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Friday, March 12, 2010

Christian Philosophers Attempt to Defend "Original Sin"--Part Two

Paul Copan, the current President of the Evangelical Philosophical Society, has written an article entitled, Original Sin and Christian Philosophy (Philosophia Christi, 2 [2003]: 519-41, available on-line), in which he makes a valiant attempt to defend the Christian concept of original sin (see my response to Keith Wyma's attempt in Part One of this series).

He begins by stating that God did not create man as a sinner but rather, as with all of God's creation, he created him good (Gen. 1:31). Copan says: We must remember that Genesis 1-2 comes before Genesis 3, that human nature was first made good by God but has been corrupted. Yes, but didn't God know that the man he created was vulnerable to falling? Didn't God stack the deck against him by: (1) allowing the deceiver (i.e., the serpent) into the garden; (2) not warning him of a deceiver who does not have his best interest in mind; (3) naming the tree with an innocuous name, the tree of the knowledge of good and evil (would it not have been better to call the tree something like, the tree of misery and death?); and (4) expecting him to know the difference between good and evil before he ate from the tree which supposedly gave him that knowledge? It seems pretty obvious that God wanted Adam to fall and arranged things in such a way that it was extremely likely that he would do so.

Louise Antony, in her presentation at the Notre Dame conference, My Ways Are Not Your Ways: The Character Of The God of The Hebrew Bible, used an illustration to demonstrate how unfair God was in the Edenic test. She says imagine a parent tells her child before sending him out on Halloween night: Do not eat any of the candy that you get until I have a chance to inspect it. Then, unbeknownst to the child, the parent employs an evil person to give the child some poisoned candy. The evil conspirator tells the child to go ahead and eat the candy. The child says, No, my mother told me not to eat any candy until she inspects it first. The malefactor says: Oh it will be okay. Go ahead and eat it.. The child eats it and dies. Who is most culpable in this story?

After a lengthy discussion of Romans 5:12 and its theological implications, Copan concludes, in contrast to classic Protestant theology, that guilt is not transferred through original sin but merely damage. He argues:
It seems both theologically permissible and apologetically useful to speak about original sin in terms of “damage” rather than “[alien] guilt”; but even if “guilt” is somehow involved, it should be construed as conditional: The traditional teaching of original sin in Augustinian tradition implies, among other things, that we have (a) a sinful disposition which is inherited from Adam and (b) Adam’s guilty status is imputed to us apart from any immoral actions humans may commit. As we have seen, (b) would present problems: Are all without exception imputed an alien guilt and therefore damned to separation from God—including infants, the senile, and the retarded?

Copan's denial of the imputation of guilt provides him with a way out as it relates to the damnation of infants and others who are mentally underdeveloped. One could respond, however, that if God is sympathetic to the plight of those who are mentally challenged, through no fault of their own, then why isn't he sympathetic to the plight of all mankind who, according to Copan, are born morally damaged through no fault of their own?

Copan posits the challenge facing Christian apologists with regard to original sin:
The challenge for the Christian is to put in perspective our corporate connection to Adam (something individualistic Westerners resist) while also accounting for individual human responsibility (which makes sense of the justice of punishment and personal moral accountability).

He believes this challenge is appropriately met by the distinction made by Alvin Platinga of sinning vs. being in sin. He writes:
Christian philosopher Alvin Plantinga speaks of sin in two respects: (1) sinning—something for which one is responsible (“he is guilty and warrants blame”), and (2) being in sin—a condition in which we find ourselves from birth. Whereas I am culpable for a sinful act, original sin is not something for which I am culpable: “insofar as I am born in this predicament, my being in it is not within my control and not up to me.” (Warranted Christian Belief, pp. 206-07).

Does this really resolve the issue? If one is born into the condition Platinga describes, can one then avoid sinning? If not, then how can one be held culpable for something that one cannot avoid? Copan continues:
We are born with an original corruption, a self-centered orientation that permeates all we do. Simply being born does not render an infant guilty before God—even if, say, atonement is still necessary for removing the stain of sin. So, though we do not sin necessarily (i.e., it is not assured that we must commit this or that particular sin), we sin inevitably (i.e., in addition to our propensity to sin, given the vast array of opportunities to sin, we eventually do sin at some point).

He says that we do not sin necessarily but inevitably. I see that as a distinction without a difference. If it is inevitable that I sin, then how is it not necessary that I sin? Unless Copan wants to argue that some people could live their entire lives without sinning, then I don't see that this distinction provides any support to his theodicy. I am quite certain that Copan does not want to espouse Pelagianism.

Copan wants to say that original sin involves only the transmission of damage, and not the transmission of guilt. Somehow, he believes this gets his God off the hook, so to speak. I don't agree. If I loan my car to my friend knowing that the car has defective brakes and my friend wrecks the car as a result of the bad brakes, who is most culpable?

