Sin-Just How Original Is It?

February 10, 2008




© Rev. Dr. Gary Blaine

University Congregational Church

February 10, 2008

Reading: Genesis 3: 1-13 (NIV)

Now the serpent was more crafty than any of the wild animals the Lord God had made. He said to the woman, “Did God really say, ‘You must not eat from any tree in the garden’?”

The woman said to the serpent, “We may eat fruit from the trees in the garden but God did say, ‘You must not eat fruit from the tree that is in the middle of the garden, and you must not touch it or you will die.’”

“You will not surely die,” the serpent said to the woman. “For God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.”

When the woman saw that the fruit of the tree was good for food and pleasing to the eye, and also desirable for gaining wisdom, she took some and ate it. She also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate it. Then the eyes of both of them were opened, and they realized they were naked; so they sewed fig leaves together and made coverings for themselves.

Then the man and his wife heard the sound of the Lord God as he was walking in the garden in the cool of the day, and they hid from the Lord God among the trees of the garden. But the Lord God called to the man, “Where are you?”

He answered, “I heard you in the garden and I was afraid because I was naked; so I hid.”

And he said, “Who told you that you were naked? Have you eaten from the tree that I commanded you not to eat from?”

The man said, “The woman you put here with me – she gave me some fruit from the tree, and I ate it.”

Then the Lord God said to the woman, “What is this you have done?”

The woman said, “The serpent deceived me, and I ate.”

In 1561 Heinrich Bullinger, a protégé of the Swiss reformer Ulrich Zwingli, penned the Second Helvetic Confession. He wrote that humankind, at the instigation of the serpent, abandoned goodness and righteousness and became subject to sin, death, and all calamities. Our first parents propagated this corruption in us. We are immersed in perversion, and “averse to all good, are inclined to all evil.”

“Full of all wickedness, distrust, contempt and hatred of God, we are unable to do or even to think anything good of ourselves. Moreover, even as we grow older, so by wicked thoughts, words and deeds committed against God’s law, we bring forth corrupt fruit worthy of an evil tree. For this reason by our own deserts, being subject to the wrath of God, we are liable to just punishment…”

This punishment, Bullinger concludes is death, not only of the body, but punishment due for all our sins and corruption.

This doctrine of original sin is the dominant one in our culture, both in Roman Catholic and Protestant traditions. It is a notion of human beings that pervades our culture, regardless of the religious tradition that you grew up with. The idea of original sin is not confined to the church, synagogue, mosque or temple. The doctrine of original sin has shaped our anthropology, our view of the human condition, and even our political and social policies.

I will argue this morning that original sin is not original to the Old Testament, despite the fact that this story of Genesis is cited as the source of the doctrine throughout most of the history of the Christian church. I do not believe that original sin is the source of death or the death of the soul. I do not believe that original sin results in God’s damnation and punishment of the human race. Indeed, I believe that more damage has been done by this false doctrine than just about any other theological position that I can think of.

A careful reading of the Old Testament does not support the doctrine of original sin. Only Job mentions the fact that, like Adam, he too covered his transgressions. Nowhere else is it mentioned in the Hebrew Bible; nor does the Old Testament use the term “fall of man.” As Old Testament scholar, Walter Brueggemann, points out, the Old Testament assumes that human beings are meant to obey the will of God and are certainly capable of doing so.[1]

Likewise, the story of Adam, Eve, and the serpent does not explain how evil entered into the world. Nor does the story suggest that death is the punishment for our sins. Death is consistently seen throughout Hebrew theology as the natural condition of human beings. Nowhere is there any suggestion that Adam and Eve would have been immune from the natural progression of old age and death. Fruits are good for your body and snakes keep unwanted pests away from garden and barn. They have nothing to do with the problem of evil.

Under the influence of St. Paul and St. Augustine these stories and myths have created the doctrines of original sin and the fall of man. The Second Helvetic Confession is a restatement of men who were trying to forge and defend the teachings of the church. Such formulas held sway throughout the Reformation and deep into the Christian tradition. After all, they had institutions to create and sustain. The result is a disastrous corruption of human value and dignity. Our vision of God is warped by the heat and flame of fiery anger. It is not God who has damned the human race because of Adam’s defiance. It is theology that has damned human beings. It is the church that has damned human beings. The church’s theology has ruptured our understanding of human beings and has sown the seeds of judgment and damnation of one another. I believe that it has also corrupted our vision of God in the process.

I am reminded of the young priest just out of seminary who was assigned to a local parish. Like many young people he was full of wonderful, innovative ideas. For the most part they were well received by the congregation.

One Sunday his bishop came to visit and see this young priest in action. Following the Sunday mass the two men had lunch together. “Father John,” began the bishop, “your idea of a drive through confessional is wonderful. It makes it so convenient for your parishioners. And, Father John, it is really a good idea to have the confessional open 24 hours a day. That is especially considerate of those who work second and third shifts. But, my young brother, I do have one concern. That flashing neon sign that reads ‘Toot and Tell or Go to Hell,’ has got to go.”

The doctrine of original sin that has been passed down to us has two major flaws; flaws that even St. Augustine struggled with. The first problem is the question of human free will. The second problem is the question of human nature and its proclivity to rebel. In the first case, if God created us with moral free will, God must have also created us with the knowledge that we could choose to follow our own will and not God’s. That leads us to the second problem of whether it is human nature, and thus God given, to rebel. If that is the case God really has little reason to lament human rebellion. This becomes a greater conundrum if one believes that the total depravity of human nature leaves us completely impotent to effect moral choices. If human nature is totally corrupted by original sin the argument for free will is abolished. If you cannot choose the good you cannot be said to be a free moral agent.

