The Doctrine of Original Sin (Part 4): Romans 5, I Corinthians 15, Ancestral Sin, and the “Natural” Order of Things

In this final post regarding the doctrine of original sin, I want to offer a few brief thoughts on Romans 5:12-21 and I Corinthians 15, two texts often used to argue for “original sin.” As I noted in “Part 1,” Simon Turpin of Answers in Genesis wrote two of his own posts on these two passages, and argued that:

  • (A) There was a historical Adam whom God created “perfect” within a “perfect” creation;
  • (B) By eating of the forbidden fruit, Adam opened the door for sin and death to reign throughout what used to be God’s perfect creation;
  • (C) Somehow Adam’s “original sin” was imputed to each person throughout history, so that we are born sinful, and our very natures are corrupted; and
  • (D) We are found guilty for that sin into which we have been born—yes, we’re guilty for our own sin that we commit, but it was because of Adam that we were born sinful to start out with, and therefore Adam was the “primary cause” for sin in the world.

Turpin’s basic point was that if there was no “original” Adam (who was created perfect within God’s “original” perfect creation about 6,000 ago), then the entire Gospel message falls apart. Now in a general sense, most Christians I know of (including myself when I was younger), pretty much agreed with that. God created everything perfect, and Adam screwed it up for the rest of us, right? Well, as I noted in the past few posts, there are a number of problems with that assertion. I hope you read the previous three posts that tease out precisely what those problems are.

But like I said, in this post I want to focus (however briefly) on the two New Testament texts that speak about Adam, specifically in relation to Christ. The basic question is this: “Is Paul’s point regarding salvation (in Romans 5:12-21) and the resurrection (in I Corinthians 15) dependent on a historical Adam?”

I do not think so.

Romans 5:12-21
In regard to Romans 5:12-21, Emil Brunner argues in his book, The Christian Doctrine of Creation and Redemption, “It does not refer to the transgression of Adam in which all his descendants share; but it states the fact that ‘adam’s’ descendants are involved in death, because they themselves commit sin” (104).

We need to remember that the doctrine of original sin was a doctrine formed in the fourth and fifth century Church. Paul, though, was a first century Jew who had an entirely different view of the nature of mankind. Simply put, Jewish theology taught that human beings are born with two inclinations, one for good and one for evil. Thus, every individual is faced with the choice of Adam—and the sheer fact of history is that each one of us, like Adam, does in fact, choose to sin. Just as II Baruch 54:19 states: “Adam is therefore not the cause, save only of his own soul, but each of us has been the Adam of his own soul.”

And indeed, if we read Romans 5:12-21, not through the eyes of Augustine (or later of Martin Luther), but rather through the eyes of Paul, this really is Paul’s point. Paul’s focus in Romans is on Christ’s relation to the Torah, and he was specifically addressing the false teaching that in order to become a true follower of Christ, Gentiles had to obey the Torah, get circumcised, and become Jews.

But Paul was totally against this, for as he argues in Romans, the purpose of the Torah was never to save anyone in the first place. It simply defined what sin is—sin had always been in the world, even before the giving of the Torah on Mount Sinai. Ironically, as Paul argues throughout Romans, by pointing out what sin was, the Torah actually contributed to more sin (Romans 5:20). Think about it: when your parents said, “Don’t do that,” immediately, you wanted to do…that (whatever that was). Consequently, with or without the Torah, sin brings death, and the Torah is powerless to stop it.

Therefore, Paul refers to the Adam of Genesis 2-3, not because he’s trying to tell the Christians in Rome the “historical origin” of sin, but rather because he’s telling them that everyone sins, with or without the Torah, and that sin brings death. Just look at Romans 5:12: “Therefore, just as sin entered the world through one man, and death through sin, in this way death spread to all people, because all sinned.”

