Friday, October 26, 2012

Damned Nonsense! Post #4: The Truth about Original Sin

This post is part of the Damned Nonsense! series, a collection of posts exploring the Christian doctrine of salvation. It is named after a dissertation by Ravi Holy entitled "Damned Nonsense: An Argument for Universalism Consisting of a Critique of All the Alternatives to It." While some of the series' content is adapted from Holy's worknot all opinions expressed in this series are Holy's. Please check out all the posts in this series!

Before getting to what I believe is the source of traditional opposition to Universalism (post #5), I want to take a moment to discuss the doctrine of Original Sin. This little dogma plays a major behind-the-scenes role in the conversation about Christian salvation and thus deserves a post. The content in today's post is adapted from a book by Neil Punt entitled A Theology of Inclusivism.

In orthodox Christianity the doctrine of Original Sin teaches that all of humanity is corrupted by sin. There is no one who has not turned from God; none who are righteous (Rom. 3:9-23). It is not merely a description of what we deserve but of who we are. We are all sinners and have, in some way or another, turned from God.

Up to this point we are still on good biblical ground. The problem, however, is that traditional Protestantism espouses that Original Sin (and its twin "Total Depravity") is the grounds for the damnation of the unsaved. Evangelical Christian teaching often goes as follows: Everyone is sinful and deserves to go to hell; unless you repent and believe in Jesus the Christ then you will go to hell because you are going there by default anywayIn other words, Original Sin holds all of humanity in bondage and hell is our default destiny. 

Neil Punt explains the error of this view when he writes, "Human blameworthiness is taught so consistently throughout the Scriptures that all of orthodox Christianity confesses it. This has uncritically filtered into our thoughts and theology as if it were evidence that all persons are outside of Christ. This erroneous deduction from the doctrine of original sin accounts in large measure for the widespread and firmly held premise that 'All persons will be lost...'"

Far from being a contemporary phenomenon, this view of Original Sin has its roots in the Pelagian controversy of the 4th and 5th centuries. Here is some interesting history:

"Pelagius (about 350–418 AD), usually described as a pious British monk, was concerned that Christians were becoming lax in their lifestyle. For this reason he began to teach that everyone will be lost except those who, by their own strength and determination of will, would live in obedience to the law of God following the example of Christ. Augustine (354–430 AD) recognized in Pelagianism an unacceptable works-based righteousness. He taught that all will be lost except those who God, in his eternal, sovereign, incomprehensible grace, has chosen to bring to salvation. A middle position between these two was that of the Semi-Pelagianists. They proposed that all will be lost except those who by their own sovereign decision accept God’s offer of salvation.... By the end of the fourth century, theologians began to view the plan of salvation in the restrictive form with which we are familiar: 'All persons will be finally lost except those who the Bible declares will be saved...' Ever since that time, mainstream Christian theologians have attempted to define the 'exceptions,' that is, those who they judged will be saved." (Punt, my italics)

It is not difficult to see how this view of Original Sin has influenced traditional views of salvation. Today most Christians believe that all persons will finally be lost unless some kind of conversion to Jesus the Christ occurs. If Original Sin controls our default destiny, then of course there must be hell; of course Universalism cannot be true. 

But what if this approach to Original Sin is wrong? Are human beings all lost because of Original Sin? 

Believe it or not, the Bible teaches an unequivocal "No." The Bible teaches that Original Sin has been disarmed and defeated by Jesus the Christ. This is what Paul explains in Romans 5.

12 Therefore, just as sin entered the world through one man, and death through sin, and in this way death came to all people, because all sinned—13 To be sure, sin was in the world before the law was given, but sin is not charged against anyone’s account where there is no law. 14 Nevertheless, death reigned from the time of Adam to the time of Moses, even over those who did not sin by breaking a command, as did Adam, who is a pattern of the one to come. -- 15 But the gift is not like the trespass. For if the many died by the trespass of the one man, how much more did God’s grace and the gift that came by the grace of the one man, Jesus Christ, overflow to the many! 16 Nor can the gift of God be compared with the result of one man’s sin: The judgment followed one sin and brought condemnation, but the gift followed many trespasses and brought justification. 17 For if, by the trespass of the one man, death reigned through that one man, how much more will those who receive God’s abundant provision of grace and of the gift of righteousness reign in life through the one man, Jesus Christ!
18 Consequently, just as one trespass resulted in condemnation for all people, so also one righteous act resulted in justification and life for all people. 19 For just as through the disobedience of the one man the many were made sinners, so also through the obedience of the one man the many will be made righteous. 20 The law was brought in so that the trespass might increase. But where sin increased, grace increased all the more, 21 so that, just as sin reigned in death, so also grace might reign through righteousness to bring eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord. (Romans 5:12-21)
Punt continues to explain, "Nowhere in all of Scripture do we read, neither is it implied nor to be inferred, that anyone suffers eternal death solely on the basis of his or her sin in Adam, apart from individual, personal, willful, persistent unbelief and sin on the part of the person so rejected."

