My dad has been bald since I can remember. As a high-school kid, I convinced myself that I didn’t have his hairline. Here I am, 34 years old and slowly succumbing to the inevitable arithmetic of heredity plus time.
Some inheritances can’t be escaped. We’ve seen this truth on full display during the widespread protests this summer. A generation of Americans is coming to terms with the nation that’s been passed down to them. Each Confederate monument crashes with symbolism: I’m not like my father—or my forefathers!
In recent years, our culture has been groping in the darkness toward a doctrine of primeval sin based on societal categories of gender, race, class, and sexual orientation. Meanwhile, evangelical Christians seem to be struggling with the plain ramifications of what we claim as basic truth. Belief in original sin means taking seriously in the present the sins of the past.
Historic Christianity has produced various conceptions of original sin , but analytical theologian Oliver Crisp has pinpointed where all orthodox traditions intersect: “Original sin is an inherited corruption of nature, a condition which every fallen human being possesses from the first moment of generation.” Sin is not merely a matter of imitating bad behavior. It’s an inheritance: “In a way akin to congenital genetic conditions that are passed from both parents to their child, original sin is passed down the generations as a kind of moral disorder or defect.”
Anecdotal and statistical data bear this out. Regarding patterns of intergenerational child abuse, the Children’s Bureau reported, “Many (but not all) studies on the topic have found that parents who experienced childhood maltreatment are, as a group, more likely than non-abused parents to have children who are abused or neglected.” Children of alcoholics are at a 50 percent higher risk of becoming addicted themselves. Even as American rates have risen over the past few decades, children of divorcées still remain more likely to experience divorce.
But can someone be genetically predisposed to racism? Or sexism? Or corporate fraud? Even in cases of clear correlation, researchers consistently admit the difficulty of disentangling the dizzying array of factors that play into these matters. Is it genetics? Is it environment? In his book The Gene, Siddhartha Mukherjee discusses epigenetics, a third factor in the conversation. Somewhat like the bone callus on my left tibia formed from a childhood hockey accident, “every genome acquires its own wounds, calluses, and freckles.”
We know that sin is being passed down from generation to generation, but is it nature, nurture, or something else? When we survey the biblical record, the answer becomes clear: all of the above.
Generations of Sin
Taking our cues from Augustine and Luther, we begin in Romans 5 where the apostle Paul writes, “Sin entered the world through one man, and death through sin, and in this way death came to all people, because all sinned” (v. 12) Original sin hung around the neck of Adam like a giant millstone, and sinking into Sheol, he dragged every generation thereafter into the watery depths with him. “Men were bound by the chain of death,” Augustine explains, rattling down through the ages with iron links that took the shape of parents and children.
Paul is not making a new argument in Romans; he is pulling a theological thread that runs through the Hebrew Scriptures. To borrow a line from Sophocles’ Antigone, the Old Testament presents the ruin of sin never ceasing but “cresting on and on from one generation on throughout the race—like a great mounting tide.” As salvation history gains momentum, we see generational amplification of the sin that originated in the garden.
The consequences of Adam’s fall in the garden are immediate. His firstborn son, Cain, murders his own brother. Cain’s grandson brags about being seventy times more violent than his progenitor. Just six chapters into Genesis, the Lord heaves a heavy sigh over what one man’s sin has wrought: “The Lord saw how great the wickedness of the human race had become on the earth, and that every inclination of the thoughts of the human heart was only evil all the time”(6:5). A worldwide flood and a fresh start cannot prevent Noah and his son Ham from falling back into sin—with fruit once again (9:20–27). At Babel, Noah’s descendants—pointedly called “the children of man”—again fall to the Serpent’s temptation to “be like God,” saying, “Come, let us build ourselves a city, with a tower that reaches to the heavens, so that we may make a name for ourselves” (11:4).
As the Pentateuch progresses, Moses highlights the fact that the sons of Israel are just as bound in sin as the other families of the earth. No sooner freed from Egypt, they long to return (Ex. 14:11–12), crying out for reenslavement over (16:3). And over (Num. 14:2–4). And over again (20:5). The wilderness generation exhibits the affliction of all souls in Dante’s Inferno—“they yearn for what they fear.”
Judges is sin ad nauseam. Seven times the story repeats, each generation plunging deeper into predictably boring wickedness. Gideons tear down their fathers’ pagan altars only to build their own to replace them (Judges 6:25–27; 8:26–27).