Next, Copan argues that the Christian view of original sin, at least the version he espouses, is a better explanation of the world than any non-Christian explanation. He writes:
The doctrine of original sin has the benefit of universal empirical verifiability; thus it supports a Jewish-Christian anthropology as opposed to more neutral or optimistic views of human nature "sans" grace: G.K Chesterton (Orthodoxy, p. 15) is noted for his famous statement: “Certain new theologians dispute original sin, which is the only part of Christian theology which can really be proved."

Copan continues:
Naturalistic explanations of moral evil (e.g., evil as “abnormal” or “maladjusted” according to psychological/therapeutic categories) are woefully inadequate to deal with their depth and horror, whereas the Christian worldview furnishes a sufficient context to understand it.... how can we make sense of personal moral responsibility and punishment if our behavior is nothing more than acting out our physiology? Are we truly willing to say that the Columbine killers were simply “abnormal”—not evil?"

First, I reject Copan's implication that the word evil can only be used in a theistic worldview. In my non-theistic worldview, evil describes an act (or the person who perpetrates the act) that causes harm or injury to an underserving individual. Second, Copan argues that any indvidual moral responsiblity is erased if our behavior is nothing more than acting out our physiology? If that is true, then why doesn't the notion that man is born into this world as damaged goods with a propensity to commit evil erase his moral responsiblity? Third, I do believe the actions of the Columbine killers, as well as other notorious criminals, can be explained pathologically without any appeal to original sin. One does not have to resort to a belief in God or the Bible to explain such actions. As a matter of fact, one could argue that a God who orders genocide (including the killing of children and infants) is himself pathological. (Maybe man created in the image of God involves more than Copan realizes).

Copan continues his attempt to defend the justice of original sin by stating that God has provided the remedy. He writes:
In defending the idea of original sin, we must point out to the critic that we cannot consider this doctrinal dangler without the narrative/historical context which explains the solution God has provided. If we follow the secularist line, we are driven to despair because of the track record of man’s inhumanity to man generation after generation. Naturalistically speaking, we are without hope for resolution to our deep depravity. Thus we must keep in mind the complete diagnosis—the damage as well as the basis of and the hope for full repair.

Once again, Copan's argument fails. First, to say that God provides a cure for the illness that man is born with does not eliminate the culpability of the creator. He created man knowing that man would fall and that all future human beings would be born, due to no fault of their own, into this diseased condition. Now that he provides a cure, he is to be excused? Unless he grants them that cure from the moment of conception, I do not see how this removes his culpability. Second, Copan says that naturalism has no resolution to the problem of man's inhumanity to man. I think the argument could be made that Christianity's solution has failed as well. As many inhumane actions have been perpetrated by Christians throughout history as by any non-Christian group.

Copan continues: . . . we must avoid the red herring of original sin as inevitably condemning a person without the cooperation of his will. This original corruption, by itself, does not condemn us, but rather when we align ourselves with it. But is man capable of doing otherwise? He has already argued that the universality of sin is the most empircally established truth of Christianity. It doesn't appear that man has any choice. If my car is out of alignment (an analogy that Copan uses to refer to the effects of original sin),is it any surprise when it pulls too much in one direction? Can it do otherwise?

As seems to be the case with most Christian apologists today, when everything else fails, middle knowledge is trotted out as the ultimate theodicy. Copan acknowledges that a common complaint is that it is not fair or just for all men to be held accountable for a sin that they did not personally commit. Here comes middle knowledge to the rescue:
Perhaps it’s the case that had any of us human beings been in Adam’s place, each of us would have freely chosen to eat of the fruit and refused to trust God’s word and character. What if every human being God created would also have fallen into sin just as Adam did? Though human sinlessness in the garden is logically possible, it could be the case that those human beings God has actually created would have, according to His middle knowledge, chosen the same Adamic course, resulting in the same Adamic curse. The selection of another person would have produced no different outcome. Had any of us actualized human beings been in Adam’s place, none of us by his free choice would have avoided bringing about the fall and its consequences.

I would like to know how Copan knows this to be the case. Does he have access to God's middle knowledge also? Did God tell him this? It seems to me that this argument from middle knowledge is nothing more than an assumption created ad hoc to explain a problem for Christian theology. If one assumes the concept of middle knowledge to be valid (and many philosophers do not), and if one assumes that God only created those whom he knew would fall if placed in the same circumstances of Adam (and there is no way we can know that), then perhaps Copan has a point. But there are too many assumptions here to satisfy me. We might as well just do what some other Christians do and assume that whatever God does is right and if we don't understand it, it is because it is beyond our comprehension. That is much simpler and takes a lot less work to explain. Then again, Christian apologists might be out of a job if they took that approach.

So here we have another effort by an evangelical Christian to justify the ways of God to man. Although it was a valiant effort, it fails in the final analysis.


  1. Thanks, Ken, for devoting a post to my essay. I'm sorry you've given up on Christ/the Christian faith--a very painful withdrawal, no doubt. Knowing what little I do of your story saddens me. Not to pigeon-hole you, but I've met so many who have come from a "Christian fundamentalist" background who have similar narratives. Maybe next time I'm in the Atlanta area (in November), we can get together for a cup of coffee. I'd really enjoy meeting you.