Interestingly, before Pelagius and Augustine, "Those who were closest (in time) to the apostles had an inclusive view of God’s plan of salvation (For proof of this claim, see here). For the most part, they taught that all will be saved with no exceptions or that all will be saved with some exceptions. ...Such restrictive definitions of those who will be saved are not found among the leading church fathers in the first, second, and third centuries." (Punt, my italics)

One of those leading church fathers was the great bishop of Alexandria Athanasius. In his treatise "On the Incarnation of the Word" he wrote the following: 

"By the sacrifice of His own body He did two things: He put an end to the law of death which barred our way; and He made a new beginning of life for us, by giving us the hope of resurrection. By man death has gained its power over men; by the Word made Man death has been destroyed and life raised up anew. That is what Paul says, that true servant of Christ: "For since by man came death, by man came also the resurrection of the dead. Just as in Adam all die, even so in Christ shall all be made alive," and so forth. Now, therefore, when we die we no longer do so as men condemned to death, but as those who are even now in process of rising we await the general resurrection of all, "which in its own times He shall show,"even God Who wrought it and bestowed it on us."

What I think both Paul and Athanasius are saying is that Original Sin has lost its grip on humanity's destiny. It is no longer the "default" destiny of humankind. Because the grace and obedience of Jesus abound, humanity has received a new destiny: the destiny of the "New Adam" (Jesus). This has clear implications for the doctrine of salvation: we must shift from a presupposition that humanity's default destiny is hell to a presupposition that our default destiny is reconciliation with God in Christ. Put simply, Original Sin should not be the starting point of our theology of salvation, the victory of Jesus must be our starting point.

***NOTEThis view of Original Sin does not rule out the possibility of sinners being lost. It does not ignore the biblical texts that seem to teach eternal damnation, etc. What it does, however, is shift the grounds of that damnation from Original Sin to works done in conscious opposition to God. A survey of the New Testament will show that the passages that insinuate a final lostness of sinners base such lostness on works, not Original Sin (e.g. Matt. 7:23, 16:27, 25:45; John 5:29; Rom. 14:11; 2 Cor. 5:10; Rev. 20:12-13, 22:12).

At this point, let us once again summarize what has been put forward in this post:
  1. Original Sin is often viewed as holding the keys to humanity's destiny. Christians have traditionally presupposed that all humanity will be lost because of Original Sin (or Total Depravity).
  2. Although there are forms of the doctrine of Original Sin in the writings of St. Paul, Irenaeus, Tertullian, and Origen, the doctrine as we know it today owes its development to the Pelagian controversy of the 4th/5th centuries. This controversy viewed Original Sin as humanity's default destiny.
  3. Original Sin does not hold the keys to humanity's destiny. Jesus, the New Adam, holds the keys to humanity's destiny.
  4. The earliest orthodox Christians presupposed that all would be saved because of the scope and finality of Christ's victory.
  5. There is no biblical support for the view that Original Sin is the grounds for hell. The NT support for hell as a final destiny is based upon works and the conscious rejection of God.
The assumption that "all will be lost" because of Original Sin is unbiblical. If, as Neil Punt claims, "Nowhere in all of Scripture do we read, neither is it implied nor to be inferred, that anyone suffers eternal death solely on the basis of his or her sin in Adam," then perhaps Thomas Talbott is correct in surmising that something other than 'clear biblical exegesis' is behind this stance. And perhaps this is yet another example of how something other than the teaching of scripture is behind traditional opposition to Universalism. This is precisely what I will put forward in the next post.


Next Post will be Monday. 


  1. Towards the end you make the statement: "What it does, hoever, is shift the grounds of that damnation from Original Sin to works done in conscious opposition to God."

    As with my comments on a previous post, I see a tension here that I'm not totally comfortable being too quick to try and reconcile. For example, what do you do with the notion of repentance? This involves, literally and figuratively a *turning away* from an old way and an embrace of a new way. I'm thinking also of Paul's language of old man vs. new man, flesh vs. spirit, etc. etc., which you brought out in your point of Christ as the New Adam. However, the Scriptures seem to suggest that this "new man" is NOT the default for human creatures, as you seem to be wanting to argue here. YES, to be sure, this has been once for all accomplished in Christ's own person, but repentance is still required on behalf of human creatures, a forsaking of the old man and a cleaving to Christ, becoming NEW creatures.


