5 Old Testament Reasons to Rethink “Original Sin”

I think I’ve always been a bit uneasy about the idea that God holds me responsible in some sense for something Adam did at the beginning of the Bible. I know God’s ways are not my ways, but this never made much sense.

Of course, my uneasiness doesn’t make something right or wrong. I’m just putting it out there.

Most refer to this idea as “original sin”–all humans are the objects of God’s anger from conception on. Adam’s deed of disobedience has hardwired sinfulness into us all. Not only that, but for many Christians, humans actually bear the guilt of what Adam did–which takes this to yet another level.

So, here’s my question today: Where in the Old Testament is Adam’s disobedience in the garden of Eden described as the cause of universal human sinfulness (and guilt)?

What do you think?

I never allowed myself to look at this issue too carefully, I think for fear of what I might find. But as I was writing The Evolution of Adam I didn’t have much of a choice but to man up.

Now, before I go on, let’s be clear about a few things. First, I’m asking whether the Old Testament paints Adam as the one to blame for all the misery of the human race. I’m not talking about the New Testament. Not yet.

Second, by wondering out loud about “original sin” I’m not saying “I’m OK, you’re OK, and God’s OK with it all, so let’s just get along.”

George Steinbrenner: sinner

I believe that what the Bible calls sin is real–and you don’t have to read about Hitler, Stalin, or George Steinbrenner to find examples. Each of carries around an alarming ability to harm each other in a seemingly non-stop variety of new and inventive ways.

Add to that the endless capacity we have to find ways to be miserable and harm ourselves. Few are truly at peace with themselves. The biochemical and environmental contributors to the common list of emotional struggles we face betray a deep sense of disquiet in our own hearts. We are all sinners, we have all fallen short of the mark, we fail to do what we know we should, we bear the burdens of the harm we cause to ourselves and others.

Whatever words we want to use to describe it, this self-evident reality of repeated, relentless sin remains an unalterable fact of human existence. We clearly need help.

But all I’m asking here is whether the Old Testament says that Adam is the cause of it all. I just don’t see it. Here’s why.

June Cleaver: also sinner

1. Inherited sinfulness is not one of the curses on Adam. Adam is introduced in Genesis 2, and for one chapter seems to hold it together. But then in chapter 3, Eve is outcrafted by the talking serpent, takes a bite of the forbidden fruit, and then hands it to Adam, who did likewise.

All three parties are cursed by God for doing so, and those curses have lasting consequences for the human drama.

Fair enough, but note the consequences for Adam. From now (1) growing food will be hard work, and (2) death will be a fact of life.

Note what is not said: “And a third thing, Adam. From now on all humanity will be stained by your act, born in a hopeless and helpless state of sin, thus earning my displeasure and making them all objects of my wrath.” If Genesis did say that, it would clear up a lot.

2. True obedience to God is both expected and doable. Nowhere in the Old Testament do we read that humanity under God’s condemnation for being born and helpless to do anything about it.

Yes indeed, God is terribly mad about sinful acts, especially when his people, the Israelites, do them. But–and I can’t stress this enough–implicit in all of God’s acts of wrath and punishment is the idea that the Israelites were most certainly capable of not sinning. That’s the whole point of the law: follow it and be blessed, disobey and be cursed. The choice is clear and attainable, so do the right thing (e.g., see Deuteronomy 30:11-20).

In fact, some Old Testament figures actually seem to pull it off pretty well: Enoch, Noah, Abraham, Moses, and David. No, they weren’t “perfect” but that’s exactly the point. God seems fine with some of his people getting it basically right and using them to do some extremely important things.

3. With one exception, Adam disappears after Genesis 5. This one is related to #2. After Genesis 5, Adam wanders off the Old Testament stage until the beginning of the 9-chapter list of names in 1 Chronicles 1. And there he’s just one name along with the pages of other names. He’s not the bad guy.

Throughout the entire rest of the Old Testament story, Adam doesn’t even warrant a mention. If Adam was really the person who set the whole world on a downward sin cycle, again, I’m not sure why it’s kept such a big secret.

I don’t think saying “The consequences of Adam’s sin don’t have to mentioned because they are obvious” is a good argument–especially given #2.

