According to literalist Christian theology, God originally created a perfect world – Adam and Eve, the first couple, living together in harmony with every other living creature in the paradisical Garden of Eden. However, we are told, Adam and Eve rebelled against their creator, eating from the tree of knowledge of good and evil in defiance of his command, and for their sin they were expelled from Paradise, condemned to live lives of toil, suffering and death. Nor did the repercussions of their deed end there, we are further told. According to the fundamentalists, we all bear the mark of Adam and Eve’s original sin and share responsibility for their transgression. We are all inherently sinful beings, trapped in our rebellion, unable to obey God’s laws and unable to live up to his uncompromising standard of holiness. Thus, the argument concludes, we can only be saved by trusting in the redemption of Jesus Christ, which God has so generously provided for us.
The numerous logical gaps in this story are laid out and dissected in “Sins of the Father“. This essay will examine the issue of original sin and inherent human depravity from a different perspective.
In examining this doctrine, the first question that arises is this. What caused the first sin to come into being? In other words, why did Adam and Eve choose to eat the fruit? We are told in Genesis 1:31 that God viewed his completed creation as “very good”, and most literalist Christians agree that the originally created world was perfect, free of sin and death until Eve took that fatal first bite.
But how can this be? Adam and Eve clearly were imperfect even before they ate the fruit. This is simple logic: if they were perfect, they would not have chosen to sin against God.
Aware of this fact, apologists usually attempt to explain the first couple’s actions as the result of free will. God loves us, the argument goes, and wants us to love him in return. But if he forced us to do this, if he programmed our love into us like programming a computer, it would not be genuine. Genuine love must be freely given, which is why God created us with free will, so we could of our own accord decide to worship him. However, if God gives us the choice to worship him, it logically follows that he must also give us the choice not to. In other words, by giving us the choice to do good, God necessarily also gave us the choice to do evil. These were the options given to Adam and Eve, and they chose the path of evil and sin.
But again, this argument denies logic. It is true that, if he gives us the option of doing good, God must logically also give us the option of doing evil. But that does not mean we must choose to do evil. Why couldn’t God have created free-willed beings who would freely choose only the good?
This is not an impossible or self-contradictory idea – it is clearly possible. God himself is the paradigmatic example. Though God presumably has free will, he never uses it to sin; he always chooses only what is good. Indeed, some theists claim he is literally incapable of sinning, yet this is not seen as a denial of his free will. So why didn’t God create us the same way as him? What about his free will is different from ours – why can he abstain from sin while we cannot?
The difference plainly does not lie in our possessing mortal bodies vulnerable to carnal temptation. Even when God took human form and came to earth as Jesus, he was still able to live a sinless life, or so it is claimed.
Why did God not create free-willed beings who, like him, would freely choose only what is good? The question stands, and I am unaware of any source that has even attempted to address it. This is a serious problem for Christianity – an important unanswered question that demands an answer. The only reasonable conclusion is that, contrary to the Bible, God created imperfection when he created Adam and Eve. Far from being “very good”, his initial creation was flawed. If we are to reject the conclusion that an all-knowing, all-powerful god made a mistake, we are forced to conclude that God deliberately created imperfect beings, in the full omniscient foreknowledge that they would not be able to keep the laws he set up for them, in the full knowledge and intent that the vast majority of them would therefore be doomed to an eternity of torture in the fiery pit he created for them.
Christians would no doubt dispute this, but the fact remains that Adam and Eve did not create their own natures. Any hint of rebellion, any trace of pride, any tinge of defiance that was to be found in their natures was there because it was put there by God. (Saying they were originally created without sinful inclinations but later took them on is absurd: why would a perfectly good person choose to add negative qualities to his character?) For that matter, the same is true of Satan: he did not create his own nature either. The arrogance and hubris which led him to disobey and then wage war on God were put in him by God at the time of his creation. Responsibility for any imperfection to be found within any created thing must ultimately lie with the creator. It would hardly be fair for God to blame us for being exactly as he created us to be, even though the Bible tells us he repeatedly does just that.
