Preliminary Investigations on Original Sin

Wednesday, June 30, 2004



I received an email yesterday from a Muslim who happened across my blog and she asked me to explain original sin. I have touched on the subject in my article entitles The Mystery of Suffering, but I realized I should probably create a permanent entry devoted to the subject.

For a detailed explanation of the Church teaching on Original Sin, I would refer the reader to The Catechism on the Fall, and caution that the preceding section on the dignity of humanity ought to be read to give the teaching proper context.

Since I label myself "progressive", there will likely be some readers who hope of expect that I will challenge the Church teaching on original sin. I will challenge what I believe are misrepresentations of the doctrine, but I ultimately believe that the doctrine expresses a deep and irrefutable truth about the human condition.

Basically, in my own words, the doctrine says that we are born in a state of separation from God. We inherit "guilt" for the sin of the first people on earth. We need God to do something to remove this state in order to be saved. Many people have problems understanding this doctrine, so I will attempt to deal with it in a sort of Q&A format to clear up some misconceptions.

How do we know that original sin exists?

A moral theology teacher of mine once said that the existence of evil may be the only religious truth in all of the world that can be empirically verified. I concur with this. In life, sh*t happens that doesn't make sense to us, and strikes us as unjust, unfair, and simply wrong. Sometimes, sh*t seems to come from nature. Other times, it is another person who does sh*t to us. Other times, we do sh*tty things that we would not like done to us to someone else.

The existence of evil in the world is the empirical basis for original sin, and unless you can honestly say that you have never once violated your own conscience in all of your life, you have your evidence that original sin is a reality.

How is it fair that we inherit some sort of guilt for the sins of our first parents?

The guilt for original sin is not solely a personal guilt. It is a collective guilt.

this doesn't mean that original sin is an equivalent term for social sin. Social sin, such as racism, is a result of original sin, but not identical to original sin.

Imagine yourself as an artist for a moment. You paint your best piece of work ever and stand back to enjoy it. Suddenly, a wind blows through the window and knocks the painting onto a candle burning a the very center of the painting. The effects only effects the exact center of the painting, but the entire painting is made imperfect. The edges are made imperfect along with the center of the work.

God is an artist who created a perfect universe, and the center of God's work was humanity. The height of God's creativity was a being who possessed freedom. If any human being abuses that freedom, it mars the perfection of God's whole work. Yet, without the freedom to abuse the gift of choice, the work isn't as beautiful either.

When sin entered the created order, God's creation was marred. Sin sent ripples throughout all of creation. Interestingly, the Catechism traces the Fall not to Adam and Eve, but to the angels who fell before them. Human sin does not only effect humans. It effects creation, which is obvious when we look at the havoc we wreak on the environment. Our sin effects distant planets and unseen realities.

The good news is that the resurrection of Christ reveals God's power over the greatest evil imaginable - death. God has revealed in Christ his power to repair the effects of original sin. If we simply place our trust in the God revealed in Christ and follow him, we will be saved!

Does belief in original sin mean I need to take the Book of Genesis literally?

No. The doctrine was not based on the Book of Genesis directly. Rather, it was based on the teaching of Saint Paul. Though Paul does make reference to Adam as a "type", he is using religious symbols to shed light on the meaning of the crucifixion and resurrection events. The Genesis narrative can be read as a mythic attempt to explain the origins of suffering and death. Paul developed the meaning of the narrative in light of the resurrection. In Paul's world view, the resurrection displayed God's ultimate plan to overcome all evil - including all suffering and death. It would take another four centuries of reflection in the Church to develop a more definitive understanding of "original sin".

Is original sin simply the desire to do what I know is wrong?

No. The desire to do evil, which everyone experiences, is called concupiscience. Consupiscience is a result of original sin, and provides further empirical evidence of the existence of original sin. Yet, this desire itself is not original sin.

Does original sin make us "totally depraved" so that even doing "good works" is impossible?

Protestants might answer "yes". Catholics would answer "no".

Protestants believe that we were created in the divine image, but that image was shattered by the Fall. All our acts are ultimately tainted with sin such that even a good deed is done with selfish motives. Ware saved by an act of God's favor, called grace. This occurs by having our guilt "covered" by the blood of Christ. When the Father looks at his painting, he does not see the shattered image beneath. Instead, he sees Christ. If we simply trust in this process, we are saved by our faith alone.

Catholics believe that the we were originally created in the image and likeness of God just like Protestants. However, Catholics believe that this image is preserved, even if distorted, after the Fall. The mirror is warped, but not shattered. Catholics also believe that we are saved by God's grace. However, Catholics believe that grace operates by repairing the person - by straightening out the warped mirror. Catholics believe that grace builds on nature in a process over time to restore us to our original state prior to the Fall. This process can continue into the next life in a state called purgatory.

Does the doctrine of original sin mean that un-baptized babies or pagans who have never heard the Gospel go to hell?

No. The doctrine of original sin means that we cannot be saved except by God's grace, and God must initiate this grace. This grace is actualized in the sacraments, but not exclusively through the sacraments. God can work through other means than the sacraments to bring about salvation in those who were never given the opportunity to receive the sacraments.

Doesn't the doctrine of original offend human dignity by making us all sinners?

The Catholic point of view is that we were created in the image of God, and even the sinner has something of this image shining through as long as he or she lives. Furthermore, grace restores that original divine image and is offered to everyone as a free gift. The Catholic understanding of the human person is not entirely defined by original sin. Rather, the doctrine of original sin simply describes the obvious fact that evil exists in the world. The doctrine also invites and challenges us to look at the ways we contribute to evil through our personal choices. In such reflection, we can actually open ourselves up to greater growth in grace as we progress to our original state and dignity.


These thoughts could probably expanded. Feel free to email for questions, additions, or clarifications on any points I raised that are not in the answered in Catechism. Readers may email me at

Peace and Blessings!


posted by Jcecil3 3:22 PM

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