The Religious Origins of Original Sin
For 2000 years Augustine’s doctrine of original sin has taught that you were a natural born sinner, stained with Adam’s sin. From the moment you drew your first breath, you were hostile to the things of God and hardwired to sin.
My strong view is that this teaching about original sin is unbiblical and illogical. Like smoking, original sin is harmful to your health.
But if the Bible doesn’t say it, from where did Augustine et al. get the idea that we are tainted by original sin?
They got it from religion.
The Jews believed that all sin could be traced back to Adam’s transgression and that from him we all inherited an evil heart. This belief is captured in the writings of the apocrypha:
For the first Adam, burdened with an evil heart, transgressed and was overcome, as were also all who were descended from him. Thus the disease became permanent; the law was in the hearts of the people along with the evil root; but what was good departed, and the evil remained. (2 Esdras 3:21–22)
In Judaism there is an old belief that says humans are born with a wicked streak called yetzer hara. According to the Jewish Encyclopedia the yetzer hara is an “evil inclination or impulse, popularly identified with the lusts of the flesh.”
This evil impulse is unconstrained until the emergence, at age thirteen, of the yetzer hatov, a counter-balancing inclination towards good.
The yetzer hara is 13 years older than the yetzer hatov. While still in the mother’s womb, the yetzer hara begins to develop in a person. If he begins to violate the Sabbath, nothing stops him. If he commits murder, nothing stops him. If he goes off to another sin, nothing stops him. But 13 years later, the yetzer hatov is born. When he violates the Sabbath, it rebukes him… (Source)
You know those cartoons that show a person being guided by a little angel or a little demon? That’s based on the teachings of Judaism. The little angel is the yetzer hatov and the little demon is the yetzer hara.
Apparently we don’t get the angel until we’re 13, but the demon – the yetzer hara – is with us from the womb. It is similar to the inherited inclination we know as original sin. The only difference is the rabbis teach that Adam was created by God with this evil inclination, while the theologians say we acquired it as a result of the Fall.
Assume for the moment that you have a yetzer hara. How do you get rid of it? You can’t, say the rabbis. You have it for life. You can only keep it in check through repentance, resolve, and strict obedience to the law.
The Law is like a plaster to the wound made by the yetzer hara. If the plaster is taken away, an evil ulcer will come forth… The Law will wear away the yetzer hara as water wears away stone. (Source)
Jesus and the Jewish apostles would have been familiar with the rabbis’ teaching, yet none of them mentioned anything that sounds like a yetzer hara.
If someone was going to say something surely it would have been Paul the Pharisee. Yet he said nothing. Evidently he did not believe we were born with a sinful nature. He certainly did not believe that we could manage our sin by keeping the law.
Just about everything you ever heard about original sin grew out of this old idea of the yetzer hara. All Tertullian and Augustine did was repackage this Jewish belief in Christian jargon.
So what? Does original sin even matter?
It matters a great deal.
While writing my book on original sin, I heard from a man called Bevan:
Several ministers have told me that my problems are because God rejected me even before I was born, I am going to hell, and there is nothing I can do about it. Help! This is torment!
Sadly, Bevan’s story is hardly unique. I get messages like this all the time.
Many people are tormented with guilt. They turn to religion looking for relief and what do they get? More guilt.
“You were sinful from the moment you took your first breath. You’re a rebel and God will punish you.”
We all live with a narrative about God and how he relates to us. If your narrative says you and your children are stained by the sins of Adam, and that you have to jump through hoops to avoid eternal condemnation, you need a better narrative.
Religion says you are born bad and God hates you, but the Bible says you are fearfully and wonderfully made and your heavenly Father loves you.
Original sin conveys a message of “sin with us,” but the gospel proclaims a better message of “God with us” (Matt. 1:23).
God is for us and with us, and when we open our hearts to his great love, he will be in us as well.
Can’t wait to read this book. Looks very interesting.
I guess people mistake that verse then, we were all born in sin and shaped in iniquity. If any man says, he has no sin, the truth is not in him. All have sinned and come short of the glory of God. No one is good, no, not one. We all need a Saviour Christ Jesus because our sins are like filthy rags. Christ who already dealt with the sins of the world,just wants our belief in his finish work and become Born Again. I guess we all need to get to grips with, what do those verses I just quoted actually mean?
