The Problematic Concept of a Sinful Human Nature
It is fashionable in some religious circles to teach that human nature is sinful, i.e., we all have a “sinful nature.” If this is supposed to mean merely that all accountable persons at some point sin, and need forgiveness, then the doctrine of a sinful nature is biblical (Romans 3:23; 1 John 1:8-10). However, the very words “sinful nature,” and much of the discussion surrounding it, often denote the doctrine of hereditary depravity. This is the idea that all humans inherit the sin of Adam in some way—we suffer due to this original sin, and therefore we all are inescapably sinful by nature. The biblical evidence militates against this idea, as we have shown previously (see Pinedo, 2009; Colley, 2004; Butt, 2004). The very concept of a sinful human nature is also philosophically problematic. Indeed, the concept of a sinful nature is plagued with difficulties even before the Bible is consulted.
Consider a preliminary remark concerning what it means to speak of a sinful human nature. To speak of human “nature” at all is to refer to qualities that are essential to all humans. Such characteristics cannot be accidental, or things that might become characteristic of a human as he develops, but might also not. Rather, aspects of human nature are inseparable from whatever it is that makes us human (with the possible exceptions of young children and the mentally ill). For example, we might admit that human nature is essentially rational (this is part of what differentiates us from animals), but not essentially football-loving, because there are plenty of humans who seem not (however mysteriously!) to appreciate football. Someone who thinks that we become sinful when we transgress God’s law does not believe in the essentially sinful human nature.
To ascribe a sinful nature to humanity, therefore, is to say that there is something sinful about being a human being. What part of our being might be accused of inherent sinfulness? If we think that a human being consists of a body and a soul, there are three possibilities: (1) The body could introduce guilt; (2) The soul could introduce guilt; (3) The union of body and soul could itself produce guilt.
First, someone could allege that sin comes as a result of our embodiment. Indeed, the idea that the body unavoidably mars the perfection of the soul has been popular at times. For example, the Gnostics taught that matter is intrinsically evil and is the source of all evil (see Renwick, 1982, 2:490). How may moral blame attach to human nature as it arises from our bodies? We are typically unprepared to blame purely material objects such as tables and chairs. Genes and brain matter are different from tables and chairs, but it is nonsensical to look for a difference that would give rise to moral guilt. As yet, there is no good explanation to convince us that evil arises simply from matter. (Yet, we might use our bodies to do wrong. Indeed, all sins are committed while we are “in the body” [2 Corinthians 5:10]).
On the other hand, someone who believes in sinful human nature might be (and probably is) referring to the status of the soul rather than the body. Before assessing the possibility of the essential blameworthiness of the human soul, consider that for someone to think of the soul as essentially sinful, there are some concepts of soul which he must reject. For example, the Aristotelian view of the soul as being the animating force of the body, or that which activates the body’s potential, does not allow for the human to “start out” as blameworthy. Guilt, on this view, cannot arise from outside of the human order, because Aristotle does not posit a supernatural being to ascribe the guilt. Furthermore, humans could not possibly claim to know that a newborn baby was already guilty if they did not think that God had ascribed guilt to the baby from outside the human order.
Likewise, the Stoic idea of a Universe-Soul is problematic for the idea of an essentially sinful soul. If we all share in the same soul, which also gives life to everything else in the Universe, then to ascribe guilt to that soul would be to say that everything is altogether evil. If everything is evil, how would we know what good is? And what is the point of discussing sinful human nature if we think there is no rescue from it?
There are other conceptions of soul that would a priori disallow a sinful nature. If we presuppose, however, that the soul is distinct from the body (i.e., it is its own, separable substance) and comes to the body from elsewhere (from heaven or wherever), then we have at least a format that might allow for the essential guilt of the soul. In this format, we are free to suppose that the soul acquires guilt prior to entering the body, at which time human nature is indeed guilty. There are two problems with this, however: (1) We could not know about such an arrangement unless it were revealed to us. Plato’s theory of reincarnation is beautiful and interesting, but like other theories of reincarnation, is not readily amenable to proof (Socrates’ “proofs” in the Meno [Plato, 1997, pp. 870-897] and the Phaedo [pp. 49-100] are notoriously problematic). A person has just as much reason to deny the existence of souls prior to their embodiment as he does to assert such existence, because the spiritual realm does not appear to us. (2) Most people who want to establish sinful human nature presumably would not be interested in the guilt of a soul prior to embodiment, because sin is supposed to be passed along from one embodied soul to another embodied soul. If we suppose that a new soul acquires guilt while it waits in heaven to be born into the world, we would need an additional story about where this guilt comes from. Such a story does not seem to be forthcoming. Because reincarnation is not evident (and seldom proposed by supporters of the sinful human nature), then there is no obvious way to ascribe the sin of a previous human to a soul not yet embodied.
The only remaining option is that the soul becomes sinful at the time when it is embodied, at the occasion of the union of soul and body. If the soul is innocent prior to embodiment—and as we have seen, there is no obvious reason to think it guilty—then the body is the substance that is responsible for the guilt in the union. We have already shown the difficulty of associating blame with matter. Furthermore, recall that the common view of sinful nature is that we have inherited the sins of an ancestor. His soul was guilty, not because of contact with matter, but because of his own sinful volition. This was the “original” sin. Guilt was introduced on this occasion, but did not exist prior. This ancestor did not inherit guilt, so matter, at least in his case, did not bring sin. Why should we think matter brings sin in our case?
One response in favor of sinful nature might be that it is a spiritual, theological matter, and thus a philosopher will not find it if he searches for it (e.g., Hodge, 2010). This is an appeal to the limits of philosophy, and would be a well-taken point if God had revealed a logically coherent doctrine of original sin that was not obvious apart from revelation. However, He has not done this. In fact, He has revealed information to the opposite effect. Glory be to God, Who does not blame us for the sins of our ancestors (Ezekiel 18:20).
Butt, Kyle (2004), “Do Children Inherit the Sins of Their Parents?,” http://www.apologeticspress.org/articles/2543.
Colley, (2004), “Did David Authorize Infant Baptism?,” http://www.apologeticspress.org/articles/2626.
Hodge, Bodie, “Is Original Sin (Sin Nature) Passed through the Father’s Genetic Line?,” http://www.answersingenesis.org/articles/2010/02/23/satan-the-fall-good-evil-how-is-original-sin-passed.
Pinedo, Moisés (2009), “Are Children Born With Sin?,” http://www.apologeticspress.org/articles/240109.
Plato, Complete Works, ed. John M. Cooper (Indianapolis, IN: Hackett).
Renwick, A. M. (1982), “Gnosticism,” The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, ed. Geoffrey W. Bromiley (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans).