A Quick Defense Of Original Sin

For those interested, here’s a link to a previous post on Judaism and original sin.

In a recent class my professor made the claim that the Christian doctrine of original sin originated with Augustine and was a fundamental misstep in the history of theology, citing the work of Elaine Pagels. Of course this is false. My prof just needs a quick refresher from Romans 5 courtesy of Doug Moo:

Paul’s initial statement of the relationship between Adam’s sin and death (v. 12) is one of the most controversial verses in Romans. And yet, taken at face value, Paul actually does not assert anything new here. The verse falls into a chiastic arrangement, with ‘sin’ and ‘death’ as the key elements:

A. Sin entered the world through one man

B. Death came through sin

B’. Death came to all people

A’. Because all people sinned

There is some debate about whether ‘death’ is spiritual or physical. Probably, it is both. God warned Adam that he would ‘die’ if he ate fruit from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil (Gn 2:17; cf. 3:3). This death involved both physical mortality and the spiritual penalty of separation from God – so vividly captured in the image of Adam and Eve hiding from God after their sin.

In claiming that Adam brought death into the world and that death spread to all people because of their sin, Paul is rehearsing standard biblical and Jewish teaching. But difficulties begin when he probes a bit deeper and asks why, or how, all people sinned. Clearly, at the minimum, Adam’s sin must have introduced a fatal bent into human nature itself, predisposing human beings to turn from rather toward God (see Rom 1:18-32). But is Paul teaching more than that? A comparison between verse 12 and verses 18-19 seems to suggest that he is, because inĀ  those verses Paul attributes the condemnation and sin of all people to the single sin of Adam. In other words, in verses 12-21, Paul attributes the death of all people to two different causes:

All die because all sinned (v. 12)

All die because Adam sinned (vv. 18,19)

How do we bring these two together? The best solution is to think that Paul views Adam as a representative figure whose action affects all who ‘belong’ to him. As the representative of all human beings, Adam’s sin is at the same time the sin of all human beings. When he sinned, we all sinned – and died. If this way of thinking seems strange to us, we must remember that the Bible teaches a closer relationship among humans than we are accustomed to in the modern West. Corporate solidarity is the term that scholars use to describe this perspective. It can explain, for instance, how the sin of Achan, when he stole some of the booty from battle for himself, can be called also the sin of Israel (Jos 7:11 and how it could lead to judgment on Israel as a whole Jos 7:12). So in Romans 5, Paul can remind us that Adam’s sin brought death to all people, who belong to him through physical birth, while Christ’s righteous act brought life to all who belong to him.

Paul now finally states the full comparison between Adam and Christ, and he does it twice so that we do not miss the point. Verses 18 and 19 follow the “just as … so also” structure that is central to this passage. Adam’s action is the “just as”: his “one trespass,” his one act of disobedience, made “the many” into sinners and brought condemnation to “all men.”