What is original sin?
Christianity and the fall
Transmission of original sin
Getting rid of original sin
Problems with original sin
St Augustine and original sin
Churches’ teachings about original sin
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What is original sin?
Original sin is an Augustine Christian doctrine that says that everyone is born sinful. This means that they are born with a built-in urge to do bad things and to disobey God. It is an important doctrine within the Roman Catholic Church. The concept of Original Sin was explained in depth by St Augustine and formalised as part of Roman Catholic doctrine by the Councils of Trent in the 16th Century.
Original sin is not just this inherited spiritual disease or defect in human nature; it’s also the ‘condemnation’ that goes with that fault.
An explanation for the evils of the world
Some Christians believe that original sin explains why there is so much wrong in a world created by a perfect God, and why people need to have their souls ‘saved’ by God.
A condition you’re in, not something you do
Original sin is a condition, not something that people do: It’s the normal spiritual and psychological condition of human beings, not their bad thoughts and actions. Even a newborn baby who hasn’t done anything at all is damaged by original sin.
The sin of Adam
In traditional Christian teaching, original sin is the result of Adam and Eve’s disobedience to God when they ate a forbidden fruit in the Garden of Eden.
Effects of original sin
Original sin affects individuals by separating them from God, and bringing dissatisfaction and guilt into their lives.
On a world scale, original sin explains such things as genocide, war, cruelty, exploitation and abuse, and the “presence and universality of sin in human history”.
How to cure original sin
Some Christians believe that human beings can’t cure themselves of original sin. The only way they can be saved from its consequences is by the grace of God.
The only way people can receive God’s grace is by accepting his love and forgiveness, believing that Jesus Christ died on the cross to redeem their sins, and getting baptised.
Secular ideas of original sin
Modern thinkers don’t think the doctrine of original sin is literally true, but they do think it contains real truths about the human condition:
The world is not as good as we want it to be
We are not as good as we want to be
Individual behaviour is greatly influenced by things outside the individual’s control
Many of these are historical things:
events in the individual’s past
events in the past of the individual’s family
customs that their culture has built up through history
These things affect humanity as a group as well as individuals
Christianity and the fall
Original sin is part of the Doctrine of the Fall, which is the belief that when Adam and Eve disobeyed God, they ‘fell’ from perfection and brought evil into a perfect world.
Fall goes with redemption
For Christians, the fall is inseparable from redemption – the act by which human souls are washed clean of the stain of original sin.
A tale of two Adams
Christians believe that the story of the fall and redemption is a story of two Adams, and sometimes refer to Christ as the “Second Adam”.
The first Adam sins and causes humanity to fall; the second Adam atones for that sin with his death and redeems humanity.
The traditional story of original sin
The story behind original sin is told in the Old Testament book of Genesis:
God originally made a perfect world. He created Adam and put him to live in the Garden of Eden – a blissful place where he had nothing to do but take care of the garden.
God told Adam that he could do anything he wanted, except eat the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.
Later, God created Eve to be Adam’s wife. Eve was tricked by the serpent into eating the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of life and death. She gave some of the fruit to Adam and he ate it too.
Adam and Eve realised that they were naked and hid in shame. When God next visited the Garden he realised that they had disobeyed him.
God banished them from the Garden of Eden into the harsh world outside.
God also banned them from eating the fruit of the tree of life, and so death entered the world.
The Fall and the origin of evil
Christians believe that when Adam and Eve sinned in Eden and turned away from God they brought sin into the world and turned the whole human race away from God.
The doctrine absolves God of responsibility for the evils that make our world imperfect by teaching that Adam and Eve introduced evil to a perfect world when they disobeyed him.
An alternative understanding of the story of the fall emphasises that Adam and Eve did wrong because they ‘gave in’ to the temptation of the serpent in the Garden of Eden.
