Quote of the Week: James Alison on Original Sin

Quote of the Week: James Alison on Original Sin April 26, 2011

“If God can raise someone from the dead in the middle of human history, the very fact reveals that death, which up till this point had marked human history as something simply inevitable, part of what it is to be a human being, is not inevitable.  That is, death is itself not simply a biological reality, but a human cultural reality marking all perception and a human cultural reality that is capable of being altered.  This it seems to me is the decisive point at which any pre-Christian notion of sin and the Christian understanding must differ.  The drastic nature of sin is revealed as something which has so inflected [sic?] human culture that death is a human reality, and not simply a biological one, one which decisively marks all human culture.  This nature of sin as related to death is simultaneously revealed as something which need not be.  It is not that God can, of course, forgive all our sins, but then there is also death which is just there.  It becomes clear that God is not only capable of forgiving us such things as we might have done, but the shape of his forgiveness stretches further than that, into what we are:  we are humans tied into the human reality of death.  We need no longer be.

This is an anthropological discovery of unimaginable proportions.  At exactly the same moment as God is revealed as quite beyond any human understanding marked by death, entirely gratuitous love, so also it is revealed that the human understanding marked by death is something accidental to being human, not something essential.  Here we have the linchpin of any understanding of original sin:  that what we are as beings-toward-death is itself something capable of forgiveness.  Furthermore we can see that the only way we are able to appreciate our true condition as humans-marked-by-death is precisely as it is revealed to us that that condition is unnecessary.  It is in this way that the doctrine of original sin is the culmination of the revealed understanding of being human:  the shape of divine forgiveness revealed in the resurrection of Jesus shows itself to stretch into our congenial involvement with death.  The doctrine of original sin is the doctrine of the un-necessity of death.”

James Alison, The Joy of Being Wrong:  Original Sin Through Easter Eyes, 118-119.


Brett Salkeld is a doctoral student in theology at Regis College in Toronto. He is a father of two (so far) and husband of one.

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  • Good post. I’d love to read Girardian perspectives more frequently here. Malcolm Muggeridge famously said (paraphrasing) that the most unpopular Christian dogma – Original Sin – is also the one for which there is the most empirical evidence. If that’s true, then as Alison says it surely has something to do with a ubiquitous flaw in unredeemed human culture, a flaw which compels us to the glorification of violence and death, and therefore makes both appear to be inescapable features of our being. Powerful stuff.

  • Ronald King

    Genesis 3:22 “See! The man has become like one of us, knowing what is good and what is bad! Therefore, he must not be allowed to put out his hand to take fruit from the tree of life also, and thus eat of it and live forever.” God instituted death, not humans and not sin.

    • Two can play that game, Ronald. Romans 5:12-17: “Therefore, just as sin entered the world through one man, and death through sin, and in this way death came to all men, because all sinned— for before the law was given, sin was in the world. But sin is not taken into account when there is no law. Nevertheless, death reigned from the time of Adam to the time of Moses, even over those who did not sin by breaking a command, as did Adam, who was a pattern of the one to come. But the gift is not like the trespass. For if the many died by the trespass of the one man, how much more did God’s grace and the gift that came by the grace of the one man, Jesus Christ, overflow to the many! Again, the gift of God is not like the result of the one man’s sin: The judgment followed one sin and brought condemnation, but the gift followed many trespasses and brought justification. For if, by the trespass of the one man, death reigned through that one man, how much more will those who receive God’s abundant provision of grace and of the gift of righteousness reign in life through the one man, Jesus Christ.”

      • Ronald King

        Mark, I am serious about that verse. What is your impression?

      • Answering Ronald: I’m not a biblical literalist, so I don’t read the verse as the transcript of a conversation among the Trinity. I think it is a primitive author (or authors) struggling to tell the origin story of his people, but without even the benefit of a culture yet formed by the Torah; that is, someone still in the thrall of archaic religion, with its focus on blood sacrifice and divine retribution. Paul has the advantage of looking back through the filter of Christ, the Law and the Prophets. In this case, hindsight really is 20/20.

  • The Scriptures are clear that evil, sin, and the Devil brought death into the world (see, e.g. Romans and Wisdom), but Ronald is not altogether wrong in seeing death as in some sense imposed upon sinful Adam as punishment. How we might see this, and see as well that this punishment of death becomes, in God’s providential plan, not only the consequences of man’s collusion with the fraud of the Devil, but also a kind of mercy, and ultimately the means to bliss for the elect, is better said my John Milton than by me. So, from Paradise Lost XI.46-66:

    All thy request for Man, accepted Son, / Obtain, all thy request was my Decree: / But longer in that Paradise to dwell, / The Law I gave to Nature him forbids: / Those pure immortal Elements that know / No gross, no unharmoneous mixture foule, / Eject him tainted now, and purge him off / As a distemper, gross to aire as gross, / And mortal food, as may dispose him best / For dissolution wrought by Sin, that first / Distemperd all things, and of incorrupt / Corrupted. I at first with two fair gifts / Created him endowd, with Happiness / And Immortalitie: that fondly lost, / This other serv’d but to eternize woe; / Till I provided Death; so Death becomes / His final remedie, and after Life / Tri’d in sharp tribulation, and refin’d / By Faith and faithful works, to second Life, / Wak’t in the renovation of the just, / Resignes him up with Heav’n and Earth renewd.

    • Ronald King

      Fr. Holtz, I see where eternal life within the body of immature beings would be a eternal suffering, in other words hell. If there was never any knowledge of good and evil would there be a mature relationship with God? I think in such a situation a person lives in ignorant bliss. I had that experience once in 1970 after getting out of the military and taking some acid. I felt at one with everything but something was missing. Purpose was missing. It was like being born with a silver spoon in one’s mouth and not appreciating what one has. It seems that to really appreciate heaven we must go through hell.

