Is Original Sin the answer?December 18, 2007 — Deacon Duncan
Since we’re on the topic of evil in human behavior, let’s take a look at the Christian doctrine of Original Sin and/or the so-called “sin nature.” Some Christians make a distinction between Original Sin and the “sin nature,” but the two ideas have enough in common that we can treat them as being basically the same idea, which is that Adam’s sin caused all mankind to become sinful. Or, as Mr. Horvath puts it,
the Christian religion says that people are by nature sinful and fallen. So it isn’t any surprise to Christians- or it shouldn’t be- when humans do bad things to other humans. We shouldn’t even be surprised when Christians are mean to other Christians…
When liberal pacifist Reinhold Neibuhr was confronted with the realities that emerged after WW2, he had a change of heart and mind and realized that Original Sin was real. GK Chesterton wrote that Original Sin was the only Christian doctrine that can actually be empirically demonstrated.
But does the doctrine of Original Sin really explain evil behavior? Or is it merely a superstition that does nothing more than attribute evil to an indetectable and magical “cause”?
The difference between a scientific explanation and a superstitious attribution is that the scientific explanation starts with a cause whose nature and characteristics are understood well enough that we can accurately determine what consequences will result if that cause operates in the real world. Science, in other words, allows you to engage in forwards thinking–starting from the “cause” and determining precisely and accurately what consequences must follow.
Superstition, by contrast, is backwards thinking. You see something you don’t understand, you ascribe it to some magical cause, and you’re done. You do not show that any actual connection exists between the observed result and its purported cause. Often you can’t even say what such a connection would consist of. And not infrequently, you aren’t too clear on what the cause even is, or what characteristics it has. The purpose of superstition is not to give us a sequence of verifiable causes and effects, but merely to reassure the believer that the answer is “known” and accounted for.
So let’s think some about this so-called “sin nature” of man. What is it, exactly? Is it a physical characteristic, like a gene or something? There are passages in the Bible that might lend themselves to that interpretation. Sin supposedly resides “in the flesh” and is something we inherit from our parents. In fact, the virgin birth is supposed to have been necessary in order that Jesus could be born without sin, so apparently “sin nature” is supposed to be something that is physically transmitted from fathers to their children.
Doesn’t that strike you as a bit odd? If there were a sex-linked physical factor that transmitted the “sin nature” from a father to his children, should we be able to isolate it in the father’s DNA? And why would God send people to hell just for having bad DNA? That doesn’t seem very fair. Plus, it seems that “sin nature” is rather finicky about whether it’s physical or not. As a physical attribute of our mortal bodies, it’s something we would naturally lose when we die, and which therefore ought not to prevent us from entering into heaven. If “sin nature” is merely a fleshly attribute of our mortal bodies, Jesus would not need to die on the Cross. Salvation could come just by raising the dead in perfected, spiritual bodies. The sins of the past could be forgiven as a kind of “temporary insanity,” the result of imperfections in a mortal body which had already paid the appropriate penalties by dying.
Of course, we could suppose that the sin nature is spiritual and/or “soul-ish,” or at least has immaterial attributes. But if that were the case, why would sin nature be passed on only through the father and not the mother? Once the sperm leaves a man’s body, he does not have direct contact with the resulting infant (if any) until after the child is born. And in some cases, the sperm is the last and only thing the man contributes. Does that mean that sperm cells have souls and/or spirits that can be tainted with the sin nature, to carry it from the father to the child? At conception, does the soul/spirit of the sperm become the soul/spirit of the fertilized egg? Does it displace the egg’s soul/spirit? Is there a mingling of soul/spirits?
It’s an interesting line of thought. If living human sperm cells have souls, then every one of them which fails to fertilize an egg is an innocent human soul dying before birth. Pro-life men should be having sex with as many women as possible, every day, out of sheer respect for the sanctity of life. But I digress.
Getting back to the subject (and to seriousness), let’s look at the question of how this alleged “sin nature” would go about causing atrocities like genocide. Whether “sin nature” is a physical defect or a soul-ish/spiritual flaw, if it’s the explanation for evil human behavior then it must somehow cause that behavior. So it’s not a weakness or handicap, like a muscle that won’t contract or a joint that won’t bend right. Genocide isn’t just a matter of lacking the strength to do good. It’s an active and somewhat involved exertion of the will, the intellect, and so on. It’s not a passive failure to accomplish something, it’s an action.
