For many years I never really questioned the conservative Christian story of how sin was introduced into the world: the disobedience of Eve and Adam creating the oh-so-permanent-and-inescapable stain of original sin on all of humankind to follow. Somehow it made sense, or enough sense that I didn’t really think twice about it.
Today I think the Genesis story just doesn’t hang together.
When conservative Christians are asked how they explain the devastation of natural disasters, a common response is that it’s because of sin. What do you mean? Like, someone brought the wrath of God on themselves in the form of a forest fire set alight by a bolt of lightning because they sinned against Him? "No," a lot of them would respond. Most don’t want to go the punishment route anymore – it’s too hard to justify Katrina or the Asian tsunami with such an argument. Instead, they might say something like: "Not only are all humans born with the stain of original sin, all of creation itself is sinful, which explains random natural phenomena that hurt or kill people. God didn’t create devastating natural disasters - it’s not God’s fault." In other words, it still goes back to Adam and Eve and their decision to disobey God.
Hmm. So by what mechanism and what logic did Adam and Eve’s disobedience “infect” nature itself? I suppose one might argue that it was the serpent’s behavior that God cursed, and that somehow that animal’s curse extended throughout the animal (and plant?) kingdom. But that leaves a bloody big black box for how the serpent’s behavior could possibly have affected (or infected) cloud formations or weather patterns, which according to the Christian explanation above, would have had to be “perfect” before the Fall.
I thus have big questions about what mechanisms got set in motion to infect all of creation following the disobedience of eating the forbidden fruit. It couldn't have been some kind of genetic transmission from human to...weather patterns; arguably God had to actively make some or all of his non-human creation imperfect and sinful after the Fall. And if that's the case, then how benign is God, really, in this creation story?
But the other big question I have revolves around the fairness of that stain of original sin getting passed down to every human being. It’s the classic question: "What makes it fair to make someone pay for the sins of their ancestors?" How do I have anything to do with Adam and Eve’s choices? And therefore why, according to conservative Christian theology, am I consigned to hell for their actions before I’ve even taken my first sweet breath of air outside the womb?
I haven’t really heard a convincing argument for why this is just, right, fair, okay, legitimate, or righteous. “Life just isn’t fair, that’s just the way it is” (or “the Bible says it, I believe it”) really doesn’t cut it for me on this matter.
Take a single, African-American mother stuck in the inner city, who can’t find good employment, education, or housing: is it fair that she’s stuck where she is? Hell no. And, it is probably true that she is the victim of a long legacy of abuses, neglect, racism, sexism, and economic discrimination against those African-Americans who came before her. In a way, she is living with the legacy and consequences of the sins committed against her fore bearers.
At first glance, this might seem like an analogy for original sin. Except for this: we as limited human beings can't snap our fingers and instantaneously change the circumstances this inner city woman lives with.
But God can. Or could if he wanted to. Similarly, God could have chosen to create a system in which Adam and Eve’s offspring got to start with a clean slate, not burdened by the spiritual ramifications of their parents. And if they 'messed up' and sinned against God, then they could deal with the consequences.
I guess my point is that the stain of original sin is not the only obvious and inevitable consequence of the Fall. God didn't have to make "original sin" an automatic transmission from one generation of humans to the next. Kind of like with Satan: Lucifer was an angel who rebelled against God. The other angels weren't thrown out of heaven or otherwise condemned - they weren't punished for Lucifer's sin. So why are we punished for Adam and Eve's sin?
And really, on a practical level, I’d like to meet the Christian who would feel PERFECTLY OKAY paying up in the following scenario: Imagine you are a white American. You are approached by the federal government, which has finally decided that white Americans should make reparations for the awful legacy of slavery in the U.S. The Feds tell you that your great-great-great-great-great grandparent owned slaves. And they have calculated that you, as the direct descendant of that slave-owner, owe the direct descendants of the slaves $50,000.
If this scenario makes conservative Christians uncomfortable, or inspires a defensive “that’s not fair!” or some other argument against ponying up, I would hope they would stop to consider why, then, they feel so comfortable with a theology that automatically makes all humans dirty, stained, and responsible for the choices of two people who lived thousands of years ago.