A Progressive Christian Primer, Part 6: Sin, Eden, and Original Blessing

Joel Michael Herbert
14 min readDec 28, 2023
Photo by engin akyurt on Unsplash

We’ve spent a long time talking about a progressive Christian vision for reading Scripture, and for good reason. How we approach and understand the Bible informs nearly everything else we believe about God. How we define terms like “Word of God,” “inspired,” and “inerrant” can vary greatly from tradition to tradition, so it’s important that we define them. And perhaps no other word is so fraught, and so important to define, as the word sin.

Growing up in church and youth group in the 1990s, the perennial question of teenagers everywhere was “is _____ a sin?” Predictably, the specific question usually revolved around sex or dating. Is kissing a sin? Is pre-marital sex a sin? What about oral sex? How far is “too far?”

This all seems sort of silly in hindsight, but the question itself betrays a definition of sin that does not accurately reflect how the writers of Scripture would have thought of or defined sin.

Sin in our culture is primarily defined as a misdeed- something you do wrong, like breaking one of the Ten Commandments. A “serious shortcoming, or fault,” according to Merriam-Webster, the violation of a particular religious or moral law, or an action “felt to be highly reprehensible.” Dig a little deeper in historic Christian theology, and you quickly get to the idea of Original Sin- the idea that every human being comes into the world pre-stained by sin because of the “original” sin of Adam’s disobedience, with each and every human ever born thereby incapable of ever being righteous on one’s own. Original sin is what causes us to “sin”- i.e., commit misdeeds. That is, because we are sinners by nature, we cannot help but sin in our deeds. This is the traditional view, going back to the time of St. Augustine in the 4th century CE.

Once again, how we read the Bible affects these definitions dramatically. It may surprise you to know that Jewish thought has no concept of original sin; it is a uniquely Christian idea. Indeed, the doctrine of original sin was not fully formed and fleshed out until centuries after Christ, most notably in the writings of St. Augustine, a prominent North African bishop in the years immediately following the legalization of Christianity in the Roman Empire, and widely recognized as one of the most influential Christian thinkers of all time. Augustine pulled this idea of original sin from a very short passage in Romans 5, where St. Paul compares the “gift” of Christ’s life-giving obedience with the “trespass” of Adam’s death-bringing disobedience. As the trespass of Adam brought death to all, so the gift of Christ brought life to all, says Paul.

But what if we’ve been looking at sin all wrong? What if we, as Western inheritors of Augustine’s thinking, along with all of his philosophical children, have missed key points in our conception of sin. Jesus and Paul both often speak of sin as if it has a capital S- that is, as if it is a government, a jurisdiction, a kingdom opposed to the kingdom of God, almost as if it has an agenda, a personality, as opposed to a list of forbidden deeds we are supposed to stay away from. In fact, upon a closer reading of Genesis 3, the word “sin” never even appears in the original story.

If capital-S Sin is, in effect, a kingdom that stands in opposition to God’s kingdom, when we “commit sins” (little s), we are participating in a kingdom that is opposed to the kingdom of God, but our individual transgressions are not the primary definition of this sin, but simply expressions of something more pervasive. Murder, theft, adultery, and perjury are obvious ways to participate in opposition to the kingdom of God — indeed, these all make the “Top Ten” that we are so fond of placing in front of Southern courthouses. But I suggest that this is a very narrow view of sin, and not a particularly helpful one at that. While it is all well and good to avoid murder, theft, and lying under oath, when it comes to the real world where most of us live the majority of our lives, defining sin like this isn’t helpful. It quickly devolves into “is _____ a sin?” and then with no clear cut answer in the Bible for most ethical questions, it’s left up to your church or pastor or denomination to (somewhat arbitrarily) answer that question for you. By way of example, I believed as a kid growing up in the Northwest that smoking cigarettes was a sin, not because the Bible explicitly forbade it, but because it violated the Biblical admonition that “your body is the temple of the Lord.”

