Does Original Sin have any place in modern Christianity?

‘Do you think God sends babies to hell?’ This was a question that was presented to me during a time with members of my congregation. Besides other theological points, such as what is hell? Or God’s involvement in salvation, the answer to the question will have its answer based on specific understandings of the doctrine of original sin.

Original sin as a doctrine often has its origins attributed, as with so many doctrines, to Augustine. In his book On Nature and Grace (De Natura et Gratia), he writes:

‘Man's nature, indeed, was created at first faultless and without any sin; but that nature of man in which everyone is born from Adam, now wants the Physician, because it is not sound. All good qualities, no doubt, which it still possesses in its make, life, senses, intellect, it has of the Most High God, its Creator and Maker. But the flaw, which darkens and weakens all those natural goods, so that it has need of illumination and healing, it has not contracted from its blameless Creator— but from that original sin, which it committed by free will. Accordingly, criminal nature has its part in most righteous punishment. For, if we are now newly created in Christ, we were, for all that, children of wrath, even as others, but God, who is rich in mercy, for His great love wherewith He loved us, even when we were dead in sins, has quickened us together with Christ, by whose grace we were saved.’[1]

We can see from this quote that Augustine views that humankind is corrupted by sin from birth due to the very fact that we are human, sin is hereditary by birth. We have free will and therefore, will, because of our flawed and sinful nature, always incline to sin and go against the will of God. Augustine’s understanding of original sin comes from reading Genesis 3, often headed in our English Bibles as ‘The Fall of Man’. In this story we read how a serpent, often understood to be Satan or the tempter of humankind, tempts the women, Eve, to eat fruit from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, which God has specifically forbidden. The serpent persuades Eve to eat the fruit and disobey God’s command. Eve then gives the fruit to Adam, the man, and both have now disobeyed God and committed the first sin. God then throws Adam and Eve out of the garden and tells them they shall eventually die and return to the dust of the earth. In classical Theology this is the point at which death and sickness enter the world. The doctrine of original sin states that from this selfish act of disobedience by Adam and Eve, all the descendants of them, i.e. all of humanity, are inclined to sin and disobey God. This understanding is heavily weighted in a literal reading of the Genesis creation narrative. The question then begs what if the narrative is metaphorical, does this undermine any understanding that humanity is inherently sinful? Not necessarily, one could persuasively argue that it is God alone who is perfect, anything outside of God’s self is not perfect, for it is not God. Therefore humanity, although created in God’s image, is outside of God and other to God and therefore has the capacity to sin for it is not perfect, like God is. Colin Gunton also argues that there is no need for a literal understanding of the Genesis creation narrative to believe in the inherent sinfulness of humanity:

‘We do not need to believe in a historical Adam, because the biblical story is itself too subtle to require such a naïve and literalist meaning…Whether there was a primal catastrophe from which our characteristically fallen nature descends, it remains the case that human beings choose to go backwards to what the Bible sometimes calls death rather than forwards to the perfection that is the purpose of their creation.’ [2]

Other arguments that would flaw the understanding of a historical Adam and the event of the first sin would be the marriage of Adam and Eve’s children. According to a literal reading after the fall and exit from the Garden there are currently only 4 people on the earth; Adam, Eve, Cain and Abel. Cain kills Abel and is forced to leave, he settles in the Land of Nod, where we read:

‘Then Cain went away from the presence of the Lord, and settled in the land of Nod, east of Eden. Cain knew his wife, and she conceived and bore Enoch.’ Gen 2:16-17

The glaring question of this text is, where did Cain’s wife come from, if there are only 4 people on the planet? Did God create her? If so, she would have been created apart from Adam and not come from Adam, would this mean that she is then not contaminated by the sin of Adam, as she is separate from him entirely? It seems to me that one, to hold to a view of original sin, has to hold that humanity, because it is not God, has the capacity to sin innate within us, and this is not because of one single historical act but this narrative is metaphorical of the human condition.

When talking of the human condition, Augustine argues it, as already written, ‘needs a physician, for all is not sound.’[3] This is to say that because of original sin humanity is twisted away from God and is inclined to sin rather than follow God. Some have taken the idea of original sin further than Augustine and have taught not only are people born into sin and a sinful world, but that people are unable in any way to be good, for even good acts committed, without knowing God, are inherently selfish. This is known as total depravity.

Total depravity suggests that not only are people inclined to sin people can do nothing else, without the grace of God. People are so sinful as a result of the fall, the image of God, the Imago Dei, within humanity is so blurred and broken that there is no good in humanity, by its own strength. This idea was promoted by the reformer John Calvin. Total depravity is intrinsically linked to Calvin’s other theologies, such as the predestination of the elect. That is:

‘By predestination we mean the eternal decree of God, by which he determined with himself whatever he wished to happen with regard to every man. All are not created on equal terms, but some are preordained to eternal life, others to eternal damnation’[4]

It is this understanding that some are preordained to a life and eternity without God that leads Calvin to the understanding that people are totally deprived without the grace of God and there is no goodness with humanity because otherwise those who could, would choose to follow God. Gunton, rebutting this argument writes:

‘Total depravity…is clearly false: empirically false, because we see instances of goodness in all kinds of people, and theologically false, because it denies divine providence: his providential overruling of the full consequences of the fall and consequent presence of all kinds of goodness…’[5]

John MacQuarrie also argues against totally depravity:

‘…we must not ascribe to a doctrine of total depravity…Man does not cease to be human, but he loses the power to fulfil the potentialities of a fully human existence, and this, as we have seen, sends him in a quest of the grace…the fact that the quest for grace is aroused in man is itself a powerful testimony against any doctrine of total depravity.[6]

Karl Barth, perhaps the greatest theologian of the 20th century, looks at original sin christologically. Rather than starting with the fall and sin entering into the world, Barth starts with Christ and the Cross and then looks backwards towards Adam. John Webster in his book Barth’s Moral theology, sums up this understanding:

‘Barth is generally only interested in sin post Christum; questions of its ancestry are entirely subservient to the main Christological handling of the theme…this conviction means that ‘only when we know Jesus Christ de we really know that man is the man of sin, and what sin is and what it means for man’. Materially it means that Barth refuses to treat sin as other than a reality that has already been accused, condemned and abolished by Jesus Christ: its existence is that of a defeated reality…The consequent asymmetry between Adam and Christ means that the logic of Barth’s position is such that he is unlikely to be profoundly preoccupied with origins.’[7]

Barth held that a historical Adam was not necessary for an understanding of human sinfulness because sin is a human reality. In Church Dogmatics, Barth writes:

‘It is the name Adam the transgressor which God gives to world-history as a whole, the name Adam sums up this history as the history of mankind which God has given up, given up to its pride on account of its pride’[8]

Barth escapes the pressures of biblical literalism to deal simply with the fact that sin is a reality for humanity which in Christ, who was before Adam, has been abolished. Barth disagreed with the understanding of the hereditary nature of original sin. Barth’s understanding of sin is that sin is wilfully committed against God, whether in thought, word or deed, not that humanity is sinful purely because it is alive:

‘Who is Adam? The great unknown who is the first parent of the race?...But he was so as the beginner, and therefore as primus inter pares. This does not mean the he has bequeathed it to us as his heirs so that we have to be as he was. He has not poisoned us or passed on a disease…we are so freely and on our own responsibility. Although the guilt of Adam is like ours…That is Adam as seen and understood in the biblical tradition, the man who sinned at once…the one who all his successors do in fact resemble (in the fact that they all sin at once as well).[9]