These two versions offer radically different ideas about the origin of evil:
in the first version Adam and Eve bring evil into the world by disobeying God
in the second version evil already exists, and Adam and Eve bring sin to humanity by giving in to it
This second understanding fits well with human psychology. Looking at it this way, original sin becomes the tendency for human beings to ‘give in’ when tempted by the prevailing evils of the society around them, rather than standing up for good, and it helps explain why each individual finds temptation so hard to resist. As the Bible puts it:
… I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate…
A third understanding teaches not so much that Adam’s sin brought sin into the world, but that it removed from humanity the gift that enabled people to be perfectly obedient to God.
A modern interpretation
A modern interpretation of the fall might go like this:
Adam was created in the image of God with the potential to be perfectly fulfilled through his existence and his relationship with God.
But Man failed to fulfil his potential and opted to go it alone and estrange himself from God.
Jesus as the “Second Adam” re-established the relationship with God and showed how man can become perfectly human – which puts him in right relationship with both the creator and his creation.
Usefulness of the doctrine
Original sin is a difficult doctrine, and a rather gloomy one, but it had some key theological benefits that have kept it as a mainstream Christian teaching:
Universality: Original sin teaches that all human beings are flawed and sinful – no-one is better than anyone else
Non-dualist: Original sin explains evil without having to portray God as having a bad side, or an evil partner, responsible for the badness in the world; evil comes from human rebelliousness
Non-designed: Original sin explains how a world that God designed to be perfect is actually full of evil
Not inevitable: Original sin teaches that the world could have remained perfect – it was not inevitable that Adam and Eve would disobey God
Mechanism: Original sin demonstrates a mechanism that enabled the original disobedience to damage everyone
The Fall and Christian Europe
What effect has the concept of original sin had on Western culture, and how did it influence gender and morality in Christian Europe?
Discussing the question are Martin Palmer, theologian and Director of the International Consultancy on Religion, Education and Culture; Griselda Pollock, Professor of Art History at the University of Leeds; and John Carey, Emeritus Professor of English Literature at Oxford University.
Transmission of original sin
How does original sin get from Adam to 21st century human beings?
One rather difficult explanation says that the whole human race was somehow contained in Adam and so when Adam fell, they fell too.
The other explanation, expanded below, is that all human beings are descendants of Adam and Eve.
Modern Catholic teaching is less clear about the mechanism of transmission and refers to it as a mystery.
St Augustine’s theory
St Augustine, who largely devised the theory of original sin, thought that original sin was transmitted from generation to generation through sexual intercourse. Augustine did not say exactly how this happened.
He said that it was transmitted by “concupiscence”, when people had sex and conceived a child.
Concupiscence is a technical theological word that Augustine used to refer to sexual desire as something bad in the soul that was inseparable from normal human sexual impulses.
Sexual desire was bad, he taught, because it could totally overwhelm those caught up in it, depriving them of self-control and rational thought. This disapproving view of passion was quite common among Christians of Augustine’s time.
Augustine thought that concupiscence was present in all sexual intercourse. He thought that it was just as bad and uncontrolled in a marriage as it was in non-marital sex, but that an excuse could be made for it within marriage because its purpose was to produce legitimate children.
This bad element in sex provides the means by which original sin is transmitted from father to child. It transmits both humanity’s guilt for Adam’s crime and the sickness or defect that gives human beings a sinful nature.
…whenever it comes to the actual process of generation, the very embrace which is lawful and honourable cannot be effected without the ardour of lust….
[This lust] is the daughter of sin, as it were; and whenever it yields assent to the commission of shameful deeds, it becomes also the mother of many sins.
Now from this concupiscence whatever comes into being by natural birth is bound by original sin…
Augustine, De bono coniugali
The Council of Trent
The Council or Trent (1545-63), or Trentine councils were a series of Roman Catholic theological meetings in response to the Reformation.
The Council of Trent gave the official stamp to the idea that original sin was transferred from generation to generation by propagation – which means during the sexual act that led to conception. This formalised the notion of Original Sin as part of Roman Catholic doctrine.
