Few teachings have evoked as much consternation and ridicule among both believers and non-believers as Christian dogma regarding the subject of sin. Indeed, many have argued that the "Christian" conception of sin is one of the most damaging and destructive beliefs that has ever been introduced into the world of ideas. Some have even gone so far as to suggest that there is no such thing as sin. What is the truth of the matter? Are Christian conceptions of sin in harmony with God's view of the subject?
In exploring this subject, it is probably best to begin with the most controversial aspect of the subject: The concept of Original Sin. It is interesting to note that the earliest and most articulate spokesman for this belief was Augustine of Hippo (an important Christian theologian and philosopher of the late Fourth and early Fifth Century). In his great work The City of God, Augustine wrote: "For God, the author of natures, not of vices, created man upright; but man, being of his own will corrupted, and justly condemned, begot corrupted and condemned children. For we all were in that one man, since we all were that one man, who fell into sin by the woman who was made from him before the sin. For not yet was the particular form created and distributed to us, in which we as individuals were to live, but already the seminal nature was there from which we were to be propagated; and this being vitiated by sin, and bound by the chain of death, and justly condemned, man could not be born of man in any other state. And thus, from the bad use of free will, there originated the whole train of evil, which, with its concatenation of miseries, convoys the human race from its depraved origin, as from a corrupt root, on to the destruction of the second death, which has no end, those only being excepted who are freed by the grace of God." (Book 13, Chapter 14 - http://home.newadvent.org/fathers/120113.htm)
In his St. Augustine's Doctrine of Original Sin, Jesse Couenhoven points out that Augustine's teaching on this subject represents a complex set of beliefs which had a number of different component parts that were not necessarily dependent on each other. (http://www.academia.edu/1958072/St._Augustines_Doctrine_of_Original_Sin) Couenhoven describes these components in the following terms: "In brief, the five elements of the doctrine of original sin are as follows: (1) the source of original sin is a primal sin in the garden of Eden. (2) All human beings share in this sin because of our solidarity with Adam, the progenitor of the race. The results of the primal sin are twofold. (3) From birth, all human beings have an inherited sin (original sin itself), which comes in two forms: common guilt, and a constitutional fault of disordered desire and ignorance. (4) In addition, Augustine holds that the human race suffers a penalty because of sin — human powers are weakened, and we will experience death. (5) Finally, Augustine speculates about how both sin and penalty are transmitted from generation to generation." In his evaluation of the Bishop of Hippo's teaching, Couenhoven concludes that these components do not stand or fall together - that it is possible to accept some of these and reject others and remain philosophically and theologically consistent. This blogger agrees with this view.
In his Against Two Letters of the Pelagians, Augustine relied heavily on Paul's letter to the Romans to justify his teachings on Original Sin. (http://home.newadvent.org/fathers/15091.htm, et al) One verse in particular was employed to support several of the components of the doctrine: Romans 5:12. In the NLT, the verse is translated: "When Adam sinned, sin entered the world. Adam's sin brought death, so death spread to everyone, for everyone sinned." Augustine interpreted this to mean that Adam's sin was inherited by all of his descendants (note that the verse could be interpreted to suggest that Adam's sin was simply the first of many - that death is the consequence of the fact that all have sinned). It should also be noted that Augustine's view is in accord with the practice of infant baptism, which many Protestant Christians reject. Augustine believed that Adam's fallen nature was transferred to all of his progeny through the process of human reproduction (one of the principal reasons that sexual intercourse came to be regarded as sinful). Hence, since all babies were born with Adam's sinful nature, they had to be baptized to prevent them from being condemned to hell.
This, however, directly contradicts the teachings of the prophet Ezekiel about individual responsibility for sin. He wrote: "What? you ask. 'Doesn't the child pay for the parent's sins?' No! For if the child does what is just and right and keeps my decrees, that child will surely live. The person who sins is the one who will die. The child will not be punished for the parent's sins, and the parent will not be punished for the child's sins. Righteous people will be rewarded for their own righteous behavior, and wicked people will be punished for their own wickedness." (Ezekiel 18:19-20)
In addition to contradicting this principle of individual responsibility, Augustine's teachings on this subject also present some problems for the traditional view of the Messiah and require additional doctrines to resolve them. Think about it. Christ took on the nature of humankind. (Hebrews 2:14, 16) Luke records his human genealogy as being derived through Adam. (Luke 3:38) This would seem to contradict one of the major tenets of Christianity: Christ was sinless. (Isaiah 53:9, II Corinthians 5:21, I Peter 2:22, I John 3:5) After all, if Adam was Christ's human ancestor, wouldn't that have made him an inheritor of Original Sin? On the other hand, if we adopt the view of individual responsibility and reject Augustine's view, there is no contradiction to resolve.
It should also be noted that Augustine's teaching on Original Sin is very closely linked to his beliefs regarding the immortality of the soul. In short, Augustine did not believe that humans really die - that only the physical body dies. He believed that we all have immortal souls that are punished or rewarded based on whether or not we've accepted Jesus Christ as our Savior in this life. The significance of this being that not all Christians subscribe to this view. Some Christians believe that humans are wholly mortal, and that immortal life is God's gift to us through Jesus Christ. (Romans 6:23)
To be sure, there are numerous scriptures that suggest that mankind is mostly or entirely evil (Genesis 6:5, Jeremiah 17:9, Romans 7:18, et al); but it is also suggested at the very beginning of the Bible that man (including his nature) was very good. (Genesis 1:31) Indeed, we are told that humankind was made in the very image and likeness of Almighty God! (Genesis 1:26-27) Of course, Augustine and his followers would say that this is where Adam's fall changed everything.
Nevertheless, it seems to me that we are really talking about the origins of sin or sinfulness. Augustine attempted to answer this question of origins by stating that Adam was the source of sin, but was he? If we read this story carefully, one could make a strong case for tracing the origins of sin through Eve to the serpent. As a matter of fact, Jesus Christ characterized Satan as the original sinner and the father of all liars. (John 8:44) Even so, how does that negate or lessen the principle of individual responsibility outlined by the prophet Ezekiel? Whatever the origin of sin, haven't we all sinned in the eyes of God? (Romans 3:23) Doesn't the Bible teach that each and every one of us will someday answer for his/her sins if we haven't accepted the forgiveness afforded to us by Christ's sacrifice? (Romans 14:12)
In examining the question of Original Sin, it might also be instructive to ask ourselves: What exactly was the sin that Adam and Eve committed? In the Genesis account, we are told that they violated a direct commandment from God not to eat the fruit of the "Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil." (Genesis 2:17, 3:1-7) In other words, they chose to reject God's definition of good and evil and decide for themselves how to define those terms. That decision introduced sin, death and separation from God into the world (Genesis 3:8-24). Nevertheless, the way that I see it, all of their progeny have had to make the same decision for themselves - to accept or reject God's definition of good and evil. Thus, our individual decision in this regard is what accounts for our subsequent behavior and whether we live or die (in the eternal sense).
This can be interpreted to fit very well with what Paul wrote to the Corinthians regarding the resurrection of the dead. He said that "death came into the world through a man, now the resurrection from the dead has begun through another man." (I Corinthians 15:21) Continuing, we read: "Just as everyone dies because we all belong to Adam, everyone who belongs to Christ will be given new life." (verse 22) Later, in the same chapter, Paul returns to the theme: "The Scriptures tell us, 'The first man, Adam, became a living person.' But the last Adam - that is, Christ - is a life-giving Spirit. What comes first is the natural body, then the spiritual body comes later. Adam, the first man, was made from the dust of the earth, while Christ, the second man, came from heaven. Earthly people are like the earthly man, and heavenly people are like the heavenly man. Just as we are now like the earthly man, we will someday be like the heavenly man." (verses 45-49) In other words, one could reasonably interpret these passages to mean that we acquire our physical characteristics from our human ancestor (Adam), including our predisposition to die, without assuming that we have inherited his sin or sinfulness.
In this connection, it is also instructive to remember that most Christians would regard Christ's sacrifice as applying to them personally - "Christ died for my sins." Of course, there is also a corporate sense in which Christ died for the sins of everyone who has ever lived; but, for most Christians, that would not in any way negate the very personal nature of their salvation through Jesus Christ. In other words, Christ died for Adam's sin; but he also died for mine!