Views of Original Sin: Alternatives to Adam and Eve

by frankbeswick

The story of Adam and Eve is only one of a set of conflicting theories to explain the origins of evil tendencies.

Everyone is familiar with the story of the Garden of Eden and how humans introduced sin into the world, but this story was intended to explain the origins of humans' evil tendencies and our weakness for sin.It was the basis of the theory of original sin. It was not the only theory of original sin and certainly not the earliest. There were at least three others, none of which has been given enough of the attention that they deserve, for they are all preferable to the Adam and Eve story.

Adam and Eve

Christianity has made too much of these two.

The story of Adam and Eve tells us how humans once enjoyed a deathless state of paradise and friendship with God, who walked among them. Then the serpent came to Eve and asked her to eat the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil. She tempted Adam to do this and the pair lost God's friendship, being expelled from Eden and forced to undergo death and  various forms of suffering. Strangely, the Bible does not mention original sin in the Adam and Eve story. The next few chapters of Genesis show us sin steadily rising until God decides to send the flood to destroy the unrighteous, exempting only Noah. Note that it was the accumulation of evil rather than original sin, the sin inherited from Adam, which was  said to have induced God to flood the earth.

This theory became the basis of the theory of original sin, the sin inherited by all humans from their first ancestors, that alienates them from God. Thinkers like Augustine of Hippo were convinced that human nature had been corrupted by original sin and that thus humans were damned because they shared in the guilt of the original ancestors. Without baptism all would be damned, even unbaptized babies. This view has been the standard opinion in Protestantism, which is strongly influenced by Augustine. Protestants follow Augustine in believing that humans are divided into the saved and the unsaved, and go to heaven and hell accordingly. Many seem unaware that the view of original sin that they hold gives a very unpleasant view of God and also did not come from Jesus Christ. Paul who declared that  men die in Adam, so all can  live in Christ, gave us the theological origins of the theory of original sin.  This rabbinical musing has become the foundation of a theory that has caused many problems for Christianity.

However, the psychological origins of the theory of original sin go deeper than the theological ones. They lie in religious people's recognition that their ethics are higher than their strengths. Despite how hard they try, they fail and stumble backwards. There seems to be a downward pull in human nature that fights our high ideals. Augustine's theory of original sin took the view that the weakness is not God's fault. God has made us good and we have introduced evil into the world. The good God was not responsible for pain and death; humans were.

Original sin

The misunderstanding of Genesis

Besides being a serious insult to the goodness of God, the theory that God inflicts original sin on the guiltless descendants of Adam reflects a misunderstanding of the Genesis tale. The view that in imputing sin to the human race that God is somehow being righteous is so erroneous as to discredit Christianity in the eyes of many non-believers. It presents God as an unjust, brutal tyrant who punishes the innocent for their ancestors' failings.

However, the story of Adam and Eve does not teach what it is supposed to teach, and the Devil is not mentioned. The story, put together by the Yahwist, a compiler and sanctifier of the ancient folk traditions of Israel sometime around 930 bc, was intended to deal with religious difficulties in its own time, as all biblical writing was.

The clue comes in the snake, who is not Satan. The concept of Satan was not known at the time in biblical history. It developed later on in the post-exilic period. Rather, the snake was a symbol of the worship of Astarte, the fertility goddess of the Middle East. She is often depicted as bearing snakes in each hand, these being phallic symbols. Furthermore, the Golden Bough, Sir James Frazer's masterpiece, in which he studied ancient religions, tells us how in Syria and parts of Palestine Astarte was worshipped by sacred prostitution. Women would devote a session to Astarte, copulating with a stranger in her temple, and devoting their earnings to her. This was to ensure the fertility of the land.The Book of Hosea, written between 700 and 800 B.C. is a biblical tract dedicated to opposition to the cult of sacred prostitution in the name of Astarte, who is sometimes known as Ashtoreth.

