Original sin is increasingly unpalatable in the 21st century world. The idea that human nature is sinful to the extent that even new babies are in need of salvation and liable to go to hell if unbaptized is difficult to accept in a western, secular society which idealizes childhood, its purity and its innocence. In addition, the number of unbaptized infants who die seems to be increasing with the development of IVF, the rising world-wide use of abortofascient contraceptives and abortions as well as with fewer parents choosing to baptize their children. Those educated in liberal societies are less and less willing to accept that a God who exacts justice through the fires of hell could be considered good. Arguably, original sin is even more difficult to accept in parts of the world where infant mortality of a more traditional sort remains stubbornly high. What Priest would relish informing a bereaved mother that the eternal fate of her unbaptized child is in question? Muslims have no concept of original sin, so it is easy to see why Christians in Africa would be as likely to want to agree with the title statement as Christians in the UK would be. The Roman Catholic Church acknowledged the difficulties with original sin in 2007, the International Theological Commission issuing THE HOPE OF SALVATION FOR INFANTS WHO DIE WITHOUT BEING BAPTISED which was widely interpreted as the Church stepping back from original sin so are as it was able to without undermining previous doctrine and the idea of infallibility. Clearly, St. Augustine has an important place in the 21st Century world. New books about his life and work are published every year, university courses are devoted to his ideas and his work continues to be enshrined in the doctrine of the Roman Catholic Church. Augustine is one of the four original Latin Doctors of the Church – the Doctor of Grace. Further, Augustine’s theology is enshrined within the doctrines of Protestant Churches following Luther and Calvin, who were inspired by his teaching on grace and justification through faith alone. Given that St Augustine has an undeniably important place in the 21st Century world, the statement must be understood to refer to the place original sin has within the thinking of St Augustine. Is it possible to argue that Augustine’s theology could work without original sin? Unfortunately, it is not possible and original sin continues to be important, however distasteful some of its implications might be in the 21st century world.
St. Augustine argued that human nature is sinful. In his Confessions, he described how even babies have sinful natures, which show themselves when they have to share their milk. “I myself have seen and known an infant to be jealous though it could not speak. It became pale, and cast bitter looks on its foster-brother… may this be taken for innocence, that when the fountain of milk is flowing fresh and abundant, one who has need should not be allowed to share it, though needing that nourishment to sustain life? Yet we look leniently on these things, not because they are not faults, nor because the faults are small, but because they will vanish as age increases. For although you may allow these things now, you could not bear them with equanimity if found in an older person.” Confessions 1/7:11 This might suggest that sin is part of our god-given natures, but Augustine cannot allow that sin is God’s fault or a necessary part of His creation. To do so would be to suggest that God is either limited in goodness or limited in power, neither of which would be compatible with Christian faith. Instead of limiting God, Augustine argued that sin is our human fault; we choose to misuse our free-will and put self-love (cupiditas) ahead of generous love (caritas), falling into sin and earning just punishment from God. For Augustine, we do this both individually and as a human race. Without original sin, free-will offers an inadequate defence of God’s omnipotence and goodness, given that children suffer as a result of natural evil just as much (or even more) than do adults and don’t seem to deserve punishment on account of their own choices. Adam chose to betray God, stupidly putting his self-love ahead of the generous love he should have had for mankind and for God. All people were “seminally present” in Adam, so humanity collectively turned away from God at the Fall. Following from this, even the tiniest infant deserves all the suffering it might experience because it inherits sin from Adam and cannot deserve grace without salvation through Christ’s atoning sacrifice. Original sin enables Augustine to side-step the problem of innocent suffering by arguing that there is no such thing as innocent suffering. Without original sin, Augustine would have to fall back on the idea that innocent suffering can be justified, whether through the learning opportunities and growth it might afford (Irenaeus, Hick) or by being offset by the beauty and goodness it enables (Aquinas). Any attempt to justify innocent suffering by appealing to the ends it serves is distasteful however. As Kant pointed out, reason demands that we treat humanity “always as an end in itself and never as a means to an end“. Can we hold God to a lower standard? Could a God who allows appealing child-cancer as a means to an end, however great that end might be, be a good God? Still less could that God be good when we consider that He is also all-powerful and so might reasonably be able to create a world in which the innocent suffering is unnecessary even as a means to the end. Without original sin, there would be no way to defend an omnipotent omnibenevolent God against charges of allowing natural evil and the suffering it causes to children.
