“Catholics believe in forgiveness. Jews believe in Guilt.”
– Tony Kushner, Angels in America
One of the things I find most offensive about Christianity is the doctrine of Original Sin. In case you’re fortunate enough not to be familiar, this is the doctrine first developed by 2nd-century Bishop of Lyon Irenaeus, and then more fully by Augustine of Hippo in the 5th century, describing the tendency for all human beings to sin as passed down to us like the clap from good ol’ Daddy Adam and Mama Eve, eons ago In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida (baby).
As the story goes, God finishes with creation and plops Adam (the first man) on the earth, then creates Eve (the first woman) for him since apparently God forgot that he’d given Adam a crazy sex drive that needed… umm, tending to. And (for some reason known only to God) there were also these two trees in the Garden – the Tree of Life and the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil – that they were not to eat from. So one day Eve is walking through the garden when this talking snake pulls her aside (yes, a talking snake) and makes the casual suggestion that perhaps God is holding out on her with this Tree of Knowledge thing, so she eats the fruit, then gives some to Adam; then they realize they’re naked and put some clothes on. Then, short of jumping out from behind the tree and yelling, “Gotcha!”, God throws a temper tantrum and takes everyone to task (including the talking snake) like an entitled teenager in a scene that might be straight out of the O.C.
The LORD God said to the serpent, “Because you have done this, cursed are you above all livestock and above all beasts of the field; on your belly you shall go, and dust you shall eat all the days of your life. I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and her offspring; he shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise his heel.”
To the woman he said, “I will surely multiply your pain in childbearing; in pain you shall bring forth children. Your desire shall be for your husband, and he shall rule over you.”
And to Adam he said, “Because you have listened to the voice of your wife and have eaten of the tree of which I commanded you, ‘You shall not eat of it,’ cursed is the ground because of you; in pain you shall eat of it all the days of your life; thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for you; and you shall eat the plants of the field. By the sweat of your face you shall eat bread, till you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken; for you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”
– Genesis 3:14-19
This is the basis for the whole doctrine of original sin, and the biblical writers worked under the assumption that it was a historical fact. For those with the stomach for it, there’s also a compendium of scriptural references that support the doctrine on the website of John Piper’s church. And here are a few choice gems:
- Psalm 14:2-3 – “The Lord has looked down from heaven upon the sons of men, to see if there are any who understand, who seek after God. They have all turned aside; together they have become corrupt; there is no one who does good, not even one.”
- Psalm 51:1 – “Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity, and in sin did my mother conceive me.”
- Ephesians 2:1-3 – “And you were dead in the trespasses and sins in which you once walked, following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air [oooh, Satan!!], the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience [yup, that’s you and me, scum that we are]— among whom we all once lived in the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind.”
My favorite bullet point is where the author of that page argues that since infants die, they are not innocent and therefore born into sin and are sinners. And going to hell.
Yup. Babies are going to hell.
So, original sin. On the surface you might say that I just don’t like it. And I don’t. Yes, I am gay, and the bible has been used to teach that homosexuality is a sin, and that gays are sinful perverts living a “chosen” and perverted lifestyle. However, I know for a fact that I was born this way and therefore it makes no logical sense why I could be abomination. Now, I would be remiss in leaving out that there are Christians who do not believe this—my friends at SafeHouse Church, for example. However, I also don’t think that swearing is a sin. Or drinking. Or having sex. Or… well, take your pick (see below).
The fact is that the more I looked at “sin,” the more I recognized the problem as being not with people but with religion itself.
Case in point, several months ago my family and I were having lunch and my one-year-old nephew was dropping things off his tray, as young children often do. My younger sister (his mother) rolled her eyes and commented on how this was his “sin nature showing up already!” I quickly commented that this is perfectly normal behavior from a one-year-old. They’re experimenting with their surroundings, like mini-sociologists running behavioral experiments on the adults around them. But my sister and her husband (with the full support of my parents – his grandparents) saw his act as deliberately malicious behavior, and jumped to label the child “evil,” in effect saddling him with a mountain of future guilt and emotional terror at living amongst the ranks of the damned unless he prays a magical prayer to Jesus to save him from his supposed sins.
I say supposed because it’s only according to the bible that “sin” exists at all—and there are over six hundred of them listed, ranging from being angry with your brother (Matthew 5:22), not working (2 Thessalonians 3:10), stealing (Exodus 20:15; Mark 7:22), not praying in Jesus’ name (John 14:13), tattooing (Leviticus 19:28; Deuteronomy 14:1), having mischief in your heart (Psalm 28:3), kicking a man in the balls (Deuteronomy 25:11-12), gossiping (John 6:43), to murder (Exodus 20:13; Matthew 19:18) to even pitying a murderer (Deuteronomy 19:13). And the mother of them all, homosexuality (Leviticus 18:22; Romans 1:24-28; 1 Corinthians 6:9). Add to this list dancing, drinking, gambling, playing instruments in church, and enjoying sex. Or having fun that isn’t directly related to Jesus. Or thinking about sinners burning in hell for eternity.
I’m going to backtrack again and say that not all denominations or Christians adhere to this list, or even believe in original sin. Or sin at all. It isn’t fair to lump all Christians in with the fundamentalists, who the above list largely references. There are some liberal and even mainstream denominations that take a much broader and generous view of sin and human nature, urging non-judgmentalism amongst their congregations. And this is precisely the sort of mature thinking that ought to be congratulated and encouraged.
