Is "Sin" Original?

Rev. Doug Van Doren


This is the first Sunday of Lent. The texts for this day always include Jesus' temptation in the wilderness. The text I want to focus on today, however, is our text from Genesis-the description of the "fall." 


Our sermon title asks the question, "Is 'Sin' Original?" My first response is, "Certainly not!" It is anything but original. By this point in human history we have managed to sin in all ways imaginable and in many that are pretty unimaginable! But, of course, "original" as in unique, is not what "original sin" means, quite the opposite. 


In a nutshell, "original sin" means that basic to being human is to sin, to turn from God. The problem is that this basic notion gets filled in with a lot of misleading detail. Such as taking the story of "Adam and Eve" literally-as the literal cause for the sinful nature of all who follow them. Somehow their sin taints everyone born of their line. (Talk about an unjust system!) 


Another example is the incredibly arrogant assumption that without the human intervention of Baptism, a person (even a baby) would literally spend eternity in hell. I am afraid that all one has to do to confirm the idea of "original sin" is to look at what the Church has done with this notion. It sets itself up as god. It has had a field day with guilt. It has defined sin and then made itself the mechanism for dealing with sin. It is a perfectly self-perpetuating system. (A perfectly sinful one.) 


So then, is sin passť? Is it an antiquated notion that we should relegate to an ancient time and an ancient worldview? Unfortunately not! Simply look about you. In fact, sin, may be more dangerous today in the hands of us "moderns" than ever! 


What is sin? How do we deal with this story of the "first humans?" 


All ancient peoples and religions have a creation story. The major ones are very negative. That is, the earth and its people come about as a result of a war among the gods, or people are a mutant strain resulting from a god mating with an animal. The earth and its inhabitants are negative, conflictual - a bestial, warring realm from the get- go. 


The Judeo/Christian creation myth, however, is overwhelmingly positive. The world and its inhabitants are an intentional creation of a good God. The earth and its people are created for beauty and harmony. It is all pronounced "good" by its creator. People in God's intentional creation are not brutish beasts created in and for conflict, but rather created in love, in the image of their creator. 


This story (myth; as it points to a fundamental truth) is a religious testimony to the right place of people-one people, one family, under one God. Eden is a description of God's intention for the world as the harmonious, peaceable realm.  This being the case, how then do we explain and deal with the reality of human life and history, our conflicting warring state of perpetual malcontent?  That is where the story of "the fall' and the resulting doctrine of "original sin" comes in. 


Unfortunately many people miss the point of this story in Genesis by debating, "Is it really true." They mean by that, "Did it actually happen. Was there really an Adam and Eve?" Some people, because they cannot take the story literally, toss it out and thus miss the point of the serious difficulty of human sin. The real question, however, is not "Is it true?" but, "How is this true?" 


I certainly do not see this story as literal fact. Was there an "Adam and Eve?" No, there was not an Adam and Eve but rather every person in human history is Adam or Eve. The story is all too true in that it is descriptive of what it means to be human. Adam and Eve are archetypes. I think that is what Paul meant when he said that Adam was a "type" of the ones to come. This story is not descriptive of the first two humans but rather of all humans. It is descriptive of our human orientation to sin and, as importantly, it defines what sin is. 


Let's look more closely at the story. We need to be clear that the forbidden fruit is not knowledge, neither is it the quest for knowledge and understanding. It is certainly not an apple! It is the fruit of the tree of the "knowledge of good and evil." What does that mean? The text defines what it means; "You will be like God." Human sin at its core is seeking to take God's place, to be God. Moreover, it is assuming that we have the intellectual ability, the insight, foresight, honesty, and self-knowledge necessary to build the world God intends (even if we wanted to). 


Sin is being estranged from God and one another. Adam and Eve, in seeking to hide from God, symbolize this estrangement. Now I am sure that when God asks Adam, "Have you eaten of the fruit of which I told you not to?" it was a rhetorical question. If God did not already know, as soon as Adam said, "The woman made me do it," God knew what they had done. Isn't blaming a sure sign of our fallen nature? 


We miss the point when we think that sin is simply a particular act. No, sin is seeking to take God's place. It is self-reliance. Paul got it right when he said that he most sinned when he most perfectly fulfilled the letter or the law. Why is that? It is because he did not need God. He relied on his own power and ability. The law was god. More precisely, his ability to perform was god, rather than the wildly loving, continuously creating, recklessly forgiving and reconciling God revealed in Jesus Christ! 


It may have been easier for the ancients to take sin and evil seriously given their world-view. They understood evil beings were floating around ready to pounce if given the slightest opening. In addition, for them the limits of human power were clearer than for us-the gulf between God's power and ours would have seemed greater. As well, a part of their theology was that bad things happening to one was a sign of one's sin. Yet even they sought to take God's place. 


We are at even greater risk than the ancients at denying our orientation to sin-all the ways we usurp God's place. We are enamored with human power. There is little we cannot do. The world is no longer a mystery to us. We know the working of disease as a biological process. We know the basic structure of the cosmos.  Thus, even more, we are enamored with our own power and knowledge. We are the new Tower of Babel building empires upon our belief that power, money, education, ease of life style... all kinds of things of our making will save us.