Out with the Old Doctrine of Original Sin
Theologically speaking, the elephant in the room for Protestants and Roman Catholics in the modern world is the persistent presence in the church of the doctrine of original sin developed in the fourth and fifth centuries by Augustine of Hippo. This doctrine expresses his literal view of Adam and Eve as history’s first humans whose original sin infected themselves and all other humans to follow with a deeply ingrained sinful nature, making them hell-bound unless rescued through Jesus. One problem with retaining this doctrine into the 21st century is that more and more Christians have come to believe that this Augustinian ancient world and medieval view of the beginning of human history has been discredited by overwhelming evidence beginning with Darwin and compiled for the past 150 years by credible anthropologists, archeologists, evolutionary biologists, and other scientists.
Even more importantly, the doctrine of original sin is an especially dangerous belief to hold on to and promote in a polarized world. From an Augustinian perspective, the world is sharply divided between Christians (who have been rescued and saved by Jesus) and all other humans (who are unredeemed sinners condemned to an eternity in hell). Such polarization can lead Christians quite naturally into terrible moral and ethical choices, and even to violent actions. Almost any otherwise unprincipled action taken in religion, politics, and daily life can be rationalized as essential action in the war between the forces of God and the forces of Satan. One particularly pernicious practice begins by labeling homosexuality or transgender identification as a “sin” and continues with persecution and ostracism of perceived sinners.
Thus it would be a service to humanity for the church to discard the doctrine of original sin and, in the process, accept a different interpretation of the Adam and Eve story that emphasizes the positive content the story predominantly contains and implicitly rejects the dark and negative Augustinian interpretation that has done and is doing such damage in the world.
Out with the Old and In with a New Reading of the Adam and Eve Story
Author’s Introductory Notes:
To follow is my own interpretive summary of the Adam and Eve story which can serve as a sample of the kind of interpretation that is needed in the modern world to replace the Augustinian one that was developed in the late classical / early medieval period of Western history. Some of the key points in the following summary were developed in my much more detailed analysis of the Adam and Eve story, previously published in an academic journal, which argues that this story is essentially an all-at-once version of the universally recognized phenomenon of the gradual transition of almost all of us from childhood innocence into adult maturity. In the article, I also point out that the development of this topic in the Genesis story is remarkably similar to the development of the same topic much later in the poetry of William Blake and William Wordsworth. Because the summary format does not permit an academic approach, with detailed analysis of specific evidence, I invite readers, in their future study of Genesis 2-3, to look for and examine for themselves the relevant textual evidence. Please remember also that, unlike Augustine, I am very interested in what the original author of the story may have intended it to mean rather than in ignoring the issue of authorial intention altogether, like Augustine, who used the story to find evidence to support a larger theory of Christian history, from the “fall” to Jesus, that has been discredited in the modern age.
After many years of reflection and making connections between this biblical story and other literature in my work as an English professor, I personally have come to see the Adam and Eve story as both mythic and parabolic. Like the dozens of other creation stories developed by ancient cultures, the story is mythic in that it is a fictional story that reveals important truths about the culture that produced it. The cultural truths contained in this ancient Hebrew creation story are significant and foundational, providing assurance, at the beginning of the Torah, that God’s love is the driving force in the universe and that the system of laws established later in the Torah is built on a firm foundation. In the story a loving God provides humans with the ability to discern the difference between good and evil and thus be able to make good moral choices throughout their adult lives and take responsibility for bad ones, a concept on which the established system of laws had been built. The Adam and Eve story is parabolic in that the story’s events provide individual Hebrew readers with motivation to confirm their belief in the reality of God’s love and to recognize the importance of their own moral and ethical choices as they navigate their lives. The ancient Hebrew author, I believe, intends for Hebrew readers, after experiencing the story, to more fully accept their mortal condition and make better use of their God-given intelligence and conscience to make good choices, with the assurance that even when they fail they will still have God’s love and support in their lives.
The new reading of the Adam and Eve in the summary to follow is the antithesis of the Augustinian interpretation developed in the fourth and fifth centuries and still widely accepted by Roman Catholics and Protestants. This interpretation, appropriately for the modern age, focuses on God’s love and compassion rather than on God’s anger and wrath, and it focuses on what Adam and Eve gain by their new mature knowledge of good and evil rather than on what they have lost by their alleged “fall” into “sin.” Importantly, it also will illustrate precisely how the Augustinian concepts of “fall” and “sin” can be called into question.
