Christianity Knowledge Base

Michelangelo's painting of the original sin (the Fall)

According to Christian tradition, Original sin describes the condition of sinfulness (lack of holiness) into which human beings are hereditarily born. Used with the definite article ("the original sin"), it refers to the first sin committed by mankind, seen as the seed of future evil effects for the whole human race. Christians usually refer to this first sin as "the Fall".

By analogy the term is used in fields other than religion to indicate a pervading inherent flaw.

The original sin (the Fall)

Classical Biblical and Orthodox Jewish view

Adam's sin, as recounted in the Book of Genesis is sometimes called in Hebrew החטא הקדמון (the original sin), on the basis of the traditional Christian term. But the term used in classical Jewish literature is חטא אדם הראשׁון), (the first sin of man, or of Adam).

The account in Genesis 2-3 implies that Adam and Eve initially lived in a state of intimate communion with God. God warned Adam not to eat of the fruit of "the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil " (Genesis 2:15-17).[1] The serpent persuaded Eve, who in turn persuaded Adam, to disobey this commandment. After eating of the fruit, they immediately recognized their mistake, and became ashamed of their nakedness (Genesis 3:1-7).[2] God cursed the serpent, apparently changing its physical form, and setting up eternal enmity between mankind and serpents (Genesis 3:9-15).[3] God pronounced judgements on both Eve and Adam. Eve's judgement was the difficulties of pregnancy and subjection to her husband. Adam's was toil and struggle for his sustenance (Genesis 3:16-21).[4] Adam and Eve were expelled from the Garden of Eden(Genesis 3:22-24).[5]

According to Jewish tradition, the divine prohibition was to give them free choice and allow them to earn, as opposed to receive, absolute perfection and intimate communion with God, a higher level than the one on which they were created.

The consequences affected Adam and Eve's descendants. People are not intrinsically condemned and sinful, but nevertheless begin life at a spiritual and metaphysical level inherited from Adam and Eve, far lower than Adam's original level. The course of history is meant to return humanity to Adam's original level, and then allow it to surpass that level by completing the task that Adam failed to complete. The curses and changes imposed on mankind following their sin are meant to facilitate this return to glory.

According to this tradition, Adam and Eve would have attained absolute perfection and retained immortality had they succeeded in withstanding the temptation to eat from the Tree. After failing at this task, they were condemned to a period of toil to rectify the fallen universe. In Jewish tradition, this is a 6,000 year period.

Jewish tradition views the serpent, and sometimes the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil itself, as representatives of evil. Evil's job was and is to mislead Mankind and give the appearance that God does not actually control all elements of Creation. Adam's task was to see through this veil. After his failure, this became humanity's task through history.

Reform and Conservative Judaism's views

The more modern liberal branches of Judaism, such as Reform Judaism and Conservative Judaism, which see no "evil" other than the evil actions of human beings, disagree with traditions that identify the serpent with Satan. Eve's only transgression was that she disobeyed God's order. Adam was with her the entire time and at no time stopped her. Therefore, it is incorrect to blame Eve alone. Adam and Eve were expelled from the Garden and had to live ordinary, human lives. In other words, they had to "leave home" and grow up and live as responsible human beings. If they had never eaten from the forbidden tree, they would never have discovered their capacity to act with free will in the world. God doesn't want human beings who have no choice but to always do what is good and right.

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Original sin (Christian doctrine)

There are wide-ranging disagreements among Christian groups as to the exact understanding of the doctrine about a state of sinfulness or absence of holiness affecting all human beings, even children, with some Christian groups denying it altogether.

Original sin in the New Testament

The doctrine of original sin is thought by some to be implied in the Apostle Paul's description of human sinfulness as no less universal than Christ's free gift of righteousness, especially in the verses here italicized: "Therefore as sin came into the world through one man and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all men sinned - sin indeed was in the world before the law was given, but sin is not counted where there is no law. Yet death reigned from Adam to Moses, even over those whose sins were not like the transgression of Adam, who was a type of the one who was to come. But the free gift is not like the trespass. For if many died through one man's trespass, much more have the grace of God and the free gift in the grace of that one man Jesus Christ abounded for many. And the free gift is not like the effect of that one man's sin. For the judgment following one trespass brought condemnation, but the free gift following many trespasses brings justification. If, because of one man's trespass, death reigned through that one man, much more will those who receive the abundance of grace and the free gift of righteousness reign in life through the one man Jesus 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. For as by one man's disobedience many were made sinners, so by one man's obedience many will be made righteous. Law came in, to increase the trespass; but where sin increased, grace abounded all the more, so that, as sin reigned in death, grace also might reign through righteousness to eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord" (Romans (RSV) 5:12-21).

Those who identify original sin with concupiscence apply to it also Paul's description of a general experience: "I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. Now if I do what I do not want, I agree that the law is good. So then it is no longer I that do it, but sin which dwells within me. For I know that nothing good dwells within me, that is, in my flesh. I can will what is right, but I cannot do it. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do. Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I that do it, but sin which dwells within me. So I find it to be a law that when I want to do right, evil lies close at hand. For I delight in the law of God, in my inmost self, but I see in my members another law at war with the law of my mind and making me captive to the law of sin which dwells in my members. Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?" (Romans 7:15-24).

Those who see original sin not as a positive reality but as something merely negative, namely lack of holiness, see the doctrine as implicit also in the teaching of Jesus, as expressed, for example, in the words: "I am the vine, you are the branches. He who abides in me, and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing" (John 15:5).

Original sin in Roman Catholicism

After quoting Saint Paul's letter to the Romans 5:12, 18, the Catechism of the Catholic Church says: "[T]he Church has always taught that the overwhelming misery which oppresses men and their inclination toward 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" (403).

"By the '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 ... original sin is called "sin" only in an analogical sense: it is a sin "contracted" and not "committed" - a state and not an act" (404). This "state of deprivation of the original holiness and justice ... transmitted to the descendants of Adam along with human nature" (Compendium of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, 76) involves no personal responsibility or personal guilt on their part (cf. Catechism of the Catholic Church, 405). Personal responsibility and guilt were Adam's, who because of his sin was unable to pass on to his descendants a human nature with the holiness with which it would otherwise have been endowed, in this way implicating them in his sin.

Though Adam's sinful act is not the responsibility of his descendants, the state of human nature that has resulted from that sinful act has consequences that plague them: "Human nature, without being entirely corrupted, has been harmed in its natural powers, is subject to ignorance, suffering and the power of death, and has a tendency to sin. This tendency is called concupiscence" (Compendium of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, 77), but is distinct from original sin itself .

The Church has always held baptism to be "for the remission of sins", and, as mentioned in Catechism of the Catholic Church, 403, infants too have traditionally been baptized, though not guilty of any actual personal sin. The sin that through baptism was remitted for them could only be original sin, with which they were connected by the very fact of being human beings. Based largely on this practice, Saint Augustine of Hippo articulated the teaching in reaction to Pelagianism, which insisted that human beings have of themselves, without the necessary help of God's grace, the ability to lead a morally good life, and thus denied both the importance of baptism and the teaching that God is the giver of all that is good.

The Catholic Church did not accept all of Augustine's ideas, which he developed to counter the claim by Pelagius that the influence of Adam on other human beings was merely that of bad example. For instance, the Church did not adopt the opinion that involvement in Adam's guilt and punishment takes effect through the dependence of human procreation on the sexual passion, in which the spirit's inability to control flesh is evident.

There is a close link between the notion of original sin and the Catholic doctrine of the Immaculate Conception of Mary, namely the Church's teaching that, in view of the saving power of the future death and resurrection of her son Jesus, she was preserved from this "stain" (i.e. lack of holiness), which affects others, that is to say, that she was conceived without original sin. Those who deny the existence of original sin thus profess belief in the immaculate conception not only of Mary but of every human being.

Original sin in Eastern Christianity

Eastern Orthodoxy acknowledges that the introduction of ancestral sin into the human race affected the subsequent environment for mankind, but denies (or rather never accepted) Augustine of Hippo's notions of original sin and hereditary guilt.[6] The act of Adam is not the responsibility of all humanity, but the consequences of that act continue and plague the world.

Instead of the term "original sin", some prefer to use in English the term "ancestral sin". This distinction does not exist in, for instance, Greek: the Greek translation of the Catechism of the Catholic Church (Cactus Editions, Athens, 1996) renders peccatum originale (original sin), the traditional term in Latin, as προπατορική αμαρτία (ancestral sin), the traditional term in Greek. Thus no significance can be attached to the use of the traditional English term, original sin, in Orthodox catechisms such as the following, one written originally in English, the other translated from Russian: "[O]riginal sin is hereditary. It did not remain only Adam and Eve's. As life passes from them to all of their descendants, so does original sin. We all of us participate in original sin because we are all descended from the same forefather, Adam. This creates a problem for many people. They ask, Why should we be responsible for the actions of Adam and Eve? Why should we have to pay for the sins of our parents? they say. Unfortunately, this is so, because the consequence of original sin is the distortion of the nature of man. Of course, this is unexplainable and belongs to the realm of mystery, but we can give one example to make it somewhat better understood. Let us say that you have a wild orange tree, from which you make a graft. You will get domesticated oranges, but the root will still be that of the wild orange tree. To have wild oranges again, you must regraft the tree. This is what Christ came for and achieved for fallen man" (Orthodox Catechism - Basic Teachings of the Orthodox Faith by Metropolitan Archbishop Sotirios).[7] "As from an infected source there naturally flows an infected stream, so from a father infected with sin, and consequently mortal, there naturally proceeds a posterity infected like him with sin, and like him mortal" (The Longer Catechism of the Orthodox, Catholic, Eastern Church also known as the Catechism of Philaret, question 168).[8]

