Many Bible passages include the peculiar notions of inherited guilt and punishment. For example, one standard interpretation of the Garden of Eden story is that it resulted in “original sin.” Every human being has inherited the guilt of Adam and Eve for disobeying God in Eden.
The apostle Paul thought our inherited guilt was canceled out by a vicarious sacrifice. We became guilty by being children of Adam and Eve, but we could be forgiven because of the suffering and death of Jesus. Romans 5:18-19: “Then as one man’s trespass led to condemnation for all men, so one man’s act of righteousness leads to acquittal and life for all men. For as by one man’s disobedience many were made sinners, so by one man’s obedience many will be made righteous.”
I don’t mean to oversimplify here. There are several major interpretations of the Christian doctrine of salvation through Jesus, and within each interpretation there are subtleties and sometimes profundities. My point is simply that in Biblical times many believed in inherited guilt, so for them this was a plausible interpretation of the Eden story. If we do not believe that guilt can be passed on to one’s offspring, that should influence our response to religious theories of sin and salvation.
So what do you think? Is the inherited-guilt concept entirely defunct? If not, how is it meaningful to you? And if we believe it is an obsolete idea, how should this opinion influence our assessment of Christian theology?
Roger Christan Schriner
My previous post dealt with Deuteronomy 23:2, which advocates punishing people because one of their ancestors had a baby out of wedlock — “even to the tenth generation none of his descendants shall enter the assembly of the Lord.”
It is not uncommon for people to believe in inherited guilt or shame, collective guilt/shame, and guilt/shame by association. But at this point it seems obvious that these are erroneous ideas. We know better than to condemn individual persons because of their ancestry. However the idea of inherited guilt is found in verses that have become theologically crucial, at least within Christianity.
Adam and Eve, it is said, disobeyed God in Eden, and the entire human race became tainted, guilty, and worthy of punishment as a result. Note that this not the same as saying that human beings are sinful by nature. It’s true that the liturgies of some churches still include passages such as: “We are by nature sinful and unclean, and there is no health in us.” I see some problems with this idea, but right now I’m focusing on the doctrine that we are worthy of punishment regardless of whether we manage to become good persons.
Some believe, based on the story of Eden, that we all deserve to go to hell no matter how saintly we may become, simply because humanity’s parents ate that blankety-blank apple. The New England Primer, an extremely important schoolbook in Eighteenth Century America, put it in a little rhyme that children could easily remember: “In Adam’s fall/we sinned all.”
I frankly do not think it is credible that a supremely good Creator would respond to one man’s disobedience by cursing his descendants with hard, labor-filled lives, or would react to one woman’s misbehavior by making every one of her female descendants suffer pain in childbirth. Genesis 3 applies these penalties to Adam and Eve. It does not clearly state that their descendants will get the same treatment. But many theologians have interpreted the story this way, and later Bible passages also suggest we were tainted on that fateful day in Eden. More about this in my next posting.
Roger Christan Schriner