Original Sin: the Harshest Doctrine?

bloody apple 2Something 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.


image: shutterstock

Stephen Beale


Stephen Beale is a freelance writer based in Providence, Rhode Island. Raised as an evangelical Protestant, he is a convert to Catholicism. He is a former news editor at GoLocalProv.com and was a correspondent for the New Hampshire Union Leader, where he covered the 2008 presidential primary. He has appeared on Fox News, C-SPAN and the Today Show and his writing has been published in the Washington Times, Providence Journal, the National Catholic Register and on MSNBC.com and ABCNews.com. A native of Topsfield, Massachusetts, he graduated from Brown University in 2004 with a degree in classics and history. His areas of interest include Eastern Christianity, Marian and Eucharistic theology, medieval history, and the saints. He welcomes tips, suggestions, and any other feedback at bealenews at gmail dot com. Follow him on Twitter at https://twitter.com/StephenBeale1

Subscribe to CE
(It's free)

Go to Catholic Exchange homepage

  • JMC

    Another analogy goes back to the Middle Ages, and is the one used in the Baltimore Catechism to answer this same objection, specifically to the loss of physical immortality. If a landholder committed some offense, he could lose his land, and therefore it wasn’t there for his children to inherit, even though they were innocent of the offense. From here it’s easy to extend the analogy to a loss of certain rights or privileges. An offended king could bar a man from one or more such as punishment, and that punishment could be extended *in perpetuity,* meaning that his descendants would also be barred from those rights until and unless some future monarch lifted the ban. Europeans would understand this analogy better than most Americans, who have no historical reference for it, as America has never had a monarch or a system of nobility – though it can be argue that some politicians have in the past, as well as presently, acted as if they were monarchs or noblemen. >:D

  • David T

    I believe Augustin was well.. wrong. I think the Fathers NEVER taught original sin but ancestral sin until Augustin came along who could not read Greek very well I think the east holds this doctrine and so I.

  • Mary

    Thanks for a good article… allow one clarification please… regarding the above statement: “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.”…the Church has stated that it has no doctrine on whether or not an unbaptized child or an aborted child for that matter, is denied Heaven or the Beatific vision…the Church reminded us of the unbaptized good thief who Jesus Himself declared, “This day you will be with Me in Paradise”…so we know for certain that it is at least possible to enter Heaven by other than the normal means… The Church states in the Catechism (1259-1261) Concerning children who have died without Baptism, the mercy of God (who wills all to be saved) and Jesus’ tenderness toward the children, allow the Church to hope that these children are saved. The Church calls parents not to prevent their children from receiving Baptism.”

    So yes, we parents should not delay in getting our children Baptized but it is an incorrect statement to say for a certainty they are denied entry into the Beatific Vision…

  • Richard III

    I’ve wondered for a while if abortion could be considered a form of martyrdom. People who die martyrs go straight to Heaven.

  • Kirk

    Another Mary chiming in to counter your premise of God denying unbaptized infants entry into the beatific vision – I think that is some very barbaric idea from the dregs of religious drivel. Do you really think that an all-good God, who died for us and rose to new life, would deny heaven to the most innocent among us because of the decision of their parents? If you buy that, Mr. Beale, then I’m sure I can find a few more ignominious things i could sell you. I believe in baptism, but you won’t convince me to buy this.

  • Stephen Beale

    In response to Mary: Original sin is a dogma, defined at the Council of Trent, which built on centuries of other statements. For example, the Second Council of Lyons in 1274 stated this: “However, the souls of those who die in mortal sin, or with original sin alone, go down to hell, to be punished with different punishments however.” [Note that hell here could include limbo.] It is true that recently the Church has said we have reason to hope for the salvation of unbaptized infants, but this is on the level of hope, not faith. In other words, it is not something we can believe, only something for which we can hope.

    It’s worth noting that even the Vatican commission that made the case for this hope also made this statement: “It is clear that the traditional teaching on this topic has
    concentrated on the theory of limbo, understood as a state which includes the souls of infants who die subject to original sin and without baptism, and who, therefore, neither merit the beatific vision, nor yet are subjected to any punishment, because they are not guilty of any personal sin.” This is consistent with what I wrote above.

    For a thorough discussion of the case of unbaptized infants who die, see my article on limbo and the extensive discussion in the comments section. http://catholicexchange.com/whatever-happened-to-limbo/

  • kirk

    Thank you for your reply Mr Beale, but i still maintain my statement in the last post. I do believe in the dogma of Original Sin, but that is not personal sin, which is a whole different can of worms that eats the soul from the inside (figuratively speaking). And, just as the Church teaches that the Baptism of Desire, when water baptism is not available, is sufficient in a time of mortal danger, so the unbaptized infant who has committed no personal sin and unable to form the desire is not sent to hell. No other explanation can convince me that our God of complete compassion and love would do otherwise. We can nitpick the dogma until it is ridiculous, losing all sense of reality in our insistence on the “jots & tittles” of the law. Jesus died to set us free, not to enslave us.
    I know, I’ve not stated my response in your “theological” language, but as a person raised on the other side of the Tiber before becoming Catholic and subsequent personal study of the teaching of the Church and the Catholic approach to Scripture. I’ve observed that Catholics are sometimes extremely fundamental, and others who are so liberal that anything goes. I try to be neither, and pray for some common sense and sanity. I don’t know if that prayer has been answered, but i still hope.

  • Stephen Beale

    Kirk I appreciate that spirit of not being legalistic or liberal and think I share it. I am not saying infants go to hell as we usually understand it. This is a great unanswered question. My personal view is that there are strong reasons for believing they end up in limbo. (I encourage you to read my piece on limbo for more on how this is consistent with a compassionate God.) Either way, as the commission said, they “do not merit” the beatific vision. Beyond that we get into the realm of theological speculation. – Stephen

  • Ed

    It makes more sense when we think of our bodies as having two components. We are embodied souls .. so we have a physical aspect and an unseen spiritual one, the soul. The analogy to disease then fits, outbreaks of disease infect the body, the infection of Adam and Eve’s choice affects and continues to infect each person. Both have antidotes .. one maybe some sort of injection and the other baptism. When we think of ourselves as having two components it makes perfect sense. If we deny the spiritual side of our being then original sin sounds like nonsense.

  • Lauretta Sesock

    What then can we make of the Church’s teaching in Vatican II that those who are not Christians but who strive to live a good life, as they understand it, may attain salvation? Those people would not be baptized. I think we try to box God in and deny his capacity to work outside the sacraments. Yes, they are the ordinary means of receiving sanctifying grace, but I don’t think the Church teaches they are the only means that God confers his grace.

  • kirk

    I think that the concept of “Limbo” is pure speculation as well. However, i also believe that in this life, we only have partial knowledge, as it says in 1 Corinthians 13, “My knowledge is imperfect now; then i shall know, even as i am known…” We can speculate all we want to, but God alone knows pure truth, and we believe he will reveal that to us in eternal life. So, i remain convinced that infants, aborted fetus’s who had no opportunity to commit personal sin will not be in an eternal limbo. (or hell) That would go against the the Church’s entire teaching of sanctity of life. Would God expect us to respect life, while he does not?
    Wonderful subject for further conversation. Thank you for responding to comments given.