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I did not get the chance to do the research I wanted to do before writing an article on this topic so I am putting it out in semi-outline format, hoping to get some feedback/suggestions and to encourage further discussion.
The topic of Original Sin is an interesting topic in Christendom because the entire rationale for the Christian gospel is built upon the foundation this concept sets up. But, even that being the case, there is a surprising amount of disagreement among Christians on the topic.
Adventists as well have varying opinions here, some accepting it fully while others rejecting Original Sin as the root of our theological woes. I am not currently aware of any Adventist theologian writing a definitive work on the Adventist perspective of Original Sin (please correct me if I’m wrong) possibly because the general notion is that Adventists don’t have a unique perspective of Original Sin.
The question I would like readers to consider as they proceed is whether Adventists should revisit this topic and develop a uniquely-SDA theology of Original Sin considering we don’t believe human beings have an immortal/immaterial soul like other Christians do. (I will explain why this matters in a bit)
Let’s begin by first differentiating between several distinct concepts:
Original guilt – this is the idea that all human beings are born not only sinful but also guilty for Adam’s sin. This is a precursor to the teaching of infant baptism.
Total Depravity – The Calvinist belief that human beings lack not only the ability to obey God but also the ability to choose God’s offer of salvation when offered to us. It is because of this that God has to predestine people to be saved.
Original Sin – The belief that human beings are born with a bent or inclination towards evil.
I will only be discussing this latter point in this essay.
There are a number of reasons why Original Sin is needed in Christian theology:
1) Christianity counteracts the pagan idea that man is naturally good and needs only to unfold the goodness within.
2) Mankind’s bent towards evil is something we are born with as opposed to being born good or even neutral.
3) There is a depth to the evil of our hears often much greater than we are even aware of.
The reason these concepts are important is because they clarify mankind’s need of a Savior. If we were naturally good, we would be able to fix ourselves. If we were born good (or neutral) then, with proper upbringing, we would be able to produce a better and better humanity with each generation. Unless we understand the deep roots that sin has in our hearts, we are likely to look for only a superficial solution.
One of the biggest problems with the idea of Original Sin from the perspective of an outsider looking at the Christian faith is that God has created human beings with the very defects that He is judging and punishing them for. Yes, God created Adam and Eve sinless and they chose to commit sin so their punishment is justified. But the rest of us had no choice in the matter and yet this inbred inclination towards evil seriously affects our ability to please God.
Original Sin and the Immaterial Soul
The majority of the Christian world believes that man has a dual nature: material body and immaterial soul.
Imagine that the police capture a life-long thief and place him in chains. Does this man stop being a thief because he can no longer steal? No, he is who he is even though he is not currently transgressing the law.
In the mind of most Christians, the human soul that is placed in each newly born human body is corrupt. It is the soul of a sinner in the same way the man above is a thief even though he does not steal (due to his chains). As the baby is born and grows, it will sin because that’s who it already is from conception, from the time the soul itself was created.
But how does this apply to Adventists who don’t believe human beings have an immaterial soul?
We can take the exact same belief and find a way to explain it in purely physical terms. Adam and Eve were created perfect but, when they disobeyed God, they experienced a genetic mutation that was then passed on to all their progeny. The physical brains of every single member of the human race (that has ever lived) have an inherited defect that makes us sinners from birth.
There are several problems with this view:
1) This is not typically how genetics works. If a person’s arm is amputated, they don’t pass this on to their children. If they suffer brain damage, this doesn’t get passed on.
We are basically saying that Adam and Eve were created with the perfect genetics. However, when they sinned, something about that act of disobedience caused a permanent genetic change. For a person to be born sinful seems like a major change in basic programming which would require a major mutation at the genetic level which is not something one would expect to be the result of one act of disobedience (or even more than one act).
2) Moreover, if this was a mutation, the possibility is always there that the mutation randomly reverses giving rise to a new strain of Originally Sinless human beings.
3) Even if not, if science continues to advance, we will be able to one day reverse genetic-engineer ourselves out of the sin problem.
4) Regardless of how we explain the above, this view implies that God either caused or allowed the genetic change that, if prevented, could have easily resolved the sin problem for the entire human race other than Adam and Eve themselves. Basically, we run into the same difficulty that dualistic Christians run into trying to explain why God caused the very defect He is punishing.
The Bible, especially the new testament often uses expressions that imply a special relationship between divinity and created beings:
– We are the temples of the Holy Spirit
– We are to become partakers of the divine nature
– We must be born again
– Jesus stands at the door waiting to come into us etc. etc.
These type of passages seem to imply that humanity was created to exist in a type of symbiosis with the divine. And, this is something that was lost when Adam sinned and continues to be missing in his progeny until a person is born again.
So with sin, it is not a genetic mutation that humanity experienced but a separation from the divine. Without the presence of the Holy Spirit Adam became more susceptible to temptation and sin.
The rest of us were born in this state of separation from God. What this means is that in infancy, before our higher powers are developed, we act according to our basic survival instincts instead of being under the Spirit’s control as originally intended. By the time we reach an age when we are mature enough to grasp the principles of righteousness, we have already developed years of habitual behavior under the leading of our survival instincts.
For example, when a child hasn’t eaten, his inner programming makes him feel hungry. At that point the child will want food then and there even if, in that particular situation, an adult might think that it’s better to wait. This tendency to act based on the lower rather than the higher powers becomes part of our character and personality at a very early age. And, as adults, although we now mentally know better, these years of habit are so deeply engraved in our psyche, that it’s difficult to change.
What God intended instead is that man would be under the control of the Spirit from birth and thus develop a balanced character until mature enough to cooperate with the Spirit in further development.
So with this second alternative the proposition is that nothing changed physically with Adam himself when he sinned, other than of course the typical sense of guilt. Instead, the change happened in that Adam separated Himself from God.
I believe there are several benefits to this alternative position:
1) It gives us a reasonable explanation to the charge that God created the problem He is punishing in people
2) It helps diffuse the internal debates in Adventism regarding the human nature of Christ. (See this article for more on this http://mikemanea.com/conversations/how-evangelicals-neutered-adventism/)
3) It can also help resolve another internal conflict in Adventism: sinless perfection. The typical dualist Christian view of Original Sin makes sinless perfection impossible since no matter how much we grow in grace, the immaterial part of our being is still defective and will remain so until translation. This alternative view seems to allow for the possibility of sinless perfection though I must emphasize that perfection is not now nor ever will be a requirement for salvation. (See these posts regarding Andreasenist LGT/Perfectionism which I consider heretical http://mikemanea.com/conversations/?s=lgt)
In conclusion, the question again:
Should Adventists develop a unique theology of Original Sin distinct from the typical views of dualistic Christians? If so, is there any value to the second alternative approach or are there reasons why we must go with the first alternative? Are there other possibilities?