The Bible states that a moral failing—the original sin—on the part of our first parents was passed on to all humanity. Consequently, all of us are born with a stain of imperfection. “All unrighteousness is sin,” says the Bible.—1 John 5:17.
For many churchgoers, however, the idea that all humans are innately flawed because of some remote transgression in which they took no part and for which they bear no responsibility is neither comprehensible nor acceptable. The doctrine, says Edward Oakes, a professor of theology, “is met with either embarrassed silence, outright denial, or at a minimum a kind of halfhearted lip service that does not exactly deny the doctrine but has no idea how to place it inside the devout life.”
One factor that makes it difficult for people to accept the concept of original sin is what the churches have taught about it. For example, at the Council of Trent (1545-1563), the church condemned anyone who denied that the newborn need to be baptized for the remission of their sins. If an infant died without being baptized, declared the theologians, its uncleansed sins would forever bar it from the presence of God in heaven. Calvin went so far as to teach that infants ‘bring with them their own damnation from their mother’s womb.’ Their natures, he maintained, are ‘hateful and abominable to God.’
Most people instinctively feel that newborn infants are such innocent creatures that it would be against human nature to think that these infants should suffer because of inherited sin. It is easy to see why such church teachings have driven people away from the doctrine of original sin. In fact, some church leaders could not bring themselves to condemn an unbaptized infant to hellfire. For them, its final destiny remained something of a theological dilemma. Although it never became church dogma, the traditional Catholic teaching for centuries was that the souls of unbaptized innocents would dwell in the no-man’s-land of Limbo.
Another factor that contributed to the weakening of belief in original sin was that philosophers, scientists, and theologians in the 19th century began to question whether accounts in the Bible should be accepted as historically true. For many people, Darwin’s theory of evolution has relegated the story of Adam and Eve to the realm of myth. The result of all of this is that many now consider the Bible to be more a reflection of the mentality and traditions of the writers than a divine revelation.
Where does this leave the doctrine of original sin? Obviously, if churchgoers are persuaded that Adam and Eve never existed as real people, the logical conclusion is that no original sin was ever committed. Even for those who are willing to admit that humanity is basically flawed, the concept of original sin is reduced to little more than an explanation of mankind’s imperfect nature.
So much for original sin. What, now, of the idea that personal sins—as distinct from inherited sin—also offend God?