The Myths of
Christianity - 2
One Sunday night when I was a young priest I came
home from evensong, had my supper and was reading the newspaper when the
phone rang. It was a ward sister at a local hospital, asking if I would go
to the hospital immediately, because parishioners of mine were in need of
The Myth of Original Sin
I hastened over to the hospital and found a man I knew slightly who
informed me that his wife had just given birth to premature triplets who
were not expected to live out the night and would I please baptise them.
This kind of ceremony is called emergency baptism and I agreed to do it
immediately. I was taken to the room where the three tiny scraps of
life were lying in incubators and I asked for a cup of water. Then I
reached into the containers where they lay and marked each child's head
with water and baptised all three of them 'In the name of the Father and
of the Son and of the Holy Spirit', according to the ancient formula. They
all died a few hours later.
What I had done was an act of pastoral care for the parents of the
tiny babies and it did, indeed, provide them with a certain bleak comfort.
I had responded to the request of the parents out of care for them, but
behind the practice of emergency baptism there lies one of the most
unsympathetic of the Christian doctrines. It is the doctrine that the
unbaptised go to hell after death, hence the need to administer baptism
without preparation in situations of imminent death.
The doctrine was later slightly modified in the case of babies who, though
they were born guilty of original sin like everyone else, had not had time
to commit any actual sins, so they had their sentences commuted to
eternity in the limbo puerorum, a suburb of hell, from the Latin
limbus for edge or border.
Voltaire claims that limbo was invented by Peter Chrysologos in the fifth
century as a sort of mitigated hell for babies who died before baptism,
'and where resided the patriarchs before the descent of Jesus Christ into
hell; so that the view that Jesus Christ descended to limbo and not into
hell has prevailed since then'.
Thinking about the fate of unbaptised babies in the Christian tradition is
the cleanest way to tackle the doctrine of original sin, because it saves
us from getting mixed up with the doctrine of punishment for sins
committed rather than inherited, actual sin as contrasted with original
There is a certain moral logic in the notion of punishment after death for
sins actually committed in life and most of the great religions have
versions of it. Buddhism and Hinduism see it more as a process of
impersonal consequences rather than as the personally imposed punishment
by God we find in the Christian tradition, but there is a certain logic in
either approach: what you sow you reap, acts have consequences.
In the doctrine of punishment after death by God there may be more than a
trace of the resentment that Nietzsche despised in the Christian
tradition, the hatred of the weak for the strong and their longing to get
even with them, even if they had to wait for the afterlife in which to do
so. There may also be an instinctive sense of justice of the sort
expressed in the parable of Dives and Lazarus.
In that parable, versions of which are found in various religious
traditions, the rich man implores Abraham for a little comfort and is
refused it, because he'd already used up his comfort account: "He called
out, 'Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus to dip the tip of
his finger in water and cool my tongue; for I am in agony in these
flames.' But Abraham said, 'Child, remember that during your lifetime you
received your good things, and Lazarus in like manner evil things; but now
he is comforted here, and you are in agony.'"
Even if we do not believe in the morality of eternal punishment for
temporal crimes, we can follow the reasoning that leads to the concept of
the afterlife as a place where the inequalities of this life are evened
out and balanced up. Many of our most ancient stories are based on this
deep longing for justice and for wrongs to be righted and villains to be
punished, and since it does not seem to happen in this life in any
balanced or systematic way, it is easy to understand how the human
imagination projected the final reckoning on to the afterlife. Whatever we
make of this kind of thing ourselves, it is easy to understand its moral
logic and even to admire its effectiveness as a deterrent to wickedness.
The Christian doctrine of original sin and its remedy lacks this kind
of moral dimension, because it reduces the matter to the application of a
ceremony that wipes out the balance sheet of sin, whether original, actual
or both, simply by virtue of its enactment. This was one reason why
baptism was abused in the early Church among those who wanted the best of
both worlds, this one and the next.
Voltaire gives a mordant example of the abuse: 'This sacrament was
abused in the first centuries of Christianity; nothing was so common as to
await the final agony in order to receive baptism. The example of the
emperor Constantine is pretty good proof of that. This is how he reasoned:
baptism purifies everything; I can therefore kill my wife, my son and all
my relations; after which I shall have myself baptised and I shall go to
heaven; and in fact that is just what he did'.
