The Bad News and the Good News: Original Sin and the Gospel Message
This article was originally published in The Catechetical Review 4.1 (Jan-Mar 2018)
The doctrine of original sin is an essential component of the Christian faith. If catechists don’t explain well the nature, effect, and consequences of original sin, they will find it very difficult not only to address the major moral issues of our day, but also to effectively communicate the Gospel. Without original sin, the Gospel message loses much of its power and purpose. To fully appreciate the “good news” of the Christ’s redemption, we first must grapple with the “bad news” of our fallen condition.
Why do we need a redeemer and savior? Are people not essentially good? Are they not able to live a good moral life regardless of their religious beliefs? In reply to those questions, our faith teaches that something in our human nature is inherently wounded and in need of healing. The Church affirms that original sin is “an essential truth of the faith,” and so “we cannot tamper with the revelation of original sin without undermining the mystery of Christ.”[i]
Original Sin in Genesis
To understand original sin, we must turn to the first chapters of the Bible. We read in Genesis 2 that God created Adam, placed him in the Garden of Eden, then created Eve out of his side. The Catechism tells us that God created the first couple in a state of “original holiness and justice.”[ii] Original holiness means that our first parents shared in God’s divine life and were free from suffering and death—a state symbolized by their free access to the Tree of Life. Original justice means that Adam and Eve possessed an inner harmony within themselves, with each other, and with all of creation.[iii] They were at peace with themselves and with the world. This state of friendship with God, however, depended on their submission to him and respect of his moral norms.[iv] The limit to man’s freedom is represented by the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, strictly prohibited to Adam and Eve under penalty of death: “you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die” (Gen 2:17).
Unfortunately, this original state of holiness and justice did not last long. Genesis 3 describes the well-known story of the fall: A mysterious talking serpent urges Eve to eat of the fruit from the tree of knowledge, which appears to be “good for food”, “a delight to the eyes”, and “desirable to make one wise.” She yields to the temptation and persuades Adam to do the same in defiance of God’s command. As soon as they eat the fruit, the two realize that they are naked. Ashamed, they cover themselves with fig leaves; they also become afraid of God and attempt to hide from him.
The consequences of the infraction are dire: God curses the serpent, imposes labor pains on the woman and inflicts hard toil on the man for his subsistence, along with the prospect of returning to the ground from which he was taken. Adam and Eve are banned from Eden and from the Tree of Life; suffering and death enter human history.[v]
This narrative raises two initial questions. First, what is modern man to make of it? Doesn’t it display the characteristics of a myth or pious legend rather than history? The Church teaches that even though the account of the fall uses figurative language, it affirms a primeval event that truly “took place at the beginning of the history of man,” so that “the whole of human history is marked by the original fault freely committed by our first parents.”[vi]
Second, does the story really teach the Christian doctrine of original sin? Genesis 3 says nothing about a fallen angel called Satan, about Adam losing gifts of divine sonship and sanctifying grace, or about him transmitting a fallen nature to all his descendants. Religious Jews, in fact, interpret the fall of Adam and Eve differently: while they obviously agree that Adam and Eve sinned, they don’t accept the idea that Adam passed on a wounded human nature to the entire human race.[vii]
While it is true that Genesis 3 does not explicitly teach the doctrine of Original Sin, the story does provide the “raw materials” of the doctrine that will gradually develop in Sacred Scripture and Christian Tradition.
Original Sin in the Old Testament
The Old Testament clearly attests that something went wrong in human history after Adam’s sin. In the very next chapter, Cain murders Abel, and within just a few generations we are given a grim diagnosis of the human condition: “The Lord saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every imagination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually” (Gen 6:5). Later, the psalmist declares that all men have “gone astray, they are all alike corrupt; there is none that does good, no, not one” (Ps 14:3). David’s famous penitential psalm comes perhaps the closest to the Christian doctrine of original sin in the Old Testament: “Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity, and in sin did my mother conceive me” (Ps 51:5). Ecclesiastes is just as categorical: “For there is not a righteous man on earth who does good and does not sin (Eccl 7:20). These verses point to an awareness that the problem of sin is universal and it has so thoroughly affected the human condition that none can escape it.
