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#549 Original Sin

October 22, 2017

Salaam Dr. Craig. A Muslim reader here. Your public and private work in natural theology has, I think, saved a generation of believers from superstition and error. I thank you sincerely for your sacrifice and labor. My question regards the confusing connection between original sin and Christ's sacrifice.

The doctrine of original sin and its relationship to Christ's sacrifice, to the non-Christian, appears to undermine both human freedom and God's justice. Add to it the supposed fact that God ‘condescended’ to sacrifice himself as Christ (redemption) for our lost, sinful, and fallen selves, and the situation only gets more confusing.

For God made us ‘born sinners’ from the start, yet He was kind enough to save man from his own inescapable depravity in the end? What sense does this make? If I break a car and then repair it, do I deserve praise? Where is the glory in this cosmic tale of divine break and fix? God doles out mercy when and where He wills, but to condemn the human race collectively (original sin) and then swoop in later to save the human race is not glorious, its illogical. Christ's redemption, in light of the doctrine of original sin, makes God's salvific plan look like an exercise in self-congratulation.

Note 1: You may reply that Adam & Eve, through their own free will, caused our collective damnation (the fall), not God, but this still does not answer the ethical problem of my being condemned on behalf of another. Viz. my being blamed for something which happened before I was born. And my eternal need to be saved thereafter.

Note 2: Perhaps the force of my objection can be softened if the concept of original sin is defined in a lightweight ‘human weakness’ type of way. But I take it most Christians subscribe to the orthodox Pauline/Augustinian doctrine of original sin as total depravity.


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Dr. craig’s response


Thanks for your question, Omar; I always enjoy dialoguing with our Muslim readers!

Let me begin by referring you to my Defenders (series 2) lectures on the Doctrine of Man, part 10: Man as Sinner, where I treat the doctrine of original sin. As I explain there, the doctrine that the sin of Adam is imputed to all men is far from universally held among Christians and so is not essential to Christianity. The doctrine is also weakly attested biblically, so that personally I remain quite open-minded about it. In short, you don’t have to accept this doctrine in order to become a Christian, so you shouldn’t let it be an obstacle for you.

Your first question about the doctrine is whether it “makes sense.” The problem here, Omar, is that your formulation of the doctrine seems confused—hence, the appearance that it doesn’t make sense. The doctrine does not hold that “God made us ‘born sinners’ from the start.” According to the doctrine man was initially created in a state of innocence and in fellowship with God. But by freely disobeying God, man fell into sin. The sin of the first man Adam was imputed or reckoned to the account of every human being descended from Adam. So your illustration of someone’s breaking a car and then repairing it is inaccurate because God doesn’t break the car. Adam, as it were, broke the new car God gave him, and we inherit the old junker until God graciously repairs it (or better, gives us a brand new car). The glory in this story is that even though we deserve nothing but condemnation before a holy God for our evil acts, God in His mercy rescues us through Christ, forgives us, and restores us to fellowship with Himself.

How is this doctrine, correctly characterized, “illogical”? In your Note 1 you come to the heart of the objection: “the ethical problem of my being condemned on behalf of another.” As I show in my Defenders lectures on the Atonement, the condemnation of one person for the wrong-doing and crimes of another is an established part of Western systems of justice. It’s called vicarious liability. An employer, for example, can be held vicariously liable for the misdeeds of his employee committed in his role as employee and then be punished for them. It should be emphasized that the employer is not being held liable for other wrongs, such as negligence or failure to supervise the employee. No, he may be entirely innocent and blameless, but the liability or guilt of the employee is imputed to him. So your objection is not peculiarly theological; the whole Western system of justice stands against it.

How can we make sense of Adam’s sin being imputed to us? Two things suffice, I think: (1) As the federal head of the human race, Adam stands before God as our representative and so acts on our behalf. His misdeed was our misdeed because he acted as our proxy before God. (2) Lest anyone complain that Adam was a bad representative, we can say that God via His middle knowledge knew that, had we been in Adam’s place, we would have done the same thing. So Adam does not fail to represent us accurately before God and so serves as an apt representative on our behalf.

So is the doctrine of original sin true? I don’t know! But I think it is defensible against the sort of objection you raise.

Finally, as you observe in Note 2, one can avoid the imputation of Adam’s sin to his posterity by adopting a weaker doctrine of original sin which doesn’t involve imputation. For example, in all the Eastern Orthodox confessions, such as Greek, Russian, and Syrian Orthodox churches, original sin is taken to be merely a sort of corruption introduced into the human race by Adam for which we are not culpable. Many Protestants, of course, will also deny the imputation of Adam’s sin. So your objection just shouldn’t be a stumbling block for you, since biblically faithful believers may adopt any of a variety of views on the question of original sin.

- William Lane Craig