"The idea that all people are to be punished because of an act of one, a relatively innocuous act at that, borders on the bizarre and is a living refutation of any belief in a biblical God of justice and impartiality"
So once said a leading Skeptic. Bound up in such objections are others as well, involving the sins of the fathers (link below). But beyond that corrective, what of the original sin issue itself? Are we punished unfairly for the sin of our ancestor?
Before a direct answer is made a caveat is required. Even if the doctrine is such that Adam's guilt is imputed to us (which I will conclude, it is not), it is hardly as though any person would not have enough guilt of their own in the first place. This is like objecting to being sentenced to an extra week in prison for a crime you don't feel you are responsible for, when you have 3,748,983 years to serve for your own crimes.
But since the penalty for any sin is the same (eternal judgment), not even this would matter. Aside from infants and the mentally disabled, none would have any real right or reason to object to being saddled with the guilt of original sin -- and it is doubtful that such people would be made to pay for any sinful act after the same fashion, or that they would not have fallen for the same temptation.
And now, to the text itself which is the central hub of the original sin "wheel":
Romans 5:12-19 Wherefore, as by one man sin entered into the world, and death by sin; and so death passed upon all men, for that all have sinned: (For until the law sin was in the world: but sin is not imputed when there is no law. Nevertheless death reigned from Adam to Moses, even over them that had not sinned after the similitude of Adam's transgression, who is the figure of him that was to come. But not as the offence, so also is the free gift. For if through the offence of one many be dead, much more the grace of God, and the gift by grace, which is by one man, Jesus Christ, hath abounded unto many. And not as it was by one that sinned, so is the gift: for the judgment was by one to condemnation, but the free gift is of many offences unto justification. For if by one man's offence death reigned by one; much more they which receive abundance of grace and of the gift of righteousness shall reign in life by one, Jesus Christ.) Therefore as by the offence of one judgment came upon all men to condemnation; even so by the righteousness of one the free gift came upon all men unto justification of life. For as by one man's disobedience many were made sinners, so by the obedience of one shall many be made righteous.
The highlighted phrases show Paul to be repeating the same idea in different ways -- in good, ancient pedagogical fashion. Now our key question to answer is, What is the exact cause-effect relationship between Adam's sin and our current condition? Are we being "punished" for his sin? If not "punished" then how does it affect us, exactly? And is it "fair" that we are affected thusly?
For quite some time answers to these questions have been wrestled with by believers. On one hand, many have proposed that Adam as a "federal head" and original representative of humanity, rightfully was able to impute his guilt for sin upon us.
On the other end, it has been argued that all Paul means here is that we biologically inherited Adam's tendency to sin, and so we have a propensity to "do" our own. The latter is a rough summary of what has been referred to as the Pelagian heresy.
Before attempting an analysis, some background is in order. As always we must read Paul in light of his position as an ancient writer and a member of an ancient collectivist society. We must not let our Western and modern individualism (which is actually a "mutation" from most of the rest of the historical and modern world) interpret the passage directly; we must "strain" it through the filter of ancient, collectivist thought first.
Several factors of collectivism have serious relevance to interpretation of Paul's words. As Malina and Neyrey note [Portraits of Paul, 156ff]:
- Within such a society, individuals received their identity in relation to their social unit. They were "group-embedded" -- individuals share "a virtual identity with the group as a whole and with its other members."
- As a consequence, abnormality is not seen as the result of such things as an abusive childhood; abnormality is the result of being embedded in an abnormal relationship matrix. All persons are assumed to have "the same experiences and very similar qualities." No man is an island, and no man is his own master.
- The chief group with which one was embedded was family, and beyond that, one's ancestry. Identity rests "ultimately in the etiological ancestor of the extended family". Hence Paul makes what seems much to us of being a Benjamite; hence the stress on Jesus' Davidic ancestry; hence it is important for Judaeans to refer to Abraham as their father (John 8:33, 39).
It may now be seen what relevance this orientation may have to the doctrine of original sin. By Paul's thinking, and by those of his contemporaries who accepted the Genesis account, we are all "embedded" in Adam, the etiological ancestor of humanity. We have (at least) inherited his faults and sins, and even if the "worst case" scenario is right, this is something that it is only we, as individualists, have a problem with.
No one in antiquity would have objected that it was "not fair" that we were being to any extent punished for Adam's sin, or referred to it as "bizarre" or "unjust". Indeed it would have been expected that we would somehow pay for Adam's sin, since whoever was designated etiological ancestor, that is who we reap from, good or bad.
Therefore any objection against original sin is out of tune with the Biblical time. But there does remain the question of how exactly Adam's sin affects us. Most of the highlighted phrases from Rom. 5:12-19 do not actually establish the bones of the cause-effect relationship; in fact it is only verse 12 that offers such a connection:
Wherefore, as by one man sin entered into the world, and death by sin; and so death passed upon all men, for that all have sinned:
This verse is understood to be the keystone for the doctrine of original sin. The primary issue here is in that final phrase -- "for that all have sinned" -- and more narrowly, the prepositional word of the phrase. The "federal head" idea follows from the translation of Augustine, who read it in terms of in whom all sinned, and is often paralleled to the passage in Hebrews that says that Levi paid his tithe through his ancestor Abraham, and justified on the grounds that one man, Christ, also paid for all of those sins.
Other suggested meanings have been for this reason, because, that, and because of the one by whom.
Now before Skeptics ask, "why isn't it clear," let us make the points that any lack of clarity is more likely our fault for losing it, than for Paul or God to have not made it clear; and that the Greek phrase itself admits to many shades of meaning; "lexicographical enquiry comes to the conclusion that the meaning of the phrase may vary a good deal" [Dubarle, The Biblical Doctrine of Original Sin, 149n].
So what is the answer? As we have delved more deeply into the background data, recovering that which we have lost, an answer has come into view which suggests that a more subtle point is in view, and that the "federal head" idea needs fine-tuning, and in a way that happens to render all objections irrelevant.
Henri Blocher, in Original Sin: Illuminating the Riddle, draws upon the findings of Malina that Romans 5 is in a rabbinic style and uses legal terminology [76ff]. From this he concludes that Paul's meaning is that what Adam did was "make possible the imputation, the judicial treatment, of human sins." [emphasis added]
Note how this fits in with what Paul goes on to say:
(For until the law sin was in the world: but sin is not imputed when there is no law. Nevertheless death reigned from Adam to Moses, even over them that had not sinned after the similitude of Adam's transgression, who is the figure of him that was to come.
In other words, Adam's sin, and the resultant punishment of spiritual and eventually physical death, was a pattern-connection that was established and set the legal precedent for death to be inflicted as the penalty for all sins.
A loose parallel may be found in the incidence some years ago of the crime of carjacking. There was no specific definition of, or remedy for, this crime when it first became popular. When it became more popular, it was defined out as a specific crime (where before, prosecutors had to select from and cobble together charges from existing laws) and given a specific punishment.
The analogy breaks down because there was no previous sin with the original sin, but the point to be drawn is that Adam's sin and punishment was an original example as well as a case of original sin. We pay for, and are punished because of, Adam's sin, only in the same sense that present-day carjackers experience their specific punishment because of a precedent set by their criminal forebears, which engendered a more specific legal reaction.
Of course none of this affects such conclusions as are reached in our item on total depravity or in any way suggests that things are any easier for the human race in terms of a judgment basis. It merely means that one popular objection -- itself based on a popular, but not precisely correct, understanding of this passage -- is of no relevance. We are not paying for, and being punished for, Adam's sin, in a way that is unfair to us.