Barth realises that some of his arguments could indeed been seen to be pelagian in nature, those which Augustine was fighting against in his development of the doctrine of original sin. Pelagius believed that God’s grace was given and we all had the choice to do good or to sin. He believed that we all could all lead a perfect Christian life if we were but to try harder. God has commanded us to ‘be perfect as your Father in heaven is perfect’ Matt 5:48 and, Pelagius argues, God would not command something that was not possible. Chadwick on this view:

‘ To tell people that their will was corroded to the point of total incapacity seemed to Pelagius fatally enervating…Certainly without the help of grace the sinner could not do all that he ought, and his duty is the imitation of Christ’s example. But grace is assisting not all-controlling. Oarsman can get their craft to their destination without wind of sail, though sail makes it easier’[10]

Aware of this connection Barth develops two universal understandings of sin. First he writes on human solidarity in sin and secondly he writes of the ‘Lordless Powers’ that come about as part of human alienation from God. Barth wants to affirm that there is a reality of sin in which we as humanity live and are tempted by but our own judgement comes not from hereditary sin by virtue of birth but by succumbing to these powers of temptation and sinning ourselves. Webster sums up Barth’s anthropology:

‘Barth’s anthropology betrays a deep seated instinct to hold together agency, responsibility and guilt, and to refuse all forms of fatalism in which sin is viewed as anything other than what we both will and do.’[11]

So what of modern Christianity? What of the question posed to me, ‘Does God send babies to hell?’ One only need look around at the world to see much evil, but also much good. One sees the despicable acts of Daesh in Syria and Iraq, the shame of refugee’s coming from that area drowning in the Mediterranean because no safe passage was given. One reads daily of the murdering of human beings by one another and of the exhortation of human beings by one another. One reads of the illegal trade of human beings and the selling of women and children into the sex-trade as well as the 27 Million people thought to be in modern day slavery[12]. However one also reads of a 92 year old veteran giving his spare room to a Syrian refugee because “The scale of the problem struck me”[13], one see’s food and coffee bought for homeless people out of compassion, one knows the kindness of friends who would not call themselves Christians or claim to know the grace of God.

In conclusion, the concept of total depravity as taught by Calvin and taken further by followers since, I believe has no place in modern Christianity, if it ever had a place. But the understanding of sin, as taught by Barth, can teach us an insurmountable about the state of the human heart. We are inclined to sinful and selfish acts as humanity, but that is because we are other than God not because we are born into a state of sin of which there is no escape. Without a thorough understanding of atonement in Christ, one fails to miss the understanding of sin. As Barth writes:

‘It is the Word of God (That is Christ) which fuses all men into unity with this man as primus inter pares. It is the Word of God which condemns at one his disobedience and therefore our disobedience. It is the Word of God which forbids us to dream or any golden age in the past or any real progress within Adamic mankind and history or any future state of historical perfection, or indeed to put our hope in anything other than the atonement which has taken place in Jesus Christ.’[14]

[1] Augustine, On Nature and Grace .III, as viewed in Boniface Ramsey, Augustine, selected writings on grace and Pelagianism, .321

[2] Gunton, C. The Christian Faith: An introduction to Christian Doctrine, .61-62

[3] Augustine, On Nature and Grace .III, as viewed in Boniface Ramsey, Augustine, selected writings on grace and Pelagianism, .321

[4] Calvin, Institutes, Book III, 21. V. As viewed on: 09/09/15

[5] Gunton, C. The Christian Faith: An introduction to Christian Doctrine, .62

[6] MacQuarrie, Principles of Christian Theology, .266

[7] Webster, Barth’s Moral Theology, .67

[8] Barth, Church Dogmatics IV.1, .508

[9] Barth, Church Dogmatics IV.1, 509-510

[10] Chadwick, H. Augustine, 2001, .108.

[11] Webster, Barth’s Moral Theology, .67

[12] A21, Human Trafficking, as viewed on: 10/09/15

[13] Withnall,, as viewed on 10/09/15

[14] Barth, Church Dogmatics IV.1, .511

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