Indeed, those verses are critical to understanding our fallen state and need for grace. But we must also acknowledge those scriptures that say we are fearfully and wonderfully made and shaped in the womb by God. If we had a biblical view of our children we would see them as gifts from God, born without the knowledge of good and evil. We would reject those manmade notions that say our kids are born corrupt, sinners by nature, because the Bible states again and again that we become corrupt and go astray.
Paul – Thanks for your perspective! However, this article would have been much more convincing if you had gone through the various Bible verses that theologians/Christians use to support the theory of original sin like the verses in Romans 5, for example. (Especially Romans 5:14-19) Can you explain how those are being misinterpreted? Most of the verses you quote and statements you make above do not negate original sin, they simply show God loves us. Being born in sin and loved by God can both be true. Thanks.
The aim of this article was to highlight the religious origins of this unbiblical teaching. The scriptures you mention are covered in the book and some of them are in this article.
Paul, I have been a subscriber for many years and I love your content. However, I believe that you may have this one a bit wrong. I pastor a church in Lebanon, Ohio, USA, and share the good news gospel. The heart of the gospel, and what makes grace so powerful, is that it supersedes sin and death. As we know from Rom. 6:23, 7:5, 8:2, 1 Cor. 15:56, James 1:15, and others, sin and death are forever linked. No sin, no death, and vice versa. Romans 5:12 is clear that, because of Adam’s transgression, “death passed upon all men, for all have sinned.” In your article, you said that Paul never addressed this issue and he clearly did here.
I am really not trying to be antagonistic towards your ministry and message of good news. This is the first time I have ever commented in over 7 years of following your amazing writings. I just think you have overly conflated a couple of issues here. You said in your article that “religion says you are born bad and God hates you.” Although some may certainly distort the Word like that, I believe the truth is that “you were born bad and God loves you enough to have provided the answer… believe the good news of what Jesus did to destroy the power of sin and death and receive eternal life!”
I love you, my brother, and pray for continued grace upon grace in your life and ministry. Thank you for all you do for the Kingdom.
Hi Anthony, thanks for your comment. Yes, Adam’s sin brought death to humanity. There’s no debate about that. As you say, Paul clearly explained all this in Romans and other places. We were born under the captivity of sin and the condemnation of sin and death, which is to say we were born sinners under the sentence of death. The debate concerns whether we inherited Adam’s sinful nature or yetzer hara (to use the Jewish term). In contrast with Augustine, Paul does not say one word about this teaching. No doubt he would’ve regarded it as a Jewish superstition. But he and the other apostles did speak at length about how we become corrupted by the deceitful desires of the old self (Eph. 4:22), the defilements of this world (2 Pet. 2:7, 20), and the empty traditions of men (1 Pet. 1:18-19). None of that would be possible if we were born corrupt.
Interesting. I suppose the issue isn’t about good vs. evil (the gospel is not Star Wars) or right vs. wrong (it’s not a Shakespearean morality play either) but about being dead vs. alive.
So we have a world full of dead people, from since the time of Adam’s fall, walking around (and eating and breathing and sitting next to us at restaurants and movies and in the classroom and also merrily reproducing and working hard and going on vacation once a year and retiring and being buried and becoming dust, all of us only slightly more intelligent than an ape, barely more “sophisticated” than a sea slug). Let the dead bury their own dead, right.
And a loving God, who has been pursuing us, offers us life. The life Adam once had before he spiritually died, the true death he died before he physically died.
And if we accept it, we instantly and quite miraculously become spiritually alive, reborn not from a mother’s womb this time but by His Spirit, and alive, truly alive, for the first time, not just on this earth but for all eternity.
That’s it. The real issue is not whether we are born with a sinful nature, but whether we are born under the condemnation of sin and death (Rom. 5:12, 18). Jesus came to give us what we did not have – his life.
Is your new book about original sin going to be available on Amazon?
At this stage I have no plans to release it on Amazon.
Hi Paul! I have a re-occurring monthly account set up as a patreon member and would like to order a copy of the book Original Sin….
Hi Carolyn, I have sent you a message via Patreon showing you how to get this.
I have to disagree, Paul does mention this Romans 5:11-21.
I’m seeing patterns in your argument that are not convincing. Blanket statements without support. I’d like to see more on this subject, just with a more careful handling of the arguments.
The aim of this article was to highlight the religious origins of this unbiblical teaching. Romans 5 is covered in the book and in this article.
When Adam sinned, God removed his spirit and Adam spiritually died. Jesus died to all the sin of the world so through his resurrection the spirit that was lost in Adam could be restored to all spiritually dead humanity who would believe the gospel by faith. He will not depart now like he did in Adam because There is now no sin that would cause it to depart because Christ died to all sin. We are all born forgiven but not yet saved.
That is a whole other subject for discussion.
What about Romans 5:12?
I cover all the “what about?” scriptures in the book. Many of them are discussed in brief on the Grace Commentary as well.
Hey, big fan of your work, you highlight our dependance on grace with an extra thick highlighter. Im in agreement and learn so much of what you post including this article. One thing that conflicts with my thoughts is in romans 5… I wouldnt at all be surprised if you make reference to (and address) this in your book concerning original sin.
Hi David, you guessed right. In fact, it was Romans 5 more than any other chapter that caused me to questions the teaching of original sin. What Paul says and what people think Paul says are quite different. Romans 5-7 offers perhaps the strongest rebuttal to this old Jewish teaching.
Ah, i see, i also read your commentary, it seems like you already took painstaking effort to make note of this. As you mentioned, what the bible says and oftentimes what we think it says are two different issues, thats been the case with me on many occasions. I find it interesting u make mention of sin as a noun (and of course its power is death.) In any case I think I should read your book first to clear the fog and expand from there. Thanks for the good work you do, the world could use more of this type of service (grace.) And seeing as im the first person to comment on your thread I apologize if i inadvertently opened up a can of worms. In the words of Anakin Skywalker: “What have I done??”
It’s all good, David. These articles come out in the middle of the night (my time) so when I get up there are usually a bunch of comments waiting to be approved and no one has seen anyone else’s comment at that point.
What about carnal nature? Would you say carnal nature is different from sin nature? Were we born with a carnal nature? Thanks
In my book I have a couple of chapters devoted to the sinful nature, which I define as the inclination to sin. In Biblespeak, it is an inclination to carry out the desires of the flesh. It is trusting in yourself (your abilities and understanding) and living solely from your earthly experience (what you see, hear, touch, know, etc.). It is living without regard for the things of God (1 Cor. 2:14).
What we call a sinful nature might just as easily be called human nature or carnal nature, since the temptation to trust in our own abilities and lean on our own understanding is universal. We are all tempted to rely on ourselves, lean on our own understanding, and be in control. But do we inherit this desire? Are we born with it? The Jews taught that the sinful nature is inherited (and many Christians believe this), but their own scriptures say otherwise: Little children do not know right from wrong (Deu. 1:39, Is. 7:16).
Christ died to break the curse of Adam. “And you hath he ‘quickened’ (made alive), who were dead in trespasses and sins; Wherein in time past ye walked according to the course of this world, according to the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that now works in the children of disobedience: Among whom also we all had our conversation in times past in the lusts of our flesh, fulfilling the desires of the flesh and of the mind (both); and were by nature the children of wrath, even as others.” Ephesians 2:1-3. Then Paul was very plan when relating to this; “I am carnal, sold under sin.” and further said of such, “sin that dwells in me”. Romans 7:14,17. Basically saying, sure the law brought it to conscience, but it was there the whole time, speaking of a sin nature of flesh and mind, because of Adam.
How would you define “flesh”?
Flesh? LJP, I’d define it the same as Paul, that part of us which having been “sold under sin” (from Adam selling us out), yet which nature we overcome, through the “divine nature”, 2 Peter 1:4, the second Adam paid a high price for. Thanks
Flesh actually means flesh – the soft tissue the covers the bones. It’s important that we start with the correct goal. If we believe the aim is morality, then everything we read I scripture speaks to us about morality. We can be in the flesh and seem moral for a while, but being in the flesh is directly opposed to trusting God because it means using your flesh to produce eternal life. Using your flesh to produce God’s life is the height of sin. This is what Satan was selling in the garden. “You can be like God, just do this and do that.” Then he’s got you doing the hamster wheel of death. Being like God is about possessing His life. There is a higher goal than morality. God’s goal for us is eternal life, a life in union with Him. Flesh can never produce eternal life. In fact, when we see eternal life as the actual goal, trying to accomplish that in the flesh becomes outrageous. Eternal life can only be received as a gift from God. Children of disobedience ignore this and foolishly try to be like God in the flesh.
True LJP, but we all were “dead in trespasses and sins” at one time as “children of disobedience”, Ephesians 2:1,2.
Yet, if flesh is only flesh that covers the bone, then what did Paul mean by, “In my flesh nothing good dwells” (Rom. 7:18)? As he said plainly, “I am fleshly, sold under sin”, and again, it was “sin that dwells in me” Romans 7:14 and 17. Again, his recognizing, “the sin that dwells in me……bringing me into captivity to the law of sin which is in my members.” Verse 20, 23.
