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White Horse Inn: Conversational Theology

Original Sin: A Tool for Decoding Human Nature


Michael McClymond

Release date:

November 8, 2021

As a boy, I once encountered a book that had hidden messages on its pages. Using ordinary eyesight, the printed words remained invisible. But once I looked through the “decoder” spectacles, suddenly I could read the printed letters that were otherwise invisible. The Christian doctrine of original sin is like that. This teaching allows one to see aspects of human nature that might otherwise remain invisible. The doctrine itself stretches in two different directions—toward the distant realm of human origins, and toward the everyday world that we all presently inhabit. Reinhold Niebuhr once called the doctrine of original sin the “most empirical” of Christian beliefs, noting that the front page of every major newspaper in the world, daily confirms this doctrine. The notion of an inborn or innate inclination toward evil fits with general experience. Where, indeed, can one find a human community that does not exhibit the downward gravitational pull of selfishness, promise-breaking, deception, pride, greed, violence, and the whole sorry catalogue of human wrongdoing?  

In the early fifth century A.D., a theological debate pitted the North African theologian, Augustine, against the British monk, Pelagius—the first significant British author in world literature—and in so doing brought to light opposing perspectives that have, in one form or another, continued with us down to the present time. The “Augustinian” view of original sin holds that human beings, though created good by God, have nonetheless fallen into sin, have been enslaved by sin (Jn 8:34), and so manifest an inclination toward evildoing that remains deeply rooted in corrupted human nature (Mk 7:21-23). This view implies that a very young child does not have to be taught to be selfish, or to screech out “Mine!” when another child picks up a toy that he or she has been ignoring up to that moment. Instead, the child’s parents have to curb an inherent self-centeredness that begins to manifest itself as soon as the child begins to make moral decisions. In Augustine’s view, therefore, human effort alone is insufficient to overcome our innate inclination toward evil. God’s inwardly transforming grace is thus necessary for our salvation.  

In contrast to this, the “Pelagian” view of original sin—in effect a denial of the doctrine—is that each human being comes into the world without any wrongful inclination. Each child begins life in a state that is just as innocent as that of Adam and Eve before they ate from the forbidden tree. To the obvious question, as to why evildoing is so pervasive, the Pelagian answer is that people are influenced by bad examples all around them. Every infant starts out with an uncorrupted nature, argues the Pelagian, but then, on seeing evil behavior, begins to copy what they see others doing. This Pelagian view has commended itself to many modern thinkers, since it seems eminently fair and just to them that each person begins his or her life—like Adam—in a condition of total purity and innocence. If one accepts the Pelagian perspective, then one is not faced with the pesky question so often posed to those who hold the other view: Why would God allow those born into the world to begin their lives already inclined toward evil?The problem though is that Pelagianism does not tally with what we observe. If Pelagianism were true, then in principle—if one were to surround babies at birth by an ideal environment—one might raise morally perfect children, who would become morally perfect adults, constituting themselves as a morally perfect society. This has been attempted many times and yet has never succeeded. Every effort to start again from scratch in order to create a perfect society has ended in disappointment, if not in disgrace.  

If we put on our “decoder” glasses to view the world through the lens of original sin, what do we find? This doctrine tells us—in the words of the great French mathematician and philosopher, Blaise Pascal, that human beings display “grandeur” and yet also “misery.” Simply put, human beings are good-things-gone-bad. To the skeptics of his own day—who questioned the biblical story of the Fall of Adam and Eve, and the subsequent sinful corruption of the entire human race—Pascal commented in his Pensées (1670) that: 

The transmission of sin seems to us not only impossible, it even seems very unjust; for what could be more contrary to the rules of…justice…Nothing, to be sure, is more of a shock than such a doctrine and yet, without this mystery, which is the most incomprehensible of all, we should be incomprehensible to ourselves. The tangled knot of our condition acquired its twists and turns in that abyss; so that man is more inconceivable without the mystery than the mystery is to the man.

The “twists and turns” of the human condition, and the contradictions of history, become more understandable when we realize that human beings do not enter into this world inherently and entirely good (as the Pelagians taught), nor so corrupt that their natures can never be rectified (as some ancient gnostics taught), but as creatures originally made good and holy by God, who have fallen into sin, but who can be rescued from sin by divine grace.  

Since the eighteenth-century Enlightenment, a Pelagian mindset has led many secular thinkers and politicians to endorse a mistaken idea of ultimate human perfectibility. As T. S. Eliot wrote: “They constantly try to escape / From the darkness outside and within / By dreaming of systems so perfect that no one will need to be good.” In the Pelagian vision, a perfect system of politics will create perfect people. Yet in the French and Russian Revolutions, and in other modern utopian movements, one sees clearly how frequently the dream turned into a nightmare. All around the world, rivers of blood were shed to obliterate “the enemies of the Revolution.” Current estimates are that one hundred million people died during the last century as a direct result of Communist policies and persecutions. It is unwise to invest one’s ultimate trust in any earthly political movement. Because freedom is fragile and folks are fickle, a kingdom of perfect goodness will never be fully established in this world. History shows us regress as well as progress. Therefore, political leaders who announce to their followers some form of “a millennial reign of righteousness” are making a false promise. Those who hold to the Augustinian position do not deny that Christian believers can, should, and, indeed, must strive to alleviate human misery and to pursue justice. Yet they resist the notion that a perfect human society can or will be established on earth prior to Christ’s second coming, due to the continuing presence of sin, even in the lives of believers.

Despite these modern utopian tendencies, some leading post-Enlightenment thinkers have essentially agreed with Christian teaching on original sin—if not on the reality of the Genesis story of the Fall, then at least on the reality of an innately sinful disposition. Immanuel Kant in his Religion Within the Bounds of Reason Alone (1793) pondered what he called the “radical evil” in human beings and said that “out of the crooked timber of humanity, no straight thing was ever made.” The atheist Sigmund Freud, in Civilization and Its Discontents (1930), affirmed a baffling but unmistakable tendency toward self-destruction in humanity. The non-Christian psychologist Erich Fromm built on Freud’s work in The Anatomy of Human Destructiveness (1973). Even secular thinkers admitted to the substance of the doctrine of original sin.

What neither Kant, nor Freud, nor Fromm had to offer though was a vision of God’s redeeming love and the transforming power of God’s indwelling grace. For just this reason, the secular authors on human wrongdoing are rather bleak. While at first it might seem discouraging to speak of original sin, the Christian position is ultimately hopeful, since it combines what one might call a “pessimism of sin” with an “optimism of grace.” However deep the depravity of human nature may extend, the love of God and the grace of God go deeper still, as the Apostle Paul made clear when he compared the negative effects of Adam’s disobedience with the far greater effects of Christ’s obedience: 

For if, because of one man’s trespass, death reigned through that one man, how much more will those who receive the abundance of grace and the free gift of righteousness reign in life through the one man Jesus Christ. Therefore, as one trespass led to condemnation for all men, so one act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all men. For as by the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners, so by the one man’s obedience the many will be made righteous (Rom. 5:17-19). 

By thus setting the gospel of Jesus Christ alongside of Adam’s incomprehensible failure, the Apostle Paul would lead the believer to exclaim, not only “what a terrible transgression!”, but “what a magnificent salvation and Savior!” 

Michael J. McClymond is professor of Modern Christianity at St. Louis University, and is the author of The Devil’s Redemption: A New History & Interpretation of Christian Universalism.