For three summers during college, I worked as a counselor at a Christian camp. Each day began with Bible classes for children, followed by a variety of outdoor education opportunities. One morning while gathering fishing gear, I was accosted by three distressed elementary-aged boys. “It’s all our fault!” they exclaimed. “Boys are the ones who pass down sin.”
They had been schooled that morning on inherited corruption and original sin. The concept of original sin was introduced to Christianity by Augustine in the fourth century. This theological proposition, along with its companion notion of penal substitutionary atonement?—?a theory formalized by John Calvin in the 16th century?—?remain influential in multiple streams of contemporary western Christianity. The premise is that Adam and Eve’s guilt are handed down to subsequent generations through something akin to a “sin gene” that condemns all humans to a state of sinfulness and eternal damnation, a situation that could be remedied only by Jesus suffering the death penalty we deserve.
“There is no Want of Power in God to cast wicked Men into Hell at any Moment. … He is not only able to cast wicked Men into Hell, but he can most easily do it. … They deserve to be cast into Hell. … Justice calls aloud for an infinite Punishment of their Sins.” — Jonathan Edwards, “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God: Sermon on the Danger of the Unconverted”
This theology is flawed in its conceptions of God, Jesus, sin and atonement. Original sin and penal substitutionary atonement presuppose a God who is harshly punitive?—?who, in response to an ancient choice by two people at the beginning of time, punishes the rest of humanity forever. In contrast to the Johannine assertion that God is love (1 John 4:8) and Paul’s claim that love keeps no record of wrongs (1 Corinthians 13:5), it presents a God who keeps a ledger of sins until our guilt is expiated and/or God is appeased through torture and death. In this theology, we find not a unified triune God but multiple deities or, at the very least, a single deity working at cross purposes. One wrathful and demanding divine being is pitted against another who loves and forgives freely even before his blood is spilt (Matthew 9:2, 18:22; Luke 23:34; John 8:11, 20:19–23).
The concepts of original sin and penal substitutionary atonement represent a narrowing of understandings of Jesus, sin and salvation. For example, the traditional “Sinner’s Prayer” demands that folks enter the faith from a single point of need (personal sin) with a single understanding of Jesus (forgiver of sins) through a single dramatic conversion experience.
By contrast, the earliest Christian communities encountered Jesus at their pressing points of need, beginning a journey of ongoing conversion. For the Palestinian communities, which longed for liberation from Roman oppression, Jesus was the messianic Son of Man and coming judge. For the Jerusalem community, with its vision of a messianic age of radical interdependence, Jesus was the risen, crucified one who interpreted Torah and created community. The early Pauline communities, wracked by the confusions of polytheism and servitude to a capricious human lord, met in Jesus a single true Lord who was the incarnation of a benevolent Creator.
Original sin and penal substitutionary atonement overlook the breadth and depth of sin and atonement. With the focus on the individual, this theology overlooks the full impact of the fall and, therefore, overlooks the full impact of redemption. Did Jesus die simply because someone used a “bad” word or had inappropriate sexual relations? Or, in fact, is something much larger being addressed? When humanity fell, all the created order was affected. Violence, suffering, discord and death came, not only to human beings, but to all of creation. So, too, must the ministry, death and resurrection of Jesus affect all of reality. Beyond individual morality and personal salvation lie a cosmic problem and a cosmic solution. This truth is lost in narrowed understandings of sin and atonement?—?perhaps by design, as theologian Matthew Fox suggests:
“It’s no coincidence that Augustine lived in the fourth century, which is when Christianity took over the Roman Empire. If you’re going to run an empire, original sin is a useful idea, because it keeps your subjects confused about whether they even have a right to exist. … When you’ve tied yourself in knots about whether you’re deserving or not, you fall into line. You seek approval from outside authorities. You do as you’re told. You subjugate others in the name of Christ, which is what the Christian empire has been doing for centuries.” — The Mystic and The Warrior, interview in The Sun, July 2015)
Traditional efforts to literally scare the hell out of people can and have caused significant damage, especially to children. The notion that true conversion hinges on a single emotional experience in which sin is confessed and atonement received is a case in point. As 19th-century theologian and critic of American Revivalism Horace Bushnell maintained, the approach leaves children spiritually disenfranchised, rendering them guilty of sin, while they lack the developmental maturity to undergo such an experience of conversion.
Nearly 40 years after my time as a camp counselor (from which I have many happy memories), I continue to think of those young boys at the fishing shed. They were deeply disturbed by a theology that proclaimed them not only to be sinners but also to be responsible for the sinfulness of subsequent generations. I wonder, and I pray, that those boys had later teachings about?—?and more importantly experiences with?—?the gentle hands of a loving God.
The Rev. Cassandra Carkuff Williams, Ed.D., is director of ABHMS’ Discipleship Ministries and author of “Learning the Way: Reclaiming Wisdom from the Earliest Christian Communities.” First published in The Christian Citizen March 29, 2018.