A young man wrote me yesterday to ask me what exactly the phrase “original sin” means. So:
Dear polite kid who wrote to ask me that:
Original sin is when you sin in a way that’s so unique no one’s ever sinned that way before. Hence its originality.
Har! Kid, if you don’t know my work, you might not have expected that kind of top-notch Comedy Insertion. But that’s the sort of thing you can expect here at JohnShore.com.
Wait! Come back!
No, but seriously: Do not—repeat, do not—endeavor to find a new, original way to sin. I’ve tried that, and believe me, someone always ends up having to call the police and/or an ambulance. Besides, there are no new ways to sin. Without question, every way that it’s possible for anyone to sin is a way that people have been sinning since time began.
And why have people always sinned? Why is it virtually impossible to be a human being and not sin about as often as you inhale?
Because of the real—and truly unfunny—meaning of original sin.
The term “original sin” usually refers to one of two things. The first is the original original sin—ground zero, as it were, for the whole idea of original sin. This is the actual event, recorded in the first book of the Bible (which is “The Book of Genesis”), when Adam and Eve, then blissfully living and gamboling about in the paradisiacal Garden of Eden, ruined everything by shamelessly noshing on the one fruit that God had very specifically told them to never, ever eat.
“Eat anything in the garden you want!” God (in effect) told the world’s first couple. “Anything! The only thing I’m telling you not to eat is the fruit off this one tree, right here. Everything will remain perfectly great for you guys, if you just do not eat the fruit off this tree right here.”
So, of course, that’s the fruit Adam and Eve just had to gobble down the moment they thought God wasn’t looking.
And that is when everything, for them and everybody who would ever come after them, started going straight to You Know Where.
Curse that Satan! (As you probably know, it was the silver-tongued Satan who sweet-talked Eve into taking that terrible first bite of that forbidden fruit (which is where that term comes from, by the way). We read in Genesis 3 that the Evil One was “more crafty than any of the wild animals.” Which brings up the question of how crafty animals used to be, anyway. Which makes me think of Yogi Bear. Which means it’s time to move on.)
So when people talk about “original sin” they’re often referring to what, in Christian terms, is the actual first sin ever committed by any human being, ever.
The eating of the forbidden fruit by Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden is the original sin.
Usually, though, when people talk about “original sin,” they’re referring to something a lot bigger and broader than that. They’re usually referring to the effect of Adam and Eve’s first transgression against the will of God, to the indelible stain of shame and sinfulness that Christians (sometimes literally; sometimes metaphorically) believe that Adam and Eve’s original sin made the legacy of all humanity after them.
Adam and Eve’s first transgression against God precipitated this great and tragic Fall of Man. The idea there is that when, through their willful disobedience of God, Adam and Eve fell out of God’s grace, we all fell out of God’s grace. When those two got kicked out of the Garden of Eden, it meant that none of us would ever be able to return to the state of blissful, constant communion with God that our Original Parents ruined by insisting that they knew better than God about what was good for them.
And so to this day, we all struggle with the results—with the shame, greed, selfishness, meanness, nastiness, inclination to do evil, etc.—that come from those inevitable times when we, too, imagine that we know what’s better for us than God does.
Wanna see how angry God was at the audacity of Adam and Eve’s disobedience of him, at the way they so clearly demonstrated to him that, in their opinion, the endless, free bounty he’d granted them just wasn’t quite good enough?
Here, from Genesis 3, is part of His response:
Then the LORD God said to the woman, “What is this you have done?”
The woman said, “The serpent [being Satan] deceived me, and I ate.”
So the LORD God said to the serpent, “Because you have done this,
“Cursed are you above all the livestock
and all the wild animals!
You will crawl on your belly
and you will eat dust
all the days of your life. …
To the woman he said,
“I will greatly increase your pains in childbearing;
with pain you will give birth to children.
Your desire will be for your husband,
and he will rule over you.”
To Adam he said, ” … “Cursed is the ground because of you;
through painful toil you will eat of it
all the days of your life.
It will produce thorns and thistles for you,
and you will eat the plants of the field.
By the sweat of your brow
you will eat your food
until you return to the ground,
since from it you were taken;
for dust you are
and to dust you will return.”
So the LORD God banished him from the Garden of Eden to work the ground from which he had been taken. After he drove the man out, he placed on the east side of the Garden of Eden cherubim and a flaming sword flashing back and forth to guard the way to the tree of life.
See? That is one righteously ticked-off landlord, executing the eviction to end all evictions.
You know how people have to go to work every single morning, just so they can eat? We have Adam and Eve to thank for that.
You know how people are inclined to often feel alienated, and lonely, and inferior, and afraid, and ashamed, and in Every Way negative about themselves and everything else in the world? We have Adam and Eve to thank for that.
You know how life can be so hard sometimes? How desperately people want to be loved? How selfish and gnarly people can so quickly become? How easily people corrupt themselves? How frail people’s resolve to do and be good usually is?
You know how the whole human race just can’t seem to ever get enough of war?
Thanks, (original) Mom and Dad!
Anyway, that’s the idea behind original sin. As I say, some Christians think the story of Adam and Eve actually happened; others understand it as a metaphor. But pretty much every Christian believes that the whole point of the figure known to history as Jesus Christ was that he sacrificed himself as a way of “delivering us from our sins”—that is, of undoing the lasting effects of the ravaging results of Adam and Eve’s original sin.
Here’s the passage of Genesis (3:1-6), which in most Bibles is titled “The Fall of Man”:
Now the serpent was more crafty than any of the wild animals the LORD God had made. He said to the woman, “Did God really say, ‘You must not eat from any tree in the garden’?”
The woman said to the serpent, “We may eat fruit from the trees in the garden, but God did say, ‘You must not eat fruit from the tree that is in the middle of the garden, and you must not touch it, or you will die.’ ”
“You will not surely die,” the serpent said to the woman. “For God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.”
When the woman saw that the fruit of the tree was good for food and pleasing to the eye, and also desirable for gaining wisdom, she took some and ate it. She also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate it.
Thanks. Lemme know if I can be of any more help to you.