This, as you might imagine, got very hairy very quickly. What role does addiction play in “sin”? What about the fact that the passage about your body being a temple is specifically about intercourse with a sex worker, and has nothing at all to do with using substances? What about the reality that my evangelical counterparts growing up in North Carolina would likely have heard no such admonition against tobacco use, since the state economy (along with numerous jobs and careers) revolved around the growing and selling of tobacco products.

Dave, the music leader at my church, who taught me to play the guitar at 7 years old, smoked cigarettes. Naturally, I was concerned that Dave might be going to hell for his sin. I remember he and my dad having conversations where they discussed God’s “permissive will” versus God’s “perfect will.” Dave’s smoking habit, apparently, alongside the embarrassing Biblical stories of David’s many wives, Samson’s philandering, or Noah’s alcoholism, fell under the category of God’s “permissive will.” I have no idea where this idea came from — it’s certainly not found in the Bible — but it underscores for me the lengths we will go to make the Bible fit what we want it to fit, even in extremely strict and literalist church contexts like the one I was raised in.

This definition of sin as “something we do wrong” is nonsensical, and ultimately leads to all kinds of circular arguments and elaborate methods to defend one’s own pet practices that they don’t want to define as “sin.” I propose, by contrast, a definition of Sin as a kingdom, a power, a mode of thinking, that we can choose to participate in or not. A common accusation of progressive Christians is that we don’t believe in Sin, or that we don’t take it seriously. I wholeheartedly disagree. When I look around me and see politicians serving corporations instead of the people they are supposed to represent, a health care system that leaves millions of people saddled with medical debt, a world that has teetered for nearly 80 years under the constant threat of nuclear holocaust, when I see famine causing millions of people to starve to death around the world while other countries have abundance, large companies buying up homes and driving up housing costs while homelessness skyrockets to record highs, when I see a prison system in the United States that incarcerates 20 percent of the world’s prison population, when I see the Taliban or the Texas Attorney General persecuting the most vulnerable women, when I see the inability of the most powerful nations of the world to make a plan to address climate change, when I see child poverty in the United States double the rates of other Western countries… the list goes on and on… the only word that seems to be a sufficient descriptor is sin.

Yes, I believe in Sin. Greed, systemic racism, unchecked capitalism, poverty, corruption, war… I don’t know a better catch-all word to describe these abhorrent realities than Sin. Sin, as many of us will remember from Sunday school, simply means “missing the mark.” Certainly we can miss the mark individually, and all of us do, and have. But Sin, it seems to me, is primarily a system, a power opposed to God’s kingdom of light and love and life, that we can — individually, as well as communally, nationally, and politically — choose to participate in, or not.

This is the essence of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. Jesus seeks to move the discourse around sin from one that defines and polices individual misdeeds to unmasking the systems of Sin and how we can choose to participate with those systems or not. “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth,’” Jesus says, “but I say unto you… if someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also.”

This sort of thinking pulls us out of the realm of the black-and-white binary (“where is the line?”) and into the realm of participation in the kingdom of God. Of course, it is not wrong to strike someone who has struck you. You have committed no sin, you have broken no law of God if you choose to retaliate in this way. But Jesus here is inviting us to reconsider how we might engage an aggressor with a view to expanding the kingdom of God. You’ve done nothing wrong if you fight back — but there is a better way, Jesus suggests.

We see intimations of this in the Ten Commandments themselves, most notably in the first and last commandments. The First invites us to consider morals through the lens not of deeds and misdeeds, but through the orienting principle of participation with God in the world: “I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery. You shall have no other gods before me.”

We often quote the part about “no other gods” by itself. This is the part that ends up on those stone monuments outside courthouses. But the First Commandment is that entire paragraph. Without an orientation that places God’s kingdom of justice and freedom as the decisive moralizing factor in life, the Ten Commandments becomes simply a list of dos and donts. The tenth commandment should make this point obvious: “Thou shalt not covet.” How in the world do you enforce this law? How do you know when you’ve violated it? In the church I grew up in, which insisted quite regularly in sermons that sin separates one from God, I was left to wonder if my mere thoughts of envy, jealousy, or lust, even if I did nothing to act on them, would separate me from God. After all, lust is apparently such a big deal that God put it on par with murder, theft, and idolatry.

