Original sin

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Devil's in the details
(According to St. Thomas Aquinas) the soul is not transmitted with the semen, but is created afresh with each man. There is, it is true, a difficulty: when a man is born out of wedlock, this seems to make God an accomplice in adultery. This objection, however, is only specious. (There is a grave objection, which troubled Saint Augustine, and that is as to the transmission of original sin. It is the soul that sins, and if the soul is not transmitted, but created afresh, how can it inherit the sin of Adam? This is not discussed.)
Bertrand Russell, A History of Western Philosophy (1945), Chapter XIII: Saint Thomas Aquinas
The son shall not bear the sins of the father.
Ezekiel 18:20

Original sin is the cynical doctrine that humanity is cursed because Adam and Eve listened to a snake and not God in the Garden of Eden, and ate of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. The event of expulsion from paradise that soon followed is called the Fall of Man.

Doctrine differs between different Christian sects, but in general, Fundamentalist and Evangelical sects believe that without baptism to cleanse the soul of original sin, a person cannot go to heaven. This has led to moral debate as to whether a just god would allow an unbaptized infant to be condemned to hell for having the arrogance and temerity to die without being baptized.

The conspiracy[edit]

According to the Bible, in reference to the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, God had told Adam and Eve:

And the LORD God commanded the man, saying, Of every tree of the garden thou mayest freely eat: But of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, thou shalt not eat of it: for in the day that thou eatest thereof thou shalt surely die.

Genesis 2:16-17

But the serpent (who may or may not have been Satan in disguise) opined with exegetical cunning:

Ye shall not surely die: For God doth know that in the day ye eat thereof, then your eyes shall be opened, and ye shall be as gods, knowing good and evil.

Genesis 3:4-5

Naturally enough, they ate the fruit that one hopes was the tastiest one in history. Surprisingly, the serpent had actually told the truth — because they did not die "in the day" that they ate. Unless one calls on the day-age ambiguity (but that might militate against Young-Earth creationism…). As predicted, Eve and Adam did obtain knowledge of good and evil. It is unknown how long they resisted temptation, but it must have been less than 130 years, because Adam was 130 years old when his son Seth was begotten - Genesis 5:3.

While on the subject of trees in Genesis, some Christian sects — and arguably some biblical verses — maintain that there was a second tree in the garden: The Tree of Life. And that eating of this tree would have provided immortality.[1] One is left to wonder what would have happened if the original couple had first eaten of the tree of life. Or indeed, why it was not the first thing they ate.

The divine cursing[edit]

In a fit of spite at being found out, God became really upset and cursed everything and everyone involved in the whole conspiracy, plus everything and anyone not involved for good measure.

The snake[edit]

A depiction of the sin by Michelangelo. No fig leaves for these guys.

First he cursed all the world's snakes — which was perhaps a bit unfair as the snake was only telling the truth.[note 1]

Genesis 3:14-15

Because you have done this, Cursed are you above all the livestock and all the wild animals! You will crawl on your belly and you will eat dust all the days of your life." And I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and hers; he will crush your head, and you will strike his heel.

It is only in Christian tradition that the snake was actually Satan, it is not stated in the bible. "Satan" in Jewish tradition refers to interchangeable servants of God empowered to test the faith of mortals; the idea of a singular figure who is God's enemy comes from the New Testament. Likewise Medieval Jewish tradition claims the serpent was Lilith, Adam's first wife, coming back to mess with them polymorphed shape-shifted into such animal.

The woman[edit]

Then he cursed all of the world's future unborn women and made them subordinate to men. Religious men everywhere salivated. He also condemned women to immense suffering and pain during childbirth.

Genesis 3:16

To the woman he said, “I will greatly increase your pains in childbearing; with pain you will give birth to children. Your desire will be for your husband, and he will rule over you.”


In some senses Adam (who, unlike "the woman", has a name) got off relatively easy. Unlike the woman and the serpent, he received no permanent biological punishment; instead God cursed the ground itself and sentenced Adam to work it for his food instead of being provided for by the garden:

The ground[edit]

Genesis 3:17-19

To Adam he said, “Because you listened to your wife and ate from the tree about which I commanded you, ‘You must not eat of it,’ “Cursed is the ground because of you; through painful toil you will eat of it all the days of your life. It will produce thorns and thistles for you, and you will eat the plants of the field. By the sweat of your brow you will eat your food until you return to the ground, since from it you were taken; for dust you are and to dust you will return.”

Unknown animal[edit]

After expelling them from Eden, God made Adam and the woman (who is now finally given a name, Eve) "skins" to wear, implying that at least one animal was killed for its pelt to clothe Adam and Eve. This seems especially unjust, considering this animal was likely not involved at all in the forbidden fruit debacle.

Genesis 3:21

Unto Adam also and to his wife did the LORD God make coats of skins, and clothed them.


