I own a pretty fast motorcycle. Sometimes, I confess, I speed.
It has 100 horsepower and, frankly, when it’s safe, I sometimes give in to temptation. But I’m breaking the law — intentionally — and I know it’s wrong.
I’ve been having an argument with a family member recently about original sin. He contends that this Christian idea was the greatest evil ever perpetrated on mankind, so it inspired me to give it some thought and write this column.
The concept of original sin is complex, but at its essence is the idea that we all have an inherent capacity and an inherent inclination to do wrong, and this moral characteristic was inherited from our common spiritual ancestor, Adam.
So, when I’m on my motorcycle, I have the capacity to speed and the inclination to do so. Most of the time I don’t, but only because I restrain myself. The potential is there, however, and I know it every time I throw my leg over the saddle.
The term “original sin” isn’t in the Bible, but it is certainly inferred. Psalm 51 says, “Surely I was sinful at birth, sinful from the time my mother conceived me.” Fundamentalists would likely say, “Well, there’s your proof of original sin — we’re all born wretched sinners.”
Like most complex concepts in the Bible, it is a big mistake to take things out of context. The subtitle for this psalm in my Bible says, “A psalm of David. When the prophet Nathan came to him after David had committed adultery with Bathsheba.”
Bathsheba was somebody else’s wife (Uriah the Hittite, a faithful soldier in David’s army). David had him murdered so he could have Bathsheba for himself. David was pretty remorseful after Nathan confronted him and thought, “How is it that I am so thoroughly sinful — it must be because I was born this way.”
I believe the “sinful at birth” statement is hyperbole in the context of the entire Psalm, yet it does reflect an undeniable truth.
Let me give an example.
Most parents have caught their pre-verbal toddlers making a huge mess, say, with a Sharpie on the wall. You catch them red-handed, marker in hand, black on their faces and all over the wall. You ask, “Bobby, did you make that mess on the wall?” And Bobby shakes his head “No.” In other words, he lies even before he can talk.
Where does that come from? We don’t have to teach a child to lie, or to whack their sibling, or to toss the cat into the toilet. It comes naturally. But we repeatedly have to praise, role model, teach and sometimes punish to get our children to behave in morally correct ways. And still they stray.
Jesus talked about our inherent capacity and inclination to sin. The Pharisees criticized him for allowing his disciples to eat “unclean” foods. He responded that they had it all wrong. It’s not what you eat that makes you unclean, but your inner condition. In the book of Mark, Jesus says, “What comes out of a man makes him unclean. For from within, out of men’s hearts, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, greed, malice, deceit, lewdness, envy, slander, arrogance and folly. All these evils come from inside and make a man unclean.”
People often express astonishment when “ordinary” people do unspeakable acts. Let’s face it — most of the horrible things done in the world are done by ordinary people.
The Apostle Paul expounds on the concept of original sin in several of his letters. In Romans, he says, “… sin entered the world through one man [Adam], and death through sin, and in this way death came to all men, because all sinned.”
Paul goes on to explain that although we inherited our condition from Adam, we also received the remedy to the entire problem through one man — Jesus. It was Jesus’ atoning sacrifice that paid the sin penalty for all of us. Paul says, “And just as all people were made sinners as the result of the disobedience of one man, in the same way they will all be put right with God as the result of the obedience of one man.”
Original sin is a theological concept that has consumed gallons of ink and reams of paper. The most important question, though, is not whether we inherited sin from Adam. The most important question is about us, our sin, right now. God will judge each person according to what he or she has done — condemnation for evil, and heavenly reward for righteous behaviour.
The idea of original sin is not a “great evil” by any stretch of the imagination, but it does help to explain why we are so good at being bad.
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