Original Sin: Can't Live With It, Can't Live Without It (2010)
Orthodox Christianity (henceforth simply "Christianity") has a big problem with its doctrine of original sin (DOS), a problem which falls under the rubric "can't live with it; can't live without it." In this paper I argue that Christianity "can't live with it" because the DOS is implausible and morally indefensible; and I show that Christianity "can't live without it" because the DOS has—in the course of nearly 2000 years—become so insinuated into the body of Christian doctrine that removing it now could be fatal to the host.
2. Doctrine of Original Sin (DOS)
The DOS is extracted from the larger Genesis creation and Garden of Eden stories, hereafter simply "the Genesis stories." The Genesis stories describe how God created the world and the primal human pair, Adam and Eve, and placed them in a garden of delights filled with pleasing flora and fauna. At this point Adam and Eve were immortal and immune to pain and suffering, as presumably were the fauna in the garden. Though they were invited to enjoy the garden, God commanded the pair not to eat the fruit of one tree, the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, lest they die that very day. Nevertheless, they succumbed to the wiles of a talking snake (the devil, Lucifer) and ate from the Tree. Christians refer to this first human moral transgression as the Original or Ancestral sin which resulted in The Fall of Man (from God's grace or favor). As punishment, God exiled the pair from the garden and sentenced them to an existence replete with pain, suffering, hardship, and eventual death. Their punishment also included receiving a nature which rendered them inclined to sin, and unable to rehabilitate or redeem themselves by their own efforts from their punishment. In addition, God decreed that their punishment be passed on to all their descendants, and where applicable be shared by the members of the animal kingdom.
3. Can't Live With It (DOS)
In order to show that Christianity can't live with the DOS, I will first show that the Genesis stories from which the DOS is extracted are in serious conflict with science. Then I will show that the DOS itself has a number of serious moral problems, as well as a challenging knowledge problem.
3.1 The Evolutionary Science Problem for the Genesis Creation and Garden of Eden Stories
As mentioned earlier, the DOS is a part of the Genesis stories. If the Genesis stories are not historically factual, then original sin is not historically factual either. This explains in part why fundamentalists—for whom the DOS is integral to many other Christian beliefs—insist on affirming the literal truth of the Genesis stories. Throughout the history of Christianity they have not been alone in this insistence. In fact, for nearly two millennia virtually all major Christian sources, including such Christian luminaries as the Apostle Paul and Church Father Augustine, have held that the Genesis stories describe a literal set of historical events which actually transpired. As Bart Klink points out, such sources even include Jesus himself:
In the ... Bible, Adam is consistently treated as a single historical person .... This is why various biblical genealogies trace back to Adam. Genesis 4-5 lists Adam's descendants and their ages. The first chapter of 1 Chronicles mentions Adam and his pedigree as historical persons, too. Jesus is considered a descendant of Adam by the author of the Gospel according to Luke:
Jesus was about thirty years old when he began his work. He was the son (as was thought) of Joseph son of Heli, ... son of Enos, son of Seth, son of Adam, son of God. (Luke 3:23-38)
According to the Gospel of Matthew, even Jesus himself seems to speak about Adam and Eve as historical persons:
In spite of all of the authoritative Christian endorsements of the historical facticity of the Genesis stories, these stories are clearly inconsistent with numerous important discoveries of evolutionary science. Among other things, there is no evidence that the universe or Homo sapiens arose as described in Genesis, that there was ever a tree the eating of whose fruit would impart a knowledge of good and evil, that there were ever snakes capable of talking, or that there was ever a time when humans or animals were immortal or impassible. Not only is there no significant evidence for these parts of the Genesis stories, there is a great deal of probative scientific evidence against them. Thus the historicity of the Genesis stories, and therefore also of the DOS, is belied by the authoritative testimony of science.
