The concept of Original Sin is central to Christianity. Here goes my understanding of it: God created humanity for his pleasure, in spite of the fact that he was complete in himself and experienced no lack. He gave humans free will, so that if they chose to love him (this being their ultimate purpose) it would be a love willingly given, not merely a robotic, irresistible imperative. At the outset, however, the first humans he created devastatingly chose to exercise their free will to disobey God, thereby separating themselves from him forever. Even worse, the consequences of their disobedience were passed down irrevocably to all their descendants, so that the nature of all future human beings was corrupted.
This doctrine was first fully described by Augustine, in rather poetic language.
There was no Netflix in those days, and it shows (did you get my pun?):
“Banished (from Paradise) after his sin, Adam bound his offspring also with the penalty of death and damnation, that offspring which by sinning he had corrupted in himself, as in a root; so that whatever progeny was born (through carnal concupiscence, by which a fitting retribution for his disobedience was bestowed upon him) from himself and his spouse –who was the cause of his sin and the companion of his damnation –would drag through the ages the burden of Original Sin, by which it would itself be dragged through manifold errors and sorrows, down to that final and never-ending torment with the rebel angels … So the matter stood; the damned lump of humanity was lying prostrate, no, was wallowing in evil, it was falling headlong from one wickedness to another; and joined to the faction of the angels who had sinned, it was paying the most righteous penalty of its impious treason.”
One of my first acts as a believer was to weep – genuine heart-wrenching sobs – when I understood the import of this act of treason against God. (My sixteen year old self felt everything deeply. There were no half-measures, as my long-suffering parents can attest.) Oh Adam, how could you have been so easily deceived by Eve? Why did you not hold your ground and simply refuse to eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil? In that one act, you condemned humankind and indeed all of creation to groan and struggle for the rest of time under the burden of the curse you had placed on us.
I also wondered how Adam was bearing up, since presumably in the afterlife he would have received some inkling of the chaos that he and Eve had unwittingly wreaked on the world. Can you imagine knowing that you were the cause of mankind’s sinful nature and all the unspeakable sorrow that ensued? I could not help but feel (deeply, of course) sorry for them, my original, misguided ancestors.
This idea of original sin lies at the very heart of Christianity – without it, salvation (and therefore, Christ) would not be necessary.
Let’s pause and unpack what this means for our theology. This doctrine would have us believe that God created men and women, with the full knowledge that they would essentially be cursed from birth. But he made a way to rescue them through his plan of salvation, wherein he would descend to earth and show them (and indeed provide) the way back to relationship and peace with himself. However, all those who chose not to accept or believe in this rescuing act of salvation would continue to be eternally separated (damned) from God.
What does this mean for our understanding of the character of God? Since he is omniscient, he knew that this is how his act of creation would turn out before he embarked on it. He knew that many, if not most, of the billions of people he created would be forever separated from him. This punishment has been characterised differently through the ages by Christians – from eternal burning in the flames of hell, to eternal lack of all the good that emanates from the character of God (love, joy, peace, etc) and everything in between. Either way, this is not a state that we would wish on anyone, hence the evangelical (proselytizing) nature of Christianity. He also knew the immense suffering that humanity would endure, as they struggled to simply retain their foothold in an often harsh and unpredictable world, whose harshness and unpredictability was itself caused by that one act of disobedience.
But presumably it was all worth it, because he wanted the company of a creation that included humans made in his image but destined for damnation?
For years I have struggled to reconcile this doctrine of original sin with the idea that God is love – pure, unconditional and passionate love for all of mankind. It simply doesn’t make sense to me anymore.