A widely held belief in the Christian world is that humans are born with the stain of original sin. Is this true? Is every baby born guilty of Adam’s sin?
Most people don’t look at babies and think of them as sinners deserving punishment. But a doctrine held by the largest Christian church teaches that babies are born with sin on their record.
This is known as the doctrine of original sin, and it is held (in one form or another) by some of the largest Christian denominations on earth.
What is the reasoning behind this doctrine? Is it true? Do babies inherit sin at birth? Is this what the Bible teaches about sin?
The doctrine of original sin and the fall of man
Though the idea can be traced back to multiple early Catholic writers, the theologian who did the most to develop the teaching was Augustine of Hippo. Augustine converted to Christianity from paganism nearly 300 years after the New Testament era.
The doctrine is based on the story of Adam and Eve. The interpretation is essentially that after Adam chose the forbidden fruit, his nature was altered and became inherently twisted and corrupt. But this change in nature didn’t just apply to Adam. According to Augustine and others, Adam’s sin resulted in the fall from grace of all human beings who came after him. This is often called the fall of man.
This view sees sin like a disease that is transmitted from parent to child before birth. Adam’s fall was the fall of all those who came from him—the entire human race. According to this view, not only did Adam and Eve’s offspring inherit Adam’s nature, but also his sin. Adam’s sin, or the original sin, as it came to be known, is seen as a stain on the soul that every human being is born with.
This is why many of the largest denominations who believe in original sin practice infant baptism. This baptism, usually by pouring water over the infant’s head, is done to remove original sin. For further insight into what the Bible teaches about this subject, read our online article “Infant Baptism.”
Did Adam’s sin pass on to his children?
Even though large segments of the Christian world adhere to these ideas, thinking Christians should look at doctrines that arose years after the New Testament record with a critical eye and ask: Is this rooted in the Bible—God’s inspired Word—or in the ideas of men?
First, the phrase original sin is found nowhere in the Bible. It was coined years after the Bible had been completed. Though Adam’s choice in Genesis 3 was certainly a sin, nowhere does the Genesis account say that his children inherited his sin. In fact, the first time the word sin appears in the Bible is when God warned Adam’s son Cain that “sin lies at the door” because of Cain’s anger issue (Genesis 4:6-7).
Certainly, Adam’s sin had consequences for his offspring. God proclaimed: “‘Behold, the man has become like one of Us, to know good and evil. And now, lest he put out his hand and take also of the tree of life, and eat, and live forever’—therefore the LORD God sent him out of the garden of Eden to till the ground from which he was taken” (Genesis 3:22-23).
So we see:
- Adam and Eve chose to disobey God—to sin—after being tempted by the first sinner, Satan (see our online article “Satan: A Profile”). Everyone since has made that same choice. Sin entered the human realm, and each person goes down that path by his or her own choice.
- Because sin and death entered the human realm, Adam and his family disconnected themselves from God. They could no longer enjoy the blessings and perfect environment of the Garden of Eden or have access to the opportunity to live forever (Genesis 3:19; Romans 6:23; Isaiah 59:2).
Without a doubt, the consequences of Adam’s choice had an enormous effect on the history of his offspring.
The book of Proverbs puts it this way: “Because they hated knowledge and did not choose the fear of the LORD, they would have none of my counsel and despised my every rebuke. Therefore they shall eat the fruit of their own way, and be filled to the full with their own fancies” (Proverbs 1:29-31).
In other words, Adam’s and his descendants’ choices to reject God and His way resulted in God’s cutting them off from Him and allowing them to experience “the fruit of their own way.” This is a reference to all the suffering they would bring on themselves by choosing the path of sin.
Sin is always a personal matter
When we look at the Bible’s teaching on sin, we see clearly that God always regards sin as a personal matter. In other words, sin is always imputed as a consequence of each individual’s choice to personally break the law of God (1 John 3:4).
Though a person’s sins can definitely result in physical consequences that impact others, the spiritual guilt falls only on the person who committed the sin.Though a person’s sins can definitely result in physical consequences that impact others, the spiritual guilt falls only on the person who committed the sin.