And on that note, let us consider humanity as a whole. The Christians tell us that we were initially created in God’s image, but we have fallen away from him and are now trapped by original sin. We are innately evil, innately separated from God, and all we have to do to deserve Hell is be born.
But why is it thus? Where did this inherently sinful nature of ours come from? Is it somehow the result of Adam and Eve’s original sin, or is it the opposite; was their original sin merely a result of their sinful nature? Which is the cause and which the effect? And if our nature is the cause and original sin the effect, where did that nature originate?
The dilemma runs as follows. Suppose evil human nature was the cause, resulting in the effect of original sin. But that means Adam and Eve were sinful, imperfect beings before they ever bit into the fruit of knowledge. We would therefore be forced to conclude, as above, that God’s original creation was flawed and that he is punishing us merely for being as he created us to be. Not surprisingly, Christians shy away from this option.
However, the other choice – which seems to be the one Christian theology has settled on – is at least as bad. Suppose Adam and Eve were perfect before they ate the fruit, and ignore for the moment the question of why they would then have chosen to do so. That would mean that they, and everyone else after them, were made imperfect by that transgression. For their one crime, God entirely reworked the first couple, changing them from a state of perfect grace to one where they were utterly trapped in sin and literally incapable of avoiding it – he removed their ability to obey his word, permanently added a variety of irresistible sinful inclinations to their hearts, and then extended that punishment to all of their innocent descendants throughout time. He then stated that our punishment for being what he had made us into was eternal damnation. We have been punished for something someone else did.
Incredibly, this is the choice that Christianity seems to have picked, as stated above. Christian apologists state that Adam was the “federal head” of the human race, that in some way he was the representative of all of humanity, and that therefore his sin is accounted to all of us and we are each held responsible for it. This doctrine is usually called imputed sin. As the Bible puts it, “…the result of one trespass was condemnation for all men” (Romans 5:18, NIV).
For all the Christian claims that God values our free will, this is a blatant infringement on human free will – making our fate depend on the actions of someone else over which we have no control! How can we possibly be responsible for what happened in Eden? We were not there; we did not even exist at the time. And I sincerely doubt that the rest of the human race gave Adam retroactive permission to act as their representative; I certainly didn’t.
Not only does this contradict the Christian belief that God highly values free will, it also contradicts the belief that justice is among God’s attributes. To consciously punish someone for an act of which they are not guilty is a terrible injustice by any reasonable definition of the word, not to mention irrational and cruel. Imagine if a man robbed a bank, was arrested and convicted, and at his trial the judge ruled that the man’s son – who was in another city minding his own business at the time – would also be brought to prison and would have to serve the same sentence along with his father. If theists are willing to concede this would be unjust and morally wrong, why do they apply a different standard to God? Assuming the Eden incident was a crime deserving of punishment, why didn’t God just punish Adam and Eve and allow their descendants to stay in Paradise?
This leads into the next point. According to some Christians, we are all hellbound because we are all inherently sinful, and although God loves us, he will not compromise his absolute standards of holiness. No matter how much he wants us all to be saved, he will not tolerate any sin whatsoever, and we are not capable of meeting such a high standard on our own. Therefore, those who die in their sins without accepting Jesus’ redemptive powers are condemned.
This doctrine is astonishingly unfair. According to this theology, if human beings have a sinful nature now, it is not the result of any choice on our part; it is only because God forced us to be that way. There is no logical reason why Adam and Eve’s transgression would cause sinful inclinations to enter into their descendants, other than that God decreed it would be so. In short, God caused us to be imperfect and then decided to hold us to an impossible standard of perfection, knowing it was one we could not meet.
How this can be reconciled with God’s supposed attributes of love, mercy and benevolence is a serious problem for Christians. Assuming God’s desire is that sin be minimized, why did he punish the first sin with a penalty that would ensure the production of enormously greater amounts of sin? Assuming God’s desire is that the maximum possible number of people be saved, why did he cause humans’ default state to be apart from him rather than together with him? In other words, instead of original sin, why not original virtue?
