Something has gone terribly wrong.
For all the technological progress made over the last century, we’ve also been introduced to once-unthinkable horrors: bombs that vaporize cities, nations that seek to wipe out entire races, and generations of mothers that have become complicit in the murder of their unborn infants, at the hands of those who have taken an oath to do no harm. The crude barbarianism of bygone ages may be behind us, but the evil is still there—it’s just more sophisticated.
This in-built tendency of the human race to do evil is what Christians call original sin.
But the dogma of original sin claims more than this: it says that every individual newborn bears the stain of original sin—a mark on their souls so serious that it bars their entry into the beatific vision, even if they should die in infancy, before committing any personal sins.
This is why the Church is so insistent on the need for baptism.
Is original sin reasonable?
This is where so many atheists object. They question whether it is reasonable to hold every single member of the human race accountable for the sins of its ancestors so long ago. And they wonder where the justice is in viewing newborn infants as sinful—long before they have reached the age of maturity and the ability to reason between right and wrong.
Original sin is eminently defensible from the perspectives of the Bible and of Church Tradition.
But does it make sense? Is it just?
In fact, it does and is. Let’s begin by re-framing the question this way: In our modernized society, in which individual rights are paramount, would we ever consider holding one person accountable for the debts of another? Put another way, would our society ever consider limiting the freedom and happiness of anyone who did nothing wrong and personally appears to pose no threat to his fellow man?
The answer to both is yes.
Both situations have occurred or could conceivably happen. Both offer us, as Christians, useful analogies for original sin that help us to better understand this vital doctrine and to explain it to others who may not be swayed by arguments from Scripture and tradition.
Original Sin as Infection
Consider the 1995 film Outbreak, with Dustin Hoffman, Morgan Freeman, and other top-billing stars. The story centers on an imported monkey that carries a deadly Ebola-like disease from Africa: the tissues of those infected break down and their whole body bleeds in what appears to be an agonizingly slow death. Once the military gets wind of the outbreak, a small California town is put under quarantine: no one can leave, even those who show no symptoms, because they could be carriers of the disease. At one point in the film, some residents attempt to break out of the quarantined area and are gunned down by soldiers as their car careens towards the military cordon.
The film was a hit, topping the box office for three straight weeks. Stellar acting and a thriller plot no doubt had much to do with its success. But it also resonated with viewers because it seemed so plausible. While the ending of the movie may be far-fetched, the basic premise seemed not only believable but entirely reasonable: Should a major infectious disease break out, does anyone doubt that somewhere in the basement of the Department of Homeland Security or the CDC there are plans for quarantining the infected area?
It’s happened before. In the 1840s, thousands of Irish immigrants to North America who had contracted cholera were quarantined on an island in the St. Lawrence River. Many died there. Some quarantines are within living memory: during the polio epidemic, Annapolis, Maryland was quarantined in 1935, as was Tulsa, Oklahoma one year later. It’s not unheard of today, either: in 2006, local health officials quarantined a senior living community in San Mateo County after an outbreak of a highly contagious virus that affects the gastrointestinal system.
We can imagine that many of the residents of Annapolis, Tulsa, and that senior living community had no symptoms but weren’t given an exception: they were quarantined with all the rest, barred from leaving what in some cases must have seemed like hellish circumstances.
Does this not furnish us with an analogy for original sin?
Indeed, Scripture explicitly encourages us to think of original sin in terms of disease. In Matthew 5:8 we read that only the “clean of heart” will see God. Likewise, Revelation 21:27 states that “nothing unclean” will enter the heavenly city of Jerusalem. (Psalm 24:4 says much the same.) It is from such impurities that Christ came to redeem us: in Matthew 8:17 we are told that He “took away our infirmities and bore our diseases,” in fulfillment of Isaiah.
Original Sin as Inherited Debt
Another analogy is the concept of inheritance. We inherit money, houses, cars, and other property from our parents and relatives. The same goes for some of their debts, such as some credit card debt and any homes you inherit with a mortgage still on them. It may be unpleasant, but it’s a fact of personal finance and inheritance laws.
Again, Scripture also speaks of sin in terms of debt. We have to go no further than the second petition of the Our Father as recorded in Matthew: forgive us our debts—a passage that St. Augustine takes as a refutation of the Pelagian heresy that “a righteous man is free altogether from sin in this life” (the Treatise on the Gift of Perseverance).
This is consistent with the imagery used elsewhere in Scripture. 1 Corinthians 6:20 says that we were “bought with a great price,” referring to Christ’s redemptive passion and death. This is echoed in the next chapter, in verse 23: “You are bought with a price; be not made the bondslaves of men.”
The Debt and the Disease
Thinking of original sin in these ways—as an infectious disease and as inherited debt—points to the fundamental truth behind the doctrine: we are all connected to each other. Humanity is, in a sense, one large community, in which mystical bonds tie all of us to each other. Traditional marriage and the institution of the family profoundly witness to this truth, which is why modern society is so uncomfortable with them, preferring to think of persons as autonomous units who cannot be burdened with any responsibilities which they did not freely choose for themselves.
It is in the context of this truth—the unity of the human race—that original sin must really be understood. Through the sin of one, Adam, all were implicated and sentenced to death, as Romans 5 tells us. While this is very bad news for all of us, it must be weighed against some very good news: through the suffering and death of another man, all are redeemed.
The good news far outweighs the bad: Our condemnation came through a mere man, but our salvation was the work of God made man. Where sin abounded, grace abounded even more, as Romans says. Through original sin death became a fact of life while Christ not only restored us to life, but also introduced us to a life of intimacy with God. Only Adam and Eve tasted the forbidden fruit, but all of us are invited to the Eucharistic feast, which is but a foretaste of future bliss.