Richard Niebuhr famously remarked that “the doctrine of original sin is the only empirically verifiable doctrine of the Christian faith” (Man’s Nature and His Communities: Essays on the Dynamics and Enigmas of Man’s Personal and Social Existence [Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1965], 24). Although this judgment is often repeated today, it faces a number of objections. Thus, the whole church has never come to a common understanding of “original sin,” modern optimism regarding human progress has made it difficult for many to take original sin seriously, contemporary sensibilities in the west reject the notion of original sin in favor of a positive sense of human self-worth, theologians have raised ethical objections against the notion that God might hold people responsible for the human sinfulness of past generations, and evolutionary biology has sounded the death knell on the idea of sin imputed to all of humanity on the basis of the rebellion of our first human parents. For these and other reasons, the doctrine of original sin has fallen on hard times.
Indeed, Niebuhr’s observation in support of the doctrine is apropos only if central ingredients of the traditional doctrine of original sin are first jettisoned. This is because the doctrine has traditionally concerned itself with more than people behaving badly, moving further to its concern actually to identify sin’s origins. But observations about sinful behavior cannot speak with any clarity regarding sin’s etiology. Niebuhr’s judgment can thus be associated only with a chastened view of original sin, one that has less to do with sin’s origins and more to do with the human family’s blindness to its involvement in sin. As a consequence, theologians today are recasting the notion of original sin in ways that take seriously the biblical evidence and contemporary science, along with the theological work the doctrine needs to do. (For a brief survey of some of these voices, see here.)
For example, Veli-Matti Kärkkäinen writes of original sin under the heading, “The Misery of Humanity” (Creation and Humanity, [Eerdmans, 2015], 387-425). His approach to the subject is guided by the recognition of two central realities: the witness of Scripture is not well served by central aspects of the traditional doctrine of original sin and the Christian tradition has been characterized by a range of views. To be sure, Kärkkäinen expends more energy on the plurivocal Christian tradition regarding sin, and less on the biblical materials. However, his claims regarding the latter are widely shared among biblical scholars – including Anthony C. Thiselton, whose recent, brief survey of biblical, and especially Pauline, notions of sin underscores the fallenness of humanity and the universality of sin sans some of the traditional trappings of the doctrine of original sin (Systematic Theology [Eerdmans, 2015], 149-53). On the basis of his engagement with the biblical and historical-theological evidence, then, Kärkkäinen identifies four areas where the doctrine of original sin requires correction:
Additionally, Kärkkäinen is very much aware that widely held views among evolutionary biologists undermine the credibility of the doctrine when it is conceived in traditional ways. Because of these obstacles to the doctrine, he thinks the phrase “original sin” leans too heavily into speculation about the origins about which we know next-to-nothing and is loaded with a number of assumptions that in popular thought are too often taken as the orthodox doctrine of sin. Accordingly, he puts forward the word “misery” as an umbrella term for speaking of original sin and the fall, as well as its effects.
This doesn’t mean that Kärkkäinen is ready to do away with the doctrine altogether, however. After all, it points to some significant, basic intuitions about sin. These include the “the radical nature of sin that ‘meets’ the human person as soon as one becomes part of that family and the affirmation that all humans have a ‘universal solidarity in sin’” (388). A robust doctrine of human misery is important, too, for the space it opens for the profound redemptive and reconciliatory work of Christ.
What shape might an account of the Fall take if it were to work seriously with both the scriptural witness to sin (and its lack of explicit interest in sin’s etiology) and current knowledge regarding human origins? The way forward is marked for Kärkkäinen by considering Adam and Eve as symbols of the human family and as representatives of those hominids who, in their transition to modern Sapiens, developed in their capacity to exercise free will and self-consciousness. For them, the “Fall” was, as it were, a “fall upwards” – into both deeper self-awareness and deeper awareness of God. Those early ancestors would not have lived in the fog of spiritual darkness or clutter of decisions that eventually would overtake the human family as it turned away from God, yet they were subject to temptations, to the desire to turn away from God’s voice, and to those inclinations they would have inherited from their evolutionary past, including their vulnerability to all kinds of perversions, violence, abuse, and self-centeredness. Interestingly, this perspective on humanity maps easily onto the story Paul tells in Rom 1:18-32 – the story of a human family who chose creation rather than the creator, and who were given over by God to their own desires and distortions.
The portrait Kärkkäinen paints, then, emphasizes the universality of human sinfulness, its personal and structural nature, and its character as a disease that pervades the human family relationally rather than genetically, but which does not focus with too much specificity on sin’s origins in our ancestral past. The result is a theology of original sin that takes seriously the nature of the scriptural witness, the pluriform testimony of the Christian tradition, and evolving perspectives from the natural sciences.