One of the reasons I think historic Christianity is true is that it possesses a comprehensive worldview (represented in the events of creation, fall, redemption, and consummation) that has broad explanatory power and scope. It fits well with what we know about the world (both its physical and abstract features), human beings (their greatness and wretchedness), and the extraordinary person and actions of Jesus Christ (life, death, and resurrection).1
In regard to the nature of human beings, the Bible does a good job of explaining the broken human condition. For example, Presbyterian theologian Charles Hodge states:
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.2
The term “original sin” is not used in the Bible and is attributed to St. Augustine (354–430).3 A sober look at human beings reveals that the doctrine of original sin has been confirmed throughout history and all around us on a daily basis. Yet, one aspect of the doctrine is disputed within Christendom. Here’s the definition of the doctrine:
The sinfulness, guilt, and susceptibility to death [was] inherited by all human beings (Christ excepted) from Adam.4
The part about human beings inheriting the guilt from Adam’s sin rubs many people the wrong way, including many Christians. To introduce the issue, let’s look at a thoughtful objection that I received about my article concerning original sin and its element of inherited guilt (see “Responding to Objections to Original Sin”) on my blog. The objection is slightly paraphrased and my response to it follows
Objection from an Evangelical Christian
Isn’t Ezekiel 18:20 in conflict with the doctrine of original sin?
The one who sins is the one who will die. The child will not share the guilt of the parent, nor will the parent share the guilt of the child. The righteousness of the righteous will be credited to them, and the wickedness of the wicked will be charged against them.
The only persons who could be condemned for Adam’s sin are Adam himself, and Jesus Christ who died on his behalf. While there’s no doubt that we have all inherited a sinful nature from Adam, I do not believe that we have inherited his guilt. I believe it would be unjust to punish you for my sin, or me for Adam’s sin. I am not morally culpable for the actions of others, but for my own, and that is plenty. Ezekiel 18 seems like a strong argument for this view. God said that the one who sins is the one that shall die and that the son will not die for his father’s sin.
I am guilty, to be sure—but not because someone else sinned, or because I have a sinful nature. Adam was guilty because he disobeyed God, and I am guilty for the same reason. All have sinned, so all deserve judgment and punishment.
What am I missing?
Thanks for reading my article and considering my case for original sin.
As you know, the doctrine of original sin is controversial and at least one entire branch of Christendom (Eastern Orthodoxy) rejects it—at least the part that all humans bear Adam’s guilt.5 Nevertheless, I think a careful case can be made for original sin (which includes our death, our moral corruption, and our guilt in Adam) from Scripture. That we suffer death, moral corruption, and guilt as a result of Adam’s sin is explicitly taught in Romans 5:12–21.
The author of Romans, the apostle Paul, makes the following remarks:6
“Sin entered the world through one man, and death through sin” (v. 12, emphasis mine).
“Many died by the trespass of the one man” (v. 15, emphasis mine).
“One trespass resulted in condemnation [guilt] for all people” (v. 18, emphasis mine).
“Through the disobedience of the one man the many were made sinners [moral corruption]” (v. 19, emphasis mine)
I also explain in my article that salvation is grounded on our federal relationship to Adam. If it’s wrong for God to blame us for what Adam did, then it’s also wrong for God to blame and punish Christ for what we did. In Scripture, Christ is called the second Adam who repairs the break in fellowship caused by the first Adam. In other words, in his atonement Jesus became collectively responsible for humankind’s sinful actions (2 Corinthians 5:21).
Your recognition of the fact that we have inherited a sin nature from Adam shows our collective relationship to him.
Concerning the Ezekiel passage, the context is not original sin but rather the typical excuse that humans use for their sins. As theologian R. C. Sproul notes about the context of Ezekiel 18:
They try to blame someone else for their own misdeeds. That human activity has gone on since the Fall, but that is about all this passage has to do with the Fall. In the Fall Eve blamed the serpent, and Adam blamed both God and Eve for his own sin.7
Finally, if one insists that the Ezekiel passage is a universal principle or law that states that no one can justly suffer for the sins of another, then it directly violates the gospel message that Jesus Christ suffered on the cross for the sins of human beings. And most Christians affirm that Jesus suffered in the place of others.
I hope my comments are helpful to you. Peace be with you, my friend.
The doctrine of original sin is, in some respects, a perplexing teaching. But it has a biblical basis and it is confirmed universally by human behavior.
Reflections: Your Turn
How does the Bible’s explanation of human nature compare with other worldviews?
• Does Original Sin Explain the Human Condition?
• Responding to Objections to Original Sin
• Responding to More Objections to Original Sin
Check out more from Reasons to Believe @Reasons.org
For more about the explanatory power and scope of historic Christianity, see Kenneth Richard Samples, A World of Difference: Putting Christian Truth-Claims to the Worldview Test (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2007), 26–27, 34, 270–271.
Charles Hodge, Hodge’s Systematic Theology, Volume II—Anthropology Revised (Devoted Publishing: Ingersoll, Ontario, Canada, 2019), 175, bit.ly/363SfSS.
See Wikipedia, s.v., “Original Sin,” last edited August 23, 2023.
John Jefferson Davis, Handbook of Basic Bible Texts: Every Key Passage for the Study of Doctrine and Theology (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1984), 56.
Fr. John S. Romanides, “Original Sin According to St. Paul,” Orthodox Christian Information Center, accessed August 24, 2023, orthodoxinfo.com/inquirers/frjr_sin.aspx.
See R. C. Sproul, Adam’s Fall and Mine, The Highway, accessed August 24, 2023.
Sproul, Adam’s Fall and Mine.