The Wisdom of Solomon—probably the last book of the Old Testament to be written—reveals more about the origin and consequences of human sin: “God created man for incorruption, and made him in the image of his own eternity, but through the devil’s envy death entered the world, and those who belong to his party experience it” (Wis 2:23-24). Here we learn, first, that man’s nature, created in the image of God’s eternity, was originally intended to be incorruptible (i.e. immortal). Second, behind the figure of the serpent was “the devil” (though still not identified with a fallen angel). Third, it was because of the devil’s envy that he (either in or through the serpent) tempted Adam and Eve. Fourth, death entered the world because of Adam’s sin.
Original Sin in the New Testament
The mystery of original sin becomes fully disclosed in the light of Christ. As the Catechism says, “We must know Christ as the source of grace in order to know Adam as the source of sin.”[viii] The revelation of Christ’s work of redemption enabled the New Testament authors to clarify the nature of original sin. St. Paul tells us that Adam’s sin affected the entire human race: “Therefore as sin came into the world through one man and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all men sinned” (Rom 5:12). The apostle also contrasts the universality of sin and death with the universality of Christ’s salvation: “For as by one man’s disobedience many were made sinners, so by one man’s obedience many will be made righteous” (Rom 5:19).[ix] The New Testament also reveals the origin of the evil influence that led Adam to sin: Peter tells us that some angels sinned and were cast into hell (2 Pet 2:4), and the Book of Revelation explicitly identifies the ancient serpent and “deceiver of the whole world” with the devil and Satan who was thrown down to earth with the other fallen angels (Rev 12:9).
Original Sin in Catechesis
Over the centuries, the Church clarified and developed Scripture’s teachings on original sin. We may note seven essential points about this doctrine that catechists should communicate to their students:
First, everyone is affected by original sin.[x] By the unity of the human race, all are implicated in Adam’s sin. Adam received the gift of divine sonship not just for himself but for all of humanity. By sinning, he wounded human nature and transmitted it in a fallen state to all his descendants.[xi]
Second, paradoxically, this does not mean that we are all “born sinners.” The universality of original sin does not mean that we are born as babies with a “stain on the soul.” Although the expression “the stain of original sin” has traditionally been used to describe our fallen condition, this metaphor is inadequate. Original sin is not so much a stain as a privation of divine grace and eternal life. It is not a personal fault for Adam’s descendants; it is “contracted” and not “committed”—a weakened and wounded state, but not an act.[xii]
Third, it is crucial to understand the effects of original sin. Although we are now deprived of original holiness and justice, this does not mean that human nature has been totally corrupted. We still bear the divine image and are still endowed with great dignity. Nevertheless, the loss of original holiness means that we are now subject to suffering and death, and the loss of original justice means that we are deprived of the original harmony of body, mind, and soul that Adam enjoyed. Our intellect is darkened so that we are now subject to ignorance and easily lose sight of what is right and wrong. Our will is weakened, so that it is at times very difficult to choose the good and reject evil. Our appetites and desires are disordered, so that we now feel attracted to lesser goods rather than higher goods. These combined effects of original sin are known as concupiscence, which St. Paul describes as the rebellion of the flesh against the spirit, and the Catechism as “the movement of the sensitive appetite contrary to the operation of the human reason.”[xiii]
Fourth, we must clearly distinguish original sin, concupiscence, and actual sin. As we saw above, original sin is an inherited state and not a personal fault. Concupiscence is manifest in a darkened intellect, a weakened will, and disordered affections; yet even though these may give rise to severe temptations, experiencing concupiscence is not a sin. It is only when we yield to temptation that we commit sin. In other words, concupiscence is the result of original sin and the cause of actual sin, but it is not sin itself.
