Updated: Jul 16, 2019
The notion of original sin is an invention of the church. It asserts that all human beings are born with a sin nature as a result of Adam and Eve’s rebellion against God in Eden. According to the doctrine, humanity shares in Adam’s sin, transmitted by human generation. This idea is not unique to Christianity. Ancestral fault whereby the sins of the forefathers lead to the punishment of their descendants was a common belief in ancient Greek religion. The Christian concept of original sin was first mentioned by Church fathers such as Irenaeous and Augustine in the 2nd century. The issue needing resolved was: How could sin have entered the world if God is good? Answer: Adam and Eve’s disobedience and subsequently the entire human race, their offspring. To believe in the doctrine of original sin you would first have to believe in the existence of God, as conceived by religion, and at least these two further beliefs:
1. That the Bible’s creation story is to be taken literally – that there was an actual Adam and Eve who were the first human beings, and that the family tree of all humankind is traced back to them.
2. That Adam and Eve’s act of disobedience and rebellion of God resulted in a sinful condition that can be propagated through human conception and birth. The doctrine of original sin posed as many problems as it solved. How could Jesus be God, as Christianity claimed, if he was born a human? Hence the doctrine of the virgin birth – the belief that Mary was not impregnated through the sperm of Joseph, which would have been contaminated by the sinful condition, but impregnated directly by God himself. The Catholic Church takes it a step further with the teaching of the Immaculate Conception, which asserts that Mary was conceived by normal biological means, but God acted upon her soul, keeping her “immaculate,” at the time of her own conception. A further complication of the original sin doctrine is the question of how one can believe and appropriate God’s remedy of Jesus if our natural fallen state is one of rebellion. Hence the doctrine of “regeneration,” which states that God first changes the sinner’s nature to make it possible for them to repent. Repentance and conversion both follow regeneration because the sinner cannot naturally obey God's command to repent and be converted unless and until God alters his nature. Don’t feel badly if all this starts to feel a bit convoluted. In divinity school I learned how to become a theological contortionist – stretching, bending, twisting and beating doctrines into submission until they somehow managed to hold several absurd notions together, if only hanging by a thread. The Bible itself is contradictory when it comes to the matter of original sin, and there is no consistent or coherent message about it. The Apostle Paul wrote that “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God,” and yet Jesus himself said, “blessed are the pure in heart,” implying that one’s innermost being is untainted. Even in the Genesis creation story, prior to the fall of Adam and Eve, God’s original pronouncement upon all creation, including the human person, is that they are “good.” The doctrine of original sin is problematic from every possible angle of a reasonably thinking person. So the question is, why do so many people believe it? People once believed the world was flat and the earth was the center of the universe, but once they were given more accurate information they eventually adopted the new view. And yet, people hold onto religious beliefs despite their absurdity and the absence of evidence.
Religious truth is often held to a different standard. It gets a pass in terms of how we typically determine the truth of a proposition. When a religious belief appears unfounded or illogical, we often hear the phrase, “God’s ways are not our ways.” It’s considered the height of arrogance to think one can comprehend the ways of God with the human mind. After all, God is “omniscient” or all-knowing. Insert the carrot and the stick. Let’s say you believe there is a God who rewards and punishes people, and that your eternal future of heaven or hell are hanging in the balance. If the authoritative people (clergy, Bible scholars) impart a set of beliefs you’re expected to uphold to remain in good standing with God, then you could be persuaded to accept in any number of absurd things. The alternative would be to question them, jeopardizing your standing with the Almighty. So the short answer to why people who should know better believe nonsensical religious ideas is fear.