The Problems with the Doctrine of Original Sin (Part 3)

Although the particulars of the doctrine of original sin have varied throughout the centuries, the core of this doctrine has stayed intact:

  • The sin of the first man, Adam, contaminated the rest of human history;
  • Each person, therefore, is born into sin, and his very nature is polluted;
  • But even though each person is born into sin, he nevertheless has a free will, and
  • Is thus held responsible for his sin, as well as Adam’s and therefore is found guilty before God.

Needless to say, this doctrine has often come under criticism. Emil Brunner, in his book, The Christian Doctrine of Creation and Redemption, said that the doctrine of original sin, which has been the standard one for the Christian doctrine of man, from the time of Augustine, “is completely foreign to the thought of the Bible…. This idea is a perversion of the Biblical doctrine of sin, and of the genuine Christian truth about sin” (103). In addition, Reinhold Niebuhr, in his book, The Nature and Destiny of Man, points out the fact that “logical consistency is sacrificed in order to maintain on the one hand that the will is free in the sense that man is responsible for sin, and is not free in the sense that he can, of his own free will, do nothing but evil” (244).

Original Sin Makes God Unjust
Now let’s be clear: questioning the validity of the doctrine of original sin is not denying that people sin. Obviously, it is true that (a) all people sin, and (b) each one of us is held responsible for our own sins. But the fact is that the doctrine of original sin, as put forth by Augustine, simply does not hold water, for it ends up ultimately putting the blame for our sin on someone else, Adam.

G.C. Berkouwer, in his book, Sin, lays out a very convincing argument that it is impossible to give an “explanation” for the origin of sin without creating, to some extent, an excuse for it. This excuse is not only illegitimate, but the “tendency to make an excuse or an explanation is part…of the very nature of sin” (20). Any explanation of the origin of sin is illegitimate for the simple reason that it tries to give “a logical explanation…a sensibleness to that which is intrinsically nonsensical, a rationality to that which is irrational, a certain order to that which is disorderly” (18).

Or, as I prefer to put it, the doctrine of original sin, by shifting the blame for our sin onto Adam, ultimately is the re-commitment of the second sin in the Bible—shifting the blame for our own actions onto someone else. Adam blamed Eve, Eve blamed the serpent, we blame Adam—it’s always someone else’s fault.

In my last post, I gave some background on the cultural setting in which Augustine crafted his doctrine of original sin. In this post, I will tease out the exegetical problems with the doctrine.

The doctrine of original sin contains two main parts:

  • Original pollution—everyone, by no choice of their own, is born into a sinful state, totally depraved, and totally unable to obey God’s laws. Everything in our nature is contaminated and polluted by sin from birth. This original pollution has been transmitted to everyone throughout history through propagation.
  • Original guilt—everyone is guilty before God on three counts. Not only is each person guilty of his individual sins, but he is also guilty of Adam’s sin, as well as the person’s own sinful nature. Even though we were not there when Adam sinned, we were “in him” in so far as he was our natural head and first father.

Because of this original pollution and original guilt, no one is able to do anything that can be credited as good by God. This creates a real problem, though: if Adam’s sin was imputed to us through propagation, and we thusly inherited it, sin becomes, as Emil Brunner points out, simply a biological and natural fact. True, everyone has sinned and is guilty before God; but the tragedy of this universal fact is cheapened when sin is “removed to the region of the visible biological facts, into the realm of heredity” (104). Sin becomes, in a sense, a defective gene—the ultimate STD—that is passed on and not a willful choice to disobey God.

And if that is the case, then what does that say about the justice of God? No matter how you spin it, the doctrine of original sin makes God unjust. If there was a historical Adam who was the cause of your sin, then how can you be found guilty for it? It would be like if you were born with a clubbed foot, and were thus unable to run, and then God punished you for not being able to run a 5-minute mile.

In my opinion, this is precisely the problem if we try to tie the reality of our sin to the actions of someone else, namely, a historical Adam. So where do we go from here? Today, let’s look at the key text of Genesis 2-3.

Genesis 1-3
Before one even begins to talk about something like original sin (or evolution, for that matter), one first has to determine how to properly interpret Genesis 1-3. So let’s cut to the chase: yes, in Genesis 2-3, Adam and Eve are actual people—characters in that account. But the thing we must realize is that the word Adam means “mankind.” In fact, it is used 562 times in the OT, and only three times does it refer to a single person. In his recent post on this very topic of original sin, Pete Enns mentions that after Genesis 5, Adam disappears from the rest of the Old Testament. Actually, that’s not quite right: Adam is everywhere throughout the Old Testament—it’s just that Adam is mankind. Therefore, we need to consider the fact that in the story of Adam and Eve, Adam and Eve are figures that represent mankind.

