For 2000 years the 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 original sin is unbiblical. Original sin is a manmade doctrine that is illogical and graceless. 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.
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.