I’ve written previously about the existence of a historical Adam & Eve and the inherent problem with the doctrine of original sin to their being mythical rather than literal. Essentially, without this first sin having taken place and God foisting responsibility off on the creatures he endowed with free will and therefore the potential to make their own (and, presumably, the “wrong”) choices, “sin” is a moot point and Jesus dying on the cross for those sins is utterly pointless. If what we call “sin” is really just human nature (i.e., how God “made” us), what was he sacrificing himself for? The general imperfection of humanity?
Julia Sweeney puts it this way in Letting Go of God: “I thought, ‘Why would a God create people so imperfect, then blame them for their own imperfections, then send his son to be tortured and executed by those imperfect people to make up for how imperfect people were and how imperfect they inevitably were going to be?’ What a crazy idea!”
In the Old Testament (the first thirty-nine books of the bible, not counting the apocrypha) we have two examples which supposedly “pre-figure” this supposed atoning sacrifice by God of Jesus. The first is found in the well-known story of Abraham and Isaac, wherein God tells Abraham to take Isaac out and sacrifice him as a burnt offering to God. Abraham does this, and just at the last minute God seemingly changes his mind and sends an angel to stop Abraham and bring him a ram to kill instead. This is generally interpreted as a test of loyalty on the part of God, who was apparently satisfied enough that Abraham was going to kill Isaac and let him off the hook.
Second is the lesser-known story of Jephthah found in the book of Judges. In this story, Jephthah is a military leader who promises to sacrifice to God the first person who comes out to meet him as a burnt offering if God helps him win this battle with the Ammonites. He wins, goes home, and (you guessed it) the first person to meet him is his daughter. Rather than bargain with God or try to get out of his vow, Jephthah allows his daughter to go up into the hills for two months to “mourn her virginity,” after which she returns and he carries out his idiotic promise. (Incidentally, Jephthah is later mentioned in the New Testament book of Hebrews as a “man of faith” (Hebrews 11:32).)
While the story of Jephthah is usually held up as a warning against making rash vows, the story of the binding of Isaac in Genesis is typically held up as an example for us to follow: for us to be as open-handed and willing to obey God as Abraham was to kill Isaac and Isaac was to obey his father and be murdered. And both are examples featuring fathers offering (or intending to offer) their children as sacrifices. What are we to make of that? Apart from these being grisly tests of loyalty set up by a bloodthirsty god, why wouldn’t Abraham or Jephthah offer to die instead? What loving parent wouldn’t do that to save their child?
Judaism is a religion that fetishizes sin and guilt to the point of sado-masochistic, neurotic obsession, and Christianity takes it a step further (via the aforementioned Augustine via Irenaeus via Paul) by shackling every man, woman and child ever born with the sins of their ancestors and then having Jesus incarnate as a human in order to be tortured and killed to pay for those sins—past, present and future, whether anyone wanted him to or not. This obsession with blood! Dawkins comments in The God Delusion:
Paul, as the Jewish scholar Geza Vermes makes clear, was steeped in the old Jewish theological principle that without blood there is no atonement. Indeed, in his Epistle to the Hebrews (9:22) he said as much. Progressive ethicists today find it hard to defend any kind of retributive theory of punishment, let alone the scapegoat theory – executing an innocent to pay for the sins of the guilty. In any case (one can’t help wondering), who was God trying to impress? Presumably himself – judge and jury as well as execution victim. To cap it all, Adam, the supposed perpetrator of the original sin, never existed in the first place: an awkward fact – excusably unknown to Paul but presumably known to an omniscient God (and Jesus, if you believe he was God?) – which fundamentally undermines the premise of the whole tortuously nasty theory. Oh, but of course, the story of Adam and Eve was only ever symbolic, wasn’t it? Symbolic? So, in order to impress himself, Jesus had himself tortured and executed, in vicarious punishment for a symbolic sin committed by a non-existent individual? As I said, barking mad, as well as viciously unpleasant.
Even if Christianity provides a framework for so-called “moral” living, or at the very least a positive view of the world, how is this different from any other “positive” philosophy—say, Buddhism? What does it matter if it isn’t entirely true (or even straight-up mythical)? It matters because if there was no Adam to commit the “original sin,” then there is no “sin” to begin with and no reason for Christ to die to save us from that “sin.” The Eucharist is an act of awful systematic self-flagellation wherein Christians remind themselves how awful we are that Christ had to die to placate God – a God, by the way, who trussed Jesus up on the altar of his own failure as a Creator. And “Eat my body”? “Drink my blood”? Protestants may view this as symbolic, but it’s still deeply disturbing.
Believe what you like yourself. Believe, as in the Bertrand Russel analogy, that a teapot orbits the sun between Mars and Jupiter. But if you believe that the bible, God, Jesus and the crucifixion aren’t absolutely true, then it’s unconscionable to teach others to believe it and to base their lives around it as if it were true. It’s even more unconscionable – yes, even criminal – to teach young children such toxic nonsense before they are able to think and decide for themselves.
As I suggested previously, it’s not entirely bad to believe in God if it brings you comfort—say, if believing in God helps more than the psychiatrist. However, as Dawkins writes in the last chapter of The God Delusion, “Religion’s power to console doesn’t make it true.” Nor is it “true” because it works. If it brings meaning to people’s lives; if it makes them better, kinder and nobler; and if it gives them hope in dark times—that still doesn’t make it “true.”
Original sin is an evil, toxic and dehumanizing doctrine; but without it, what’s the point of Christianity? Christianity is the glorification of Christ for his coming to earth to die for our sins. At the core of some of Christ’s teachings are some progressive and humanist principles: Don’t just take revenge when you’re wronged. Treat people as you want to be treated. Everyone, regardless of class or social status, has inherent value.
More on that next time.