Original Sin: Are We Born Bad? (1)
Updated: Jul 7
Are we born with a selfish nature? Do we carry guilt from the original sin of Adam and Eve? Or are we born innocent as babes? Our perceptions of ourselves impact our faith, salvation, and behaviour. What we believe as faith communities, impacts our views of baptism, communion, and other ceremonies. Our interpretation of the creation story impacts whether we primarily see God as cursing humans or blessing humans and whether we as humans feel cursed or blessed. These are just a few of the questions that have caused separate denominations within the Christian family of believers.
Over the centuries, Christians have struggled with balancing faith with actions. In earlier blogs, I examined biblical vs human teaching on who is a Christian and reviewed a history of Christian thinking in The Evangelicals: The Struggle to Shape America.
This is Part 1 of a 4 part series on Original Sin: how we define it and how that impacts our views of baptism and salvation. Other posts cover Part 2: Original Sin: What is the Meaning of Baptism? Part 3: Original Sin: What Is Its Impact on Salvation? and Part 4: Constructing Your Faith Interactive Activity.
Born with Sinful Human Nature and Free Will
For the first few hundred years of Christianity, the church believed that the original disobedience of Adam and Eve brought physical death to the human lifespan as well as a moral weakness to human nature. This is based on Genesis 3:24 (humans must leave the Garden of Eden), Psalm 51:5 (born in guilt and sin), and Romans 5:12-19 (sin and death came to the world by one human).
In AD 107, St Ignatius, bishop of Antioch, wrote that when Jesus was born of Mary by the Holy Spirit, Jesus purified the birth waters. Human birth did not make Jesus impure; Jesus made human birth pure. Humans do not inherit the sin or guilt of Adam or our ancestors.
In the 3rd century, the theologian Origen opposed the idea that God elected only some for salvation, entirely based on God's grace, because it encouraged people to believe in fatalism or destiny. Origen taught that all people would eventually choose God and be saved. Origen was a diligent scholar, but after his death was named a heretic.
In the 4th century, there was a growing belief in Manichaeism, that humans share God's good nature, that God reigns in the kingdom of light and salvation comes from knowledge. It hypothesized an opposing evil power that eternally rules the darkness and is not the result of human sin.
Augustine, Bishop of Hippo, had practiced Manichaeism for about ten years before joining the Catholic church and arguing against Manichaeism, affirming that evil entered the world due to human's original sin at the Fall.
Augustine taught that God elected some individuals to salvation and God's justice left others to be condemned. God's election was based on God's mercy. Augustine believed in double predestination, that God chooses some for salvation and some for condemnation. However, Christians who believed they were elected to salvation regardless of their behaviour were behaving immorally.
Pelagianism spread in reaction to the poor behaviour of Christians who believed they were the Elect. Pelagianism taught that humans are responsible for their own actions and will be rewarded or punished accordingly (Matthew 25:45-46, Romans 2:6, Galatians 6:7-9).
Pelagians also believed that humans did not inherit Adam’s sin and guilt (Ezekiel 18:20, Deuteronomy 24:16, 2 Kings 14:6, Jeremiah 31:29-30), humans are made as essentially good (Genesis 1:27-31) and that by God’s divine grace, humans have the free will to do good (Galatians 6:9-10, Matthew 5:16, James 2:14-17), an obligation to do good (Romans 2:6-11, Micah 6:8), and can work towards perfection (Matthew 5:48). Some believed that salvation could be earned by human behaviour.
Augustine opposed Pelagianism, affirming humans cannot become righteous by their own efforts. Augustine taught that original sin meant human nature is essentially immoral, and the disobedience of Adam and Eve meant all humans are born with a sinful human nature and inherit the sin and guilt of Adam (1 Cor 15:22). Augustine wrote of the need for reason in interpreting the Scriptures, that some passages are to be understood as a metaphor or allegory. The church condemned Pelagianism as a heresy at the Council of Carthage in 418.
Slaves to Sin; Unable to choose to Follow God
In the 16th century, Reformers Martin Luther and John Calvin taught that God unconditionally elects certain individuals for salvation and that humans do not have the ability to choose to follow God unless the Holy Spirit first touches them. While Calvin believed in double predestination, Luther believed God predestined some to salvation but did not predestine anyone to condemnation. John Calvin used the term Total Depravity to say that all humans are born carrying both the guilt for Adam’s sin and the inclination to sin (Ps. 51:5, Ps. 58:3). Calvin's theology is presented in common confessions of the Reformed church traditions, acknowledging human depravity. The Belgic and Heidelberg Catechisms outline Reformed theology and leaders are obligated to teach according to their church confessions. Until the 18th century, Calvin honoured the authority of the Bible while acknowledging room for inaccuracies, human error, or doctrines developed from biblical interpretation. The idea of biblical literalism is fairly recent; in the 18th century, some Protestants began to view the Bible as the inerrant and literal word of God, to be understood literally unless it is clear the author intended the writing as an allegory or poetry.
Sinful Nature; Able to Choose to Follow God
The Catholic church's stance is that human depravity is not total; humans are made in God’s image and therefore carry free will; original sin did not end human’s free will. God loves all people and elects all people to be saved (1 Timothy 2:4, Philippians 2:10), but God's offer of salvation is conditional on individuals accepting it. The Catholic church teaches that God foresees who will accept God's offer of salvation.
Many Christians believe that humans may exercise their free will to resist God's grace or to follow God (John 14:15, 1 Samuel 15:22, James 4:7, Matthew 7:21, Luke 11:28). The Lord can save us but our evil, lies, injustice and immorality, separate us from God (Isaiah 59:1-4). For example, Jesus wants to save Jerusalem, but he is unable to save them because of their human will to resist God (Luke 13:34). The human ability to resist or disobey God is shown in Bible stories of humans who turn away from God. For example, Abraham’s nephew Lot sins, Haman plots against the Jews, King Saul persecutes David, and King David sins against Bathsheba and her husband Uriah, and against his daughter Tamar. God does not interfere when humans use their free will to do evil.
