Original Sin: What is it really and why does it matter?

I had a very interesting exchange over the weekend with a man who raised two important questions: First, does the Church teach that the human soul is created at conception? Second, how does the soul contract original sin from Adam? A great deal can go wrong in considering both of these questions.

The Church has always held that the human person is a union of a body and a rational soul, and that each soul is created individually by God. But over the centuries there have been theological debates over exactly when the soul is created and infused into the human body. Revelation does not answer this question, but the Church has always answered philosophically in this way: The soul is created in the same instant in which it is infused into the body, and that happens as soon as the matter is suitable. In other words, biology plays a key role in answering this question.

This is why, in the medieval period, most theologians held that the soul is created and infused at the time of “quickening”, which is essentially when we become aware of the movement of the baby in the womb. However, we now know that the “matter”—the body—is distinctively human from the moment of conception, when the sperm and egg unite to form the zygote. There is no time after successful fertilization that the embryo is or can be anything other than human. Consequently, Catholics can now confidently state that the soul is created by God and joined to the body at the precise moment of conception. In addition, of course the soul remains united to the body until the matter becomes unsuitable, that is, until death—after which the soul continues in a disembodied state.

Original Sin

Original Sin is a tougher nut to crack. I explained that our first parents were created in a state of what is called Original Justice, which is essentially a share in God’s life which ensures that our passions always operate in full accord with reason (so no concupiscence) and our bodies need not undergo the corruption of death (which, left purely to nature, must occur). But our first parents disrupted the relationship between grace and nature through pride. They trusted their own judgment more than they trusted God’s judgment, and so lost Original Justice. That is, they lost the special graces that elevated their human nature to a higher preternatural state.

From this point on, we like to say that our first parents could not pass on to their children what they themselves no longer possessed, and so all of their descendants are born into a state of separation from God which we call Original Sin. Looking ahead, of course, it is the mission of Jesus Christ to remedy that problem and draw us back into union with God by means of the sanctifying graces He won for us through his universal atonement for sin.

To my surprise, my correspondent responded to my answers by saying the following: “I believe the soul is there at conception but don’t believe God creates a sinful soul or a soul in the state of death.” This told me immediately that my explanation did not address some of his key concerns. Given his particular assumptions about sin and death, a fuller discussion is vital to a proper understanding.

The State of Nature

Many theologians in the 19th and early 20th centuries over-emphasized the state of nature, but considering what is purely natural to man does help with some questions. For example, to understand Original Sin we must recognize it is not a state of personal sin but simply our natural state, the state of the human person when left solely to his own natural abilities. With respect to animal souls, for example, we do not suggest that God creates souls in sin or creates dead souls simply because animals are not united to God and so they die. Rather, we understand that the animal soul is a principle of life which corresponds perfectly with the animal’s nature. When the animal’s bodily matter ceases to be what it is designed to be, the animal soul goes out of existence. Animal souls are not rational souls. The animal nature does not admit of a spiritual dimension that transcends mortality.

Up to a point we can apply the same logic to our own case. Left to the capacities of nature itself, both our separation from God and our mortality are perfectly intelligible without assuming that God has created our souls sinful or dead. Rather, God has created us without that share of supernatural life which enables us to transcend what is purely natural, escape bodily death, and aspire to union with Him. Original Sin is not any kind of personal sin, and it ought to go without saying that our souls are not created “dead” (for if so, we would never exist as human persons at all). But since Adam and Eve sinned, God has not chosen to endow us at the moment of conception with all the graces—that is, the share in His life—which He has designed us to receive in reaching our highest perfection.

We can acknowledge that the usual explanation—that Adam and Eve “could not pass on what they did not have”—is shorthand for a deeper mystery. It may well have been part of God’s design that, had they not sinned, our first parents would have had the ability to pass on their state of Original Justice through procreation. We do not know. But what we do know is that after they sinned they were not able to do so. Here, however, we must introduce a caution against carrying the “state of nature” argument too far, as applied to human persons. For the main truth to be grasped is that God created man, even in the natural order, with a capacity to participate in the life of grace.