The suggestion that God must condemn billions of people because he has no chance but to maintain his own uncompromising standard of holiness, meanwhile, says some not very complimentary things about his nature. Consider the time before creation, when nothing existed except God and the void. For whatever reason, God decides to create a universe containing sentient beings.
If God is omniscient, it trivially follows that he must know everything about his own nature. He would certainly be aware of the fact that he cannot make compromises when it comes to his own requirements for behavior. If he is omniscient and can perceive the future, it further follows that, before he ever created the first atom of matter, much less the first free-willed human being, he knew that the vast majority of human beings would be damned to an eternity of torture and separation from him because they would not be able to live up to his standards.
Knowing this, why did he go ahead with creation? If he knew free-willed beings would not be able to satisfy his demand for moral perfection, why did he create free-willed beings at all? A good god would not create humans knowing in advance that the majority of them were doomed to eternal suffering. The fact that a few of us may be saved does not justify the endless suffering of a vast number more. The situation is analogous to a husband and wife who are both carriers of genes for an inherited disorder that dooms its victims to a life of constant, incurable suffering – if they are aware that this will be the fate of any child they have, would it not be the most moral course of action to refrain from having children? It is surely better not to exist than to exist in perpetual agony, so why did God choose to create us anyway?
This puzzle, like so many others, remains unsolved, a glaring flaw in the logical framework of Christian theism. Why did initially perfect human beings commit the first sin? Why did God not create us as free-willed beings who would freely choose only the good? Why are we held responsible for the actions of others and punished for acting just as we were created to act? Why did he create us knowing he would have to punish us thus? Unless all these questions can be satisfactorily reconciled, and I have yet to see an apologetics source that even tries to do this, much less accomplishes it, Christianity must be considered to fail the test of basic logical coherence.
One final point remains to be made. In considering humanity, we see a broad spectrum of behaviors, from those who are completely evil and hate-filled to those rare individuals who inspire us all and show how much potential the human race has. However, given the number of interactions each of us has with others every day, the number of factors that influence our moods, and the power of the emotions that we must master to behave morally, it would be a surprise if we never put a foot wrong from time to time. The person is rare indeed – probably nonexistent – who has never in their entire life said or done anything they later regretted, who has never given into selfish or angry or jealous impulses for even a moment. It is a simple observational fact that no one is perfect. But Christianity takes that fact and twists it to claim that therefore none of us can ever do anything good. From this degrading proposition, it reaches the conclusion that we are all inherently worthless, we are all hopelessly depraved, and we all deserve an eternity of inconceivable pain and anguish for no more reason than that we exist.
Not only is this false, it is psychologically harmful, and the detrimental effects of believing it should be obvious. Witness the many Christians who live in perpetual fear of sinning, who are constantly begging God to forgive them for real or imagined transgressions, who find only confusion, misery and depression where they were promised a sense of inner peace and contentment. (Many of the deconversion stories on this site written by former believers express this sentiment.) Believing that you are a wretch and that the best you can do is as filthy rags in your god’s sight turns life into joyless servitude, requiring a person to police their every action and thought, try to repress many entirely natural and healthy urges, and torment themselves for every slip-up, no matter how slight. How could anyone bear to live under such a gloomy, life-sapping cloud?
Christianity tries to win converts by piling guilt onto them for non-existent crimes. In effect, it tries to make us believe we are sick so it can sell us a cure. But as the saying goes, an entire pound of cure is not as good as a single ounce of prevention, and the prevention in this case is to realize that we are not sick, that we are not worthless sinners, and that while there may be badness in us, there is much good as well. It is past time for us to throw out the degrading idea of innate depravity that has shackled us and stifled our growth for so long and give ourselves the credit we deserve. Make no mistake, to discard this doctrine is not to deny all moral responsibility. We are still accountable, to ourselves and to others, for our behavior, but this is a standard that is in our power to meet. And if with the adoption of this standard comes the further realization that there is no good evidence for any supernatural beings to whom we owe anything at all, so much the better. Atheism is joy, it is freedom, and it is the empowering realization that we are in control, that we can direct our own lives, and that we have the potential to accomplish amazing things – all we have to do is decide to use it.