The first humans, Adam and Eve, created in innocence and beauty by a loving God, chose to follow the way of the serpent instead of the way of their Creator. Genesis 3 recounts how, rather than enjoy intimacy with their Creator, the first humans chose to heed the seductive whispers of Satan that, if they ate the one fruit God had ruled off-limits, “You will be like God” (Genesis 3:5). They “worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator” (Romans 1:25)—and they plunged the human race into sin and corruption and death. Those made to be like God decided that they would try to be God. Those created to know God struck out for a world where they hoped there would be no God.
We tend to think of sin as a kind of benign mistake. Comedians joke about their sins. Christians smile benevolently and excuse themselves and each other for their sins (often while bemoaning those of other people outside their church or social bracket). Chocolate is marketed as “sinfully delicious.” Well, chocolate is just chocolate. But real sin always promises to taste delicious and it always lies. And it didn’t take long for Adam’s eating from the forbidden tree to bear rotten fruit. It embedded a deep and pervasive corruption in human hearts, a corruption that “brings forth death” (James 1:15). Sin is no plaything. Sin is devastating.
A Deal with the Devil
Sin is what dehumanizes us. To be fully human is to enjoy bearing God’s image, in the joy of relationship with him. But sinful humanity flees the relationship for which they were made—Adam and Eve used the garden God had given them to seek to hide from him (Genesis 3:8). And sin causes us to dehumanize others. Happy in God, to be fully human is to enjoy trusting, other-centered relationships with other image-bearing humans. But sinful humans seek to distance themselves in mistrust, and to use others in selfishness. Adam and Eve covered themselves up in each other’s presence, and Adam then sought to blame Eve for his own sin in order to excuse himself before God (7, 12).
A rejection of the image-giver always results in injustice against image-bearers. Death flows downhill from sin. Adam and Eve’s son Cain, riven by envy and driven by anger, struck out against his brother Abel and committed the first act of bloodshed. Listen to the words of rebuke that God issues toward Cain in response to his act of murder:
And the Lord said, “What have you done? The voice of your brother’s blood is crying to me from the ground. And now you are cursed from the ground, which has opened its mouth to receive your brother’s blood from your hand.” (Genesis 4:10-11)
Cain slew Abel when nobody was looking. He hid the body. He had, it seemed, pulled off the perfect crime. And yet . . . the Creator who formed and fashioned Abel in His image says to Cain that this innocent blood cries up to him from the ground.
Violence against a fellow human is a direct assault on the authority of God. To strike at an image-bearer is to strike at the One in whose image that person was created. The kings of God’s Old Testament people who rightly worshiped God always knocked down the graven images of other gods. To strike down an icon of a god was to say that that god was no longer the object of worship. Abel was made in the image of God; and so is every other human.
The ground has been soaking up such blood for thousands of years now. It still is. Since Eden, the human race has been repeating this cycle of violence and death. Holocausts happen because humans, corrupted by sin, turn on one another. The most terrible, as well as the most common, de-humanizing is not a strange throwback to a more medieval era. It is the rotten fruit of the human race’s deal with the devil.
ISIS and Original Sin
The biblical concept of original sin states simply that humans, as a result of Adam’s choice, are fundamentally corrupted by sin (Romans 5:12). Among the physical and personality characteristics parents pass onto their children, two things are always handed down: sin and death. As King David put it, “I was sinful at birth, sinful from the time my mother conceived me” (Psalm 51:5, NIV). There are degrees of goodness in each of us as well as shades of corruption in each of us. Those who don’t follow God are capable, by their God-given design, of being loving and doing good. But all of us do have a natural inclination to turn inward and worship ourselves and turn outward in violence against our fellow image-bearers.
Flowing from that is the doctrine of “total depravity”—the truth that, though humans are not as bad as they could be, no human act is as good as it could and should be because everything is tainted by our natural rejection of God as God.
It’s not chic in polite society to speak of humans as depraved. Most modern philosophy offers some version of the idea that humans are basically good creatures and only act violently as a result of a disadvantaged environment. It is, of course, true that a variety of systemic and social factors do play a role in squeezing people into situations where violence seems to be the only way to survive, but that perspective doesn’t offer a full and satisfying explanation.
It doesn’t explain why young men and women from affluent homes in affluent Western democracies join ISIS.
It doesn’t explain how a monster can arise from a civilized nation like Germany in a century marked by the greatest technological advancement in human history.
It doesn’t explain why racism and the Jim Crow laws that enforced racial segregation could germinate in the southern United States—the region of the country most marked by religious faith.
It doesn’t explain why all our efforts at securing and maintaining love and harmony so often, sooner or later, prove only to go skin-deep.
It doesn’t explain why, even at its best, religion and virtue may ameliorate but can never eradicate sin.
And ironically, a view of wrongdoing that reduces it to the product of a person’s upbringing and environment is in itself deeply dehumanizing. It ends up claiming that we have no real choice, no real freedom. If my decisions can be explained sufficiently by factors outside of myself, I am a mere unwitting automaton, with no agency. The doctrine of sin says that I am responsible. I am free to choose. I am human. The tragedy is that, so often, I choose wrong.
Why? Because of what the prophet Jeremiah said: “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick; who can understand it? (Jeremiah 17:9).
An Unexpected Gateway
You might be reading this and thinking, Wow, Dan, this is pretty hopeless. And you would be right—if the story the Bible tells ended in Genesis 4. The world is hopeless if all we have is the endless parade of sin and death that scrolls across our social-media timelines and flashes before us on our TV screens. The world is hopeless if all we have is the deep corruption we see in the communities and cities in which we live. The world is hopeless if all we have are the dark passions that war against us in our souls.
In the narrative of Cain and Abel, Cain replies to God, “My punishment is greater than I can bear.” And so it is. But it is only when sinful humans echo the cry of sinful Cain that the great truth of the New Testament comes into glorious focus:
Christ . . . suffered for you . . . He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree . . . By his wounds you have been healed. (1 Peter 2:21, 24)
The idea of original sin seems harsh, and it violates our modern sensibilities—but it is actually the gateway to the best news we could possibly hear. The gospel story tells us that we can face reality without needing to excuse ourselves. What Cain could not bear and what I cannot bear and what you cannot bear—guilt and the shame it brings now and the judgment it earns beyond death—Christ bore. The gospel tells us both that the crisis is worse than modern man is willing to confront and that the cross of Christ is greater than modern man can ever realize. Not only does Christ offer us forgiveness through his cross; He also offers us his Spirit, “that we might die to sin and live to righteousness” (1 Peter 2:24)—that we might, with new hearts, turn toward our Creator in worship and toward our fellow man in love as we await Christ’s return to make all things new. As the hymn writer Charles Wesley put it, “Second Adam from above, reinstate us in thy love.”
This high view of God, biblical view of sin, and high view of man equips us to live on mission in the world. It reminds us that we are not God. It help us understand why we were made. And it explains why we are so often prone to strike out at God by striking out at our neighbors. Furthermore, it gives us a grid by which we can organize our evangelism and activism. Redeemed image-bearers are now empowered by the Spirit to share the good news, the news that we can be reconciled to our Creator through Christ, and to embody the ethics of Christ’s kingdom by speaking up for and coming alongside other image-bearers whose dignity is being assaulted.
This article is adapted, with permission, from Daniel’s new book: The Dignity Revolution.