The Council explicitly ruled out the idea that original sin was transferred by “imitation”; in order to block the idea that human beings just copied the bad example set by their parents and others.
Imitation and mimesis
These closely related ideas teach that original sin is passed on by copying the sinful tendencies of other people. The Council of Trent decreed that this idea was false.
Getting rid of original sin
The only way a person can ‘cleanse’ their soul from sin is to:
accept that Christ’s death on the cross atoned for this sin
accept that only God’s grace can cure this sin
confess their sins and ask for forgiveness
Many churches accept that infants can be cleansed of original sin by being baptised soon after birth. The other elements required are carried out by adults on the baby’s behalf during the ceremony.
In St Paul’s letter to the Galatians, he wrote: “Christ has set us free; stand fast therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery”. This conception of Redemption as freedom from bondage is crucial for Judeo-Christian thought.
Three academics – Richard Harries, Bishop of Oxford; Janet Soskice, Reader in Modern Theology and Philosophical Theology at Cambridge University; and Stephen Mulhall, Fellow and Tutor in Philosophy at Oxford University – discuss the idea of transformation from fallenness to salvation.
Problems with original sin
The unanswered question
On the face of it, original sin doesn’t answer the question as to how evil got into the world; instead it leaves other questions to be answered. As one writer puts it:
Why is there original sin? Because Adam sinned? Then why did Adam sin? If it was because of the serpent, why did the serpent sin? If the serpent is supposed to have been a fallen angel, why did the angel sin? And so on.
And there is a second, but related, question. If evil did not exist before Adam sinned, how could Adam know that what he was about to do was evil – how was he to know that it was wrong to disobey God?
For modern people the idea of being punished for a crime committed by someone else is unethical and unacceptable.
Original sin belongs to each of us because it belongs to all.
The doctrine of original sin blames Eve for tempting Adam into sin and has been responsible for centuries of Christian bias against women.
Augustine’s theory of original sin was so intrinsically tied up with his disapproval of human sexual love that for centuries it contaminated all sexual passion with the idea of sin.
It’s too pessimistic
Some Christian thinkers are unhappy with the idea that human beings start out so bad that they can’t become good without God’s help.
It’s not literally true
Science shows that the Biblical creation story is not literally true, and demonstrates that Adam and Eve and the Garden of Eden are myths and not historical figures.
This destroys the idea of original sin as being caused by the misbehaviour of the first man and woman, and the idea of inheriting guilt or punishment for that misbehaviour.
Most modern theologians don’t think this a good reason to abandon the doctrine of the fall. They believe that although the story is not historically true, it does contain important truths about the state of humanity.
It’s contradicted by evolution
The doctrine of original sin is based on the idea that God created a perfect world, and that humanity damaged it and themselves by disobeying him.
Evolution, on the other hand, suggests that life in the world is steadily changing and becoming more diverse. Scientists do not tend to think of this as a moral good or evil, but in a sense evolution sees life on earth as moving closer to ‘perfection’ – becoming better adapted to its environment.
The biblical story of the perfect and finished creation from which human beings fell into sin is pre-Darwinian mythology and post-Darwinian nonsense.
Bishop John Shelby Spong, A Call for a New Reformation, 1998
A more modern idea is to give an ethical spin to the evolutionary idea and suggest that humanity should not be concerned about a past fall from grace, but concentrate on becoming more ethical beings and thus bringing about a better world.
What about unbaptised babies?
Bishop Richard Holloway has described the idea that unbaptised babies go to hell as “one of the most unsympathetic of the Christian doctrines,” and not greatly improved by the teaching that there is a special “limbo” for unbaptised babies on the outskirts of the inferno.
This is covered later in this article.
Is guilt good?
Original sin has been criticised for inspiring excessive feelings of guilt. The 18th-century politician and philosopher Edmund Burke once said: “Guilt was never a rational thing; it distorts all the faculties of the human mind, it perverts them, it leaves a man no longer in the free use of his reason, it puts him into confusion.”
