The doctrine of original sin is a church tradition from the fourth century that says everyone is born guilty FOR ADAM'S SIN and that, without Jesus as Savior, everyone is going to burn in hell forever as punishment, even people who never heard about Adam or Jesus.
This doctrine portrays God as an unjust monster and is driving people from God and the Bible. It's so horrific that few Christians dare talk about it in full and raw form with unbelievers.
Many Christians don't believe that the Bible teaches this doctrine and that it's a contradiction to the basic gospel message of love, justice, and free will. For sixteen hundred years, there has been heated theological argument about it.
This page will help you arrive at a confident personal decision about what to believe regarding original sin.
Nearly everyone in the western world knows about 'the fall.' Literature, music, art, and church tradition over the centuries have been so replete with this narrative and its consequences to humanity that most people never bother about investigating what the Bible says about it if anything.
The Bible clearly teaches that everyone has a sin nature and needs the Savior (Jesus) because of personal sin. But the doctrine of original sin adds to the Bible by saying that everyone is fully guilty at birth for Adam's sin and ruin of God's perfect creation.
This page lays out all relevant Bible verses and issues to help you recognize the differences between the Bible and tradition regarding inherited sin.
This topic is usually a contentious conversation stopper when Christians try to explain it to doubters and unbelievers without good preparation. It's essential to maintain an interesting and intelligent dialog without letting it turn into an argument.
This page equips you to discuss this topic thoroughly and confidently, based on scripture, with people who are troubled by it.
Here are the three points typically expressed by people who believe in the doctrine of original sin:
Some Christians believe only one or two of these three points, and some (below) don't believe any of them.
Here's a response to the above three points from people who don't believe in the doctrine of original sin:
This Part A examines the above points and PART B is a verse-by-verse study of scripture.
Most Christians shrug off the unjust horror of original sin by saying that it really doesn't matter because all anyone needs to do is accept Jesus as Savior, and then it's no longer an issue.
The problem is that many people are so repelled by this perception of Christianity that they never get to that point.
Getting it right is not a matter of how original sin affects us, but how it gives other people a wrong understanding of God's character and becomes a serious barrier to faith, contrary to the mission given to us by Jesus.
We should not ascribe to the Bible more than it actually says, especially when stretches and add-ons become turn-offs for doubters and unbelievers.
The story of Adam and Eve raises this theological question: Does God ever hold a person guilty for the sin of another?
How we answer the question here sets the pattern for our understanding of sin and eternal life in all parts the Bible.
A majority of Christians – Catholic, Protestant, and Orthodox – have been taught that the full guilt for Adam's sin is placed on every human being and that, without salvation through Jesus, everyone will burn in hell forever because of this imputed guilt, even apart from one's own sin, and even people who never heard of Adam or Jesus.
Everyone, church tradition says, is born guilty and condemned to hell.
This doctrine is known as original sin, inherited sin, transmitted sin, and ancestral sin.
None of these terms appear anywhere in the Bible.
The doctrine of original sin – that we are all guilty for Adam's sin – was conceived by theologians long after the death of Jesus, the Apostles, and all the New Testament writers.
Jesus taught only that we are guilty of our own sins. There is no record of Jesus ever even mentioning Adam's name.
The doctrine of original sin had its origin in the writings of Tertullian (160-220) and Cyprian (200-258). It was popularized by Augustine (354-430), Luther (1483-1546), and Calvin (1509-1564).
The doctrine of original sin was built primarily upon these three verses:
There are 31,102 verses in the Bible, but these are the three verses upon which the doctrine of original sin was built, a very small biblical footing for such a monstrous doctrine!
Christians talk about original sin as though it is a theme that runs through the Bible. Not so. It rests upon three verses pulled out of a broad context of free will and individual choice.
Even with these verses out of context – read them again! – one has to strain to try to make them say that everyone is guilty of Adam's sin. It's a big stretch, and it's adding to scripture.