In the 17th century, Arminius taught that humans are not accountable for Adam's sin, only for their own sin. He taught that God does not predetermine the elect but God calls or elects all people, and God foresees who will respond to God's call and have faith. Arminians taught humans were not totally depraved, we have free will and our salvation is conditional on human will to respond to God. God's grace works together with human will to accomplish salvation. Jesus atoned for the sin of all people, but humans could resist God's grace, and believers who are unfaithful may put their salvation at risk. At the Synod of Dort in 1619, the Reformed theologians rejected Arminian teachings.
However, many Christians today hold to some Arminian teachings. John Wesley, co-founder of Methodism, also taught that humans are not guilty of Adam’s sin because Christ removed original guilt from every human, and that it is up to individuals to choose to follow God. Christian traditions including Methodist or Wesleyan, Pentecostal, and some Baptist denominations hold some of the Arminian beliefs. Anabaptists, Amish, and Mennonites also share some Arminian beliefs, that Jesus atoned for the sins of all people, that humans are not totally depraved, and that salvation is conditional on humans accepting God's offer. While we inherit a sinful human nature or inclination to selfishness, we do not inherit Adam’s guilt (based on Jeremiah 31 and Ezekiel 18),
In the 17th century, the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers) grew, stating the belief that humans might see God in everyone and live as a priesthood of all believers. Quakers believe in free will and freedom of conscience, freedom of speech, association, and assembly to worship because God is in everyone. Quakers saw sin as a universal, in the human will, moral failure, and broken relationships with people and with God. By believing in God, we can be free of sin.
American preacher Billy Graham led evangelical revivals in the late 1900s with a core belief that a person’s free will decision to repent and have faith in Jesus results in the Holy Spirit giving them new life. The Holy Spirit calls all people and all have a responsibility to respond; a human response comes first, and then they receive God's blessing. This is the opposite of Reformed theology which says the Holy Spirit calls some people; God's blessing comes first, to enable the elect to make a faith decision. Today, many Christians disagree with the statement that Christ died only for the elect.
What's Wrong with Predestination?
While early Reformers taught God predestined who would be saved, some Christians now think God predestines every aspect of life. In some cases, the belief in predestination comforts people that God is in control. However, in many cases, the belief in predestination has either caused or worsened suffering. A loving God does not predestine people to be abused or murdered. God allows humans the free will to be abusers and murderers while calling us away from doing evil. Believing God predestines and controls all things can lead to questioning God when bad things happen. A belief in predestination can separate a person from God's love. For example, telling a person who is grieving or going through trials any of the following statements will only hurt them:
It was destiny; it was an act of providence
Everything happens for a reason; God is still on the throne
Your loved one is in a better place; It was his time, it's for the best, a blessing
God's ways are not our ways; God knows what He is doing
Remember to give thanks in all things; It could have been worse
God is refining and strengthening you through trials
These statements assume God predestined the pain the person is enduring, deny the effect of human wrongdoing, and do not focus on God being with us through times of trial. We do not need a belief in predestination to believe that God interacts in our lives. People may experience God's presence and think are 'where they should be', 'following God's plan' or 'meet by divine appointment'. These experiences do not rely on the concept of predestination.
Where do we stand Today?
Christianity's traditional teachings that humans are born sinful and need God's grace for salvation are being challenged. Only about a quarter of Americans now believe that God predestines who will be saved. Most think we have a choice about what we believe.
Historically, Christians have disputed whether we have inherited only a sinful nature, or also the guilt for the sin of Adam and Eve's disobedience. Recent surveys show that three-quarters of American adults reject the concept of original sin and that only fifty-two percent of evangelical Christians believe in the doctrine of original sin. While the Bible does not discuss original sin, it hints at an inborn sinful nature and calls humans to repent and choose to follow God. The doctrine of original sin is based on passages about sin coming into the world (Romans 5:12-18, 1 Cor. 15:22, Psalm 51:5).
Check the phrases in the box and consider which ones represent your views.
Two-thirds of Americans believe most people are good by nature. If humans are not born with a sinful nature, we cannot blame our immoral actions on fate or predestination. If humans are not inclined to be good or evil, it is our responsibility to choose our behaviours as we mature. Half of all adults think that being generally good and helping others can earn a place in Heaven. Today, many see human nature as essentially good but fallible. Bible stories describe people who make wrong and right choices. For some, the focus has moved from Adam's original sin and disobedience to God's original blessing and God's choice to love us and open a path to allow us to be in a relationship with God.
About a quarter of Americans believe even small sins lead to eternal condemnation, and that God does not count a person righteous because of their good work but because of their faith. About 60% of Americans believe God's gift of salvation is only found in the choice to trust Jesus Christ as their Savior. However, some of those who believe in salvation through Jesus also believe salvation requires good behaviour, that is that true faith must be shown in works.
There is no consensus, even among Christians, that humans are born bad, carry guilt for Adam's sin, or have a sinful nature. There does seem to be a consensus that humans need to turn away from doing wrong and choose to obey God. That goal to follow God can unify Christians from many different traditions. Check the list in the box to clarify what you think about original sin.
Elaine Ricker Kelly Author is empowering women with Christian fiction about women in the Bible and early church and Christian blogs about women in leadership, church history and doctrine. Her books include:
Forgotten Followers from Broken to Bold
The Sword A Fun Way to Engage in Healthy Debate on What the Bible Says About a Woman's Role