3.1.1 Nonliteral Interpretation of Genesis Creation and Garden of Eden Story
Fashionable recently in some moderate to liberal Christian circles is the view that the Genesis stories should not be understood as literal factual histories, but as interpretive myths. As such, they are taken to be stories which are in some sense true, but which never really occurred as historical events. They are true in the interpretive sense that they present truths, for example, that God created the universe and human beings, that people often misuse their free will to do what they know they should not do, that wrongdoing inevitably has negative repercussions for them and their descendants, etc. In effect, interpretive myths are to be understood in the same way that the Gospel parables or Aesop's fables are to be understood.
However, this retreat to a nonliteral reading of the Genesis stories does little to uphold the DOS. First, such a reading requires Christians to admit that the Christian Church has been wrong for nearly two millennia in teaching the historicity of the Genesis stories. This is an embarrassing admission of no small importance for an institution that claims to have inerrantly channeled apodictic truths under the guidance of the Holy Spirit for almost two thousand years.
Second, détente with evolutionary science through any sort of nonliteral interpretation of Genesis comes at a steep price: surrendering the historical reality of original sin itself. Any nonliteral interpretation must admit that the events which Genesis depicts—including those that generated original sin—never really happened. This admission would vitiate the very DOS that the nonliteral interpretation was created to defend in the first place.
3.1.2 Hybrid Interpretation of Genesis Creation and Garden of Eden Story
Finally, there is what I call the hybrid view, namely that the Genesis stories are part real history, part interpretive myth. A good example of this approach is provided by the organization Catholic Answers, who explain the "proper" understanding of the Fall in the Genesis stories as follows:
The story of the creation and fall of man is a true one, even if not written entirely according to modern literary techniques. The Catechism [of the Catholic Church] states, "The account of the fall in Genesis 3 uses figurative language, but affirms a primeval event, a deed that took place at the beginning of the history of man. Revelation gives us the certainty of faith that the whole of human history is marked by the original fault freely committed by our first parents" (Catechism of the Catholic Church 390).
I find this hybrid interpretation unhelpful. On the one hand, the phrase "primeval event" implies an objective historical occurrence. On the other hand, "figurative language" suggests a mythopoetic connotation. The problem is that these two phrases represent irresolvably conflicting descriptions of the Genesis stories.
Thus, I conclude from this section that the DOS is implausible because the stories from which it is derived, the Genesis stories, are unlikely to ever have occurred.
3.2 DOS's Moral Problems
There are serious moral problems with respect to the punishment that God is said to have meted out for original sin. This punishment is said to include Adam and Eve, all of their (now billions of) descendants, and all animals alive at any time after the Fall, who have been and will continue to be subject to pain, suffering, deprivation, and death, often of the most excruciating varieties. Factors indicating that these punishments are morally questionable include the following:
3.2.1 Preternatural Gifts Defense Against the Claim that the DOS has a Moral Problem
The objection that the DOS has a moral problem regarding God's punishments for original sin has been resisted by some Christians through what I call the Preternatural Gifts Defense. According to this defense, Adam and Eve were created with a particular nature to which God added some preternatural properties, such as immortality, impassibility, possessing sanctifying grace, and having the ability to talk directly with God. After they committed original sin, God punished them by revoking their preternatural properties, leaving them with just a standard human nature. It is this nature which has been passed on to all of their descendants. According to the Preternatural Gifts Defense there is no immorality in any of this. First, God's response toward Adam and Eve was not immoral since all that it amounted to was the revocation of gift—preternatural properties to which Adam and Eve had no moral claim in the first place and, a fortiori, certainly not after they disobeyed God. Second, God did not act immorally toward Adam and Eve's descendants because they had no moral claim to the preternatural properties that God had given to Adam and Eve. The following excerpt from the Catholic Encyclopedia expresses the Preternatural Gifts Defense:
But according to Catholic theology man has not lost his natural faculties: by the sin of Adam he has been deprived only of the Divine gifts to which his nature had no strict right, the complete mastery of his passions, exemption from death, sanctifying grace, the vision of God in the next life. The Creator, whose gifts were not due to the human race, had the right to bestow them on such conditions as He wished and to make their conservation depend on the fidelity of the head of the family. A prince can confer a hereditary dignity on condition that the recipient remains loyal, and that, in case of his rebelling, this dignity shall be taken from him and, in consequence, from his descendants. It is not, however, intelligible that the prince, on account of a fault committed by a father, should order the hands and feet of all the descendants of the guilty man to be cut off immediately after their birth. This comparison represents the doctrine of Luther which we in no way defend. The doctrine of the Church supposes no sensible or afflictive punishment in the next world for children who die with nothing but original sin on their souls, but only the privation of the sight of God [Denz., n. 1526 (1389)].