This pagan cult was a direct challenge to the monotheistic worship of Yahweh, the God of Israel, and was thus scathingly attacked by the Hebrew prophets, such as Hosea. Thus the biblical text is telling readers that evil entered the world through the worship of the false deities, Astarte and her consort Baal. It sets the original evil in the worship of a fertility deity. The true God is responsible for fertility, so when Adam and Eve turn to Astarte, they do not get fertility, but only a harsh land in which they have to struggle with weeds when they cultivate the land. Furthermore, Eve's curse of pain in childbirth is the ironic result of her worshipping a  female deity, who should know better what her worshippers need. The Bible writer is saying not that humans caused the problems in the world, but that pagan deities did it. This is an integral part of the great biblical thrust against idolatry.


An overlooked thinker

A much neglected thinker is Saint Irenaeus, bishop of Lyons in France and an important church father. Irenaeus, who was born in modern day Turkey, then known as Asia, moved to Lyons to become its bishop. In complete contradiction to Augustine, who thought that there was a golden age in Eden from which humans had fallen, Irenaeus believed that humans were never perfect and had left Eden so that they could grow spiritually. At the heart of this view is an Eastern, Greek, view that humanity's progress is towards divinisation, becoming more like God. Thus Adam and Eve had to become more godlike, which implies that once they were not. For Irenaeus growing is to turn from a human animal into a child of God,which is the process of divinisation.

This course in life was driven by suffering. Humans had to confront evil and defeat it. Every time that humans defeated their evil urges they made progress towards God and divinisation. In this sense Adam and Eve had to leave Eden so that they could grow in spirit.Irenaeus was at pains to point out that God did not require evil or create it, but there could be natural evils, difficulties such as earthquakes, that challenged humans to morally and spiritually improve. Humans were beings who had to learn and develop. They only develop in the process of moral struggle, so staying in a state of Eden was to remain permanently  in a childish state. In a sense Irenaeus is linking his understanding of original sin with the Christian theology of the cross, that Christ had to grow by suffering to achieve his glory. This links with the letter to the Hebrews that declares that Christ learned obedience by suffering, which was the path to his glorification.

Irenaeus coined the phrase that the world is the vale of soul-making.We develop our souls and moral characters by facing up to suffering and overcoming the evil that creates it. In this view God is not the persecutor of innocent generations of Adam's descendants, but an inspiration driving spiritual progress onwards towards a supreme, transcendent goal.

Irenaeus' theory has the advadvantage that it does not require a literal Adam and Eve. While Irenaeus believed in these two, he could happily regard them as symbolic and dispense with them. Thus it does not need the literal truth of Genesis and is therefore far more compatible with evolution that the traditonal story of the fall of man is. In fact we can dispense with the notion of the fall, as Irenaeus could give us an alternative, the rise of humankind. Furthermore, unlike Augustine, who believed that some humans were predestined to Hell, Irenaeus hoped that all humans would be saved. This has not always appealed to the more punitive kind of Christian, and certainly not to preachers who like to threaten Hell from the pulpit.


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Origen was the greatest interpreter of Scripture in the early church, but he has never been honoured as a saint, despite his extreme holiness of life and the appalling sufferings that he underwent when refusing to deny his faith. Why? You never get to be called a saint if the bishops or a large number of them do not like you, and certainly not if you are cleverer than the clergy and do not mind them knowing it. Furthermore, if you are a preacher who likes the threaten hell, you will not be pleased with someone who thinks that even Satan might be saved in the end.

It is not widely known that Christianity has no philosophy of its own and has had therefore to draw on other philosophical sources to think out its message. Origen was unsusual in that he drew on orphic philosophy. This was a Greek theory that believed in a cyclic universe in which souls were reincarnated.The fact that he was Egyptian also meant that he came form a culture that had sea comntact with India, though he never travelled that far, never getting further than Palestine, but the Egyptians knew of Indian religious ideas, which incldued reincarnation.  For Origen all souls returned once a cycle, fortified by their moral successes and weakned by their failures, maybe rising and falling in status accordingly. Origen did believe in Adam and Eve, though he rejected a literal interpretation of Scripture in favour of an allegorical one. Thus for Origen Adam and Eve were in this cycle only, and the deeper root of our moral weakness was the principle that souls return fortified or weakened by their previous lives.It is the tendencies that we inherit from previous lives that are our moral weakness, though Adam did not help.

