Original sin: We were born this way.

ORIGINAL SIN ə'rɪd.ʒən.əl 'sɪn noun. Innate tendency of humans to sin, inherited from the first humans as a result of their first sin.

Initially God made the universe, including humans, and declared it very good. Ge 1.31 That goodness was undone by sin: Our first ancestors, our representatives in paradise, Adam and Eve, were ordered to not eat from this one tree, and did anyway. Got banished from paradise, and now suffer from toil, painful childbirth, and death.

So instead of being born “very good,” like God originally made humanity, every human is now born with a significant birth defect: We’re not innately good, but innately selfish. We come out of our mothers’ wombs screaming for what we want: Milk, a clean diaper, to be held, or we’re otherwise uncomfortable and can’t express ourselves any other way. As soon as we gain the ability to say “No!” and slap other people, and lie and steal to get what we want, we do that too. Our worlds revolve around us now—and some of us never, ever grow out of that.

It’s called original sin because we humans originated with it: We were born this way. It was passed down from our ancestors; passed all the way down from Adam and Eve. Our slant towards sin is built-in.

The idea offends a lot of people, who hate the idea we’re innately sinful. They think it’s kinda sick: “What, are you saying a little innocent baby, who never did anything good or bad, was born a depraved sinner?”

Well I’m not. I’m only saying every little innocent baby has a self-preservation instinct. Of course they’re gonna be selfish: They’re trying to live! Problem is, in the pursuit of looking out for number one, everybody else becomes number two—and we’ll shove ’em aside, and not love our neighbors as ourselves. So, y’know, sin. We’re “born sinners” in the sense that sin’s just gonna come naturally go us humans. (Although plenty of Christians insist “born sinners” mean we’re born with sins already somehow staining our souls. (How’d we commit ’em? I dunno. Neither do they. But I digress.)

Sin is our natural tendency. Whereas loving our neighbors is learned behavior—and if we have good parents, we learn it right away. Sometimes we learn it so early, we’ll think we were always good, loving, compassionate kids; that we were born that way instead of innately selfish. Nah.

Other Christians describe original sin in far less sympathetic terms. There’s all sorts of dark Christian imagery out there about being born as filthy, sinful animals, thrashing about in our own muck until God intervenes and saves us. Usually it’s written by people who really want to beat themselves up about their old pre-Christian lifestyles… or really wanna condemn pagans, or condemn any Christians whom they feel aren’t living up to their Jesus’s high standards. You know, graceless people.

And most of ’em make original sin sound like it’s our fault—as if we can help being born with a bent towards sin, thrust into a whole planet with a bent towards sin. It’s like blaming a kid for his birth defects. But y’know, some people do actually do that.

John 9.2 KWL
Jesus’s students questioned him, saying, “Rabbi, between this man or his parents,
who sinned so he’d be born blind?”

As if it was ever the blind man’s fault he was born blind. But this just goes to show you how karma-based thinking works: Bad things can’t simply happen to good people, because that’d mean the universe is unfair. So somehow, in some way, they’ve gotta be bad, and deserve what’s happening to them. Maybe something they did in a previous life, as Hindus and Buddhists presume.

The reality is the universe is meaningless. Bad things happen. They just do. The natural tendency of the universe is towards chaos, as any scientist can tell you. Means nothing.

But, BUT, God is good. And if everybody in the world is plagued with an innate sin problem, God has a solution made freely available to all: He’ll put his Holy Spirit inside us to conquer our original sin. You wanna be freed from a sin-enslaved nature in this sin-plagued world? You got it: Turn to God, and be given a new nature which doesn’t lean towards sin. Learn to follow that nature instead of the built-in one. Let the Spirit free you from sin!

Original sin as a cop-out.

Like I said, the original sin idea offends a lot of people. They still point to the bit in Genesis where God declared us very good, and insist we’re still very good. We don’t have a sin nature; we have free will! We can choose to sin, or not. So stop sinning! Choose not to sin. Stop blaming your sins on your “original sin”—there is no such thing.

’Cause yeah, there are plenty of Christians who lazily blame our sins on original sin: “I can’t help it; I was born this way.” Plenty of us refuse to take responsibility for our own evil behavior. And if your excuse for being a cheater, liar, thief, murderer (or if you really wanna get controversial with conservative Christians, for being gay), is always “I was born this way”—well, that’s gonna get really old, really fast. Especially when it’s obvious you’re not even trying to resist temptation: You gave up long ago, and are counting on grace to give you a free pass.

