The term “Original Sin”, though it has a rich history in the church, is not one that I grew up with, but the concept was quite familiar to me, being couched in phrases like “the total depravity of Man.” I was taught that you’re not a sinner because you sin, you sin because you are a sinner.
Born a sinner. Adam and Eve sinned, so I’m a sinner. I never had a chance. That just never seemed fair.
Turns out that not everyone teaches the exact same thing about Original Sin. Some teach a version like what I just described, what I call Inherited Guilt. Others teach that the sin of Adam gives us a sin nature, a proclivity to sin, but that we bear no guilt for Adam’s sin, which was his alone. And still others treat the effect of the Original Sin as a slight defect in each person that has been passed down from the original pair.
What each interpretation shares is an emphasis on the effect of the sin of Adam which has been passed down. In each case the sin is original in that it is first. Original Sin refers to the first sin, the one that introduced Sin into a previously sinless, perfect world. In essence, it matters little what that sin was—instead of eating of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, the sin could have been cussing, shoplifting, or jay-walking and the effect would have been the same. It was the fact that the world—and humans—were perfect, and that first sin spoiled it all. Ruined the perfect creation and the perfect creatures for all time.
I see it very differently. I think it matters quite a bit what that first sin was—is. My reading of the text is that the first sin was Original not because it was first, and not because it corrupted our spiritual DNA such that we pass some fallen gene to our progeny. No, my reading says that the first sin is Original in that it is archetypal i.e. that the story of Adam and Eve in the Garden in Genesis 3 is a pattern of behavior that we all follow, a pattern that represents a downward spiral of the human condition that has effects for the entire Creation. That pattern is the main problem that God has to address in subsequent chapters and books of the Bible. In other words, we aren’t guilty because of what Adam and Eve did, we are guilty because we do what they did. The word adam in Genesis 2 isn’t even a proper noun like Fred or Bill or George. adam is Hebrew for Man, both in the gender-specific meaning of male, and in the general sense of humanity. Translating it as a name takes us out of the picture. A better translation would just simply be Man, and that includes all of us. I am Adam. I am Eve. Their story is my story. It is our story. It is the story of Everyone.
The pattern works like this. It is not insignificant that the first sin consists of eating of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, for that is where the downward spiral necessarily begins. It all begins with wanting to decide for ourselves what is right and what is wrong. Genesis 3 has been described as a coming of age story, and that’s not a bad way of looking at it. If you have ever raised teenagers—or are young enough to remember your own teenaged years—you know that there comes a time very early on when they are convinced that they are ready for the adult world, and they try to take on adult privileges and actions that they are not ready to take on. They cannot see the ramifications of the behaviors they want to take on. “Stop treating me like I’m a child,” they yell, and while they are right, they aren’t small children any more, we know they aren’t adults yet either. They are perhaps ready for some independence, but not the kind nor the level they are seeking. Part of that is wanting to make decisions for themselves about what is right and what is wrong without external—read “parental”—control. They will listen to their friends, they will listen to the entertainment culture, they will listen to their emerging adolescent urges—these are the serpents that entice them—but they don’t want to listen to the people who really have their best interests at heart.
So they sneak around and start doing stuff while we’re not looking that may be fine for an adult in the proper context to do but inappropriate for a not-quite-adult: sexual activity and drinking seem to be the main expression of this desire for independence.
There sometimes comes a point where a parent is forced to say, “OK, you want all of the privileges of adulthood but without the responsibilities, but a true adult shoulders both. Get out, get a job, find a place to live, arrange for your own transportation, pay your bills, etc. Everything you need is already provided for you as long as you understand that you aren’t ready quite yet for adulthood. But if you insist against our wishes to become live as an adult even though you aren’t quite that, then you must live with all the consequences of that decision. Because that is what an adult does.”
Adam and Eve—The Man and The Woman, Everyone—decided they were ready for something they weren’t really ready for—to decide what is right and what is wrong. Having made that decision, God made them live with the rest—they were made to leave the nest and make it out in the rest of the world where nothing is given to you, where you have to scratch for a little bit of bread by the sweat of your brow, where you have to submit to those bigger and stronger than you, where life is hard, rarely fair, and death is always lurking around the corner.
But this thing They did is not the Original Sin, for the story doesn’t end there, it continues through the rest of Genesis 1-11. Rather than seeing their sin in the Garden as merely the first, I would argue that it’s significance is that it is the beginning of the downward spiral that affects the entire created order. To further understand the Original Sin that afflicts the world we have to keep reading beyond Genesis 2. There is a sense in which it’s more proper to speak of Original Sins, a series of sins in a downward regression that results in what Paul calls “the present evil age.” If we don’t understand this downward regression, we won’t understand the nature of the Kingdom of God, which means we will fundamentally misunderstand the nature of the Gospel message.
Hang with me. There’s more to come.