Use and abuse of the doctrine of original sin

When I was a small boy, I used to dread the Easter sermons in the church my parents sent me to.

The pastor, who was a fine man, would preach about how Jesus suffered and died on the cross for our sake.

Jesus, literally the best person who ever lived, a man who loved everyone and harmed no-one, had his hands pierced with nails and his side with a sword, and was given vinegar to drink.

And why did he have to suffer and die in this horrible fashion?  Because of people like me.  Because we were so sinful.  Because that was the only way to save us from the consequences of the sins we had committed.

My feelings of guilt did not make me a better person.  I was selfish, lazy and weak, and at the same time self-righteous.

I felt I was better than irreligious boys my age because I at least was aware of how much of a sinner I was. But then I thought that having pride in a sense of guilt was just as bad as any other form of pride.

Adults did not understand me. They thought I was a nice boy because I was obedient, agreeable and an “A” student in school.

Mary McCarthy, in Memories of a Catholic Girlhood, remarked that religion is good for good people and bad for bad people.   I guess this applies in my case.

Bertrand Russell, in The Conquest of Happiness, wrote that people eaten up with guilt are egotistical.  We are preoccupied with ourselves.  We would be happier if we had objective interests and if we thought more about other people and less about ourselves.  This applies in my case, too.

I thought I might get rid of my feelings of guilt if I had sufficient faith, as great Christian figures of the past had done.   But I lacked faith.  I doubted everything.

I shared my doubts with my Sunday school teachers.  My doubts did not bother them.  They were, if anything, pleased that I took religion seriously, which so few boys my age did.

They did not take my doubts seriously. They told me that my doubts would resolve themselves when I became a mature adult.  However, neither of these things happened.

So far as I know, I was the only person in the church congregation, young or old, who felt as I did. 

My guess is that a large number were not bothered because they did not absorb the message Dr. Norment was trying to convey.  My guess is that the rest understood it through a filter of common sense.

The common sense way to hear Christian message would be to think: Yes, I am imperfect.  I try to be a good person and very often fail.  I repent of my failure, and try again, and, in the meantime, I do not judge others harshly for their failures.  That wpuld be a healthy way to respond.

As for myself, I resolved my problem by ceasing to fight my doubts about Christian doctrine.

I joined a small Unitarian fellowship in my native city as a young adult, just before the Unitarians merged with the Universalists to form the Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA)

The Unitarians and Universalists are two small sects that originated in the 19th century USA and were noted for not having any binding religious creed.  We committed to living by living by certain principles rather than believing in certain doctrines.

Interestingly, Unitarianism and Universalism had their roots in early Christian heretics that St. Augustine regarded as his enemies—Arius, who taught that God was a unity, not a trinity; Origen, who taught universal salvation; and Pelagius, who taught that people were not inherently sinful, but capable of choosing between good and bad.

For me, they provided a moral community to which I could belong while being open about my thoughts and doubts.  I am a Unitarian-Universalist to this day.

I’m bothered by the readiness of some contemporary UUs to accept the idea of white guilt, which is very like the doctrine of original sin.  Feelings of guilt are not the best motivation for striving for justice, because your focus is on yourself and not the needs or wishes of the people who are actually suffering from injustice.


Thinking of life as a drama of sin, repentance and redemption has the power to enable people to get rid of addiction or even bad habits. 

The Twelve-Step programs don’t exactly teach a doctrine of original sin, but they do teach that you have to admit you’ve lost control of your life and need a Higher Power (however defined) to turn yourself around.

I once read an experimental psychology article, which I can’t find now, that said that each time you break a resolution, it becomes harder to stick to it and easier to break it a second time.  Eventually you sink into a hole you can’t get out of.

The authors said that the idea of Christian redemption works because you can wipe the slate clean and start over with a blank slate, just as if you’d never given in to temptation the first time. 

A friend of mine told me about her son who suffered from alcohol addiction and decided to join the strictest fundamentalist church he could find.

From that day, the son never drank a drop of alcohol, smoked a cigarette nor said a civil word to his Unitarian Universalist mother.

The Twelve-Step programs are one thing, but changing your life by becoming a fanatical True Believer (not necessarily religious) comes at a high price.


Belief in original has been a justification for harsh treatment of subjects by rulers and for going to war.  The theological doctrine of original sin is not the same as a cynical view of human nature, but the two fit well together.

In general, and with some exceptions, conservatives line up with Augustine.  They believe that people are naturally bad and have to be kept in line by strict enforcement of laws.  They believe that foreign policy should be based on national self-interest backed by force.

In general, and with some exceptions, liberals and socialists oppose him.  They believe that people are naturally good and, under proper conditions, can improve.  They believe that foreign policy should be subject to the principles of morality and law.

A philosopher friend of mine told me that Hans J. Morgenthau, a leading advocate of realism in foreign policy, drew heavily on St. Augustine’s City of Godwhich said that while the City of God is governed by Christ’s teachings, the City of Man never will be and never can be.

I respect Morgenthau to a certain extent, because he avoided the pitfall of thinking that realism necessarily involves cynicism, brutality and use of force.   He left the Johnson administration for opposing U.S. intervention in Vietnam because he saw the harm it would do to the United States. 

I myself think that if the U.S. government during the past 20 years had followed international law and our own law, our power and prestige would be greater than they are.

Today the Roman Catholic Church and many mainline Protestant churches preach a “just war theory,” which is rooted in Augustine’s ideas.

It rejects Morgenthau’s realism but does not insist on obeying Jesus’s command to “resist not evil” or “love your enemies.”

“Just war theory” says that war can be legitimate, but only if declared by a legitimate authority, fought in a just cause for a good motive, after all possibilities of peace have been exhausted.

The thing to remember about original sin is that it is a theological doctrine, not a generalization about human nature or human behavior.   The doctrine says that people who behave badly, but feel guilty about their behavior, are closer to God than people who behave well, but are pleased with themselves.  It is not a guide to what criminal law or foreign policy should be.

Images via DaveSinNM; Wikipedia; GospelChurchMission.

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3 Responses to “Use and abuse of the doctrine of original sin”

  1. Fred (Au Natural) Says:

    Side note: IIRC, Roman soldiers of the time were not issued water to drink. Instead they were given a vinegar solution which would kill off most of the harmful bacteria. Also contained some vitamin C Can’t have your legion dying from dysentery or scurvy.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. philebersole Says:

    Yes, as a boy, I thought the Roman soldier gave Jesus vinegar as an act of cruelty and mockery. I now understand it was an act of kindness.

    Liked by 2 people

  3. fgsjr2015 Says:

    As believer in Christ’s unmistakable miracles, I like to think of Jesus as having occasionally enjoyed a belly-shaking laugh over a good, albeit clean, joke with his disciples, rather than always being the stoically serious type of savior.

    I find even greater hope in a creator who has a great sense of humor rather than foremost a fire-and-brimstone bad temper.

    I sometimes wonder how many potential Christians have felt repelled from the faith altogether due to the vocally-political and angry-God-condemnation brand of the religion, perhaps which more resembles the God of the Jehovah’s Witness faith, Quran and Torah.

    Our collective human need for retributive ‘justice’—regardless of Christ (and great spiritual leaders) having emphasized unconditional forgiveness—may be intrinsically linked to the same unfortunate morally-flawed aspect of humankind that enables the most horrible acts of violent cruelty to readily occur on this planet.

    Liked by 1 person

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