Jesus riffs on the tenth commandment in the Sermon on the Mount as well: “You have heard that it was said, ‘thou shalt not commit adultery,’ but I say unto you, that he who lusts after a woman in his heart has already committed adultery.” A literalist reading of the Bible would suggest that Jesus is equating the very thought of sexual desire with outright cheating on one’s spouse, but that’s not at all what Jesus is doing here. He is playing with the text, the way all rabbis did in his day. He is looking at the 7th commandment through the lens of the 10th. Jesus is saying that participation in the kingdom of Sin doesn’t just happen the moment you choose to step out on your wife; indeed, you can participate in the kingdom of Sin even if you never do step out! This is most definitely not, as I’ve heard from preachers many times before, Jesus “raising the bar” of the already high demands of the Torah — that is an incredibly simplistic reading of the text. Rather, this is Jesus inviting us into a new consciousness, a new way of thinking, one that doesn’t ask the question “is ______ sin?”, but one that asks better questions, that seeks to transform our ethical mind toward wisdom and beauty rather than the rudimentary principles of “do not handle, do not taste, do not touch” that so often defines how we think of sin.

The binary is kindergarten thinking — the spiritual equivalent of “don’t throw sand,” or “don’t bite your friends.” Jesus is inviting us to reconsider how we conceptualize even our own inner life and interior processes as vehicles for transformation in and of themselves. He does something similar with the 6th commandment — “thou shalt not kill” — suggesting that hatred and even anger commence the corrosive journey in the soul that finds its natural end (albeit rarely) in murder. Jesus teaches this not because being angry or hating someone is a “sinful” act per se, but because harboring anger and hate is cruel to the soul, a participation in the kingdom of Sin that undermines the good work of the kingdom of God in our own hearts, even if that anger or hatred never makes it out of the deep recesses of our own minds.

Let’s return to the idea of “Original Sin.” Traditional Christianity tends to see the first 3 chapters of Genesis as a story of “how did we get here, and what went wrong?” I think these very valid questions — and their answers — only make sense if we read these chapters non-literally. In the traditional view, Genesis 3 records both the original “sin” of humanity (the deed of disobedience), as well as, according to Paul and especially Augustine writing much later, the entrance of “Original Sin” into the DNA of the entire human race.

But if we “turn” the text, a rabbinical method of reading the Bible that incorporates many different readings and perspectives, we can find something altogether different. In the traditional view, God creates a good world, perfect and pristine and sinless, and Adam and Eve muck it all up with their blatant violation of a clear commandment, “don’t eat the fruit.” God is grieved by this “sin,” recognizes that Adam and Eve have unwittingly brought on themselves a stain, a fundamental brokenness that will extend to all of their descendants in perpetuity, and drives them out of Paradise to live in the real world with the rest of us, a world cursed by God himself with the toil of hard labor and the pain of childbirth.

In the progressive Christian view, the good Creation of Genesis 1 never changes. God creates the Universe and calls it “good.” God creates human beings and calls them “very good,” and that fundamental reality is not altered by the events of Genesis 3. We now know with certainty from developments in geology and biology in the last 150 years that there is nothing historically or scientifically literal about the first chapters of Genesis. It is a Hebrew Creation Myth, virtually identical in structure to other Creation Myths of the Ancient Near East (ANE), that seeks to lay a foundation for the unique standing of the Hebrew God, the Invisible Deity with a Name so Sacred it is never spoken aloud, and is shorthanded in the Scriptures out of reverence to the title translated in English “LORD,” all caps, or in Hebrew, the word “Adonai,” which means “my Lord.”

