The doctrine of original sin is an essential component of the Christian faith. If catechists don’t explain well the nature, effect, and consequences of original sin, they will find it very difficult not only to address the major moral issues of our day, but also to effectively communicate the Gospel. Without original sin, the Gospel message loses much of its power and purpose. To fully appreciate the “good news” of the Christ’s redemption, we first must grapple with the “bad news” of our fallen condition.
Why do we need a redeemer and savior? Are people not essentially good? Are they not able to live a good moral life regardless of their religious beliefs? In reply to those questions, our faith teaches that something in our human nature is inherently wounded and in need of healing. The Church affirms that original sin is “an essential truth of the faith,” and so “we cannot tamper with the revelation of original sin without undermining the mystery of Christ.”[i]
Original Sin in Genesis
To understand original sin, we must turn to the first chapters of the Bible. We read in Genesis 2 that God created Adam, placed him in the Garden of Eden, then created Eve out of his side. The Catechism tells us that God created the first couple in a state of “original holiness and justice.”[ii] Original holiness means that our first parents shared in God’s divine life and were free from suffering and death—a state symbolized by their free access to the Tree of Life. Original justice means that Adam and Eve possessed an inner harmony within themselves, with each other, and with all of creation.[iii] They were at peace with themselves and with the world. This state of friendship with God, however, depended on their submission to him and respect of his moral norms.[iv] The limit to man’s freedom is represented by the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, strictly prohibited to Adam and Eve under penalty of death: “you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die” (Gen 2:17).
Unfortunately, this original state of holiness and justice did not last long. Genesis 3 describes the well-known story of the fall: A mysterious talking serpent urges Eve to eat of the fruit from the tree of knowledge, which appears to be “good for food”, “a delight to the eyes”, and “desirable to make one wise.” She yields to the temptation and persuades Adam to do the same in defiance of God’s command. As soon as they eat the fruit, the two realize that they are naked. Ashamed, they cover themselves with fig leaves; they also become afraid of God and attempt to hide from him.
The consequences of the infraction are dire: God curses the serpent, imposes labor pains on the woman and inflicts hard toil on the man for his subsistence, along with the prospect of returning to the ground from which he was taken. Adam and Eve are banned from Eden and from the Tree of Life; suffering and death enter human history.[v]
This narrative raises two initial questions. First, what is modern man to make of it? Doesn’t it display the characteristics of a myth or pious legend rather than history? The Church teaches that even though the account of the fall uses figurative language, it affirms a primeval event that truly “took place at the beginning of the history of man,” so that “the whole of human history is marked by the original fault freely committed by our first parents.”[vi]
Second, does the story really teach the Christian doctrine of original sin? Genesis 3 says nothing about a fallen angel called Satan, about Adam losing gifts of divine sonship and sanctifying grace, or about him transmitting a fallen nature to all his descendants. Religious Jews, in fact, interpret the fall of Adam and Eve differently: while they obviously agree that Adam and Eve sinned, they don’t accept the idea that Adam passed on a wounded human nature to the entire human race.[vii]
While it is true that Genesis 3 does not explicitly teach the doctrine of Original Sin, the story does provide the “raw materials” of the doctrine that will gradually develop in Sacred Scripture and Christian Tradition.