Stepping back and looking up

We are, of course, dealing with Divine mysteries here. We cannot fully grasp them. But we can say that, by giving the human person intellect and will, God has made him in His image and likeness. Through his unique rational soul, then, the human person has an affinity for God (which animals lack), can love God (which animals cannot do), and can be elevated to a supernatural perfection which transcends their natural perfections (a capacity that animals lack). We also know that God has created us with this capacity to love Him because He loves us. In fact, since He also knows that He Himself is the highest good, He wants us to possess the everlasting joy of union with Himself.

This means that the question of Original Sin is part of a much larger question about how God plans to bring us to this ineffable joy. When speaking in shortcuts (and the whole story of the creation and fall is full of them) it is possible to be thrown off by some detail in the shortcut that strikes us as significant, but in a way that is incorrect. A typical example would be to devalue the lessons of Genesis because the author seemed to believe that the knowledge of good and evil grows on trees. Another would be to equate personal sin and/or dead souls with Original Sin because, as a shortcut, we describe it as a kind of separation from God. However, it is a degree of separation only in comparison with what Adam and Eve initially enjoyed. For we are never in this world completely separated from God, or completely without grace of any kind. If we were, we would cease to exist.

An important key to understanding these things properly is to avoid seeing God’s effort to bring us into union with Himself as a series of mistakes which cause him to change tacks. The Fall does not necessitate a change of plan; it is a part of the plan. Everything is present to God; He need not try different options only to reject the ones that do not work. No: From all eternity He knew that the very best way to unite us with Him through His surpassing love was to create our first parents in what we call the state of Original Justice, even though He knew that through pride they would lose this state for themselves and their descendants. This is a mystery, of course, but it is perfectly safe to say that God has known from all eternity that our experience of sin and our awareness that something is wrong would be the surest way to draw the greatest possible number of us into union with Himself, without violating the freedom of our wills—a freedom which is, after all, essential to our capacity for love.

So what was the purpose of the state of Original Justice? Again, we can penetrate mysteries only so far, but we can also see how beneficial it is for us to have an awareness, through Judeo-Christian culture, of how God embraced the human person from the beginning, giving us all a foretaste of our true destiny. Surely this gives greater substance to our understanding of what is in store for us in “the new heavens and the new earth”—as foreseen by the prophet Isaiah (65:17, 66:22), endorsed by Peter (2 Pet 3), and shown in a vision in the Book of Revelation (21:1).

Whether we understand all this well or badly, it is in fact The Plan. It has always been The Plan. There have been no changes, no resets, no starting over from scratch with some other plan. This should enable us to see that the Church certainly does not teach that God has given us sinful souls, or dead souls. What He has given us is a nature open to Himself, knowing that God is God and we are not, and restless until we can rest in Him. What He has given us is the best possible nature, and the best grace-filled options, for freely cooperating with His plan for our eternal happiness.

What We Believe

The other aspect of my correspondent’s response that startled me was his declaration that “I believe” this but “I don’t believe” that. I do not know exactly how he meant this to be taken. I presume it is simply an honest declaration that God has not revealed that He has given us sinful souls or dead souls, so why should anyone believe it? But many today could say similar things from a far different motive. Such a statement could easily indicate that the writer chooses to sit in judgment of Revelation itself, as if it is up to each of us to cobble together a series of religious beliefs which suit our own insights and preferences. Isn’t this the dominant form of “religiosity” in our time?

Yes, and nothing could be more foolish. We can know very little about either God or His plan of salvation through our own natural abilities. All we can know is whatever is obvious in the natural law. Thus, as St. Paul said, we can (and ought to) know that God exists because of the created things that could only have come from Him; and, as Newman has noted with particular cogency, our experience of conscience teaches us that we live under a judgment, and therefore there must be a Judge. In other words, God must care about how we behave.

