Two Christian doctrines of humanity that often create controversy are original sin and total depravity. I understand, these concepts cause us discomfort because of what they suggest about humanity in general, and me personally. However, this Biblical understanding of what went wrong in the world is part of our story and it’s vital if we are to understand ourselves and the world around us today. Indeed, just as a doctor needs to diagnosis the illness before treating it successfully, we need a detailed and accurate diagnosis of the human condition.
Interestingly, in this second wave of COVID-19 that is responsible for locking down my city of Melbourne, we are seeing an analogy of these doctrines. The analogy isn’t perfect but nonetheless, I think it is a poignant illustration. I’ll come to this analogy shortly.
It is worth noting that the phrase, ‘original sin’ has reappeared in our vocabulary over recent months. Original sin is now employed to help explain the current issue of racism in both Australia and in the United States, and to find its connection with historical slavery. There is some warrant for using this category in a sociological and historical manner, but theologically it comes unstuck. Europeans didn’t introduce sin to these shores, although we have urged it on, being living representations of the Christian doctrine of total depravity.
The Biblical notion of original sin begins in Genesis ch.3 where Adam and Eve doubted the truthfulness and goodness of God’s word by disobeying his clear instruction. The Apostle Paul traces every sinful thought, attitude, word and action back to this cataclysmic moment in the garden.
“Therefore, just as sin entered the world through one man, and death through sin, and in this way death came to all people, because all sinned” (Romans 5:12)
One of the resistances to the Biblical idea is the argument of justice. How can I be made responsible for the sin of another? Why should I pay the price for what someone else did thousands of years ago?
Just as the Bible explains sin’s origins in the one act of disobedience, it also explains how every human being chooses this path for themselves. Jesus responded to the Pharisees and teachers of the law in his day who argued for external adherence to religious laws by uncovering the heart of the issue,
“Don’t you see that nothing that enters a person from the outside can defile them? 19 For it doesn’t go into their heart but into their stomach, and then out of the body.” (In saying this, Jesus declared all foods clean.)
20 He went on: “What comes out of a person is what defiles them. 21 For it is from within, out of a person’s heart, that evil thoughts come—sexual immorality, theft, murder, 22 adultery, greed, malice, deceit, lewdness, envy, slander, arrogance and folly. 23 All these evils come from inside and defile a person.” (Mark 18-23)
In other words, we are responsible for our own hearts and the motives and lives that follow.
We may inherit the condition put in motion in Genesis ch.3, but we also embrace them. This doctrine of total depravity isn’t suggesting that we only transgress but that we are inclined to reject God and his righteousness and instead to create and justify our own moral truths, often with disastrous consequences. As God’s image bearers, we carry hints of the glory of God and exquisite glimmers of his purposes. That there is love among us is reflective of the fact that God is love. And yet, this image bearing is broken and we often take pride in this fracturing.
The Apostle Paul concludes his gut wrenching exposition of God’s justification for judging the world by saying,
“There is no one righteous, not even one;
there is no one who understands;
there is no one who seeks God.
All have turned away…” (Romans 3:10-12)
Let’s now turn to the analogy. It is believed that Melbourne’s second wave of COVID-19 began with a single source, connected with security guards working in hotel quarantine. One transgression has led to thousands of people contracting COVID-19 and a growing number now dying. The analogy that I want to draw your attention to isn’t so much virus but the chain of social disobediences that has ensued.
Every day there are dozens of people caught and fined for breaching the rules of the lockdown. Yesterday one Melbourne woman was arrested by police for flaunting the rules and posting her defiance on social media in front of police. Others, echoing that ancient serpent, “did God really say,” have insisted that they don’t need to follow the restrictions because they think the pandemic is a hoax.
The single actions of hotel security guards has led to the situation where we are in a serious medical and social situation. Can the Bunnings Karens blame these guards for their own actions? Should those refusing to wear masks or continuing to gather illegally in groups defer responsibility to those guards? Despite those original actions that has produced the crises in which we find ourselves, is not every Victorian responsible for their own actions? Of course.
The analogy does break down at this point: many Victorians (most) are complying with the restrictions, whereas the Bible explains how every person is sinful and breaks God’s intention for us, by nature and by choice. As I said at the beginning, the illustration isn’t perfect, but it shows how one action produces an environment where others do what is wrong. The former created the situation but the latter cannot use this as a defence for their own actions.
It is also true that while we are responsible for our own sins, we can also be victims of other peoples wilful and selfish behaviour. This is evident for everyone to see in this pandemic. Thousands of Victorians are now ill because some decided that following rules didn’t apply to them. Even yesterday, as police and ADF members visited the homes of Melbournians who’ve been diagnosed with COVID-19, some of these people couldn’t be found because they had decided to return to work.
We may disagree with original sin, but the world around us and even our own lives bear testimony to it.
There is, of course, good news. The problem of sin has an answer, but it’s not found from within but from an outside source. The God who responded to original sin by cursing creation also offered his own life as an atoning sacrifice for our sins,
Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us, for it is written: “Cursed is everyone who is hung on a pole.” “(Galatians 3:13)
“For just as through the disobedience of the one man the many were made sinners, so also through the obedience of the one man the many will be made righteous”. (Romans 5:19)