On Original Sin and Being “Dirty”

I’m going out on a limb here to discuss a doctrine that I struggle with, and particularly with the way it is used by some Christians. This blog is a place where I work out my theology, and I welcome everyone to discuss it with me (and help me figure it out!). That said, if you feel tempted to call me a heretic, please back it up thoughtfully, or don’t say it at all. I’m not here to pick a fight, and want to apologize in advance if that’s how I come off, but I feel like this needs to be discussed and I may not be able to avoid controversial statements.

The doctrine of Original Sin doesn’t make much sense to me, and further, I hate what neo-Calvinists have done with it. I wanted to talk about the former, but that’ll be next post – for now I’ll talk about the use of the doctrine to make Christians hate themselves.

I saw this comic floating around on Facebook the other day, and it made me very sad. I don’t think that there’s anything untrue in it (though I think it makes some theological assumptions), but I’m more concerned about its emphasis. There’s a mix of panels and text, so it’s hard to say exactly how long it is, but if you call major text sections a panel, then there are eight panels. Seven out of eight panels are bad news, and even the “good news” in the last panel is a backhanded gospel. Let’s take a look at it. (I’m not going to rewrite the whole thing here, but click the link and follow along as I look at a few key points)

The word “dirty” shows up several times here, which is interesting to me. I’m amazed at how wretched that word can make a person feel. Another word that people have used to make people feel wretched is “nigger”, which is used to mean that a person is inherently unsophisticated or defective (and as a child I was taught that it also means “dirty”). It’s super effective. I apologize for using that word, I know that it’s a trigger for some people and some people might feel that I don’t have a right to use the term, but it so clearly sums up the Christian use of the word “dirty” or “filthy” that I feel it’s appropriate. The message of this comic is that you’re a filthy nigger, that you were born this way and cannot change it, and that you need to accept this. Now, this comic is somewhat cutesy in its portrayal (it’s a comic, after all), so it wouldn’t use such harsh terms. It uses “dirty” and “smells bad” to refer to our nature. But the point is the same.

What’s interesting is that it refers us to Genesis 6 to make this point: “Mankind had become so utterly dirty and corrupt that God regretted creating us.” Now, God does say there that he regretted creating humans, and that this was because of corruption (actually says wickedness, evil), but it never mentions “dirty”. Please correct me if I’m wrong, but I can’t think of any place in the Bible where it talks about us as “dirty”. I just did a search, and the English Revised Version is the only version of the Bible that uses the word more than a few times, and even then it’s rarely as a moral description of humans. The Bible usually talks about unrighteousness, which means not being good, or wickedness, which means being bad – these are moral terms meant to show that we’re wrong, even evil. “Dirty”, on the other hand, is a word that is used to shame people.

I think this is what bothers me about this comic: it’s not just about pointing out that we’re unrighteous, wicked, sinful, even evil. It wants us to feel that way. Oddly enough, at the end of the comic it says “instead of a cesspool of guilt, there is otherworldly freedom in knowing that we are bad and that there’s nothing we can do to fix it.” This is why I say that the “good news” of this comic is a backhanded gospel: it spends seven frames trying to instil a sense of shame in us, and then says “but you don’t need to feel bad anymore.” It spends seven panels calling us niggers, and then says that as long as we know in our hearts that we’ll always be niggers, we won’t be slaves anymore. Try telling that to an African American, whose ancestors were slaves; to them, the word “nigger” from someone outside of their community is a symbol of slavery, of dehumanization, of prejudice. It’s a statement that even though they’re free, they’re no better than slaves. This is obviously not true: human beings have dignity, were created in dignity, and none of us have any right to take that away by calling someone “dirty”.

The argument is, though, that this is a good thing because “this is the fallen state of mankind: the sickness that needs to be diagnosed before the cure will make any sense.” Apparently we’re incapable of understanding good news until we’re fully and completely convinced that we’re the absolute worst.

What they mean to say is that the grace of God is conditional upon repentance, and that sinful human nature (Original Sin) prevents us from doing anything that is good (such as repenting) without serious prompting from God, and that we won’t actually listen to God’s prompting unless we’re deeply aware of just how desperate we ought to be because of our wretched filthiness (and the eternal conscious torment that we can expect unless we repent, though this comic doesn’t mention that part). This is what I mean when I say that this comic has a lot of theological assumptions. (For the record, I don’t know for sure that this guy is a neo-Calvinist, but the comic doesn’t make as much sense under most other theological frameworks. Also, neo-Calvinists love this stuff; I did a search of “original sin verses” and the first site that came up was John Piper’s.)

I was taught this in church, growing up. I’m sure I even supported this evangelism strategy, even in Bible college. What I discovered is that it’s a sermon for the already converted. It makes perfect sense to someone who grew up in the church with this teaching, but from the outside it looks crazy. People in North America who aren’t Christians are not unaware of Christianity and its basic claims, including the claim that they are sinful. This “You and I are bad” comic isn’t news to them, much less convicting. It’s not that they haven’t heard this before, they just don’t believe you when they tell you that you’re evil, and they ignore you when you call them “dirty”, and walk away thinking “wow, that was rude. Who does that person think they are?” There is absolutely nothing attractive about this message.

The argument here, then, is “but it’s TRUE!” I have a professor who always follows an argument, no matter how logical and consistent the argument is, with the retort “but…is it true?” Well, that’s a topic for another post, because this will be way too long. But I often want to respond to that professor with “but…is it useful?” What good is truth if there’s nobody to hear it? Being true doesn’t make it attractive, just like being right doesn’t give anyone the right to be a jerk. I’ve heard this approach justified many times by people who claim that “the gospel is offensive”; they wear it as a badge of honour, then, when people get offended at what they have to say. (For the record, the “offense of the gospel” is used to mean a lot of different things, but this use is taking it out of context – ask me about it, and I’ll write a post on it). Whether or not the argument is true, there are plenty of other ways to talk about the good news of Christ’s redemption of the world – perhaps by even mentioning redemption! This is sort of a central feature of the gospel. Redeemed, justified, sanctified, reconciled: these words are not mentioned here. After all, in this theology we’re permanently “dirty” and defective, and God’s grace towards us doesn’t change that fact – he only overlooks it.

Here’s some gospel that’s actually good news: while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us. That is, without our asking for it or even knowing it, we’ve been redeemed and justified. Being a Christian is about learning to live as if that’s true (and it is!). And the Holy Spirit within us unites us to Christ, and we become sanctified as he is sanctified. While we may still sin, we’re no longer sinners; while we may still get morally dirty, we’re not inherently dirty; while we still work for the devil from time to time, we’re not slaves to sin, and nobody can call us niggers.