An essential question through the ages has been whether human nature is basically good or basically evil. If it is good, general human progress may be assumed; if it is intrinsically flawed, then the American Founders were right in declaring that nature has to be constrained by justice. Though G. K. Chesterton and others have suggested that original sin is the only empirically demonstrable Christian doctrine, views on what original sin is vary. In this reflective, original, and witty book, Wheaton College English professor Alan Jacobs displays wide learning worn lightly as he examines the views of writers as diverse as Benjamin Franklin and Harriet Beecher Stowe, Jonathan Edwards and C. S. Lewis, and Sigmund Freud and J. R. R. Tolkien.
The concept of original sin predates Christianity, Jacobs points out, citing not only Genesis 3, in which Adam and Eve eat the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil and are expelled from Paradise, but also Psalm 51, which declares that humans are conceived in sin and born in iniquity. “The universality of sin,” Jacobs concludes, “is certainly a Jewish belief.” He explains that the traditions of both Eastern and Western Christianity, though varying in their details, have it that God created human nature intrinsically good, that goodness must entail freedom if it is not to be robotic, and that Adam and Eve freely chose their own will over that of God, thus committing original sin—an alienation from God common to all humanity. All humans participate in original sin, whether it is transmitted from generation to generation through time, or whether the entire human race chooses in one eternal moment to disobey God.
Jacobs efficiently defends Augustine (AD 354–430) against the many attacks against him as the author of original sin, demonstrating that doctrines of original sin similar to Augustine’s preceded him by at least two centuries in both the East and the West. Jacobs quickly dismisses the still widely held belief that original sin was sexual—Adam and Eve practiced free sex in Eden before their eviction. Original sin is the initial assertion of human pride against God. Augustine did maintain that original sin, once it existed, was transmitted sexually through generations, in much the same way that today we understand genetic flaws are passed on. Contrary to another common misconception about Augustine, he was adamant that the source of sin does not lie in the body but rather in the corruption of the will. In fact, he spent a great deal of his career denouncing the Manichean belief that the human body is essentially evil.
Jacobs’s most original and provocative argument is that original sin has strong democratic implications. Denial of original sin leads to elitism: Take, for instance, the duchess who simply refuses to believe that she shares a common nature with the unkempt commoners of field and street, or the self-righteous people who believe that they can make themselves good by stacking up a higher pile of good deeds than of bad ones. Their underlying assumption is that some people have exempt status, or higher virtues, or brighter minds, that others lack—plainly speaking, that some people (usually us) are better than other people (them). Original sin, on the other hand, is egalitarian because it means that everyone is alienated from God and has an innate tendency to sin. Equally egalitarian is the belief that Christ died in order to give everyone the liberty to escape sin. No one person can dare to consider himself or herself better than others, and no nation or race should dare to do so either. Jacobs offers this fascinating angle on the age-old debate in a splendid book.
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Jeffrey Burton Russell is emeritus professor of history at the University of California, Santa Barbara, and is the author of 17 books and numerous articles on history, religion, and philosophy. His most recent book is Paradise Mislaid: How We Lost Heaven and How We Can Regain It (2006).
Reviewed: "Original Sin: A Cultural History" by Alan Jacobs, HarperOne, 2008.
Image by Peter Paul Rubens, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons