The Christian Doctrine of Original Sin

By Yasien Mohamed

Extracted with slight modifications from Fitra: The Islamic Concept of Human Nature © 1996 TA-HA Publishers Ltd. Taken from Islamic Psychology Online


Religions may be contrasted with secular philosophies in that the former recognise the transcendent principle of human nature while the latter tend to view man as a material being. Religions usually refer to this transcendent principle as the spirit or the soul in man. Most religions recognise three dimensions within man: body, mind and spirit. Secular theories of human nature tend to recognise only the body and sometimes the mind. Western psychologists such as Carl Jung recognise the spiritual dimension not as an independent unchanging reality, but as a part of the human psyche. Religions in general, with the exception of Hinayana Buddhism, recognise the spiritual dimension of man as a distinct unchanging reality of human nature. The first step towards self-knowledge is the recognition of our inmost spiritual essence which is universal in man and which is immortal. It is this innate spirituality which explains the urge at the heart of every man for betterment and self-realisation; and it is this human spirit which explains man’s capability to emerge out of darkness into light and goodness. This emergence has been the unfailing history of man: nothing can stop the human soul from projecting itself nearer to the source of all good, Allāh. Islām and Christianity both recognise this innate spirituality but they differ in the methods by which to attain to this self-realisation, and they also differ in the methods by which they attain to this self-realisation, and they also differ with respect to their views of innate human nature. For the Christian view I need to turn to the doctrine of original goodness in Islām. Such a comparison will bring into focus the divergent perspectives of human nature of two major religions of the world.

Christianity, in all the varied forms in which it exists today, is probably the largest religious movement. It emerged out of Judaism as a religion of salvation by faith. Christianity became a universal religion of redemption, and its world-renouncing strain has been strong for a great part of its history. Judaism and Islām were never so dominated by monasticism and the ideal of celibacy. This is not to say that Christianity did not have a world affirming strain in it. The Kingdom of God was an imminently arriving state of this earth. With emphasis on the person of Jesus, peace be upon him, rather than his preaching, salvation was to be by rather than his preaching, salvation was to be by faith-union with Jesus in his supposed death and resurrection. Jesus, peace be upon him, was exalted to heaven and acclaimed as Lord, Son of God, and the meaning of Messiah – an anointed prophet-king – was altered radically.

Paul was the main figure to work out Christian theology almost entirely in terms of the doctrine for man. Jesus’ two worlds are reinterpreted in terms of a great contrast between man in bondage to the flesh and man redeemed in Christ. This theology is set out in the first eight chapters of The Epistle to the Romans.[1] The flesh (sarx) is man in his weakness and the spirit (pneuma) is the Divine breath and power of life which makes man inwardly aware of himself as a person. The whole person is either bound to sin or redeemed in Christ. As a rabbinically trained Jew, Paul had to integrate his new gospel of salvation with the old doctrine of creation and so he began the development of the Christian epic story:

‘Creation had originally been perfect, but Adam fell and mankind has since been in bondage to sin; but through Christ, the second Adam or Last man, the world or mankind are being restored to their original perfection. Thus in the Christian doctrine of man the central theme is that Christ is the Creator[2]

To make this scheme more intelligible, Paul had to emphasise both the parallels and the contrasts between Adam and Christ, peace be upon both of them. Adam was first made in the image of God, but Christ is the true and final image of God. Adam’s disobedience plunged mankind into ruin, but Christ’s obedience restored mankind. Adam brought wrath and guilt upon mankind, Christ has brought grace and acquittal.

This contrast profoundly affected later Christian thought. The Christian doctrine of man has two themes, the Divine image and the Fall. Since the latter theme is more directly relevant to my discussion of original sin I shall focus on this aspect, Adam’s disobedience plunged the human race into ruin, and fallen man could not of himself do good, please God or gain salvation.

A good example of the classic Christian doctrine of man is Milton’s Christian epic Paradise Lost (1667). The themes are the special creation of man by God, the Divine image in man, original righteousness, the Fall through man’s disobedience, the curse on man and woman, and the ensuing original sin. This scheme was wrecked by Darwinism and today liberal and humanistic theologians take over the evolutionary view of man’s gradual ascent, seeing Christ as a pinnacle of human development. Others, such as Rudolph Bultman and Paul Tillich, have built their theology on an existentialist doctrine of man.

The Christian is born in sin and in an impure state, and cannot redeem himself by his own inner resources, but only through Christ. Salvation for the Christian is centred on an external entity – the mystical body of Christ in which the Christian must participate in order to be saved.

