What is original sin? How does it impact me?

Why is it that, with the best of intentions, we find it so difficult to do what is right? We can look for an explanation in the opening chapters of the Book of Genesis. Here the seemingly endless struggle between good and evil is described in the imagery of the serpent tempting Adam and Eve with the forbidden fruit.

God said to them, “You are free to eat from any of the trees of the garden except the tree of knowledge of good and bad. From that tree you shall not eat; the moment you eat from it, you are surely doomed to die” (Gn 2:16-17). The tempter, however, said, “You certainly will not die! No, God knows well that the moment you eat of it your eyes will be opened and you will be like gods who know what is good and what is bad” (Gn 3:4-5). Adam and Eve chose their own desires, based on a lie, over God’s will and plan. Sin entered the world through this decision to choose themselves over God and his plan.

Through the Fall of Adam and Eve, the harmony of creation was also destroyed. If we continue to read the Book of Genesis, we see how Adam and Eve became aware of their sinful condition, were driven out of the garden, and were forced to live by the sweat of their brow. The beauty and harmony of God’s creative plan was disrupted. This was not the way it was meant to be. Once sin entered into life and into our world, all harmony with God, with self, with each other, and with the world around us was shattered. We call the Fall and its results “Original Sin.”

Each one of us is heir to Adam and Eve. Their sin shattered God’s created harmony, not only for them but also for us. We experience the effects of Original Sin in our daily life. This explains why it is so difficult to do good or to do what we should.

Scripture uses figurative language in describing the account of the Fall in Genesis 3 but affirms an event that took place at the beginning of human history. The language is figurative, but the reality is not a fantasy. The gift of freedom, given to the first man and woman, was meant to draw them closer to God, to each other, and to their destiny. God asked them—as he asks us—to recognize their human limits and to trust in him. In the temptation, they were lured into trying to surpass their being human. “You will be like gods” (Gn 3:5). They abused their freedom, failed to trust God, and disobeyed his command. They lost paradise and its gifts. And death became part of the human experience. For the people of ancient Israel, sin was a spiritual death that leads to separation from God, the source of life, and consequently, to the death of the body.

The sin of Adam and Eve has been called Original Sin since the time of St. Augustine (AD 354-430). But the Church’s belief in an ancient alienation from God was part of Revelation from the start.

What is Original Sin? It is a deprivation, a loss of the original holiness and righteousness with which our first parents were created. When God made them, he filled Adam and Eve with all the grace and virtue they would ever need, and they experienced a close relationship with God beyond our ability to know. Because of the unity of the human race, everyone is affected by the sin of our first parents, just as, in turn, humanity is restored to a right relationship with God by Jesus Christ. “Just as through one person sin entered the world, and by sin, death and . . . just as through the disobedience of one person the many were made sinners, so through the obedience of one the many will be made righteous. . . . Where sin increased, grace overflowed all the more” (Rom 5:12, 19, 20b). Though Original Sin has had far-reaching consequences, of greater consequence has been God’s mercy to us through the death and Resurrection of Jesus Christ.

Do we commit Original Sin? Original sin “is a sin ‘contracted’ and not ‘committed’—a state and not an act” (CCC, no. 404). Each of us inherits Original Sin, but it is not a personal fault of ours. It is a deprivation for each of us of original holiness and justice. This inheritance leaves us in a world that is subject to suffering and death, as well as in an environment in which the accumulated sins and failings of others disturb peace and order.

What is the effect of Original Sin upon us? Original Sin underlies all other sins and causes our natural powers of knowing and loving to be wounded. We are subject to ignorance, which makes it difficult for us to know the truth, and for some, even to believe that truth exists. We also endure suffering and death and have a disorder in our appetites and an inclination to sin. This inclination is called concupiscence. Because sin alienates us from each other, it weakens our ability to live fully Christ’s commandment of love for one another.

It is Jesus Christ who frees us from Original Sin and our own actual sins. By Baptism, we share in the redemptive act of Jesus’ death and Resurrection, are freed from Original Sin, and are strengthened against the power of sin and death. We are reconciled to God and made members of his holy people, the Church.

You can read more from the United States Catholic Catechism for Adults, order your own copy, or read questions about it at the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops website.

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