4. Adam is not blamed for Cain’s act of murder. Back to Genesis. Cain killed his brother Abel. If Cain’s act is caused by a hardwired state of sinfulness due to what Adam did, mentioning it here–hinting at it–would have helped. Instead, God asks Cain, “Why are you angry?” as if it’s not obvious, and then offers Cain the same choice the law would later offer the Israelites.” You’ve got a choice, Cain. Make it a good one.” He didn’t.

And the fact that Adam already “had it in him” to disobey suggests that Cain’s choice to sin was, like his father’s, not imposed on him from elsewhere.

5. Likewise, Adam is not blamed for the flood. God wipes out all life in a flood because of the complete and thorough mess humans have made of it all. But look at vv. 6-7. There we see that this escalation of sinfulness that’s now reached it’s boiling point seems to take God by surprise.

He doesn’t say, “Well, of course, we all saw this coming, what with Adam’s disobedience in the garden and all. I just wanted it to get really bad before I acted.” Rather, he is “grieved” and “sorry” about how out of hand all this has gotten.

Remember: I am only looking at the Old Testament here. I know people will respond, “But what about Paul!?” Fair enough–but–even if Paul sees Adam as the cause of human misery and alienation from God, we still need to grapple with why the Old Testament doesn’t see it that way.

Others will respond: “But if Adam isn’t the cause of it all, we no longer have a good explanation for why people are so messed up?” Fine, but the fact that questions arise that muddle our theology doesn’t make the Old Testament magically fall into line.

Still others will respond: “But without Adam as the cause of human sinfulness, the entire gospel falls apart.” Rather, I think only a version of the gospel that needs this kind of Adam falls apart. Perhaps there are other ways (and there are).

I’m raising nothing new here–and I treat it all in a bit more detail in my book–but as far as I am concerned these are rather obvious problems to be dealt with, especially for those who claim to have the Bible form their theology.

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  • Keith Fredrickson

    Dr. Enns,

    With regard to your words “the Israelites were most certainly capable of not sinning,” I wish to pose a question.

    In interpreting the essence of the 10th Commandment as “Thou shalt not lust” in Romans 7:7, did Paul impose on the commandment a meaning that it did not originally possess? Did he make the commandment stricter than it actually was in its original context?

    Regards,
    Keith Fredrickson

  • Robert Austin

    This is quiet an old post, and I’m not sure if anybody has presented this concept (I don’t care to read through all 100 comments :-)

    I equate the concept of “original sin” with the fact that Adam and Eve at of the “Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil” (or as I make it more modern and say “knowledge of Right and Wrong” … with that said, was is a parents first priority in raising their children right (after providing them with their basic needs of food, shelter and companionship), it’s to teach them right from wrong.

    God wanted us to rely completely upon Him, totally and completely, as opposed to having to resort to consulting a rule book. A rule book by the way that keeps getting modified. The first set of rules was pretty simple, they had 10 commandments, and we couldn’t even follow those.

    Anyways, the mere *knowledge* is what I consider to be “original sin”, and since we can not in any way, shape or form today raise a person without knowing right from wrong, then we are all inflicted with “original sin”.

  • Ricky Williams

    I too have been questioning the idea of original sin, but it’s more about the ideas surrounding original sin, such as total depravity. The Apostle Paul addresses righteousness. Righteousness is obedience to the Law. In the Garden, the fruit of the tree of knowledge was eaten. Therefore, humans are under the Law through knowledge of it. That means the unborn, babies, and many children have no sin – they have no knowledge of it and cannot be judged. We learn to sin when we first lust according to James.

    Babies are not born good. Good is a term God uses to describe perfect creation (Genesis 1:31) and righteous (Matthew 9:17). It is most correct to say babies have done no good or evil so that the purpose of God according to election might stand. That equality is maintained (Ezekiel 18:29) and salvation offered to all.

    The called are not necessarily the saved. The Jewish people are called, but are not necessarily saved. (Romans 9:24) God calls every man – He is possessive of all souls. (Ezekiel 18:4)

    We don’t obtain salvation from our will, but because God willed salvation to every man. Reaching out to take the gift of salvation is not directly an action of human will, but a reaction to what is already free.

    Jesus is the fulfillment of the Law. Therefore, he became righteousness for those not able to fulfill the Law….those who have knowledge of the Law and have faith in Jesus and those who are not under the Law through no knowledge of it.

    Human nature is grasping sin that already exists in the world. We do not grasp it in the womb or as babies or as many children, because those humans do not lust.

    Furthermore, God is not the author of sin. We also know we were fearfully and wonderfully made. So, God does not fashion sinners in the womb. The only Adam curse we inherit is death/working the ground. Even the flesh must die to be saved. In addition, we know the flesh is not defined by spiritual death, because Jesus had flesh. Flesh is a lustful heart. We all become sinners. We do not bear the guilt of Adam’s sin and we’re certainly not made sinful.

    Psalms 51:5
    Behold, I was shapen in iniquity; and in sin did my mother conceive me.

    Let’s dissect this verse, since it often remains the stumbling block of many. According to the first clause, David is shaped in iniquity, but we know God is not the author of sin. We also know we were fearfully and wonderfully made – God does the shaping. So, what does David mean? He is describing the moral state of the world. Iniquity is a force we must learn to rule over Gen 4:7. Babies are born without iniquity according to God in Ezekiel 18.
    The second clause is a little more difficult to understand. It says “in sin did my mother conceive.” It does not say “in my sin did my mother conceive.”
    Who had knowledge of the Law at David’s birth?…only his mother.
    Thus, David was born of a sinful mother.
    -
    If you has just committed adultery with Bathsheba, wouldn’t you also express all your sin in such repenting language? He was looking for all possible iniquity and at this point in his life, his mother’s sin even repulsed him. He knew his imperfection was deep.


    So, the propensity to sin is inherited, not the sin itself.

  • ClarkVanTil

    It is God’s purposeful counsel that there is sin and it all works out for good for those who love Him and are called according to His purpose. Also, we are chosen In Christ for the praise of His glorious grace

  • Jay

    Was it not Eliphaz the Temanite who said this? And was he not rejected in the end by God?

  • Jay

    I’m not so certain that it’s the doctrine of original sin (or hell for that matter) that can be pinned down as being “especially well-suited for exploiting others (whether done intentionally or not).” As Joe has stated, anything can be exploited, but in this particular area, it doesn’t seem to be an exclusive claim. I’ve seen far more horrendous affects when such teachings as moral government theology are taught which denies original sin as well as the nature and character of the finished work. (By the way, it is documented in scripture that Jesus did speak and warn of hell far more than He spoke of heaven)

    Gnosticism is originally a Greek philosophy that was founded upon knowledge that was hidden, esoteric, superior and exclusive. One of it’s basic tenets was that the material world was inherently evil ever since it’s inception, so much so that it had to involve one of the lesser gods to create it. To infer Gnosticism, however, as the original parallel construct that gave the inspiration to the biblical truth concerning original sin is a false claim. It is no more valid as when nonbelievers claim that the pagan myths of Tammuz, Osiris, Dionysus, Adonis, Attis, and Mithras are essentially the same story as the New Testament narrative of Jesus Christ of Nazareth. As Dan Brown claims in The Da Vinci Code, “Nothing in Christianity is original.”

    However, when one does a close examination, both are revealed as artificial parallels that can be shown by sound, comprehensive studies to be only surface comparisons at best. When the details are presented one will clearly see the breakdown let alone the shallow attempts to implicate pagan influences upon scriptural doctrines that at first, may seem reasonable to the ignorant, but simply do not hold any veracity in their claims.

  • rural_rabbi

    Actually this assertion of yours it entirely untrue. The doctrine of original sin is a distinctly Christian doctrine first expounded upon by Augustine. The original sin concept has NO basis in Judaism and Judaism completely rejects it. Therefore this teaching is a distinct phenomena of Christianity which was developed to strengthen the other developing ideas of the Roman Church concerning who Jesus was and what his purpose was for mankind. Original sin is vital to Christian theology but not relevant in Jewish theology which precedes it.

  • Tom Torbeyns

    Yes! Kick original sin out! It is a doctrine of a lunatic (Mani/Manes)!
    Let’s go back to full responsibility for our sins! And the possibility of perfect obedience! Great work! :-)

  • Tom Torbeyns

    Oh and the more I study Pelagius, the more I notice that HE was right (as were the earliest church fathers). But then gnostic Manichaean Augustine came along and made East and West bad (biggest errors in the western church but also in the eastern)


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