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Bearing Adam’s iniquity

Is original sin unjust?

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The doctrine of original sin causes some to bristle. Brent A. from Canada asked how it squares with the moral principle of individual responsibility spelled out in Ezekiel 18. Keaton Halley of CMI–US offers some thoughts on the subject below, and defends original sin as biblically faithful and morally just.

Good morning!

Forgive me if my following question has been addressed elsewhere but I have spent quite a bit of time researching this on your site as well as other sources but have not found this topic addressed specifically. My question is as follows:

Ezekiel 18:20 states: “The soul who sins is the one who will die. A son will not bear the iniquity of his father, and a father will not bear the iniquity of his son. The righteousness of the righteous man will fall upon him, and the wickedness of the wicked man will fall upon him.”

Given this, why are we born with a sinful nature just because Adam and Eve sinned? Although Adam is our original father, should our souls not be free from their sin?

I am a long-time subscriber to your magazine and website and would like to thank you for all that you and your staff continue to do in providing truth in an understandable way for the masses. God bless and stay safe!

Hi Brent,

Since Ezekiel 18:20 prompted your question, let’s first consider the context of that verse and its implications, and then address your broader question about original sin.

The whole of Ezekiel 18 is God’s response to an incorrect viewpoint being espoused by many Israelites in Ezekiel’s time—by the generation that experienced the Babylonian exile. Verse 2 says they were repeating this proverb: “The fathers have eaten sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge”. The gist of this proverb is the claim that one generation sins, but the next generation experiences the negative consequences, despite the fact that they did not participate in those sins. The people were apparently applying this to themselves since they were facing national disaster, and saying that God was bringing judgment upon them for the sins of their ancestors. But they were implying that God was acting unjustly (vv. 25, 29) by punishing them for the crimes of others. So, God set them straight and said that He judges people on the basis of their individual righteousness and wickedness, regardless of what their fathers did. He further explained that people are not fated to a particular destiny based even on their prior behaviour, but can redirect their lives (vv. 21–28). If a formerly righteous person turns to evil, judgment awaits. And if a formerly evil person turns to righteousness, forgiveness can be extended and judgment avoided.

So God was defending His own goodness by explaining that He does take individual righteousness into account. It is not the case that anyone ultimately gets a raw deal from God, being judged harshly despite their innocence. This implies that, if any were experiencing God’s judgment on them individually, they did, in fact, deserve it. They were not as innocent as they thought, and needed to repent of their own sins instead of blaming others for their problems. Also, God desired their repentance, since He takes no pleasure in destroying the wicked, but wants to grant life (vv. 23, 32).

However, we need to be careful here not to draw more from this passage than is warranted. Like many of the proverbs, Ezekiel 18 seems to spell out a normative pattern rather than an absolute promise. Or, at the very least, the passage is qualified by the context of the misunderstanding that the people had. It would be imbalanced to use Ezekiel 18 to say that innocent people never suffer, or that the sins of prior generations never result in judgment that affects later generations. It would likewise be incorrect to say that God only ever judges individuals and never engages in corporate judgment. These claims are patently false, contradicted by a multitude of biblical passages.

For example, in Ezekiel 21, God promised to bring judgment on Jerusalem and “the land of Israel” (vv. 2–3) via “the sword of the king of Babylon” (v. 19). In this judgment, God said He would “cut off from you both righteous and wicked” (vv. 3–4). Clearly the righteous suffered despite their innocence, so we must not infer from Ezekiel 18 that such a scenario is impossible.

Also, regarding innocent suffering, the book of Job makes clear that Job’s affliction was not a result of his own sin. Jesus made a similar point on several occasions—that we cannot necessarily infer anything about an individual’s sin from the severity of harm or suffering they have experienced (Luke 13:1–5; John 9:1–3).

Regarding God’s judgments that impact posterity, consider how God told David that his son would die as a result of his adultery with Bathsheba and murder of her husband (2 Samuel 12:14). Similarly, because of Solomon’s sins, God tore most of the kingdom away in the next generation (1 Kings 11:9–13).1 I suspect I could find dozens of additional examples. To me, this suggests there is nothing wrong with the ‘sour grapes’ proverb in itself, as long as one applies it narrowly to say that children undeniably do sometimes suffer because of their parents’ sins, and that this is an uncomfortable and undesirable circumstance (compare how the same proverb is treated in Jeremiah 31:27–30). But one must not apply the proverb as a mechanism for blame shifting, or denying one’s own actual guilt, or accusing God of injustice.

commons.wikimedia.org, Charles FosterAdam-and-Eve-are-driven-out-of-Eden

Regarding collective judgment, the punishment of Achan was arguably an example of this. His whole family and even his animals were stoned because of his sin (Joshua 7:24–25). God clearly brought judgments on various cities and nations as well, due to sins they committed over generations, like the Canaanites (Genesis 15:16; Deuteronomy 18:9–12), Nineveh (entire book of Nahum), and the Israelites themselves (2 Chronicles 36:14–21). Of course, God is not hasty in corporate judgment, as the account of Sodom and Gomorrah shows. God told Abraham He would not destroy Sodom if even ten righteous people could be found there (Genesis 18:32), and He sent an angel to rescue Lot’s family before destroying the city (Genesis 19). Abraham trusted God not to sweep away the righteous with the wicked (Genesis 18:25).

