Is Original Sin a terrible concept?

Photo by Juan C. Palacios on

Katherine Birbalsingh, has got herself into hot water this week. Bibalsingh is a free school headteacher associated with an education philosophy that focuses on knowledge rich pedagogy and strict behaviour policies. She has also been appointed the chair of a social mobility commission recently. 

Her comments that have caused an outcry have been about the importance of teaching children the difference between right and wrong.  She argued this this on the basis of “original sin” although claiming not to be a Christian believer.

The offence taken has been that this implied children are born flawed or even “evil” and this is not how we want to think about them. A Scottish MSP for example tweeted:

I want to take the opportunity to reflect a little about the debate and about what Original Sin is, after all, it isn’t often that twitter gets that interested in theology!  First of all, I cannot help but make a few observations about the way that the debate highlights some of the issues in the education debate.

Birbalsingh advocates an approach to education that focuses on teaching knowledge.  The premise is that we need a level of cultural capital in order to converse effectively. Without this cultural knowledge about key facts, events, places etc then we struggle to read well so literacy declines and we fail to communicate effectively too.  The Original Sin debate highlights this problem. The argument has become heated because people have leapt onto a term and used it freely without understanding what it means. This shows both that we do need shared foundational knowledge. However, it also shows that if that knowledge is based on a list of shallow definitions we will come unstuck. There has to be a deeper exploration of what terms do and don’t mean.

In terms of the actual discussion about original sin, the debate appears to have been configured between two sides. On the one side are those agreeing that original sin exists and therefore we must teach children to know the difference between right and wrong and to do what is right.  On the other side are those who insist that children are born good and that they only do wrong because they pick up on the examples of adults and through trauma and deprivation.  “We believe in original goodness not original sin” they argue.

It would be helpful then to consider exactly what we mean by original sin. The concept is in fact to do with belief that our original ancestors, Adam and Eve first sinned in the Garden of Eden by taking the fruit from the Tree of The Knowledge of Good and Evil.  Orthodox Christian theology argues that we are all affected by the consequences of this original sin.  The primary affect is that sin is in the world and that with sin comes death. We all die because of Adam’s sin. This is based on Paul’s argument in Romans 5.

Now, as a bare minimum we might say that we are affected by Adam’s sin in terms of the consequences of it namely that:

  • We are spiritually dead -estranged and exiled from God
  • We live in a fallen world which is itself subject to death and decay so we suffer.
  • We will one day physically die and after that there is judgement and Hell.

However, others, particularly from a reformed perspective would want to argue that not only are we affected by original sin so that we died in Adam but also that we ourselves in some way sinned in Adam. He in some way represented us as our federal head. Whilst there are some question marks about the exegesis of specific verses on this, I believe that this reflects the broad thrust of Paul’s argument in Romans 5 and 1 Corinthians 15.

Now, the point is this. If we accept that there is right and wrong, good and evil then we must recognise that there is an origin to it. Moral evil started someone.  It is of course permissible to argue that there is no such thing as morality, that good and evil doesn’t exist.  Some have done so and this to my mind is the most intellectually honest position of opponents to original sin.

However, that argument has its problems too. See for example this tweet.

The author wishes to argue that there is no such thing as moral good and evil, we simply evolve to do what will lead to the survival of our genes. However, when their mother-in-law understandably concluded that the logic of their position was that they could only be seeking to marry her daughter out of self-interest they seem to have taken a little offence. Yet, that is the legitimate conclusion of their world-view. If there is no such thing as goodness then nor is there such a thing as love and romance. What other reason did he have to marry than to give his genes the best chance of survival by ensuring that their career would benefit from the material well-being of their carrier’s predecessors?

However, most people seem to have responded by taking offence at the suggestion that children could be morally culpable and have been insisting that they are born in innocence.  I have four reflections to offer here. First that if people believe this about children then it only serves to condemn further the evil of abortion.

 Second that the objection is based on a misunderstanding.  The point of original sin is that there is a point when sin entered the world and that we are under its affect.  This means that those who believe in original sin also believe in original goodness. God created a good, beautiful and ordered world. This gives us a high view of humanity and children. We see them as made in God’s image. The point of original sin is that it was a fall. We therefore describe the human condition as “fallen.” In other words, Christians believe that there is such a thing as goodness and that it is possible (if not in our own strength) for men, women and children to be good, to show love and kindness, to put others first, to find joy and beauty in creation and not to be driven by hatred, selfishness and murderous thoughts.  Sin is a falling short of what we were meant to be like. 

Thirdly, we note that if we believe in right and wrong, good and evil then at some point, we must give an account for their origins. The Christian view is that God created good but that evil is about an absence or privation of good. This distinguishes us from dualists. We don’t believe that good and evil exist in co-equal tension.  We then have to consider the responsibility of each individual human being in terms of their personal morality.  Christians believe that we both inherit a fallen human nature (in reformed theology we talk about total depravity not to suggest that we are the most monstrous we could be but to say that sin affects every aspect of our lives) and are responsible in that we show by our words and actions that we affirm Adam’s choice. Ironically, in the past if you objected to original sin it would have been on the basis that it removed individual responsibility. Now as we saw in the MSP’s tweet, original sin is rejected in order to deny human responsibility. My own sinful actions are nothing to do with my own will but rather are the consequences of environmental factors such as poverty, the bad examples set by others and of trauma. 

Fourthly, the weight of evidence shows that children are not born into complete innocence having to be taught to do wrong. Rather, we know from experience that children can do wrong. They do need to be taught what is right.

Now, here is the crucial aspect of the Christian Gospel that Birbalsingh misses. The point of “original sin” is not that we therefore need to and can educate and train children out of it. The point is that we are helpless in our sin.  Indeed, what she has done has been to confuse two competing theologies. She has identified the same problem that Augustine did, that we are born into sin and then applied the solution of his rival Pelagius who in fact rejected the doctrine. We are left with the Pelagian solution that with a bit of education and with the constraints of the Law, we can by our own efforts pull ourselves up by our bootstraps.

The Gospel says that we cannot do this. It’s what Paul takes so much time to explain in Romans 1-11.  The solution to original sin is an original saviour. The doctrine is in fact beautiful because it points us towards grace. It shows us the God who does not wait for us to sort our own mess out before he loves us. God chooses to love us first and in the person of Jesus has drawn near and taken all of our sin, shame and guilt on himself. God has dealt with the problem of sin and death. If I am a sinner and subject to death in Adam then I’m righteous and a recipient of life in Christ.

I am excited that people are discussing sin, righteousness and grace on twitter.  I would encourage them not to get stuck in tweeted half-truths and misunderstandings though. Instead, the Gospel offers a better hope not by denying or ignoring sin but by offering grace and forgiveness.

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