By contrast, in Islām the redemptive potential is centred in the individual himself, who engages in meaningful intercourse with the guidance provided by the Qur’ān and the Sunnah, Salvation in Islām depends on faith (īmān) and good conduct (ihsān), and not on faith alone. The Qur’ān emphasises the exertion of will, for ‘there is nothing for man but that which he strove for’. This notion of the will also has implications for responsibility. A person is responsible only for the manner in which he exercised his own will and not the will of other persons.

Christians believe that Christ has paid the wages of sin through his death, and having suffered for all men’s sins. Salvation is based on this faith. Without the doctrine of original sin there would be no need for a saviour and, consequently, the trinity, the crucifixion and the resurrection would become meaningless.

Islām rejects the premises of these doctrines, especially the concept of original sin which is alien to Islām and inconceivable to the Muslim mind. Islām has a different version of the Fall. Adam acknowledged that he had gone astray and sincerely sought Allāh’s forgiveness which was granted to him unconditionally. Adam and his progeny descended from bliss to the earth because of his error, and yet, none of his children inherited the blame for his error. The volitional implication of fitrah is that man is responsible for his own wrong actions. It is inconceivable to Muslim thinking that mankind should be punished for wrong actions that others did. The concept of Divine forgiveness features strongly in the Qur’ān, for Allāh accepts the sincere repentance of His slaves.

‘But the devil made them slip from it, and caused them to depart from the state in which they were. And We said, "Down with you and be henceforth enemies unto one another; and you shall have in the land a state of settledness and necessities of life for a period."

Then Adam received words (of guidance) from his Lord and He accepted his repentance: truly, He is the Acceptor of Repentance, the Compassionate.’ (Qur’ān 2:36-37)

Tawbah (literally, turning, i.e. away from wrong action, and to Allāh) or repentance plays a very significant and decisive role in a Muslim’s life. Although man is born in a state of original goodness or fitrah, he is also subject to temptation and folly. Allāh has granted him the ability and opportunity to repent which means that he should admit his errors and turn remorsefully away from them to Allāh.

Knowledge of Divine mercy as well as knowledge of the innate goodness of the human fitrah, serves three very important functions: firstly it gives the believer hope of salvation and success; secondly, it gives him confidence in his own potential to do right and resist wrong; thirdly, it exhorts and admonishes him to actively pursue all that is right and resist all that is wrong. These are the merits of sincere repentance. Just as the Prophet Adam, peace be upon him, repented and was pardoned for his wrong action, so may his descendents repent and be pardoned for their wrong actions.

Confession and penance is a fundamental pillar of the Roman Catholic Church, but for the rest of the Christian world it holds virtually no fundamental value. Belief in Christ as a Saviour is of primary importance, even for the Catholic who engages in penance mainly as a means of self-discipline or self-retribution. No amount of confession or repentance can save the Christian from the belief in Christ as the Saviour. Adherence to this doctrine can be problematic when viewed in the light of the doctrine of original sin.

Neither Islām, common sense or modern Western law, hold a person responsible for the deeds of someone else. Certain awkward questions may also be posed to the adherents of this doctrine. For example, does inheritance of Adam’s sin mean that man is born innately sinful or guilty of a sin he did not commit or both? Did Christ’s suffering change human nature or did it only absolve man of guilt for the sin he never committed, or both? If man is born innately evil and sinful why is he still capable of choosing good over evil? What happened to the souls before Christ who could have had the benefit of the latter’s alleged suffering; were they saved by the Saviour they neither knew nor acknowledged or were they just too unfortunate to be born at the wrong time? These questions are asked in all sincerity of the believing Christian whose faith every Muslim is required to respect.


Notes and References

[1] The hanīf (singular of hunafa’) is one who naturally rejects polytheism and idolatry while inclined towards acceptance of tawhīd. In the Qur’ānic context, the hanīf refers particularly to those who followed the faith of Ibrāhīm as well as those who accepted tawhīd during the Jāhiliyyah period. After the advent of the Prophet Muhammad, may Allāh bless him and grant him peace, the term acquired a more circumscribed meaning – one who follows the dīn of Muhammad, may Allāh bless him and grant him peace. Dr. Dasuqī cites Zaid ibn ‘Amr ibn Nufayl and Qais ibn Sa‘ada as examples of hunafā’ in pre-Islāmic times. A more well-known hanīf was Waraqa ibn Nawfal, the cousin of the Prophet’s wife, Khadījah.

[2] Don Cupitt, The Nature of Man, (London: Sheldon Press, 1979), pp. 33-34.