In the time of the prophet Ezekiel, there was a common belief that children somehow inherited the sins of their ancestors. This was expressed in a proverb that Ezekiel quoted: “The fathers have eaten sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge” (Ezekiel 18:2). This saying was so off base that God gave a detailed rebuttal of the idea of inherited sin (verses 3-32).
God’s refutation of this idea is summed up in verses 20 and 30: “The soul who sins shall die. The son shall not bear the guilt of the father, nor the father bear the guilt of the son. The righteousness of the righteous shall be upon himself, and the wickedness of the wicked shall be upon himself. … Therefore I will judge you, O house of Israel, every one according to his ways.”
The message is clear: God holds each individual accountable for his or her own personal sins. While sin’s consequences can impact future generations, God doesn’t hold people guilty for other people’s sins—not even Adam’s.
Jesus clearly taught that “whoever commits sin is a slave of sin” (John 8:34). People aren’t born a “slave of sin”—they become one when they first make the choice to commit sin. Many scriptures show that individuals carry only the guilt of their own personal sin (Isaiah 3:10-11; Jeremiah 17:10; Romans 14:12).
To learn more about the Bible’s teaching on sin, read “What Is Sin?”
Does Romans 5 teach original sin?
The scripture that is most often quoted by proponents of “original sin” is Romans 5:12. The beginning of that scripture reads, “Therefore, just as through one man sin entered the world, and death through sin, and thus death spread to all men …”
If you stop reading there, it could be interpreted to mean that death spread to “all men” because of the sin of the “one man” (Adam). But consider the last three words of the verse:
“…because all sinned” (emphasis added throughout).
Reading the last part as a whole makes it clear: “Death spread to all men because all sinned.” When Adam (the “one man”) chose to sin, sin entered the human realm (“the world”), and sin’s presence in the human realm resulted in the penalty of death (see Romans 6:23). Death, as a consequence of sin, spread to all men—because “all sinned.”
In other words, all of us have followed Adam’s example and sinned, therefore we all earned the same penalty he did. Paul wrote that clearly in Romans 3:23: “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.”
Born into a sinful world
No, we weren’t born with the stain of Adam’s sin on our soul or conscience. But we were born into a world that has followed the same basic path that Adam chose in the Garden—a world that chooses to live its own way apart from God, that embraces sin in its many forms, and that continues to be under the sway of that deceptive serpent (1 John 5:19).
But the good news is that we can choose to come out of this world by repenting of our sins and being forgiven through the sacrifice of Jesus Christ (Romans 5:15-19). Taking that step can lead you off the wide, sinful path blazed by Adam and onto the narrow, righteous path blazed by Jesus Christ.
Are We Born With an Evil Human Nature?
Little innocent babies start out at birth as just that—innocent, neither good nor evil. But all too soon we all absorb and acquire tendencies toward the selfish, self-centered attitude broadcast by Satan, the prince of the power of the air (Genesis 8:21; Ephesians 2:2). Over time, every human being is corrupted with selfishness, vanity and other negative thoughts.
Still, it’s important to realize we are not all evil, all the time! Adam and Eve, and all of us following, took of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil (Genesis 2:9; 3:6)—a mixture of good and bad. Have we not all seen wonderful examples of self-sacrifice, compassion, tenderness and love for fellow humans, even by people who at other times could do horrible things? From the beginning, the fruit of the forbidden tree has produced mixed results in human lives.
Yet humanity’s basic nature is still saturated with the spiritual influence of Satan, making what we call human nature fundamentally hostile to God’s nature: “The carnal mind is enmity against God; for it is not subject to the law of God, nor indeed can be” (Romans 8:7).
The good news, though, is that God has a plan to redeem mankind and bring all humanity back to His tree of life, and the wonderful news is that it is also by choice. God never forces His will on mankind, but gives people free will instead (Deuteronomy 30:19).
You can take steps today to begin to change your nature. You don’t have to succumb to the influence of the invisible god of this present evil world. With God’s help, you can change your nature as you change your life!
(Excerpted from our article “What Is Human Nature?”)