So, one of the great philosophical debates has always been if the nature of man was good or if man is inherently evil. For reasons I have never fully understood, but which may be wrapped up in the joy that philosophers find in arguing with each other, the most obvious answer – both/and – is mostly ignored, although it does find its way into pop culture from time to time. But if there’s one thing I’m sure of about life, it’s that both/and is almost always the right answer. More often than not, either/or is an artificial construct based on a stubborn refusal to acknowledge that the other side’s arguments have any merit. I have found the nature of man argument to be a classic example of this.
One need only read the newspaper or a history book or look at congress to see that always and everywhere, some of us seem to have a real problem behaving like decent human beings. And we need only be part of a family or other group of human beings to realize that we are also really good at hurting each other in ways that don’t get reported to the newspapers. Yet, as the movie “Love Actually” pointed out in its opening sequence, on 9/11, no one called someone just to tell them how much they hated them or to finally tell someone off before dying. The thing people wanted to do most that day was make sure that the people they loved, knew they were loved. No one wants a child so that they will have someone to take their frustrations out on – it is a deep desire to love that drives our irrational urge to reproduce. We are a species where being willing to die for a stanger on the street is seen as a sign of great goodness. Clearly, there is a great deal of good in people as well as plenty of evidence for evil.
This is actually very consistent with how the bible speaks of the human heart. There are a handful of scripture verses which speak of the heart in very, very negative terms. Which as the sad existence of human beings like my mother-in-law clearly demonstrate, can be 100% accurate. However, by an overwhelming margin, the bible holds the human heart in high regard. It is where we make sense of the world, where love is seated, what moves us to acts of compassion and leads us to repent when we are spreading pain around us. The heart is something to be protected, treasured, cleaned and inspected, not rejected and ignored which is how it often seems to “original sin” proponents. Over all, the bible’s comments on the nature of man are pretty consistent with reality as most of us experience it. (How the bible views the heart is a whole other topic that John Eldredge does an excellent job explaining in Waking the Dead -The Glory of a Heart Fully Alive for anyone interested.)
The problem a lot of people have isn’t with what the bible actually says. The problem lies in the way what it says is presented by those who claim to have figured the whole thing out for you. “The bible teachers that original sin,” they explain, “is this horrible thing that we are all infected with which makes us so rotten and evil to the core that God can hardly stand the stench of us. He’d rather burn us all in hell for all eternity than deal with the likes of us. It’s why children need to be broken like horses and we need to be washed in the blood of Christ. Because of original sin.” I can hardly begin to unpack all that’s wrong with that. And frankly, if you read that and went “yeah – that’s really the way it is”, nothing I say is going to make any sense to you anyways. Although we can start with the fact that “original sin” isn’t named, explained or specifically referred to anywhere in the bible.
Although original sin isn’t found in the bible, it is a concept which persists because it does describe something we all know: we know that we’re not perfect – and neither is anyone else we know. And we’ve all encountered toddlers who would have shanked their mother for saying “no” had they had the means at the time. There’s something going on here which clearly indicates that we are prone to problems. And really, I think that’s best description of original sin we can offer: we’re prone to problems. Being good is much harder than wanting to be good. We do awful things to each other – especially when we’ve been hurt. The damage we cause just gets passed from one generation on to the next. Sometimes, the things we do to each other are so awful that no explanation for the evil can suffice. Those bible verses speaking of the evil of the heart are warning us of this fate. But mostly we just bump along the best we can and apologize as needed – or at least aspire to do that. That’s my experience of life and people. I would guess it fits yours as well.
Original sin has often been spoken of as this horrible, filthy, awful thing that makes us horrible, filthy awful people. And under certain circumstances it can become that (see: the banality of evil). But mostly, that’s nothing more than a caricature of original sin. Which is not to say that original sin is less serious than all that – it is tragically serious because its so real, familiar and inescapable. It isn’t some big, scary boogie-man. It’s our mother and our father and the imperatives our hormonal lives create and the resources we do or don’t have access to and above all, it’s the fact that we have only the fuzziest notion of what we’re doing from the day we are born. It just is.