So Adonai, the God of the Hebrews, the one true God, created a good world, contra other theologies of the ANE teaching that the world of Matter is inherently evil and the world of Spirit good. Adonai is intimately involved with his creation, contra theologies teaching that Spirit and Matter are fundamentally divorced from one another. God creates a good world, Genesis 1 declares, and God is very, very proud of it indeed. God creates two human beings, and doesn’t just raise them up from the dust and clay, as he does with the other animals, but infuses Godself into them, their life inseparable from God’s own. God breathes into their nostrils God’s own breath, the breath of life, using the same word for breath as is used for Spirit in the first movement of Genesis 1: “the Spirit (breath) of God was hovering over the waters.”

So God creates human beings, infuses them with God’s own Spirit, and that never changes. After the whole ordeal with the Serpent and the Fruit, this fundamental reality never changes. The world is still very good. Adam and Eve are still dwelling places of the very Spirit of God — they are the very first temples, if you will.

We call this idea Original Blessing, as opposed to the idea of Original Sin. We reject the idea that the Human soul is fundamentally broken, or “totally depraved,” to use the words of Calvinist theology. Rather, Humanity is flawed, certainly, but this is not a moral judgment. To be Human is to err. To be Human is to “miss the mark,” obviously — we all do it, all the time. We are imperfect. But this does not mean that to be Human is to be necessarily Evil, as the doctrine of Original Sin teaches. We all have a choice whether we will participate in God’s good world, or whether we will choose to participate in the various cunning deceptions offered to us to pull us toward…

Well, what is it exactly that we are being tempted toward?

Much ink has been spilled over the centuries, debating what exactly the first sin was. Some say it was pride or hubris — the craving to be “like God.” Some say it was disobedience — the violation of the clear command not to eat the fruit. Some even say it was sex — that the Serpent is supposed to be a phallic symbol of some kind.

To me, it’s very obvious, and staring us in the face right in the text, in the name of the Tree itself: The Knowledge of Good and Evil.

At this point, it’s important to stop and make it clear that I’m no longer trying to uncover what particular, literal “sin” resulted in the curse and expulsion from the Garden. Remember, nowhere in Genesis 3 does the word “sin” occur. In fact, the first mention of the word sin does not occur until Genesis 4, in the story of Cain and Abel. Even then, it is not used in reference to Cain’s murder of Abel, surprisingly, but instead is portrayed as a power seeking to possess and rule over Cain, like a crouching lion outside his door (Genesis 4:6).

Back to the Garden. Again, we must read this story non-literally for it to make any sense at all. Adam and Eve here are not literally being tempted by a magical talking Snake to partake in some great evil by chomping down on a new and tantalizing magical fruit. Rather, Adam and Eve are archetypes for all of us. They are being tempted by the Serpent to abandon innocence and embrace judgement in its place. They are doing what we all do, usually as children around the onset of puberty, for some of us even before that. We begin to categorize the world into good and bad, rich and poor, us and them, in and out, black and white. Our innocence evaporates like our very own Paradise Lost, never to be known again.

The “original sin” in the Garden of Eden is the sin common to us all — the embrace of categories over simplicity, easy binaries over deep wisdom, division over Unitive Consciousness. This is the goal of mature spirituality — a return to innocence, an “unlearning,” if you will, of all of the mental structures and divisions we’ve constructed over the years, a “second naïveté,” to borrow the words of Richard Rohr.

No, sin is not individual misdeeds. Sin is a narrow, constricted way of seeing oneself and seeing the world, a “kingdom” centered on the “elemental spirits” of the world (Colossians 2:20) — selfishness, tribalism, shame, and “sin” — the obsession with who is right and wrong, in and out. Jesus, the prophets, apostles, and mystics of all generations have seen this reality for what it is, and invite us instead to embrace the Mystery — the paradox that to become spiritually mature we must become “like little children,” in the best way. We must abandon the old, immature, rudimental ways of knowing that separate us from one another, from the Divine, and ultimately from our own selves, and learn to unlearn, to mature into a new innocence, or in the words of Jesus himself: “repent [change your mind] and become like little children.”

This is the secret of the Garden of Eden. This is the Reality of Original Blessing. You are good.

You are very good.

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Joel Michael Herbert

Husband. Father. Artist. Storyteller. Armchair Theologian. Advocate, activist and politician. Gryffindor. [neuro]Divergent.