This is where Pelagius came in. He was a fourth-century monk whose job was to disciple new believers, and of course his newbies would try to use the “I was born a sinner” cop-out on him. He wasn’t having it. There is no original sin, he insisted; be good!

Pelagius, and the Christians who believe the same as he did (i.e. Pelagians), point out there are plenty of good pagans in the world. And there are!—we’d be nuts to deny it. But why are they good? Because goodness is a learned behavior, and they had good parents and learned it from them. But even the very best of us, suffers from human depravity: We’re gonna be good because we selfishly want goodness. We want to think of ourselves as good; we want others to think of us as good; and if we ever stumble into evil, we’ll do our darnedest to justify that evil to ourselves, or try to compensate for it with more goodness. Sin’s everywhere, and it’s impossible to truly defeat without God’s help.

Look, I can definitely understand where Pelagius was coming from. I likewise get tired of people trying to use the excuse, “It’s not me, it’s my environment,” or “He can’t help it; it’s how he was raised,” or “She didn’t know any better,” or “That’s just the culture.” People need to own up to our own sins. But this isn’t actually what original sin is about. Original sin is not an excuse for sin, and being predisposed towards sin doesn’t let anyone off the hook for our bad choices. It’s only an explanation for why everybody sins so damned much. We’re defective. We need God to fix us, and save us from ourselves.

Pelagianism has a lot of ramifications. Most are related to salvation.

  • If humans aren’t inherently sinful, the sin problem isn’t anywhere near as big as all that.
  • If children are born innocent, it’s okay to let ’em roam free without any parental guidance or instruction: Let them do as comes natural!
  • If the world isn’t sin-damaged, but just as good as God originally made it, then nature shouldn’t be chaotic and destructive. So whenever we see bad stuff happen to good people… well, they’re kinda at a loss.

In the end, Pelagians avoid responsibility about as much as they claim for those who believe in original sin. If not more. Which stands to reason: We’re all equally plagued by sin.

“Original sin’s not in the bible!”

The words “original sin” aren’t in the bible; same as the word “trinity” isn’t in there either. And just as there are morons who insist God must not be a trinity ’cause the word’s not in the bible, there are morons who insist there’s no original sin ’cause the term’s not in the bible either.

The term comes from St. Augustine of Hippo, who wrote a few books which objected to Pelagius’s teachings. He’s the guy who popularized the term peccatum originale/“original sin.” As a result, people accuse him of inventing the idea. Nope; Irenaeus of Lyons wrote about it in the 100s. And Augustine got it from bible, not Irenaeus.

Romans 5.12-14 KWL
12 For this reason, just as sin entered the world through one person—and death through sin—
thus death comes to every person, to everyone who sinned:
13 Sin was in the world before the Law,
though no one considered it sin till the Law existed.
14 Even so, death ruled the world from Adam through Moses,
even over those who weren’t sinning in the same way Adam was disobedient
a sin which is symbolic of the sins which followed.
1 Corinthians 15.22 KWL
Just as everybody dies through Adam,
likewise everybody will be made alive through Christ.

Sin entered the world through one person. (Well, both people, but Paul was trying to show some parallels between Adam and Jesus: Sin started with one representative human, and ends with a different representative human.) We’re Adam’s spiritual descendants as well as his genetic descendants: He sinned, so we sin. He triggered our tendency towards sin, and we inherited that problem. Now humans sin, and sin causes death, and everybody dies. And sin is so pervasive, even wholly innocent humans die too: Infanticide and abortion kills kids who never even had the chance to sin yet… though their built-in fallen human nature guarantees they eventually would.

Pelagians insist Paul’s passages don’t have to mean that, and come up with alternative theories about how everyone’s responsible for their own sins. Well, original sin doesn’t claim anyone’s not responsible for our own sins. It simply describes how the tendency to sin passed from one person to every person—like a virus. And now, all people sin.

But the Romans passage has a happy ending. Just as sin passed to all humanity through one man, grace can likewise pass to all humanity through one man, Christ Jesus. The virus of original sin can be cured through his self-sacrifice and salvation. This is good news, people!—and fixating on the bad news of original sin is missing the point. Denying original sin is likewise missing the point… and kinda bollixing Paul’s whole lesson on one person’s sin ruining all, and another one person’s grace saving all.