Original sin is a Christian doctrine describing the first human act of disobedience, as well as the ongoing fallen state of humanity bound in enduring, irremediable alienation from God. Christian tradition regards original sin as the general lack of holiness into which human beings are born, distinct from any actual sins that a person may commit later.
Used with the definite article ("the original sin"), the term refers to the first sin, committed when Adam and Eve succumbed to the serpent's temptation, commonly known as "the Fall." This first sin is traditionally understood to be the cause of "original sin." While Christians derive the idea of original sin in part from the Old Testament, the doctrine is rejected in Jewish theology.
The New Testament basis for the concept of original sin is found particularly in the writings of Saint Paul, who held that Christ came as a "new Adam" to redeem humankind from sin. However, it was not firmly established in Christian tradition until the Pelagian controversy of the fifth century. The Western Christian tradition concerning original sin, both Catholic and Protestant, is largely based on writings by Augustine of Hippo. Eastern Orthodox tradition does not go as far as Augustine did in terms of the damage that the first sin did to human nature.
Augustine's formulation of original sin was accepted by Protestant reformers such as Martin Luther and John Calvin and thus passed into most mainline Protestant churches. However, the doctrine has been reinterpreted or denied by various modern Christian and contemporary denominations.
Islam accepts the fact that the first human couple disobeyed God in paradise, but, like Judaism, denies the doctrine of original sin. Adam is seen as the first prophet, having repented of his sin in paradise and thereafter living a sinless life of submission to Allah.
The account in Genesis 2-3 implies that Adam and Eve initially lived in a state of intimate communion with God. The narrative reads that God "made all kinds of trees grow out of the ground—trees that were pleasing to the eye and good for food. In the middle of the garden were the tree of life and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil" (Gen. 2:9). God forbade Adam to eat the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, warning him that he would die if he did (Gen. 2:16-17). The serpent persuaded Eve to eat from the forbidden fruit and she also "gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate it" (Gen. 3:6).
After eating the fruit, Adam and Eve became aware of their nakedness (Gen. 3:7). God bestowed a curse on each of the participants: the serpent must eat dust and there will be enmity between its offspring and those of the woman (Gen. 3:14-15). The woman will experience pain in giving birth and will be dominated by her husband (Gen. 3:16). The man, rather than living in a paradise of abundant fruit trees, must struggle for his sustenance (Gen. 3:17-19). In addition, Adam and Eve were expelled from the Garden of Eden, so that they may not eat of the tree of life and live forever (Gen. 3:22-24).
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History and traditions
In Christian tradition, the doctrine of original sin is often traced to the Apostle Paul's description of human sinfulness, especially in the Epistle to the Romans, as a universal condition inherited from Adam.
The idea of original sin came into sharper focus during the Pelagian controversy of the fifth century, with Augustine of Hippo taking the lead in promoting the idea that humans, because of original sin, were incapable of improving themselves spiritually without God's intervening grace. For Pelagius, grace consisted mainly in the gifts free will, moral law, and the Gospel. He insisted, as the Jews did, that Adam's sin did not affect human nature, and taught that humans can overcome sin through their own moral efforts by following Jesus' example.
Augustine countered by affirming the powerful reality of original sin, arguing that the entire human race partakes of Adam's sin, which is passed on generation to generation through the act of sexual intercourse. Because of the inherited corruption of Adam' sin, human free will is damaged and enslaved to concupiscence, making God's special, intervening grace absolutely necessary for salvation.
During the controversy, one pope, Innocent I, decided that Pelagius' teaching was acceptable. However, the group of churchmen of which Augustine was the primary spokesman ultimately prevailed, and Pelgianism was condemned as heresy. The Augustinian view, while never officially adopted by an ecumenical council, came to predominate in the Latin (Roman Catholic) church. In the East, Pelagianism was rejected, but Augustine, who wrote in Latin rather than Greek, was not as influential as he was in the West.
By his sin Adam, as the first man, lost the original holiness and justice he had received from God, not only for himself but for all human beings. Adam and Eve transmitted to their descendants human nature wounded by their own first sin and hence deprived of original holiness and justice; this deprivation is called "original sin." As a result of original sin, human nature is weakened in its powers, subject to ignorance, suffering and the domination of death, and inclined to sin (this inclination is called "concupiscence").
The Catholic Church further holds that even infant children are guilty of the original sin. Since baptism is "for the remission of sins," and because infants have traditionally been baptized, the only sin of which they need to be cleansed is original sin.
The Catholic doctrine of the Immaculate Conception of Mary holds that Mary was conceived free from original sin. Moreover, through Mary, Jesus, too, was conceived both without original sin and even without sexual intercourse, which, according to Augustine, was the means by which the original sin is transmitted from generation to generation.