      • Rodak

        “It seems that to really appreciate heaven we must go through hell.”

        I think there is much truth in that insight. On the other hand, this is like saying that a fish, in order to appreciate water, must be tossed onto the beach. Your insight doesn’t explain the NECESSITY of hell’s existence, but only our need to recognize it and come to terms with it. In other words, it sidesteps addressing The Problem of Evil.

  • Ronald King

    Rodak, Thanks for pointing that out. I believe that “evil” is our creation. From James 1:14-15 “…each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire. Then desire conceives and brings forth sin, and when sin reaches maturity it gives birth to death.”
    In my ignorant opinion “hell” exists because of the existence of infinity with infinite realities. As a result our internal disposition resonates with the reality that matches it–if that makes sense. Hell, then can be experienced as a warning signal that we are resonating with something that is harmful. As human beings we are wired for love and we thrive under the influence of love. When we are denied love then we fail to thrive and exhibit symptoms of psychological and physical distress along with decompensation, which if not addressed with compassion, further decompensation results and suffering intensifies.
    From Frank Zappa and The Mothers of Invention in 1966, “What will it take to whip you into shape, a broken heart; a broken head? It can be arranged. It can be arranged.” That is the only line I remember from that album while I was self-medicating.

    • Rodak

      Right. I agree with that. But it remains to be adequately explained why it was necessary that a physical world, one which would inevitably give birth to the kinds of desires leading to “sin,” was necessary in the first place. Why did God–who is omniscient and eternal, knowing every outcome from the git-go–not simply create a spiritual universe filled with joyous sentient creatures who, lacking nothing, could never be led into sin even though they were free?
      And, supposing that God had some good reason to create a physical universe, how could he–being omniscient–be angry when the whole thing inevitably went astray and punish the poor, weak, badly-designed creatures who continually screw it up? (This assumess that God is omnibenevolent, omnipotent, and omniscient, as we are taught.)

      • Ronald King

        Well, here is my guess. God must be true to God’s nature and since God’s nature is to create then that creation once it is started it cannot be stopped until certain natural forces of creation come to their natural conclusion. What is the natural conclusion? Another guess would be balance without friction–peace. There are no opposing forces any longer and the friction that comes from chaos in the beginning with its own set of laws is finite, whereas, peace then is the outcome when the chaos of friction stops.

  • Rodak

    First, it’s not clear to me that it’s God’s nature to create. It’s God’s nature to Be. But there is no reason why being can’t be self-subsistent. Second, I don’t see how positing creativity as necessary to God’s nature also necessitates God creating that which will inevitably disappoint the Creator–given that the Creator is perfect. I can’t make the math work for me there…

    • Ronald King

      Nothing exists in isolation in the universe. So, does that mean that isolation equals nothingness which amounts to being meaningless. If we and all of creation are images of God then we know that God would be self-aware and being self-aware would desire meaning through relationships and creativity. Now this makes me wonder if God experienced that unquenchable thirst(hell) in the moment of self-awareness. In other words, hell is the sense of isolation that triggers a deep yearning to be with someone and to be doing something that has meaning and purpose. What we also find is that meaning and purpose must be developed on a foundation of love in that we first receive love and then give love. If it is true that we are images of God then if we look at why we suffer then we may discover something about God and that unquenchable thirst that can never be satisfied unless we are creating a loving world.
      Hell seems to be the first natural consequence of becoming self-aware in an environment of isolation. It seems to be awareness of self in a void of nothingness which is the antithesis of one’s nature. It is not created by God but it is experienced by God in isolation. Disclaimer: These are thoughts associated with being an image of God and are not the responsibility of the image but are experienced by the image who is not the thinker.

  • Natalie

    We have to take into account that death was very much a part of the universe looooong before we showed up on the grid. In fact we would not be here if life forms before us did not die, and become extinct. Because of this, I take a more Eastern Christian view of “original sin”, coupled with what know about evolution. What this means to me is that we seem to be the first species to be so aware of our mortality long before that fatal moment happens and that really messes with our psyche and that causes us to “miss the mark” or sin. I think the Logos came to us as Christ and experienced what it was like to be human especially what it was like to mourn and fear death. Christ death and resurrection saved us from death and extinction.

  • Rodak

    Yes. That is a reasonable explanation of the need for the Incarnation. But it still does not address the reason for the creation–by a perfect Creator–of a world characterized by “mourning and [the] fear of death.”

    • Ronald King

      Perfection seems to evolve from a beginning of what appears to be imperfecttion.

      • Rodak

        Perfection, by definition, cannot be “improved” upon. Neither can the eternal change.

  • Ronald King

    I stated that perfection seems to evolve from what appears to be imperfection. Chaos seems imperfect but in actuality it is perfect. Perfection evolves in the eternal, or should I say, it reveals more of what it is to the observer, perhaps giving the appearance of evolution and appearing improved upon.

    • Rodak

      How does that change the seeming fact that the Eternal has knowledge of the Alpha and the Omega simultaneously–all seeming “beginnings” and all of the “outcomes” of those beginnings?
      Regardless of how we struggle with our limited, temporally trapped, minds to understand that which is incomprehensible, we are still left with the seeming contradiction of a perfect Creator having created a system that fails over and over again in time; and punishing for all eternity the greater percentage of those trapped within that system.
      How do you resolve this seeming contradiction?

  • Ronald King

    If in the end God is through all and in all how can there be eternal punishment?

    • Rodak

      I agree. But that isn’t what the Church teaches.