Skeptics of the Christian faith often say that the Bible is filled with contradictions and errors. Therefore, it cannot be trusted as a source of truth. How can a Christian respond? Here's one way.
What is the best attested biblical truth? It’s confirmed every single day in every person’s life. In his famous book Orthodoxy, Catholic writer G. K. Chesterton said: “Certain new theologians dispute original sin, which is the only part of Christian theology which can really be proved.” I like to say that if you doubt original sin just start reading some of the anonymous comments left on the web.
To defend the doctrine of original sin it will be helpful to define it and then answer several questions concerning its effects. I’ll use quotes from various theologians and then help clarify these statements.
Original Sin Unmasked
Here’s theopedia.com's definition of the doctrine:
The doctrine of original sin holds that every person born into the world is tainted by the Fall such that all of humanity is ethically debilitated, and people are powerless to rehabilitate themselves, unless rescued by God.
1. Where did original sin come from?
“The sinfulness, guilt, and susceptibility to death [was] inherited by all human beings (Christ excepted) from Adam.”1
In the Garden of Eden (Genesis 3), Adam was more than just a private individual. As theologian John Jefferson Davis notes, he was the representative for all humanity that would come after him. So God would treat all humanity based on the actions of Adam either in obedience or disobedience to God’s commands. When Adam sinned by eating the forbidden fruit, divine disfavor fell upon him and all his descendants. Thus, original sin means that all of Adam’s descendants are conceived in sin and have inherited a sinful nature. That nature constitutes a grievously debilitating power permeating the core of each person’s inner being (Psalm 51:5; 58:3; Proverbs 20:9). Jesus Christ is the only person who has not inherited a sin nature.2
However, Christendom is not in complete agreement about the doctrine of original sin. For example, Eastern Orthodoxy affirms that while all people are born with a proclivity to sin (ancestral sin), they reject the idea that people bear Adam’s guilt.3 Nevertheless, theologically conservative Western Christendom (Catholicism and Protestantism) affirms the traditional position of original sin (sin nature and guilt).
2. What is the sign of original sin?
“We seem to be handicapped by inherent self-obsession.”4
According to Anglican theologian Gerald R. McDermott, the ever-present general sign of humankind’s fallen nature (Jeremiah 17:9; Romans 5:10-12) is radical selfishness. Instead of loving God and one’s neighbor—the two great commandments—sinners, even forgiven sinners (Christians), struggle through life with a lingering self-obsession. Sanctification (being transformed into the image of Christ) is a long and challenging process of battling the self-oriented sins of pride, envy, and narcissism. To deny original sin would be to deny inherent selfishness which, as we know, is an ever present struggle for us all.
3. How does original sin disorder human lives?
“We are all insane. That is what original sin means. Sin is insanity. It is preferring finite joy to infinite joy, creatures to the Creator, an unhappy, Godless self to a happy, God-filled self. Only God can save us from this disease. That is what the name ‘Jesus’ means: ‘God saves.'"5
One of St. Augustine’s analogies for thinking about the sinful human condition is that sin is like a hereditary disease that has been passed down from one generation to the next. This illness has caused human beings to fatefully and irrationally settle for finite, temporal goods over infinite, eternal goods (Augustine called this malady disordered affections or loves). So the noetic effects of the fall (how sin negatively impacts the human mind and intellect) can be viewed analogously as a type of mental illness. Yet, as Catholic philosopher Peter Kreeft critically notes above, God has provided a cure for our illness through the life, death, and resurrection of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.
4. What does original sin explain about the universal human condition?
"Original sin is the only rational solution of the undeniable fact of the deep, universal and early manifested sinfulness of men in all ages, of every class, and in every part of the world."6
According to Presbyterian theologian Charles Hodge, the biblical doctrine of original sin carries great explanatory power concerning the universal human condition of moral brokenness. All people, at all times, everywhere, and in every class show signs of possessing a fallen nature with its extreme narcissistic tendencies. To answer the critic, if the Bible accurately describes the moral state of the human condition, this is powerful support for Scripture being a true revelation from God.
The Bible’s anthropology reveals that all human beings are captive to the debilitating force of original sin. But Scripture also proclaims that forgiveness and freedom from sin’s power lies in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. In his incarnation, Jesus Christ came to set all of us captives free.
Reflections: Your Turn
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John Jefferson Davis, Handbook of Basic Bible Texts: Every Key Passage for the Study of Doctrine and Theology (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1984), 56.
Affirming the Immaculate Conception, Roman Catholicism teaches that the Virgin Mary was conceived without the taint of original sin: https://www.newadvent.org/cathen/07674d.htm.
Fr. John S. Romanides, “Original Sin According to St. Paul,” Orthodox Christian Information Center, accessed December 3, 2020, http://orthodoxinfo.com/inquirers/frjr_sin.aspx.
Gerald R. McDermott, The Great Theologians: A Brief Guide (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2010), 60.
Peter Kreeft, Prayer for Beginners (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2000), 36.
Charles Hodge, Hodge’s Systematic Theology, Volume II— Anthropology Revised (Devoted Publishing: Ingersoll, Ontario, Canada, 2019), 175, https://bit.ly/363SfSS.