Original sin and the Imago Dei

GODIn Colonial days students learned to read from The New England Primer, which featured a number of Christian maxims such as, “In Adam’s Fall, we sinned all.”

This statement, like others in the Primer, incorporated biblical truths into basic education. From childhood, students came to understand that all human beings are sinful and fallen creatures.

While many schools today abandon these truths in favor of relativism, syncretism, and multiculturalism, many Christian parents instill in their children the reality that sin has marred the Imago Dei – or image of God – in their lives.

We use Scripture to explain our depraved state: “We all went astray like sheep; we all have turned to our own way” (Isa. 53:6); “The heart is more deceitful than anything else and desperately sick” (Jer. 17:9); and, “For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Rom. 3:23).

These truths go against the grain of our feel-good culture but are intended to drive us to the foot of the cross, where the blood of Jesus cleanses us from all sin. And for that, we owe an eternal debt of gratitude to our great God.

At the same time, both Scripture and experience remind us that while we await glorification, we must engage in a daily battle between the flesh and the indwelling Spirit (Gal. 5:17).

Natural-born sinners?

But have we gone too far with the concept of original sin? By insisting that we are born with a “sin nature,” are we saying that God fashioned us in our mothers’ wombs as sinners, implying that God is at least partly responsible for our wretched flesh?

Christian apologist Paul Copan addresses this issue in How Do You Know You’re Not Wrong? He argues that, unintentionally, we may twist Adam’s fall into an accusation that God makes us sinners.

A better approach, says Copan, is to understand that God never engages in evil and always creates only that which is good. Rather than saying we are created with a sin nature, it may be more biblically accurate to say we are created in the image of God – which is good – but because of Adam’s sin, that image has been tainted.

It’s a subtle difference, but an important one. It maintains the holiness and goodness of God, while acknowledging that Adam’s fall truly impacts all human lives.

If Copan’s nuanced depiction of original sin is correct, it may help us better understand at least three important Christian beliefs.

The Imago Dei

First, the Imago Dei is completely good. Yes, sin has stained it, but that charge cannot be laid at God’s feet. Yes, we all have a natural inclination to sin, and ultimately we all commit sins and come into desperate need of Christ’s redemption, but we are not born with a fatalistic, sinful software that determines when and how we sin.

That leads to a second important belief: There is an age of accountability. While Scripture does not directly address this, many of us believe that unborn children, infants, and young children who die go into the presence of God rather than to hell as “natural-born sinners.”

In other words, a more correct understanding of original sin upholds the biblical doctrine of personal responsibility – or, as some call it, free will. Being made in the image of God – who has personality, mind, and will – we are entrusted with the ability to make choices for which we are held accountable.

For God to condemn children to hell before they grasp the concept of sin and its consequences, and before they are able to respond to the gospel, goes against the justice of God.

Third, there is the Christian belief in final judgment. Some wonder about those who haven’t heard the gospel. Do they get a pass? The doctrine of original sin says no. While many people have not heard the gospel, God has revealed Himself – including His eternal power and divine nature – to everyone through creation and conscience.

Rather than turning to the revealed Creator, unbelievers choose to go their own way, and for that decision they have “no defense” (see Rom. 1:18-23).

No doubt original sin is an important biblical truth. But a clearer understanding of it may help us better appreciate the Imago Dei, our God-given right to make decisions, and the inescapable truth that those who reject Christ for any reason have no legitimate defense.