In addition, Christ’s sacrifice and the salvation it offered would be unnecessary without original sin. If human beings are only accountable for sins they choose individually, children and any adults who managed to live a sin-free life could go to heaven without grace and without the service of the Church and its sacraments. Augustine argued against Pelagius and his suggestion that human beings possess the power to attain their own salvation, not least because Pelagianism opens the gates of heaven to good non-Christian and makes Jesus, who clearly said “I am the way, the truth and the life. No-one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6) a liar. For Augustine as for St Paul and as for most Christians around the world today, partaking in Jesus’ atoning sacrifice is necessary for salvation. Without original sin it is difficult to see how this could be true, as some people would be free from sin and worthy of salvation without Jesus, faith or God’s grace. Such a position could not be compatible either with Roman Catholic Christianity, which requires faith in the sacraments of the Church and their power to cleanse people of original sin… “Born with a fallen human nature and tainted by original sin, children also have need of the new birth in Baptism to be freed from the power of darkness and brought into the realm of the freedom of the children of God, to which all men are called. The sheer gratuitousness of the grace of salvation is particularly manifest in infant Baptism. The Church and the parents would deny a child the priceless grace of becoming a child of God were they not to confer Baptism shortly after birth.” Catechism 1250 Such a position could not be compatible with Protestant faith either, with its emphasis on justification through faith and the necessity of God’s grace. As Luther wrote… “Man…does not do evil against his will… but he does it spontaneously and voluntarily. And this willingness or volition is something which he cannot in his own strength eliminate, restrain or alter.” (Luther, The Bondage of the Will, p. 102) Further, as Luther wrote in his Preface to the New Testament… “the gospel demands faith in Christ: that He has overcome for us sin, death, and hell, and thus gives us righteousness, life, and salvation not through our works, but through His own works, death, and suffering, in order that we may avail ourselves of His death and victory as though we has done it ourselves.” (Luther, Preface to the New Testament) In this respect Protestant Christian faith and Roman Catholic Christian faith concur; original sin is an undeniable part of human nature.
It is sometimes claimed that Orthodox Christians sustain a faith that is not dependent on original sin. If this was true, Orthodoxy might offer a way to agree with the title-statement and dispense with the theory of original sin. However, while it is true that St Augustine has less prominence within the Eastern tradition of Christianity and while original sin has no place in Orthodox doctrine, it is wrong to suggest that Orthodox Christians have no concept of inherited sin or that they disagree with other Christians over either the sinfulness of human nature or the necessity of grace and salvation through the Church. Orthodox Catechisms affirm that Orthodox Christians believe that human beings inherit sin from Adam and need God’s Grace and Christ’s salvation much as other Christians do: “all have come of Adam since his infection by sin, and all sin themselves. As from an infected source there naturally flows an infected stream, so from a father infected with sin, and consequently mortal, there naturally proceeds a posterity infected like him with sin, and like him mortal.” Catechism of St. Philaret (Drozdov) of Moscow, 168 Orthodox Churches look to the teachings of Church Fathers such as John Cassian who taught that humans have a depraved nature and suffer from inherited sin. Orthodox Churches also accept the writings of St Paul, on whose ideas about Adam and Christ as the new Adam in 1 Corinthians 15 Augustine based his theory of original sin. Orthodox Christianity does not, in the end, offer a way of accepting the title statement and agreeing that original sin has no place in the 21st century world, although Orthodox Christians might not place such emphasis on Augustine as the originator of the theory of original sin.
In conclusion, St Augustine’s theory of original sin has an undeniably important place in the 21st Century world. Although many Christians might wish is was otherwise, in practice it is not possible to sustain belief in a perfect God or the necessity of His grace and Salvation through Christ and the Church without original sin. To put it quite clearly, if original sin has no place in the 21st Century world, then neither does Christianity. The Roman Catholic Church has gone as far as is reasonably possible in retreating from teaching that Limbo is the certain destination of unbaptized infants and leaving their fate to the mercy of God, with whom “all things are possible” (Matthew 19:26) and whose ways human beings can scarcely understand after all (Isaiah 55:8-9).