Talking about God (Or Not) Part 5

11 Mar

I have a bit of a problem with the doctrine of original sin.

Well, more than one, if I’m being honest about it, but we’ll come to that in due course.

Of course I’m aware that not all Christians necessarily believe in this doctrine. Pelagianism and modern existential theology suggest that sin is not inherited, ie that sin is a matter of individual choice, not a defining characteristic of our existence.

If you tend to that opinion then much of what follows will be irrelevant, but to me original sin seems to be crucial to the Christian worldview. What I mean by that is that it is an essential functional component of the Christian narrative. (Possibly also of Jewish and Islamic narratives, but I’m less familiar with their traditions and therefore not inclined to comment on them).

I should start by making it clear, just in case anyone isn’t already aware of the fact, that I am not a Christian and you might feel that my opinions on this subject are of limited interest for that reason.

I should also point out that none of what follows is intended to challenge anyone’s faith, nor is it intended as any kind of rebuttal of Christianity as a whole. It’s just a train of thought provoked by the problems I see in one particular Christian doctrine.

The reason that I see original sin as being central to Christianity is my perception that Christianity does not run on love, as many Christians claim, but on guilt.

Put very crudely, if you don’t feel guilty, you won’t feel the need for redemption, if you don’t feel any need for redemption then you won’t feel any need for a redeemer, and that leaves Jesus Christ with greatly reduced scope for playing a central role in your life.

Of course the doctrine of original sin is not just a crude mechanism for inflicting guilt on the faithful, it’s also a necessary plot device if the Judeo-Christian creation narrative is to keep God in the place that His believers would want Him to be in relation to humanity.

It is convenient, for the purposes of my argument to consider the account of The Fall as related in Genesis, without taking a position on whether or not it is true, simply in order to allow an examination of the implications of the doctrine of original sin. None of what follows should be taken to suggest that I believe in the literal truth of the Book of Genesis. (Pretty obvious point, but there’s always going to be someone dumb enough, or simply disingenuous enough to miss it).

Essentially God created man and woman, so the story goes, and we should be grateful to him for our creation and also in awe of him for being the Supreme Being who is capable of such acts of creation.

The difficulty with this, of course, is that human beings are fallible and prone to misbehave.

These failings in human beings have the potential to take some of the gloss off God’s act of creation since they would seem to imply that God either chose to make us badly, or was unable to make us any better. (The perceptive reader will note that this takes us close to the central dilemma involved in the theological problem of the existence of evil ie does evil exist because God chooses to include it in his creation, or is it because he is incapable of excluding it?)

Either way, God has to accept some responsibility for the failings of the human race and, in my view, that would undermine any right he might have to sit in judgement on our misbehaviour.

Clearly this situation would be unacceptable for those who believe in God.

Some kind of escape route is needed, and this is where the doctrine of original sin becomes important.

Therefore, God creates Adam and Eve and they are free from sin.They don’t even know what sin is.

Eve is persuaded by the servant to disobey God, and Adam essentially commits the same sin effectively as an act of solidarity with Eve. Sin is therefore introduced into the world, but as an independent act originating in human beings and not in God.

Therefore the sinfulness of humanity is explained and God is absolved from blame.

Or maybe not.

After all, both Adam and Eve were created without any knowledge of good or evil. The whole point of the forbidden fruit was that it gave knowledge of good and evil, which is why it was forbidden in the first place.

(Has anyone ever explained why God was so intent on denying Adam and Eve knowledge of good and evil? I could understand it if God wanted Adam and Eve to choose good rather than evil, but why would he effectively deny them the choice by denying them any knowledge of the available choices? Can anyone be good by default? Wasn’t that simply asking for trouble in as much as it left them without the knowledge they would need in order to resist evil when it was presented to them? Did God not anticipate what was going to happen? How could he not know about the serpent?).

But if Adam and Eve were truly without any knowledge of good and evil, no civilised system of criminal law that I know about would have allowed either of them to be convicted of any crime. They lacked knowledge of good and evil, therefore they were unable to form the criminal intent that would be necessary for her to be convicted.

(You might say that they knew they shouldn’t have eaten the forbidden fruit because God told them not to and that injunction should have been enough, but without any knowledge of good and evil how can you really know that anything is wrong).

I suppose the pious answer to this point is that I’m arguing on the basis of human legal systems and that God is not bound by our legalistic notions.

