5 Old Testament Reasons Why “Original Sin” Doesn’t Work

By Peter Enns (Ph.D., Harvard University), who is Abram S. Clemens professor of biblical studies at Eastern University in St. Davids, Pennsylvania. He has written numerous books, including The Bible Tells Me SoThe Sin of Certainty, and How the Bible Actually Works. Tweets at @peteenns.

I think I’ve always been a bit uneasy with the idea that God holds me responsible for something Adam did at the beginning of the Bible. I know God’s ways are not my ways, but this never made much sense.

Of course, my uneasiness doesn’t make something right or wrong. I’m just putting it out there.

Of course, I’m talking about “original sin”—the idea all humans are the objects of God’s anger from conception on because Adam’s deed of disobedience in the Garden of Eden has hardwired sinfulness into us all. Not only that, but for many Christians, original sin also means humans actually bear the guilt of what Adam did—which takes this to yet another level.

That seems rather alarming if true, and thus raises the question: does the Bible actually say this?: Where in Genesis or in the Old Testament as a whole is Adam’s disobedience in the Garden of Eden described as the cause of universal human sinfulness and guilt?

For much of my adult life, my subconscious mind never allowed myself to look at this issue too carefully, I think for fear of what I might find. But several years ago, as I was writing The Evolution of Adam, I didn’t have much of a choice but to pony up.

Now, before I go on, let’s be clear about a couple of things. First, I’m only asking whether the Old Testament paints Adam as the one to blame for all the misery of the human race. I’m not talking about what the New Testament says about Adam (namely Romans 5:12-21, which is hardly the clearest passage we’ll ever read in the NT, but I digress).

Second, by wondering out loud about “original sin” I’m not saying “I’m OK, you’re OK, and God’s OK with it all, so let’s just get along.”

I believe that what the Bible calls “sin” is real—and you don’t have to read about Hitler, Stalin, or George Steinbrenner to find examples. Each of us carries around an alarming ability to harm each other in a seemingly non-stop variety of new and inventive ways.

Add to that the endless capacity we have to find ways to be miserable and harm ourselves. Few are truly at peace with themselves. The biochemical and environmental contributors to the common list of emotional struggles we face betray a deep sense of disquiet in our own hearts. We are all “sinners”—we all bear witness that things are not as they could be and we bear that burden daily.

Whatever words we want to use to describe it, this self-evident reality of repeated, relentless sin remains a consistent fact of human existence. We clearly need help. The Gospel is about what God has done through Jesus to come to our rescue.

But all I’m asking here is whether the Old Testament says that Adam is the cause of it all. It doesn’t. Not at all. Not even a hint.

1. Inherited sinfulness is not one of the curses on Adam.

Adam is introduced in Genesis 2, and for one chapter seems to hold it together. But then in chapter 3, Eve is outcrafted by the talking serpent, takes a bite of the forbidden fruit, and then hands it to Adam, who does likewise.

All three parties are cursed by God for this act of disobedience, and those curses have lasting consequences for the human drama. Fair enough, but note the consequences for Adam: from now (1) growing food will be hard work, and (2) death will be a fact of life.

Note what is not said: “And a third thing, Adam. From now on all humanity will be stained by your act of disobedience, born in a hopeless and helpless state of sin, objects of my displeasure and wrath.” If Genesis did say that, it would clear up a lot. But it doesn’t.

2. Throughout the Old Testament, pleasing God through obedience is both expected, commanded, and doable.

Nowhere in the Old Testament do we read that humanity is under God’s condemnation simply by being born and therefore helpless to do anything about it, and thus no actions are truly pleasing to God.

[And don’t even bring up that one verse, Psalm 51:5. That’s not the prooftext for original sin in the Old Testament but David’s hyperbole after the Bathsheba incident.]

Yes indeed, God is terribly mad about sinful acts, especially when his people, the Israelites, do them. But—and I can’t stress this enough—implicit in all of God’s acts of wrath and punishment is the idea that the Israelites were most certainly capable of not sinning. That’s the whole point of the law: follow it and be blessed, disobey and be cursed. The choice is clear and attainable, so do the right thing.

[For example, see Deuteronomy 30:11-20: the Law God has given the Israelites isn’t far off across the ocean or way up in the heavens, but it is “very near to you; it is in your mouth and in your heart for you to observe” (v. 14).]

In fact, some Old Testament figures actually seem to pull it off pretty well: Enoch, Noah, Abraham, Moses, and David. No, they weren’t “perfect” but that’s exactly the point. God seems fine with some of his people getting it basically right and using them for some key task. Nowhere does God say to these people, “Great effort guys, but . .. you know . . . that Adam thing. Sorry. My eternal wrath remains upon you.”

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