Adam and Eve Didn’t Do It: Part 1 of A Layman’s Ideas about Original Sin

As we begin this wonderful new year of terrible Back To The Future II jokes, I’d like to start tackling some equally terrible theology.

When I say “terrible theology”, I’m talking about the kinds of religious ideas that have caused immeasurable spiritual, emotional and psychological harm over the years. I’m talking about the kinds of doctrine that have driven people away from the Church, that have inspired Internet memes and atheist comedy routines.

Today, I’m talking about the doctrine of Original Sin, and its ugly stepbrother Total Depravity.

First, let’s get some things out of the way: I’m not a scholar of theology. I have never been to a seminary, but I have benefited from many others’ seminary educations by way of my local bookstore. I am not ordained in any specific denomination. I am a lay pastor, and so I can only give you my ideas, and my interpretations of the ideas of others. You can take this stuff or leave it.

I’m writing this particular piece because I am part of a community – called “Progressive Christians”, “Emergent Christians”, “Post-Modern Christians”, “Post-Post-Modern Christians”, or “Dirty Liberal Heretics”, depending on who you’re talking to – and in this community, we’re very uncomfortable talking about Original Sin or Depravity. As I’ve said, many people have been harmed by this doctrine; more specifically, people have been harmed by various interpretations of this doctrine. As a result of this harm, many in our community have done away with the doctrine altogether. While this creates a much more pleasant “I’m okay, you’re okay, we’re all okay” kind of environment, it also produces a theology with a very weak core, a theology that ignores the unpleasant parts of human nature and has a hard time explaining why our world just seems to err on the side of tragedy.

So, WITHOUT FURTHER ADO, here is a summation of the doctrine of Original Sin:

Adam and Eve were created by God, in His/Her image, and given the keys to the Kingdom in the form of an earthly Paradise called the Garden of Eden. They were told that they could eat of any tree in the Garden, except for the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. God said that if they ate from that tree, they would surely die.

Along comes the Serpent (who is commonly understood to be Satan, though the text makes no such claim) who asks the poor woman Eve, “Hath God really said…?” The Serpent then convinces Eve to eat of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, saying that she will not die, but will become . She eats, then gives some fruit to Adam. Adam eats, and they suddenly realize that they are naked, and they feel shame. God comes walking through the Garden looking for Adam and Eve, and they hide from God. They finally reveal themselves to God, and God asks why they are hiding. Adam says, “I was naked.” God says, “Who told you that?” Adam says, “This woman you gave me made me eat from that tree.” Eve says, “That Serpent tricked me.” God curses them and their descendants forever and throws them out of the Garden.

Now, the doctrine says that because of Adam and Eve bringing Sin into the world, we all are born with a “sinful nature.” That means that we are born with a tendency towards doing the wrong thing, a tendency towards disobeying God. (NOTE: there is a great deal of debate on whether the Original Sin was pride – wanting to be “like God” – or simple disobedience by eating from the Tree that God told them not to. More on this later.)

The doctrine of Total Depravity sort of piggybacks off the doctrine of Original Sin. Total Depravity states that because of Original Sin, our entire nature has been perverted and we are completely depraved. According to the doctrine, we cannot do a single good thing of our own nature, because that nature is evil. We might outwardly do good things, but all such goodness is a result of egotism. We cannot even choose to love or follow God, under this doctrine, and God has to choose us and make His grace irresistible to us.

Over the years, we’ve softened this doctrine to allow for a certain amount of human agency in choosing to follow God. There are a very limited number of people who hold to the hardest-of-the-hard-core Total Depravity.

In any case, here is how this doctrine has been twisted and used to harm people.

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I’m standing in church, enjoying a wonderful worship experience. The worship leader stops singing for a few moments to pray while strumming soft guitar chords.

It’s a pray of Thanksgiving. He’s thanking God for the wonderful gift of Grace, of Divine Love, of Forgiveness. He’s thanking God for the continuing work of salvation through Jesus Christ.

And he says, “Lord we know that we don’t deserve it.”

And I think, “No, of course we don’t deserve it.”

And he says, “We didn’t do anything to earn it.”

And I think, “No, we didn’t do anything to earn it.”

And he says, “We are worthless/unworthy/undeserving of your love.”

And just like that, my worship is over.

Now, there is nothing sinister in the prayer that worship leader just prayed. He is praying an earnest prayer from an earnest heart, and he’s only repeating theological tenets that he’s been hearing, reading and understanding for years. He learned that the grace of God through Jesus Christ is freely given, it’s unearned, it’s undeserved. All of these lessons are fine and seem to be true through a reading of the Scriptures.

