What Is Original Sin?

What Is Original Sin?

What's so bad about eating an apple, anyway? And what does original sin have to do with us today?

Adam was but human—this explains it all. He did not want the apple for the apple’s sake,1 he wanted it only because it was forbidden. The mistake was in not forbidding the serpent; then he would have eaten the serpent.Mark Twain2

The opening chapters of the Bible tell a tragic story. It starts off promising: trees and sunlight, flying birds and swimming fish, a beautiful garden and a couple to cultivate it. But after a blissful beginning, the story goes downhill quickly.

Adam and Eve ignore God’s instructions and eat the only fruit that is forbidden to them. Their actions bring sorrow, suffering, and death into the world. Worse still, the Bible suggests that we have inherited this sinful nature and its consequences from them.3

This is what theologians have traditionally referred to as “original sin.”4 One described it this way: “We are all both complicitous in and molested by the evil of our race. We both discover evil and invent it; we both ratify and extend it.”5

What a depressing picture. Could it be true?

Defying God

Admittedly, the Genesis narrative of Adam and Eve seems a bit far-fetched. But whether we believe that the account of the Garden of Eden is literal or figurative, perhaps it can still be useful. Setting aside the question of historicity for a moment, let’s explore what the Garden story could mean.

According to the biblical account, God specifically said to Adam, “You are free to eat from any tree in the garden; but you must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for when you eat from it you will certainly die.”6 The command could not have been clearer.

But Adam and Eve stubbornly disobeyed God. They were tricked by the serpent, enticed when he said, “When you eat from it, your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God.”7 By defying God and eating the fruit, they doubted his goodness—God must be keeping something from us—and challenged his authority—we know what’s best for us better than God does.

And what was the result? Shame, guilt, brokenness, and eventual death, just as God had said.8

All of this raises an important question: Why do we suffer the consequences of Adam’s bad choice? In the New Testament, the apostle Paul wrote, “Sin entered the world through one man, and death through sin, and in this way death came to all people.”9

That doesn’t seem fair. We didn’t listen to some snake and eat an apple. We suffer from sin and death now because of something two people did thousands and thousands of years ago?

Paying the Consequences

Let’s be honest: we’re all sinners. We don’t need the Bible to tell us that; it’s fairly obvious. Everyone has his or her faults; no one is perfect. We all make cutting remarks, suffer from pride, and treat others wrongly on a regular basis.

With that in mind, read the rest of Paul’s statement: “Sin entered the world through one man, and death through sin, and in this way death came to all people, because all sinned.”10 Paul suggests that we suffer “death” (in this case, the word means both separation from God and physical death) today because of our own sins, not necessarily because of Adam’s transgressions.

Every day we continue to follow Adam and Eve’s poor example. God warned them of the consequences of a certain action. And yet they still disobeyed.

Are we any different?

We know the consequences of gossiping, cheating, losing our tempers, being lazy, or engaging in promiscuity. But that doesn’t stop us from talking about people behind their backs, fudging the numbers at work, taking out our frustrations on family members, neglecting our responsibilities, or sleeping around.

The list could go on. We know better, yet we can’t seem to do better.

It seems that, like those who are predisposed to alcoholism, we are born with the propensity to sin. But this doesn’t let us off the hook. An alcoholic can still choose sobriety.

Perhaps the best explanation for the consequences of original sin is that Adam and Eve represented all of humanity. It’s almost like we were there in the garden and made the same choice.

In other words, we’re all in this mess together. We are Adam and Eve; they are us.11 And so we continue to experience the brokenness that comes from sin in our lives.

Good News

But, as dismal as this all sounds, there is good news. The Bible also says that through his perfect life, his sacrificial death for our sins, and his resurrection and victory over death, Jesus offers us new life.

Sin and death need not have a stronghold in our lives. By following Jesus and placing our trust in him, we can become the people God created us to be. “For,” the apostle Paul wrote, “if, by the trespass of the one man, death reigned through that one man, how much more will those who receive God’s abundant provision of grace and of the gift of righteousness reign in life through the one man, Jesus Christ!”12

According to Christian understanding, through faith and trust in Jesus, we can each be made new creations—forgiven of our sins and set free from the power of evil.13 The consequences of original sin can and will be overcome when we  trust in the original Savior.14

  1. Interestingly, the Bible does not specify what kind of fruit of it was, but popular folk religion has related it to the apple.
  2. Mark Twain, Pudd’nhead Wilson and Those Extraordinary Twins (New York: Harpers and Brothers, 1923), 19.
  3. The Holy Bible, New International Version © 2011, Romans 5:12–21 and 1 Corinthians 15:20–28.
  4. See Millard J. Erickson, Christian Theology, 2nd ed., (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1998), 652–658.
  5. Cornelius Plantinga Jr., Not the Way It’s Supposed to Be: A Breviary of Sin (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1995), 26.
  6. The Holy Bible, Genesis 2:16–17.
  7. Ibid., Genesis 3:5.
  8. A helpful description of this story can be found in Scot McKnight’s Embracing Grace: A Gospel for All of Us (Brewster, MA: Paraclete Press, 2005), 37–51.
  9. The Holy Bible, Romans 5:12.
  10. Ibid., italics added for emphasis.
  11. For a lengthy academic discussion about what Paul may have meant in Romans 5:12 and how our sin relates to Adam’s sin, see Douglas Moo’s The Epistle to the Romans (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1996), 316–329.
  12. The Holy Bible, Romans 5:17.
  13. Ibid., Romans 7:21–25.
  14. See Timothy Keller, The Reason for God: Belief in an Age of Skepticism (New York: Dutton, 2008), 169-173.
  15. Photo Credit: ollirg / Shutterstock.com.