So how does “sin nature” cause sin? Is it some kind of magical curse that overrides our free will and forces us to make choices we otherwise would not? Paul seems to think so: in his letter to the Romans, he claims that it’s not really his fault that he sins. “I am unspiritual, sold as a slave to sin. I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do.” So Paul’s sin’s aren’t really Paul’s fault: he wants to do the right thing, but his sin nature forces him to do evil things against his will. (Why, then, does God punish man for sinning? That would be like flogging a girl for being the victim of a rape!)
The trouble is, Christians also claim that the reason God allowed Adam and Eve to sin, and thus to doom mankind to the “slavery” of sin, is because He wanted to ensure man’s free will. The doctrine of sin nature, however, denies that man’s will is really free. We’re not free to choose not to sin, in fact we are slaves to sin. So if God was trying to make sure we had free will, He blew it!
And why, by the way, would God arrange things so that we did inherit a sin nature? As punishment for Eve’s sin? Picture, if you will, God sitting in heaven, looking down into the garden of Eden:
Ooo, Eve just sinned! And look, now she’s tempting Adam too. I hate sin! I don’t want anyone to commit sin. That means I must punish Adam and Eve–but how? I know, I’ll give them a sin nature so that they can’t stop committing sins and doing more of the things that I don’t want anyone to do. Yeah, that’s it! And I’ll make it hereditary, so that their children who haven’t even been born yet and who have not done anything wrong, are also congenitally doomed to live their lives committing even more of the sins that I don’t want anyone to do! Boy, that’ll show them how much I hate sin, and how strongly I desire that nobody commit them!
I mean, I know God’s thoughts are not supposed to be our thoughts, but this is ridiculous. Maybe it’s not like that, though. Maybe there are powers beyond God’s control that force sinners to acquire a sin nature, and there’s nothing God can do to stop it. Maybe Christians aren’t telling the truth when they claim that God is omnipotent and sovereign and the maker of laws and all that. Maybe God is really helpless to do anything about it, other than to try and repair the damage after it happens (and after the world gets so full of sin that He has to murder everyone and everything, men, women, babies, and animals, via a great Flood, which He promises He will never do again even though modern man isn’t noticeably less sinful than his allegedly doomed ancestors).
Only, God is also supposed to be all-knowing and all-wise. All He had to do was intervene in time, like any wise and caring parent, to prevent His children from taking the fatal step that would strip them of their free will and make them slaves to sin. Or, since sin nature is only passed on through the father, He could have created Eve with the ability to procreate without the need for the man, thus producing children who did not inherit any sin nature. Might be a little tricky, biologically, but an Intelligent Designer ought to be able to pull it off, especially if He’s fine-tuning the constants of the universe anyway. Or something.
Mr. Horvath claims that my explanation for evil human behavior doesn’t really answer the question of why humans commit evil deeds, even though he admits that our more powerful minds do make us capable of offenses that are simply beyond the reach of other species, and that cruelty, conflict, and death are part of Nature. And yet when we look at his preferred explanation, original sin, we see that it not only fails to explain how sin nature causes us to sin (even Paul said, “I do not understand what I do”!), but it also raises a number of questions, issues, and contradictions with some key components of the rest of the Gospel story!
But that’s not really the Gospel’s fault. “Original sin” isn’t really intended as an actual scientific explanation. It’s merely a superstitious attribution, a label for a mysterious, undefined something which we can blame for our misdeeds (thus neatly ducking responsibility for our own choices) and which we can brag that Jesus is the cure for. Except, of course, that He doesn’t actually cure anyone, as far as we can see. Christians are just as sinful as anyone else, and sometimes even more so. This “cure” isn’t supposed to happen until some distant point in the future, thus removing this doctrine from any kind of accountability.
Thus, Original Sin fails as an explanation for evil behavior, and it also fails in terms of giving us any kind of useful, practical insights into preventing evil behavior. I suppose, theoretically, Christians could do some research into human cloning, in hopes of being able to someday produce a race of women with no sin nature (since no man would be involved in their conceptions and births). But somehow I doubt that this would do much good, because I don’t think there really is such a thing as “sin nature.” And I think that, deep down, most Christians realize that Original Sin a Sunday-only dogma with no practical applications beyond encouraging Christian superstition.