Robert C. Priddy

Writings on diverse themes from philosophy, psychology to literature and criticism

  • Robert Priddy


    In this blog I post information and critical views concerning ideologies, belief systems and related scientific materials etc. I am a retired philosophy lecturer and researcher, born 1936.

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The Doctrine of ‘Original Sin’

Posted by robertpriddy on June 9, 2013

So-called ‘original sin’ has its origin in Genesis as attributed to Adam and the ‘fall of man’, an Old Testament idea. However, Pope Pius XII instructed the Catholic Church as late as 1950 that the account of the creation and the Garden of Eden story “pertained to history in a true sense” and that it was vital to believe in it. This was to preserve the doctrine of original sin – the burden carried by all mankind due to Adam’s fall due to his rejection of God in his exercise of free will. 

In Judaic and Christian theology, the doctrine has changed through many differing interpretations. It has also been reinterpreted by psychoanalysts and other psychologists. One widespread dogma in various Christian churches is the Old Testament doctrine that all human beings are born sinners in that they inherit the ‘sins of their fathers’ unless they choose to believe in God or Jesus. “He that believeth and is baptized shall be saved; but he that believeth not shall be damned” (Mark 16:16). In some interpretations of the idea – for example in the many sects that hold ‘all are sinners’ – this sin was supposedly passed on down through the generations from Adam by way of birth, being a punishment exacted by God on mankind due to the sin of Adam. In the Bible one actually finds a kind of divine statute of limitations, as in “ I the LORD thy God [am] a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth [generation] of them that hate me; Many hold that the gospels in the New Testament preach that man’s original sin is removed by Jesus’ suffering on the cross, and there are variants on this too – some restricting salvation to true believers, others making it universal to the human race. The qualifier of sin as ‘original’, however, causes the general understanding of it to be that no one is not born a sinner.

Exactly how this was supposed to have occurred is a subject of speculation. The most natural explanation is that people observed how in many families, the traits continue from one generation to the next, as in ‘the son is like the father’ and so forth.  In scientific terms, it may be thought to be familial transmission through genetic inheritance. This idea would explain how the consequences of sins of one’s ancestors were passed on, but it fails to explain how sin itself is inherited. Only if there are genes that dispose us towards crime, so that we cannot avoid sinning, does this interpretation seem to hold water. But this theory, unlikely as it seems, would mean that all moral responsibility is taken from us and can obviously therefore not be accepted, because the very idea of sin requires knowing and wilful bad action by the sinner.

Another way in which one can in some sense ‘inherit’ the sins of one’s ancestors, in a broader and less individual sense, is through the environment that was shaped by them. This includes the natural and the social environment, up to an including the entire rise or decline of the destiny of the human race. This can be thought to occur negatively (since it is sin and not the good, that is supposedly inherited) through the perpetuation of ignorance, hate and revenge etc. through generations. This can take many forms from vendetta to wars, and through the collapse of society, social values or civilised standards of collapse of the natural environment due to the mistakes of past generations and so on. However, this approach has yet more logical weaknesses as an interpretation of the doctrine than that of genetic inheritance. It is hardly defensible as an explanation of the inheritance of sinfulness by specific individuals from their particular forebears.

THE SUPPOSED ‘ORIGINAL FALL’ OF MANKIND

That all the offspring of one person, Adam, should be punished for his sins seems extremely unfair, to the modern mind at least. Another approach to this doctrine is therefore more satisfactory, namely that it is as expression of the idea that there must have been an original falling away from a sinless and perfect life. It is an attempt to answer, in terms of the Garden of Eden parable, how God could have created human being who act against His Will (i.e. sin). The idea that man is a kind of fallen angel attempts to explain why we are not able to live in peace and plenty, though the earth provides all that is required.

Everyone who has any idea of right and wrong has some idea of how things might have been in a perfect, earthly paradise. The enigma of ‘original sin’ is one of the deepest mankind has to face. The doctrine of karma and free will is the most comprehensive and consistent answer history has produced. According to this, man is created in God’s image, not with infinite but only finite divine powers of knowledge and will power. Man is the only being with the freedom to know the difference between right and wrong and to choose between them in his actions.

At the same time, the law of karma ensures that every act will eventually bring about an equal reaction upon the agent. Good actions are the seeds of future good fortune, bad actions those of ill fate. One has freedom to act, but no freedom to avoid the consequences. The reactions of karmic law can occur immediately, ar at any later time, whether in the present life or in a subsequent one. Only when one has obtained the ultimate, goal, salvation from karma through re-unification with our divine origin, God, does the process of action-reaction cease. That is the equivalent of ‘eternal heaven’. Being bound in the prison of action-reaction through human life contains its own hells. The idea of hell was believed by early priesthoods but almost certainly also cynically used to incite fear among the people and stop them from doing whatever they thought to be sinful, not least confronting the priesthood itself. The idea that man is a fallen being and as such is subject to the temptations of evil through a most powerful being, the fallen angel Satan, is just one further embroidery of speculation on the origins and causes of sin… one which seemed to solve the responsibility of God for creating a world where evil could operate.

‘LOSS OF THE SOUL’ ?

Jesus is reputed to have said, “What shall it profit a man if he gain the whole world and lose his own soul?”