Original sin has been used as a reason to restrict women's rights, especially on the issue of sex—and cruelly, as an excuse a reason to deny them painkillers during childbirth. It has also (at least partially) been a catalyst for the fundamentalist anti-science movement, as it seems the 'moral' of this story is "knowledge is bad; never question what you're told to do by God (or people and/or books representing him Him)".

Denying that it seems to carry its own consequences (for the conservative Christian that is): Christianity needs this story to promote its whole guilt trip in the New Testament. After all, if there was no original sin, it's just something that God programmed into man from the very beginning. And if this is the case, what exactly is Jesus dying on the cross for again? On top of this, if the validity of the concept and origin of original sin is questionable, it tends to cast serious doubt on the rest of the Bible, and from here things just go completely downhill. After all, if this story, the very first story in the Bible, is revealed to be absolute bull, it gets one to think "Hmm, I wonder what other stories in the Bible are also a load of crap." Liberal Christians generally have no problem admitting this.

Best not to think about it too much.

Symbolism of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil[edit]

Many ancient or "traditional" cultures have a moment in an adult's life where he or she escapes the innocence of childhood and becomes an adult. Often, this is at the time of a first kill, the onset of menses, or after a grueling quest to understand one's personal identity. In these cultures, the mythology often reflects this move from innocence to adulthood.

The Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, and the very "fall of mankind" itself can be understood mythologically as the moment when the culture at large went from an animal-like existence, where moral reasoning is impossible because we were acting on instinct alone, to a point where there is real morality — and therefore consequences. We have stopped being animals, and become a thinking civilization with moral autonomy — we are able to reflect upon our own behaviors and decide what is good and bad, right and wrong. We will necessarily "die", not because God cursed us with death, but because we became aware of it. The problem with this of course is that any human civilization capable of making up a story about evil and good would probably already be capable of this moral autonomy, seeing as they are familiar with the concept of morality that is part of the story.

The Garden of Eden can also be seen, metaphorically, as a time when we lived as children, safe in our ignorance of the troubles of life and death. We did what our parents asked, with only the slightest disobedience grounded in limits, not thought or awareness. When one first questions one's parents' rules and asks for the right to make one's own choices and decisions, one becomes an adult, but at the cost of others caring for one… at the cost of one's innocence… at the cost of Eden.

The sad thing is, the Bible (or at least the Garden of Eden episode) could become a best-selling fantasy story about how children lose their innocence and begin maturing as adults. If only so many people didn't take it so literally.

One could also see the Genesis Fall (and the Tower of Babel story) as an authoritarian rewrite of the more humanistic Greek story of the Titan Prometheus, who defied the will of Zeus to bring the secret of fire (i.e. the gift of knowledge) to humans, and was punished cruelly (chained to a rock and having an eagle eating his liver every day, as such organ regenerated every night, in theory forever but in practice until such raptor was killed by Heracles, AKA Hercules) for doing so: in each account powerful deities react to challenges to their monopoly on power and inflict ongoing penalties for breaching strictures on censored forbidden knowledge.[2] Moral: do as you're told, or else…[note 2]

Absurdities and contradictions[edit]

Note that this list applies to common Christian beliefs. Many of these ideas were alien to the Jewish writers of Genesis.

