“In Adam’s fall, we sinned all.” Seventeenth-century Puritan children in America chanted this rhyme from their alphabet books as part of their early theological training. Puritan parents knew that to save their children they had to begin to break the sinful will, which came from Adam, and then shape character to receive God’s sin-erasing grace. While Christian parents today may prefer to emphasize a loving Jesus rather than drilling their children on the finer points of original sin, the central question for Christian theology then and now is the nature of the will. Are humans free to choose or is their choice inevitably tainted by Adam and Eve’s choice? The answer is always a qualified Yes on the side of freedom, but within limits.
To better understand the nature of the freewill argument, it’s helpful to go to an earlier fall-of-man story as told by the Persians. In this story, which is thought to have been developed in the period of 1500 to 900 B.C., the prophet Zoroaster is shown by the perfect creator, “Lord of Light and Truth,” Ahura Mazda, how humans fell from perfection. Originally, humans were spirits of light who for three thousand years worshipped Ahura Mazda in perfect harmony. However, harmony had always been in danger of a disruption in the form of an opposing “monster of the Lie,” Angra Mainyu. In his perfection and foreknowledge, Ahura Mazda had always known about Angra Mainyu and his disruptive powers, but he also knew that eventually Mainyu would be overcome as evil would be purified through fire.
Mainyu foolishly makes a bargain with Ahura Mazda to allow a nine-thousand-year period of testing. During the first third of the period, only goodness would reign. During the middle years, good and evil would intermingle, and during the last third, after the birth of Zoroaster, the will of Angra Mainyu would gradually be broken and he and his followers would be destroyed. Lacking in foreknowledge, Mainyu agrees to the bargain, thinking he had tricked Mazda, but he himself had been tricked. He was lulled back to sleep for three thousand years, after which a female fiend known as Jahi, meaning menstruation, aroused Angra Mainyu and together they created malice through the heavens.
During the periods of intermingling evil and good, humans were still expected to choose good thoughts, good words, and good deeds. According to the levels of their good choices, they would in eternity be awarded with varying degrees of heavenly delights, but according to their bad choices, they would be taken to specific levels of hell, similar to those later described in Dante’s Divine Comedy. Eventually, they and Angra Mainyu with all his bad spirits would be destroyed by purifying fire.
Joseph Campbell, to whom I am indebted for explaining this version of the Persian worldview, points out in his Masks of God: Occidental Mythology (New York: Penguin, 1964) that although there are many similarities in the Persian and Old Testament versions of the fall of man, the chief difference lies in who is primarily to blame for evil coming into the world (189212). As we have seen in the Persian story, the bargain is struck without man’s knowledge that sin would at a certain time in the future become inevitable. Thus the coming of sin is cosmological. In the story of Adam and Eve, Lucifer accuses God of unfairness, but he has no power actually to create evil. He can only tempt humans with false promises and hope to defeat the God who had created him and cast him out of heaven. Lucifer would not gain ascendancy unless the original pair of humans allowed him into their lives, and thus we are led back to the alphabet rhyme, “In Adam’s fall, we sinned all.” Humans are distinctly to blame for their own suffering, and in the biblical version it is only through their acceptance of God’s grace that their suffering can be alleviated and the world made new again.
Elaine Pagels takes issue with this theology. In her study of the Judeo-Christian idea of the fall, Adam, Eve, and the Serpent (New York: Random House-Vintage, 1989), she labels the belief that Adam tainted us all, thus condemning us to death, as “empirically absurd” (127), but she does so as one examining the doctrine from an academic rather than a Christian viewpoint. Although she does not assent to the doctrine, she does thoroughly explain its theological history and significance to traditional Christian believers, and her book is well worth a thorough examination. She goes back to the theological arguments of the early Christian Church as the founding fathers struggled with the nature of Christ, the Trinity, and the fall. Augustine, obsessed by his own struggles with sexual desire, came to the conclusion that sin is passed directly through the sperm into every human, and thus only Christ who was not born of sperm did not suffer from original sin. He could be fully divine and fully human and still be sinless. Every other human is by definition a sinner.
So where do these arguments leave modern humans as they look for meaning in a world where greed, violence, and hate come perilously close to choking out the struggling pockets of good? Secularists and Christians alike can agree that bad things happen as a result of natural phenomena. Nature, through entirely explainable processes, produces cataclysmic storms, fires, and earthquakes. Disease is genetically and environmentally explained. In the secular view, even human behavior, as we come to understand specific genetic anomalies and influences of environment, can be understood as disruptive and sometimes tragic but not by definition sinful.
In the secular view, humans must learn to work within human ability to try to improve themselves and the world. The Zoroastrian view, and yes there is still a small community of believers who settled in India after being driven out of Iran at the emergence of Islam, is that humans have the capacity to choose right thoughts, words, and deeds and will eventually earn a heavenly reward. Christianity’s answer to evil is Christ centered rather than human focused. The apostle Paul lamented that even though we will ourselves to be good, we do evil, but he uses his pessimistic view of human nature to argue that through grace we are saved (Rom. 7:15). Though each worldview has merit, Christian theology is the most hopeful. Original sin ends with Christ’s grace and with a world made new. Thus the rhyme “In Adam’s fall, we sinned all” becomes a promise of Christ’s perfection rather than an admission of failure.
Marilyn Glaim is professor emeritus of English at Pacific Union College, Angwin, California.
This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at http://spectrummagazine.org/node/1062