    I'll try to respond briefly and won't be able to hit all of your points. As you know, the problem of evil is a problem for everyone, and agnostics/atheists have, in my estimation, both the problem of evil and the problem of goodness do respond to (see below). Getting rid of God provokes more problems than solutions. Furthermore, focusing on the problem of evil to the neglect of the wide range of evidence for God is all too common and typically skews the discussion (see below on this too). But we are discussing an aspect of the problem of evil; so let's jump in.

    1. The "damage" view I've taken is held by a number of orthodox Christian theologians and philosophers (Bruce Demarest, Millard Erickson, Thomas Morris, etc.).

    2. Theism's being better able to "deal with" evil than non-theistic worldviews seems borne out by atheistic thinkers like Richard Dawkins (who states that in a world of electrons and selfish genes, there is no good or evil--just mere "blind, pitiless indifference"), Bertrand Russell ("the foundation of unyielding despair"), physicist Steven Weinberg (the more the world seems comprehensible, the more "pointless" it seems). This common position isn't too surprising if matter constitutes all reality. If God exists, though, objective purpose does as well. This is powerfully analyzed in Gordon Graham's *Evil and Christian Ethics* (Cambridge).

    3. To further reinforce my point, your argument assumes that human beings (perhaps creatures in general) have value and ought not to be harmed. But why think this? How do you move from "is" to "ought" (the naturalistic fallacy), from valuelessness to value? Stacking up lots of collocations of valueless atoms won't get you to value. Affirming value slyly borrows from the metaphysical capital of theism. In opposing harm, you assume intrinsic value exists, yet this has somehow arisen from valueless processes. Plenty of atheists/agnostics (including existentialists and nihilists) understandably reject objective value given the worldview context of naturalism. Again, if a good God exists, finite value derives from the Creator's value.

    4. In my book *Loving Wisdom* (Chalice), I argue that God's nature and existence account for many things that naturalism/non-theism simply cannot (and I cite plenty of non-theists to reinforce the point): beauty, the use of reason, the beginning of the universe, the fine-tuning of the universe, human dignity/worth/rights, consciousness, free will/moral responsibility. These features make excellent sense and are reasonably expected if God exists, but are difficult to account for and not predictable given naturalism.

    5. As for the charge of defaulting to middle knowledge (the fixer of fixers!) and how "Copan knows this," note my wording ("Perhaps it's the case..."). Furthermore, I would say the following: (a) there is biblical warrant for middle knowledge (e.g., David at Keilah); (b) we assume this as intuitively plausible ("if only I had done X instead of Y"); (c) I am seeking to reconcile this intuitively plausible philosophical (and biblically-supportable) concept with the biblical affirmation that God desires that none perish/all be saved (1 Tim. 2:4; 2 Pet. 3:9); and (c) so long as this suggestion is at least logically possible (even if it's not the exact solution), then this seems to be a plausible point.


  2. 6. As for the Canaanite question, see my response to this in the essay "Yahweh Wars" at the Evangelical Philosophical Society website ( anticipates a larger work *Is God a Moral Monster?* (Baker, January 2011).

    7. As for Louise Anthony's example, there *is* a difference between children and adults! I would be careful about pushing this too hard. Also, God wasn't expecting our first ancestors to know what evil was, but he rightly expected them to trust in his goodness and the rightness of his command, even if they didn't know the outcome.

    8. As for the question the unfairness of our bent to sin, I think it is important to keep in mind that God is more concerned about our agreeing with and living in accordance with our disposition to sin--not individual sins per se. We are self-condemned when we agree with our self-centered tendency against God/goodness. Also, far from Pelagianism, I acknowledge that divine grace is needed to remove the stain of sin/damage that has come to us all. Further, I point out the notion of the moral gap--that our falling short of the moral ideals of which we are aware can, if we are willing, prompt us to seek outside assistance ("grace").

    9. As far as the charge that professing Christians have (yes, sadly) been as guilty as others of immorality throughout history, I'm surprised you take this somewhat ad hominem tack (do counterfeits disprove the genuine article, Jesus and his teachings?). Also, even the noted atheist philosopher Jürgen Habermas has argued that the singular impact of the Jewish-Christian worldview on human rights and the West's moral development is intellectually inescapable: "everything else is postmodern chatter." Have a look at Alvin Schmidt's book *How Christianity Changed the World* (Zondervan).

    I could say more, but this will have to suffice, and I'm afraid, given all I have on my platter, that I may not be able to come back to the discussion. Again, let's connect the next time I'm in town. And if you're in the West Palm Beach, FL area, please look me up. it would be a pleasure to get to know you.

    Many good wishes to you.


  3. Paul, nice to see you Blogging.

    Here's a different question that I'd like an answer to if you will:

    If under the same initial test conditions in the Garden of Eden (or the first human pair) every human being would fail that test, then either, 1) God created us faulty in some way, or 2) The test was a sham. And since a fair test would mean some of us would not have sinned, then some human beings are being punished in this world for something they never would have done in the first place. This is just one of many questions that keeps me from believing.