Eastern Orthodoxy, Oriental Orthodoxy and Eastern Catholicism, which together make up Eastern Christianity, acknowledge that Adam and Eve's sin introduced ancestral sin into the human race and affected the subsequent spiritual environment for mankind. However, these groups did not accept Augustine of Hippo's notion of original sin and the hereditary guilt attached to it. Thus, the act of Adam is not the responsibility of all humanity, even though the consequences of that act changed the spiritual and physical reality of this present age of the cosmos. Nevertheless, Orthodoxy does admit that Adam's descendants were punished with death and the curses given by God in the Garden of Eden as a result of the first sin.
The Eastern view may thus be said to be somewhat less pessimistic than the Augustinian doctrine. Saint Gregory Palamas taught that man's image is "tarnished and disfigured" as a consequence of Adam's disobedience, but stopped short of the "total depravity" of the Augustinian view. Whereas Augustine stressed that free will cannot influence salvation, which is determined only by God's grace, the Eastern view allows for the possibility of that humans can be divinized through a combination of God's grace and human efforts.
Although Martin Luther held the view that scripture alone should be the basis of Christian doctrine, the second article in Lutheranism's Augsburg Confession, much like the Catholic tradition, accepted the basic Augustinian formula of original sin:
Since the fall of Adam all men who are born according to the course of nature are conceived and born in sin. That is, all men are full of evil lust and inclinations from their mothers’ wombs and are unable by nature to have true fear of God and true faith in God. Moreover, this inborn sickness and hereditary sin is truly sin and condemns to the eternal wrath of God all those who are not born again through Baptism and the Holy Spirit.
Luther and Calvin agreed that humans inherit Adamic guilt and are in a state of sin from the moment of conception. Man is thus completely depraved, and only God's grace, through faith in Christ, can save him. Later, the Methodist Church, tended to see a greater role for human free will in the process of salvation and spiritual growth, but nevertheless upheld the idea that: "Original sin standeth not in the [mere] following of Adam (as the Pelagians do vainly talk), but it is the corruption of the nature of every man, that naturally is engendered of the offspring of Adam, whereby man is very far gone from original righteousness…."
The Radical Reformation, including Anabaptists and Baptists, adopted a less strict notion of original sin in rejecting the tradition of infant baptism. By insisting on the principle of believer's baptism, the radical reformers tended to imply that God would not doom young children to Hell. Thus, humans were not necessarily so depraved as to merit damnation from birth, a very different view from Augustine's.
Several Restoration Movement churches of the Second Great Awakening not only rejected infant baptism but overtly denied the notion of original sin, believing that men and women are personally responsible only for the sins that they themselves commit. However, many Restoration churches and their members do believe that Adam's sin resulted in a depraved human nature—that is, in a tendency to sin—even though individuals are not guilty of Adam's sin.
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (also known as the LDS Church and the "Mormons") admits that the actions of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden brought about spiritual and physical death. However, the LDS church rejects the concept of original sin, insisting that people will be punished only for their own individual sins and not for any transgression of Adam or Eve. Neither do Mormons believe that children are conceived in sin or come into the world with any kind of fallen nature. Rather, Christ already atoned for any "original guilt," not only for Christians but for all mankind.
The Unification Church of the Reverend Sun Myung Moon teaches that original sin is a reality. Reverend Moon's Divine Principle holds that original sin resulted from a premature sexual union between Adam and Eve, symbolized by their eating of the forbidden fruit. Unificationists believe that original sin is forgiven through the church's marriage blessing ceremony, resulting in children born free from the original sin.
The Unity Church holds that original sin is a false doctrine, emphasizing instead those scriptures which uphold the fundamental goodness of humankind. For example, in Genesis 1, God created everything in God's image and called it "good," and Jesus says humans are the "light of the world" capable of perfection (Matthew 5).
Some churches have no definite teaching regarding the question of original sin, resulting in most members not holding the doctrine. Among them are the Unitarians and the Quakers.
Historically, Judaism has taught that the first sin did not alter human nature. Rather, the tendency to evil, known as the yetzer harah was present in Adam and Eve from the beginning, otherwise they could not have disobeyed God in the first place. God gives human beings laws and commandments to help them overcome the tendency to evil. Each person is thus entirely responsible for his or her own sin rather than having inherited the original sin from our ancestors.
The idea that God is "a jealous God, punishing the children for the sin of the fathers to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me" (Exodus 20:5), while implying a concept of inherited sin, did not constitute a doctrine of original sin. Moreover, it was balanced by Deuterononic legal tradition (Deut. 24:16) and the teaching of Ezekiel that "The son will not share the guilt of the father, nor will the father share the guilt of the son" (Ezek. 18:20). Although some of the Psalms and other Jewish writings were interpreted by Christian writers as implying the doctrine of original sin, rabbinical tradition rejected this notion, affirming that the yetzer harah was part of the original human nature and that God had given humans adequate guidance to overcome the tendency to evil.
Islam teaches that all humans are innocent by birth and they become sinful only when they consciously commit a sin. It regards the doctrine of original sin not as the teaching of Jesus, who was a prophet and the Messiah, but of misguided Christians who misunderstood Jesus' intent and falsely made him into the divine Son of God who died to atone for universal sins of humankind.
All links retrieved January 4, 2019.
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