G.K. Chesterton (whom, as my masthead suggests, I’m liable to quote rather often) once claimed that Original Sin is “the only part of Christian theology that can really be proved.” Criticizing the modern tendency to reject this doctrine, he argues:
The strongest saints and the strongest skeptics alike took positive evil as the starting-point of their argument. If it be true (as it certainly is) that a man can feel exquisite happiness in skinning a cat, then the religious philosopher can only draw one of two deductions. He must either deny the existence of God, as all atheists do; or he must deny the present union between God and man, as all Christians do. The new theologians seem to think it a highly rationalistic solution to deny the cat. (Orthodoxy, p. 19)
How anyone can look at our world and claim that the average human is “basically good” is beyond me, but however indisputable, the universality of human evil remains an exceptionally difficult doctrine. If God is just, how can it be that he punishes us for the sins of our forebears? So what if our ancestors sinned, why should that affect us?
And yet, could it really have been otherwise? Theoretically, perhaps, God could have created a world of isolated individuals each with no power to harm another, but such would have been more like a cosmic prison than a good creation. As soon as God choose to create a world of freedom and society, he accepted the risk that we would use that freedom to destroy that society, and one another.
This leads to an alternate understanding of the concept of Original Sin. Such is not an arbitrary punishment God imposed on us because of our ancestors’ rebellion, as though he were spitefully getting back at our parents by cursing us. Not at all.
The doctrine of Original Sin instead recognizes the obvious truth that our actions as individuals always impact the society in which we live, the society in which our children are born. Our children are “born into sin,” not because God creates them sinful, but precisely because they are born into a community of sinful people – selfish people, prideful people, prejudiced people, people like you and me.
And that is why the fall of our ancient forebears was such a disaster, for it established a culture of sin which affects all aspects of human society. Such was the cost of the gift of freedom, such is the dark side of community.