Two men went to the Temple in Jerusalem to pray (or so the story goes). One was a Pharisee–an esteemed religious leader who was routinely praised for his righteous living. The other man was considered the scum of the earth, the tool of an evil and corrupt Roman government–despised and rejected by his own people. In other words, he was a tax collector.
The Pharisee stood by himself and prayed this prayer:
“I thank you, God, that I am not like other people–cheaters, sinners, adulterers. I’m certainly not like that tax collector! I fast twice a week, and I give you a tenth of my income.”
But the tax collector stood at a distance. He was so ashamed of who he was, he didn’t even dare to look upward to heaven as he prayed. Instead, he beat his chest in sorrow and cried out:
“O God, please be merciful to me, for I am a sinner.”
Jesus paused for a moment, to let the full weight of his story sink in. And then he began to speak quietly, almost in a whisper:
“Let me tell you–this sinner, not the Pharisee, returned home justified before God. For those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”
A paraphrase of Luke 18:10-14
As we dive into today’s topic–the question of whether the “Doctrine of Original Sin” can be found in Paul’s letter to the Romans (spoiler alert! it can’t!)–I want you to keep that parable told by Jesus in the forefront of your mind. I believe it will give you insight into the subtext of what Paul is saying throughout several passages in Romans that are routinely misread and misused as “proof” for original sin.
First, a definition: what is the doctrine of original sin? The definition is fairly simple and if you’ve spent any length of time in most traditional Christian circles, you’ve heard it expressed something like this:
“God created humans to be perfect. But then Adam and Eve disobeyed God by eating of the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil which was in the Garden of Eden. Therefore God cursed the world, and ever since then we live in a fallen world. All of humanity is under God’s judgement, and we are all sinners because of what Adam and Eve did.”
In other words, this is the “bad news” which gets preached before we can learn to appreciate the “good news” of what Jesus did on the cross. Every human who’s ever lived since Adam & Eve (other than Jesus, and Mary if you’re Catholic) are guilty of sin by nature, regardless of what we actually do intentionally. But by believing in Jesus, our “sin nature” gets destroyed (or at least ignored) and we are now forgiven. We’re on God’s good side now.
So where does this doctrine come from? If understanding the Fall and Adam’s original sin as told to us in the book of Genesis is crucial to understanding Christ’s work on the cross, surely Jesus would have talked about this in his ministry! Surely he would have opened his statements about believing in him, about his mission to save sinners, by explaining the total depravity of this sin nature we’ve all inherited simply by being descendants of Adam and Eve.
Well, he doesn’t.
Don’t you find that odd? Don’t you find it curious that Jesus never mentions Adam and Eve (except in passing on other matters)? Don’t you find it bizarre that such a central tenet (seemingly) of Christian faith is completely absent from Jesus’ preaching?
If Jesus ever did talk about it and present this “bad news” as part of his “good news” of the kingdom of heaven, we have no record of it.
Which brings us to Paul. Actually, we’ll get to him in a minute. First let’s talk about St. Augustine.
The Original Sin of St. Augustine
Augustine of Hippo is one of the most famous theologians and philosophers of the early Church. Born November 13, 354 and converted to Christianity in 386, he went on to write a number of documents which greatly influenced subsequent generations of theologians–Protestant reformers such as Luther and Calvin among them.
Indeed, the historian Diarmaid MacCulloch wrote:
“Augustine’s impact on Western Christian thought can hardly be overstated; only his beloved example Paul of Tarsus, has been more influential, and Westerners have generally seen Paul through Augustine’s eyes.”
Among other things, Augustine is well-known for formulating a detailed thesis on original sin, as well as depicting an everlasting hellfire for the damned. Now to be fair, Augustine wasn’t the first Christian theologian to posit the idea that Adam & Eve’s sin was somehow transferred to subsequent generations. Yet the idea that we’re all sinners primarily because of what happened in Eden had gone through various stages of debate and in some cases was rejected by theologians prior to Augustine.
His views prevailed in large part due to political events within the Church at the time as well as the events of the fall of Rome. Those who disagreed with the Augustinian doctrine of original sin were cast aside in the historical arc of Christian theology–but only in the West. It’s notable that Eastern Orthodox Christianity does not hold to the doctrine of original sin. In the Orthodox Church in America’s commentary on St. Augustine & original sin, we read:
With regard to original sin, the difference between Orthodox Christianity and the West may be outlined as follows:
In the Orthodox Faith, the term “original sin” refers to the “first” sin of Adam and Eve. As a result of this sin, humanity bears the “consequences” of sin, the chief of which is death. Here the word “original” may be seen as synonymous with “first.” Hence, the “original sin” refers to the “first sin” in much the same way as “original chair” refers to the “first chair.”
In the West, humanity likewise bears the “consequences” of the “original sin” of Adam and Eve. However, the West also understands that humanity is likewise “guilty” of the sin of Adam and Eve. The term “Original Sin” here refers to the condition into which humanity is born, a condition in which guilt as well as consequence is involved.
In the Orthodox Christian understanding, while humanity does bear the consequences of the original, or first, sin, humanity does not bear the personal guilt associated with this sin. Adam and Eve are guilty of their willful action; we bear the consequences, chief of which is death.
It’s vital to understand that last concept, as we begin to look at Romans and what Paul actually says about Adam’s sin and how death entered the world. Is he talking about how we’re all there (present) with Adam in his moment of weakness and disobedience, and thus his sin becomes our sin? Or is Paul merely referring to the results of Adam’s sin and how that may affect us today?
Before we move on to Romans, it’s worth noting that, before Augustine converted to Christianity, he had taken an interest in the then-popular religion of Manichaeism as well as neo-Platonic philosophy. Is it possible that Augustine’s dualistic worldview–a vision of physicality as inherently corrupt and a mere shadow of spiritual perfection–never left him as he entered into the Christian stream? (Judaism at the time of Christ was far less dualistic and could see God’s goodness as present in all things. The divide between sacred and secular was far less obvious.)
As Peter Nathan puts it in his essay The Original View of Original Sin:
Augustine was challenged by the question that philosophers inevitably posed to Christians: “How could sin have entered the world, if God is good?” Augustine sought to answer this challenge and in so doing adopted many of the philosophers’ ideas.
The result, as evidenced by his writings, was that Augustine reinterpreted the Bible in light of philosophy.
Peter Nathan goes on to say:
In contrast to his contemporary theologians, Augustine drew from his reading of these scriptures (aka Romans) that sin was passed biologically from Adam to all his descendants through the sexual act itself, thus equating sexual desire with sin. But why should he have reached this interpretation when marital sexual relations in Jewish society at the time of Christ and Paul were considered honorable and good?
Augustine’s outlook on sex was distorted by ideas from the world outside the Bible. Because so much philosophy was based on dualism, in which the physical was categorized as evil but the spiritual as good, some philosophers idealized the celibate state. Sexual relations were physical and therefore evil.
Augustine’s association with Neoplatonic philosophers led him to introduce their outlook within the church. This had its effect in the development of doctrine.
Clearly Augustine’s Neoplatonic, dualistic concept of physical being evil and spiritual being good does not coincide with Paul’s view. This leads us to a second influential idea of Augustine’s relating to sin. He proposed the concept of the “fall of man” as a result of sin. In Augustine’s view, humanity lost its spiritual relationship with its Creator and thus fell to a lower state. Is this an idea that finds support in Paul’s writings?
Let’s find out!
Finding Original Sin
There are a few notable verses in Romans that are routinely used when making the case for original sin. It often starts with the argument that everyone–no matter who they are–is a “sinner.” The favored verse to present this idea is Romans 3:23:
For everyone has sinned; we all fall short of God’s glorious standard.
I’m using the New Living Translation (NLT) for my Scriptural quotes. You may have heard this before in other translations which say something like “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.”
This is a pretty dramatic statement, no? Yet I have a few comments about why this is ultimately of little use in constructing an argument for original sin.
First of all, there’s no new information here for anyone familiar with Jewish sensibility. Simply pick up the Old Testament almost anywhere and there’s a sense that everyone is struggling to measure up. Even “heroes of the faith” such as Abraham, Moses, David, and many others made all sorts of mistakes.
Secondly, even in our secular, non-religious culture, we often hear a similar refrain: “well, nobody’s perfect.” Nobody’s perfect? OK, so if one could become convinced that God does exist and he/she/it/they is the source of all that is good and perfect in the universe, and no human is perfect (clearly), then wouldn’t it follow that we all (y’know) fall short of God’s standard? “We all make mistakes” is simply a truism and using it as a foundational text for preaching to non-Christians is unhelpful at best and counter-productive at worst.
Finally, even if this verse were a huge revelation from Paul about a concept everyone should learn about, we still need to read it in context. And the context is actually this: God has made a way for us to become “right in his sight” through faith in Jesus Christ–rather than strictly adhering to the Torah (that is, the Law of Moses). Yes, once again we’re back to what I’ve been saying in my previous essays on Romans: Paul is addressing the theological disagreements between Jews and Gentile Christians, and he’s trying really hard to get the Jews on his side. The entire chapter of Romans 3 is about this! Paul is overt about this in a later verse:
After all, is God the God of the Jews only? Isn’t he also the God of the Gentiles? Of course he is. There is only one God, and he makes people right with himself only by faith, whether they are Jews or Gentiles.