  • Humans are punished for sins committed before they were even born, even if God already knew them (Jeremiah 1:5), meaning -in some branches of Christianism at least as Protestantism- they're condemned by default to Hell[3] despite all the good works they will do in life.
  • Related to the above, in Genesis 3:19 the punishment doled out to Adam and Eve does not mention at all Heaven and Hell or even any kind of afterlife for that matter too. Nor the Serpent is addressed as Satan/the Devil, and even God's retribution to it is relatively slight next to what Adam and Eve got after both by actions of the former corrupted the entire creation, at least according to some literalists.
  • It was the sin that made Adam and Eve aware of good and evil, so they couldn't know that what they were doing was a good or evil act until they had done it. (Why didn't God want them to know anyway? And didn't he already know they were going to disobey his instructions? What kind of sin is this? see also: Judas' betrayal)
  • There's an extremely dangerous and unprotected tree in "paradise", that an omnipotent, omniscient, perfectly loving deity doesn't want touched, but this omnipotent, omniscient, perfectly loving deity also created the beings that would touch the aforementioned tree. Nor it seems to be another B-plan to fix up the mess caused by eating its fruit than sending Jesus down much later.
  • The real reason for banishing them from the Garden wasn't even so much that they sinned or that they had knowledge of good and evil. It was actually out of the fear that they might find and eat the fruit of another dangerous tree: the Tree of Life and become immortal like God. So what's the real message? God does not like to share power, and is quite possibly afraid of man's potential. This seems to be a recurring theme in many Old Testament stories (see also: Tower of Babel).
  • Actually, Genesis 3:20 suggests that the mortality of mankind was a result of original sin, so eating from the Tree of Life should have made no difference to an already immortal being.
  • Since human existence in the Garden of Eden before original sin was therefore infinite, even a very small chance of Adam or Eve eating from the forbidden tree by accident would have become increasingly more likely over time. Original sin was essentially a foregone conclusion after God creatsupplied the tree, with 1 Peter 1:20 suggesting Jesus' crucifixion was planned before everything was created, ergo God knew both would mess up things beforehand.
  • Said trees do not seem to have any reason for existing in the first place. Other than being a bad plot device, they do not seem to serve any purpose to either God, the garden at large, or the animals in it.
  • The really cool way that Eve reacted to the talking snake. Your average person would have some problems with a talking snake but Eve — not only is unfazed but is actually convinced by it.
  • After committing the original sin, Adam and Eve hid from the sight of the Lord. Neither this nor the presence of the snake/Satan in the Garden was noticed by him. Apparently God isn't omnipresent and he can't see everything[4]
    Genesis 3:8
    And they heard the voice of the LORD God walking in the garden in the cool of the day: and Adam and his wife hid themselves from the presence of the LORD God amongst the trees of the garden.
  • Original sin is directly contradicted by the Bible in the Book of Ezekiel:
    Ezekiel 18:20
    The soul that sinneth, it shall die. The son shall not bear the iniquity of the father, neither shall the father bear the iniquity of the son: the righteousness of the righteous shall be upon him, and the wickedness of the wicked shall be upon him.
  • Alternatively, some sin seems to have only limited inheritability:
    [...] I the LORD thy God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generation of them that hate me [...] - Exodus 20:5
  • An omnipotent, omniscient, perfectly loving deity cursed Eve by making her bear children with the taint of original sin. The same omnipotent, omniscient, perfectly loving deity could have made Eve childless and created new human beings without the curse of original sin. Humanity's curse of original sin was unnecessary.
  • Why would Eve commit this sin or any other if she was created with a perfect sinless nature? Because she sinned it must have been part of her nature, which God created, so it is at least partly his fault. The free-will defense doesn't work because God is a free agent that never sins because it is against his nature, so free will alone is not a sufficient condition for sinning. Eve wouldn't have sinned unless she was created with a sinful nature, and she wouldn't acquire a sinful nature because she wouldn't have sinned in the first place. No matter how you square it, God is partly to blame here for the original sin. This should logically also apply to Satan, who must not have rebelled against God solely because he had the "free will" to do so but must have done so because of his sinful nature. Alternatively, God can be blamed for having a pair of creations with the naivety of a child as can be deduced from the above points unless the snake got a lucky roll on its Diplomacy check.
  • Interestingly enough, despite the critical importance of the mess caused by Adam, Eve, and the snake, they're ignored for the rest of the Old Testament with Adam getting just a couple of mentions there, none of them about what happened in the Garden, and Eve and the snake being forgotten, and the same can be said of the incident with the fruit, the two trees, and the Garden of Eden that is seldom mentioned, never in the context of this story.
  • This doctrine, combined with the Crucifixion, means that the central tenet of Christianity amounts to: God demanded a human sacrifice to allow himself to forgive us for something we didn't do.
  • Humans can inherit some things from parent to child - sin (allegedly), physical features, or slave status, for example. Humans don't inherit other predilections from parent to child - curiosity, morality or reasoning, for example. Cultural inheritance and idea-inculcation operate differently from genetics - they develop outside the womb. If humans inherit some sort of human nature, that might count as inherent rather than as inherited.

See also[edit]

Icon fun.svg For those of you in the mood, RationalWiki has a fun article about Original sin.

External links[edit]

"The Curse". EvoWiki. 


  1. To be fair, the standard against serpents has been upheld to the same level to whatever standard being held against humanity, whether that's the right thing to do or not.
  2. It's also interesting to note how in some retellings of Prometheus' myth, Zeus relented and forgave him after Heracles (at Athena's behest in some versions) had killed that eagle, but ordering such Titan to wear a ring around the neck as a reminder of his punishment


  1. Catholicism — immortality and the tree of life
  2. Tennant, F. R. (2012). "2: The ethnological origin and relations of the fall-story". The Sources of the Doctrines of the Fall and Original Sin (reprint ed.). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. p. 52. ISBN 9780521236331. Retrieved 2017-05-06. "Allowing for the difference between the Hebrew conception of God's nature and disposition towards man and that of Greek thought […], there is a great similarity between the teaching of the legend of Prometheus and that of the acquisition of knowledge through the eating of the forbidden fruit. Both contain the idea that the ills of human life are a punishment for man's overstepping the limits of the sphere assigned to him: both regard human knowledge and culture as something to be wrenched from a deity jealous of human encroachments. and whose acquisition was mediated by a superhuman being: both imply that human inventiveness or desire for material advancement can scarcely be distinguished from arrogant independence or defiance, and see in [hubris] the primal sin [...]." 
  3. Or non-existence if you're an annihilationist and interpret John 3:16 and other verses as Romans 6:23 that way.
  4. Skeptics' Annotated Bible, Genesis 3:8. Unless this was a scheme prepared by him to expel both fromn the Garden, with the punishment of the snake coming as a bonus.