Interpretive Summary of the Adam and Eve Story
When God creates the first two humans, Adam and Eve, he creates them with adult human bodies but with childlike minds that have not developed knowledge or understanding of good and evil. Thus they, like young children, are able to live innocent, carefree lives in the Garden of Eden with the security that everything in this beautiful location would be provided for them by God who serves as their father. Food is available for the picking, and water flows through the garden and also swells up freely from the earth. Because Adam and Eve do not have knowledge or understanding of the concepts of good and evil, they are, like children, unable to make moral and ethical choices and thereby are free from the burdens that such choices often bring. They also, like children, have freedom from the burden of mature adult understanding of the two aspects of life that the majority of human adults most fret about: sex and death.
The story takes a turn when God decides to let Adam and Eve have a role in determining their own future life by putting them to a test. Early in the story the reader learns that there are plenty of trees bearing fruit for Adam and Eve to eat, but the tree of life and the tree of knowledge of good and evil are the only ones important enough to have names. Without mentioning the tree of life as a part of the test, God forces Adam and Eve to focus on the tree of knowledge of good and evil by directing them to be sure not to eat the fruit from that one tree or else they will be doomed to die. The consequence of eating from the tree of knowledge will be for them to become fully mature humans by acquiring, all at once, mortal adult lives with the certainty of eventual death but also with new Godlike knowledge of good and evil, knowledge that previously had been held only by God and other heavenly beings. In addition, Adam and Eve will forever be denied the opportunity to eat from the tree of life which could have provided immortal lives to the innocent couple, who would have been without benefit of adult human knowledge but with the major benefit of permanent innocence, the kind of childlike joy and happiness that comes without the burden of responsibility and pain brought by living in the fully adult human world.
From God’s perspective, this one test is the only test that is necessary. Once Adam and Eve eat the fruit from the tree of knowledge of good and evil, this choice of a mature mortal life with knowledge, conscience, and responsibility (the same life currently being lived by all mature adult readers of the story) cancels out any possibility of an immortal life in a state of childlike innocence. Because I strongly believe in the influence of the Babylonian version of The Epic of Gilgamesh on this story, I envision that lost opportunity to be what would have been an immortal life on earth, a life perhaps continuing in the Garden of Eden, with Adam and Eve still in a state of innocence, their eyes not yet (or ever) opened to adult human life (including sexuality) as the readers know it. Suffice it to say here that the Babylonian epic contains strong precedent in several ways for what happens in Genesis related to the tree of life, one of which is that the gods, centuries ago, had made an exception to the established mortality rule for humans by granting immortality to a human couple who continue to enjoy life and will live it forever in a specific location in a remote region of the earth. Near the end of the poem, Gilgamesh himself, on a quest to obtain immortality for himself, finds the immortal couple and ultimately gets in his possession what has been called a “plant of life” which could provide him with immortal life; however, the intervention of a snake blocks him from eating it. Neither Babylonian cosmology nor ancient Hebrew cosmology permits human access to the heavens; thus it is likely that the Hebrew author would have seen the garden itself as the continued location of the life of Adam and Eve if they had eaten from the fruit of the tree of life.
In creating the key episode in the Adam and Eve story, the author would most likely see the serpent as just an especially clever talking serpent, and so would his readers (or listeners to oral readings). This author and his audience would have not even heard of an evil cosmic foe of God called Satan, but they would be familiar with talking animals like Balaam’s ass in the Torah itself as well as similar animal characters throughout the literature of antiquity. Just as importantly, Adam and Eve themselves really cannot be seen as committing a serious moral “sin” if, like innocent children, they have not acquired knowledge of good and evil and thus are not capable of making moral choices and also have only limited understanding of the concept of death, the predicted consequence of their action. Of the serpent’s three temptations promising reward for eating the fruit (the false promise of escaping death, the valid promise of gaining Godlike knowledge of good and evil, and the lure of possible sensory experience), only the serpent’s emphasis on the sensory appeal of the beautiful tree itself, which includes the tasty fruit, would be likely to have strong appeal to the childlike humans and account for the temptation’s success by triggering impulsive action. Indeed, Adam and Eve may be the ancient-world equivalent of modern-world children immediately racing to meet the ice cream truck after hearing its familiar music. While they do commit the “sin” of disobedience to God’s directive, that “sin” surely (I believe) would be mitigated by their childlike innocence. We must always remember that they did not even obtain knowledge of good and evil (and therefore acquire accountability for moral choices) until after (not before) they ate the fruit.