Now, imagine that you are God. Mankind has gone rogue and is so ill-prepared that they realized they were naked and tried to drape vines around themselves (ever seen a toddler try to dress themselves?). They are so incompetent that they tried to hide in the bushes when you approached like kids behind the curtains next to a broken vase. So immature that the man’s first reaction upon being confronted was to say “she started it”. Now they’re sitting around eating each other. (In the excellent book Ideas that Changed the World, cannibalism is the first entry. It is the earliest recorded human activity and happened everywhere humans have lived.)
What exactly happened at the fall is a fascinating puzzle that has not received the attention it deserves. The best that I can work out is that when man’s eyes were opened, he was suddenly aware of the differences between himself and his maker and saw himself as wanting. Remember, man had been told that he was good and that the relationship between man and woman was very good. He was made in the very image of God. His concept of himself would have been like that of a young child raised by encouraging parents. The idea that maybe he should put some clothes on (perhaps he’d like to travel to colder areas or ornament himself or at least start putting a towel down before sitting on the beach chairs) hadn’t even occurred to him. Adam and Eve are often said to be perfect, but they were perfect the way that babies that crap on themselves are perfect. Just looking at the evidence, I think it’s safe to say that these were not sophisticated people. Imagine a baby who suddenly realized that we find the idea of pooping on ourselves so repulsive that we have told our family members to wheel us out back with a loaded handgun and walk away once it starts happening to us. That would probably not be very good for the child’s mental well being. Might cause problems.
But here’s the thing; just like we don’t look at a baby pooping on themselves as a problem, apparently God never viewed the nakedness Adam was freaking out over as a problem either. Man was who he was and developmentally he was where he was supposed to be. The need to hide and blame and all that didn’t come from an angry God. It came from Adam seeing himself from a different point of view and feeling humiliated. He hid from God, he said, because he didn’t want God to see his nakedness. Ever found out that everyone was laughing at you behind your back? That may well have been how Adam felt. And he felt like he deserved to be judged and ridiculed. But it wasn’t God who told him that. It wasn’t how God saw him. But the relationship between God and man had changed. Or at least man’s perception of the relationship had changed so much that it pretty well destroyed it. God acts like the father of a drug addict who knows he can’t save his child and hands him a change of clothes and kicks him out of the house because otherwise he might never hit rock bottom and start to recover. Obviously, this rabbit trail leads off to many others, but for this discussion, I’ll just leave it there.
So, getting back to the nature of man, I would offer a slightly different explanation. We are made in the image of God. It is who we are. Original Sin is an unavoidable part of being human and it damages us. When ever the bible talks about sin, it talks about cleanliness, and dirt and stains and being washed. The damage doesn’t change who we are – made in the image of God – it just makes it harder to see who we are. The process of salvation is watching as the filth encrusted lump with all its gouges and burrs stuck to it is ever so gradually washed away to reveal the diamond clear heart within. This is the promise of Christianity. (Sometime soon, I’ll have to do a post on my equally upside down, but totally plausible ideas about salvation and Jesus. You should go over to the left and subscribe now.)
So yeah, I believe in original sin. Not only do I believe in it, I take some comfort in it. You see, as I explained elsewhere, I have a neurotic tendency to think that I’m responsible for everything and that I should always know the correct course of action. When I come across something I can’t do anything about, it’s a relief. Finally – something that’s not my fault! I don’t mind being wrong if I know that it doesn’t mean anything more than that I should say sorry and try it again.
In my book, The Upside Down World - A Book of Wisdom in Progress, I have several pages of quotes that I like. (You should go buy a copy – my kids all need winter boots and it’s an awesome book to boot!) Some are things I’ve said. One of those is “When a sin is forgiven, it becomes a mistake. And mistakes are just things to learn from.” That’s the message of original sin to me: it’s inevitable, it’s real, it hurts, it’s not our fault unless we refuse to try to do better.