adam?


An interesting read on the evolution of the doctrine of original sin is Elaine Pagels’s Adam, Eve, and the Serpent (New York: Vintage Books, 1988). She follows the threads of the topic through the early church up until Augustine.

Tertullian is sometimes overlooked in the debate about original sin, but it was he who first introduced the doctrine of inheritable sin in the late 2nd century CE. Tertullian’s “traducianism” stated the soul is transmitted from parents to children, and so is sin. If you reverse engineer his logic, you see he’s really saying there’s only one soul – Adam’s – which was contaminated and was passed down to all his earthly descendants. Traducianism was eventually abandoned by the Church, but not the idea of inheritable sin. Go figure.

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As an adult I found it difficult to give any sort of interpretation to Original Sin that would reconcile it with what I was learning in science, OR what I was reading of the early Church Fathers: Tertullian, Irenaeus & Augustine. IMHO the only advantage of a belief in Original Sin was that it gave a ‘pat answer’ for why Jesus had to be sacrificed to appease God’s anger against a rebellious, ‘broken’ humankind. But the idea that God the Father’s anger (at our brokenness) could only be appeased by the suffering of His Son is a bit of theology I could never be comfortable with.

I may be in error in doing away with Original Sin, but at least I can look forward to (soon) being with a God who I CAN be comfortable with.
Al Leo


Seems to me that ignoring the role of women in our ancestral inheritance goes hand in hand with ignoring Eve’s role in the original sin itself… so I don’t see why fixing the first wouldn’t immediately lead to fixing the second… and in fact this seems to me to be what the majority of Christianity has done. So as much as I don’t like Augustine… I am not buying the argument in the OP about Augustine getting us all turned around in such a way.

This is not to say that I buy into the compromise which Augustine devised. I reject both ideas of Adam representing us and inheriting some genetic predisposition to sin from Adam. Instead, what I see is another non-genetic inheritance from Adam – a memetic one, coming both from God through Adam providing for our basic humanity as well as a distortion of that inheritance in some self-destructive habits initiated by Adam and Eve. In other words, what I see is no built in tendency to sin but rather an environment filled with bad examples of both thought and behavior which are destructive of our human potential. And it is an observable nature of sin itself that it grows and multiplies and so within a few generation the blame game of Adam and Eve has become fratricide and habitual murder.

Back to the question of original in “original sin,” let us remember that genetics obviously never had any part whatsoever in any original conception of this in Christian theology. It is only when genetics was discovered that people equated and reduced inheritance to genetics and this unwarranted thinking is really where it went wrong in this area of Christian theology.

The original sin that was committed was against the King of Heaven - Jesus. It is described in Revelations 12 where 1/3 of Heaven was cast out for following Lucifer in his bid to become the second king of Heaven.

And the great dragon was cast out, that old serpent, called the Devil, and Satan, which deceiveth the whole world: he was cast out into the earth, and his angels were cast out with him. (Rev 12:9)

And his tail drew the third part of the stars of heaven, and did cast them to the earth: and the dragon stood before the woman which was ready to be delivered, for to devour her child as soon as it was born. (Rev 12:4)

This is why the only way back to Heaven is through devotion to Jesus. We all once had forsaken Jesus and we now must learn the hard way to become true to only Him and His Father. This early Christian message was lost when Justinian declared the works of Origen (and Arius) anathema in 543 AD. Lucifer has done a great job of hiding his guilt and the true path back to God. He wants to keep his followers and not lose them to Jesus. This is the real battle and as long as Christianity fails to accept the adversary and his methods, he will keep winning skirmishes.

Thanks for the book recommendation, @Realspiritik. One more item on my wishlist.

That’s interesting how Tertullian came to a similar conclusion yet without using the idea of male seed. Did Tertullian think a child’s soul was split off of their father’s soul alone or somehow both parents’ souls? His idea does seem very similar to Augustine’s, but just speaking of the soul instead of the body. (Though Tertullian may have resisted seeing the soul as entirely immaterial, just as Augustine may have considered male seed to be responsible for more than just the physical body, bringing the two ideas even closer together.)