If we can know by nature that God exists and that He cares about how we behave, we can reason to a third and crucial point: God wishes to communicate His will to us, and so we must expect a Divine Revelation. But here our mastery of supernatural reality ends. If we do not find a credible Revelation, we must patiently pray for one. And if we do find a credible Revelation, we must use that Revelation—and that alone—as the only possible source of information about what God’s plan is, and how it unfolds in time.

In other words, none of us may say from his own lights that “I believe” such-and-such about God and His plan for us, but “I don’t believe” something else about God and His plan. We have no possible basis for passing a judgment based either on our own imagination or on the widespread fashions or prejudices of the culture which has formed us. On our own, we have almost no idea what God “must be like”. Instead, all of us are bound to say “I believe” this because God has revealed it to be true, and I reject that because it contradicts what God has revealed. Beyond this, we can increase our understanding of God by studying His revelation, reflecting on and reasoning about the various revealed facts and principles, and discerning the connections among them in order to better grasp the whole.

We must recognize that there is no other option by which any of us can know the slightest particular of God’s salvific plan. We cannot sit in judgment of these particulars. Either He has revealed them or He has not. Our job is to seek to understand and live what He has revealed. If the story of our first parents teaches us anything, it ought to teach us that the worst possible mistake we can make is to approach God’s plan with pride, sitting in judgment on what we will or will not accept as true and good. We can believe only by the authority of God revealing. To second-guess God is to participate, once again, in the Original Sin.

By Dr. Jeff Mirus



  1. Tom Rafferty Reply

    How do you know there is a separate soul from the body and how do you know there was an Original Sin?

    1. Ed Lim Reply

      How do you know there is NO separate soul and how do you know there is NO Original Sin? How do you know there is NO heaven, NO purgatory and NO hell. Supposing there is hell and you found yourself in hell. What are you going to do?

      1. Tom Rafferty Reply

        I am a science-based thinker. The Catholic Church has these, and many other, dogmas for which there is no evidence. It is the one who is making the claim who is obligated to support it with evidence, NOT me. All I say is, “I don’t know if that is true, and neither do you.” You are making stuff up.

  2. Patrick Gannon Reply

    How does an immaterial soul affect the matter, the particles of our natural world? We know all the forces that affect the particles in our world, and there are none that require magical forces. If these forces existed, we would know about them by now. We know about the forces powerful enough to break the strong nuclear force that binds atoms together. This breaking and rearranging of atoms is necessary for any so-called “miracle” to take place in our natural world. We also know of particles so small, neutrinos for example, that trillions of them are passing through you without affecting your matter. If we can identify and isolate particles that small, we can surely isolate any magical particle or force that can break apart atoms. These souls, if they exist, have absolutely no impact on our natural world.

