Hey, theology fans. It’s time once again for your friendly neighborhood SF-theologian to help you understand complicated Christian theological concepts with the aid of science fiction metaphors. Like that time when I reconciled Divine Sovereignty and Free Will with the concept of the multiverse. No, really, go back and read that one, I still think it was my best column ever.
However today we’re going to take on an even more contentious theological concept: Original Sin. By the way, some of my readers have questioned why my theology columns tend to be centered around Christianity and not other religious traditions. And the answer is simple: I’d rather write as though I knew what I was talking about, and my knowledge of Islamic theology is… “abbreviated” might be the kindest word, and my familiarity with Buddhist and Hindu theology is superficial.
Original Sin is a difficult concept even for Christians, because it challenges, at a rather deep level, the concept of Divine Justice. If all are guilty of sin, and have been so since birth, then what does become of those who die before ever reaching an age to be aware of the concept of “sin,” much less to be able to repent of those sins and trust in Christ for their soul’s salvation? The Church, in all its forms, has wrestled greatly with this, as indeed it must. The Scriptures, after all, declare that all have sinned and come short of the glory of God (Romans 3:23). Protestants tend to assume that children are not blamed for sins they cannot recognize, or held accountable until they reach some sort of status as reasoning humans. The Catholic Church has at times embraced the concept of Limbo, as portrayed in Dante, as a sort of hell without punishment. This goes along with the Catholic feeling that there is a sort of dual existence of the human soul: an individual soul that may die without having committed sin, and a collective aspect of the soul that is nonetheless stained with the sin of being human.
I object to, not the doctrine of Original Sin, but this way of looking at it. Because it seems nonsensical that there are two types of sin, and yet the Bible seems to speak as if there must be. How do we solve this problem, then? What is this defect in the character of man that dooms him to sin, and how does it “work?”
I’d like to argue that the problem here is that Christians have forgotten two vital facts about the New Testament documents. Firstly, that they were written by, for, and about adults. They do not concern themselves with children. Secondly, that they are not at all interested in proving themselves to be ethically perfect by satisfying all possible questions. Rather, they are like instruction manuals which assume a certain commonality of situation in their readers, in this case, a Christian community that has the intent to spread the Gospel and is subject to certain criticisms from society.
In this way, I would argue that statements about “Original Sin” are analogous to a statement that might be made about wearing a leaky spacesuit. You might say, to someone wearing a leaky spacesuit, “You’re going to die.” And that would be accurate, assuming that at some point this person is going to venture outside, where wearing a leaky spacesuit would be fatal. You wouldn’t necessarily bother to explain that, hey, it’s okay if you stay indoors, because you know anyone in the position of having a spacesuit at all is likely intending to go outside.
Essentially, the doctrine of Original Sin means that we are all born with leaky spacesuits. It does not mean that all people everywhere, no matter what age, are actually guilty of sin, anymore than putting on a leaky spacesuit causes you to drop dead inside the space station. But the fact of the matter is that if you use that spacesuit, you will die, and it doesn’t really matter whether you knew the spacesuit was leaky or were ever trained in the use of spacesuits. It is a natural consequence of using a leaky spacesuit in vacuum.
Likewise, death is the natural result of sin. And by the time we are able to understand the doctrine of Original Sin, all of us have committed deliberate sin, because it is the natural state of humans to sin, once we are in a position to choose between what we know is right and what we know is wrong. And for that, it is just that we are held accountable, and it is this from which Christ must save us. And I don’t have an analogy for what that looks like yet. A rescue vessel that can save the fatally vacuum-injured, perhaps?
I know that this topic inevitably brings up many other questions. Such as “Well, what about people who don’t ever hear about Christ and can’t make a choice to accept His grace?” as well as many others. I’m afraid those will have to wait for a future column, as the topic is as vast as space itself. As with other analogies, if they make sense, use them, and if they don’t, chuck them out the airlock. They are only as useful as they are instructive, which is the best any of us can do.
About the Author
G. Scott Huggins makes his money by teaching history at a private school, proving that he knows more about history than making money. He loves writing fiction, both serious and humorous. If you want serious, Writers of the Future XV features “Bearing the Pattern.” If you like to laugh, “Phoenix For The Amateur Chef” is coming out in Sword and Sorceress 30. When he is not teaching or writing, he devotes himself to his wife, their three children, and his cat. He loves good bourbon, bacon, and pie. If you have any recipes featuring one or more of these things, Mr. Huggins will be pleased to review them, if accompanied by a sample.