The New Christians

The New Christians

Original Sin: A Definition

The Original Sin Series

Some commenters are concerned that I’m setting up a straw man — that is, I’m leaving the doctrine of Original Sin undefined so that I can then dispute an unformed doctrine.  So I will defer to the BBC, and their excellent summary of the doctrine.  This will be our working definition of Original Sin:


What is original sin?
Original sin is a Christian doctrine that says that everyone is born sinful. This means that they are born with a built-in urge to do bad things and to disobey God.

Original sin is not just this inherited spiritual disease or defect in human nature; it’s also the ‘condemnation’ that goes with that fault.

An explanation for the evils of the world
Christians believe that original sin explains why there is so much wrong in a world created by a perfect God, and why people need to have their souls ‘saved’ by God.

A condition you’re in, not something you do
Original sin is a condition, not something that people do: It’s the normal spiritual and psychological condition of human beings, not their bad thoughts and actions. Even a newborn baby who hasn’t done anything at all is damaged by original sin.


The sin of Adam
In traditional Christian teaching, original sin is the result of Adam and Eve’s disobedience to God when they ate a forbidden fruit in the Garden of Eden.

Effects of original sin
Original sin affects individuals by separating them from God, and bringing dissatisfaction and guilt into their lives.

On a world scale, original sin explains such things as genocide, war, cruelty, exploitation and abuse, and the “presence and universality of sin in human history”.

Read the rest on the BBC.

Comments read comments(11)
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posted January 28, 2009 at 12:00 pm

I think it is important to mention that this is just one understanding of original sin, albeit the dominant one. It is individualistic and focuses on the innate sin of the individual which must be cleansed by Christ.
On the other hand, Process Theology, especially under Suchocki, sees original sin from a community perspective: it is the sin which we are born into. A child born in Gaza or Harlem will see violence as a way of life, and it is not until the community repents of its violent nature or the child experiences a different type of community that it can turn away into a new life.
There’s a difference between an individual being born sinful, and an individual being born into a community of sin. I think that is an important articulation.

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Virgil Vaduva

posted January 28, 2009 at 12:52 pm

Tony I would also add one other aspect to what you wrote above, namely that many Christians (it is difficult to know the extent) believe that original sin also affects the entire physical creation and that with Adam’s original fall, a fundamental physical change occurred in all living organisms, and that this change will be undone once the physical universe is destroyed by a returning Jesus and recreated just as it was in a pre-Fall state. This is a very popular view among young earth creationists and dispensationalist evangelicals; often things like carnivorous animals and physical death among living organisms are attributed to original sin.
As you can see, the discussion on the topic of original sin has some major implications for some folks.

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posted January 28, 2009 at 1:08 pm

Much obliged.

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Brian D.

posted January 28, 2009 at 1:55 pm

Tony, perhaps you might stay in the realm of various church documents and start there in your objections to “original sin”. Not that there is anything wrong with this BBC snippet but it might help others see what specifically your objecting to re: “the tradition Christian understanding”. In other words, show us not your objections to the BBC interpretation, but to one of the formulations that the church has expressed such as, for instance, the 39 Articles or the CCC. Just a thought.

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stephan s

posted January 28, 2009 at 11:22 pm

I wonder how this def. can be debated/worked with/thought through – cause it seems like a in or out thing.
“A condition you’re in, not something you do
Original sin is a condition, not something that people do: It’s the normal spiritual and psychological condition of human beings, not their bad thoughts and actions. Even a newborn baby who hasn’t done anything at all is damaged by original sin.”
As a Bible person, I’m not sure that the bible would have us blame genocide and disease and stuff on original sin, i mean i know thats the out, and i’m not sure i disagree, but now that i think about, i dunno…

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Rev Dave

posted January 29, 2009 at 2:26 am

Not sure what this says about me, but the part of the BBC explanation that I like best – which is to say, the part that sounds most reasonable and true, the part that resonates with me and makes me go, “yes! that’s it!”, is the part labeled “secular”:
“the doctrine is not literally true but it contains real truths about the human condition:
The world is not as good as we want it to be
We are not as good as we want to be
Individual behaviour is greatly influenced by things outside the individual’s control
Many of these are historical things:
events in the individual’s past
events in the past of the individual’s family
customs that their culture has built up through history
These things affect humanity as a group as well as individuals”
is this not the human condition? I say yes. I especially like the first two statements, which paraphrase McLaren: “there is a gap between who I am and who I want to be.” For me, it is the practices of following God in the way of Jesus that narrow that gap.
Also on p2 the “modern interpretation” is particularly good: “Jesus as the “Second Adam” re-established the relationship with God and showed how man can become perfectly human – which puts him in right relationship with both the creator and his creation.”
This reminds me of, well, me. For years I’ve been saying (in one of my more dreadful spasms of alliteration) that Jesus is the one who shows me/us how to live with Creator, creatures and creation.

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posted January 29, 2009 at 7:32 am

Each Sunday at my Lutheran church, we confess that we are “in bondage to sin and cannot free ourselves.”
For me, “original sin” means that we are in “captivity”.
Even when I want to do what is right, I do what is wrong.
Even when I am unaware of it, I am doing, thinking and believing what is wrong.
The above obviously echoes Paul. Yet also see the Gospels where Peter, who is trying his best to follow Jesus, is rebuked, “Get behind, me, Satan. Stop thinking the way humans think.”
Peace, Tim

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Virgil Vaduva

posted January 29, 2009 at 10:06 am

Tim, from that perspective, humanity is still in the typological slavery of sin, bondage in Egypt
The passage you pointed out in Romans 7 seems to be a reference to two “bodies” – I see Paul using his own flesh/physical body to describe the Old Covenant, the Law which brought death and kept him in bondage to sin, the Law which could not deliver him from bondage. In verse 11 he states that sin only came to life “when the commandment of the Law came” and only then he died. In Paul’s eyes, the Law brought death and bondage.
The entire exposition is on that covenantal topic and I do not see him communicating a doctrinal point on original sin. In fact he wraps up everything in Romans 7:25 with thanks to God for allowing him to serve the “law of God” with his mind even though he is still enslaved to the “law of sin.” He is comparing and contrasting the old and new covenants by using the physical and spiritual aspects of each covenant as examples: body of sin vs. body of life.
I have a really difficult time with the idea that we are still in bondage to the law of sin; the ministry of Christ was all about delivering humanity from that bondage.

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Stephen Rose

posted January 29, 2009 at 11:47 am

OS should be shelved.
Much better is Will Campbell’s simple statement that anyone can understand. We’re all bastards (substitute your own epithet) but God loves us anyway. Once you escape the church sphere doctrines lose their punch as I think Jesus sensed.

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posted January 29, 2009 at 6:15 pm

My understanding is that Christ sets us free.
From death… to resurrection
From the demonic… to the Spirit
From sickness… to health
From bastards (a la Campbell)… to beloved children
From self-centered… to loving God and our neighbor
From “bondage to sin”… to righteousness
So- under my own power- I do not love God with my whole heart- I do not love my neighbor as myself. This “bondage” is what I need to be set free from. Therefore, as I see it, “original sin” is obvious and experiential. I see it in my life, my family, my church, my country, and the world. We are “curved in on ourselves”
Put it this way. Every baby I’ve known is cute. And when they grow up they all do crappy, self-centered things.
Count me as a “yes” vote on the doctrine of “original sin.”

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