Original Sin 2 – Inherited Guilt

Before we can begin any discussion of Original Sin, of course, I think it’s important to provide some context and definition for the idea we will be discussing. (Or on which I’ll be having a monologue if nobody else has anything to say.) When I use the term, I have in mind the idea, first articulated as such by St. Augustine, that when Adam sinned, we all — as his descendants — participated in his sin and are thus born already judged guilty by God of Adam’s sin and, as a result of Adam’s actions, condemned to death and eternal punishment in hell. In other words, the entire concept hinges on the idea of inherited guilt. As the sons and daughters of Adam and Eve, we are held accountable for their actions and crimes against God’s law. We are born juridically condemned for their acts. We are judged guilty at birth even though we have not yet decided or done anything ourselves.

Now, let’s consider this idea of inherited guilt apart from anything to do with Christianity, faith, or spirituality for a minute. A pretty simple story, a thought experiment if you will, should help put this idea into context.

Let’s say there was a notorious Nazi guard at Auschwitz during WWII. This guard actively participated in the torture and mass execution of many, many people. He was known and feared by many in the concentration camp and remembered by the survivors. Yet, in the confusion at the end of the war, he managed to escape, change his name, and build a new life for himself. Over time, he married, had three children, thirteen grandchildren, and five great-grandchildren, the youngest of whom is just two weeks old. Finally, as an old man, his true identity is discovered and he is prosecuted for the crimes against humanity he committed as an Auschwitz prison guard. In due course, the international court finds him guilty of those crimes and sentences him to life in prison.

However, the court does not stop there. It also finds that as his direct descendants, his three children, thirteen grandchildren, and five great-grandchildren (even the youngest who is now six months old in the narrative of our thought experiment) are also guilty of crimes against humanity. As the Nazi guard’s descendants, they are equally guilty for the acts of their ancestor, even though they had no knowledge of those actions and the acts themselves occurred long before they were even born. They share the same judicial condemnation and sentence as their ancestor. They are all sentenced to life in prison without any possibility of parole from the oldest to the youngest.

Would we call that justice? And yet it is precisely the scenario put forth by those who teach that juridical guilt can be and is inherited. At a later juncture, I will probably explore some of the historical framework and context for the development of this idea. But this post should help put into context the idea of “original sin” that I will be exploring in this series.

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