I don’t believe in original sin. And here I’d like to explore why I don’t. For a start I do believe that we are not like the other animals whose instinctual nature means that they will follow the arc of their creation as far as their impact on the whole ecology. For me we humans are not perfectly instinctual creatures; the built-in or created gift/flaw in us is that we are given free will, an ability to choose how our lives are to proceed. Sometimes we have a choice between the lesser of two evils, but we always have a choice. Apparently, God did not create “Yes-men and Yes-women;” God gave us the choice to honor him or not in every decision we make. She wanted us to come to her of our own free will, and then, like in the Parable of the Prodigal Son, he can welcome us back into the fold of his arms with great celebration.
Secondly, original sin as a belief is a late addition to the Christian canon, first seen in St. Augustine’s writings around 400 A.D. The Jews with over 2000 years of history before Jesus lived did not understand the Garden of Eden story as a story about original sin. They have no such doctrine.
Thirdly, and probably most importantly to me, I don’t believe that God, after creating this incredibly detailed and systematic, interdependent and beautiful universe, was surprised in the Garden of Eden that Adam and Eve blew it, disobeying God. Could God who created 250,000 species of beetles, or the ability of one beetle to adapt and change as the environment dictates into 250,000 species– just one example of the intelligence of God and the complexity of the creation—could God not have known how the man and woman of his creation would turn out? We could project that God was disappointed that it worked out this way, but she is still offering her love, forgiveness and compassion to us to this day; somehow we miss that in our rush to assign guilt and blame. The Garden of Eden story is a myth about how we went from living in the kingdom of heaven to living in our very human cultures, showing our separation from God. It says more about our own mindset, our own projection of our guilt, “God must be angry at us, we screwed up so much,” and the fallout of the choices we make than about God’s anger at these first people.
Fourthly, we project our experience with our own parents onto God. Weren’t we punished for all the misdeeds we did as children? Didn’t we feel guilty for getting away with the ones they didn’t know about? As children weren’t we ashamed of our own lack of adherence to the rules? Our inability to conform to our parents’ rules? Some of us still adhere to this vision of God as angry parent who only wants us to follow his rules. But what is our evidence of this?
Let’s take God’s actions in the Exodus story in order to find out how God behaves towards us. As the story unfolds we find that God becomes totally aware of the suffering of the Jews in Egypt. He calls Moses and his brother Aaron to free them. He sends plagues on the Egyptians in order to get the Egyptians to let the Hebrews go. He parts the Red Sea, so they can escape Pharoah’s army. He provides manna every day in the wilderness so they will be fed.
He hands down a new set of laws showing his people how to behave in the Promised Land. He puts up with an unruly group of people, hardly candidates for the Promised Land, even when they turn to worship another god, Baal. He leads them through the wilderness to the river Jordan and across it into the land he has promised them. He then proceeds to help them settle in this territory with its hostile tribes.
Is there any hint here that God is so angry with the Hebrews that he abandons them or punishes them? No, he rewards them just as he has promised. He sticks with them even when they turn from him or lose faith in his promises. Is this not love? Is it not compassion for his people? Is it not his faithfulness to his people? Is it not forgiveness for whatever they might have done or said?
Even with this important example of God’s faithfulness and love, we can still cower before the throne. One reason why we tremble before the throne is because of the awesomeness of God—the breadth of the creation, the power and the glory. But I think that we misunderstand the nature of God, that he is more like a great parent who lives through his child’s rebellion, which he doesn’t like, but understands, than he is the parent who is so angry at his children’s behavior that he shuts her out of his life and withdraws all his support. Is it possible that our image of God is not even close to who God is? Are we still operating out of a childhood image?
Have we even let God show us who God is, how she loves us, how he is faithful no matter what? With the story of Exodus and further evidence of God’s love in the Parable of the Prodigal Son, we have ample testimony to God’s love, indiscriminate and eternal. Of course both stories have ample examples of mankind’s errant behavior, profligate living in the Prodigal Son, and all the complaints and lack of the people’s faithfulness in the Exodus story. There are also plenty examples of how difficult life can be in both stories. We apparently don’t escape the results of our own “sin” or suffering, but God is faithful, loving, forgiving—always.
How can we grow up our image of God to one that matches our adult experience of her? How do we move from a childhood “punishing Parent” to an adult “loving God?” The first step is to know which one you are loving or avoiding. You have to discover what your default position is on God. Just like a computer’s operating system that always returns to the default setting when it is rebooted, so we return to our old image of God when we are challenged or stressed. During good times we may project a God of love, but when push comes to shove we can go right back to our childhood image laced with fear and anger—our own and God’s.
When this happens, when we’re back to seeing God in this childish way, and when we realize that this image is holding us back from a loving two-way relationship with God, then we need to purge ourselves for once and for all of this old image of God: get it out of our system, express our anger at how it holds us back from being who we were created to be, finally be an adult in the relationship. Then we have a chance to listen to God about how she/he wants us to see God. Then we ask questions like this: who am I and who are you, God? Would you tell me about yourself? What are you calling me to? When we no longer have to cower from God, we move into a co-creative relationship in which there is a lot of back-and-forth between us as we express our needs and longings and God tells us how he sees us.
Perhaps you now understand why I don’t believe in original sin. That belief is a huge stumbling block to a deep relationship with God. It keeps us hanging back and fearful. Paired with the belief that Jesus had to die because we’re all so sinful, it is a powerful deterrent to the Life of the Spirit: the life lived in, with and for God. Those two beliefs and their concomitant fear of God keep us as children who see following the rules as the way to gain God’s favor. We have no chance at integrity or fully living our creation’s promise, because we stay on the level of belief in which looking good before God is more important than actually loving God, turning our lives over to her and allowing him to transform us into the people he created us to be. If we can turn towards God without fear or, at the very least, a willingness to let go our fear of God, then we can enter into a real, adult relationship that is a total giftå with the Divine One who always welcomes us, just as we are.