If Adam caused a horrific change in God's master plan and basic human nature, we would expect the Bible to contain more than three brief – and questionable – references to such an event that affects the life and destiny of every person ever to live on earth. We would certainly expect Jesus and his twelve Apostles to have said something about it, but they never mentioned Adam or any such catastrophic event.
Proponents of the doctrine of original sin sometimes also cite these additional verses for support, but notice that they don't mention Adam or a catastrophic event:
The theologians who constructed the doctrine of original sin did not have any personal interaction with Jesus or his disciples. Hundreds of years had passed. Oral transmission was no longer consistent and trustworthy, so for truth, they studied the same verses in the Bible that we study today.
Now we can study these verses as well – even better – than they could in their day, for reasons explained at today we know more.
Proponents of the doctrine of original sin believe it because they have been told that the Bible says it in Romans 5 and I Corinthians 15.
➤ See the Bible study here on original sin which examines these passages in depth and shows that they don't say what most people have been told.
The term 'original sin' does not appear anywhere in the Bible. It's a doctrine conceived by theologians long after the death of Jesus, the Apostles, and all New Testament authors.
The doctrine had its origin in the writings of Tertullian (160-220) and Cyprian (200-258). It was popularized by Augustine (354-430), Luther (1483-1546) and Calvin (1509-1564).
The people who first taught the doctrine of original sin did not have any personal interaction with Jesus or his disciples. Hundreds of years had passed. Oral transmission was no longer consistent and trustworthy, so for truth, they studied the manuscripts we now call the New Testament – the exact same manuscripts we use for this study.
Virtually all scholars agree on the exact content of the original Greek manuscripts for the book of Romans. Translation and interpretation is the issue, not the source documents themselves.
Today, we can read and understand these manuscripts even better than they could in their time.
Saint Augustine is the person most responsible for popularizing the doctrine of original sin. He is discussed on this site in Today we know more.
He lived 354-430 AD in Africa.
Living before the printing press, he didn't have a printed Bible or study books. His language was Latin, but he could read only a smattering of Greek, so he read scriptures from hand-written fragments of a Latin translation of the Greek called the Vulgate, translated by Saint Jerome in the late fourth century.
Now consider all the advantages we have today that Augustine didn't have:
Today anyone can be better equipped than Saint Augustine to study scripture. He did the best with what he had, but he had only parts of the Latin Vulgate and no vast libraries like we have today.
Now all of the world's Bible documents and commentaries we could ever need or want are instantly available without charge on the Internet!
Proponents of the doctrine of original sin say that Adam was 'federal head' of the entire human race, the representative who made decisions on behalf of all humanity with binding eternal consequences for every person who would ever live.
But nowhere does the Bible say that God appointed Adam to be federal head of the human race.
Furthermore, nowhere does the Bible say that people are ever individually guilty before God for the sins of their fathers or leaders, even though they may suffer bad worldly consequences because of those sins.
'The son shall not bear the iniquity of the father' (Deuteronomy 24:16).
'The fathers shall not be put to death for the children, neither shall the children be put to death for the fathers' (Ezekiel 18:20).
The Bible teaches that people will stand before God at the judgment for their own sin, not for sin of their fathers.
Under the doctrine of original sin, all of Adam's descendants are punished for Adam's sin more than Adam himself was punished. Adam's punishment was expulsion from the Garden, denial of further access to eternal life, hard work and toil as a farmer, and then physical death.
God said nothing about him or his descendants burning in hell forever. It's hard to imagine that a just and loving God would sentence billions of innocent people to an infinitely greater punishment than He gave to the guilty person for the same sin.
The usual understanding of the doctrine of original sin is that everyone is born personally guilty for Adam's sin and that everyone (except a small minority of mankind that accepts Jesus as Savior) will burn in hell forever as punishment, even if they never heard of Adam or Jesus.
Christians talk about original sin as though it is a theme that runs throughout the Bible. Not so. It rests primarily upon the following three verses pulled and stretched from a broader context of free will, love and justice ... and the imperative for individual choice.
There are 31,102 verses in the Bible, but these three are the primary verses upon which the doctrine of original sin was built – a very small biblical footing for such a monstrous doctrine!
Even with these verses out of context from the rest of scripture – read them again! – one has to strain to try to make them say that everyone is guilty of Adam's sin. It's a huge stretch, and it's adding to scripture.
If Adam caused such a horrific change to everything on earth, we would expect that the Bible would contain more than three oblique references to such a catastrophic event affecting the life and destiny of every person. And we would expect that Jesus and the Apostles would have said something about it, but there is no indication in the Bible that they ever mentioned it.
Proponents of the doctrine of original sin often cite these additional verses for support, but notice that they do NOT mention Adam or any catastophic event:
The foundational verses used to support the doctrine of original sin are usually quoted separately and out of context. For full understanding, the verses need to be read and studied as a whole along with surrounding verses in the chapter.
See Part B of this topic for a verse-by-verse study of both Romans 5 and I Corinthians 15.
All authority is from Jesus (verse above). Not church, not tradition, not Saint Augustine, not even Apostle Paul.
When we must choose between two or more possible interpretations, we should always choose the interpretation most in accord with what Jesus said.
Concerning Adam and original sin, what did Jesus say? Nothing. Complete silence. Nothing there, so nothing to talk about. There is no record of Jesus ever even mentioning Adam's name. Jesus talked only about our own choices and our own sins.
Original sin is a concept developed by theologians hundreds of years after Jesus and is defended now primarily based on church tradition rather than words of scripture.
We should not add to Jesus' teachings, especially when the add-on is absent or contradictory to his teachings.
Jesus said that our mission is to 'make disciples.' The doctrine of original sin is a human-made barrier to Christian faith and a hindrance to our mission. It demeans God's character, causing doubters and unbelievers to see God as cruel and vindictive rather than loving and just.
Not only did Jesus say nothing about the doctrine of original sin, he made statements that contradict the doctrine:
➤ The closest thing Jesus said on the subject of inherited sin is in John 9:1-3: 'As he went along, he saw a man blind from birth. His disciples asked him, Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind? Neither this man nor his parents, said Jesus, but this happened so that the work of God might be displayed in his life.'
➤ In John 3:18 Jesus said, 'Whoever does not believe stands condemned already because he has not believed in the name of God's one and only Son.' By this statement – 'whoever does not believe' – Jesus is saying that people are not condemned at birth but are condemned by personal volition.
➤ John 5:24, Jesus said, 'I tell you the truth, whoever hears my words and believes him who sent me has eternal life and will not be condemned.' By this statement – 'will not be condemned' (future tense) – Jesus is saying that people are not condemned at birth but are condemned for not believing his words.
➤ John 15:22 Jesus said, 'If I had not come and spoken to them, they would not be guilty of sin; but now they have no excuse for their sin.' By this statement – 'would not be guilty of sin' (conditional) – Jesus is saying that people are not condemned at birth but are condemned by their own sin.
Protestant and Catholic branches of Christianity and hundreds of sub-branches within them all base their beliefs on the same original Hebrew and Greek manuscripts, and each branch has excellent scholarship regarding how those words were used and understood at the time and place of the people to whom they were written.
All Christian traditions are in essential agreement on the basics: There is one God, sovereign creator of heaven and earth. God is a Trinity (Father, Son and Holy Spirit), and we can have a personal relationship with Him. Man is a sinner in need of a Savior (Jesus), who died as a sacrifice for our sins. We should love God and others, and live a life of service in accordance with the Bible. After death, there will be resurrection and judgment. Some people will be saved and go to heaven, and others will go to hell.
But on details and subordinate issues – like original sin – there are major differences in interpretation of the original texts. Each religious group has its own seminaries which teach its own views, adding and expanding over the centuries on what the original manuscripts actually say.
