Why does evil (or Evil) take root so easily inside human heads? Why IS there a rotten apple spoiling the whole bunch? Why is there suffering to begin with? Christianity has often traced it all back to “original sin”. If only Eve had listened…But what if Eve is a literary invention? Doesn’t the entire cause-and-effect construct of original sin come crashing down in the absence of an actual historical event? If it never actually happened, how could we be “guilty” of it? How can a story be the logic behind seeing and treating all humanity as “sinful”?
There are other ways to look at this. Buddhists, for instance, see the human condition very differently. They don’t see sin, they see suffering; a suffering that is caused by desire and ignorance, yes, but in Buddhism the goal is to transcend suffering by achieving Nirvana. The Christian view of the human condition seeks to overcome sin and its effects.
But, is there something essential inside the idea of “original sin”? What if we strip out all the storytelling flourishes and try to get at what sparked the idea that one story — Jesus dying for all our sins — was the antidote to another story — Eve “inventing” sin in the first place? What is Eve really guilty of? Are we humans the cause of our own misery? One could definitely make that case. And mightn’t a little tough love (the church’s remedy) be what humanity really needs?
NOTE & SOURCES
Original sin is a concept that many have many have embraced, many more have rejected and most people have struggled with at one time or another. But as it has been developed in Christian theology there is some really good news: the evil and suffering brought about by sin always ends in self-destruction. We know that it exists, we know it can take hold for a while and hurt many people on the way down, but it is parasitic, it has no real existence in itself. So, in the end, it destroy itself. (Think of the way that Voldemort (did I just say his name out loud?) dies in the Harry Potter movies; turns into ash blown away by the wind. Sin is a falling away from creation, it is nothingness – it ends in self-destruction.
Original sin is a more ancient way of coming to grips with the same kind of life experiences we call “systemic racism” or “white privilege”. The concept of original sin can help us to think through these terms more deeply and critically. How, for example, will systemic racism and white privilege ever end? Many people, ideologies and organizations are committing to the end of these expressions of “original sin” today. But how will that come about? How will this generation be able to do what so many other people’s and cultures and societies have been unable to do? Original sin, like it or not, has been through centuries of critical thought and has much to offer us.
What I find most fascinating about our post-modern culture’s approach to the story of Adam and Eve is that it is not seen as a way to understand and deal with the deep disappointment and suffering that is our lot in human life, but is actually seen as a source of the guilt, sin and evil that we struggle with today. The idea is that if we could just throw off the Bible and Christianity we would be able to make human life work.
Imagine there’s no countries
It isn’t hard to do
Nothing to kill or die for
And no religion, too
Imagine all the people
Living life in peace
You, you may say I’m a dreamer
But I’m not the only one
I hope someday you will join us
And the world will be as one
-John Lennon, Imagine
And “The Book of Eve” by Canadian author Constance Beresford-Howe, tells the story of an aging woman who leaves her husband and makes a fresh start in life. The implication is that Even’s fall was guiltless and liberating.
Two things concern me about this approach that is so common in our modern Western world. First it makes us blind to an ancient source which can help us answer critical questions in every human heart. This approach seems to say that humanity’s perennial problems are from outside of us and if that can just be removed we will, all of the sudden, be fulfilled and peaceful people. I see this as naive. History does not support such an idea. And it dismisses centuries of Christian and Buddhist approaches (not to mention many other religions) which own up to the internal issue and offer ways to move forward.
Not only this, but it is also dangerous. It urges people to see “the other” as the problem, which then creates “walls of hostility” which further allow us to justify doing evil toward the other because they are the source of the problem. You cannot get to a robust “love of neighbor” in this way. The closest you can get is “Love those who are on your side”. because it reinforces the problem
- Areas of Disagreement:
- Don’t agree that Paul invented all of this. This would seem to imply that Jesus, without Paul, would simply be a minor upgrade on what came before, that in fact Jesus wasn’t very radical. The radical nature of Christianity only surfaced with Paul. But the gospels, none of which was written by Paul but based on sources far closer to Jesus than Paul, show Jesus himself to be quite radical. Jesus, in passages like the sermon on the mount, was already redefining Jewish law.
- Sin isn’t as evil as your explanation implies.
- Other cultures used the concept of Telos and included virtues.
- In Christian theology sin is always directly connected to grace. The greater the sin the more amazing the grace and vice-versa.
Areas of Agreement
- There are different approaches to the question of why the world isn’t like it should be.
- The Christian concept of original sin is important for some key issues our culture is working through today.
- Paul had a huge impact on Christianity
Another scholarly perspective on Paul: (starter video and then read his books for more detail):
Starter video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cUWtgVan3MM
Book with more detail: https://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B00GP5FO1Y/ref=dbs_a_def_rwt_bibl_vppi_i4
“Sin” as understood by Christians is not “sin” the way Jews think of it — or thought of it when they “invented” the idea.
From Burton Mack’s “Who Wrote The New Testament: The Making Of The Christian Myth”, Harper & Collins, 1995 —
“The word “sin” occurs frequently in early Jewish texts in reference to behavior that did not accord with Torah, a concept encompassing ethical instruction, rules for ritual observance, and scriptural legislation for the sacrificial system of the second temple society. Torah referred to the Jewish way of life, and sin referred to disregard of its laws, rules or codes of etiquette. It did not refer to an individual’s religious experience or sense of wrongdoing.”
In other words, there was nothing “mortal” about sin. It was bad but it wasn’t “sinful” the way Christians came to see the word and the idea behind it.
Jesus saw the priestly establishment as “sinners” because they were violating Torah.
More from Mack:
“For the Jews, personal immortality was a troubling idea, not easily integrated with their social anthropology, and a corpse signaled uncleanness and death. The spirits of the dead were supposed to leave, not hang around, and an encounter with a living corpse would not have been a pleasant experience. There was only one story in the world in which the idea of a bodily resurrection was thought appropriate, and that was the scene at the end of the world where, in some Jewish apocalypses, people were raised from their graves in order to be present for the final judgment… Why then the emphasis upon Christ’s being raised? Martyrology did not require such a sequel in order to portray the nobility and effectiveness of a person’s death.”
The Christian idea of sin becomes part of the construct Paul builds when he sells his version of Jesus to the Gentiles. He can’t sell it to Jews because it’s not how they know it. Gentiles don’t have that issue. Just like with the rest of the re-purposed Jewish mythology Paul takes to the Gentiles, it’s all new to them.
Christ’s rising from the dead is the whole crux of Paul’s invention. Believe in this version of Jesus I’ve invented and you, too, can live forever — unbowed by physical death.
But — to justify Jesus dying, Paul (and the early Church fathers) cleverly tie Jesus to Eve and the Garden of Eden. If Eve is the cause of all human misery — the embodiment of the “original sin” — then Jesus becomes the embodiment for how we get out of that trouble. Jesus dies as a means to forgive human sins in the eyes of God. But — his resurrection proves that death can be defeated. And death, to the human mind, is the worst sin imaginable. The fact that we have to die — if we don’t want to — is sinful.
Believe in Jesus, says Paul, believe in his story and you, too, can defeat death.
That’s a genius bit of mythification there.
Back to Burton Mack:
“The problem, Paul said, was the power of sin. This was a brand new concept, a concept that Paul developed in order to include both Jew and gentile, or all humankind, within the same horizon and in need of the Christian gospel… Paul turned the concept of sin into a universal feature of human existence. More than that, he personified sin as an objective power or field of force that determined the whole of human existence “before” the coming of Christ. In order to make this shift, the “law” that served as the standard by which sin could be judged was also reconceptualized as an ethical norm built into the very structure of the universe, a “natural law” that had to be obvious to all in the ordering of the created world. Since that was so, according to Paul, the licentious and unethical behavior that prevailed among humans everywhere demonstrated their sinful condition… Gentile Christians may have been caught off guard, hard-pressed to argue against the clever merger of the two laws, the law of nature and the law of Moses. So the familiar consignment of all human beings to a sinful state, and thus a need for the gospel, was conceived. IT WAS PAUL’S OWN INVENTION. To think such a thought had not occurred to other Christians or Jesus people… Paul presupposed the solution when he conjured up the problem… to this day, Christian theologians have used this concept of sin as a neutral and apt category to describe what they called “the human problem”.
From ROMANS, 5:12 – 19 —
“Therefore, just as sin came into the world through one man, and death came through sin, and so death spread to all because all have sinned — sin was indeed in the world before the law but sin is not reckoned when there is no law. Yet death exercised dominion over everyone from Adam to Moses,even over those whose sins were not like the transgressions of Adam…”
By contrast — BUDDHISM
“Most Buddhist traditions share the goal of overcoming suffering and the cycle of death and rebirth, either by the attainment of Nirvana or through the path of Buddhahood.”
Like Christianity, Buddhism also concerns itself with death and dying but framed from the point of view of the suffering it causes rather than the imagined sin that might have caused it all to begin.
“By oneself, indeed, is evil done; by oneself is one defiled. By oneself is evil left undone; by oneself, indeed, is one purified. Purity and impurity depend on oneself. No one purifies another.” (Dhammapada, chapter 12, verse 165)
Buddhism teaches that evil is something we create, not something we are or some outside force that infects us.