The meaning of Original Sin

When it comes to Adam and his wrongdoings there are three main views of God’s position:

  1. God planned and indeed decreed that Adam should sin.
  2. God knew Adam would sin before he created him, but created him anyway.
  3. God’s hopes for humanity were dashed in a single, if allegorical act.

I’m firmly in Camp 3, believing that God hoped we’d do better but we failed him. In fact, as I’m not a biblicist, I believe that Genesis 1-3 is an allegorical tale designed to promote the God of Israel above the pagan gods and to explain why we so desperately need rescuing from the state we’re in.

When Adam ate of the mysterious fruit of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil (nothing to do with apples) he incurred the wrath of God. He and his new partner were expelled from the Garden and cast out into the hostile lands surrounding it, to eke out an existence from the now cursed ground, from amongst the thorns and thistles.

Catholics say we carry the stain of that Original Sin and Augustine in the fifth century claimed that we are jointly guilty of that first sin, and unless we turn to God’s Son, Jesus Christ in faith and obedience we are doomed to Hell fire. We are all born sinful and so deserve to die and suffer. However, the Eastern Orthodox Church defines Original Sin as Ancestral Sin, and says we don’t share in Adam’s guilt, but suffer the effects of it, and this is the view to which I hold.

Because of my beliefs I find myself trawling through the story to find its key metaphor in order to more easily explain what Original Sin is, and how we may use that knowledge to talk to others, perhaps (and hopefully) persuding them that God doesn’t make people bad then punish them for it – a view held, but denied, by Calvinists. For me, the key lies in the expulsion of the first couple, described by a fellow commentator as “being cast out into the wilderness”, stolen from Ezekiel 29.5ff.

To cast somebody out from the perfection of that first garden and into the wild, denying them access to the Tree of Life (and thus denying them eternal life) is a pretty definitive act of rejection. The holiness of living under God’s protection and all the benefits that closeness to God can bring were instantly lost.

Genesis 3:23 So the Lord God banished him from the Garden of Eden to work the ground from which he had been taken. 24 After he drove the man out, he placed on the east side of the Garden of Eden cherubim and a flaming sword flashing back and forth to guard the way to the tree of life.

This is the cause of our being separated from God. This is the effect of that Original Sin. As Adam’s progeny we are born out of fellowship, alone in a harsh world without God’s special protection and blessing. We are children in the wilderness, some searching for a way home, others resigned to their condition, and some completely ignorant of it. Our restoration can only come through our relationship with Jesus Christ, dying with him and rising to new life in harmony with the Father. The undivided Church held that the means of this rebirth was through baptism, where we symbolically die and rise again, cleansed by grace, symbolised by water.

At birth we carry the effects of our disfellowship. We have not yet sinned, but we lack that closeness to God. Worse, we have a propensity to actual sin, something Adam displayed as resident in the human psyche. For believing adults, baptism brings membership into the family of God. For infants, baptism does exactly the same thing, bringing them to God and into the family of the Church, to be later ratified by their personal faith. Actual, personal sin is only remitted by repentance, but with the promise of forgiveness for those who truly repent.

In recent years the Roman Catholic Church has moved broadly in line with the Orthodox, and now insists that we don’t carry Adam’s guilt, merely the effects of his disfellowship as head of the human race. The charge that the Church teaches that babies are “born evil” can at last be consigned to the bin of historical quirkery; The effects of Adam’s Original Sin separate us from God, but thankfully he has provided the solution in the form of his Son.

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