Considering these complexities can help us to avoid knee-jerk objections to the biblical teaching about original sin. Ezekiel 18 is not giving us a moral principle that says people will only experience hardship, suffering, and judgment that results from their own individual sin. The moral math just isn’t that simple. There are various reasons we may experience difficulty besides our own personal sin.

Still, apart from Ezekiel 18, it might seem intuitively unfair specifically for us to inherit original sin from Adam, since we weren’t even around then, and the consequences involve more than mere suffering. So let’s consider the fallout from Adam’s sin, and how we might make a case that these consequences are not an example of injustice.

First, the classical concept of original sin includes two parts—inherited guilt and inherited corruption. The first element says that all of Adam’s offspring are held accountable for his sin.2 The second element says that Adam’s sin twisted human nature, so that all of us born from Adam (save Christ) are inclined to do evil from conception and lack Adam’s pre-Fall ability to refrain from sin.

You have asked specifically about our sinful nature, which I take to be another way to characterize our inherited corruption. But let’s first talk about the guilt of original sin. Is it fair for us to be considered guilty based on what Adam did? I have some sympathy for those who are tempted to recoil at this idea. It does seem counterintuitive on some level. Nevertheless, Scripture clearly teaches that “one trespass led to condemnation for all men” (Romans 5:18) and that “in Adam all die” (1 Corinthians 15:22). Though there are debates about the precise meaning of many specific phrases in these chapters, it seems clear to me that they teach that all people are condemned and judged because of some kind of solidarity we have with Adam, the first man. Our guilt and judgment arise from our association with him and his particular act of sin.

Since this is what Scripture indicates, it must not be a violation of justice that we are condemned as a result of that “one trespass”. So, I suspect that many of us have a view of human beings that overemphasizes our autonomy and our individualism. Part of what it means to be human is to belong to the whole group, to be Adam’s offspring. Scripture seems to treat Adam as one who—though he was himself a real historical individual—represented or encompassed all other people who would come from him.

Even in accepted systems of justice today, we can be held accountable for the actions of people who represent us. If our governmental leaders declare war and commit atrocities, then we as a nation are collectively responsible. Some object that the situation with Adam is not a parallel. None of us voted for Adam, it’s true. But defenders of inherited guilt have responded that God designated Adam to be our representative, and He would be in a position to know who fairly represents us. So perhaps this is actually less objectionable than being represented by leaders who we elected. That response seems reasonable to me.

More could be said in defense of inherited guilt, but hopefully these considerations show that it is not obviously unjust.

The situation is similar with inherited corruption. The Bible is clear that “by the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners” (Romans 5:19). Before we are born again, we cannot help but sin because this flows out of our unregenerated hearts. We “were by nature children of wrath” (Ephesians 2:3). So we are not blank slates like Pelagius said. Even our experience confirms this, because children don’t have to be taught to do evil. This comes naturally.

So, again, is it unfair that we begin our lives incapable of refraining from sin? I don’t see that it is. Our union with Adam explains why we are in the mess we are in. God appointed Adam as the head of the human race, and so we collectively did have the choice to refrain from sin, even if we were not given this ability individually. This was all a part of God’s plan, as Paul says in Romans 11:32: “For God has consigned all to disobedience, that he may have mercy on all.”

Another thing to note is that we are saved on the basis of our union with Christ, and that this is contrasted in Romans 5 and 1 Corinthians 15 to our union with Adam. If one rejects the idea that we could be condemned and corrupted on the basis of being “in Adam”, by what logic can one accept that we are forgiven and righteous on the basis of being “in Christ”? The Bible seems to declare that both are realities that do not violate God’s sense of justice.

For more on these topics, you might like to read the following:

A book that also touches on these issues is The Genesis Account, available from our webstore.

I hope these thoughts are helpful to you. I’m no expert on these issues, but I’m sure you could research further by consulting commentaries and books on systematic theology, or even volumes dedicated wholly to the subject of original sin. Many have asked these same questions before you, and many others throughout church history have attempted to answer. So there is ample opportunity to go deeper if you so desire.

Keaton Halley

Published: 22 February 2024

References and notes

  1. Note that the proximate cause of the secession of the northern tribes was Rehoboam’s foolish adherence to bad counsel (1 Kings 12:1–20). So Rehoboam was himself guilty and could not pass the blame to his father. Yet, even Rehoboam’s refusal to listen to wise counsel “was a turn of affairs brought about by the Lord that He might fulfill His word” (v. 15). Return to text.
  2. There are also some proponents of original sin who would take a ‘mediate’ view of inherited guilt—maintaining that we are guilty on account of our sinful nature that we inherited from Adam, not guilty of Adam’s act of disobedience itself. Return to text.

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