It is possible that God in the garden is testing the childlike humans’ ability to achieve a specific type of obedience, blind obedience, rather than type of obedience that will be demanded in the world beyond the garden from adults who have the ability to achieve full understanding of moral and ethical choices. After all, in parents’ lives even today, they often ask for and even demand blind obedience from their children when, for example, those parents order their children not to venture into a nearby street while they are playing outside. The caring mother could tell her children that the consequences could be death, but the innocent children will not truly understand what death is, and they may or may not think to obey the order later when their ball goes rolling into the street. Perhaps God, like a good parent of young children who are not equipped to make meaningful choices, is genuinely concerned that his granting of immortality to the innocent Adam and Eve would not be desirable or even feasible if they were not able to achieve blind obedience and maintain that capability continually, endlessly during their immortal, innocent lives on earth. In addition, like prepubescent children in their lack of sexual awareness, they would remain in the garden, but they would not produce their own children. They would remain alone forever, but they still must be able to obey God’s directives for their protection against animals (including clever snakes), bad weather, and God knows what else. Thus, as a condition of gaining immortality, they must be able to do exactly what God tells them to do, forever and ever, in blind obedience.
When Adam and Eve fail the test of blind obedience, God has no choice but to help them transition into full humanity, into their new lives as adult humans who now have knowledge of good and evil. They now are equipped to make moral choices and other important choices in life because they have the ability to make such choices on their own. With God’s generosity in granting to Adam and Eve the Godlike ability to discern the differences between good and evil, the foundation has been laid here in this story, placed at the beginning of the Torah, for the development of the system of laws recorded later in the Torah which will help the Hebrew people make good moral and ethical choices more consistently and move forward to a future filled with even greater possibilities.
Adam and Eve, in their personal future, will know from their experience with God in the garden that even when they fail to make good choices on their own, that God will be there to help guide them and lift them up. In fact, the series of so-called punishments pronounced by God before the exit of Adam and Eve from the garden are actually helpful descriptions of the way their lives will be in the future, with special emphasis on the future hardships they will be facing. It is clear to me that this merciful God is wanting to help them anticipate and prepare for those hardships to come, not to punish them. Childbirth will be especially painful for women, crops will sometimes fail, and all humans will eventually face death. These are simply the facts of life, and humans must prepare to face up to them. But readers of this story also will understand that life is more than pain and hardship and that God will have more positive messages for humans later. For now, he just wants them to understand the difficulties they will face. Only the serpent is cursed, while the humans are helped.
At the end of the story, God is again merciful and helpful. He makes practical clothing to help Adam and Eve face the winters and rough weather that the new world ahead will bring. And, tellingly, God demonstrates his compassion when he, like a good parent, helps dress them in the clothing that he made to prepare them for their journey. He then sets them on their way out of the garden but orders the assistance of other heavenly beings, along with a flaming sword, to block their path back to the tree of life. God’s expressed fear, at this point, is that Adam and Eve, now equipped with adult reasoning capability and a new understanding of death, will attempt to go back into the garden to find the tree of life which could bring them immortality, a concept which previously they could not have understood. God, of course, must prevent the possibility of their re-entrance to permit his plans for the human race to go forward. This is his primary motive for casting them out of the garden and blocking their return, not any need for revenge or the need to punish them further for their sin. And, with God’s help, Adam and Eve are free to begin their journey, armed with their new, Godlike knowledge to help them navigate their way.
About the Author
Dan C. Jones, PhD is a retired Professor of English and Division Chair at Wytheville Community College in Virginia and currently lives in Jefferson City, Tennessee, his wife’s hometown. His lifelong interest in issues related to religion was enhanced by reading, over many years, most of the books produced by progressive writers such as John Shelby Spong, John Dominic Crossan, Marcus Borg, and others.
In recent years, he has been writing articles for community college journals on the challenges of teaching biblical texts in the college world literature course. The article he is most proud of is titled “The Adam and Eve Story: Transition from Innocence to Experience” that was published in the Community College Humanities Review in the spring 2020 issue. The 7000-word article includes a new interpretation and a full analysis of Genesis 2-3.