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Genesis 3: The concept of original sin:

Background. Biblical references. Religions & Faith
groups that believe/don't believe in original sin.

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Background: Original sin, salvation, Heaven and Hell:

Webmaster's note: If you believe in the necessity of salvation and in the existence of Heaven and Hell, you might not want to read the following essay. It might prove to be very distressing.

"Original sin" is a belief promoted by many Christian denominations. It is derived primarily from the story of the Garden of Eden in Genesis 3. They interpret this chapter as meaning that when Eve -- and later Adam -- disobeyed God's instruction by eating forbidden fruit, that sin and death entered the world for the first time. Prior to that time, saber toothed tigers, Tyrannosaurus rex dinosaurs and other animals survived by eating only plants, not on other animals.

Exodus 3 describes how God cursed Adam, and Eve for the rest of their lives, and also cursed the land because they disobeyed God's plain instruction to not eat of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. The verses near the end of Genesis 3 give no indication that the curse was to extend beyond Adam and Eve to include their descendents. However the curse on the land and on the snake have continued to the present time. Perhaps on that basis, many Christian theologians and faith groups have concluded that the curse on Adam and Eve also extended to include all of their descendents to the present time and beyond.

To those Christians who believe in Original Sin, this became the world's longest running curse. They teach that it has lasted for over six millennia and currently applies to more than 7 billion people. That is, every person currently alive on Earth has been affected by the curse. They believe that babies are born with original sin. When a person dies, their default fate is to be routed to the torture chambers of Hell for eternity, unless they have been saved during their lifetime. Unfortunately, there is extensive disagreement how salvation is attained. Different denominations have very different beliefs on how the curse of original sin can be lifted. No consensus exists:

  • Some teach that one has to sincerely repent of past sins, and trust Jesus as their personal Lord and Savior in order to be permanently saved.

    • Others teach a similar belief but do not include repentance because for a person to repent is an action. It is an example of a good work, and they believe that salvation is completely based on faith.

    • Some believe that once a person is saved, they are always saved and cannot lose that status. Others teach that one can lose salvation. There are biblical passages that support each belief. Some teach that if a person commits a specific unforgivable sin (a.k.a. eternal or unpardonable sin) that one instantly loses their salvation and cannot ever hope to regain it. Unfortunately, it is not clear what this sin is. Various theologians have suggested dozens of different behaviors or thoughts that they believe to be the unpardonable sin. But, again, no consensus exists.

  • The Roman Catholic Church teaches that one is relieved of their original sin and attains Heaven after death through the sacrament of baptism. However, whenever a person who has reached the age of responsibility and subsequently commits a mortal sin, they lose their salvation. Their future after death will be spent in Hell unless they make a valid confession, usually through the Church's Sacrament of Reconciliation (a.k.a. Penance, or Penance and Reconciliation).

  • Some more liberal/progressive Christian denominations emphasize the "sheep and goats" passage in Matthew 25. In this passage, Jesus is quoted as describing "good works" as the sole criteria by which a person attains Heaven. He also describes bad deeds as the sole criteria for being sent to Hell at the time of the Final Judgment after death. Unfortunately, it is probable that every person on earth has done many good deeds and many bad deeds during their lifetime. Matthew 25 gives no mechanism by which a person can determine from their good and bad deeds whether they have reached a passing grade and will attain Heaven.

  • Other liberal/progressive Christians teach that all are saved, at least to the extent that the torture chambers of Hell -- if they exist -- have been and will remain empty. They look upon the idea of eternal punishment in Hell as incompatible with a God who teaches the importance of love, redemption, forgiveness and second chances.

In developing their various beliefs about salvation, the approximately 40,000 different Christian faith groups worldwide tend to emphasize certain biblical passages, while ignoring or minimizing others. Denominations end up teaching belief systems that are very different from each other, and which are in major conflict. There is no real way for a person to be certain which faith group is correct. Thus, there does not seem to be any mechanism by which they can determine whether they have been saved. Assessing the will of God through prayer does not seem to work, at least according to a pilot study that we conducted. Most Christians simply accept whatever their denomination teaches as the complete truth, and stick tenaciously to it.

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Biblical references that may refer to the existence or non-existence of original sin:

  • Passages that might weaken belief in original sin:

    • Deut. 24:16 "The fathers shall not be put to death for the children, neither shall the children be put to death for the fathers: every man shall be put to death for his own sin."

    • 2 Kings 14:6 "But the children of the murderers he slew not: according unto that which is written in the book of the law of Moses, wherein the LORD commanded, saying, The fathers shall not be put to death for the children, nor the children be put to death for the fathers; but every man shall be put to death for his own sin."

    • Ezekiel 18:20 "The soul that sinneth, it shall die. The son shall not bear the iniquity of the father, neither shall the father bear the iniquity of the son: the righteousness of the righteous shall be upon him, and the wickedness of the wicked shall be upon him.

