Original Sin at the BBC
6 September 2005
The BBC website recently ran an article entitled ‘Problems with Original Sin’. This article forms part of a ‘magazine’ section of the site, on the subject of ‘Religion & Ethics’.
The anonymous article is written as if it were a statement of fact, but it contains a number of factual errors, and much in the way of personal opinion, dressed up as fact. Surprisingly for an article on such a central theological theme, it contains quotes from only two theologians, both of whom (Bishop J.S. Spong and Bishop R. Holloway) are known to take a more extreme position on biblical inspiration than almost any other theologian one could name. In an email to one of our readers, a BBC spokesperson defends the article as being within ‘the mainstream view of scientists’, while quoting two theologians who are well outside the mainstream view of theologians.
As is usual on this site, I would like to comment on the BBC’s article section by section.
The unanswered question
On the face of it, original sin doesn’t answer the question as to how evil got into the world; instead it leaves other questions to be answered. As one writer puts it:
“Why is there original sin? Because Adam sinned? Then why did Adam sin? If it was because of the serpent, why did the serpent sin? If the serpent is supposed to have been a fallen angel, why did the angel sin? And so on.”
In fact, the account of Adam’s Fall in Genesis 3 is a very clear answer to the question of how sin started. A plain reading of Genesis 3 also answers the question ‘why?’
This ‘one writer’ quoted above, but not referenced, is Charles Hefling, writing in the Anglican Theological Review.1
And there is a second, but related, question. If evil did not exist before Adam sinned, how could Adam know that what he was about to do was evil - how was he to know that it was wrong to disobey God?
This second question is actually two entirely separate questions. Knowledge of evil is not required for Adam to know that he was disobeying. Adam would not have had knowledge of evil before he sinned. However, he had a very clear idea of what it meant to disobey God. God gave Adam and Eve a rule to live by—the One Commandment, if you like.
Then the LORD God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to tend and keep it. And the LORD God commanded the man, saying, ‘Of every tree of the garden you may freely eat; but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die.’
What he was not allowed to do. ‘But of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat’. God also told Adam exactly what the tree was for, so that it was clear that knowing evil was to be synonymous with breaking this commandment.
Adam had a completely satisfactory definition of what sin was—it was disobeying God’s commandment. He did not, therefore, need to know any more about sin to know that it was wrong, any more than you need to have a full knowledge of what happens when you kill someone to know that murder is wrong.
To describe something as unfair or unethical is a value judgment, yet the BBC’s author does not make it clear against which criteria he is judging the concept of Original Sin to be unfair. His complaint of unfairness demonstrates his lack of belief in an Almighty God. It is God who determines what is fair and what is unfair.
Before Adam’s sin, the world was perfect. After Adam’s sin, the world was no longer perfect. Thus, it is the natural order of things for people to be imperfect and sinful. Nevertheless, we are responsible for our own actions. The author will not be able to tell us that he has never done anything wrong, so his complaint of unfairness is unjustified and irrelevant.
This is a common misunderstanding of the doctrine of Original Sin, which could have been avoided had the author consulted some evangelical theologians. In 1 Timothy 2:14, we read: ‘Adam was not deceived, but the woman being deceived, fell into transgression.’ At first sight, this may seem hard on Eve. In fact it is not—it is actually hard on Adam. The verse acknowledges a lower level of responsibility for Eve than for Adam. Eve was not the representative of humanity—she was not a representative for womankind, for example. She was created from out of Adam’s side. It could be said that all Eve’s genetic material came from Adam. Therefore, Eve was not responsible for anyone else’s sin, other than her own, and her sin was not excusable, but certainly understandable, because she was deceived by the serpent. Adam, on the other hand, was the representative of the entire human race—men and women—because all are descended from him. The verse in 1 Timothy makes it clear that Adam sinned, even though he was not deceived. In Genesis 3:6, we read: ‘She also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate it’ (NIV). All the time that Eve was in conversation with the serpent, Adam stood right there by her side, listening to everything being said2—and he wasn’t fooled one bit! Despite this, he still decided to disobey God. Because he was our representative, this ‘original sin’ was imputed to all of us.
Neither the Bible, nor the doctrine of original sin derived from it, are ‘responsible for centuries of Christian bias against women’. There has been no Christian bias against women, but rather a cultural bias against women, sometimes caused by the sort of misreading of Scripture perpetrated by the author of the BBC article. And history shows that overall, women fared dramatically better in Christian cultures than elsewhere. The many examples of Jesus’ attitude to women speak for themselves.
Whether Augustine had a problem with human sexual love is irrelevant to the discussion. He was not the inventor of the doctrine of Original Sin. In passing, we can note that it is also our acceptance of the truth of Genesis that causes us to label all human sexual activity outside of the marriage of one man and one woman to be sinful. However, the Bible celebrates the joy of sexual relations within a biblical marriage partnership.
This is not pessimism—it is realism. The doctrine of Original Sin suggests that people are completely affected and infected by sin. This does not mean that they are as bad as they can be, nor does it fail to recognize the many good things done by those who have no Christian faith. But if we introduce one tiny drop of raw sewage into a huge tank of drinking water, the whole tankful is unfit to drink.
Because we recognise that there is no way we can make ourselves perfect, there is no pessimism in recognising our need of God’s help. The BBC author’s concern is the old chestnut of self-betterment—the idea that we can get ourselves right with God by what we do for ourselves. I know I can do nothing to save myself, but am thankful for God’s forgiveness, when I repented and put my trust in Jesus as my Saviour.
Science shows no such thing. In an email to one of our supporters, David Kremer of the BBC said ‘The word (sic) “science shows” is used here as a metaphor for “the mainstream view of scientists is that”’. These phrases obviously do not mean the same thing. Kremer fails to differentiate between experimental science, which gives reproducible results in the present, and historical science, which attempts to make educated inferences about what may have happened once in an unseen past.
The BBC continually refuses to accept that neo-Darwinian views are not the only views, and deliberately overlooks the fact that a substantial minority of scientists accept the Genesis account of creation. And truth in science has never been determined by majority opinion.
Answers in Genesis does not accept that ‘Adam and Eve and the Garden of Eden are myths and not historical figures.’ We accept them as historical truths, as the Lord Jesus and the New Testament writers clearly did. In doing so, we gain an understanding of the origin of sin and its inheritance, upon which the whole Gospel depends.
Most modern theologians don’t think this a good reason to abandon the doctrine of the fall. They believe that although the story is not historically true, it does contain important truths about the state of humanity.
Evolution, on the other hand, suggests that life in the world is steadily changing and becoming more diverse. Scientists do not tend to think of this as a moral good or evil, but in a sense evolution sees life on earth as moving closer to ‘perfection’ - becoming better adapted to its environment.
This last section is in fact true! Christians need to read it carefully. The doctrine of Original Sin is indeed contradicted by evolution. Evolution does indeed suggest ‘life on earth … moving closer to “perfection”’. This is one more reason for Christians to reject the so-called ‘theory of evolution’, in addition to the many others listed in articles on this website.
Of course, highlighting this was not the intention of the BBC author. He or she assumes that evolution is an absolute fact, against which a biblical doctrine can be judged. We should, however, judge an idea by its compliance or otherwise with the Bible, the word of the Creator Himself.
“The biblical story of the perfect and finished creation from which human beings fell into sin is pre-Darwinian mythology and post-Darwinian nonsense.” Bishop John Shelby Spong, A Call for a New Reformation, 1998
As Spong does not believe in God as sovereign, or in the Incarnation, Virginal Conception, the Resurrection or Atonement, he can hardly be described as a ‘Christian’ voice. For the BBC to pick such an extremist demonstrates their bias. See ‘Spong is Wrong’3.
A more modern idea is to give an ethical spin to the evolutionary idea and suggest that humanity should not be concerned about a past fall from grace, but concentrate on becoming more ethical beings and thus bringing about a better world.
Once again, we observe a theology that suggests we try to get ourselves right with God. Such a theology flies in the face of reality. I freely admit the impossibility of my ever making myself perfect. The realism of the Bible is that a ‘better world’ is only achieved through faith in Jesus.
Bishop Richard Holloway has described the idea that unbaptised babies go to hell as “one of the most unsympathetic of the Christian doctrines,” and not greatly improved by the teaching that there is a special “limbo” for unbaptised babies on the outskirts of the inferno.
This point seems to be a ‘red herring’, completely out of place with the rest of the article. Holloway also represents a far-from-mainstream, extreme liberal theological view. He has written, ‘The use of God in moral debate is so problematic as to be almost worthless.’4 His emasculated god bears little or no resemblance to the God of the Bible. There is no mention in the Bible of ‘limbo’, nor is there an explicit statement of the destination of babies who die, though we can have confidence because of Abraham’s rhetorical question: ‘Shall not the Judge of all the earth do right?’ (Genesis 18:25).
The BBC author has not attempted to prove any of these ‘axioms’. Instead, the BBC has sought to peddle its usual biased, liberal agenda. On closer analysis, we can reject all the BBC author’s assumptions, and hold to the truth, logic, reasonableness and beauty of the biblical doctrine, which serves to point us towards the Saviour. He alone can absolve us of our original, and all of our, sin.
- Hefling, C., A View from the Stern: James Alison’s theology (so Far), Anglican Theological Review, Fall 1999; <www.findarticles.com/p/articles/mi_qa3818/is_199910/ai_n8863932/
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- It should be noted that some commentators do not interpret that the Bible implies that Adam was actually present, while the serpent was tempting Eve. Return to text.
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- Introduction to Holloway, R., Godless Morality, Canongate, 2004. Return to text.