Here he is unwrapping (exposing) the self, or flesh, in which sin dwelt, and by observing that the evil actions were done, not by him, but by sin dwelling in him. Can not this be a “sin nature”, as opposed to a “divine nature” we are to participate in, being “dead in trespasses and sins”?
So right, no question, “Flesh can never produce eternal life”, but this is what Paul saw as his dilemma, which not only existed in him, (wrought in him, and that at times very strongly, dwelt in him, had its abode in him), but is also in us.
But true, even after that, Paul never mentioned it was God, or his predecessor’s fault that he had “the law of sin which is in his members”, but rather just thanked “God through Jesus Christ our Lord” for delivering him. Verse’s 20,23,24,25. But did hint at it by mentioning “death and sin” in the same sentence (Ephesians 2), as was the same sentence God gave to Adam, “for in the day that thou eatest (sin) thereof thou shalt surely die.”
I still hold to the old sin nature thought, but the verdict is still in deliberation. Thanks
I will take that true and keep it brief. 🙂 I looked up the word flesh in Romans 7:18. The first definition is “the soft substance of the living body, which covers the bones”. The law present in you which oppose God is the desire to save yourself in the flesh. The first definition for the word sin is “to be without a share in”… without a share in eternal life. The second definition of sin is to “miss the mark”. The mark is eternal life. Using your flesh to try and be like God is bad behavior and foolish (God made flesh, flesh doesn’t make God or God likeness). Putting it together – using your flesh to try and produce God’s life, instead of trusting God to give you His life, is being in sin (without a share in eternal life).
I had computer problems, back now. Sure, “using your flesh to try and produce God’s life, instead of trusting God to give you His life, is being in sin (without a share in eternal life)”. for ,right, we are saved by faith in Christ, not ourselves, yet Paul is speaking of our actions, doings, our walk, and this is separate from our secured life in God (1 John 5:13) and is effected by the flesh as he said; “For we know that the Law is spiritual, but I am of flesh, sold into bondage to sin. For what I am doing,…. ” Ro. 7:15,16 . He speaks clear in
Galatians 5:17 using language very close to Romans 7, but talking to Christians who are saved, have the Holy Spirit and yet who also have another power at work in them. He calls it the flesh. He says in verse 17, “The flesh sets its desire against the Spirit, and the Spirit against the flesh; for these are in opposition to one another, so that [now here comes the language of Romans 7] you may not do the things that you please.” In Romans 6:12, He says to Christians, “Do not let sin (flesh) reign in your mortal body so that you obey its lusts.” why? because we have this sin nature that must be kept under control of the Spirit, which has the ascendancy (dominant power or influence) against the flesh, which we will have as long as we are in this world. But be encouraged, just as Paul was; “I thank God through Jesus Christ our Lord. So then with the mind I myself (the spirit man) serve the law of God; but with the flesh the law of sin..
Thomas, I was hoping to show how the meaning and even the context of verses can change when using the correct definition of the words in those verses. We’re not going to have the luxury of going through the entire Bible in these comments, but sin and flesh mean the same thing in Galatians as they do in Romans. The only thing needed is to trust Him, even trust Him to produce His life and His righteousness in you. You might call this trust abiding in the Vine. You are the branches and the actions you speak of are fruit. The only role of the branch in producing fruit is to abide in the Vine, allowing the life the Vine provides to manifest.
🤗 We’ve been truly blessed by your ministry. Re original sin however, please take this into your consideration. From Rom.14 (out of context, I know): “The faith which you have, have as your own conviction before God. eg.“Reserve the exhibition of it to the privacy of your own direct communication with God, and do not display it ostentatiously in public *where it may do harm*,” (a commentary.) Many Christians have a simple faith which is a pleasing thing to our Lord.
Still top fans, Marg & Merv. 💞
I’m not sure how to take that, Marg. It kinda sounds like you’re telling me to shut up and not write about my convictions. Surely you don’t mean that. I will always share the good things that the Lord shares with me, especially if it sets people free from harmful mindsets and helps them grow in the grace and knowledge of Jesus (1 Pet. 4:10).
Thank you for these interesting points, and so why would Jesus tell us to come to him as Children, for such is the kingdom of Heaven
you make sense of this, religion installs we need, and we sin, that gets planted in us and so we end up trying to fight out of it
Wow, woe is me, Isaiah 6:1-6 says a lot. As many places doubt in us, by religion
Religion original meaning was, and still is to me, what a person does to get a deity to respond to them, As God I see is not the responder, rather the initiator and we are the responders
Thankls this was good insight to me
Hey Paul! Thanks for the insightful thoughts. The gospel really is tremendously good news.
I’ve heard it taught that the reason Jesus had to be born of a virgin and not through the physical lineage of Adam was due to “sin nature”. That made sense at the time… sort of. But now, the angle of dead VS alive makes sense as well!
This may be going off on too big of a tangent, but here’s my question:
Was there something that Jesus did NOT inherit through Adam that allowed him to be who he was during his earthly walk, and if not sin nature, what was it, though he still calls himself the second Adam?
Hi Samu, thanks for the feedback. There is much to say about the virgin birth and I have a whole chapter on it in the book. The short version: Jesus came to earth in the likeness of man, but he was not part of Adam’s enslaved race. This matters because only a free man can ransom a slave. There’s so much to dig into here. I may do an abbridged article here on E2R soon. Stay tuned
Interesting but I have a question for you. Why then was there need for Jesus to be born of a virgin without the seed of man?
Hi Patty, I have answered that question in the comment above. Thanks.
How do we deal with verses like ‘all our righteous acts are like filthy rags; we all shrivel up like a leaf, and like the wind our sins sweep us away. No one calls on your name or strives to lay hold of you; for you have hidden your face from us and made us waste away because of our sins.’ or ‘And Jesus said unto him, Why callest thou me good? there is none good but one, that is, God.’ or ‘I wept and wept because no one was found who was worthy to open the scroll or look inside.’ or ‘Surely I was sinful at birth, sinful from the time my mother conceived me.’ ?
As I say in the article, there are many scriptures that portray humanity’s lostness and need for salvation. There are no scriptures that suggest we inherited a sinful gene. Your last example is addressed in the article. New Testament scriptures will be covered in my next article.
Thank you for these posts, but I find it striking that you place the ‘blame’ for inventing the idea of original sin on Judaism. No, I’m not accusing you of being anti-Semitic, and I accept your point that there are some teachings in Jewish scripture which argue for this worldview.
However, In discussions about how Christians and Jews interpret the story in Genesis 3, I’ve sometimes heard Jewish scholars say it the other way round: that Christians invented the idea of ‘the Fall’, while Judaism regards Genesis 3 as a story not of fallenness, but of progress, in which Adam and Eve chose to have conscience (in other words, to become moral beings who were capable of making righteous choices) even though it meant sacrificing the chance to become immortal.
I’d be interested to know how any readers from a Jewish background remember being taught to interpret that story, and the human condition in general. I suspect that there are many different strands of interpretation within both Christianity and Judaism, and that it is convenient for both Christians and Jews to blame each other’s religion for unhelpful theological ideas that have crept in.
I’m not trying to apportion blame as much as show that original sin originated in the teachings of the rabbis and sages. A lot of teachings which are believed to be Christian are actually Jewish. Insisting that women stay silent in church is one example. Attributing the Roman destruction of Jerusalem to divine wrath is is another.
Thanks Paul! Good stuff! Question: based on this understanding how would you understand the new birth? Does man’s nature change in some way? Or does his nature stay as it already is (which is what btw?) but the Holy Spirit takes up residence in him? Or what? Thanks!
Thanks Jordan. My understanding is that when we are born again, we are made brand new. We are given a new heart with a new nature and new desires to please the Lord. The old person we used to be, with its sinful inclinations, is totally gone. We may have some memories and habits that need to change, but I believe it is incorrect to say that Christians have a sinful nature.
Thanks Paul! I appreciate it.
Oh, and I’m in agreement with your teaching on this, but: if man gets a new nature at the new birth, then what was his nature before? I’m hoping this is making sense.
Everyone who comes to Christ is a sinner with a sinful nature. There is no dispute about this. Where Augustine over-reaches is in saying babies are born with a sinful nature. In contrast, Romans says we are born sinners. We are captives in bondage to sin and under the sentence of death. Our behavior or nature does not come into it. If you are in prison, you can be a good prisoner or a bad prisoner, but you are still a prisoner. It’s the same with us. We are all sinners in need of saving. More here.
(I keep coming back to this comment and editing it to make it clearer. Apologies for any confusion. I’m responding to about 20 people at the same time on social media and my first responses are often not as clear as they could be.)
This is very helpful Paul!!! Thank you!!!