So Paul’s statement about “all have sinned” is in essence a statement that all Jews have sinned, just as all Gentiles have. Even though the Jews have the Law of Moses, it doesn’t follow that they’re perfect. They still need faith in Jesus to become right in God’s sight.
(Editorial note: clearly Paul’s case did not hold historically, because the Jewish people by and large rejected the Messianic claims of Jesus and continued on the path of Judaism. Even now in the 21st century, the tensions between Christianity and Judaism remain much as they were in Paul’s day. That’s an interesting topic for another day. Right now, I’m simply trying to bring illumination to Paul’s narrative scope in Romans.)
In summary, Romans 3 is not a favorable text to use for contructing the doctrine of original sin. So let’s turn our attention to Romans 5, starting with verse 12:
When Adam sinned, sin entered the world. Adam’s sin brought death, so death spread to everyone, for everyone sinned.
Now we’re getting somewhere, right? This is where the rubber meets the road! Adam sinned, sin entered the world and brought death to everyone, and so everyone’s a sinner. This mean we’re obviously all born with a sin nature, thus humanity is totally depraved and universally corrupted because of Adam’s transgression. Case closed!
Except Paul doesn’t actually say all this. Remember, it’s very dangerous to build elaborate doctrines upon one verse (especially taken out of context). If you simply read this verse with no preconceived notions, the only doctrine you could possibly build a logical case for is the “doctrine of universal death.” Adam’s sin introduced death, and now death is the fate of all humans. And because we all keep sinning, there’s no end in sight for this reality of death.
With all due respect to Paul, this is not new information! I think we’re all pretty aware of the fact that people die. (wink) But perhaps Paul isn’t trying to impart new information. Rather, he’s telling a story, a story with two characters: Adam and Jesus. He even says as much!
Now Adam is a symbol, a representation of Christ, who was yet to come.
Wait, what? Adam is a symbol? (Some translations use the term “pattern” or “type.”)
OK, so let’s zoom out for a moment here. Paul brings up Adam specifically to make a point about what Adam did when he sinned vs. what Jesus did when he righteously obeyed God even in the face of torment and capital punishment. Paul goes into this similarly in his first letter to the Corinthians:
So you see, just as death came into the world through a man, now the resurrection from the dead has begun through another man. Just as everyone dies because we all belong to Adam, everyone who belongs to Christ will be given new life.
–1 Corinthians 15:21-22
The Scriptures tell us, “The first man, Adam, became a living person.” But the last Adam–that is, Christ–is a life-giving Spirit.
–1 Corinthians 15:45
Paul seems very fond of making this analogy of Adam as the bringer of death and Jesus as the bringer of life. When we all “belong to Adam” we have nothing to look forward to but death. But when we “belong to Christ” we will be given new life–both now and in the age to come (aka the afterlife).
So Paul is talking about Adam symbolically, both in Romans and in Corinthians. This means we need to be very careful in how we construct any sort of doctrine based in historicity (Adam did A, therefore B happened in history) or in human psychology (Adam did A, therefore humans are all flawed in XYZ ways). Yes, Paul is trying to tell us that humanity has to grapple with the fallout from sin and death, but it’s very unclear he’s trying to make a case that we all inherit a “sin nature” from Adam, as if it were some kind of mutation in our physical and/or spiritual DNA.
One more comment on Romans 5 before we move on to a closing statement.
For the sin of this one man, Adam, caused death to rule over many. But even greater is God’s wonderful grace and his gift of righteousness, for all who receive it will live in triumph over sin and death through this one man, Jesus Christ. Yes, Adam’s one sin brings condemnation for everyone, but Christ’s one act of righteousness brings a right relationship with God and new life for everyone.
The general thrust of the entire Romans 5 passage, of which verses 17-18 are a rousing climax, is that Adam and Jesus represent two cosmic forces at work in the universe: one represents the forces of chaos and destruction, the other represents order and creative renewal. Adam and Jesus are both role models, but Adam is a role model in what not to do. Jesus is our new good role model. He puts things right again. He sets into motion a movement of people who recognize we’re not enemies of God any longer, but friends. God-with-us. Immanuel. It’s reversing course on the whole “world is doomed” scenario. We’re not doomed. Jesus has come to save us and restore creation.
Symbols. Types. Patterns. Analogies. Characters. Stories.
It’s so much more interesting to read Paul this way. Trying to dissect the story he’s telling his audience to find proof-texts for abstract religious doctrines not only results in questionable theological beliefs but diminishes the beauty and the power of the story itself.
Let Paul tell his story. Let Paul be Paul–not Plato. Not Augustine.
