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Is Original Sin Stupid?

Trent Horn

The president of the Philippines, Rodrigo Duterte, caused an uproar this week when he called God “stupid.”

During a televised address, holding court on the topic of original sin and the fall of man, Duterte said, “Who is this stupid God? This son of a [expletive] is then really stupid. . . . You were not involved but now you’re stained with an original sins [sic]. . . . What kind of a religion is that? That’s what I can’t accept, very stupid proposition.”

In response, the bishops of the Philippines asked Catholics to offer three days of prayer and fasting beginning July 16. One of the prayers asks for “God’s mercy and justice on those who have blasphemed God’s holy name, those who slander and bear false witness, and those who commit murder or justify murder as a means for fighting criminality.” The last petition is probably a reference to Duterte’s association with vigilante death squads.

Duterte is, of course, not the only person to object to the doctrine of original sin. The fifth-century Pelagian heretics said Adam’s sin affected only himself, which led St. Augustine to develop formal explanations of original sin and explain why man in his fallen state cannot approach God apart from God’s grace. Unfortunately, the Pelagian mindset still persists in people who claim they can have a relationship with God on their own terms and that they should not be punished for the sins of Adam and Eve.

And those critics are correct, in part.

God should not punish us because of Adam and Eve’s sins, because we were not involved in their sins. That’s why original sin is not a punishment for other people’s sins, but a consequence of their sins. The Catechism says that “original sin is called ‘sin’ only in an analogical sense: it is a sin ‘contracted’ and not ‘committed’—a state and not an act. Although it is proper to each individual,original sin does not have the character of a personal fault in any of Adam’s descendants. It is a deprivation of original holiness and justice” (CCC 404-405).

Unlike personal sin, original sin is not an evil thing we’ve done but an absence of God’s grace in our souls. It may be more helpful to think of original not as a “stain” on our souls but as a missing piece of essential fabric or a “hole” in our souls. Baptism “removes” original sin, therefore, by filling our souls with the love and life of God, or grace. The reason this absence of grace is called original sin is because it is a consequence of the very first sin humans committed.

When our first parents, Adam and Eve, disobeyed God, they lost the gift of God’s favor that protected them from death and suffering. After losing this grace, they could not pass it down to their descendants, who in turn could not pass it down to us. Adam and Eve’s disobedience corrupted our human nature and made it possible for humans to suffer and die. Baptism cannot prevent our physical deaths, because it does not change our physical nature. However, it does change our spiritual nature, so through baptism we are saved from spiritual death by being united to Jesus Christ.

But is God unfair or “stupid” for allowing us to be born in this state of sin?

It isn’t fair to punish future generations for the crimes of their ancestors; but, as we’ve seen, original sin is not a punishment.

It is a fact of life, however, that future generations either benefit or suffer from the actions of their ancestors. For example, I have a friend who has more than enough money to pay for college because her grandfather invested money in an educational trust for that purpose more than sixty years ago. I also have another friend who struggles with infertility because her grandfather contracted syphilis when he was a young man.

In both cases, what makes the future children’s situation “fair” or “unfair” is not whether they received something from their ancestors (because everyone does that) but rather the nature of what they received. And we can understand how an absence of goodness, such as original sin, can be fairly said to endure even though it was the fault of our ancestors.

Imagine a man is given an inheritance that makes him rich, but in his greed he steals more money from the estate of his deceased relative. The man’s wife and children, who didn’t know he did this, are thrilled about never having to worry about money again—until the police arrive and arrest the man, and the courts take back all the money he inherited. The courts don’t punish the man’s family members, because they did nothing wrong. However, the man’s family members still suffer because they would have been blessed with riches if he had not stolen more money.

In the same way, we would have enjoyed supernatural gifts if Adam and Eve had not fallen from grace and rebelled against God. If Adam, Eve, and all our other ancestors had not sinned against God, then we too would have been born in the blessed state of original justice and holiness. In that case, I doubt you or I would say, “It’s not fair I am born into such a good condition, because I did nothing to earn it!” If you believe in the concept of inheritance, be it financial, genetic, or spiritual, then you have to accept that human beings are capable of leaving either good or bad inheritances for their children.

Fortunately, Scripture tells us that “by his great mercy we have been born anew to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, and to an inheritance which is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you” (1 Pet. 1:4). We can claim this inheritance because through baptism we cease being children of Adam, who inherited a fallen human nature, and become children of God, partakers of his divine nature (2 Pet. 1:4).

Far from being “stupid,” God in his majestic providence took humanity’s greatest defeat and turned it into an opportunity to show us his greatest victory. As the Exultet at the Easter vigil proclaims, “O truly necessary sin of Adam, destroyed completely by the death of Christ! O happy fault that earned so great, so glorious a Redeemer!”

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