Most people probably have some familiarity with the term, “original sin.” It is a theological concept that is rooted in a story found in the book of Genesis, a story that is probably rather well known to you: the story of Adam and Eve. You will remember, I’m sure, that Adam and Eve are depicted in that story as having disobeyed God by eating the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. As a result, they come to be embarrassed and ashamed of certain things about themselves, and once God discovers what they have done, the story says they are cast out of the Garden of Eden.
This first disobedience, if you will, becomes the sign of a tendency in human beings to put distance between God and ourselves. Different Christian theologians interpreted the consequences of this tendency more or less disastrously, and gave it the name “original sin.”
What is interesting to notice about the story, and about the concepts of original sin that were built on top of it, is the role into which God is cast. The story does indeed depict human beings as having screwed up, as having indeed disobeyed God. So, the fault for our predicament is placed squarely upon us. But God, in consequence, is depicted as having been totally enraged by our human faultiness, and delivered what is said to be a just punishment upon us. In other words, God acts like a very strict parent who has little room in his heart for understanding, forgiveness, or compassion. God simply casts human beings out of paradise into a life of difficulty.
But what if this is not really the case? The theologian James Alison suggests that quite often in Scripture, and particularly in the Hebrew Bible, God is put into roles that depict God as violent or violent-approving, judgmental, rigid, and the like. But he also believes that the deeper question that lies beneath the Hebrew Bible is this: do these stories really tell us the way God is, or do these stories contain a fair bit of idolatry — that is, us projecting human behaviors onto the divine? Indeed, as the Hebrew Bible moves forward in time, its writers seem to become less and less confident about how much they truly know who God is, and God is depicted more and more mysteriously and transcendently.
Perhaps, in the case of this early and ancient biblical story, the authors (and subsequent interpreters) have projected onto God their own sense of guilt and shame and, through the lens of that sense, have imagined that this distance that seems to exist between ourselves and God, while inspired by our own wrong-doing, is nevertheless part of some judgment of God upon us. Perhaps the God of the story of Adam and Eve seems to be so lacking in compassion for humanity because human beings have so often been lacking in compassion for ourselves.
Alison suggests that the story of Jesus is meant to show us something different. In the life, death, and resurrection of Christ, we are meant to see that far from being a harsh judge, God has always approached us, from the very beginning, from a place of forgiveness. Christ is meant to teach us that the dualistic systems of good and bad, right and wrong, and the sense of judgment and punishment that flows from them, is the way in which we human beings have chosen to live, not the way God intends us to live. And certainly not the game that God seeks to play with us.
In Christ, we discover that God approaches us in love that is of an almost unimaginable depth. Rather than waiting to judge us for our failings, God embraces us in our failings to show us that we do not need to be ruled by them. God’s forgiveness is offered to us readily: the problem is in how hard it is for us to really accept it.
There is no doubt that human beings have a tendency to put distance between ourselves and the divine. There is also no doubt that God is always seeking to overcome this distance. Our “original sin” does not meet God’s harsh judgment, as has so often been thought and taught. Rather, it meets God’s first forgiveness — and that is good news, indeed.