Original Sin

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1802

Original Sin is a slippery concept. Is it some inherited and resistant stain on the soul of each person that must be washed carefully in baptism? Is it a quaint biblical notion, an artifact from the clueless behavior of the first lady and her partner, not to be taken seriously in a postmodern world? Is it a reality located within the person’s nature or experience? Is it merely the influence of negative social context on behavior? Is it the result of some devil tempting a weak individual into immoral but alluring action? In Original Sin, Alan Jacobs considers these questions in his engaging and rich cultural study of the subject. He is clear in the introduction that his task is cultural rather than theological. His interest is in describing the serious wrestling with the question of sin’s origins across the ages of human history.

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The author begins his examination with six stories that deal with the origins of evil and the differences that various cultures play in interpreting and vanquishing it. They depict the potency of evil in historical contexts and in imagination as well as the need in some way to expiate that evil. They illustrate the hope for a better future even in the face of seemingly insurmountable evil.

Much of Christian thinking about Original Sin is saturated with the theological positions of Saint Augustine, the fourth century bishop of Hippo, in northern Africa. Often drawing his conclusions through the lens of Paul the apostle, Augustine conceives of Original Sin as a tangible reality “inherited” from the first sinful father, Adam. Augustine’s theory damns unbaptized babies to hell, consistent with his idea that human beings are totally unable to achieve salvation without the intervention of God. He does not believe that human beings alone are capable of transcending the power of evil in their lives.

Augustine’s position on Original Sin may very well have become polarized because of his dealings with certain contemporary heretical movements, notably those of the Donatists and the Pelagians. It is equally possible that Augustine’s thinking is rooted in his personal negative views on sex. Sexual desire, when not regulated by the will, is a reminder of the shame of Adam and Eve’s sin, in that it “reenacts Adam’s disobedience.” Predictably Augustine’s frame of reference is his youthful firsthand experience of the difficulty controlling his sexual activity. Jacobs believes that Augustine’s somewhat odd conclusions about the connections of sin and sex have endured in centuries of theology that postulates a conjugal relationship between sexual pleasure and seminal sin.

Besides ancient stories that grapple with the experience of sin, there exist many other attempts to describe and dissect this fundamental reality. Jacobs examines not only the biblical account found in the book of Genesis but also the accounts of such well-known writers as John Milton, in Paradise Lost (1667), and C. S. Lewis, particularly in his Perelandra (1943). Over the centuries, many authors have written about sin, evil, and the devil. Some of these had primarily literary concerns, while others wrote with heavy political or ideological agenda. Jacobs samples both, putting the works in their cultural contexts.

Often fundamental evil is personified in some sort of Satan or devil. From Milton’s Lucifer to the modern comic-book fictional demon Hellboy, from the conniving snake that beguiled Eve to the diminutive but disastrous demon who perches on the shoulder of the confused agent and offers evila variety of representations that personify the human tendency to commit evil are examined. Is the Devil real, an entity with horns or cloven hooves or devoid of thumbs? Is the Devil, as psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud believed, a projected externalization of the inner conflicts that plague the human psyche? Jacobs points out that modern psychological takes on the Devil are not so different from the conclusions at which Paul or Augustine arrived. Both recognize the struggle between good and evil that human beings wage within themselves. Still not clear, however, is whether people have real choices to make. Can Hellboy undergo a change, a metanoia, to become a good person? Can Lucifer repent his break from God to reemerge as the angel of light? Is the struggle to be good truly under human domination, or is the person controlled by nature or by some external coercion (“the devil made me do it”) with no real free will?

Another question concerns the essence of salvation and damnation. Jewish belief in the communal nature of humanity leads to the conclusion that all are ultimately saved (or damned). Accounts in the Hebrew scripture see God as saving the total people, no matter what the good behavioral titer in the population seems to be. Nevertheless, in some instances, the whole people are condemned (the “punishment” of the various biblical exiles, for example). The first conclusion fits nicely with the egalitarian notion of universal sin: All sin, but all are eventually saved. The collective consequence of universal redemption is not unreasonable, given that an inherited universal stain is not a Jewish idea. Rather it is a Christian interpretation of the ancient story found in Genesis. The Jewish position, however, leaves the difficulty of what to do with confirmed sinners, if they are considered apart from the whole. Should there be a punishment fitting to the serious crimes people commit? A sense of justice seems to indicate that evildoers should not get away with conscious malice. Later Jewish thought indicates that sinners can be separated from the saved and condemned to eternal damnation; or, alternatively, they are “retrained” in some kind of reincarnation (as the Jewish Kabbalistic tradition believes).