But then, he was either told or made the intellectual leap himself that the fact that the grace and love and forgiveness he received was undeserved and unearned… that fact makes him as a person unworthy, undeserving or worthless. He has taken God’s generosity, love and kindness in giving grace, and inverted it to making himself unworthy of it.

We all have this tendency, especially in “Evangelical Christianity”, to declare our complete unworthiness before God in order to accentuate His/Her worthiness and kindness and love. On its face, it’s not a bad thing. We believe, rightly, in humility. We believe, rightly, that “we must decrease, so that He can increase.” But, there’s a thin line between proper humility before God and self-degradation.

Because here’s what happens: someone in a pulpit somewhere is preaching about how worthless you are. He’s not being humble, or using his unworthiness as a way to give glory to God. He is telling you how worthless and awful and depraved you are in order to instill you with a sense of guilt and fear. He’s telling you that all your efforts are worthless. He’s telling you that all your good thoughts and good actions are selfish at their core. He’s telling you that what God really wants is to burn you in Hell for eternity, but He’s willing to let you go to Heaven, because Jesus “took the nails” for you.

He’s telling you that God never stops being angry/grieved/offended at your sin, and that you have to constantly be aware of your own awfulness and constantly seek forgiveness for how worthless you are

He’s telling you that all the suffering in the world is because Adam and Eve screwed up, and that you are destined to screw up as a result.

He’s telling your kids that the fact that they like members of the same sex, or the fact that they know that they were born the wrong gender, is the result of Adam and Eve screwing the pooch and eating from the wrong tree.

And people are dying from it. People are staying in abusive homes because of it. People are living their entire lives in fear and guilt because of it.

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I don’t think the doctrine is to blame. I just think that we’ve twisted it beyond all recognition. I think we’ve missed the point of the story entirely for thousands of years, and that we’ve used it as an excuse to keep the world in a state of dysfunction for just as long.

First, the story: if you’re taking this story literally, you’re missing the point. One of my first questions about the Bible (the first step on the long journey away from inerrancy) was: “What was so bad about knowing good from evil?” The answer was generally, “It wasn’t the Tree; it was that God told them not to eat, and they did it anyway.” To which I would respond, “Why would God tell them not to eat from the Tree in the first place?”

Part of the problem with our doctrine is that we take the story of Adam and Eve as a literal event in history, rather than an allegory, and thus miss the important lessons of it. If we take it all literally, it’s easy to mistake the Original Sin as being one of disobedience. “If God tells you not to eat something, then don’t eat it.”

It’s also easy to think that our Original Sin was pride. “If you eat it, you will become like God, knowing good from evil.”

But, I have an alternate interpretation, one that I think explains our actual nature. This interpretation doesn’t come from the act of eating from the tree – it comes from the actions afterwards.

So, after they’ve eaten from the tree and their eyes have been opened – they’ve gone from a state of innocence into a state of knowledge – they hide from God. And God comes looking for them. God wasn’t angry, He didn’t immediately start in on the guilt, He just wants to know where they are.

When God calls out to them, Adam admits that they are hiding. When God asks Adam what he has done, Adam immediately blames Eve.

When God asks Eve to account for her actions, Eve blames the snake.

So, here’s the Original Sin: not disobedience, not pride, not knowing good from evil, but a willful evasion of responsibility.  When Adam and Eve were called to account for their actions, they immediately took the selfish path – they blamed the Other for their disobedience, they refused to take responsibility, they chose survival over righteousness.

Again, I don’t think this story should be taken as a literal event in history, yet I think that as allegory it still teaches us this. Human beings are prone to selfishness, to survival at all costs, to self-gratification. In our natural state, we will always do the thing that benefits us over the thing that benefits others.

Even today, we’re blaming our nature on mythical characters instead of taking responsibility for our personal failures and shortcomings. We’re choosing to say, “Adam and Eve made me do it”, instead of “I am the one who does this.”

Because, if we ever acknowledge that our nature is our own, and not the result of a decision made 10000 years ago, we will also have to say, “I am the one who has to stop this.”

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In my next post (due on Sunday), I will discuss how Jesus negates Original Sin and how we need not be worthless as a result.

What are your thoughts? Do you think you still live under the Curse of Adam? Do you think that you must be worthless in order to receive God’s love and grace?

Share your thoughts.

Grace and peace until next time,

Michael Woywood

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