Original Sin and Human Origins


The knights of King Arthur’s Round Table were famous for their quest for the Holy Grail, the fabled cup from which Christ is said to have drunk during the Last Supper. Although we may have left behind the search for the Holy Grail, there are other, similar “grail quests” in contemporary intellectual endeavors. The most famous example in the religious studies literature is the quest for the historical Jesus. But there are others as well. One that has been making waves more recently is the “quest for the historical Adam” in contemporary evangelical theology. This quest touches upon several interrelated components: the historical reliability of some of the biblical documents, especially the creation accounts; the scientific literature on human origins; and the theological basis for the doctrine of original sin. It is the last of these issues that we shall focus upon in what follows.

As I pointed out in my first post on the topic, there are many stories of original sin, many different doctrines that bear a family resemblance to one another and that have been held by Christians in different churches down through the centuries. There is no single “doctrine of original sin.” This is true even of those who venerate the Bible and think it is the final court of appeal in all matters theological this side of the grave. Well then, suppose we zero in on one version of the doctrine. Can we find a story about original sin that is consistent with evangelical convictions and that takes seriously current scientific views about human origins? I believe we can. Here is a sketch of one such story, a story that depends upon the theological perspective of the Reformed tradition in particular.

Original sin is the moral corruption with which we are generated and which will inevitably give rise to actual sins if we live long enough to commit them. In a way akin to congenital genetic conditions that are passed from both parents to their child, original sin is passed down the generations as a kind of moral disorder or defect. But, also like an inherited genetic condition, we are not responsible for being born with this moral defect. We do not bear any guilt for having original sin as such. Nevertheless, possession of original sin renders us unfit for the presence of God, much as possession of leprosy used to render those who had the disease unfit to enter normal human society. Someone bearing original sin may be disbarred from enjoying the delights of heaven, say, because they are morally unfit to be in the nearer presence of God. It is our actual sins for which we are culpable, on this view. Indeed, it is because we have the moral corruption of original sin that we commit actual sin. These actual sins make us guilty in the sight of God. Consequently, those who bear original sin and commit actual sin—which includes you and me—are rendered doubly unfit for the presence of God, on account of both original and actual sin.

On the face of it, this seems unjust. How am I responsible for actions carried out because of a moral defect for which I am not responsible? Perhaps it is similar to a predisposition to sin. Suppose someone is genetically predisposed to alcoholism or to violent behavior. Wouldn’t we still hold that person accountable for becoming an alcoholic or violent even if they were disposed to act this way? In a similar manner, perhaps we are disposed to sin and culpable for acting on the basis of such dispositions.

Nevertheless, how did human beings come by this condition? Traditionally, Christians have thought that our first parents sinned, and we inherited the consequences of their transgression in original sin. That picture seems rather more difficult to square with current scientific views about human origins and the size of breeding populations of humans (which are much larger than one pair at any one time). But suppose humans developed from other hominids. At some time in their development the members of this early human community come to know God (perhaps it is a moment in time, perhaps it happens over the course of some time). However, through some primeval act or acts of dereliction these early humans come to be estranged from God, a moral condition that is passed on to succeeding generations of humanity. (For comparison, consider the tribe that is sold into slavery through the immoral action of some of its members—an action that has moral consequences for succeeding generations of tribal members.) This sort of view may have some theological merits as an attempt to provide an account of original sin that preserves traditional theological claims as well as modern scientific ones. Yet it still raises some important theological questions about the biblical texts on original sin, and how we should treat them. We shall turn to these in a third and final post in this series.