The Scriptures hint that a king might break the sin cycle (21:25), but Israel’s kings only make things worse. King Saul’s fall evokes the scene in Genesis 3—this time Saul playing the part of Adam and the people playing the part of Eve (1 Sam. 15). King David falls even harder than Saul, committing the sin of Adam by taking hold of forbidden Bathsheba and the sin of Cain by murdering her husband, Uriah (2 Sam. 11).
However, the most gut-wrenching display of original sin follows right on the heels of David’s. As 2 Samuel 13 unfolds, everything feels all too familiar. David’s firstborn son, Amnon, just like his father, lies upon his bed lusting after a forbidden woman: his sister Tamar. Just like his father, Amnon sends a messenger to summon her—David himself. And horrifically, Amnon relives David’s sin, raping Tamar. But this is not the first time a woman named Tamar has been abused by men in Amnon’s family. This is an act of ancestral sin—sin that stretches from Amnon to David all the way back to the tribe’s namesake, Judah himself (Gen. 38).
I could go on. Athanasius sums up the rest of the Old Testament: “Corruption ran riot.” Jesus himself saw the opposition of his contemporaries as the snowballing of fathers and sons who had murdered their prophets and rejected their God: “This generation will be held responsible for the blood of all the prophets that has been shed since the beginning of the world” (Luke 11:50).
Can We Escape the Cycle?
The Scriptures’ testimony raises an important question: Are we doomed to repeat the sins of our fathers? The doctrine of original sin offends our modern sensibilities. Sons are not automatically more virtuous than their fathers. We are not less sinful than those who came before simply because we live in the 21st century. Progress is not inevitable. Sin is. What we read in the history books isn’t in the past. It’s in our DNA.
Denial of this fact is fatal. We aren’t talking about the denial of male-pattern baldness. This is denial of original sin: I will escape my heritage. I will not relive the sins of my fathers. This same self-righteous denial was knit into the brows of those who cried out, “Crucify him!” (Luke 23:21).
Every generation tears down the idols of their fathers, but idolatry never seems to disappear from the land. The poignant refrain of Jemar Tisby’s The Color of Compromise illustrates our peril: “Racism never goes away; it adapts.” The same sin that bore fruit for death in our fathers dwells in us. The effects of original sin are both generational and cumulative.
What then is our hope? Neither bootstrappism nor rehabilitation efforts will suffice. The unified witness of the Scriptures is that nothing apart from the in-breaking of God through the Son by the power of the Spirit can disrupt the generational bondage of original sin: “For we know that our old self was crucified with him so that the body ruled by sin might be done away with, that we should no longer be slaves to sin” (Rom. 6:6).
Programs of discipleship must aim at nothing short of regeneration. J. I. Packer warns against the temptation to settle for externalism: “When Scripture tells Christians to mortify sin, the meaning is not just that bad habits must be broken, but that sinful desires and urgings must have the life drained out of them.” Modern Christians must be willing to confess the same sinful passions dwell in us that dwelled in our fathers. John Owen warns, “Let not that man think he makes any progress in holiness, who walks not over the bellies of his lusts.” Freedom from “what once bound us” begins inside.
Faithful churches will train Christians to be students of both Scripture and their own cultural history. Original sin gives birth to actual sin in each successive generation. We would do well to study our own family trees because the same sin flows in our veins. As Americans, this will mean, among other things, learning about the roots of racism, materialism, and sinful individualism. As the cliché goes, those who do not know the past are doomed to repeat it.
We must also realize that just as sinners of the past joined forces to build monuments, structures, and systems—towers of Babel—to hold this world captive to the ravages of sin, Christians filled with the Spirit must also be institution builders. Where the kingdom of God is found, those who exercise oppressive power should be crying foul: “These men who have caused trouble all over the world have now come here!” (Acts 17:6). This means building colleges and universities, political activist groups, denominations, publications, hospitals, career-training facilities, businesses, and pregnancy centers to spread the reign of Christ and fight back the reign of Death.
When will we be able to stop talking about sins of racism, oppression, and greed? If we believe in original sin, we already have our answer. But for believers, the sanctification of Christ’s church and the never-ending endeavor to “seek the good of the city” where we exiles seek to expand the kingdom is not a fruitless endeavor. Ultimately, it’s about inheritance. We labor in the fields today; our sons and daughters will labor there tomorrow. The promise of God to redeemed sinners is that “for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up” (Gal. 6:9).
Chad Ashby is the pastor of College Street Baptist Church in Newberry, South Carolina. He is a graduate of Grove City College and The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary.