Original sin: Adam as our representative

Illuminated parchment, Spain, circa AD 950-955...
Illuminated parchment, Spain, circa AD 950-955, depicting the Fall of Man, cause of original sin. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

About a month ago, I was listening to an episode of William Lane Craig’s Podcast “Defenders” (Or it could have been “Reasonable Faith” – I don’t remember.) and the topic of original sin came up. If you have been reading this blog, you know that I lack an understanding of the doctrine of original sin beyond “We are all sinners and Adam had something to do with it”. In that episode, Craig seemed to espouse a view of original sin that goes something like this:

Adam was our representative before God. He was a man who stood in our place and acted on our behalf in the issue of our submission to God. He acted he same way we would have acted had we been present. Adam’s sin in disobeying God was therefore our sin in the same way a representative’s actions are the actions of the one being represented.

He didn’t actually speak the last sentence. It is my conclusion from the previous two. It is very likely that my understanding does not truly represent his view so be sure to confirm it if you’re going to quote that. This view of original sin does explain a few things.

  1. It answers my question: “How in creation does Adam’s action in disobeying God make us sinners?” The answer is that when Adam sinned, we sinned too.
  2. It explains (somewhat) those verses in Romans 5 that always give me a headache.

“Therefore, just as sin entered the world through one man, and death through sin, and in this way death came to all people, because all sinned— […]

 But the gift is not like the trespass. For if the many died by the trespass of the one man, how much more did God’s grace and the gift that came by the grace of the one man, Jesus Christ, overflow to the many! Nor can the gift of God be compared with the result of one man’s sin: The judgment followed one sin and brought condemnation, but the gift followed many trespasses and brought justification. For if, by the trespass of the one man, death reigned through that one man, how much more will those who receive God’s abundant provision of grace and of the gift of righteousness reign in life through the one man, Jesus Christ!

Consequently, just as one trespass resulted in condemnation for all people, so also one righteous act resulted in justification and life for all people. For just as through the disobedience of the one man the many were made sinners, so also through the obedience of the one man the many will be made righteous. – Romans 5: 12, 15 – 19

3. It makes clearer the connection between Adam and Jesus. Adam was our representative, the one who was unable to keep God’s law and condemned us all. Jesus is our new representative, the second Adam, who has perfectly kept God’s law making us righteous in the process.

However, this hypothesis does not explain one piece of the puzzle:

 To be sure, sin was in the world before the law was given, but sin is not charged against anyone’s account where there is no law. Nevertheless, death reigned from the time of Adam to the time of Moses, even over those who did not sin by breaking a command, as did Adam, who is a pattern of the one to come. – Romans 5: 13, 14

The verse says that sin is not charged to anyone’s account if they have no law (basically, they will not be tried and condemned for their sin if they do not have the law that forbids it) but that even those who have not broken a command die because of Adam. That’s the key point. If we sinned in Adam, then we are guilty of exactly what Adam is guilty of. Since Adam broke a command, we have broken a command.  Yet this verse says that some people did not break a command (presumably because they did not have the law) yet they sinned.

This explanation also has the implication that we are all born sinners and rebels against God but it does not explain our innate tendency to choose the wrong thing over the right one. It does not explain our rebellious attitude towards God either.

The Justice of the Approach

A possible objection to this hypothesis is that it is not our fault that Adam sinned and it is unfair to charge us with his crime. Craig’s response in the podcast was that it is only unfair if Adam was not an accurate representative. That is, if Adam did not act the exact way we would have acted, then it is unjust to suggest that he represents us. But Adam was a perfect representative.

Another objection could be that it just isn’t fair to charge us with a crime we didn’t commit (even though we would have committed it). I have already responded to that. We did commit it. That is the point of a representative. He/she acts in place of the represented. As long as the representative acts as the represented would, his/her actions can be billed as those of the represented.

I’ve heard several people make a distinction between being a sinner and being guilty of the sin – the same distinction made in Romans 5: 13 where some people have sinned but are not charged with sin because they have no law. This has implications for all of us because it would determine whether babies (who are born with original sin) are deserving of hell if this hypothesis is correct. It obviously needs some work. It doesn’t address a lot of things including the important passage that I quoted from Romans 5. But it’s a place to start.

Please feel free to point out any criticisms I missed or any other strengths the hypothesis possesses.


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I’m Tracy

One thought on “Original sin: Adam as our representative”

  1. Have you read how the Orthodox Church (or the Eastern view as opposed to the Western view) treats the subject of Original Sin? They believe that we don’t inherit a sinful nature or are already born sinners. They believe that all of humanity suffers the penalty of Adam’s sin (such as death and the suffering) but are not directly charged with Adam’s guilt. Of course each of us are guilty of our own sins. I don’t know. Think it’s an interesting perspective that needs to be considered.

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