Again, very similar to abandoning Augustine’s reasoning about seed while keeping imputed guilt. It keeps the consequence while tossing the explanation (admittedly one that hasn’t held up well) that made it somewhat morally defensible.

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The Catholic position in the Catechism is hardly a simple one…

There is no effort made to refute the power hook of obedience theology. We are created and therefore obligated to obey the creator and free will is simply the cruelty of supplying the rope with which to hang ourselves.

396 God created man in his image and established him in his friendship. A spiritual creature, man can live this friendship only in free submission to God. The prohibition against eating “of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil” spells this out: “for in the day that you eat of it, you shall die.” The “tree of the knowledge of good and evil” symbolically evokes the insurmountable limits that man, being a creature, must freely recognize and respect with trust. Man is dependent on his Creator, and subject to the laws of creation and to the moral norms that govern the use of freedom.
397 Man, tempted by the devil, let his trust in his Creator die in his heart and, abusing his freedom, disobeyed God’s command. This is what man’s first sin consisted of. All subsequent sin would be disobedience toward God and lack of trust in his goodness.
398 In that sin man preferred himself to God and by that very act scorned him. He chose himself over and against God, against the requirements of his creaturely status and therefore against his own good. Constituted in a state of holiness, man was destined to be fully “divinized” by God in glory. Seduced by the devil, he wanted to “be like God”, but “without God, before God, and not in accordance with God”.
399 Scripture portrays the tragic consequences of this first disobedience. Adam and Eve immediately lose the grace of original holiness. They become afraid of the God of whom they have conceived a distorted image - that of a God jealous of his prerogatives.

What is inherited is both consequence of what Adam and Eve did in a damage to our essential nature AND the sin of Adam and Eve itself.

400 The harmony in which they had found themselves, thanks to original justice, is now destroyed: the control of the soul’s spiritual faculties over the body is shattered; the union of man and woman becomes subject to tensions, their relations henceforth marked by lust and domination. Harmony with creation is broken: visible creation has become alien and hostile to man. Because of man, creation is now subject “to its bondage to decay”. Finally, the consequence explicitly foretold for this disobedience will come true: man will “return to the ground”, for out of it he was taken. Death makes its entrance into human history .
401 After that first sin, the world is virtually inundated by sin There is Cain’s murder of his brother Abel and the universal corruption which follows in the wake of sin. Likewise, sin frequently manifests itself in the history of Israel, especially as infidelity to the God of the Covenant and as transgression of the Law of Moses. And even after Christ’s atonement, sin raises its head in countless ways among Christians. Scripture and the Church’s Tradition continually recall the presence and universality of sin in man’s history :
What Revelation makes known to us is confirmed by our own experience. For when man looks into his own heart he finds that he is drawn towards what is wrong and sunk in many evils which cannot come from his good creator. Often refusing to acknowledge God as his source, man has also upset the relationship which should link him to his last end, and at the same time he has broken the right order that should reign within himself as well as between himself and other men and all creatures.
402 All men are implicated in Adam’s sin, as St. Paul affirms: “By one man’s disobedience many (that is, all men) were made sinners”: “sin came into the world through one man and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all men sinned.” The Apostle contrasts the universality of sin and death with the universality of salvation in Christ. “Then as one man’s trespass led to condemnation for all men, so one man’s act of righteousness leads to acquittal and life for all men.”
403 Following St. Paul, the Church has always taught that the overwhelming misery which oppresses men and their inclination towards evil and death cannot be understood apart from their connection with Adam’s sin and the fact that he has transmitted to us a sin with which we are all born afflicted, a sin which is the “death of the soul”. Because of this certainty of faith, the Church baptizes for the remission of sins even tiny infants who have not committed personal sin.
404 How did the sin of Adam become the sin of all his descendants? The whole human race is in Adam “as one body of one man”. By this “unity of the human race” all men are implicated in Adam’s sin, as all are implicated in Christ’s justice. Still, the transmission of original sin is a mystery that we cannot fully understand. But we do know by Revelation that Adam had received original holiness and justice not for himself alone, but for all human nature. By yielding to the tempter, Adam and Eve committed a personal sin , but this sin affected the human nature that they would then transmit in a fallen state . It is a sin which will be transmitted by propagation to all mankind, that is, by the transmission of a human nature deprived of original holiness and justice. And that is why original sin is called “sin” only in an analogical sense: it is a sin “contracted” and not “committed” - a state and not an act.
405 Although it is proper to each individual, original sin does not have the character of a personal fault in any of Adam’s descendants. It is a deprivation of original holiness and justice, but human nature has not been totally corrupted: it is wounded in the natural powers proper to it, subject to ignorance, suffering and the dominion of death, and inclined to sin - an inclination to evil that is called “concupiscence”. Baptism, by imparting the life of Christ’s grace, erases original sin and turns a man back towards God, but the consequences for nature, weakened and inclined to evil, persist in man and summon him to spiritual battle.
406 The Church’s teaching on the transmission of original sin was articulated more precisely in the fifth century, especially under the impulse of St. Augustine’s reflections against Pelagianism, and in the sixteenth century, in opposition to the Protestant Reformation. Pelagius held that man could, by the natural power of free will and without the necessary help of God’s grace, lead a morally good life; he thus reduced the influence of Adam’s fault to bad example. The first Protestant reformers, on the contrary, taught that original sin has radically perverted man and destroyed his freedom; they identified the sin inherited by each man with the tendency to evil (concupiscentia), which would be insurmountable. The Church pronounced on the meaning of the data of Revelation on original sin especially at the second Council of Orange (529) and at the Council of Trent (1546).