  • Passages that might give weight to the concept of original sin:

    • Exodus 20:5: "Thou shalt not bow down thyself to them, nor serve them: for I the LORD thy God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generation of them that hate me."

    • Romans 5:12: "Sin entered the world through one man, and death through sin, and in this way death came to all men, because all sinned!"

The Exodus quotation is part of the Ten Commandments. It describes precisely the transmission of guilt and punishment from one generation to the next in the manner of original sin. However, the passage limits the transmission to four generations -- approximately one century. Conservative Christians generally believe that Creation happened between 6,000 and 10,000 years ago, or 240 to 400 generations ago. Even if Adam and Eve's sin was propagated to their descendants, the effects of their sin should have completely died out by now, if the Ten Commandments formula applies.

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Which faith groups believe in original sin: and which reject it?

The belief is common among many of the tens of thousands of faith groups that make up Christianity. In particular, Anglicans, Lutherans, Methodists, Presbyterians and Roman Catholic denominations teach it. Some other Christian denominations, Judaism, and Islam reject it, as well as all or essentially all Agnostics, Atheists, Humanists, and other secularists.

  • Judaism: Alfred Kilatch, in his book "The Jewish Book of Why" wrote:

    "The doctrine of original sin is totally unacceptable to Jews (as it is to Christian sects such as Baptists and Assemblies of G-d). Jews believe that man enters the world free of sin, with a soul that is pure and innocent and untainted. While there were some Jewish teachers in Talmudic times who believed that death was a punishment brought upon mankind on account of Adam's sin, the dominant view by far was that man sins because he is not a perfect being, and not, as Christianity teaches, because he is inherently sinful. 1

  • Islam: The Holy Book of Islam, the Qur'an, describes the transgression of Eve and Adam in Qur'an 7. However, it is slightly different from the version found in Genesis. In the Qur'an account, Adam and Eve begged God for forgiveness. God punished them by giving them a finite life span on Earth, but otherwise forgave them. As a result, Muslims believe that all newborns are in a state of Al-Fitra -- a natural state of submission to Allah. If a person commits a sin and truly repents, they are restored to the Al-Fitra status. 2

One passage from the Qur'an specifically negates the concept of original sin:

    "... No person earns any (sin) except against himself (only), and no bearer of burdens shall bear the burden of another." (Qur'an 6:164)

M. Abdulsalam, writing for IslamReligion.com said:

    "Islam strictly promotes the notion that the punishment of sins will only be faced by those who commit them.  Sin is not a hereditary trait or ‘stain’ passed to one’s progeny -- one generation to another.  All people will be accountable to what only they themselves did in this life.  Therefore, even though the Quran mentions the sin of Adam and how he was banished from the Garden, it places no responsibility on the shoulders of his progeny.  None of the Prophets before Jesus were known to have preached this concept, nor were any other beliefs or rituals based upon this belief.  Rather, salvation from Hell and attainment of Paradise was achieved through the belief in One God and obedience to His commandments, a message preached by all prophets, including Muhammad, may the mercy and blessings of God be upon him, as well." 3

  • Presbyterian theology is largely derived from the Westminster Confession which supports the original sin concept:
    • "The guilt of the sin [of Eve and Adam] was imputed, and corrupted nature conveyed, to all their posterity descending from them by ordinary generation."

    • "Every sin, both original and actual, being a transgression of the righteous law of God, and contrary there unto, does in its own nature, bring guilt upon the sinner, whereby he is bound over to the wrath of God, and curse of the law, and so made subject to death, with all miseries spiritual, temporal, and eternal."

Infant baptism flows logically from the belief that children are guilty of sin since birth and have inherited it from their ancestors all the way back to the original couple.

  • Methodists: The Articles of Religion in the United Methodist Church's Book of Discipline support the concept of original sin:

    "Article VII - Of Original or Birth Sin:
    Original sin standeth not in the following of Adam (as the Pelagians do vainly talk), but it is the corruption of the nature of every man, that naturally is engendered of the offspring of  Adam, whereby man is very far gone from original righteousness, and of his own nature inclined to evil, and that continually." 4

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This topic continues in the next essay

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References used:

The following information sources were used to prepare and update the above essay. The hyperlinks are not necessarily still active today.

  1. Alfred J. Kolatch, "The Jewish Book of Why/The Second Jewish Book of Why," Jonathan David Publishers, (1989). Read reviews or order this book safely from Amazon.com online book store
  2. "Islamic beliefs about human nature," Religion Facts, 2004-2013, at: http://www.religionfacts.com/
  3. M. Abdulsalam, "The Original Sin (Part 1 of 2), The Religion of Islam, 2006, at: http://www.islamreligion.com/
  4. "The Articles of Religion of the Methodist Church V-VIII," at: http://christianity.about.com/

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Copyright © 2013 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Originally written: 2013-MAY-06
Latest update: 2013-MAY-06
Author: B.A. Robinson

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