Original Sin and the Experience of Jesus Christ


By Charles Mathewes, Ph.D., University of Virginia

One of the ways that evil is addressed in Christian Scriptures is the development of the doctrine of original sin. This idea is a distinctly Christian development, particularly in the letters of Paul, based upon a re-reading of the Adam and Eve story in light of the early Christian community’s experience of Jesus Christ.

Carving of Adam and Eve tempted in Eden
A reinterpretation of the fall of Adam and Eve was made in the light of the experience of Christ by early followers, such as Paul. (Image: Jebulon/CC 1.0/Public domain)

Human Involvement in Cosmic Struggle

The important question that the idea of the cosmic struggle in the gospels and the Book of Revelation asks is: How does this cosmic struggle map onto our experience here, in this life? What does it mean that humans witness this struggle in Heaven?

Humans are not the ones fighting. That’s what the archangel Michael and the good angels are doing—we’re kind of innocent bystanders; we’re villagers, where two air forces are fighting high above us in the sky. What do we do here?

Here, the other dimension of the New Testament’s heritage about evil becomes important, and that is the idea of ‘original sin’. After all, along with this cosmic apocalypticism, the other great theme on evil in the Christian New Testament is the beginning—just the beginning—of the development of the Christian doctrine of original sin, particularly in Paul’s letters.

The Goodness of Jesus Christ

Paining of Christ tempted by Satan in the wilderness
For Christians, the power of Christ was an indication that the forces of evil were powerful too. (Image: Ary Scheffer/Public domain)

The development of this doctrine is a very interesting thing. In fact, it gets its start not in a direct apprehension of people’s nastiness, it actually gets its start in a dawning Christian apprehension of the significance of the goodness of Jesus Christ. It was precisely the combination of the early Christians’s apprehension that Jesus Christ was in some really, really significant way a theological revelation of God.

However that gets worked out in the later tradition in terms of talking about Christ as one of the three persons of God, the earliest Christians clearly had a sense that Jesus Christ is, in some important way, theologically revelatory. This means that for Jesus to be as good as Christians thought he was, the world must be pretty bad; for Jesus to be as powerful as they experience Jesus as being, Jesus needs to be that powerful because the enemies arrayed against Jesus are that strong.

This is a transcript from the video series Why Evil Exists. Watch it now, on Wondrium.

The Strength of Evil in the World

This means that Christians depicted the human condition more darkly than others of their kind, and they represented the power of evil dramatically perhaps than others did in their time.

This sense of spiritual combat that they had already made evil more cosmic as apocalypticism makes evil more palpably and determinately part of creation itself; that is, evil begins to be both more profound and more intimate at the same time. The profundity, of course, is captured in that notion of the dragon; the intimacy gets captured in the notion of original sin.

The magnitude of God’s activity that Christians perceived in Jesus’s life, death, and resurrection demanded a powerful opponent over whom to triumph, and that opponent had to be the force of evil insinuating its way through human history. And Saint Paul, in his letters, looked back through the history of evil and found in the story of Adam and Eve the beginnings of that evil.

Original Sin Arrives in the World

An illustration of Adam, Eve and the serpent in Eden.
Paul’s conception of the fall of Adam and Eve was that of sin entering the world for the first time. (Image: Real Biblioteca de San Lorenzo/Public domain)

At its time, speaking archaeologically, the story of Adam and Eve is not about the origins of evil, it’s about the first time that evil happens. But Paul doesn’t see it that way: Paul sees the story of Adam and Eve as talking about the beachhead of evil in creation; it is a cosmic calamity for Paul.

It is not simply the first instance of a failure that had always been possible; it is, rather, a new thing, and a real and radical introduction of some new substance of malice and new power into the world that had not been there before.

The development of this Christian conception of evil includes a dramatic depiction of sin and a representation of evil as powerful, active, and seeking humanity’s downfall. It is profoundly tied up with the radical hopefulness, even optimism, in Christian faith as the early Christians experienced it of God’s saving work in defeating the Devil and sending Jesus to save all of humanity and create a ‘New Covenant’ with all of humanity.

The Break with Judaism

This sets up a complicated relationship between Judaism and Christianity. They’re kind of like two traditions that are separated by a common scripture. In looking at the texts as they do, both sides see very different things in the same exact passages.

On the one hand we have Christian conceptions of evil, following on in Irenaeus, Augustine and others of original sin. On the other are the Jewish conceptions of evil, the rabbinic understandings of evil, and the later Jewish responses to the Shoah, the Holocaust, in the 20th century, which see evil as pervasive in the world, and as part of God’s plan. If you investigate you will see that these two understandings of evil root themselves in the same texts but in very different ways.

This is the consequence in some ways—in fact, it’s the material, the cause, as well—of the parting of the ways between Judaism and Christianity, but it is more consequence than cause. This conception of sin or evil causes a large and dramatic break.

Common Questions about Original Sin

Q. What important question does the idea of the cosmic battle between good and evil raise?

The important question that the idea of the cosmic struggle in the gospels and the Book of Revelation asks is: How does this cosmic struggle map onto human experience here, in this life?

Q. Why did early Christians view evil as being so powerful?

For early Christians, Christ was a powerfully good figure, which meant that they viewed evil as more powerful and darker than their contemporaries.

Q. What is the idea of original sin as suggested by Paul?

For Paul, the sin of Adam and Eve is an original sin. It is not simply the first instance of a failure that had always been possible; it is, rather, a new thing, and a real and radical introduction of some new substance of malice and new power into the world.

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