Understanding original sin

The story about Adam, Eve and the serpent in the Bible's book of Genesis is very important to Christians. This story, also known as "the fall of man" and "original sin," is so important because it explains a great many things about Christianity and the Christian God.

For example, the story of "original sin" explains why an omnipotent God allows so much suffering to occur on our planet. It also explains why Jesus needed to come to earth to be crucified. It explains why human childbirth is so painful. It explains why human nature can be, at times, so cruel and evil. It explains the sacrament of baptism. According to this page:

    [original sin is] The sin of Adam and Eve, the essential event of the Fall of Man. According to the most common teaching of Christians, all descendants of Adam and Eve — that is, all people — share in this sin and are, from the time they are conceived, in a state of sin. In German, the term used is Erbsunde, meaning “inherited sin,” a more explanatory term than the English one. Jesus, through his Crucifixion and Resurrection, atoned for original sin. All who believe in Jesus and accept baptism are freed from original sin and experience salvation.
If you talk to Christians, you will find that a majority believe "the fall of man" to be literally true. It is not a fable or a myth in their minds. Christ's crucifixion and resurrection are the centerpiece of the Christian faith, and the story of "original sin" gives the crucifixion its ultimate meaning.

The question that we will explore in this article is a simple one: is the Bible's story of original sin valid? Does this story, whether it is literally true or not, have any importance to mankind? The goal is to help Christians to look at the story of original sin from a fresh perspective and analyze its meaning.

The Creation Story

"The fall of man" starts with the creation of man. Genesis 2:7 describes the actual creation process in this way:

    And the LORD God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul.
At this point, many scientists already have a problem with the Bible. According to the Bible, God created Adam from a handful of dust in 4004 BCE. Science shows us, on the other hand, that humans have existed for tens of thousands of years and that we evolved from other species. Let's ignore this problem as a minor quibble -- it could be that the Bible's story is intended by God more as "literature" rather than "factual truth." It is a fact that the human body is formed of minerals (dust) and returns to minerals (dust), so the story is true in that sense.

After creating man, the Bible says that God moved man into the Garden of Eden:

    The Lord God took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to work it and take care of it. And the Lord God commanded the man, 'You are free to eat from any tree in the Garden; but you must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for when you eat of it you will surely die.'
God later creates Eve and we reach the meat of the story. The serpent convinces Eve to eat from the tree, and Eve convinces Adam.

Here we are faced with an enigma -- a talking snake. From a scientific standpoint this snake is impossible. There is no such thing as a talking snake. Snakes (and reptiles in general) have neither the physical structure nor the brain power to speak. There simply are not enough neurons in the reptile brain to process language.

Even in the context of the story, the talking snake is a bit hard to swallow. The story seems to be saying that God created not one but two sentient species -- humans and serpents. Yet the Bible makes no mention of the serpent's creation nor does God provide any warning to the serpent to stay away from the tree.

Let us ignore this as a quibble as well. Perhaps the serpent is God's way of personifying Satan in the story.

After Adam and Eve disobey God and eat from the fruit of the tree, here is what happens:

    When the woman saw that the fruit of the tree was good for food and pleasing to the eye, and also desirable for gaining wisdom, she took some and ate it. She also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate it.

    Then the man and his wife heard the sound of the Lord God as he was walking in the garden in the cool of the day, and they hid from the Lord God among the trees of the garden. But the Lord God called to the man, 'Where are you?'

    He answered, 'I heard you in the garden and I was afraid because I was naked, so I hid.'

    And he said, 'Who told you that you were naked? Have you eaten from the tree that I told you not to eat from?' "

This passage is a bit odd for four reasons. Let's discuss them and dismiss them:
  • God is the all-knowing creator of everything. The questions he asks in this passage -- why does God ask them? Since God is all-knowing, he already knows the answers. For example, something as simple as "Where are you?" is unnecessary for an all-knowing being. God knows EVERYTHING, so there is no need for him to ask any question of anyone. Let's dismiss that with the thought that God is playing the role of the coy parent in this scene.

  • If you take the "omniscient" train of thought a little further, you realize this: Since God is all-knowing, it means that at the moment that God put the tree into the garden, his omniscience would allow him to instantly know the entire course of human history. He could foresee every single person's birth, life and death in full detail at that moment. If God did not like what he knew that Adam would do, then why did God set it up that way? And why would God be at all surprised by what happens?

  • Most people also wonder about the tree. The tree is called "the tree of the knowledge of good and evil." Therefore, Adam and Eve would not have any knowledge of good and evil until they ate from the tree. So how would they know the difference between right and wrong until they ate the fruit? In other words, they had to eat the fruit before they would know that it was wrong to eat the fruit. If someone doesn't have any knowledge of right and wrong, how can the person commit a sin? And how can you punish the person for doing wrong?

  • Most people also wonder about human nature. God created Adam, so God designed the placement of every cell in Adam's body and brain. Therefore God knows all about human nature, and how Adam and Eve will think and react in every situation -- God is the one who created human nature. Certainly God had an omniscient reason for creating human nature in the way that he did.
Let us ignore all of these issues with the story, because there is one other issue that seems more important.

Programming Adam

When you read this story and really think about it, you realize that Adam and Eve are a very special case. Look at it this way. When normal people like you and me are born as babies, we know absolutely nothing. We have to learn about our native language, culture, rules, laws, history, etc. from our parents over the course of many years. Adam, on the other hand, is created from the dust of the earth. Like Frosty the snowman, Adam, "came to life one day." The instant that he is created in the Bible, Adam is an adult who can speak and think.

This raises a number of questions about Adam's state of mind:

  • Where did Adam's initial language come from? God must have pre-programmed that in.

  • Where did Adam get his knowledge of how to eat, how to drink, how to bathe, how to walk, etc.? All of these skills normally come after several years of training. God must have pre-programmed them into Adam too.

  • Where did Adam learn how to respond in conversation, how to be polite, how to interact with others, etc.? Normally a parent teaches all of these social skills as well. God must have pre-programmed them into Adam.

  • How old is Adam? Did God pre-program Adam at the level of a 5-year-old? A 10-year-old? A teenager? A twenty-something? A middle-aged man? A senior citizen? The Bible does not say, but it is important. If God has pre-programmed Adam at the level of a five-year-old, or even a teenager, then it would be hard to get too mad at Adam for making a mistake. Five-year-olds and teens make mistakes constantly -- that's how they learn. On the other hand, if God has pre-programmed Adam at the level of a twenty-something, then Adam's entire world view, attitude, moral code, political stances, attitudes toward women (see chapter 15) and so on have been pre-set by God. By age 25, most humans have been through 12 years of school plus college, they have dated a number of people and are married, etc., so they have stored a huge amount of information and experience in their brains. Albert Einstein at age 26 was married, had a child and had finished the theory of relativity. God could have programmed Adam with the same level on knowledge, understanding and experience that Einstein had at age 26. In that case Adam might have made different decisions, and humanity would have advanced technologically at a remarkable pace.
The point is simple: God directly controlled every single thought in Adam's (and Eve's) head through this initial programming.

So why is God surprised in any way by the events that unfold in the garden, and why is there any need to punish mankind? Since God is the one who created and pre-programmed all of the actors, God made all of the decisions on what would happen in Eden. When God asks "Have you eaten from the tree that I told you not to eat from?", why bother asking? God programmed it to happen. God can see the full swath of history -- billions of years forward and backward down to the atomic level. That is what omniscience is all about. God created Adam and Eve, God pre-programmed Adam and Eve, so God knows exactly what Adam, Eve and the serpent will do together. Adam and Eve were doomed from the very beginning.

This is what makes the creation story and the notion of "original sin" seem so ridiculous to non-Christians. Adam did not "sin." For one thing, Adam would have no way to know what a sin is until he ate the fruit. For another, Adam had no control whatsoever over what he did and therefore it was not a "sin" to act that way.

Responding to God

If Adam was smart, what he would say to God in response to a question like, "What are you doing?" is something like this:

    "Look, God, you tell me. You are the one who created me. You are the one who arranged the neurons in my brain. You are the one who created human nature. You are the one who pre-programmed me with my language, my knowledge of the world, my code of ethics and everything else. You are also the one who created and pre-programmed Eve, and you are the one who created and pre-programmed a talking serpent. You have absolute control over every single thing that is happening here. You are the one who can see billions of years into the past and the future. You tell me -- what am I doing? Quite obviously, I am doing exactly what you designed and programmed me to do. How could I possibly do anything else?"
What is even more bizarre is God's response to Adam's "sin." Here's what an all-knowing, all-loving God might have said to Adam:
    "You know, Adam, you are right. I created you. I arranged every cell in your body and brain. I created human nature. And I pre-programmed you, just as you say. I know exactly how you think and what you will do in every situation. In addition, since I am all-knowing and beyond time, I can see exactly, nanosecond by nanosecond, how your life will proceed. I can see, in exact nanosecond detail, how the lives of the trillions of people who will follow you will unfold. I know everything. I understand everything. I am perfect. In creating you the way I did, I did so perfectly and with complete foreknowledge. I understand exactly why you ate from the tree. In fact, I already knew exactly what you would do when I planted the tree. I am glad that you now understand the difference between good and evil. Otherwise I would not have put the tree there. "
That, unfortunately, is not what our all-knowing, all-loving God says. God decides instead to play the role of a total jerk. For her punishment, God says to Eve,
    "I will greatly increase your pains in Childbearing; with pain you will give birth to children."
This, of course, is torture. Inflicting excruciating pain on someone as punishment is the definition of torture. So God is the universe's all-powerful torturer. Great. This is just another thing to add to our long list of absurdity in this story. We all know that evolution created the pain of childbirth, not "god."

Adam is punished in a similar way -- God convicts Adam and gives him the death sentence. Post-fruit, God says:

    "Cursed is the ground because of you; through painful toil you will eat of it all the days of your life. It will produce thorns and thistles for you, and you will eat the plants of the field. By the sweat of your brow you will eat your food until you return to the ground, since from it you were taken; for dust you are, and to dust you will return."
God then banishes Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden so that they and all their offspring can begin their sentences of toil, pain, suffering and death. This is mankind's first real encounter with the all-knowing, all-loving God of the universe.

It is hard to imagine the relationship with God getting any worse than this, but it does. Just three pages later, here is what God has to say about the human race:

    "The Lord saw how great man's wickedness on the Earth had become, and that every inclination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil all the time. The Lord was grieved that he had made man on earth, and his heart was filled with pain. So the Lord said, 'I will wipe mankind, whom I have created, from the face of the earth -- men and animals, and creatures that move along the ground, and birds of the air -- for I am grieved that I have made them.'"
Here God states his plan for the mass extermination and wholesale slaughter of nearly every human and animal on the face of the earth. God moves from "all-powerful torturer" to "demonic mass-murdering abomination" in the process. The mountain of absurdity grows. God makes Hitler look like an amateur. Instead of killing millions of people, wouldn't it be easier to offer some classes in good living? Or perhaps God could have created people the right way when he created Adam, since God is omniscient and perfect.

When you think about it like this, you cannot miss the huge problem with the Bible. The Bible is supposed to be the error-free product of a perfect, omniscient being. Everything you have been told since birth tells you that the Bible is the perfect word of God. However, your common sense tells you something far different. When you actually read the Bible, what you find is that it is ridiculous. None of this happened. None of it came from God. All of it is a fairy tale. The Bible, quite obviously, was written by primitive men rather than God. "Original sin" is completely meaningless because it is an ancient fable. With that realization you come to understand many other things as well, as discussed in detail in the book.

What I would ask you to do is simply think about the Bible and the creation story as a rational human being. Read the book to learn more.

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by Marshall Brain

New York Times Coverage
discussed in a
New York Times piece
by N. D. Kristof.
For a counter-point to Mr. Kristof, please see
Chapter 26.

Recommendation by Sam Harris
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Endorsement by Richard Dawkins
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