The story of Adam and Eve is not a story about two historical people back 6,000 years ago, who were initially “perfect,” but who sinned and thus screwed everything and everyone up throughout history. Rather, it is the story of humanity itself—it is your story, it is my story. As Alan Richardson, in his book, Genesis 1-11, argues, the story of the creation of man in Genesis 1:26-27 “does not speak of the creation of a pair of individuals, a man and a woman, but of the human species” (53).

Therefore, the purpose of Genesis 1-3 is not to give us an account of the historical origin of sin, but rather the ontological reality that human beings, although created in God’s image, are nevertheless sinners, and are thus in need of salvation.

When the Scales Fell Off My Eyes
When I first realized this, it was as if scales fell off my eyes in the reading of Genesis 2-3. I had always assumed what most probably assumed about Genesis 2-3: God created a “perfect” creation, Adam and Eve were “perfect,” yet somehow “rebelled” against God, and because of that, all creation went topsy-turvy, and human beings from that point on are tainted with Adam’s sin and are condemned by God. But is that what Genesis 2-3 is really saying?

Irenaeus of Lyons

First, there’s nothing in Genesis 2-3 that suggests God created a “perfect” creation, or that Adam and Eve were “perfect.” In fact, in addition to other early Church Fathers, we have the testimony of the early Church Father Irenaeus (who was a disciple of Polycarp, who had been a disciple of the Apostle John) who made it a point to say that only God is perfect, and that neither creation nor Adam and Eve were created perfect. Rather, they were created child-like and naïve (just like each one of us): God, for his part, could have granted perfection to humankind from the beginning, but humankind, being in its infancy, would not have been able to sustain it” (Against Heresies IV.38.1).

Secondly, this causes us to read Genesis 3, not so much as Adam and Eve in a “shaking their fists at God” kind of rebellion, but as (just as it reads) them getting tricked and duped. The fact that they are described as “naked” illustrates that they were child-like, defenseless, helplessness and powerlessness. Thus, their sin was one of childish disobedience—still sin, but hardly “open rebellion.” In addition, there simply is nothing in Genesis 3 that suggests that the state of Adam changed. He was indeed banished from the garden and separated from God, and this has its consequences, but the actual helpless state of Adam was there from the moment he was created.

What changed was that he was now aware of it. Adam’s sin thus was not a moment in history that plunged God’s perfect creation into chaos, but rather illustrative of our inevitable sin, by which we come to a knowledge of how helpless we truly are. And this, as Irenaeus states, is actually part of God’s plan:

How could man ever have known that he was weak and mortal by nature, whereas God was immortal and mighty if he had not had experience of both? To discover his weakness through suffering is not in any sense evil; on the contrary, it is good not to have an erroneous view of one’s own nature… The experience of both [good and evil] has produced in man the true knowledge of God and of man, and increased his love for God” (Against Heresies V.3.1).

Seen in this light, the reality of sin in the world makes more sense. Adam did not “originally sin,” because we are Adam—and the reality is that we sin. Thus, God is not unjust by holding us guilty for Adam’s sin; the reality is that although we are created in God’s image, we nevertheless sin. And somehow, this is part of God’s overall redemptive purposes for creation.

Or to put it another way: Genesis 2-3 isn’t the story of one man “falling” from a state of perfection, plunging humanity into bondage, and causing God to resort to some sort of “Plan B.” Rather, Genesis 2-3 is the story of humanity’s natural state, and sets the stage for us understanding God’s original plan all along. History is in process. Remember that saying, “God’s not finished with me yet”? That’s actually very true. The entire scope of human history is the process of God’s creation-work.

More can obviously be teased out regarding Genesis 2-3, as well as Irenaeus’ teaching on it, but you can read those posts here:

Irenaeus of Lyons, and the Early Church Fathers’ Teaching of Adam and Eve

Heretics, Ken Ham, and the Proper Understanding of Adam and Eve

Adam and Eve as Children, and Greek Philosophical Concepts of Being

There’s No “Plan B” in Christ

Adam, Christ, and the Christian Life

Irenaeus, Augustine, and the Theory of Evolution

Read those posts and consider the early Church’s teaching about Adam and Eve. Then check back in a day or two, when I look at I Corinthians 15 and Romans 5, and discuss the Eastern Orthodox concept of “ancestral sin.”


  1. A lot to think about. I read this and then went right to “Irenaeus of Lyons: There’s No “Plan B” in Christ–He is it, the Alpha and Omega (Part 4)”. The idea that there is not a “Plan B” struck a chord with me. One thing about Protestantism in general and evangelicalism/fundamentalism in particular is how often God is depicted as resorting to a Plan B because his Plan A didn’t work out. From the Beginning to the End some Plan B dominates. Even the church, at least with the dispensationalists, is seen as kind of a secondary thing or Plan B or a mere “parenthesis” in time – little more than a temporary, historical accident.

    1. Yes, very well said. For me, reading Irenaeus was so refreshing. I remember thinking, “This makes so much more sense!”

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