Jacobs sees a clear pattern in human history. In some periods human beings are believed to have great moral potential, even though the counterpoint of ubiquitous human bondage to Adam’s sin is always lurking in the background. Pelagius argues for human potential to achieve the good; Jonathan Edwards argues that even infants are “young vipers” and infinitely more hateful because they are not in Christ. Even Augustine attributes infants with an “inborn sinfulness, ” which is demonstrated in their inherent selfishness and willfulness.

A romantic picture of primitive people painted in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, largely the idea of Enlightenment philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau, is that of the “noble savage.” An innate innocence and goodness, unstained by evil, characterizes those who live in harmony with nature. Perhaps children and primitive people are not worse than vipers after all. Perhaps this pristine innocence could be true of all citizens if a society were properly organized without private property. Perhaps there is no need for a universal religious doctrine of Original Sin, because people are by nature good. Perhaps it is religion itself that is responsible for human evil. To do away with religion is to do away with sin.

Jacobs makes an interesting observation about the persistence of the doctrine of Original Sin. It is the universal leveler, the “binding agent” that links all people one to another. Why not, the author suggests, take as fundamental and paramount the idea that humanity is made in the image of God? Is this not an equally strong assertion about humanity found in the scripture, and would it not work as well? Jacobs makes this almost poignant observation (is it a plea?) in his discussion of the work of Louis Agassiz, the Swiss naturalist, who was among the last major scientists to repudiate Charles Darwin. Agassiz rejects the idea that there was a universal primordial parenta first sinner. His rejection, sadly, is rooted in his personal experience in a Philadelphia hotel, which left him unable to identify himself as a brother to all. The hotel staff were “men of color.” Agassiz could not countenance the idea that these people, in his view so foreign and offputting in appearance, could be of the same human stock as he. They were members of a “lower race” who should not be allowed to have their blood “flow freely into that of our children.” His position leads logically to a theory of polygenesis. The belief that there was more than one set of human parents destroys the belief that there exists a single “original” sin.

Jacobs believes that, in some ways, a theory that all human beings participate in a universal sinfulness is a uniquely democratic assertion. It is exquisitely egalitarian to think that everyone has the same stain or tendency or reality. As the Christian feast of All Souls implicitly proclaims: All sin, but all have the promise of salvation. Heaven is not reserved for the rich or the hyper holy (saints), but it is open to all sinners, that is, all people. The invitation is universal, based on the ubiquitous effect of sin on the human population. This equality under God, particularly in the strictly stratified society of most of Europe from Roman times until fairly recently, is acutely countercultural.

Ultimately the book eludes a definitive answer to the questions posed. As the sands of history shift, so do theories about Original Sin. Certain approaches come down on the side of some primordial episode whose result is an inherited stain or weakness. This real event makes people either unable to achieve salvation through human endeavor or so weakened by the father’s flaw that they cannot perform good actions. Original Sin is the ticket to hell, unless it is washed away by an ecclesial actionbaptism. Other approaches deny the Adam and Eve fall as definitive, yet persist in defining people as defective and impotent. Sin becomes the owned action of the individual, not some ancient legacy. Alternately, the imperfection is an environmental disposition toward evil that can be metaphorically breathed in and consequently compromising of the good in people.

While the whole book smells of Augustine, Jacobs takes pains to move beyond Augustine’s theory of Original Sin. The work is chock-full of interesting tidbits of history and insight. The reader is delighted by the tantalizing yet accessible erudition of the material.

Jacobs does a fine job of summarizing difficult and disparate historical material. He informs the reader without overwhelming. His range of materialbiblical stories, fiction, biology, and serious theological commentaryis extensive. Although he sometimes moves to material not quite on target, even this fascinates and informs. Happily, instead of cumbersome footnotes, the author has included a chapter-by-chapter bibliography.

In many ways the doctrine of Original Sin is one of anthropology rather than theology. Here the author is on the right track. The doctrine transcends political systems, all of which Jacobs asserts ultimately fall within its scope of judgment. What human beings are at root is a study of reality. Even without a definitive answer to the nature of Original Sin, Jacobs’s look at the span of cultural interpretations of Original Sin offers much insight into the question.


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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 38

America 199, no. 9 (September 29, 2008): 39.

Booklist 104, no. 17 (May 1, 2008): 57.

The Christian Century 125, no. 25 (December 16, 2008): 24.

Christianity Today 52, no. 7 (July, 2008): 53-54.

Library Journal 133, no. 3 (February 15, 2008): 109.

Publishers Weekly 255, no. 8 (February 25, 2008): 68-69.

The Wall Street Journal 251, no. 138 (June 13, 2008): A13.

The Wilson Quarterly 32, no. 3 (Summer, 2008): 107-108.

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