Does man inherit a “sinful nature” from his parents? Was he born under “original sin”?
Approximately a bajillion Christians are convinced that he does. After all, the concept is “biblical”, they will tell you. But I’d like to test this assumption in order to find a way to make logical sense of it, if that is possible. To many, the legitimacy of “original sin” is considered obvious, but I find it difficult to explain exactly how it would work—-once one begins to examine the notion in fine detail.
So What’s the Source?
If “original sin” exists, then how, exactly, does it make it to each generation that inherits it? Consider Billy, who was born in, say, 1980. If Billy is stained with “original sin”, just how did this come about? Let’s examine the possibilities:
- It is inherited through DNA, quite like certain physical traits are inherited.
- It is inherited through the spirit of man, which is to be distinguished from his body.
- It is not literally inherited as a physical or spiritual trait, but is simply charged against man by God. That is, God charges the sin of Adam and Eve against every human born since, holding each of us responsible for it from birth.
Those are all the possibilities I can imagine. So let’s examine them to see if any model can be imagined by which any of these three could work.
Inherited via DNA
If “original sin” is inherited through the DNA, then it raises the question of how this started. Here are the only possibilities I can imagine:
- The act of sin literally caused an alteration in the DNA of Adam and/or Eve. This was then passed down by their children.
- The DNA of Adam and/or Eve was not changed by either of them, but by God.
Each of these possibilities has problems. Let’s consider each separately.
1. Sin-Altered DNA. This model has man’s DNA being altered by his own immoral acts. Fortunately, this idea is of the sort that is falsifiable—meaning that it can be tested and proven either false or true. The test would be simple:
Get a DNA sample from any subject and then have that subject commit sins for some time thereafter. Then take another DNA sample and compare it to the first, looking for alterations.
Since we now have the ability to map the human genome, this experiment would settle the matter of genetic alteration. And what do you think would be found?
Interestingly, such a model is quite close to the concept of biological evolution—which makes a great many Christians nervous. The evolutionary model works something like this: each living subject (S) has traits inherited from its parents (P). Its own offspring (O) will inherit those traits, too, generally speaking, except that the DNA may have been slightly altered between the conception of S and the birth of S’s offspring (O). Thus, over time, it is possible that those born at the end of a genetic line may be considerably altered from those that started it.
For the sake of establishing some useful benchmark from which to consider the idea of DNA-born sinfulness, let us suppose that it has been 6,000 years since Adam and Eve sinned. If we arbitrarily consider a generation to be 40 years, and Adam’s generation to be the 1st of those generations, then our current generation is the 150th. (6,000/40=150) Assuming this model were true, how much difference should we expect to see in the sinfulness of Adam and Eve and the sinfulness of our present generation? With each generation changing the DNA (for the worse) by adding its own sin to the running total, just how degenerate should mankind be by now? Whatever your answer to this question, is this what you observe as you compare what you know about our generation to what you know about theirs?
It is difficult to take this model of sin-altered DNA seriously from a scientific point of view. Perhaps some researcher will get a federal grant to conduct the experiment I propose above, and put an end to this notion once and for all.
Let us further consider the downward spiral of humanity that would be caused by this supposed rule of heredity of sin. What sort of creation would it be if the first two humans (born without any propensity to sin) sinned of their own free will, and then every generation after theirs sinned because it was genetically unable to avoid sin? Is this good engineering of a species? After God created man, here’s what he thought about it:
Genesis 1:31 Then God saw everything that He had made, and indeed it was very good.
This idea of a nature in which each generation of mankind was doomed to a downward spiral, however, could not be considered a “very good” design, could it?
Imagine that we were talking about the earth instead, and that earth’s nature were designed such that every time the earth rotates, it gets a little worse than it was on the last rotation. (This is not what we observe in nature, by the way.) Or imagine a nature in which every acorn that falls produces an oak inferior to the one that produced the acorn. Imagine a nature in which the speed of light is lower with each passing day, or in which gravity steadily degrades. Would this be “very good” engineering work from a Creator?
I don’t know about you, but I tend to think not.
2. God-Altered DNA. The second possibility on how man’s DNA could have been altered is that God himself did it by some miraculous intervention at the time of Adam and Eve’s sin. Indeed, we see something similar when God “cursed” the ground in response to Adam’s sin:
Genesis 3:17 “Cursed is the ground for your sake;
In toil you shall eat of it
All the days of your life.
18 Both thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for you,
And you shall eat the herb of the field.
19 In the sweat of your face you shall eat bread
God appears to have altered nature such that man would not have such an easy time procuring food as Adam and Eve had had in the Garden of Eden. And how do we know this? Well, obviously, it’s in the record.
