It wasn’t that long ago that I ran across an email thread between two people that wrestled with major questions of life and existence. Within the thread one person had asked the other where the human race had come from and what was wrong with the world. The answers given were naturalistic and, knowing the person to whom the questions were addressed, unsurprising. Where did we come from? For this person that’s fairly easy to answer since we are merely the product of biological evolution. But what is wrong with the world? This is a tougher nut to crack. And this nut was one the respondent was unable to break open.
The Christian, particularly those in the Augustinian tradition, have a ready answer to the question of what is wrong with the world. We trace the trouble back to the sin of our first parents, Adam and Eve. Because our first parents fell into sin the whole world has been subjected to futility (Romans 8:20). More than this, every descendent of the first couple (i.e. every person throughout history) finds that a corrupt nature is passed on and we all stand condemned. This is Paul’s point when he writes, “one trespass led to condemnation for all men” (Romans 5:18). And it is the point made earlier by King David when he writes, “Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity, and in sin did my mother conceive me” (Psalm 51:5). We know this doctrine today as “original sin,” or better, “inherited sin.” That is, we inherit a corrupt nature and stand justly condemned because of the fall of the human race at the beginning of human history.
Alan Jacobs has written a delightful book about how the reality of original sin “somehow set in motion a chain of unpleasant events that could not be arrested or reversed” (Original Sin, x). Yet, Jacobs is not writing a theological treatise. Rather, his “concern is with the ways in which belief or disbelief in original sin plays itself out in a great varieties of cultural forms, from poetry to movies, from psychoanalysis to the rearing of children” (xviii). In short, what one believes is wrong (or right) with the world, mankind in particular, will affect how one operates in the world and how they propose to fix the problems we face as a human community.
The most poignant aspect of Jacobs work is how he picks up on the fact that throughout history there has been a “clear pattern” in the story of man. “From time to time … a vision of the greatness of human moral potential emerges or arises, only to find an immediate counter in an equally potent and vivid picture of human bondage to the sin we all inherit from Adam” (127). Or to put the matter a different way, and a way that makes more sense to the reformed types, “A Pelagius rises up only to be met by an Augustine” (128). Further, Jacobs is right to say that this is a clear pattern. It’s clear from history, as Jacobs shows in his book.
But before we move too quickly, it must be noted that simply detailing the rise of a so-called Pelagian view, to be countered by an Augustinian view, is only part of the cultural issue that Jacobs traces. Of importance is how various societies have thought about the consequence of sins from a previous generation being felt by future generations. Jacobs “Six Stories” of chapter one poignantly put this issue on display. Whether it is ancient Greek culture, or within ancient Israelite religious thought, or simply because there is deep darkness within, people have wrestled with the fact that one generations actions often has significant impact on their posterity. In short, societies have looked to their ancestral past as the cause of their own present problems. Others, however, are too busy looking at the evil within their own hearts to worry about whether or not their ancestors are to blame.
Now, back to the historical sketch that Jacobs is drawing. Though the chapters are a bit disjointed, feeling more like a collage than a structured history, they nonetheless make the point. The issue is humanity has always struggled with the “divided-self.” This was true of Augustine, whose “fundamental judgment about himself is not that he is lustful, but that he is internally divided, driven here and there by multiple pressures and desires” (27). It seems that Augustine was experiencing the struggle that Paul describes in Romans 7, as the great Apostle wrestles with why he does the things he hates and doesn’t do the things he loves. The dilemma of the divided self demands an explanation. And the explanation has frequently run along two tracks. First, track one asserts that we are basically good when we are born. Second, and in contrast, track two states that we are totally depraved and thus basically bad. The track one follows will determine the remedy. If we are basically good, then maybe all we need is a bit of education or new sociological influences. This is how utopian-socialist Robert Owen would address the issue: according to Jacobs, Owen would assert that the remedy to the divided-self was “merely a matter of education” (179). Yet, the Christian answer stands in total contrast. To quote Pink Floyd, “we don’t need no education” … we need to be new creations.
The fact is, however, that the doctrine of original sin (which answers that we are basically bad at conception) levels the playing field. Though humanity has recoiled from the doctrine, history has shown that attempts to answer the problem of our inherited sin by means of education, changes in sociological situations, or from some religious form of Pelagianism, have all failed. We are sinful throughout and cannot overcome our sinfulness by human means. We need help that comes from outside of ourselves, we need God to act and “make us alive together with Christ” (Ephesians 2:5).
The doctrine of original sin is massively important for the church. It levels the playing field. We are sinful, being basically bad! Regardless of what Rousseau would say, there is no post-fall “goodness of man.” Instead, David and Paul are more correct. We are sinful at conception and dead in Adam. Further, our problem is within but the solution comes from without. That is, we are dead in our sins (Ephesians 2:1) and only God speaking a new-creational word over our dead bones can cause us to live (cf. Ezekiel 37). And we know this new-creational word is none other than the gospel of Jesus Christ (1 Peter 1:23–25).
History will continue seeing the rise of Pelagian views of humanity. Men and women will continue to deny their depravity and assert their inherent goodness. We will continue to look inside for our deliverance, only to find that within ourselves there is no deliverer to be found. Instead, because we have inherited guilt and corruption from our first father, we will need the truth so clearly articulated by Paul and later Augustine. We will need to see our total inability and be driven to look outside of ourselves for the help we need. And when we look outside of ourselves, we must see our need for the gospel … a gospel that conquers the divided-self fully and finally in the eschatological day.
 Both John Frame and Wayne Grudem opt for the language of inherited sin as it is less confusing and better communicates the doctrine. See the relevant chapters in Frame, Systematic Theology and Grudem, Systematic Theology.