This is the problem that I have with the doctrine of original sin as I have inherited it. I sometimes think the doctrine of original sin is worse than the sin. You see, people want to go to extremes. On the right hand some people want to paint humanity as totally corrupt. On the left hand some people want to excuse evil as symptomatic of ignorance or as mental pathology. If we could just educate people they would grow up to be ethical persons. Or, if we could just get them into psychoanalysis they would become socially responsible citizens. Otherwise, they cannot help themselves.

I think that the story of Adam and Eve is, of course, a story about human nature. It is not history or the accounting of our biological sires. On the one hand Genesis, chapter two, tells us that we are clearly made in the image of God. We have the God shared capacity to think, to create, and to make moral choices. We also have the capacity to be selfish, deceitful, and destructive to self and others. Not one half of the equation tells the whole story. We are beauty and we are beast. And like Adam and Eve there are days when we place our selves above every other commitment and promise that we have made. There are days when we blame others for, excuse, and rationalize the choices that we have made.

And let me tell you something else. Even those literalists who believe that the account of Adam and Eve is historical fact; that by their fall we are all corrupt; that we only deserve the fires of hell; and that the only way to salvation is faith in Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior – even those literalists cannot escape their nature. No one who is truly aware of their inward souls can deny the moral tug of war between their conscience and libido. As St. Paul wrote to the Romans, “For I have the desire to do what is good but I cannot carry it out.”

We are like the man who was supposed to have an early morning interview for a job promotion. Unfortunately he oversleeps. He rushes into the shower for a quick rinse off. Throwing on his clothes and grabbing a banana he rushes out to his car and races to the office. When he finally gets there he can’t find a parking space. He drives around the lot several times to no avail. In desperation he prays to God. “God, if you find me a parking space I will go to church every Sunday morning, made a $10,000 financial pledge, and I will never lie again.”

No sooner were the words out of his mouth than a parking space became available. “Never mind, God,” he continues praying, “I found one.”

No matter what doctrine you believe in, every one of us will go to our graves caught in the tension of pride and sacrifice, failure and hope, fear and courage, despair and faith.

I also think that people use the doctrine of original sin as a smoke screen for the real sins that are committed in our society today. Perhaps the problem of original sin is not the genitive stories that created it, but a refusal to recognize the sins that we commit and society perpetuates every day. In other words, I think the real question is not one of origin but perpetuation. Maybe we love to speculate about who was the first cause of sin rather than take responsibility for the issues of the day.

Adam made the same mistake when confronted by God after the forbidden fruit was eaten. The real question for Adam was not “did you eat the fruit?” or “who beguiled you?” The most important moral challenge for him at that moment was, “Are you telling the truth?” “Will you claim responsibility for your choices now?” “Will you do the one thing that will re-establish trust with me now? Will you own your culpability in our broken relationship?”

Do you realize that the whole Bible would be completely different if Adam had said, “Yes, God, I am responsible for violating my pledge to you. I have no one to blame but myself. What must I do to gain your trust and confidence again?”

But the story cannot go down that path because we cannot always be forthright. There will be times and circumstances when we make evil choices and hurt other people and cannot for the life of us confront our own moral failure. And just as surely there will be times when we will stand up for righteousness, put the well-being of others above our own, and tell the truth.

I believe that is the creature that God created in the first place. I believe that is the creature God takes such an interest in, wondering what we will do next. And I believe that is the creature that God loves. When all is said and done, God wants to be in relationship with each and every one of us and is praying that we will take that free will of ours and chose to be in relationship with God. Genesis offers us a beautiful image of the reconciling God toward the end of chapter three.

After God has fussed and fumed, kicked the dirt and cursed everything in sight, what does God do? God takes a long look at those sill fig leaves. They simply do not work! He sizes up Adam and realizes that he is cold. Leaves itch and carry chiggers. So God sits down and sews Adam and Eve clothes made out of animal skin. The angry father is now the patient mother making clothes for the children. (Now I do not mean that in a sexist way – assigning to women a task like sewing. But in the ancient culture there were defined roles for women and men, and in this story God assumes a motherly and nurturing role.) And as God sews God thinks, “The man and woman has now become like one of us, knowing good from evil. (3:21) History is going to be interesting to say the least.” So God waits with bated breath to see what we will weave of time and resource.

R. S. Thomas wrote of this patient God in his poem, “The Other.”

There are nights that are so still

that I can hear the small owl calling

far off and a fox barking

miles away. It is then that I lie

in the lean hours awake listening

to the swell born somewhere in the Atlantic

rising and falling, rising and falling

wave on wave on the long shore

by the village, that is without light

and companionless. And the thought comes

of that other being who is awake, too

letting our prayers break on him,

not like this for a few hours,

but for days, years, eternity.[2]

God has long accepted the reality of human sin. God prays and works ceaselessly for the time when human beings will fully accept the reality of God’s love.


[1] Walter Brueggemann, Genesis (Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1992), p. 41.

[2] R. S. Thomas, “The Other,” Poems (London: Phoenix Press, 2002), p. 115