Are We Guilty of Original Sin? Mormons Don’t Think So
Sorry, I missed last week. I was having a bit of an emotional meltdown. The death of my son still disables me sometimes. I’m back this week.
I have spent several posts discussing my deconversion story, which highlights the problems I had with the Mormon cult I was raised in, but Mormon doctrine isn’t all bad. In some respects, it reflects a superior moral system than mainstream Christianity. Joseph Smith, the founder of Mormonism, took several deeply problematic Christian beliefs and changed them to make the align better with our natural sense of right and wrong. This is one of the reasons that Mormons, who come to doubt the truth of their own religion, rarely gravitate to a more mainstream Christian church. They are much more likely to become atheist or agnostic than they are a different type of Christian. While I questioned my faith for decades, I never considered joining a different Christian church because I found their beliefs horrifyingly awful. For me, probably the most immoral of these beliefs is the doctrine of original sin.
Mainstream Christian theology states that God created the world and humankind perfect. He intended us to live forever in a blissful garden, but Adam and Eve sinned. Because of this, not only will we die, but as David Vanacker, pastor of Grace Church of Wyoming puts it, we have all become “fundamentally depraved.” (1) Dan Vander Lugt of "Questions.org: Answers to Tough Questions about God and Life" states it even more bluntly (2):
There are no “normal people.” Everyone deserves judgment. We are fallen creatures under a spiritual curse in a fallen world. Apart from God’s grace, hell is our natural state of being. Apart from God’s grace, this world would be a place of unmitigated horror and suffering. . . Normal people deserve hell because they are willing participants in the events of a fallen, cruel world.
Because two people failed an unfair test (see my comfy blanket) thousands of years ago, we all deserve to be tortured for eternity, and only a belief in Jesus can save us from a fate we absolutely deserve.
I reject this belief on both epistemological and moral grounds. First, the fundamental depravity of humankind is not evidently true. While no one is perfect and a small percentage of people are depraved, most people do their best to do the right thing most of the time. Most people, no matter their religious beliefs, view things like murder, rape, torture, abuse, theft as morally reprehensible and even more morally reprehensible if these things are done to a child. While we do sometimes act selfishly, actual depravity is rare, and altruism abounds. History, literature, film, and the everyday news are full of people who risk their own lives to help others, even people they don’t personally know. (My own son was killed attempting to help a person he’d never met.) These are the people we admire and who are held up as heroes, while we deplore those who inflict senseless pain and suffering onto others. These are not the actions or beliefs of fundamentally depraved individuals.
Even more that it not being true, the doctrine of original sin posits a god who is a moral monster. Unlike Lugt claims above, we are not willing participants in this world. We didn’t choose or even consent to being born, and there is no justice in punishing one person for the actions of another. We recognize this in human society. We don’t prosecute the children of murderers for their parents’ crimes. Nearly everyone would consider it unjust to do so. So how much less just is a god that punishes us for what our 1000s time great grandparents did, especially since he is the one who created people, knowing that they’d be unable to follow his commandment. I personally don’t believe anyone could possibly deserve eternal torture, and absolutely no one deserves it for the simple sin of nonbelief. There is no justice in a system that sends a person who has spent their life doing their best to do the right thing and help others into a fiery pit of eternal torment, just because they didn’t believe in an undemonstrated being. No matter how apologists try to twist their minds to accommodate this belief, any being that would do such a thing is fundamentally evil. Arguing that god loves us, but will torture us forever if we don’t believe in him is simply absurd.
Not only is it morally problematic for a god to punish people for what someone else did, a belief in this god perverts Christians’ view of themselves and others. They live in guilt and shame for their inability to be perfect, thinking the alternative is complete depravity, and it taints their views of people not of their faith. If we are fundamentally depraved without Jesus, non-Christians must, therefore, be evil, so there is no reason to treat them with kindness and compassion, at least not after they make their lack of interest in Christianity apparent. Threatening atheists with hell is one of the favorite pastimes of Christians in the toxic world of social media. The relish with which some do so calls their own morality into question.
In opposition to this destructive belief, Joseph Smith rejected the idea of original sin. As he wrote in the 2nd Article of Faith (3), “We believe that men will be punished for their own sins, and not for Adam’s transgression.” Mormons have an entirely different concept of the Fall. For one thing, notice the Article of Faith calls it Adam’s “transgression,” not Adam’s sin. Mormons believe before the Fall there was no reproduction. If Adam and Eve hadn’t eaten the forbidden fruit and chose to know the difference between good and evil, they would have lived forever alone in Eden. The rest of us would never have been born. God couldn’t violate their free will by forcing this knowledge on them. They needed to willingly make the choice, so yes, they violated the law they were given, but it was a necessary violation for humanity to come into being. So it wasn’t a sin, merely a transgression of the law.
Rather than Eve being the villain, who caused all suffering in the world, Mormons see her as somewhat of a hero. She is the first that recognized the necessity of the transgression, so partook of the fruit and gave it to Adam. Adam then realized that she had made the necessary choice and followed suit. We have Eve to thank for our existence, and we are only accountable for our own actions. We are not fundamentally depraved, but all are born with the light of Christ (our conscience) that makes us understand right and wrong, and therefore, act in the morally correct manner most of the time.
If you’re wondering how Joseph Smith reconciled this doctrine with the Bible, he didn’t. Smith didn’t teach that the Bible was inerrant. The 8th Article of Faith states, “We believe the Bible to be the word of God as far as it is translated correctly.” The Bible didn’t stay pure as it was passed from generation to generation, and corruption crept into the word of god. The doctrine of the Fall isn’t fully taught in Mormon scriptures either, but can be found in the temple ceremony that only faithful members are allowed to attend. Mormons aren’t supposed to talk about anything that goes on in the temple outside of it. Of course, this doctrine has the same problem is any belief in a literal Garden of Eden, but it is far better that what mainstream Christians teach.
So yes, the Mormon church has a lot of problems, but as far as the doctrine of original sin, Smith fixed a belief that has figured into many of the deconversion stories I’ve heard from atheists who had been mainstream Christians. After growing up believing that I am only responsible for my own actions, a god who holds me responsible for what a couple of people did thousands of years ago seems so fundamentally unjust I never entertained the idea that it could be true.
Yes, Mormons are weird, but not all that weirdness is negative. I’d love to hear your thoughts on the justice of the idea of the Fall or the concept of Hell. Also, if there’s anything about Mormons, you’d like to learn more about. Post your questions in the comments.
- 1) See Vanacker's full sermon at https://gracewyoming.com/the-nature-of-the-fallen-nature-of-man/.
- 2) See full article at https://questions.org/tag/original-sin/
- 3) Read the 13 Articles of Faith at https://www.churchofjesuschrist.org/comeuntochrist/article/articles-of-faith