220.127.116.11 Responses to the Preternatural Gifts Defense
(1) Contrary to the Catholic Encyclopedia, a prince punishing disloyalty is at best only weakly analogous to God punishing original sin. The analogy is weak for the following reasons:
(2) In the Preternatural Gifts Defense the distinction between the preternatural and natural properties of Adam and Eve seems rather ad hoc, as it is a distinction found nowhere in the Genesis stories themselves. Its only function seems to be to make it easier to defend God's punishments for original sin.
(3) The Preternatural Gifts Defense jeopardizes the claim of God's perfect goodness. As mentioned above, this defense claims that when Adam and Eve sinned, their descendants inherited their general human nature without the preternatural properties. But Christianity tells us that, because of that nature, human beings are born into God's disfavor, as indicated by the fact that perdition awaits those who die without remitting original sin through baptism. This means that regardless of anything that they ever did, individuals' human nature estranges them from their creator/parent God from the moment of conception. And it is not just that all people come into the world having to deal with an indifferent creator/parent, though that might be tragic enough. Rather, they come into the world with what amounts to a hostile creator/parent, one who has arranged that their default fate is eternal perdition. It is as if God decided to pick an arbitrary fight with all his human creatures before they ever had a chance to freely choose anything with respect to him. In short, the kind of nature that people receive from God according to the Preternatural Gifts Defense weighs heavily against the claim that that nature was received from an omnibenevolent, all-loving, providential deity.
3.2.2 "Creator Card" Defense Against the Claim that the DOS has a Moral Problem
Proponents of original sin punishments may concede that the Preternatural Gifts Defense is not probative. They might instead employ what I will call the "Creator Card" Defense. It holds that as our creator, God had the moral right to give his creatures any nature or properties that he wanted, and also to change any nature or revoke any property (whether a part of a nature or not) at any time, and for any reason, without incurring any moral censure.
18.104.22.168 Responses to the "Creator Card" Defense
Contrary to the "Creator Card" Defense, a creator is not morally permitted to give his creatures any nature or property that the creator chooses. There are natures or properties which involve so much pain, suffering, deprivation, and hardship for creatures that a morally responsible creator should never embody them. We can see this exemplified at the human level. It would be immoral to procreate when it is known that the nature, properties, or circumstances of resulting children would likely conduce to pain, suffering, deprivation, hardship, or premature death. Divinity, especially omnibenevolent divinity, has no moral license to bring about such unwarranted harm. To the extent that God's original sin punishment does this, it is immoral.
3.3 DOS's Knowledge Problem
If God is omniscient, then he knew that Adam and Eve would fail to resist the temptation that he prepared for them. Why would a good and loving deity let a lengthy teleocosmic drama of punishment play out when he knew it would result in mammoth amounts of pain, suffering, deprivation, and death for so many humans and animals, especially when there were more benign alternatives?
Being omniscient, God knows everything that has happened, and everything that will happen. Many prominent Christian philosophers claim that an omniscient deity would also have knowledge of 'counterfactuals of freedom', events involving human choices that neither have happened nor will happen, but are parts of some logically possible world or worlds. This knowledge of counterfactuals is often called "middle knowledge." For example, if God has middle knowledge, then he knows what Abraham Lincoln would have ordered for breakfast on his 85th birthday in all worlds where Lincoln would have ordered breakfast on his 85th birthday.
Now with respect to the DOS, God did not have to create Adam and Eve in a world where he knew they would invariably freely fail his test. Instead, God could have used his middle knowledge and created them in a world in which they would have freely passed his test. He could thereby have obviated all the pain, suffering, and death that billions have otherwise experienced. One might retort that perhaps God knows that Adam and Eve would have failed his test in every possible world; but then he should then have created a different primal pair, a pair who would pass the test. Perhaps one might further retort that there is no possible primal pair who would pass God's test; but if so, that would suggest that the test was too difficult or that there was a design flaw in the creation of humans in the first place. An omnibenevolent god should have then changed the test, or else created no human beings at all.
I conclude, therefore, that Christianity really "can't live with" such a flawed DOS.
4. Can't Live Without It (DOS)
Unfortunately, Christians cannot live without the DOS either, though some might wish they could. They cannot evict this embarrassing crazy old aunt of a doctrine from the attic of the Christian mansion because the old girl holds title to the property. For example, without the DOS, the truth of the following signature Christian claims would be in jeopardy: that all people are guilty of serious sin; that all suffer from a debilitating corruption of their natures which renders them inclined to sin further; and that their corrupt natures prevent them from rehabilitating or redeeming themselves by their own efforts from the bondage of sin and the harsh punishment which it will inevitably bring them. These claims are incredibly important in the Christian scheme of things—they provide the main rationale for the incarnation, passion, death, and resurrection of Jesus. Paul speaks to this in Romans 5:18-19:
Therefore, as by the offense [original sin] of one [Adam] judgment came upon all men to condemnation; even so by the righteousness of one the free gift came upon all men unto justification of life. For as by one man's disobedience many were made sinners, so by the obedience of one shall many be made righteous.
So remove the DOS, and it becomes more difficult to explain why the Incarnation, Passion, Sacrifice, and Resurrection were required. In the following let me show why one cannot establish the existence of universal, excessive, debilitating, and irremediable sinfulness in the world without reference to the DOS.
4.1 Not All People are Sinners
Without relying on the DOS it is difficult to establish that all people are sinners. For starters, people who die before reaching the age of moral accountability are (absent the DOS) not sinners. Without original sin, people who have mental handicaps which prevent them from ever becoming morally accountable would not be sinners, either. If one accepts the Christian view that from the moment of conception a person exists, then induced abortions or unintended miscarriages involve persons who are not sinners—absent the DOS. This last fact is significant, as recent research has shown that only about 31% of human fertilized eggs grow and survive to become living newborn babies. Furthermore, experience suggests that there have been some people, not included in the groups just mentioned, who in fact never actually committed any sins. These include those who have particularly saintly characters, or those who arrived at the age of moral accountability and then died shortly afterward without ever having sinned. All of this shows that without the DOS, only about a quarter of all of the people who have ever lived have been sinners.
4.2 Christian Claims About the Excessiveness and Irremediableness of Human Sinfulness are Exaggerated
Without citing the DOS, it is difficult to establish the excessiveness and irremediableness of human sinfulness supposed in the Christian assessment of the world. Experience suggests that the degree of moral transgression of most people is modest. To be sure, there have been despicable malefactors such as Adolf Hitler, Joseph Stalin, Pol Pot, Jack the Ripper, etc. But there have also been untold numbers of people (not all of whom were Christians) who sacrificed life, limb, and property to stop evildoers, as well as large numbers who have labored tirelessly and selflessly to reduce the amount of pain, suffering, and premature death in the world. Thus, contrary to the bleak Hobbesian view of humankind's moral failings presupposed by Christianity, experience suggests that some form of bell curve more properly represents the distribution of individuals' moral behavior. At one end of the curve there are a (relatively) few people who are guilty of the most flagrant and appalling immoral acts, while at the other end there are a (relatively) few people who commit very few or no immoral acts. In between, the vast majority of people live with some modest moral failures, but for the most part with a greater degree of moral rectitude.
