When I was an atheist, I considered the doctrine of original sin to be utter bullshit, constructed only to keep people under the thumb of the church. Reading the bible didn’t help me. After all, Jesus himself talks about the innocence of babies:
Allow little children to come to me. Do not forbid them, for ones such as these comprise the kingdom of heaven. Truly I tell you, whoever shall not receive the kingdom of heaven as a little child shall never enter it.
— Luke 18:16-17
Where did the idea of original sin come from? It is a Catholic doctrine. It was first mentioned in the writings of Irenaeus, one hundred years after the death of Jesus, but wasn’t refined into formal doctrine until the end of the fourth century by Saint Augustine. Let’s look a the passages in the bible it is based on, starting with the writings of the apostle Paul:
For just as by the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners, so by the one man’s obedience the many will be made righteous.
— Romans 5:19
Paul is referring to the book of Genesis, where Adam’s disobedience brought death to mankind. Neither Genesis nor Paul explicitly says that Adam’s sin is transferred to all men. Rather, Paul says that Adam’s sin made “the many” sinners. I understand this to mean that by eating the fruit of the tree of knowledge, Adam made it possible for all men to sin.
The next passage used to support the doctrine is also Paul’s:
For as all die in Adam, so all will be made alive in Christ
— 1st Corinthians 15:22
Here, there is no mention of sin, merely of the consequence of Adam’s act, which was to bring death to mankind. The final passage commonly used to support original sin is from Psalm 51, attributed to king David:
Indeed, I was born guilty, a sinner when my mother conceived me.
— Psalm 51:5
I agree that this one passage seems to directly support the concept of original sin. This psalm is a prayer of contrition. However, the psalms come from an earlier time. For example, in the very same psalm:
Then you [Yahweh] will delight in the sacrifices of the righteous, in burnt offerings offered whole; then bulls will be offered on your altar.
— Psalm 51:19
The idea that God delights in sacrifice is an anathema to me. On this basis, I’m going to take anything said in this psalm with a big grain of salt.
So where does that leave us, assuming you’re still along for the ride? Is the doctrine of original sin complete bullshit? What real meaning can we derive from the story of genesis? Can the doctrine be squared with the teachings of Jesus? I’m going to make an attempt.
Human beings are born innocent in the same way animals are. Because they aren’t self aware, animals remain innocent. When a person becomes conscious (beginning around the 6 month), they become responsible for their actions. Without consciousness, people lack the ability to examine their own actions. Hence, conscious self awareness is literally the knowledge of good and evil.
Therefore, once a person achieves conscious self awareness, they have the potential to commit an act that they know is wrong. When an animal kills, it has done nothing wrong. When a person kills, they are aware of the implications of that act. If it is justified (e.g. killing an animal for food or killing a person in self defense), they have done no wrong. Otherwise, they have committed an evil act.
By the time we reach adulthood, almost all of us have already committed many acts that were wrong, (most of them minor, but likely a few that were not so minor). Hence, human consciousness (the knowledge of good and evil) is the origin of sin, and almost everyone is sinful, to a degree.
The Jewish law of the torah codifies rules which the Jews believed, if followed, would allow one to avoid sins that would prevent one from achieving the kingdom of heaven. While Jesus stated that nothing he said would change the Jewish law, he constantly rejected the hypocrisy of the Pharisees, a Jewish sect who practiced strict adherence to the Mitzvah, a set of 613 “commandments” derived by Rabbis from the torah. Rather, he taught that one could become innocent, like a baby, and in doing so, become worthy of the kingdom of heaven.
Jesus’s model of human development looked something like this:
- Infancy: A state of innocence due to the lack of knowledge of good and evil.
- Youth and adulthood: A state in which, though they may try to be good, following the Jewish law, most become sinful to some degree.
- Rebirth: A state which one who follows Jesus’s teachings may attain in which their sins have been forgiven and they have renounced wealth and vanity to follow his way.
In summary, by understanding that Adam’s original sin was the achievement of conscious self awareness, that knowledge of wrong an right gives us the ability to knowingly do wrong (i.e. sin), and that the ego almost inevitably leads each of us to do so, I’ve come to see original sin as a true metaphor for the human condition.