Well, maybe.

But to me that suggests that there are human systems of criminal justice that show a greater capacity for understanding and compassion than God’s judgement and I don’t imagine too many Christians would be happy with that thought.

In any case, Eve was clearly a naïve individual who was suborned and deceived into committing an offence that she did not fully understand. The agent who suborned this action was the serpent.

(I can find not account in the book of Genesis of why the serpent does this. Later traditions suggest that the serpent was effectively possessed by the devil, but this does not materially affect the point I have in mind).

The serpent (not to mention the Devil) was also one of God’s creations, so one has to ask why God created the serpent with the will and the capability, not only to sin himself, but also to suborn Eve into sin. (Or if the serpent committed his own sin quite spontaneously, then the real original sin was that of the serpent, not that of Eve).

Either way, if God created all things, then God created sin. (Or at least the potential for sin. If we assume that God knew that this potential existed then this takes us back to my earlier question about why he insisted that Adam and Eve should be denied any knowledge of good and evil).

So if God did not create sin in Adam and Eve, then He created sin in the serpent, or He created sin in Lucifer, who became Satan due to his own sin, and then used the serpent for his own purposes.

Whichever version you choose to accept, if God created us and we are sinful then God created sin. If God created sin, then how can He have any right to judge us for being sinful.

If you’re a Christian you’ll probably want to dismiss most, if not all, of the above as mere sophistry. (Feel free, I’m not trying to tell anyone what to believe, I’m just putting ideas into words. Any reader is at complete liberty to make as much or as little of this as they want).

Having said this, even if you don’t accept any of the above, there is still a problem with the doctrine of original sin and that lies in its dependence on the assumption that sin is somehow transmissible, transferable or in some other way inheritable.

I simply don’t accept this.

Obviously, one person can be blamed for what another person does. Or they can accept responsibility for what another person does. But in either case the actual guilt, or sin, remains with the person who was actually responsible for committing the offence.

Put simply, you just can’t play pass the parcel with sin.

So it seems to me that there is no justice at all in the notion that the descendants of Adam and Eve (that would be us, by the way) can be held responsible for acts that they did not commit and could not have prevented.

This notion of ‘blood guilt’, or guilt by family connection, may have seemed like common sense at some point in human history, but in the modern world only people like the Nazis have tried to implement it as part of their legal system. (It’s quite possible that even the Nazis didn’t think of this in terms of justice. Maybe it was simply an excuse for punishing the families of those who offended them, either out of sheer vindictiveness or as a pragmatic means of deterring further resistance).

So if God chooses to punish all human beings for the sins of Adam and Eve, does that not put him on the same moral level as the Nazis?

This is a pretty blasphemous thought, I know, but if you do the things that evil people do then I don’t see how you can claim that you’re not evil.

I expect that some people would claim that God’s status as the Supreme Being exempts Him from this kind of judgement, but I don’t accept this.

Morality is about what you do, and to some extent why you do it, not who you are. I don’t see how being God would get you off the hook in this instance.

You could go even further and suggest that the very wise and the very powerful should be held to a higher standard of morality as opposed to being considered to be exempt from judgement.

So, Id have to say that I don’t care if God is all-knowing and all-powerful, if He wants to be considered benevolent then He has to act in a benevolent manner. If He acts like a tyrant, then He’s a tyrant.

Of course, you don’t have to believe in the literal truth of the biblical account of The Fall.

But, if you don’t believe that Adam and Eve really existed, and the whole story is to be understood in figurative terms, then where does that leave you?

Does it imply that each and every human being goes through his, or her, own version of The Fall? Does each and every human being, without fail or exception, inevitably commit his, or her, very own sinful act of disobedience?

If that’s the case, then surely it takes us back to the idea that every human being is essentially sinful and then we’re back to the notion that if God created humanity, he made a pretty poor job of it.

In either case, it seems to me that the story of The Fall doesn’t really fulfill its apparent purpose in the Christian narrative. In other words, it doesn’t get God off the hook.

I fully recognise that I’m considering an aspect of Christian theology in terms of a plot device and you may very well feel that this approach is inappropriate.

All I can say in defence of my approach is that it’s the only one I’ve got. To me it seems that the only alternative is a lot of hand waving and vague talk about divine mysteries and things that are beyond our understanding and to me that seems like a cop-out.

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