I on the other hand refute not only the effort to put power in the hands of human church organizations with a theology of obedience but also refute the idea that sins can actually be inherited and refute the idea that human nature itself was damaged to make us more likely to sin. This does not mean that I agree with Pelagius, because I assert instead that man was never meant to navigate the moral landscape without the help of God. Though I do come rather close to Pelagius in the reducing the influence of the original sin of Adam and Eve to one of a bad example. But I think in the wording above the Catholics make too little of this, whereas in my terminology this equates to a memetic inheritance from Adam and Eve, carried right along side our very humanity, so this is far from a trivial thing. After all, inheritance is just a transmission of information: the genetic inheritance in the information contained in DNA/RNA, and the memetic inheritance in the information contained in human language via stories, traditions, and other teachings.

I suppose as a consequence I am rejecting the magical elements of the catholic teaching about baptism and seeing baptism instead as being a matter of symbolism and choice which I believe to be the very substance and essence of our spirit.


My own thinking is similar, yet without Adam and Eve being individuals. I see Adam’s story as telling humanity’s story, and in the one place in Genesis where Adam is split into Adam and Eve, both continue to tell different aspects of humanity’s story. So, my focus on Adam isn’t to discount women, but based on the way Genesis itself uses Adam as an umbrella term for all humans (e.g. Gen. 1:26–27; 5:1–2; 6:3, 5–6, etc.).

But I agree that what Adam (however understood) contributes to sin is the twisting of the environment and culture we’re all born into. That escalating corruption does seem to be a theme in early Genesis, while suggesting the sexual transmission of this corruption seems to go well beyond the text.

I also agree that the Eden narrative doesn’t show us the ultimate origin of evil, as I think @Shawn_Murphy was noting. The serpent is present and acting badly before anyone disobeys. So, because the story isn’t trying to explain the origin of evil, it becomes even less important to view its characters as historical individuals who can be blamed for sin’s origin.

The Eden story is of the second Fall. After the first fall which created Sin, Adam and Eve were chosen as a proxy to test whether the fallen had overcome Satan. Since they failed their test, everyone has to be individually tested. As you say Marshall, the concept that all inherited sin from Adam and Eve is illogical and unfair.

@mitchellmckain, thanks for being brave and doing all the typing so we can see the Roman Catholic doctrines of original sin together in one place.

Like you, I find the Church’s teachings on original sin (based on the writings of Tertullian and Augustine, among others) to lie on one end of the spectrum of religious thought, and the teachings of Pelagius to lie on the other end.