The website of the Eastern United States diocese of the Armenian Apostolic Church, speaking of Mary, states: "According to the teaching of the Armenian Church, at the time of the Annunciation when the Holy Spirit entered her she was cleansed of all sin (original sin) as she was to be the vessel in which God manifest was to be incarnated."[9]

In 2 Esdras 7:46(116)-48(118),[10] a book that some Eastern and Oriental Orthodox Churches regard as canonical, Ezra states:

I answered and said, "This is my first and last word, that it would have been better if the earth had not produced Adam, or else, when it had produced him, had restrained him from sinning. For what good is it to all that they live in sorrow now and expect punishment after death? O Adam, what have you done? For though it was you who sinned, the fall was not yours alone, but ours also who are your descendants."

Original sin in mainstream Protestantism

The notion of original sin as interpreted by Augustine of Hippo was affirmed by the Protestant Reformers Martin Luther and John Calvin. Both Luther and Calvin agreed that humans inherit Adamic guilt and are in a state of sin from the moment of conception. This inherently sinful nature (the basis for the Calvinistic doctrine of "total depravity") results in a complete alienation from God and the total inability of humans to achieve reconciliation with God based on their own abilities. Not only do individuals inherit a sinful nature due to Adam's fall, but since he was the federal head and representative of the human race, all whom he represented inherit the guilt of his sin by imputation.

Because of this conundrum, Protestants believe that God the Father sent Jesus into the world. The personhood, life, ministry, suffering, and death of Jesus, as God incarnate in human flesh, is meant to be the atonement for original sin as well as actual sins; this atonement is according to some rendered fully effective by the Resurrection of Jesus.

Original sin in Restoration Movement

Most Stone-Campbell Restoration Movement Churches, such as the Churches of Christ, Christian Churches, and other Congregational Churches of the same origin, reject the notion of original sin, believing only in the sins for which men and women are personally responsible. Adam and Eve did bring sin into the world by introducing disobedience. This spread to further generations in much the same way other ideas spread, thus ensuring an environment that will produce sin in any individual above "The Age of Accountability." Many Restoration movement churches and individuals, however, do believe that Adam's sin made us depraved (that is, with a tendency towards sin) without making us guilty of Adam's sin. Man is predisposed towards sin, but though every person sins, they are not intrinsically forced to sin.

Problems with original sin

The concept some have of original sin is thought by others to be full of inconsistencies. For those who see the effect of the Fall as deprivation of something that is their due, the doctrine of original sin contradicts the principle, stated even in the Mosaic Law, that the children are not to be punished for the sins of the fathers.

Those who understand original sin as personal guilt and sin, rather than as sin in an analogous sense, are confronted with a yet graver difficulty, particularly if they conceive of sin as a matter of a person's soul as such, rather than of the ensouled body or enfleshed soul that is the person. Sin, they say, is an issue of the soul, but, if we inherit our bodies from our parents and our souls from God, then original sin, which is inherited with human nature from our parents, must be a matter of the body; or, if it is a matter of the soul, original sin must come from God. Martin Luther's ad hoc solution was: Do not listen to human wisdom, but to the holy word of the Bible. Logically this is argumentum ad auctoritatem fallacy combined with argumentum ad ignoramum.

Those who interpret the symbolic images in the account of the Fall as literal realities face the problem of reconciling with the assumed unconditional love of God an account that they must interpret as God setting a trap for the first human beings and then punishing them and their descendants for falling into it - in addition to problems such as explaining the whimsical picture of God "walking in the garden in the cool of the day" (Genesis 3:8).

On the other hand, those who accept Christianity but deny original sin have - unless they judge that baptism should not in fact be conferred on someone who has not committed sin in the ordinary sense (actual sin) - the problem of interpreting the ancient Christian practice of conferring on infants what the Nicene Creed calls the "one baptism for the forgiveness of sins".

See also

External links

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