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A Better Atonement: Maybe I Was Wrong about Original Sin

A Better Atonement: Maybe I Was Wrong about Original Sin April 3, 2012

This week, as we prepare for Good Friday and Easter, we’ll have a post every morning about the atonement. Some will be by me, and some by guests. And don’t forget to check out the Storify and Tumbler, both tracking atonement this week. You can read all of the posts, and my past posts on this topic, here.

Today, Dallas Gingles challenges my argument that Original Sin is a doctrine, fabricated by Augustine, without biblical or rational justification. Regardless of silly quotes by GK Chesterton, I don’t buy it. But I thought I’d let Dallas provide a Nieburhrian counterpoint.

First, let me say thanks to Tony for the opportunity to guest post in this conversation about atonement and original sin. I’ve enjoyed the conversation, and I’m grateful to be a part of it.

I often hear theologians or pastors describing a conversation with a skeptical or hurt person who says, “I just can’t believe in a God who destroys lives, hates sinners, looks like the G.O.P,” or something similar. The minister responds, “I don’t believe in that God either.” Similarly, I don’t believe in the version of original sin that Tony doesn’t believe in in A Better Atonement. However, I do want to defend original sin.

The version of original sin that I want to affirm starts, like Tony’s, with St. Augustine. Unlike Tony, I want to locate the upshot of the doctrine, not in contrast to Pelagius, but in Augustine’s refutation of the Manicheans, and his political thought. Roughly put, the Manicheans believed that evil was a material substance in the world. The convoluted process by which evil was confronted and combated included the bowel movements of faithful believers.

Augustine’s account of evil as a privation—a no-thing—is a direct rebuttal to the idea that evil exists: is a “thing.” Humans will wrongly and humans love wrongly. In so doing they undo their being—they un-become, so to speak. This undoing is finally an undoing of human relations—of the Human City. As Jean Bethke Elshtain has noted, no one has recently captured this idea better than J.K. Rowling with her portrayal of the character of Voldemort.

At the turn of the 20th century, scientific (and social) optimism was the dominant ethos of European nations and the United States. Most Christians today know this movement from the phrase “what would Jesus do.” Simplistically put, the idea was that with new scientific discoveries and the ability to control outcomes, if Christians would just do what Jesus would do in their situation, evil would be eradicated.

Reinhold Niebuhr shattered this optimism and “rediscovered” original sin, and in so doing he returned to Augustine. For Niebuhr, “sin” names the fallen human state that both wills to be God (pride), and that—ironically—abdicates responsibility for human action (sensuality). Both are attempts to undo the proper relationship between God and self. It is this conception of the human situation that alone can explain the tyranny and injustice of a world of war. The response, Niebuhr insists, is a rediscovery of the grace of God that makes even our sins to praise God. But this, in turn, demands that Christians live responsible lives—both affirming their human nature, and accepting responsibility for it.

Robin Lovin, puts it this way:

Certain key ideas in [Niebuhr’s] understanding are easily summarized: The human being is both a finite, limited creature and an image of God. The final judgment on human history lies beyond history, and it falls equally on every particular human project, no matter how good or how evil that project may appear within history. Precisely because of that eschatological judgment, relative good and evil are real and make a difference within history.

We are human beings, and not God, Niebuhr told us. “We are responsible for making choices between greater and lesser evils, even when our Christian faith, illuminating the human scene, makes it quite apparent that there is no pure good in history, and probably no pure evil either. The fate of civilizations may depend upon these choices between systems of which some are more, others less just.”

Original sin is the name we give to warped desires. Because humans desire (or will) wrongly, we are in constant peril of willing our own destruction. Because of God’s mercy, we are under constant judgment that reveals this fallen state. Because of that revelation, we are cast back upon the grace that God has given us, and are sent out to live responsibly. Without such a conception, we risk self-justifying our desires, and mistaking the Triumph of the Will for good politics.


Dallas Gingles is a doctoral student in religious ethics at Southern Methodist University. His interests are peace and justice and the Pentecostal tradition. You can find him on his blog, G+. and on Twitter.

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