  2. jonathan, i see what you're saying. i wonder if my post is over-simplistic. perhaps, as you suggest, i have reconciled a tension that cannot be resolved. my main intent was to shed light on the universal victory over original sin achieved by Christ; and also the judgment according to works. but now you've brought conversion/repentance into the mix, and rightfully so, it's just very complicated. and i don't claim to have the answers, i'm just trying to work through this stuff. so thanks for adding to my pondering.

    let me start by making sure i understand your question: Does this dying/rising conversion process imply that life in Christ is not, in fact, the default destiny (otherwise, why be baptized, etc.)?

    i think you're right that the "old" self is the "default" mode of being for humankind. that is, we need redemption from sin and that requires repentance and baptism into life with God in Christ. but when i talk about DESTINY in this post, i am talking about the ultimate End kind of destiny. and perhaps i did not make that clear. and, more importantly, perhaps i am totally wrong! but let me try to elaborate.

    hmm... i'm just going to think aloud here... i wonder if there is wisdom in exploring the eschatological nature of salvation. when i say that life in Christ is the *new* "default destiny" for humanity, I am speaking of an eschatological reality, the capital "D" destiny at the Eschaton. When people repent, are baptized, and "put on" Christ, they are putting on their eschatological destiny. They are participating in the Resurrection Life, the Life of the Ages, NOW. they are getting a head start on their destiny.

    the fact that this destiny requires repentance does not change the fact that it is our destiny, right? it just elaborates HOW we participate in that destiny. So, for those who don't repent and cleave to Christ, well, i want to say that *perhaps* this does not change their destiny, but only their current state existence. and, *perhaps* they will go through a repentance and baptism later... ?

    this could all just be semantics too and i could be a total nutcase. i'm just trying to explore the wisdom that eschatology offers this conversation.

    an illustration comes to mind. i am married to my wife. that is an ontological reality, an objective fact, etc. But if I go out drinking every night, pay no attention to my wife, and pick up other women, i'm not doing a very good job at being married. Indeed, it would even be arguable whether or not I am *truly* married. i wonder if it is a similar idea with this topic: we are saved in Christ, yet we must act as if it is true. Trevor Hart put it this way: the kingdom of God offers what it demands and demands what it offers.

    It seems like this tension always comes back to a pure Arminianism, no? This whole issue of free will and synergy as you already mentioned. It is so complex and downright maddening sometimes.

    anyway, there's some thoughts.

  3. Hey man,

    I mean, I'd affirm much of what you're saying here. The issue, I think, is that this eschatological reality is "ours" only insofar as we are in Christ. And, for Paul (for example), there are particular ways that we come to be in Christ (i.e. baptism, eucharist, handing on of the apostles' teaching, etc. etc.).

    Any presumptions we might make about folks who aren't "in Christ" in this lifetime are I feel, just that, presumptions. I am not closed off to the idea of a post-mortem conversion, but it would be just that, a conversion - the acceptance of the truth of Christ which simultaneously reveals the truth about us. So, for those reasons, I'm still having trouble with talk of Christ's victorious work being humanities new destiny, though I see where you're going and I think there's something there.

    To be sure, YES, Christ's work was achieved for all humanity but it seems to me that this beckons a response from human creatures - something like David's humble reception of the truth when he was confronted by Nathan: "I have sinned against the Lord."

  4. "3. Original Sin does not hold the keys to humanity's destiny. Jesus, the New Adam, holds the keys to humanity's destiny."

    What a freeing and hopeful truth! Sin has no permanent hold on the world; God is the only destiny for humanity. Gospel!

  5. Something that struck me, as I read.

    "'[R]estrictive definitions of those who will be saved are not found among the leading church fathers in the first, second, and third centuries.' (Punt, my italics)"

    Constantine's Edict of Milan was written in 313 C.E., effectively making Christianity a state religion. From the quote above it seems a restrictive soteriology arrived around the same time. I wonder if there is a connection. As soon as the Church had power it began to exclude. Or perhaps more accurately, as soon as Rome could wield the Church Rome used Christianity to say no. I'm not sure the implications, but the connection seems more than implied.

  6. I.e.

    Post 313 CE, Rome can use restrictive soteriology against other nations. If your people are not under the rule of Rome (and therefore the Church) then you can be labelled as godless heathens. Because you are a godless nation, it is for your own benefit/salvation that Rome conquer you and thus bring you into Christendom … Hell became a political tool.

  7. … and continued to be used as such for the next 1000+ years.

