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I think I’ve always been a bit uneasy about the idea that God holds me responsible in some sense for something Adam did at the beginning of the Bible. I know God’s ways are not my ways, but this never made much sense.

Of course, my uneasiness doesn’t make something right or wrong. I’m just putting it out there.

Most refer to this idea as “original sin”—all humans are the objects of God’s anger from conception on. Adam’s deed of disobedience has hardwired sinfulness into us all. Not only that, but for many Christians, humans actually bear the guilt of what Adam did–which takes this to yet another level.

So, here’s my question today: Where in the Old Testament is Adam’s disobedience in the garden of Eden described as the cause of universal human sinfulness (and guilt)?

What do you think?

I never allowed myself to look at this issue too carefully, I think for fear of what I might find. But as I was writing The Evolution of Adam I didn’t have much of a choice but to man up.

Now, before I go on, let’s be clear about a few things. First, I’m asking whether the Old Testament paints Adam as the one to blame for all the misery of the human race. I’m not talking about the New Testament. Not yet.

Second, by wondering out loud about “original sin” I’m not saying “I’m OK, you’re OK, and God’s OK with it all, so let’s just get along.”

George Steinbrenner: sinner

I believe that what the Bible calls sin is real—and you don’t have to read about Hitler, Stalin, or George Steinbrenner to find examples. Each us of carries around an alarming ability to harm each other in a seemingly non-stop variety of new and inventive ways.

Add to that the endless capacity we have to find ways to be miserable and harm ourselves. Few are truly at peace with themselves. The biochemical and environmental contributors to the common list of emotional struggles we face betray a deep sense of disquiet in our own hearts. We are all sinners, we have all fallen short of the mark, we fail to do what we know we should, we bear the burdens of the harm we cause to ourselves and others.

Whatever words we want to use to describe it, this self-evident reality of repeated, relentless sin remains an unalterable fact of human existence. We clearly need help.

But all I’m asking here is whether the Old Testament says that Adam is the cause of it all. I just don’t see it. Here’s why.

June Cleaver: also sinner

1. Inherited sinfulness is not one of the curses on Adam. Adam is introduced in Genesis 2, and for one chapter seems to hold it together. But then in chapter 3, Eve is outcrafted by the talking serpent, takes a bite of the forbidden fruit, and then hands it to Adam, who did likewise.

All three parties are cursed by God for doing so, and those curses have lasting consequences for the human drama.

Fair enough, but note the consequences for Adam. From now (1) growing food will be hard work, and (2) death will be a fact of life.

Note what is not said: “And a third thing, Adam. From now on all humanity will be stained by your act, born in a hopeless and helpless state of sin, thus earning my displeasure and making them all objects of my wrath.” If Genesis did say that, it would clear up a lot.

2. True obedience to God is both expected and doable. Nowhere in the Old Testament do we read that humanity under God’s condemnation for being born and helpless to do anything about it.

Yes indeed, God is terribly mad about sinful acts, especially when his people, the Israelites, do them. But—and I can’t stress this enough—implicit in all of God’s acts of wrath and punishment is the idea that the Israelites were most certainly capable of not sinning. That’s the whole point of the law: follow it and be blessed, disobey and be cursed. The choice is clear and attainable, so do the right thing (e.g., see Deuteronomy 30:11-20).

In fact, some Old Testament figures actually seem to pull it off pretty well: Enoch, Noah, Abraham, Moses, and David. No, they weren’t “perfect” but that’s exactly the point. God seems fine with some of his people getting it basically right and using them to do some extremely important things.

3. With one exception, Adam disappears after Genesis 5. This one is related to #2. After Genesis 5, Adam wanders off the Old Testament stage until the beginning of the 9-chapter list of names in 1 Chronicles 1. And there he’s just one name along with the pages of other names. He’s not the bad guy.

Throughout the entire rest of the Old Testament story, Adam doesn’t even warrant a mention. If Adam was really the person who set the whole world on a downward sin cycle, again, I’m not sure why it’s kept such a big secret.

I don’t think saying “The consequences of Adam’s sin don’t have to mentioned because they are obvious” is a good argument—especially given #2.

4. Adam is not blamed for Cain’s act of murder. Back to Genesis. Adam’s son Cain killed his brother Abel. If Cain’s act is caused by a hardwired state of sinfulness due to what Adam did, mentioning it here—hinting at it—would have helped. Instead, God asks Cain, “Why are you angry?” as if it’s not obvious, and then offers Cain the same choice the law would later offer the Israelites.” You’ve got a choice, Cain. Make it a good one.” He didn’t.

And the fact that Adam already “had it in him” to disobey suggests that Cain’s choice to sin was, like his father’s, not imposed on him from elsewhere.

5. Likewise, Adam is not blamed for the flood. God wipes out all life in a flood because of the complete and thorough mess humans have made of it all. But look at Genesis 6:6-7. There we see that this escalation of sinfulness that’s now reached its boiling point seems to take God by surprise.

He doesn’t say, “Well, of course, we all saw this coming, what with Adam’s disobedience in the garden and all. I just wanted it to get really bad before I acted.” Rather, he is “grieved” and “sorry” about how out of hand all this has gotten.

Remember: I am only looking at the Old Testament here. I know people will respond, “But what about Paul!?” Fair enough—but—even if Paul sees Adam as the cause of human misery and alienation from God, we still need to grapple with why the Old Testament doesn’t see it that way.

Others will respond: “But if Adam isn’t the cause of it all, we no longer have a good explanation for why people are so messed up?” Fine, but the fact that questions arise that muddle our theology doesn’t make the Old Testament magically fall into line.

Still others will respond: “But without Adam as the cause of human sinfulness, the entire gospel falls apart.” Rather, I think only a version of the gospel that needs this kind of Adam falls apart. Perhaps there are other ways (and there are).

I’m raising nothing new here—and I treat it all in a bit more detail in my book–but as far as I am concerned these are rather obvious problems to be dealt with, especially for those who claim to have the Bible form their theology.

Pete Enns, Ph.D.

Peter Enns (Ph.D., Harvard University) is Abram S. Clemens professor of biblical studies at Eastern University in St. Davids, Pennsylvania. He has written numerous books, including The Bible Tells Me So, The Sin of Certainty, and How the Bible Actually Works. Tweets at @peteenns.