But where in the record is there any account of God having altered Adam and Eve’s DNA such that their lineage would be burdened with a “sinful nature”? Interestingly, no such passage exists. The serpent was cursed (Genesis 3:14) and the ground was cursed (Genesis 3:17), but no such curse was announced for either Adam or Eve.
Eve’s future did, however, receive some manner of alteration from the original design. Consider God’s words here:
Genesis 3:16 To the woman He said:
“I will greatly multiply your sorrow and your conception;
In pain you shall bring forth children;
Your desire shall be for your husband,
And he shall rule over you.”
This appears to suggest that whatever the plan for Eve had been, it was altered that day. It is unclear whether this “pain” was physical or emotional in nature. (You may look into the original language here.)
I note, however, that whatever was altered in Eve’s future that day was not mentioned as something that would pertain to her offspring as well, affecting all women forever and ever. If it were so, this would have been a perfect opportunity for God to speak of such.
Let us suppose, however, that even though the Bible states no such thing, God really did alter Eve’s DNA that day, so as to change the nature of the human species. This model raises quite a logical puzzle. Throughout the Bible, man is held responsible for his sins. Here’s just one example of a great many passages that point to such accountability:
2 Corinthians 5:10 For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each of us may receive what is due us for the things done while in the body, whether good or bad.
But if God is the one who stained every generation after Adam and Eve by altering the DNA of the species, how does God then hold them responsible for what they were designed by nature to do?
Indeed, if Adam and Eve’s sin was bad, why hard wire that sin into the species from that day forward?!!!
Doesn’t this contradict common sense? Doesn’t this go against our very concept of God’s fairness? Indeed, is God not on record as having uttered these words?:
Ezekiel 18:1 The word of the Lord came to me: 2 “What do you people mean by quoting this proverb about the land of Israel:
“‘The parents eat sour grapes,
and the children’s teeth are set on edge’?
3 “As surely as I live, declares the Sovereign Lord, you will no longer quote this proverb in Israel. 4 For everyone belongs to me, the parent as well as the child—both alike belong to me. The one who sins is the one who will die.
Why wouldn’t the fairness of what is voiced here also pertain to Billy, who lives 150 generations after Eve? Should Billy be punished on account of Eve’s sin? If so, how shall we manage to ignore what God said in Ezekiel 18 in order to support the idea of Billy’s genetic alteration on account of Eve’s sin?
Inherited Through the Spirit of Man
Let us suppose that man does have a “sinful nature”, and that is it not inherited through DNA. The other obvious possibility is that it does not come through man’s body, but through his spirit, which is separate. The biblical model seems to be that while human bodies come about through physical procreation, each person is imbued with a spirit that originated not from the parents, but from God himself. Here are two passages that seem to support this model in passing:
Then the dust will return to the earth as it was,
And the spirit will return to God who gave it.
Furthermore, we have had human fathers who corrected us, and we paid them respect. Shall we not much more readily be in subjection to the Father of spirits and live?
Assuming that these passages are indeed pointing to a model in which the human body is matched with a human spirit from God, then if man does indeed inherit a “sinful nature”, it is reasonable to explore whether that nature comes through the spirit.
If this were the case, however, we run into the problem of God himself being the source of this supposed “sinful nature” of man. Just as in the problem above, wherein we considered the idea of God having changed the DNA of mankind so as to make us all have a “sinful nature” that Adam and Even did not have, this present idea is similarly troubled.
The idea that sin originates from God himself is anathema to Christian doctrine, is it not? And yet we have now considered two models by which the supposed “sinful nature” of man is directly attributable to God. These, therefore, should be rejected out of hand.
Indeed, to give a related example, many believers puzzle over the existence of Satan himself, asking how it is that he could be both evil and the creation of God. They point back to Genesis 1:31 and insist that an evil Satan could not have been among those things created in those 6 days. (See my article explaining Satan’s evil here.)
It should come as no surprise to us that Satan, though created good, became evil through the exercise of his own free will. Indeed, this is exactly what we observe from Adam and Eve, is it not? No one claims that Adam and Eve were born with “original sin”. Yet we observe them disobey God in what has every indication of being a simple exercise of choice……an exercise of the human will to do (in this case) what ought not be done. If man has no free will with which to choose good or evil, then how did Adam and Eve choose evil? And if they did indeed exercise a free will, why is it that the sinfulness of modern man need be explained by some heritable “sinful nature”?
It is particularly instructive as to the irrationality of some human belief to see that so very many are willing to peg this “sinful nature” on none other than God himself—as coming either from a God-altered human DNA, or from God-altered human spirits that are sent to reside inside human bodies. Why not simply look to direct observation for a cause for sin? Do we not make choices, both good and bad every, day?
Charged Against Man by God
We have examined the notion that this supposed heritable “sinful nature” was caused directly by Adam and Eve’s sin physically altering their DNA. We also examined the model by which God intervened and changed their DNA that day. Then we looked at whether God injects that “sinful nature” directly into each new human when he joins a human spirit with the human embryo created by the parents.