There are many possible interpretations of this famous saying of Jesus. The Roman Catholic Church has long preached a doctrine of anathema whereby the soul of such as non-believers, blasphemers and great sinners ‘lose their souls’. This idea, that a person can be sent to perdition – eternal death or damnation – is widespread in Christian churches and sects. A repulsive and abominable doctrine though it undoubtedly is, it is hard to uproot because it is often either interwoven with a number of other equally false dogmas (such as that of ‘eternal hell’) or it is used to ‘fill the gap’ where explanations of other doctrines fall short of clarity and reasonability. Thus, without the doctrine of karmic reaction and continuous human reincarnation until liberation from the wheel of life is achieved, loss of soul seems to be a possibility.

By ‘gaining the whole world’ was most probably meant something like getting a very large measure of what the world can offer – worldly goods, acclaim, power etc. But to ‘lose one’s own soul’ is by no means so clear. It cannot mean losing one’s consciousness. Nor, according to most theologies, does the soul refer to anything tanglible… it is supposed to be transcendental, invisible, intangible and ever-present, eternally existing, unchanged and perfect hence we cannot lose it under any circumstance. Soul (Atma) and its inner nature are assumed (but not proved) to be always suffused with goodness, love and knowledge. This cannot be the same as the ‘soul’ in Jesus’ sense, which can be ‘lost’. This must refer to losing salvation to enter paradise and to have to remain in purgatory or eternal hell. It sounds so unreasonable and unlikely!

The soul can be taken here to mean all that in human kind which has no physical manifestation or experienced appearance. As such it included all manner of things that were not dependent either upon the judgements of society or the world. This was applied to that internal selfhood or ‘I’, which is not itself visible but is presumed to exist because of the fact of subjectivity of consciousness… some fixed ‘ego’ behind all our expressions of selfhood. Such an ‘ego’ cannot be discovered in inward meditation, however, but only as fleeting impressions of selfhood when reflecting on personal experiences and memories.

Losing one’s soul, in Jesus’ conception, must mean something less than actually losing oneself entirely. If the Atma. If direct conscious awareness is the test of one’s being, then losing it would mean either unconsciousness or death. Though some theological speculations assert that direct awareness of God is possible (i.e. as in the supposed liberated saint-avatars) this awareness is also claimed always not to have been present at birth or to have been lost at birth, unless one is a God-avatar.

In most scripture, ‘loss of soul’ refers to something more than loss of belief in a transcendent creator and ruler of the cosmos. It could refer to the loss of personal integrity or the loss of a chance of a lifetime for salvation or liberation (whatever that would actually imply, which is always very vaguely stated).

The philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein evidently took Jesus’ words as an injunction to be true to oneself. One’s ‘own’ soul is oneself… in the sense of the true or authentic self. The true self is that person ‘within’ rather than the outward persona or ‘social mask’ that we are under constant social pressures to adopt. In an authoritarian family or society (such as Wittgenstein himself grew up in), the pressure is great upon one to conform to all the external mores and social laws and thus to form oneself externally according to what others think of one and require of others. To go along with this at the expense of being untrue to oneself, is to ‘lose one’s soul’ in an understandable manner. The self as a soul, however, as an eternal entity that survives death and preserves the identity of the individual, is a unconfirmable idea.

It makes little difference whether one conforms to what one knows others to think (through their open censure and praise) or what one believes and even imagines they think. In neither case does one assert one’s authentic personality, and this can result from many motives and complicating circumstances, like uncertainty and confusion, personal weakness due to physical or social dependency, deficiency of spirit and even cowardice.

This ‘soul’ is perhaps only one’s inner personality or individual selfhood as experienced at any one time. This self-experience invariably changes, develops and much of it is lost to memory. (This selfhood is not to be confused with egoism or selfishness). It probably cannot normally be eradicated, but it can be suppressed to such a degree that its development is not only arrested but can also regress and lead to what we usually now call serious ‘mental illness’. World literature and biography bear witness that this process is often initiated when a persons ‘spirit is broken’, either by wilful and forceful means by others or through failing before challenges which could not be overcome.

THE ‘REMOVAL OF SIN’? 

It is often thought that Jesus taught that God punishes us for our sins, that God exacts divine retribution. This is witnessed in the way people react to misfortune either by blaming God or by asking God ‘what have I done to deserve this?’. However, this doctrine does not agree with most of Jesus’ teaching in the New Testament. Of course, he laid great emphasis on God’s forgiveness of sin. Jesus reprimanded his disciples when they asked if God had sent as punishment the sufferings at the hands of the Romans of a Jewish sect and of other persons killed when a building fell in because they had rejected Jesus on a recent visit there. Jesus told them that they should rather look to their own sins. This can be seen to imply that God does not punish, but that sufferings come as a result of one’s own sins. It is surely all very confusion and unreliable speculation. 

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One Response to “The Doctrine of ‘Original Sin’”

  1. Addendum: People who have not freed themselves from the more irrational and speculative scriptures of Christianity and who want to believe that the Bible expresses only truth, look to the quotations and try to remove suggestions that the doctrine of original sin has been regarded (and for most fundamentalists still is) as not about anything ‘original’ (i.e. transmitted through birth) while the whole is a powerful contrivance to make people feel they are sinners who can only save themselves from eternal damnation by following churches, priesthoods or those who have written the various inconsistent scriptures. The general understanding of ‘original sin’ involves its inevitability, unless one agrees with the scriptures and those in whose interests they are promulgated. The doctrine is a ‘stick’ while that of ‘salvation’ is pie-in-the-sky carrot and the believer in it all is the figurative donkey.

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