Yes, Paul is clearly referring to Adam, but he’s referring to Adam in order to illustrate what is true for all people. It is worth noting that in the Latin text Augustine used to formulate his doctrine of original sin the phrase “because all sinned” was “in him all sinned.” That’s a big difference, and Augustine simply was working with a translation that got it wrong.

But let’s be clear, Paul was not making a point about the historicity of Adam. He was using Genesis 2-3 to serve as an illustration for what is true for all humanity. This should not be surprising, for Paul, being a Jew, knew that Jewish theology saw “Adam” as representative of mankind.

I Corinthians 15

But what about I Corinthians 15? Yes, Paul says that “death came through one man” (15:21) and that just as all did “in Adam,” so will all be made alive in Christ (15:22). Does that not imply that Paul is saying that there was a historical origin for sin entering the world, namely when a historical Adam ate the forbidden fruit? I don’t think so. I think Paul is using the same parallel that he did in Romans 5:12-21—not to simply draw a historical parallel between Adam and Christ, but rather to show how much better the new creation that Christ brought forth will be than the original creation.

Or to put it another way, I believe that Paul is saying that this creation is subject to decay. In this creation, all of humanity, every human being (i.e. all who are in Adam) sins, and death reigns. In fact, nowhere does Paul say in I Corinthians, “God created a perfect world with no sin and death, and that historical Adam screwed it up, but don’t worry, Christ is God’s back-up plan, and he’ll get us back to what God originally intended.”

In Romans 5:12-21, Paul continually says that life in Christ will be better than what was “in Adam.” And here in I Corinthians 15, he seems to imply that death is necessary for eternal life in Christ and the resurrection to occur: “What you sow does not come to life unless it dies. And as for what you sow—you are not sowing the body that will be, but only a seed…” (15:36-37). He then goes on in 15:42-49:

42So it is with the resurrection of the dead. What is sown is perishable, what is raised is imperishable. 43It is sown in dishonor, it is raised in glory. It is sown in weakness, it is raised in power. 44It is sown a physical body, it is raised a spiritual body. If there is a physical body, there is also a spiritual body. 45Thus it is written, “The first man, Adam, became a living being”; the last Adam became a life-giving spirit. 46But it is not the spiritual that is first, but the physical, and then the spiritual. 47The first man was from the earth, a man of dust; the second man is from heaven. 48As was the man of dust, so are those who are of the dust; and as is the man of heaven, so are those who are of heaven. 49Just as we have borne the image of the man of dust, we will also bear the image of the man of heaven.

Call me crazy, but it seems Paul is emphasizing Adam as representative of this current creation and human beings in their “natural state.” Right from the start, Adam was “a man of dust”—thus destined for corruption and decay. Nowhere does Paul say, “Adam was originally immortal, then sinned and screwed it up for everyone else.” Nowhere does Paul depict Jesus as Gods’ “Plan B” and back-up plan to try to get back creation to its “original state.”

No, it seems that Paul is saying that this creation, however “good” God called it, is still nevertheless the first step of God’s one, over-arching plan, and Christ is the next step, or fulfillment, of that very plan. Thus, the Gospel is not one of “regaining a paradise lost,” but rather of fulfilling the ultimate purpose of God’s creation. This creation, this humanity, this Adam, is of the dust—that is our natural state. However good it is, in Christ there is something better. This is merely step one.

Or as C.S. Lewis says in Mere Christianity, “This world is a great sculptor’s shop. We are the statues and there’s a rumor going around the shop that some of us are someday going to come to life.”

What does this have to do with Original Sin?
Well, to be honest, everything.

When it gets right down to it, the Bible doesn’t teach God originally created everything, including human beings, as “perfect.” Adam and Eve aren’t depicted as “perfect.” Rather, they are described as humanity in its natural state: although created in God’s image (or “statues” as Lewis says), they were not fully mature or (as the early Church Fathers would say) fully in God’s likeness. To become like God, that involves suffering and challenge, and that is precisely what we see in Christ.