Origen's thought was complex and he wrote many works. His end was grim. When persecution broke outin 254 the Romans took him and, seeing that he was so respected by Christians, they believed that if they broke him they would break the Christian resolve. Thus they did not kill him, but subjected him to months of torture, during which time he refused to break. Eventually when the persecution ended he was released unbeaten in mind, but physically ruined. He lived another six months being tended by friends in the Christian community. He was a true saint.


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The light from the British Isles

Mention Pelagius to theologians and they are not likely to be happy. The name of Pelagius has been linked to heresy of a serious kind, but you never get a fair press if what is written about you is written by your enemies. In the Eastern, orthodox church he is highly respected, and in his own Celtic church his name was revered for many generations. When your enemies are St Augustine,who wrote many works and was socially well placed, and the Roman emperor of the Western side of the empire, you have problems. Nor does it help if after your death your works are rewritten to make you say things that you did not, the culprit in this case being one Primarius.

" A Briton of the Irish race" says Saint Jerome, who was fuming about Pelagius' views. But Jerome fumed easily and often. The term Briton then was loosely used then, and included Irish, but it was also the case that there were Irish settlers in Britain in the fifth century. Pelagius came to Rome in 394 and through his natural oratory and profound scholarship soon established a following. But soon his works attracted the attention of Augustine, who disagreed with him, even though he accepted that Pelagius had great gifts. Pelagius sailed to Carthage to meet Augustine, but the result was that Pelagius was condemned by the council of Carthage.

What was the problem? While Augustine believed that Adam's sin had totally corrupted human nature, Pelagius said that it only affected Adam. Furthermore, while Augustine believed that unbaptized babies were steeped in Adam's sin,Pelagius thought that newborns were as innocent as Adam before the fall.He also believed that Adam was not born deathless, but that he was created liable to death, which upset Augustine, who believed that death came into the world through sin. While Augustine believed that humans were so corrupt that they could do nongood of their own volition, his British opponent thought that nature was not corrupted by sin and that it retained a God given ability to do rightt. While Pelagius' enemies accused him of denying the importance of grace, this is untrue, for he believed that the ability to do what is morally right came from the grace of God that was instilled in human nature. It was a kind of grace built into creation. This grace was not lost by Adam's fall.

Of critical importance was his view that Adam's sin does nort corrupt human nature. Infants are born uncorrupt and it is bad example, what we would now call social influences, that corrupt individuals. This is far more in keeping with psychology than the traditional Adam and Eve story is.

To cut  along story short Augustine had Pelagius condemned and when pope Zozimus supported the Briton, Augustine, a Roman aristocrat, appealed to Theodosius, the emperor, who intimidated the pope into condemning Pelagius by threatening to turn his troops on Rome [now no longer the capital or imperial residence] which would have resulted in an orgy of rape and pillage.The pope had received an offer that he could not refuse. Augustine then had the impertinence to regard this as a genuine condemnation. Pelagius was exiled, probably to a remote oasis or insignificant town and he fades from history.


Of the four theories of original sin, many Christian clergy have managed to pick the worst and least credible, and many have stuck to it faithfully through thick and thin, despite the fact that it brings God into disrepute. Protestantism is founded upon an Augustinian view of theology, with its corrupted human nature. Aquinas, though, in the middle ages, moved away from struct augustinianism and accepted that human nature was not totally corrupted by Adam's fall, retaining its free will, even though it was weakened. Most Christians now accept that Adam and Eve is a myth, it is time to forget the defective theology based on the literal truth of the myth.

Updated: 09/16/2013, frankbeswick
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frankbeswick on 02/08/2024

Free will is still possessed by humans, and we can therefore resume sinning as before.

