I have only a few memories of my childhood in Italy at the foot of the Dolomites. I remember getting vaccinated and going out for gelato afterward.

I remember accidentally slamming my finger in the passenger-side door of a BMW. I remember getting into trouble for running in the house. I remember ignoring my parents’ instructions, then slipping on the floor while running in the house and smashing my head into a protruding corner of the wall of our second-floor apartment. I can’t remember getting stitches at the hospital afterward, but I got them.

That’s the first sin I remember committing: disobedience to my parents. I can still see the scar on my forehead. Sometimes it reminds me that actions have consequences. Sometimes it forgets, and sometimes I forget.

Original Sin

I was soon to learn that sinning isn’t what made me a sinner.

I grew up in church. My homeschool curriculum was produced by fundamentalist Baptists. Its Bible lessons drilled the doctrine of original sin into my developing brain. I was a sinner but not because I had sinned. To think so would be a reversal of cause and effect. In fact, I was taught, I sinned because I was a sinner, and I was a sinner because my great-great-and-so-forth-grandfather Adam had sinned.

The word “sin” takes on a special sort of meaning in this context. If you believe in original sin, then sin isn’t just what you do; it’s who you are. Even if we were to resist every sinful impulse, even if we were to maintain our purity through every temptation, we are still born condemned because of the sin of our father Adam. The only way to remove this stain in traditional Christian theology is through baptism, which represents—and, depending on your denomination, effects—the death of the old man and rebirth as a new creation.

I didn’t need the doctrine of original sin to know that I was a sinner. But I understand the hypothetical problem it’s meant to address: What if some people out there are living the right way? What if they never do anything wrong? Do they still need atonement? Do they need Yeshua? According to traditional Christian theology, they must; according to traditional Christian theology, they’re sinners whether they sin or not.

Original sin also answers the question of what happens to unbaptized children who die before they understand what sin is or what it means not to sin—or, for that matter, children who are born and die in far-flung reaches who would never have heard of Jesus even if they’d lived a hundred years.

They all—again, depending on your denomination—are in grave danger.