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.
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.
Belief in original sin is tied closely to the practice of infant baptism. In fact, it is a bit difficult to justify believing in original sin while also waiting until adulthood to immerse. Among the early Anabaptists—those who broke with the rest of the church with their belief that baptism must be a conscious decision after an informed confession of faith—were many who didn’t believe in original sin. Many Mennonites still don’t.
Infants are baptized in the Catholic Church (and many other denominations) because traditional Christian theology has no functional way to erase the stain of original sin (and thereby avoid the punishment of eternal damnation) without it. The logical consequence is that babies must be baptized immediately to avoid the worst possible fate. The only alternative is to consign them to Gehenna (hell).
This horrific postulate has, in the current catechism of the Catholic Church, been thoroughly worked around:
As regards children who have died without Baptism, the Church can only entrust them to the mercy of God, as she does in her funeral rites for them. Indeed, the great mercy of God who desires that all men should be saved, and Jesus’ tenderness toward children which caused him to say: “Let the children come to me; do not hinder them” [Mark 10:14], allow us to hope that there is a way of salvation for children who have died without Baptism.
Yet the Catechism goes on to say that one must still be as zealous as possible to baptize infants to secure what otherwise is left up to the judgment of God to decide. It makes sense that an Anabaptist wouldn’t believe in original sin and wouldn’t baptize infants; Catholic faith and practice is also in perfect harmony.
But what about the rest of the churches who baptize only those who are old enough to confess faith in Yeshua—for example, Southern Baptists? While there is tremendous variety due to the structural independence of Baptist churches, most of them certainly believe in original sin; as a rule, however, they don’t baptize infants. This incongruity is striking.
Those Baptists who still hold to original sin simply believe that baptism without a genuine confession of faith has no effect; therefore, there is no point in baptizing infants. But on what basis can they still believe that an infant who dies has any hope of eternal life? What does original sin do if it doesn’t result in automatic condemnation?
Much like the current Catholic catechism, many of these Baptists simply reject the idea that infants will be punished after death with an appeal to God’s perfect justice and righteousness. It is unimaginable to them that God would condemn infants, so they don’t believe it, because the God they believe in is better than that, more just than that, more righteous than that.
This intuition about the nature of God is not desperate hand waving; it is informed by a serious consideration of all that the Scripture has to say about the nature of the Creator.
The Sinful Nature
The Baptists and the Catholics (and many, many others) have seen by the light of faith and reason that the God who gave his only Son to save the world is not a God who punishes infants.
But this leaves a major question unanswered: What role does original sin now play in the Christian theological paradigm? For many Baptists—and I can’t stress enough how impossible it is to generalize “Baptist” since there is always an exception—the doctrine of original sin has transmogrified into a general belief that the nature of man is inherently skewed toward evil. Important to understand is that baptism does not change this essential nature. Most Baptists believe that our fight with the natural inclination to sin is just as difficult after baptism as before; baptism is, after all, just a symbol, not a sacrament, in Baptist theology.
This idea—that man is hopelessly predisposed to sin—is irreconcilable with Judaism.
Judaism takes a totally different approach to the apparently inherent desire of man to flout the designs of his Creator. One of the first prayers an observant Jew recites after waking up in the morning is the Elohai Neshama: “My God, the soul you placed within me is pure.” This theme runs through the entire corpus of Jewish literature from ancient times to the present day. We are not born defiled. We sin because we choose to sin.
The great medieval philosopher and rabbi Maimonides in his Mishneh Torah calls this idea “the very pillar of the Torah and its precepts … that the Creator forces not the sons of man and makes no decrees against them that they should do good or evil, but that it is all in their own keeping.” Here he echoes Rabbi Chanina, who is recorded in the Talmud as saying, “Everything is in the hands of heaven, except for fear of heaven.” In other words, sin is not our destiny; it is our choice.
In Judaism, the voice inside us that compels us to sin is called the yetzer hara, or literally, the “evil inclination.” Chasidim, following Schneur Zalman’s Tanya, sometimes call it the “animal soul.” Our animal soul tells us to eat, drink, and procreate; unfortunately, it doesn’t know when to quit and provokes us to excess. The animal soul is afraid and compels us to hoard possessions and distance ourselves from the poor; the animal soul is insecure and threatened by others who are more successful than we are or live a lifestyle different from ours.
Critically, however, the animal soul is not who we are. It tricks us into believing that it is our primary identity, the “I” inside our heads—but it isn’t. The Talmud contains a teaching attributed to Resh Lakish that the yetzer hara is simply a mask worn by the angel of death—and that this angel is, in fact, Satan, the adversary, coming to us in disguise, tempting us to indulge our fleshly desires. The “real” you isn’t the sum total of the bad you wish you could do; the real you is the pure soul that came directly from God and wishes only to reconnect with its source.
Sins of the Father
I still remember being annoyed in grade school at the idea that I was born condemned because of someone else’s sin. Before my memory began, before my life even began, I was already irrevocably consigned to the pit of hell because of something my ancestor did. This sounded wrong to me even as a child; it still does.
The Augustinian idea that we were all metaphysically present within Adam and therefore sinned with him seemed to me like a misunderstanding of Romans 5. While Paul did identify Adam as the original sinner, he went on to say that “death spread to all men because all sinned” (Romans 5:12, emphasis mine). In other words, there is no need to invoke the doctrine of original sin to make everyone a sinner in need of salvation; we’re sinners anyway.
Later in life I read Ezekiel 18:20, which put into words the annoyance I’d felt:
The soul who sins shall die. The son shall not suffer for the iniquity of the father, nor the father suffer for the iniquity of the son. The righteousness of the righteous shall be upon himself, and the wickedness of the wicked shall be upon himself.
This principle seems almost to anticipate and reject in advance the Augustinian conception of original sin. Children are not punished for the sins of their fathers. Everyone is punished for their own sin. This is the only conception of sin and punishment that is compatible with God’s perfect justice.
If we are not all destined to be defined as sinners from birth, then what does the atonement of Yeshua accomplish? Don’t we all need to be sinners in order for the gospel message—that everyone must repent—to make sense? What stain does Yeshua wipe away if not that of original sin?
The apostles taught that no one achieved perfection: “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23). Sin eventually seeps into the consciousness and action of every person. The fact that everyone sins is not an inevitability, but it is a sobering reality. We are all in need of forgiveness. We all need some miracle to make up the difference between what we have made ourselves and what we were supposed to be, however large or small that difference may be.
Yeshua makes up that difference. By suffering and dying unjustly after living a perfect life, he accrued an inexhaustible store of merit. Simply put, he is not just good enough to merit eternal life for himself; he is good enough for all of us. Through confession, repentance, and allegiance to his kingdom—all of which is symbolized in baptism—we put ourselves at his mercy, and he is merciful, allowing us to share in his righteousness.
This theology of atonement without original sin makes perfect sense in a Jewish theological space. It’s also biblical, and it informs a more compassionate answer to the distressing question of what happens to unbaptized children who die before reaching an age of moral understanding: they go straight to heaven. But what I like most about it is that it takes away any excuse I might have for missing the mark. I can’t just say I was born this way; I must take responsibility for everything I do. I can’t cheapen God’s grace by continuing in sin; I must fight the evil inclination and win—and winning is possible.
To be fair, most other Christians believe these things, too. For Catholics, baptism is supposed to remove original sin; for Baptists, the indwelling of the spirit of Yeshua is supposed to help us in our struggles with the flesh. However, the deeply rooted idea of the inherently sinful nature of humanity was drilled into me perhaps too firmly. Practically speaking, I was trained to evaluate my mistakes as the inevitable consequences of the fact that my soul had been misshapen by forces outside my control—forces that made me, by nature, abhorrent.
I see myself and my struggle with sin differently now that I really believe that my soul is pure, that my essential nature is uncorrupted, and that I really do have everything I need to be able to win the battle against the yetzer hara every time. I grip my sword and shield a little tighter. My aim is a little better.
I see the scar on my face and remember that even though I have failed before, this time I can succeed.