Even though the United States is known as a Christian country, the general population today hardly knows what to believe because so much of the Bible has become convoluted, contradictory, and even repulsive. Increasingly, people are becoming agnostic with thoughts like this: 'I don't know what to believe, and I don't think anyone can really know.'
Christians have contributed greatly to this problem by claiming that the Bible says more than it actually says. We should not add to scripture, and we should test our interpretations by what Jesus said.
A good interpretation principle is to remember that scripture – like the portion of the letter studied here from the Apostle Paul to the church in Rome – was intended to be read to gatherings of ordinary people, not to be debated and stretched by theologians. The recipients were mostly new Christians, coming either from an upbringing in a Jewish synagog or in a pagan temple.
If those people would not recognize an alleged concept within the words being read to them, it probably isn't the concept intended, especially if there is no special effort to explain it.
A clear central message throughout the entire Bible is that humans have a sin nature; i.e., everyone is born with an innate propensity for pleasing self ahead of pleasing God. That's part of being human.
We sin every time we violate God's will in order to satisfy our own will. Sin is personal rebellion against God.
➤ Why do we sin?
Because we have a sin nature. Humans alone have the capacity for moral decisions. Satan is allowed to lure us into rebellion against God. (Satan and temptation will be studied in Topic 2.9).
➤ Why do we have a sin nature?
Because God gives us free will. Genuine free will requires choice between possible actions, each action having unique appeals, frequently contrary to each other. If we didn't have free will, we would be puppets.
➤ Why do we have free will?
Because God is love. God desires a personal relationship with each of us. Free will is essential for genuine love. If we didn't ever rebel, we wouldn't be independent beings capable of making moral decisions and giving and receiving love. If we didn't rebel, we would be robots.
Sin didn't come into the world as a surprise to God or the result of flawed design. From the moment God gave the first divine law to a human (Adam), God knew full well that humans would sin. This is the risk of free will and the test of love.
Here's what the Apostle Paul says about the human condition: 'So I find this law at work: Although I want to do good, evil is right there with me. For in my inner being I delight in God's law; but I see another law at work in me, waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin in my members' (Romans 7:21-23).
The propensity to sin is so strong that it's actually a law (principle, force or power) that won't go away.
In these verses, and in the larger passage surrounding them, Paul never links or shares sin with Adam. In fact, he never mentions Adam. Paul takes full responsibility for his own sin.
Sin is not a thing like genes passed through inheritance from generation to generation. Sin is a human condition allowed by God to facilitate personal love.
Unbelievers don't have a problem with the concept of just punishment for personal sin that violates the Creator's rules. A person may not believe in the Creator or in the rules, but there's nothing abhorrent in the concept of justice and punishment.
But the concept becomes abhorrent when the Creator lays the full guilt on everyone who ever lives and then pronounces the cruelest punishment imaginable (burning in hell forever) without giving most people knowledge of any means of salvation ... and when adherents of the concept pompously proclaim that this is God's love and justice.
Sin nature means that we have an innate propensity to sin ... physical death has always been God's plan for life on earth ... death is not a mistake or design flaw ... and people are guilty and sentenced only for their own sin.
The doctrine of Original sin means that something went horribly wrong with God's creation ... Adam was able to wreck it ... God has a new plan to fix it ... but holds everyone who ever lives fully guilty for the wreckage and sentences them to the most horrible punishment conceivable.
Both views acknowledge that everyone is a sinner in need of Jesus as Savior.
The Bible says clearly and simply in many ways and places that 'ALL HAVE SINNED.' No one argues with that statement. Why stretch and add to scripture by making it say more than it actually says? Why make it convoluted, confusing, and contentious?
Saying we inherit sin and guilt from Adam is meaningless if we have enough sin and guilt of our own. Because of its obvious gross injustice, original sin a major barrier to faith for millions of people.