Sin and death are part of this creation, and (for a reason that is beyond our comprehension), they are the means by which God, through Christ, redeems, sanctifies, and transforms us into His likeness. Some may ask, “How could God call this creation ‘good’ if there was sin and death in it?” Well, could we not answer that by bearing witness to the Gospel message? It is through sin, suffering, and death that God eventually defeats sin, suffering and death and brings about the fulfillment of His creation. You can’t bear the image of the man of heaven without first bearing the image of the man of dust.

Simply put, I don’t believe there was an “original sin” back there and then. Sin, death, corruption and decay are a part of this very good creation, because this very good creation isn’t the end of the story—it’s not a finished product. That doesn’t make sin and death “good,” but it does admit to the fact that they are simply part of our world.

Now, in the Orthodox tradition, the term often used instead of “original sin” is that of “ancestral sin.” That basically means that we are born into a sin-infected world, and although we are thus inevitably damaged by sin, we don’t “inherit” the sin of Adam and Eve, and we still have a free will. As Kallistos Ware puts it, “Even though we are not guilty of the sins of others, yet we are somehow always involved.”

Interestingly enough, I first came across this idea back around 1997, when I read a book entitled, In the Beginning, by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger (yes, the eventual Pope Benedict). When discussing “original sin,” he wrote something that has always stuck with me:

“Human beings are relational, and they possess their lives—themselves—only by way of relationship. I alone am not myself, but only in and with you am I myself. To be truly a human being means to be related in love, to be of and for. But sin means the damaging or the destruction of relationality. Sin is a rejection of relationality because it wants to make the human being a god. Sin in a loss of relationship, disturbance of relationship, and therefore it is not restricted to the individual. When I destroy a relationship, then this event—sin—touches the other person involved in the relationship. Consequently, sin is always an offense that touches others, that alters the world and damages it. To the extent that this is true, when the network of human relationships is damaged from the very beginning, then every human being enters into a world that is marked by relational damage. At the very moment that a person begins human existence, which is a good, he or she is confronted by a sin-damaged world. Each of us enters into a situation in which relationality has been hurt. Consequently, each person is, from the very start, damaged in relationships and does not engage in them as he or she ought. Sin pursues the human being, and he or she capitulates to it” (73).

Personally, I think we’d all be better off leaving behind any attempts to find out the historical origin of sin, and just accept that sin and death are realities in this life. Trying to pin the blame on a historical Adam is, I believe, essentially a committing of the second sin found in Genesis 3—blaming someone else for our own sin and shortcomings.

Who we are now, here in our natural state, is who we are—we are “in Adam,” and thus bear the image of the humanity of dust. Instead of arguing where sin came from, we should be accepting the transformative power of the Holy Spirit, offered to us through the death and resurrection of Christ, so that we could be re-made into the image of the man of heaven, and thus enjoy the new creation as the re-created people of God. Why do we spend our time looking for the living among the dead?


  1. The historical origin of sin doesn’t seem to me a very difficult problem. Wouldn’t the evolution of man qua man be the introduction of sin into the world? Clearly animals are not moral agents. Whenever it was that we became self-aware, rational beings capable of having knowledge of good and evil, we created sin.

    My question to you: how do defenders of original sin maintain Jesus as sinless? Unless the sin-gene is only passed through the male, I don’t see why he should not be guilty of Adam’s sin just like the rest of humanity. My 30-seconds of Googling uncovered only Catholic answers that said Mary was sinless, which I imagine most protestant supporters would reject.

    1. Simply put, I don’t think too many people have really thought “original sin” through. Most probably interpret it as “We’re all born sinful,” which is basically true, but the actual doctrine of original sin states a whole lot more.

      So basically, I think people who say they believe in “original sin” really don’t. They believe basically what the Bible says: We are sinners in need of salvation. And even if they say they believe in an original Adam, they haven’t thought everything through.

    2. Actually, the Catholic Church has always taught for 2000 yrs that original sin was transmitted to every subsequent generation from Adam alone, not from Adam and Eve.

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