DerdriuMarriner on 02/07/2024

The first paragraph to the first subheading, Adam and Eve, considers that "The next few chapters of Genesis show us sin steadily rising until God decides to send the flood to destroy the unrighteous, exempting only Noah."

What explains the flood not stopping the unrighteousness that it was supposed to stop?

marciag on 09/19/2013

Interesting article on the two original "sinners" as they say. I was not there, lol, so I'm relying on historical and current sources of info, but boy there are so many different views...

cmoneyspinner on 09/17/2013

@frankbeswick - Dude! Serpents can't talk but the Bible can believe? You said "The Bible believed"??? You reference "Many" and "Others" in your comments. What about you? What do you believe?

No matter. Meaning No RSVP to my comments necessary.

Hell was originally made for the devil and his angels because they committed the original sin. IF you believe the Bible. And I do!

frankbeswick on 09/17/2013

I do not think that snakes talk or have emotions of any depth. The serpent is a metaphor for an evil influence. The Bible believed that pagan deities were the evil influence, as they promoted the wrong way of life. That was the view at the time when the Hebrews believed that pagan deities existed. Later, they came to the view that they did not, but after the exile when they Jews encountered the Zoroastrians,who believed that God had an enemy, they came to the view that an evil being was loose in the world opposing God. This was Satan, and some Jews began to identify the serpent with him.

Many early Christians and their Jewish fellows believed that the pagan deities were really devils. Others believed that they were merely men who had been elevated above their natural position.

cmoneyspinner on 09/17/2013

It's not really said that way but if I pieced the info and facts together, seems to me it was the Serpent who committed the original sin, trying to raise himself up to be like God or rather to be God. He used that trick on Eve. "Oh yeah! You can be just like God." He said that cause that's what he was trying to do. Be like God! I'm thinking he was just using the humans for PRACTICE!!! As we can all plainly see, it did not work! Good article.

frankbeswick on 09/17/2013

Eve has often got the flak from misogynistic males, such as Tertullian, who thought that women should go round in mourning dress because of the sin of Eve [women ignored him.] But the Bible is clear that both are guilty. It takes two to tango.

There is an interesting book, Who Wrote the Bible, by Friedman, which argues that the Yahwist account, from which the story of the fallof Adam and Eve comes, came from a female story teller at the court of Solomon. Friedman thinks this because the story shows certain typical female concerns: the man shunts the blame onto the woman, the question of why she suffers in childbirth is addressed, and women's fear of serpents. Later on in the Yahwist account we find other tales of male injustice to women.

The Yahwist account is one of the four sources [at least] that were woven together to produce the five books of Moses [which Moses did not write, they were penned later.]

By the way, the word apple is never mentioned. The Bible says fruit.

JoHarrington on 09/16/2013

I'd really never considered this story as referring to Astarte. This does explain why Eve got all the flack, when it was Adam who ate the apple. I've always considered that bit unfair.

frankbeswick on 09/16/2013

The temptation is an ongoing pressure both from the power of evil and our lower natures, by which we corrupt the social world and set bad example to others. Humans create a culture that fosters false values and rewards undesirable personal qualities. Evil is being brought into the world all the time, as is good.

The sexual aspect of the Adam and Eve myth is obvious. The serpent is a phallic symbol, but there was no wrong in sex with each other. Fruit has always been a symbol of female sexuality. The Bible is attacking the view of sex taken by the Canaanite faith and expressed in the rituals of Astarte.

jptanabe on 09/16/2013

Very well argued account of various interpretations of original sin. I agree that the "standard" Christian interpretation of Adam and Eve's fall bringing evil and sin into the world, and us, does have the possibility of putting God in a bad light. However, if we remember that God gave our ancestors free will, they were tempted (by a snake - whether Satan, an angel, a false deity) to eat the fruit (a sexual connotation?) and this constitutes the fall and the entry of evil into our world, I don't see God as such a tyrant or heartless. In fact, we can see God as angry, upset, and grieving. But He does not give up, but sends the Messiah to save us - remove our original sin and welcome us back into God's bosom. Just a few thoughts!

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