Somewhere in the middle (oh wait! maybe in the teachings of Jesus?) there lies the wondrous sense of balance between human rights and responsibilities that God is always talking about – but which we pretend not to hear.

To answer your question about Tertullian, I’d have go back through my research notes from my Master’s paper, and, to be honest, slogging through Terullian’s Treatise on the Soul and The Soul’s Testimony was not my idea of a good time. But I wanted to see for myself where the deep roots lay for Western orthodoxy’s dismal view of the soul. Our depressing view of the soul started with Paul, then worked its way in a murky sequence towards Tertullian, who heavily influenced Augustine, whose teachings on creation and sin (among other things) became intertwined with Platonic teachings (early, middle, neo – you name it) in a kudzu-like mashup that still plagues Christianity today.

What I find fascinating is that despite all the dismal doctrines adopted over the centuries by the Church in its various schools and traditions, many people still manage to see past the knotted roots and tangled thorns that get in the way of what Jesus taught – i.e. how we can be in a loving relationship with God despite our admitted flaws as human beings.

God’s Divine Love is some kind of crazy, awesome, breathtaking miracle that always helps us heal our bodies, minds, and hearts even when we shoot ourselves in the foot.

For me, the doctrines of original sin are about as helpful to us in our relationship with God as shooting off our toes with an elephant gun.

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Hi Shawn,

I know there’s a long history for this kind of understanding of God and Creation, and it predates Jesus’s teachings by millennia. I also know this ancient pattern of thought reemerges in every major world religion (not just Judaism or Christianity) on a regular basis.

Apophatic mystics in particular seem drawn to judgmental, dualistic thinking about our relationship with God (with the author of Revelation being a perfect example of an apophatic mystic). There’s more than one kind of mysticism, however, and I have to say that for myself, as a cataphatic mystic, the concepts of “Fall,” “Original Sin,” “Satan,” “End Times/Last Things,” and “Good/Light versus Evil/Darkness” don’t ever enter into my conversations with the Divine. When I stumbled up against the inevitable theodicy question, I was guided to stop looking at religious texts for answers and to start looking at neurophysiology as a medium to better understand the brain-soul nexus and our relationship with God. After I had a solid grasp on how the brain-soul nexus works, I was able to return to the study of religious texts with a clear eye and solid sense of skepticism about revelatory claims made in the absence of corroborating evidence.

My personal motto: There is no ethical mysticism without ethical scientific investigation.

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I certainly share your viewpoint, Jennifer.

The people in the 1st - 6th centuries who laid the foundations for the Christian church were smart and undoubtedly inspired by the stories of Jesus’ ministry handed down to them–not all of them dependable enough to earn the ‘canonical’ label, however. But in those pre-scientific days the ‘Founding Fathers’ lacked the knowledge to make sure that the ‘Book of Faith’ they were constructing was not in sharp contradiction to the ‘Book of Nature’ which also has God as its author. It took only very simple observation (together with an admittedly primitive moral sense) to determine that humankind was, in a way, a somewhat ‘broken’ creature. Was this ‘brokenness’ the result of a monumental struggle between two separate powers, one good, the other evil? Or were these properties combined in a Janus-like single diety who created each of us with strongly competing natures?

My reading of Scripture and the Catholic catechism still left me on the horns of a dilemma. After choosing a career in science and learning about deep time and evolution, I formed a worldview that resolved this dilemma, for me at least. But it necessitated discarding the concept of Original Sin. As I have indicated on this Forum, that move for me, was liberating. No longer was God a wrathful Judge meeting out punishment even to His own Son, to secure justice. He was indeed the loving Father that Jesus taught us to pray to.