Fifth, the reality of original sin and concupiscence means that we cannot trust our own judgments, desires, and attractions. Understanding this point is crucial to treat of all the great moral issues of our day—especially those concerning sexuality. As the Catechism says, “ignorance of the fact that man has a wounded nature inclined to evil gives rise to serious errors in the areas of education, politics, social action, and morals.”[xiv]
Sixth, the presence of evil in the world means that we are called to spiritual battle. Although “the devil has acquired a certain domination over man,” man remains free to resist and reject him. Yet this battle will remain arduous as long as the world endures: “The whole of man’s history has been the story of dour combat with the powers of evil, stretching, so our Lord tells us, from the very dawn of history until the last day.”[xv]
Seventh, we must remember that we cannot win this battle on our own; but the Son of God appeared to destroy the works of the devil (1 Jn 3:8). After Adam’s fall, God announced a future enmity between the woman and the serpent, and the final victory of a descendent of hers over the serpent’s seed.[xvi] The Church has traditionally identified this woman with the Blessed Virgin Mary and her seed with Christ. We partake of Christ’s victory over the devil through baptism, which imparts the life of Christ’s grace, overcomes original sin, and turns us back to God.[xvii] Even though we remain subject to concupiscence, suffering, and bodily death, the Church gives us the tools to fight the spiritual battle as we follow God’s commandments, remain in communion with Christ through the Church’s liturgy and sacraments, and live a life of faith, hope, and love anticipating God’s eternal life and his final victory over sin, evil, and death.
The “Good News” of the Gospel only makes sense in light of the “bad news” of our fallen human condition. Catechesis on Christ’s work of redemption or on the Church’s moral teachings will not “stick” with our students unless they first understand that, although lovingly created by God, we have inherited a human nature that is broken, subject to concupiscence, prone to sin, and in need of healing. Scripture attests to this wounded human condition from Genesis to Revelation, and the Church has clarified in her magisterial teachings over time the nature and consequences of original sin—and its remedy. A deeper awareness of our fallen condition should prompt us to greater humility and to a healthy distrust of our own private moral judgment (especially when influenced by the increasingly anti-Christian culture around us). But it should also increase our confidence in Jesus our Savior who not only brought forth good from evil by providing atonement and forgiveness for us at the cross, but also turned sin into an opportunity for us to grow in virtue by resisting and overcoming it in union with the Church, faithful to her teachings and strengthened by her sacraments. As “St. Paul says, ‘Where sin increased, grace abounded all the more’ (Rom 5:20); and the Exsultet echoes, ‘O happy fault, … which gained for us so great a Redeemer!’”[xviii]
Dr. André Villeneuve is Associate Professor of Old Testament and Biblical Languages at Sacred Heart Major Seminary in Detroit, Michigan. He holds a PhD in Religious/Biblical Studies from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, an S.S.L. from the Pontifical Biblical Commission, and a MA in Theology and Catechetics from Franciscan University of Steubenville.
[i] Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC), par. 389.
[ii] CCC, par. 375.
[iii] CCC, par. 376.
[iv] CCC, par. 396.
[v] CCC, par. 400.
[vi] CCC, par. 290.
[vii] Judaism traditionally holds that every person is prone to sin not because of an inherently fallen or broken nature or due to the devil’s temptations, but because all are subject to an impersonal “evil inclination” or impulse (“yetzer ha-ra”) opposing the good inclination (“yetzer ha-tov”) that is also inherent in every person.
[viii] CCC, par. 388.
[ix] CCC, par. 402.
[x] Except Jesus and the Blessed Virgin Mary (cf. CCC, par. 490-3).
[xi] CCC, par. 404.
[xii] CCC, par. 404.
[xiii] CCC, par. 2515.
[xiv] CCC, par. 407.
[xv] Gaudium et spes 37, as quoted in CCC, par. 409.
[xvi] Gen 3:15; CCC, par. 410.
[xvii] CCC, par. 405.
[xviii] CCC, par. 412.