My youngest son has hit the terrible twos with vengeance. He has the potential to get rather angry, to say the least. A few nights back, when he was told it was time to pack up his Fireman Sam toys, he saw red and went into a meltdown. I calmly repeated to him that it was his bedtime and he needed to be a good boy. As the tears flooded down his cheeks, he looked directly into my eyes, and said “but, daddy, I don’t want to be a good boy!”
Reflecting on the US election over the past few days I have been thinking about his words. The Christian doctrine of original sin is the belief that all of us are inclined to mess up, just as Adam did in the Garden of Eden. “Everyone who enters the world”, wrote third-century theologian Origen, “may be said to be affected by a kind of contamination”. In other words, all of us are inclined towards faults, frailties, and failures. Sometimes, like my two year old, we just don’t want to be good. Tertullian, another third-century theologian, reminded us original sin is not only a doctrine which explains the flaws of individuals, but also the difficulties faced by families, communities, and societies.
To some, this doctrine has seemed bleak and lacking in hope. It is little wonder that, down the years, certain theologians ignored or dismissed it and championed the innate goodness of our fellow beings and the inevitability of human progress. The terrible slaughter of the First World War seemed to be the final nail in the coffin of this positive view of human nature. For the past thirty years, though, many of us, whether we are Christian or not, have almost unconsciously tended towards a positive view of progress in politics and society – Soviet Glasnost, the fall of the Berlin Wall, the vision of a new Britain by Tony Blair, the promise of change by Barack Obama, not to mention spectacular breakthroughs in science, medicine and technology. Slowly, though, our hope in human progress has been eroding, culminating in a year when we have seen terror on the streets of Europe, increasingly bloody conflicts in the Middle East, the rise of hateful extremism in a plethora of forms (including, most disturbingly, increasingly “acceptable” forms), a victory for the hostile rhetoric of Brexit, and Donald Trump’s election as US President, with all the threat that holds to minorities, the environment, and world peace.
Certainly complex reasons have led to the situation we are now facing – communities feel disenfranchised, individuals are facing increasing poverty and inequality, there is a distrust of the political class, and there remains real anger towards the greed of financial institutions. But at the heart of our present status quo is the fact that we humans eventually end up being tempted to do what we always end up doing, whether in our personal lives or in our communities and societies – to push the self-destruct button.
In this sense, the doctrine of original sin and the Christian concept of the fall ring true to the reality of the human condition. All of us have a tendency towards selfishness, self-centredness, and sin. If that were the end of the matter, this would leave us hopeless and helpless. But Christian theology holds the tension of fall and redemption, of sin and grace. In other words, just as all are in Adam, all are also within Christ (I Cor. 15:22). We are both sinner and saint. We have been, after all, made in the image of God (Genesis 1:27) and that “likeness”, as Tertullian put it, can still shine out in our daily actions of peace, hope, and compassion. Our inclination to mess up, in the words of fourth-century theologian St Augustine, “darkens and disables good natural qualities” but those qualities still remain deep within us. The incarnation affirms this, as, through our faith, we become Christ to others (Romans 13:14) and others become Christ to us (Matthew 25:40).
This is where the Christian faith can offer the radical hope that our broken world needs to truly believe that change is possible – to believe that love and compassion will trump fear and prejudice. The sixteenth-century reformer John Calvin noted that original sin does not mean that sin is a necessity – we can all still choose another way. For us to do this, though, there is a greater challenge. We have to recognize that no one, whoever they are, is beyond redemption. Everyone has the imprint of God on them and should be regarded and treated as God’s children. Christian activist Sara Miles reflects on the uncomfortable challenge of this fact: “the thing that sucks about being a Christian is that God actually lives in other people”. Even those whom we most vehemently disagree with, even those who are hateful, misogynist, narcissistic, and racist, are made in God’s image. Only through this realization can we truly grasp something of the revolutionary hope that Jesus offers to our societies. The doctrine of original sin does not teach us that we are lost to unconscious forces that control us. Rather, it reminds us of our own implication in the evils of the world and reassures us of our beautiful opportunity to transform ourselves, others, events, communities, and societies in the light of God’s hope, compassion, and love.