    (sorry for so many comments)

  8. Insightful comments, Dave. I will ponder the significance of such historical context. Thank you.

  9. Josh,

    Sorry it has taken me so long to reply to your post that you pointed me to.

    I appreciate some of the historical context you provided in your post, however I believe your argument, that our default destiny is reconciliation with God in Christ, stands or falls on your interpretation of Romans 5. It seems you've missed a vitally important distinction Paul makes between the work of Adam and the work of Christ in this passage. Douglas Moo in his NIV Application commentary on Romans states it better than I can. "Throughout 5:12-21, Paul strains to make Adam and Christ as parallel as possible. All the more striking then, is his breaking of that parallelism by adding the 'receive' in verse 17: It is, Paul says, only those 'who receive God's abundant provision of grace' who will 'reign in life.' What must a person do to experience the death that Adam brought? Simply be born. What must a person do to experience the life that Christ brings? Receive God's gift - that is, respond to the gospel through faith in Christ (see 3:31-26)."

    It follows then that in verses 18 and 19, Paul is speaking about justification for only those who are in Christ, those who have received the gospel through faith in Christ. If receiving is necessary, our default destiny cannot be reconciliation with God because, as clearly stated in 3:12 (and is crucial to Paul's entire argument in Romans), "All have turned way."

  10. Thanks for the comment, Andrew. I think you're right that Romans 5 is a key text here, but it seems that we just disagree on interpretation. And that's OK. It's good to have diversity or else we would all be Christian robots.

    I wonder if the whole "receiving" thing in verse 17 is having to do with "this life" - which Paul says right after the word "receiving" in Greek. Again, my interpretation is that it has to do with the eschatological putting on of Christ in THIS LIFE NOW (see above comments).

    I don't think that verses 18 and 19 can be interpreted as a specific group of those in Christ because Paul is using repetitive words to make his point: "one man" -> "all" then "one man" -> "all", "one man" -> "many" then "one man" -> "many". I think Paul is making a parallel to Adam that doesn't breakdown in order to teach that only those who receive are included in the work of Christ.

    Then in verses 20-21 Paul goes even further! There is a really cool wordplay in the Greek with that word "abounded." Paul says that the Law came that sin "might abound," but where sin "abounded" grace "more abounded" (all these quotes are one word in Greek. You basically have this: "pleonasei, epleonasen, HYPEReperisseusen"). I think Paul is trying to make a point that Christ's victory is bigger and better.

    Personally, I used to interpret it the same way as you offer here. But the more I've read about Pauline theology, and studied the rhetoric in his writing, the less I think Paul meant the kind of Protestant-Arminian theology that is most popular today.

    I think that most Protestants since the time of Luther have had a more "anthropocentric" reading of Romans (and Paul). [See, for example, Richard Hays groundbreaking book "The Faith of Jesus Christ."] This has led to the emphasis that you highlight in the idea of the human being RECEIVING the grace of Christ by faith.

    My opinion nowadays is that the early church and Paul himself actually had a more "Christocentric" view that emphasized the work of Christ in accomplishing a cosmic victory that humans could not achieve.

    But I could be wrong. There's always room for error. But my heart has kept me on this trajectory for a while now. I think the victory of Christ is much bigger and better than we imagine.


  11. I definitely agree with a Christocentric reading of Romans and Paul (really, all of Scripture). Thanks for pointing that out. The reason I'd agree and still hold to the "receive" interpretation is that, although Paul doesn't expound on the topic in this passage, I read "receive" in the Reformed sense of only the elect who have first been regenerated by the Holy Spirit can receive through faith in Christ. This would be based on other parts of Scripture.

    Just another thing to note for the sake of discussion - I read an explanation of this passage in Romans 5 by N.T. Wright where he argues that "all" doesn't refer to every individual person but refers to the idea of "Jew and Gentile alike," i.e. the Gospel is not just Jews or Israelites, but Gentiles too. He based his argument on the whole context of Romans. I don't necessarily agree/disagree with Wright at this point, as I'm still thinking his argument over. But, it was an interesting thought nonetheless.

  12. I'm hesitant to accept Wright's argument because it seems that interpretation of "all" would need to be also applied to the "all" in reference to the death that came through Adam. I'm not sure that makes sense.

  13. Yeah, I've seen Wright's interpretation on this "all" and I'm hesitant to agree. I realize that Paul saw the world in terms of two people groups: Jew and Gentile. But when he says "all" I'm reluctant to think he really meant "both Jews and Gentiles." I think he really means ALL.

    The question that haunts me is whether or not our school of theology has influenced our interpretation of Scripture. WHAT IF Paul really meant ALL?