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An article by Contributing Editor Susan Humphreys

Original Sin: The Most Destructive of Doctrines

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In a recent article on the Religion News website, “Patriotism, nationalism and the American dream” 1 *Thomas Reese, a Jesuit Theologian started out with a very thoughtful piece and ended with one of the most over used cliches and destructive comments/excuses/justifications (use whichever word you prefer) for human behavior “We are all sinners.”

His actual quote is interesting:

“America is a nation of many people, none of them perfect.”

In my mind he should have stopped there but he went on to say:

“Christians recognize that we are all sinners, but we are also made in the image and likeness of God.”

The belief that “we are all sinners” stems from the Doctrine of Original Sin. Wikipedia has a good article about the origins of the Doctrine so I won’t go into all of that here. I suggest people read it for themselves. 2

Basically the Doctrine is the belief that man in his fallen state (from the moment Adam took a bite out of that apple) 3 has existed in the state of sin and ONLY with God’s grace, or from a “sincere” belief in God’s grace can man have any hope of rising above his fallen state to live a good or virtuous life and thus be worthy of being admitted to heaven where he will dwell for all of eternity in a blessed state bathing in God’s glory.

Different denominations have different nuances to this Doctrine and different ideas about what one must do to be saved but they all seem to agree on the idea that ONLY through God’s grace can they be anything but a sinful creature.

This doctrine is similar to but different from the idea of Karma. With Karma humans reap what they have sown, both from what was sown in a previous life as well as what they have sown in this one. So if your life is filled with good deeds, being a decent person it will reap good benefits. If in your previous life you were mean and cruel, or mean and cruel in this life you will suffer from mean and cruel people in this one.

Original sin is inherited, passed down from generation to generation, just for being born a human being. The sins of the fathers (in this case Adam) visited upon the descendents forever and ever.

Although this contradicts another Doctrine of Christianity that Jesus by dying on the cross atoned (as in paid for and removed the stain of sin) for all of mankind forever and ever. If this was really believed than humans would no longer be born in a state of Original Sin! This is actually a 4th flaw with the concept of the Doctrine of Original Sin but I have gotten ahead of myself here.

Hearing this Doctrine of Original Sin, some people think: Why bother to be good? I am a sinner and there is nothing I can do to be other than a sinner. We know that people IF they are told often enough that they are worthless, (sinners?) they come to believe it and act accordingly.

This is the prime psychological flaw with the Doctrine of Original Sin. The flaw with the concept of Karma is that it ignores reality—bad things do happen to good people.

A second flaw with this Doctrine of Original Sin is that it ignores the fact that there are good, decent, honest, respectful, virtuous people in this world that don’t believe in God and/or don’t buy into any of the Doctrines of Christian Theology.

IF you believe that ONLY Christians can be good, decent, honest, respectful, virtuous people, that all others are sinners (which also equates with Evil) then you can justify and sanctify (in your mind) anything that you do to them.

AND some Christians have done just this since the Doctrine was first put forth—Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, Atheists (people of any non-Christian faith), homosexuals (actually all members of the LGBT community), people of color and other (as in non-European) ethnic traditions, Catholics (who first invented the Doctrine, because they aren’t Protestants), Mormons and other offshoots of Christianity, have all been persecuted, belittled, demeaned, demonized.

And now this has carried over into politics and anyone who isn’t a Conservative (as in Republican) Evangelical Christian is a sinner and condemned to Hell for all eternity and don’t deserve to be treated honestly, fairly, justly or with respect. Back to Thomas Reese’s title they aren’t TRUE Americans, not REAL Patriots.

Actually some carry this one or two steps further if you aren’t a White, Conservative, born in America, Evangelical Christian you don’t deserve to be treated honestly, fairly, justly or with respect. If you are an outsider even the laws that protect the rights of TRUE Americans don’t protect your rights.

A third flaw with the Doctrine when combined with the Doctrine of once saved forever saved is that some people seem to think declaring your belief in Jesus as your savior frees you from sin—so they do anything they want, perhaps ask for forgiveness now and then, but all their sins are forgiven so there is no need to change their behavior. Belief has become a “get out of jail free card” for some.

Then there is the 4th Flaw I mentioned earlier: Jesus by dying on the cross atoned (as in paid for and removed the stain of sin) for all of mankind forever and ever. If this was really believed than humans would no longer be born in a state of Original Sin!

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All of this stems from this Doctrine of Original Sin, the most destructive of all Christian Doctrines. I understand that Theologians probably never intended for people to see the Doctrines in these ways BUT that seems to be what has happened.

Imagine what the world might have been like IF there had been a Doctrine of Inherent Goodness? I think there was an attempt to do just this in Genesis 1: 26.

And if you refer back to the earlier quotes from Thomas Reese he acknowledges this. Though I am not sure if he realizes it contradicts the concept of Original Sin.

“Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness…”

Image and likeness refers to more than just physical appearance but also to attitudes, behavior and temperament. When someone says about a person “He (or she) is made of the right stuff.” they aren’t talking about physical appearance they are talking about attitudes, behavior, and temperament.

If people are told frequently enough that they are inherently good, and that all others (even those that don’t believe what they believe, or that are very different from them in some other way are also inherently good, as opposed to being Evil sinners), that they were made in Gods image, folks might have been more inclined to behave that way in their words and actions--in their attitudes, behavior and temperament—in how they treat other people, other living things, as well as themselves!

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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. Thomas Reese, "Patriotism, nationalism and the American dream, Religion News, 2019-JUL-03, at: https://religionnews.com/
  2. Original Sin, Wikipedia, as on 2019-JUN-23, at: https://en.wikipedia.org/
  3. The Book of Genesis in the Bible describes the fruit as being taken from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil in the Garden of Eden. It is often referred to as an apple. However, apples are not indigenous to the Middle East. Some who believe in the existence of the magical tree suggest that it was a pomegranate. Genesis implies that Adam and Eve were created like the animals in not having a moral or ethical sense; they were driven by instinct. They disobeyed God's instruction by eating the fruit of the tree. A miracle happened: they immediately developed knowledge of good and evil and realized that they had committed an immoral act. God still considered them responsible, and punished them, their children, and all the remaining more than one hundred billion humans born since in the largest act of scapegoating in history.

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Copyright © 2019 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Original posting: 2019-JUL-06
Author: B.A. Robinson
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