Each of these models has serious problems, so that leads us to consider a fourth alternative—that mankind does not literally inherit sin, and is not infused with sin by God at or before birth, but that God simply charges all humans with sin (from birth, or perhaps even while still in the womb), based on what Adam and Eve did.
This model has problems of its own, and they are quite similar to those problems already discussed above. That is, why would God assign guilt—whether through heredity, through the spirit of man, or through some manner of legal grudge—against people who have not yet sinned for themselves?
In such a case, billions of people are condemned for a woman and a man eating a forbidden meal some 6,000 years ago. How is it that a God who elsewhere said, “The soul who sins is the one who will die” could, under this present model, be saying more or less, “The souls who did not eat the forbidden fruit will be punished for eating it.“?
The Fork In The Road: Rational or Irrational Religion?
Having witnessed the illogic of these four possibilities for the transmission of a “sinful nature” to each human generation, the reader who already believes in “original sin” and the “sinful nature” is forced to choose between an interpretation of the Bible that is rational (reality-based), and one that is not. We can observe that in the daily realities of life, such contradictions of principle as are outlined above cause serious problems. But will we decide, when it comes to religion, that it’s acceptable to live with the cognitive dissonance that comes from clinging to beliefs that make absolutely no sense in the real world?
We must choose.
Either God is real or not. Either God is just and fair and rational or he is not. Either he makes sense or he does not.
We must choose.
If “original sin” makes no sense, but we cling to it anyway, then we are working under some model in which God wants to us live with cognitive dissonance—the constant strife between competing principles or beliefs. But is this a “very good” creation? Would a skilled Creator create man to have to live with constant cognitive strife, holding to reality in daily life while holding to the ungraspable in his spiritual view of the universe?
Before you decide to run with “original sin”, remember that the Bible uses no such term. In fact, the notion doesn’t seem to have been discussed until quite some time after Jesus and the apostles taught on the earth:
“The concept of original sin was first alluded to in the 2nd century by Irenaeus, Bishop of Lyons in his controversy (written in Greek) with certain dualist Gnostics.” (Read the Wikipedia article here.)
Popular But Wrong
I frequently note what a huge amount of Christian belief seems to be built around this notion of “original sin”. To get an idea of its popularity, let’s do a little simple Google searching. When the term is searched in quotation marks, Google shows 7.8 million returns! ["original sin"] To contrast that with other Christian basics, I did these searches, too:
- ["Jesus died for our sins"] 2.5 million
- ["Jesus is lord"] 1.8 million
- ["God is love"] 4.5 million
- ["God loves you"] 3.3 million
Does this effectively demonstrate that 7.8 million returns for “original sin” represents an exceedingly popular tenet of belief in modern Christianity? I sure think it does.
Interestingly, however, each of the four bullet points in the search immediately above is easily supportable from scripture, whereas the notion of “original sin” is not! How is it that such a widely-believed idea is not readily supportable from the Bible?
I have demonstrated the logical problems with the “original sin” doctrine above, and I have discussed the cognitive dissonance that is involved in holding to a doctrine that makes no logical sense. Let us contrast that, however, to the doctrinal beliefs listed in the four bullet points above. Consider how easy it would be to prove “Jesus died for our sins“, or “Jesus is Lord“, etc., from the Bible. Indeed, in the cases of “Jesus is Lord” and “God is love“, these are both direct quotations from scripture! Then “God loves you” can be easily inferred from passages such as “For God so loved the world….”. And “Jesus died for our sins” can be inferred from a number of passages.
And that brings us back to “original sin”. In this instance, not one viable model can be put forth in which this transmission of sin or guilt to every generation could possibly work without charging God with wrongdoing. Either God is just, or he is unjust. Either he is fair, or he is unfair. Both cannot be the case at one time. Yet lots and lots of Christians seem quite ready to believe that what is easily demonstrable as being unjust in our daily reality is somehow just when God does it.
Well, I submit that God does not do it. God does not charge babies with the sin of their ancestors from 150 generations ago. Nor does he instill those babies with a stained spirit. Nor did he curse human DNA, bringing a punishment for Adam and Eve’s sins upon the entire human species for all time.
And that leaves us with the simple reality that “original sin” is just another flawed interpretation of the Bible. Indeed, we all recognize several flaws in people’s various interpretations of the Bible. We often even decide where we will go to church based upon which doctrinal errors we believe various churches to be making. But when will we take a look at our own doctrine and decide that maybe, just maybe, we have got this or that part wrong ourselves?
“Original sin” and the “sinful nature” are simply not necessary to explain the evil in the world today. Nor is Satan, by the way. The explanation of humans exercising their own free will to do bad things is adequate to explain every evil on the planet today.