Why do we inherit original sin?

Before launching into an answer, let’s pause and revisit the Fall. Or, better yet, let’s check out what things were like before the Fall of man.

God created Adam and Eve (Adam’s name in Hebrew literally means “mankind” – so we are dealing here with a story on two levels – past history and, to a degree, present personal history) and “invited them to intimate communion with himself and clothed them with resplendent grace and justice” (CCC 54). Adam and Eve existed in an original state of holiness and justice – “This grace of original holiness was ‘to share in…divine life'” (CCC 375).

By the radiance of this grace all dimensions of man’s life were confirmed. As long as he remained in the divine intimacy, man would not have to suffer or die. The inner harmony of the human person, the harmony between man and woman, and finally the harmony between the first couple and all creation, comprised the state called “original justice.” (CCC 376)

How can we characterize man’s relationship with God? What is meant by this friendship? Did the friendship come about simply because God created Adam and Eve?

One key for understanding this relationship between God and man can be found in Genesis 1:27, the famous “image and likeness” line. Now, curiously enough, these words appear again in Gen. 5:3, the description of the father/son relationship between Adam and Seth. If Seth is in Adam’s image and likeness, and Seth is Adam’s son, then we have a tremendous indicator for the original relationship between God and Adam. But how could a mere man actually be a “son” of the eternal Father? Man is clearly not the same “stuff” of God.

The answer lies veiled in the mysterious verses that open Gen. 2. Here we read about the sabbath, God’s mysterious day of rest. But God is almighty, so why does he need to rest?

We do know that the sabbath happens on the seventh day. It is also the case that the Hebrew word for seven stands not only for a number. Sheba is also a verb, “and it means to swear a covenant oath – literally to ‘seven oneself'” (See Hahn, Scott. First Comes Love. Cf. Gen. 21:27-32). The sabbath is not so much a day for the Father to rest weary eyes (he doesn’t have a need to…er…he doesn’t have eyes like we do), but stands as a sign of the covenant God made with creation.  “The sabbath symbolized man’s God-given destiny: to rest in God’s blessing and holiness for all eternity” (Hahn 55).

Let’s make a quick distinction. A covenant forges family bonds, it literally makes a family happen. Think about a wedding. Two people who are not family walk down the aisle, exchange vows, and depart a family unit – husband and wife. This bond cannot be broken. An exchange of persons, a communion is formed. Promises (like engagement) are elevated by the swearing of an oath.

Nowadays, we don’t have the same understanding of covenant as the ancients did. We tend to equate them with contracts – partners who exchange promises (terms of agreement) regarding the distribution of goods/services. Once the goods/services have been dished the contract is void.

God didn’t make a contract with creation/man, He established a covenant with creation. This is how the ancients would have understood the two creation accounts. But, in case you’re skeptical, here is further proof:

1. God’s name changes between Gen. 1 and Gen. 2. The sabbath covenant gives rise to a new relationship. Not only Creator/creature, but Father/son by the grace and blessing offered in the covenant.

2. Check out Genesis 6:18. Here we have the first use of the word “covenant.” It appears, then, that until now, we have no covenant. However, the word for “establish” elsewhere in scripture means to “renew” or to “confirm” or to “fulfill.” Something has to exist before any of these can happen!

3. The Catechism, when speaking about the covenant with Israel, understands Creation as the first step towards the covenant (CCC 288), the sabbath is the sign of the irrevocable covenant (see Ex. 31:16), and John Paul II notes that:

We do not forget even for a moment that Jesus Christ, the Son of the living God, become our reconciliation with the Father. He it was, and he alone, who satisfied the Father’s eternal love, that fatherhood that from the beginning found expression in creating the world, giving man all the riches of creation, and making him “little less than God”, in that he was created “in the image and after the likeness of God”. He and he alone also satisfied that fatherhood of God and that love which man in a way rejected by breaking the first Covenant and the later covenants that God “again and again offered to man”. (RH 9)

Why all of this talk about covenant? Because we can easily miss this point – original sin does not only mean that man lost sanctifying grace, original justice, and original harmony (see CCC 400-ff), original sin was man’s decision to break familial bond established in the covenant. Original sin is not a “thing” passed on, it is a privation – the loss of Fatherly blessing and grace.

Because God established His covenant with Adam (mankind), and Adam (mankind) broke the covenant (every covenant involves promises that are either upheld or broken – see Gen. 2:16-17), the natural state in which mankind exists is broken, empty, and no longer a familial relationship.

We inherit original sin, then, because the creation covenant was broken. We are no longer “naturally” a part of God’s family by grace. 

How did the sin of Adam become the sin of all his descendants? The whole human race is in Adam “as one body of one man.” By this “unity of the human race” all men are implicated in Adam’s sin, as all areimplicated in Christ’s justice. Still, the transmission of original sin is a mystery that we cannot fully understand. But we do know by Revelation that Adam had received original holiness and justice not for himself alone, but for all human nature. By yielding to the tempter, Adam and Eve committ

ed a personal sin, but this sin affected the human nature that they would then transmit in a fallen state. It is a sin which will be transmitted by propagation to all mankind, that is, by the transmission of a human nature deprived of original holiness and justice. And that is why original sin is called “sin” only in an analogical sense: it is a sin “contracted” and not “committed” — a state and not an act. (CCC 404)

Adam transmitted to us “a sin with which we are all born afflicted, a sin which is the ‘death of the soul.’ Because of this certainty of faith, the Church baptizes for the remission of sins even tiny infants who have not committed personal sin” (CCC 403).

Hence Baptism, a rebirth by water and Spirit (see John 3), imparts the life of Christ’s grace, erases original sin, turns a man back toward God (see CCC 405), and brings about an adoption – re-entry into the Trinitarian family (see CCC 1265).