The specifically Christian element in the ancient drama of human folly
and frailty, therefore, seems to have two ethically dubious elements, one
of which is the doctrine of original sin itself and the other the claim
that, by the application of a particular ceremony, the debt inherited by
the plaintiff can be converted to credit in the divine balance sheet. Both
of these elements seem to reduce the resolution of the human drama to a
mental act, the holding of a particular opinion, followed by a ceremony
that is automatically, if mystically, efficacious.
This is not a phenomenon that is confined to Christianity, but there it
has created a specific kind of mentalism called dogmatism, which is the
belief that holding right ideas in our head can save us from damnation,
just as holding wrong ones can condemn us to it. As Montaigne would have
put it, this is rating our conjectures very highly indeed.
How did it all come about?
Well, we cannot blame the story of the tempting of Adam and Eve in the
Hebrew scriptures, because the doctrine of original sin and consequent
congenital guilt is not found there, as we will discover when we read
chapter 3 of Genesis:
Now the serpent was more crafty than any other wild
animal that the Lord God had made. He said to the woman, "Did God say,
'You shall not eat from any tree in the garden'?" The woman said to the
serpent, "We may eat of the fruit of the trees in the garden; but God
said, 'You shall not eat of the fruit of the tree that is in the middle of
the garden, nor shall you touch it, or you shall die.' " But the serpent
said to the woman, "You will not die; for God knows that when you eat of
it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and
So when the woman saw that the tree was good for food,
and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired
to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate; and she also gave some to
her husband, who was with her, and he ate. Then the eyes of both were
opened, and they knew that they were naked; and they sewed fig leaves
together and made loincloths for themselves.
They heard the sound of the Lord God walking in the
garden at the time of the evening breeze, and the man and his wife hid
themselves from the presence of the Lord God among the trees of the
garden. But the Lord God called to the man, and said to him, "Where are
you?" He said, "I heard the sound of you in the garden, and I was afraid,
because I was naked; and I hid myself." He said, "Who told you that you
were naked? Have you eaten from the tree of which I commanded you not to
eat?" The man said, "The woman whom you gave to be with me, she gave me
fruit from the tree, and I ate." Then the Lord God said to the woman,
"What is this that you have done?" The woman said, "The serpent tricked
me, and I ate."
The Lord God said to the serpent, "Because you have done
this, cursed are you among all animals and among all wild creatures; upon
your belly you shall go, and dust you shall eat all the days of your life.
I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring
and hers; he will strike your head, and you will strike his heel."
To the woman he said, "I will greatly increase your
pangs in childbearing; in pain you shall bring forth children, yet your
desire shall be for your husband, and he shall rule over you."
And to the man he said, "Because you have listened to
the voice of your wife, and have eaten of the tree about which I commanded
you, 'You shall not eat of it,' cursed is the ground because of you; in
toil you shall eat of it all the days of your life; thorns and thistles it
shall bring forth for you; and you shall eat the plants of the field. By
the sweat of your face you shall eat bread until you return to the ground,
for out of it you were taken; you are dust, and to dust you shall return."
The man named his wife Eve, because she was the mother
of all living.
And the Lord God made garments of skins for the man and
for his wife, and clothed them.
Then the Lord God said, "See, the man has become like
one of us, knowing good and evil; and now, he might reach out his hand and
take also from the tree of life, and eat, and live forever" therefore the
Lord God sent him forth from the garden of Eden, to till the ground from
which he was taken. He drove out the man; and at the east of the garden of
Eden he placed the cherubim, and a sword flaming and turning to guard the
way to the tree of life.
Whatever we make of this ancient narrative, it says nothing about the
transmission to humanity of Adam's guilt and it is interpreted by Jewish
scholars as an allegory of the human condition, not a historic event. It
is a myth, not a factual account of a real event.
Paul seems to have been the first person in the Christian tradition to
treat it as a historic event from which conclusions could be drawn and
consequences measured. His account comes in his Letter to the Romans,
Therefore, just as sin came into the world through one
man, and death came through sin, and so death spread to all because all
If, because of the one man's trespass, death exercised
dominion through that one, much more surely will those who receive the
abundance of grace and the free gift of righteousness exercise dominion in
life through the one man, Jesus Christ.
Therefore just as one man's trespass led to condemnation
for all, so one man's act of righteousness leads to justification and life
for all.  For just as by the one man's disobedience the many were made
sinners, so by the one man's obedience the many will be made righteous.