  3. Patrick Gannon Reply

    Let’s take a look at the mythical story. The kids did not know the difference between good and evil until AFTER they ate of the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil. To punish them for doing something they could not possibly know was wrong, is an act of evil by Yahweh – and then he punished all of us too. He apparently did this because he was caught in a lie. He told the kids if they ate the fruit they would die, and the snake told them the truth – that they would not. They did not die when they ate of the fruit, as threatened by Yahweh-Jesus. The talking snake also told them that the reason Yahweh-Jesus did not want them to eat of the fruit was because they would become like the gods, knowing the difference between good and evil and Gen 3:22 confirms that this is exactly what happened. Again the talking snake told the truth. Gen 3:22 should have been a warning: Beware: Evil Gods Ahead.
    The remainder of the article moves forward with the assumption that Yahweh-Jesus is a real thing, and that original sin really happened, but today we know otherwise. The catechism is pretty clear that original sin came about from a single breeding pair – Adam and Eve, and that the rest of us descended from them. Research into DNA has debunked this idea. Humans evolved from a pool of early ancestors, estimated to be a few tens of thousands, and not a single couple. Had we come from a single couple, our DNA would not be as diverse as it is. This data has been tested using different methods and each time the same result – there was no original breeding pair. This is the biggest issue facing the Church today because it cuts to its very legitimacy.
    The last few popes have accepted evolution, while not accepting this DNA evidence. Recall that they had a similar problem with Galileo and Giordano Bruno; but those nasty facts keep raising their heads. Given the reality of evolution, the Church claims that while mankind evolved from lower primates, there were two who were selected to be given souls and the rest of us came from them. As mentioned, the DNA evidence strongly disputes this. Let’s say that it’s true for sake of argument. We know that they did not live in a garden paradise. We know the garden story is bogus. The fossil record, for example, proves that there was plenty of death on earth before the kids arrived. These early ancestors didn’t live carefree lives. They woke up on the menu and if they were lucky they lived long enough to reproduce and have a couple of their kids survive, before they passed away in a couple decades. The scraped, and scrounged, and fought to stay alive. What was their sin? Was it attaining a certain level of intellect and self-aware consciousness? Was it learning how to use tools and make fire? Perhaps it was learning how to talk? What was their sin? No rational, critically thinking, educated, intelligent person believes the garden myth is literal these days, so what exactly was their sin?
    The author refers to Jesus coming to save us from original sin, but why such rigmarole for an all-powerful and presumably intelligent and logical being? He impregnates a young maiden without her consent, in order to be born as himself, so he can sacrifice himself to himself in order to relieve us of the condition of original sin that he put on us in the first place! That’s the best plan an all-powerful being can come up with? Why not do it like he did for Mary.
    Mary had to be a virgin so that she did not pass original sin on to Jesus. As the author makes clear, sex is naughty, very bad – and that’s how original sin is passed along. Original sin is intricately linked to sex and we all know how maniacally obsessive the Church is when it comes to anything having to do with sex! Adam’s original sin would be passed through Mary to Jesus, unless she was a virgin. At that time, they thought that the woman grew the man’s seed, but in the 1800s they discovered that women contributed half the genetic makeup of the offspring. Oh my goodness! Mary’s parents did the naughty thing and passed original sin to Mary, who indeed would have passed it to Jesus. What do do? What to do? Well, the answer was easy. The Church decided in 1854 that Mary had been born without original sin. Hallelujah! Problem solved. (Of course biblical support for this is non-existent). The real problem though, is that it tells us quite clearly that Yahweh-Jesus did not have to go through all the silly rigmarole. All that is needed is the wink and a nod that he gave to Mary, and original sin is gone. So why can’t he do that for all of us? Is it too hard?
    The Church is in a world of hurt with this DNA evidence debunking original sin, and it’s doing its best to create distractions – like can a remarried, divorced Catholic have communion – in order to keep focus away from this much more critical issue. They are relying on the ignorance of the masses, but truth and knowledge have a way of spreading… They couldn’t stop the sun from orbiting the earth, and they won’t be able to stop the science from debunking their legitimacy.

  4. Peter Aiello Reply

    The evidence that no one can deny is the human weakness that we all experience from original sin. It is there whether we believe in original sin or not. Paul, in Romans 7:14-8:2, calls it the law of sin and describes it as doing the things that we don’t want to do, and not doing the things that we should. This is reality for all of us.
    The role of blood and how it is passed down through the male seems significant in the passing down of the law of sin. My understanding is that blood passes down to succeeding generations through the male. Jesus had no human father; therefore, he did not have blood from the linage of Adam. We all do. Christ’s was untainted blood. He was tempted as we are, but without sin. He did not have the human weakness from Adam.

    1. Tom Rafferty Reply

      “The evidence that no one can deny – – – ” I’ll deny it because there is no evidence for Original Sin. Science clearly shows that there was no “fall”: human evolution is a linear advancement from the time our species evolved from a pre-human ancestor.

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