Is the feeling of guilt a vital part of our moral lives or can it do more harm than good? Discussing the question are Stephen Mulhall, Fellow and Tutor in Philosophy at New College, Oxford; Miranda Fricker, Senior Lecturer in Philosophy at Birkbeck, University of London; and Oliver Davies, Professor of Christian Doctrine at King’s College London.
The concept of ‘Limbo’
One of the biggest problems the Catholic Church faced over the years was the problem of children who died before they were baptised.
Before the 13th Century, all unbaptised people, including new born babies who died, would go to Hell, according to the Catholic Church. This was because original sin had not been cleansed by baptism. This idea however was criticised by Peter Abelard, a French scholastic philosophiser, who said that babies who had no personal sin didn’t even deserve punishment.
It was Abelard who introduced the idea of ‘Limbo’. The word comes from the Latin ‘limbus’, meaning the edge. This would be a state of existence where unbaptised babies, and those unfortunate enough to have been born before Jesus, would not experience pain but neither would they experience the Beatific Vision of God.
Abelard’s idea was accepted in the 13th century by Pope Innocent III, the most powerful Pope in Roman Catholic history. The idea of Limbo was defined in 1904 by Pope Pius X in his catechism.
Babies dead without baptism go to Limbo, where they do not enjoy God, but neither do they suffer, because, having Original Sin alone, they do not deserve Paradise, but neither do they merit Hell or Purgatory.
Pope Pius X
However, unease remained over reconciling a Loving God with one who sent babies to Limbo and the church still faced much criticism.
The Church, which has never claimed to definitely know who will go to Heaven apart from the Saints, or Hell, has said that the issue has long been one of speculation in the Church. This speculation has led to an oversimplification of the matter, and some people have regarded it as fact when it was never the case.
Catholics are only sure of the following two pieces of information in this matter:
that God is merciful
that baptism is necessary for salvation
Catholics feel sure that God won’t impose punishment on babies who are free from personal guilt, but they do admit they don’t know what their afterlife will hold.
State of Limbo revised
In 1992, Pope John Paul II had Limbo removed from the catechism and both Pope John Paul and Pope Benedict XVI urged further study on the concept. In April 2007 Pope Benedict XVI approved the findings of a report by the International Theological Commission, a Vatican advisory body, which found grounds that the souls of unbaptised children would go to heaven, thus revising traditional teaching on Limbo.
The report said there were “reasons to hope that infants who die without baptism may be saved and brought into eternal happiness”.
Parents were urged to continue to baptise their children, as the Vatican stressed that baptism is still considered necessary to achieve salvation; the report emphasised that “there are reasons to hope that God will save these infants precisely because it was not possible” to baptise them.
St Augustine and original sin
St Augustine was Bishop of Hippo, in what is now Algeria, from 396 to 430. He was one of the greatest theologians in history and his ideas still influence Christian thought today.
Although he didn’t invent the doctrine of original sin, his ideas about it dominated Western Church teaching.
Augustine’s theory shows great understanding of human psychology. It provides an explanation for human suffering and guilt by teaching that those human beings somehow deserved these things.
Human beings deserve to suffer because the first parents sinned. And since humanity deserves the bad things it gets, humanity can comfort itself with the idea that it has a just rather than an unjust God.
This made the presence of evil in the world easier to understand, and answered the question of why a benevolent God would allow such a state of affairs to exist.
Purpose of the theory
Augustine developed his idea of original sin for several reasons:
to explain the almost irresistible pressure to behave badly that troubles even the most saintly people
to justify the need to baptise babies as soon as possible after birth
to demonstrate that human beings are totally reliant on God’s grace and all-powerful goodness
to defeat the ideas of Pelagius, an English theologian
Augustine saw original sin as working in two ways:
inherited guilt for a crime
spiritual sickness or weakness
Augustine thought that humanity was originally perfect (“man’s nature was created at first faultless and without any sin”), immortal and blessed with many talents, but that Adam and Eve disobeyed God, and introduced sin and death to the world.
Augustine didn’t see any need to provide a good reason why Adam, who had originally been created perfect, chose to sin, or why God hadn’t created a perfect being that was incapable of sin.
As far as Augustine was concerned the point was that Adam had sinned and humanity had to deal with the consequences.
Modern people would think it unjust that human beings should suffer for something that happened long before they existed, but to people in Augustine’s time the idea of punishing later generations for their parents’ crimes was familiar.
Why Adam’s sin affects everyone
Augustine developed the following argument:
the whole essence of human nature was contained in Adam, the first man
when Adam disobeyed God, the whole of human nature disobeyed God
thus the whole of human nature became sinful
thus the whole human race was damaged for all time.
Nothing remains but to conclude that in the first man all are understood to have sinned, because all were in him when he sinned; whereby sin is brought in with birth and not removed save by the new birth… it is manifest that in Adam all sinned, so to speak, en masse. By that sin we became a corrupt mass.
Bible scholars think that this element of Augustine’s theory was partly based on a mistranslation in the Latin version of the Bible. However, Augustine does not base his entire argument only on that particular text, and his theory is not wrecked by this error.
Having established that every human being had inherited guilt from Adam, Augustine taught that this was why that all human beings were damned, even if they didn’t commit any extra sins of their own.
Consequence of original sin
Augustine was certain that the consequence of original sin was damnation. This even applied to people who hadn’t committed any sins, like newborn babies, if they died before their souls were cleaned by baptism.
People could only escape damnation through God’s grace, and the sacrifice of Jesus on the Cross for their sins. God’s grace was passed on through baptism (or martyrdom – but this was a route that few would choose).
Unfortunately there was no guarantee that everyone who was baptised would be saved from damnation, merely the certainty that those who weren’t baptised would go to hell.
Churches’ teachings about original sin
Protestant teaching – Calvin
The Protestant theologian John Calvin (1509-1564) believed that humanity’s unbelief and disobedience had so fundamentally changed the human race that little, if anything, of God was left in it.
We are lost, there is no means of help; and whether we are great or small, fathers or children, we are all without exception in a state of damnation if God does not remove from us the curse which weighs upon us, and that by His generosity and grace, without His being obliged to do so.
Protestant – modern
Many modern Protestants would not take quite such a gloomy view of humanity as Calvin, and would not regard humankind as evil in essence, without any trace of the divine image.
They would still teach that human beings are ‘fallen’ and need to ‘get right with God’, by believing that Christ’s death ‘atoned’ for their sin, accepting that they can only be ‘saved’ by God’s freely given ‘grace’, and being baptised.
The Christian Orthodox churches don’t interpret original sin in the way that Augustine did. They don’t accept that people can be guilty of a sin they did not commit, and so reject the idea of inherited guilt passed down the generations.
The Orthodox interpretation of original sin is that the way in which human beings inherit sinfulness is that human history, culture and society have created a moral climate which disposes human beings to behave sinfully; as a result, all people need God’s help to avoid sin.
Roman Catholic teaching
The teaching of the Roman Catholic Church was summarised by Pope Paul VI:
We believe that in Adam all have sinned, which means that the original offence committed by him caused human nature, common to all men, to fall to a state in which it bears the consequences of that offence, and which is not the state in which it was at first in our first parents, established as they were in holiness and justice, and in which man knew neither evil nor death.
It is human nature so fallen, stripped of the grace that clothed it, injured in its own natural powers and subjected to the dominion of death, that is transmitted to all men, and it is in this sense that every man is born in sin.
We therefore hold, with the Council of Trent, that original sin is transmitted with human nature ‘not by imitation, but by propagation’ and that it is thus ‘proper to everyone.’
We believe that our Lord Jesus Christ, by the sacrifice of the cross, redeemed us from original sin and all the personal sins committed by each one of us, so that, in accordance with the word of the Apostle, ‘where sin abounded, grace did more abound.’
Paul VI 1968