Sin—Original and Otherwise
© 2008 by John Caris

Original sin is a basic tenet in Christian theology. Adam and Eve, our first parents, sinned in the Garden of Eden and were kicked out because of that. Jesus came to save us from that sin and make things right again. The ideas that are contained in the biblical story and form part of the foundation for Christian theology are an interconnected cluster, not just one or two simple notions preachers often suggest. I would like to look at some of the concepts and their structural links.

The story of Adam and Eve is filled with many ideas that can be studied intensely, especially if one goes back to the Hebrew text. Since I have discussed the story in my essay “Musings on Adam and Eve,” I will not venture into any in-depth inquiry, but only select ideas when they add to the discussion of sin.

A side trip into the etymology of ‘sin’ might be helpful. The English word ‘sin’ comes from the Old English, meaning “offence, wrong-doing, misdeed.” In the Old Testament the Hebrew words that are translated as ‘sin’ are chataah, the basic form, its variant chattaah, and chata, the primitive root. Chata probably meant “to miss.” Chataah means an offence or a sacrifice for it. In the New Testament the basic Greek word is hamartano, meaning “to miss the mark” and thus later becomes “to err or offend.” The variant hamartia means “an offence or sin.” Another aside—hamartia is very familiar to scholars of ancient Greek tragedy and philosophy. The word is used by the Greek philosopher Aristotle in his well-known investigation of tragedy, Poetics. For a better understanding of the word’s usage in the New Testament, readers might consider delving into the Poetics and discover its meaning and application in Aristotle’s time.

An issue that has troubled many people is the causal link between Adam and Eve’s ‘sin’ and their descendents. The hereditary gene has never been discovered and probably will not be because the issue is not one of physical inheritance but of another kind. Actually, what it is has only been argued within a religious context. Many Christians believe that this sin is a spiritual offence that all humans are born with. Most have a difficult time explaining the innocent child’s responsibility for its first parents. Christianity does teach personal responsibility for one’s acts and as such judgment is based on those acts. But does Christianity also teach that one is responsible for the actions of one’s ancestors? Thinking about this question raises challenging responses that lead to unnerving ideas.

I have been bothered for a long time that perhaps the offence is actually being human. Are all humans by their very nature committing a sin against God? Of course, God created this nature, the essence of being human. And in the first chapter of Genesis we are told that God was pleased with Man, made in His image and likeness, saying that the creation was good. So human nature is some sort of reflection of God. Yet the first humans disobeyed God, committing the sin, the offence. I am curious as to the reasoning many theologians use to assume that newly birthed infants are disobeying God in some way. At this moment I am unable to imagine or conceive of any way that they can offend God. Certainly, as we live, we are sometimes in conflict with God’s commands as well the laws of our country. This offence, then, is our personal responsibility and we are judged accordingly. Yet the thorn still stings. The acts we commit have nothing to do with those of our ancestors. Perhaps, the homily that the sins of the parents are visited upon the children can clarify the issue. We do inherent social, political, economic, and ecologic situations and conditions. We are born into them and certainly can suffer from the bad decisions of those before us. Today, 2008, is a clear example of what abodes the future generations who will suffer from our misdeeds.

Another possibility is that the sin was one of gaining knowledge of good and evil. The Christian community has been frequently divided over the question of knowledge, whether one can have too much or where knowledge’s place is in gaining salvation. Some Christian groups have placed knowledge above faith in importance. Of course, Jesus’ well-known statement—“ The truth shall make you free”—raises the issue to another level.

A parallel idea to that of ‘gaining knowledge is a sin’ centers on God’s agenda for humans and the universe. Why didn’t God want humans to possess knowledge of good and evil? The text states that humans would surely die if they ate of the tree of knowledge. The implication is that knowledge leads to death. Another inference is that Adam and Eve were immortal and existing in a pure spiritual state until their eating of the fruit. Seldom do theologians discuss the nature of this knowledge—what it is. A common assumption is that the knowledge is of a sexual kind, and then the discussion ends. Also, I am unaware of any in-depth studies of the link between cause, eating the fruit, and consequence, death. Investigating the manner in which this relationship could exist would produce another essay.

Offering another suggestive idea, I wonder if something went wrong with the original creation, with the design, even though the text states that God was pleased. A defect occurring in human nature would imply one of two alternatives: God made a mistake, a thought too upsetting to consider, or God knew and was pleased and waited patiently for the disobedience. Then with pleasure He kicked Adam and Eve out of the Garden of Eden. Here a hidden agenda is evoked. This second idea is also unnerving and challenging.

A competing idea is that humans by their nature have so much power that they could create cosmic spiritual disaster. And perhaps, they compounded it by admitting their offense. Another path branches off here: by their truthful admittance were they challenging in some way God’s power? Those who are around children realize that they often do not understand the consequences of their behavior and when they break rules, they often are unaware of the seriousness of the act. Since God had no previous experience with humans, perhaps He did not quite understand the best method for shaping their behavior and attitude. And when He had had enough experience in child-rearing, He made the decision to send Jesus to assist in our upbringing. But this is still not what the original sin dogma is stating. Supposedly, Jesus gave His life to remove the original sin from us humans.

An idea, lurking in the background, is slowing emerging. Death seems to be a central concern in the story. Eating the forbidden fruit would lead to death. So to die, the first parents were thrust out of the Garden. And they eventually died as we do and will. Perhaps, then, death is inherited, the reality of death as the only means of leaving this world. Certainly, Christianity proposes that it has the path to life-after-death. Thus, we humans are incarnated creatures and the body must die for our essential part, the soul or spirit, to return to a more spiritual dimension. Most cultures have an origin or creation story and one or more stories about how death entered the world. Obviously this is an issue that human society must deal with.

At times Christianity has used Satan to play a role in this cosmic drama. Satan, of course, is an important character in the story of Job as Job’s adversary and challenger. Christians frequently point the finger at the Devil for tempting them and leading them astray. Elaine Pagels’ The Origin of Satan is a scholarly and lucid investigation into the growth and development of the idea of Satan during the first four hundred years of Christianity. She describes the use of Satan in the religious battles over orthodoxy and the development of official dogma. St. Augustine of Hippo (354-430), an influential theologian, played an important role in the debates and he argued strongly for the doctrine of original sin. From what I can glean from his arguments, he apparently was proposing that the doctrine of original sin is partially proven by the fact we do not have free will in the sense of absolute control over our bodies, that nature has more power than we do. From his viewpoint once humans incarnate, we have lost the spiritual essence that angels have. We have given up our ‘angelness’ to live in a physical body so that we can experience physical life and death.

A circle has formed here, a linking back to the beginning of the inquiry. In mythic terms the story tells us that humans will die, that our bodies do not last very long, and that we feel a need to justify our weakness: we are not immortal.