‘Original Sin’ is the Christian doctrine that says that ultimately there is no choice: all human beings, just by being born, have a built-in inclination to commit ‘Sin’ and therefore are inherently ‘Evil’. They hold that this evil human nature has been inherited from the original parents of Humanity, Adam and Eve, depicted in the Bible story of the Garden of Eden where Satan in the form of a serpent tempted Eve, then Adam to eat the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge which God had forbidden them.

This disobedience led to their being driven from the Garden of Eden into a life of struggle and suffering as we see everywhere throughout human history. Christians teach that our choice lies in whether we choose the only way to resolve this inherited proclivity to sin which is to be baptised and accept the atonement that Jesus provided on the Cross where they say Jesus died for the sins of humanity.

The Downside of Original Sin: Thus, generations of Christians have been brought up to believe that:

  • Human beings are inherently evil, and, in general cannot be trusted. Countless crimes and wars must have been engendered by this attitude to human nature.
  • They are weighed down with guilt and suspicion, especially relating to sexuality.
  • The Doctrine of Original Sin led to the development of inhibited and puritanical attitudes to sex and procreation.
  • The role of women in society has been demeaned by the story of Eve’s temptation and her supposed responsibility for tempting Adam which Christians have extrapolated to the influence of all women on men.

This being so, how much truth can we place in this doctrine after almost 2,000 years of its pervasive influence in Christian doctrine?

Are human beings really all born inherently evil?

Original Sin in the Bible: Let’s have a look at how this doctrine arose. The Biblical basis for the belief is generally found in Genesis 3 which is the story of the expulsion of Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden in a line in Psalm 51:5

“I was brought forth in iniquity, and in sin did my mother conceive me”,

and in St. Paul’s Epistle to the Romans, 5:12-21

“Therefore, just as sin entered the world through one man, and death through sin, and in this way death came to all people, because all sinned“.

The Doctrine of Original Sin as such does not appear in the Old Testament but some scholars see similarities in the Jewish yetzer ha-ara, or ‘evil inclination’. In Jewish theology, however, it is not evil per se and is balanced by yetzer ha-tav, ‘good intention’.

The belief in Original Sin began to emerge in the 3rd century AD, but only became fully formed with the writings of St Augustine of Hippo (354–430AD), who was the first author to use the phrase “original sin” (Latin: peccatum originale)

St Augustine: It was St Augustine who first explicitly stated that all human beings inherit Adam’s sin and guilt by natural generation. He also held that all humans were present in Adam and thus participated in his sin and fall. Influenced by Augustine, the Catholic Church Councils of Carthage (411–418 CE) and Orange (529 CE) brought theological speculation about original sin into the official belief system of the Catholic Church.

Not everyone at the time agreed with St Augustine’s view of human nature.  The British monk, Pelagius, who, while not denying that Adam and Eve were real people who had sinned against the commands of God, maintained that all people were born free of sin. He said though that each individual human is influenced by the bad examples of Adam and his descendants.

The Church Council of Carthage (418AD) condemned the views of Pelagius that humans are basically good as being heretical!

Most medieval theologians followed St Augustine especially St Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274) and, much later, the Catholic Council of Trent (1545-1563) which arose in response to Protestant reformers such as Martin Luther and John Calvin who basically followed St Augustine’s views on Original Sin.

The Protestants went further and equated original sin with what they called, concupiscence (or “hurtful desire”), affirming that it persisted even after baptism and completely destroyed freedom to do good, proposing that original sin involved a loss of free will except to sin.

The Jansenist movement, which the Roman Catholic Church declared heretical in 1653, also maintained that original sin destroyed freedom of will. Instead, the Catholic Church declared that:

“Baptism, by imparting the life of Christ’s grace, erases original sin and turns a man back towards God, but the consequences for nature, weakened and inclined to evil, persist in man and summon him to spiritual battle”, and that, “weakened and diminished by Adam’s fall, free will is yet not destroyed in the race.”

Modern Christian Belief in Original Sin: 19th and 20th century liberal Protestants, following the findings of Biblical scholarship, denied the historicity of Adam and Eve as primeval progenitors of the human race, and many, under the impact of evolutionary views, saw man as actually becoming better and better!

In contrast, twentieth century Neo-Orthodox theologians, whilst not holding Adam to be an historical figure, has taken the idea of original sin seriously. Adam has been interpreted as ‘Everyman’ and original sin as a universal inclination to improper self-interest, which has resulted in the universal corruption of mankind.

Other modern Christian movements reject the concept of Original Sin:

  • The Unity Church believes that God is present everywhere and that God is within each of us.
  • Quakerism (Society of Friends) believes that the Light/God is in everyone.
  • Swedenborgianism: Swedenborg’s view of original sin is referred to as “hereditary evil”, which passes from generation to generation. It cannot be completely abolished by an individual man, but can be tempered when someone reforms their own life,and are thus held accountable only for their own sins.

Islam Denies Original Sin: Islam denies the Doctrine of Original Sin. Islam believes that Adam and Eve sinned but were forgiven by God. The name of Adam is mentioned 25 times in different chapters of the Holy Quran, but there are many differences between Islamic and Christian viewpoints about him:

  • Adam denied an advisory command of God and committed a terrible sin, but he repented and God forgave him. His attitude towards God didn’t change. He was a servant of God before and after his fall: “Then Adam received from his Lord [some] words, and He accepted his repentance”The Holy Quran 2:37.
  • Adam`s sin, which was forgiven by God, was not passed on to his children. Children are not responsible for their parent`s sins and actions: “Whoever is guided is guided only for [the good of] his own soul, and whoever goes astray, goes astray only to its detriment. No bearer shall bear another’s burden”.The Holy Quran 17:15.

Judaism on Original Sin: Jews do not believe in the Doctrine of Original Sin. Remember the Christian teaching that hereditary sinfulness is inescapably transmitted to human beings by their parents, starting with Adam and Eve. It is alleged by Christians that only acceptance of Jesus as savior from sin can redeem a person from sin. Judaism teaches the Biblical way to repentance and reconciliation with God. Sincere repentance in which the sinner pledges to rectify his sinful ways and lead a righteous life is one means that is open at all times to all of humanity (Jonah 3:5-10, Daniel 4:27). God counsels Cain, “Why are you annoyed, and why has your countenance fallen? If you do good [that is, change your ways], will it not be lifted up [that is, you will be forgiven]. But if you do not do good, sin rests at the door; and it desires you, but you may rule over it” (Genesis 4:6-7).

God informs Cain that repentance and subsequent forgiveness are always open to him. The remedy for sin is clear. Biblically, God’s loving-kindness depends on right conduct and extends to all humanity.

Buddhism and Hinduism: don’t believe in the doctrine of Original Sin. Hinduism believes our original nature is pure goodness. Buddhism teaches a practical way for human beings to become aware of that pure goodness at the heart of their Being by acknowledging the Four Noble Truths and through following the Exalted Eightfold Path. Hinduism teaches many different paths back to our Divine Source including through study, devotion, good works, meditation, yoga, or a combination of all these approaches. The Hindu view of Original Sin was best summed up by Swami Vivekananda when he said: “Children of immortal bliss – what a sweet, what a hopeful name! Allow me to call you, brethren, by that sweet name – heirs of immortal bliss – yea, the Hindu refuses to call you sinners. Ye are the Children of God, the sharers of immortal bliss, holy and perfect beings. Ye divinities on earth. Sinners! It is a sin to call a man so; it is a standing libel on human nature.”

Bahai: A Bahai perspective on Original Sin: “Observe that if, according to the suppositions of the People of the Book (ie. Christians), the meaning was taken in its exoteric sense, it would be absolute injustice and complete predestination. If Adam sinned by going near the forbidden tree, what was the sin of the glorious Abraham, and what was the error of Moses the Interlocutor? What was the crime of Noah the Prophet? What was the transgression of Joseph the Truthful? What was the iniquity of the Prophets of God, and what was the trespass of John the Chaste? Would the justice of God have allowed these enlightened Manifestations, on account of the sin of Adam, to find torment in Hell until Christ came and by the sacrifice of Himself saved them from excruciating tortures? Such an idea is beyond every law and rule and cannot be accepted by any intelligent person.” – Abdul Baha: Some Answered Questions, p.125-126.

Theosophy on Original Sin: In Christian theology, ‘Vicarious Atonement’ is the idea that God accepted the sacrifice of Jesus Christ as a substitution for the guilt incurred by man at the Fall, and that mankind will consequently escape punishment, provided that they accept by faith Jesus Christ’s sacrifice. The idea that by an atoning for evil done or sin committed, one undoes the past — broadened by Christian theology to include the doctrine of the Vicarious Atonement by some great spiritual being for the sins of others — is a theory rejected by the Theosophic philosophy.

To those who believe the Christian doctrine that every person was born into this world burdened with inevitable doom through Adam’s sin, such a compensatory doctrine seems to be necessary; but it discourages people’s faith in their own innate divinity and in their power thereby to affect their own spiritual and moral salvation, and violates our sense of justice by offering a way of avoiding the consequences of our own bad actions — which avoidance of sin already incurred is distinctly denied in several places in the New Testament where the ancient theosophical doctrine of karma is taught that as a man sows, that (and not something else) must he invariably reap.

Vicarious Atonement may be a distorted doctrine of reconciliation, in Christian notion reconciliation between God and man; also of the idea that the spiritual monad in man takes on itself the consequences for actions or “sins” committed by the less evolved human monad. Every human being is raised by the sacrifice made by the Christos within himself, so that whoever believes in and conforms his acts to his own spiritual nature, is “saved.” – from the Encyclopedic Theosophical Glossary.

Former Leader of the TS Pasadena wrote: “…from the second century of the Christian era we have dogmas and creeds taking the place of the wise simple teachings of Jesus which were easily understood by all: and it is the dogmas and creeds that Theosophy does not recognize and accept. In the first place the Church began, at about that time, to instil into the minds of the followers of Christianity the dogma that they were born in Sin. I never lose an opportunity to say that Theosophists cannot accept this doctrine. To accept the teaching of Original Sin is to limit the power of Deity. How can we accept the idea that the Omnipresent, the Unknowable, the All-Loving, All-Compassionate Deity could place humanity in a position of no choice in coming into life, and then mark it as being born in sin? …we cannot arise to the position of true self-respect that should be ours until we eliminate that idea from our minds. The moment we can take that step, we can throw ourselves, so to say, towards the Infinite, resting in a beautiful and unselfish trust. Then we shall have enlightenment; then will come knowledge that every man should have in order to guide and direct his life spiritually…”

So where does this leave us? Is Human Nature inherently Evil or Good? Is there no choice ultimately?

The Implications of Original Sin: As we can appreciate, seeing human nature as essentially evil with no choice except conversion to Christianity as taught by the Doctrine of Original Sin, has many unhappy implications for those who believe that this is true including:

  • Automatic suspicion of others engendering conflict and wars,
  • Guilt, over our every intention and motivation and the belief that only the church can provide absolution through the confessional and atonement,
  • Inhibition and repression especially with regard to sexuality,
  • Blaming Eve for leading men into the Original Sin definitely has had a bad effect on society’s attitude to women, 
  • Belief that children are evil from birth has had a disastrous effect on child-rearing practices at various times in the history of Christian civilization, eg. during the Victorian era in the 19th century.

On the other hand, if, as suggested by many of the major religions of the world, if we understand human nature to be essentially good and that humanity is struggling with its choices on the way back to our Pure Source:

  • Then we can believe in the real possibility of developing Kindness towards one another,
  • Such a realization does away with guilt and inhibition especially in regards to sexuality and procreation which are seen as a natural process,
  • We have confidence we can change, giving us a belief in the future,
  • We have the freedom of choice to develop Patience and Resilience to make the long journey back to union with our Pure Essence. – Andrew Rooke, Melbourne, Australia.

Theosophy presents none of the gruesome religious pictures that we were taught in our childhood. Man is not told that he was ‘born in sin’, or that ‘hell’ will be his eternal abiding-place if he does wrong. Theosophy says that the world belongs to humanity, that the soul of man is eternal; that his destiny in a sense is as fixed as the stars, if he will turn his face towards the light, if he will respond to that indescribable, pulsating something, that spiritual urge in his heart. – Katherine Tingley.