April 20, 2013


The Mystery of Original Sin : We don't know why God permitted the Fall, but we know all too well the evil and sin that still plague us. (Marguerite Shuster, 4/19/2013, Christianity Today)

Legend has it that G. K. Chesterton, asked by a newspaper reporter what was wrong with the world, skipped over all the expected answers. He said nothing about corrupt politicians or ancient rivalries between warring nations, or the greed of the rich and the covetousness of the poor. He left aside street crime and unjust laws and inadequate education. Environmental degradation and population growth overwhelming the earth's carrying capacity were not on his radar. Neither were the structural evils that burgeoned as wickedness became engrained in society and its institutions in ever more complex ways.

What's wrong with the world? As the story goes, Chesterton responded with just two words: "I am."

His answer is unlikely to be popular with a generation schooled to cultivate self-esteem, to pursue its passions and chase self-fulfillment first and foremost. After all, we say, there are reasons for our failures and foibles. It's not our fault that we didn't win the genetic lottery, or that our parents fell short in their parenting, or that our third-grade teacher made us so ashamed of our arithmetic errors that we gave up pursuing a career in science. Besides, we weren't any worse than our friends, and going along with the gang made life a lot more comfortable. We have lots of excuses for why things go wrong, and--as with any lie worth its salt--most of them contain some truth.

Still, by adulthood, most of us have an uneasy sense of self. Whatever we try to tell ourselves, something in us knows that we don't measure up to our own standards, let alone anyone else's. Even if we think we've done rather well, all things considered, there remains a looming conclusion to our lives we cannot escape. Death will bring an end to all achievements and all excuses. And who among us can face the reality of final judgment with the conviction that we are altogether blameless?

Maybe there is something to Chesterton's answer after all. In fact, theologian Reinhold Niebuhr was fond of saying that original sin--the idea that every one of us is born a sinner and will manifest that sinfulness in his or her life--is the only Christian doctrine that can be empirically verified. Everyone, whether a criminal or a saint, sins. Insofar as that dismal verdict is true, it's hardly surprising that there is a great deal wrong with the world.

Why Do We Sin?

But how could such a thing be? How could sin invade and pervade the world that God made good? To this great question, like the other great question of how it could be that Christ's death saves us, the Bible gives no theoretical answer. Rather, it only narrates how it came about.

The account comes in Genesis 2 and 3, the second Creation narrative. In the first Creation narrative, Genesis 1, God celebrates what he has made and gives humankind a position of honor and responsibility. The second narrative (probably written earlier than the first) provides an important counterpoint, given the broken world we experience. In Romans 5 and 1 Corinthians 15, Paul takes up this second narrative to point the direction to the doctrine of the Fall. What happened in Eden, Paul implies, didn't stay in Eden. What went wrong in the beginning marks everything that follows. Adam's sin not only brings the judgment of death upon all who come after him, but also makes them sinners. (True, Eve gets blamed in 1 Timothy 2 [see also 2 Cor. 11:3], but only Adam is named in Romans 5. Sin is an equal opportunity employer. In fact, the impulse to say, "I am not to blame, that other one is" flows from our primal disobedience.)

Posted by at April 20, 2013 7:48 AM

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