Not only has the level of moral transgression been modest for most people, but (contrary to the deficiency claimed by Christians) evidence shows that people have a significant amount of power in affecting both personal and social moral improvement without supernatural involvement. For example, in a recent article Steven Mohr showed that the religiously tinged organization Alcoholics Anonymous had a rather dismal record of success, and that alcoholics were able to do better on their own without AA. Mohr reports:
In 1995, the Harvard Medical School reported evidence that a significant number of problem drinkers recover on their own. Researchers wrote in the Harvard Mental Health Letter of October, 1995: "One recent study found that 80 percent of all alcoholics who recover for a year or more do so on their own, some after being unsuccessfully treated."
Moreover, atheists and agnostics have been well represented among the ranks of those who have lived decent to exemplary moral lives.
4.3 Sinfulness Can Very Often be Attenuated by Altering Certain Environmental Factors
Disregarding the DOS it is hard to dispute that human beings have sometimes morally improved societies without overt deference to supernatural agents. Although the causes for criminal activity are many, most sociologists are in broad agreement that environmental factors such as poverty, ignorance, fear, deprivation, bad fortune, insecurity, and physical and psychological pathology are significant contributors to crime or other immoral (or "sinful") behavior. In recent years human societies—especially the more secular societies in the developed world—have produced first-rate levels of prosperity, progress, safety, and justice by providing decent levels of education, health care, jobs, security, opportunity, and justice without any necessary genuflection to supernatural doctrine. John 16:3 proclaims that God so loved human beings and wanted to save them from sin and its harmful effects. Yet there were clearly morally and practically superior ways that he could have used to achieve that. For example, rather than arranging the brutal, bloody murder of an innocent man, God could have simply offered forgiveness to truly repentant sinners and, where possible, restituting sinners, as well as improved the world by ameliorating negative circumstances of environment conducive to sinful behavior. This approach would still allow God to show his love for people while encouraging the attenuation of sinful behavior, without compromising libertarian free will (if it exists) and without countenancing the primitive blood sacrifice of his own son.
I conclude from this section that Christianity "can't live without" the DOS. The requisite rationale for the incarnation, passion, death, and resurrection of Jesus limps without it.
I have argued that Christianity has a serious problem. It can neither defend the plausibility of the DOS, nor excise it from the list of its requisite beliefs without doing significant damage to Christianity's cogency and plausibility.
 By "orthodox Christianity" I mean Christianity as practiced in Roman Catholicism, the Eastern Orthodox denomination, and most versions of mainline, Evangelical, Pentecostal, and fundamentalist Protestantism.
 See, for example, Davis A. Young's "The Contemporary Relevance of Augustine's View of Creation," Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith, Vol. 40, No. 1, pp. 42-45 (March 1988). <http://www.asa3.org/ASA/PSCF/1988/PSCF3-88Young.html>.
 John Gross, The Oxford Book of Aphorisms (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 1987), p. 11.
 This argument is developed in my "The Argument from Unfairness" in the International Journal for Philosophy of Religion Vol. 25, No. 2, pp. 115-128 (April 1999).
 William Lane Craig, Alvin Plantinga, Terrance Tiessen, and Thomas Flint are examples.
 Kathleen Stassen Berger, The Developing Person through Childhood and Adolescence (6th ed) (New York, NY: Macmillan, 2003), p. 94.
 Steven Mohr, "Exposing the Myth of Alcoholics Anonymous," Free Inquiry April/May 2009, pp. 42-48.
 Ibid., p. 44.
 For example, see:
 Gregory S. Paul, "The Big Religion Questions Finally Solved," Free Inquiry December 2008/January 2009, pp. 24-36. <http://www.gregspaul.webs.com/questionssolved.pdf>. See especially Figs. 6, 7, and 8.
Copyright ©2010 Richard Schoenig. The electronic version is copyright ©2010 by Internet Infidels, Inc. with the written permission of Richard Schoenig. All rights reserved.
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