I plead guilty to the charge of being a ‘Cafeteria Catholic’. I choose from Scripture what I feel brings me closer to God. For example, Revelations does not do this. While it might prove valuable for others, my mind does not grasp that sort of symbolism. God created such an immense variety of life in this Universe, I just hope He is not angry with my unorthodoxy.
Al Leo


Because God created such an immense variety of life, there has to be room for unorthodoxy. If God intended us all to fit within a few small boxes of identical perfection (like the Borg on Star Trek), our planet wouldn’t look the way it does. And our minds wouldn’t think the way they do. Everywhere I look, I see the perfection of imperfection (especially when it comes to Divine Love, which is ridiculously wonky but perfect in every way). As you say, it’s liberating.

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If “original sin” is about us being guilty for what someone else did, or about pointing the finger to who caused our mess, I agree that it’s an idea past its best-before date.

But if “original sin” is about our inclination to sin and seeming inability to live without sinning (our being a “somewhat ‘broken’ creature,” as you put it), perhaps an evolutionary account suggests it shouldn’t be abandoned. Long before we were the human race, all sorts of instincts and behaviours were embedded into our being. Those instincts and behaviours now lead us to all sorts of sins, and they make sinning natural, even instinctual. Combining this with what @mitchellmckain wrote, we end up with corruption without (in our culture and environment) and corruption within. Even without portraying this state as something that makes us guilty, it still points to our need for rescue.

Does that capture what is important in the concept? Or should an idea like this go by a less fraught term than “original sin”?

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Using the knowledge of human evolution, we can say that Adam’s story is our own story.. However, what we receive from Adam (i.e. from Homo sapiens whose brain has developed into Mind) are Selfish Genes of an animal nature–a God-given nature which is NOT evil per se. With the combined Mind/conscience, a human now can choose to follow a morality preferred by our Creator, rather than to follow pure animal instinct.

Those who cannot accept Darwinian evolution argue that it would compromise God’s goodness. It is true that ‘before Adam’, the life forms God had created were essentially amoral, but they still could be considered “good”. My view is that God did not dictate the moral good He wanted to exist in His Universe. He wanted one of His Creatures to freely choose to co-create a divine morality along with Him, even tho this required humankind to “swim upstream” against animal instinct.

It is my view that Adam did not Sin to the degree that warranted damnation. Rather Adam (and that means the rest of us) too often refuse the magnificent offer to become co-creators–we “cast the pearls before swine” and refuse to become like Jesus, Images of our Creator.
Al Leo

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Can’t disagree with you about our tendency to behave in harmful ways. But “original sin” means something more, and insists we can’t choose not to sin. So as you suggest, perhaps we need a less fraught term.

Using slightly different words, you express my view very well. What was excusable in the Biosphere is now immoral in the Noosphere. In a way, the moral code we follow is a human construct, but we must continually “go to the mountain” like Moses, to be sure it really does conform to God’s will.
God bless!
Al Leo

Yes Jennifer,
It predates Jesus because it has always been the restoration story told through the prophets. Satan and his minions have been covering their trail from the beginning. So, we as enlightened Christians have the choice on which trail to follow. I choose to follow Solomon, Homer, Isaiah, Ezekiel, Socrates, Jesus and Origen which all told this long history of the redemption of the fallen. I choose this over the power-hungry Jewish Rabbis and Scribes, Catholic priests and Evangelicals.

I have offered corroborating evidence in the past from in the form of three independent representations of the words of Jesus which corroborate my claim and meet your requirement for scientific investigation.

Best Wishes, Shawn

As part of our biology and body these instincts and behaviors are a factor of our environment rather than our being. Our minds are quite apart from that and it is our choice whether to follow the dictates of our mind and be a human or to simply to follow the dictates of our body and be just an animal. What makes an organism alive is doing things for its own reasons responsive to the environment, while being dominated by the environment means the organism is dead. This applies to the life of the human mind just as it does to the body. If our actions are dictated by the body-environment, then mind has no claim to life and our humanity is lacking. In the end this is just another challenge of life little different from challenges such as avoiding predators. We know from our studies in biology that such challenges are a necessity for the development of life.

Perhaps the above explains a little why what is all well in good in the biosphere is now considered immoral in the noosphere. I can see why some might find such a reversal to be a lttle bizarre. In my way of thinking it is not so much about what is forbidden but what best provides for positive development in this new dimension of human life.