The Jewishness of Paul
It’s highly doubtful Paul had primarily a dualistic Greek/Platonic worldview rather than a Jewish one. Sometimes people will read that into Paul, which requires a sort of willful ignorance of anything Paul ever said to contradict that depiction.
For example, in one of the most extraordinary sermons by Paul in the Book of Acts, he tries to convince the people of Lystra to believe in God mainly because of all the good that’s in the world!
We have come to bring you the Good News that you should turn from these worthless things and turn to the living God, who made heaven and earth, the sea, and everything in them. In the past he permitted all the nations to go their own ways, but he never left them without evidence of himself and his goodness. For instance, he sends you rain and good crops and gives you food and joyful hearts.
The evidence of God in the world is…Rain? Food? Joyful hearts? Does that sound like a picture of a sin-cursed, fallen world to you?
Maybe Paul didn’t actually view humans as totally depraved.
Maybe Paul didn’t actually view the earth as a hopeless wasteland.
Maybe Paul didn’t actually believe God was in the smiting business.
It is often said that history is written by the victors. I can state with some confidence that Christian theological history in the West was written by the victors of debate on the question of the nature and origin of sin. Augustine’s views prevailed for centuries and were foundational to some of the most revered doctrines of Protestant theology. (It’s telling that Augustinian theology was heavily influential for both Luther and Calvin.)
But Augustine’s historical victory in Western Christianity doesn’t make his ideas true, and the church traditions that followed don’t make those ideas worthwhile. In the 21st century, the doctrine of original sin not only can be rejected as a faulty interpretation of Scripture, but I submit must be rejected due to the numerous societal problems which follow from such a doctrine. Let’s look at just a few:
- Mental health issues. When people believe that they’re worthless worms, wicked beyond all imagining, utter scum, destined for nothing more than hell-fire–they are naturally filled with self-loathing. And just because they’re told Jesus loves them and will save them from their sins, it doesn’t mean they are able to shake that feeling of eternal damnation. Scaring the living daylights out of people before preaching to them the “good news” of Jesus Christ is not only questionable evangelism, it’s certainly debatable whether it’s even a faithful representation of the Biblical Gospel narrative whatsoever.
- An inadequate view of God. When we believe we’re all born with a sin nature and therefore God hates us regardless of anything we’ve ever done to deserve such wrath, it paints God into a corner. Instead of sin and death (and in some readings, the power of Satan over us) being the enemy, and God in the person of Jesus Christ being the hero, God starts out being the villain! We don’t need Jesus to save us from “the Evil One” (Matthew 6:13), we need Jesus to save us from God! This is a deeply troubling narrative, and it results in people continuing to fear the wrath of God even after conversion to Christianity.
- Hostility to other faiths and cultures. If humanity is totally depraved and incapable of doing anything good apart from God (as Calvinism tells us), then that must mean there’s nothing worthwhile to be found in any other belief systems around the world. No cultures which aren’t “Christian” have any merit. If a Buddhist talks about the moral virtue of helping a person in need, well sorry–that concept is somehow hopelessly tainted with mortal sin. Only a Christian can legitimately talk about helping people in need. I hope you realize the absurdity of this claim, not to mention lament the devastating destruction of native peoples through missionary and colonial conquests as a result.
- Lack of social justice awareness. When sin becomes an entirely personalized concept–a question of where each person individually stands with God based on his or her faith (or lack thereof)–we lose sight of collective sin. We lose sight of communal responsibility. We lose sight of the culpability of nations, of the consequences of political activity. This is the greatest problem we now face in America. Evangelical Christians can poo-poo social justice because what’s most important in their eyes is whether each person is square with the Almighty. This suffocating obsession with “who’s in” and “who’s out” of heaven, rather than a healthy focus on how to bring heaven to bear on what’s happening on earth (Matthew 6:10), is extremely problematic.
I often like to say–because it’s often so easy to forget–that ideas have consequences. The consequences of the idea of original sin are numerous and concerning. The question we must ask ourselves is Why? Why this doctrine? Why do we need it? Why is it part of traditional Protestant (and to a lesser extent Catholic) presentations of the Gospel? How does it help us? Is it even Biblical?
I submit to you that the doctrine of original sin is unhelpful, unnecessary, hard to support Scripturally, and causes more problems than it solves. Jesus didn’t reference it. Paul only touches upon it once in an allegory. The good news of Jesus Christ is even better news when it’s not prefaced with an inhumane depiction of both God and humanity. We can do better as people of faith.
Next week, we’ll look at Paul’s entertaining, theatrical, almost comedic monologue on the cosmic force of sin and the even greater effectiveness of Spirit. Stay tuned!
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