The Illusion of Original Sin

This article is the last in a three part series I have been doing on the human condition and the image of God. In the first article I talked about the distinction between the image and the likeness of God. You can read it by clicking HERE. In the second article I talked about the soul as a work of art and the way that we can have false images in our souls. You can read it by clicking HERE.

After they ate from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, God asked Adam if he had eaten from the forbidden fruit. Adam instantly replied by blaming Eve for influencing him to do it. God then turned her attention to Eve and she immediately blamed the serpent for being a bad influence on her.

From our modern perspective, which emphasises personal responsibility and individualism, we might think they were making excuses and trying to deflect the blame which rightly belonged to them onto someone else. But the truth is that Adam was convinced by Eve and Eve was convinced by the snake. 

The influence of the people around us has a huge impact on the way we live our lives. Even though God had given Adam specific instructions about the forbidden fruit, he was taken up in the moment and followed suit with Eve, who had done the same thing herself when tempted by the serpent.

Neither of them was forced to do so, but both chose to imitate someone else. We are social animals. We have evolved to live together and do things together and this is a good thing. However, the virtue of cooperation which is original to our condition can be corrupted into the vice of systemic evil. We sin in imitation of Adam when we are influenced by these systemic vices.

Since the human soul is burdened with contradictions and riddled with vices, our cultures and societies throughout history and in every part of the world have embodied our ability to choose between good and evil, often with disastrous results. Our cultures become repositories of the vices which our ancestors struggled with. These ancestral vices are passed down through the generations and create systems of evil which most people are unaware even exist.

This can make it seem like sin is original to our condition because our culture has become so far removed from goodness that we see evil as ubiquitous in human society. This passing of vices from one generation to the next creates the illusion of original sin. Pelagius, a Romanised Celt from late antiquity, described it like this,

“Nor is there any reason why it is made difficult to do good other than that long habit of doing wrong which has infected us from childhood and corrupted us little by little over many years and ever after holds us in bondage and slavery to itself, so that it seems somehow to have acquired the force of nature. We now find ourselves being resisted and opposed by all that long period in which we were carelessly instructed, that is, educated in evil, in which we even strove to be evil, since to add to the other incentives to evil, innocence itself was held to be folly.” (Trans by Rees)

When a particular way of thinking and behaving becomes a habit it is called a virtue or a vice. A virtue is a healthy habit and a vice is an unhealthy one.

There is so much to think about in life that our minds form habitual patterns to help us save time and energy. If you had to think in detail about where you keep the salt in your kitchen every time you needed it, it would be a great and unnecessary burden.

Instead, your mind forms a habit so that you can get the salt while still listening to someone else talk and making dinner at the same time. You do many things without having to consciously think about them. The formation of habits is an essential part of how our minds operate, but it can also cause us problems. We can just as easily form habits that lead to prosperity as suffering. 

We begin to form these mental habits as infants and we can sometimes carry them with us all the way to the grave. We form patterns by our own behaviour and choices, but we also pick them up from the people around us. We learn many important habits which help us to live our lives well, but we also learn habits of doing wrong. Alcoholism can often run in a family and so can racism.

Today we might refer to the passing on of destructive habits from one generation to the next as socialisation, social conditioning, or intergenerational trauma. In the debate of nature vs nurture Pelagius is saying saying that we are good by nature, potentially corrupted by nurture, and adds to that discussion the extremely important element of free will. He described this when he said,

“We do not defend the good of nature to such an extent that we claim that it cannot do evil, since we undoubtedly declare also that it is capable of good and evil; we merely try to protect it from an unjust charge, so that we may not seem to be forced to do evil through a fault in our nature, when, in fact, we do neither good nor evil without the exercise of our will and always have the freedom to do one of the two, being always able to do either.”(Trans by Rees)

We retain the ability to use the virtues planted within us even while we are tempted towards vices by the world in which we live. The long habits of doing wrong which have been instilled within us from birth may appear to be part of our nature, but that is only an illusion.

Our nature remains blessed and good in its essence even when our outward behaviours and inward dispositions are lost and confused. We are always the image of God even when our likeness to God has been distorted. If we wish to grow into the likeness of God, we must utilise our free will to overcome the habits which have blurred the image implanted within us.

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