Original sin: This story resonates

November 8, 2008 at 5:11 pm 7 comments

“Certain new theologians,” G. K. Chesteron once noted, “dispute original sin, which is the only part of Christian theology which can really be proved.”

Catholic I am not, and therefore my understanding of original sin differs somewhat from Chesterton’s. Yet despite all that, I am convinced with him that original sin is real, and I know it’s real because I can look around and see it manifested all around me—and, yes, in me.

The biblical story of original sin—that story of a perfect creation, marred by an Edenic fall, now ethically debilitated and groaning for redemption—is perhaps the most important of those compelling stories of the Bible that keeps me in this faith.

The existence of original sin, in other words, is one of the most important reasons why I am a Christian. The virgin birth, the resurrection, the ascension—all those are articles of faith, but this, this thing of original sin, is empirically observable. All around me. Every day. This story resonates.

Donald Miller, writing in Blue Like Jazz about sin, describes his own experience of coming to realize the truth of original sin:

I knew, because of my own feelings, there was something wrong with me, and I knew it wasn’t only me. I knew it was everybody. It was like a bacteria or a cancer or a trance. It wasn’t on the skin; it was in the soul.

I share this experience; I know that cancer and that bacteria he’s talking about. And I too have woken up in the middle of the night and been struck, like Miller, by the realization that the reality of the biblical fall is true in me:

I am the problem.

I think every conscious person, every person who is awake to the functioning principles within his reality, has a moment where he stops blaming the problems in the world on group think, on humanity and authority, and starts to face himself. . . . The problem is not out there; the problem is the needy beast of a thing that lives in my chest.

The brilliance and resonance of Christianity lies in the fact that it pictures humanity as utterly fallen and without hope, yet maintains this truth without denying the greatness of our race.

We are, to borrow philosopher Douglas Groothuis’ words, “royal ruins.” Royal, for we have the divine imprint and traces of the glory in which we were originally created; yet ruins, because we are manifestly flawed, damaged, depraved.

I see this reality patently evidenced around me. We have our skyscrapers and our trips to the moon and in little acts of everyday heroism, and that is the pretty face of our race. But behind it lies the evidence of our ruination: our ghettos, our genocides, our little everyday treacheries.

I see this duality in my neighbor; I see it in me. The story of the fall is accurate in my life; it reflects truly on my experience of the world. Therefore I believe.


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Why I am a Christian Sin is…

7 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Rick Beckman  |  November 8, 2008 at 8:49 pm

    Well said, Jamie. I needed this reminder.

  • 2. Jamie  |  November 16, 2008 at 2:22 pm

    Thanks, Rick.

  • 3. James Pate  |  November 24, 2008 at 11:41 pm

    You seem to present humans as a combination of good and evil. Do you have any thoughts on why Paul presents the human race as so BAD–as if everyone’s feet are rushing to shed innocent blood?

  • 4. Jamie  |  November 26, 2008 at 1:14 pm

    James: Paul presents the human race as bad because we are bad. But that doesn’t negate the fact that there are also traces of beauty and traces of God’s image left in us. We are bad, but more specifically, we are corruptions of something that was originally good, and hints of that good history are still evident in our world.

    That said, I wasn’t actually arguing for the goodness of humanity; this post was arguing from humanity’s badness.

  • 5. James Pate  |  November 26, 2008 at 3:28 pm

    Right, I wasn’t saying you were arguing that humanity is good. You said you believe in original sin, after all. But you did say that humanity displays some goodness. My issue with Paul is not that he says we’re bad. It’s that he acts as if we’re all horrible. Not everyone’s feet are rushing to shed innocent blood, as he seems to maintain. I wonder if there’s another way to understand Paul that at least allows him to make sense.

    Another question: Why should we accept the Christian description and explanation for human evil? It’s not as if other religions haven’t interacted with this issue. Buddhism traces human evil to attachment. Judaism says humans have a good inclination and an evil inclination. Religions and philosophies HAVE to interact wit evil because it’s a part of life. Its existence doesn’t prove Christianity. Original sin is just one explanation for it.

  • 6. Jamie  |  November 30, 2008 at 2:40 pm

    James: Ah, I see. I misunderstood your original question.

    I suppose Paul acts as if we’re horrible because he is trying to underscore the horrible aspects that are there in our race.

    True, maybe not everyone’s feet are rushing to shed innocent blood, but I think probably everyone at some point realizes that humanity as a whole is capable of stupendous atrocities. Maybe it’s harder to see those capacities in ourselves, because we have a tendency to defend ourselves, but you don’t have to look far to see the badness of humanity. And Augustine (?) is probably right: “There, but for the grace of God, go I.” I suspect Paul is just focusing in on that point.

    As for why we should accept the Christian description and explanation of human evil, you’re right that other religions have an explanation for this. But the various religions have rather different explanations than the Christian one for the origin of evil (and the residual good that we see in this world).

    So, granted, the existence of evil and Christianity’s dealing with it certainly doesn’t prove Christianity true. It’s just that I find the Christian explanation particularly powerful.

  • 7. Patricia Moor  |  August 1, 2013 at 7:02 pm

    Just my thought – no other religion has a God who so loves this flawed race that he makes the first move to draw that race back into love. A God who comes close to man in order to draw him close to God – who becomes man so that as man he can give himself to God with total love on man’s behalf – regardless of cost to himself his only longing that man may be drawn back into unity with God – to the friendship of Eden where man “walked and talked with God” or even more into the very love that buzzes round within God -” I pray that the love which is in us may be in them ” – etc. (See Prayer of Jesus on the eve before his death in John’s gospel) It smacks of authenticity to me if only because humility (a God who lowers himself) and suffering voluntarily undergone with one’s mind on others are not the usual stuff we humans look for or dream of – we shun them and seek success, fame, self importance and power! The God’s we invent are horribly like ourselves!


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profile.jpgI am working on my M.A. in Religion at Andrews University in Berrien Springs, Michigan. Besides having a big interest in theology, history, ethics, and the deep stuff of life, I am also very fond of Mediterranean food, snow, and the color red.

Email me: jamie.kiley@gmail.com

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