After Adam and Eve sin spread rapidly throughout the human race. They were guilty of pride and disobedience, while their son Cain committed fratricide. Cain’s descendants soon forgot about God and set about organizing their earthly existence. Cain himself ‘built a city’. One of his closest descendants was ‘the father of those who dwell in tents and have cattle’; another was ‘the father of all those who play the lyre and pipe’; yet another was ‘the forger of all instruments of bronze and iron’ (Gen 4:17-22). The establishment of cities, cattle-breeding, music and other arts were thus passed onto humankind by Cain’s descendants as a surrogate of the lost happiness of Paradise.
The consequences of the Fall spread to the whole of the human race. This is elucidated by St. Paul: ‘Therefore as sin came into the world through one man and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all men sinned’ (Rom 5:12). This text, which formed the Church’s basis of her teaching on ‘original sin’, may be understood in a number of ways: the Greek words ef’ ho pantes hemarton may be translated not only as ‘because all men sinned’ but also ‘in whom [that is, in Adam] all men sinned’. Different readings of the text may produce different understandings of what ‘original sin’ means.
If we accept the first translation, this means that each person is responsible for his own sins, and not for Adam’s transgression. Here, Adam is merely the prototype of all future sinners, each of whom, in repeating Adam’s sin, bears responsibility only for his own sins. Adam’s sin is not the cause of our sinfulness; we do not participate in his sin and his guilt cannot be passed onto us.
However, if we read the text to mean ‘in whom all have sinned’, this can be understood as the passing on of Adam’s sin to all future generations of people, since human nature has been infected by sin in general. The disposition toward sin became hereditary and responsibility for turning away from God sin universal. As St. Cyril of Alexandria states, human nature itself has ‘fallen ill with sin’; thus we all share Adam’s sin as we all share his nature. St. Macarius of Egypt speaks of ‘a leaven of evil passions’ and of ‘secret impurity and the abiding darkness of passions’, which have entered into our nature in spite of our original purity. Sin has become so deeply rooted in human nature that not a single descendant of Adam has been spared from a hereditary predisposition toward sin.
The Old Testament writers had a vivid sense of their inherited sinfulness: ‘Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity, and in sin did my mother conceive me’ (Ps 51:7). They believed that God ‘visits the iniquity of the fathers upon the children to the third and the fourth generation’ (Ex 20:5). In the latter words reference is not made to innocent children but to those whose own sinfulness is rooted in the sins of their forefathers.
From a rational point of view, to punish the entire human race for Adam’s sin is an injustice. But not a single Christian dogma has ever been fully comprehended by reason. Religion within the bounds of reason is not religion but naked rationalism, for religion is supra-rational, supra-logical. The doctrine of original sin is disclosed in the light of divine revelation and acquires meaning with reference to the dogma of the atonement of humanity through the New Adam, Christ: ‘...As one man’s trespass led to condemnation for all men, so one man’s act of righteousness leads to acquittal and life for all men. For as by one man’s disobedience many were made sinners, so by one man’s obedience many will be made righteous... so that, as sin reigned in death, grace also might reign through righteousness to eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord’ (Rom 5:18-21).