Monday, January 8, 2018

Craig On Original Sin

In my previous post, I discussed the absurdity of the Christian doctrine of atonement.  It does not seem reasonable to think that someone else should be able to alleviate me of moral responsibility for my sins by taking the punishment upon himself.  But that is exactly what Christians believe Jesus did by dying on the cross.  A closely related issue is the idea that we should assume guilt and bear moral responsibility, subject to God's punishment, for the sins of our ancestors.  This is the Christian doctrine of original sin.  It holds that Adam and Eve sinned by their own free will, and the guilt for that sin is passed on to all of their progeny.  Furthermore, their sinful nature is also passed to the rest of us.  So according to the Christian dogma, each and every one of us is guilty the sin of our ancestor, and we are born as "fallen" beings, which implies that we are compelled by our nature to commit still more sinful acts.

This situation compounds the absurdity I pointed out already, with doctrine of the atonement, where someone else can take away my moral responsibility by being punished in my stead.  In the case of original sin, I am burdened with the guilt of my ancestor's sin, and held morally responsible and subject to punishment by God, through no act or choice of my own.  From the perspective of a bystander, it seems that people are placed in a precarious situation, with their eternal soul in jeopardy of damnation, and then offered salvation if they agree to pay homage to the God who created this situation in the first place.  To me, this sounds very much like a mafia protection racket, where the victim is both imperiled and saved by a mafia boss, and has no choice in the matter when the criminal "makes him an offer he can't refuse".

And this absurdity has not escaped the notice of a Muslim reader of William Lane Craig's writings at Reasonable Faith.  As this reader notes,
to condemn the human race collectively (original sin) and then swoop in later to save the human race is not glorious, its illogical. Christ's redemption, in light of the doctrine of original sin, makes God's salvific plan look like an exercise in self-congratulation. - Omar
Of course, Craig has no direct answer for that observation in his response to Omar.  It really is a ridiculous scenario, and perhaps Craig recognizes there isn't a good answer.  But he does attempt to offer a defense of original sin as a stand-alone concept.  He makes a few key points about it that strike me as being intellectually weak, if not vapid.

First, he objects to the notion that God made us to be sinners.  To the contrary, God made Adam sinless and innocent, and it was Adam who is responsible for handing down the guilt of his own sin, says Craig.  But this doesn't change the fact that God still holds us responsible for Adam's sin.  That's something that no human, including Adam, could change.  It is God's choice alone.  And why should God regard Adam's sin as so terrible that it merits the downfall of all mankind?  Adam was innocent, and he got tricked by one of God's creatures.  Is this God's perfect justice - that we should all be condemned for an innocent man being tricked into committing the first sin?  As for the sins that we commit ourselves due to our inherited fallen nature, once again, we have no choice but to follow that nature.  It isn't a question of free will.  Free will can't keep us from sinning, when we are born with original sin.  Note that the only individuals who have ever been free of sin are those who were not born with original sin (like Jesus).  This isn't Adam's fault, either.  God could just as well have chosen not to pass Adam's sin to the rest of us.  Adam is a scapegoat for god's immoral choice to make us all sinners.  Craig's answer on this is intellectually unsatisfying, at best.

Then, he makes the point that it is an established and accepted principle in law that one can be held responsible for the actions of another.  This is known as the concept of vicarious liability.  For example, an employer can be held legally responsible for the actions of his employee.
No, he may be entirely innocent and blameless, but the liability or guilt of the employee is imputed to him. So your objection is not peculiarly theological; the whole Western system of justice stands against it. - Craig
That's true, but it completely ignores (or perhaps even denies) the nature of the situation.  People assume vicarious liability through their own actions or choices.  When you hire an employee to do something for you, that employee is your agent, acting on your behalf, and you have voluntarily assumed responsibility for what he does.  Vicarious liability doesn't apply if he does some action that you didn't authorize.  In various other situations, someone can, through his own actions, assume legal responsibility for another person.  But this is not at all the case with original sin.  None of us has made the choice to assume moral responsibility for the actions of Adam.  According to Craig, Adam (again the scapegoat) has taken it upon himself to thrust that responsibility onto us by assuming the role of representative for mankind and then abusing his position by sinning.  But that's not how vicarious liability works.  The person who assumes responsibility is the one who is liable.  We ordinary humans could never be vicariously liable for our ancestor's actions.  It's just not applicable to the situation.  This is either vapid reasoning or sheer intellectual dishonesty on Craig's part.

Finally, Craig notes that not all Christians adhere to the doctrine of original sin.  So it is possible to deny it, and still be a Christian.  That may be a good move on his part, if he doesn't want to deter someone from becoming a Christian because of this absurd doctrine.  But it still doesn't help to answer Omar's questions.  It simply offers an escape clause.

It is rather surprising to hear such a weak response from WL Craig to something at the center of the Christian belief system.  He is a premier philosopher and apologist for the faith, after all.  I expected better from him.  But to my knowledge, no Christian has any answers that are more satisfying than Craig's.  I guess this just goes to show that there is no logic to the dogma.  Christians just have to swallow it, no matter how absurd it is.


  1. I think the concept comes out of more traditional societies where interdependencies and beholdeness to ancestors and environment are more acknowledged. In a society - eg - where almost everything about a person - identity, staus, profession, even with whom you mate - is preset pretty much from birth by your parents' professions, social roles, etc - then that makes more sense.... Less so for a modern developed-world person with a sense of and a belief in a "self-constructed" identity ... if you get what I mean

    1. That may be the case for professional identity and status, but with regard to holding someone accountable for the sins of another, it has always been part of our inborn sense of fairness that we shouldn't do that. This is acknowledged in the bible: Ezekiel 18:20.

      By inborn, I mean it's not learned from society, like many moral rules are. Even little children have this sense of fairness.

    2. "...holding someone accountable for the sins of another, it has always been part of our inborn sense of fairness that we shouldn't do that."

      Maybe not - a counter example is the prevalence of feuds and vendettas. Person of clan A hurts a person from clan B, so retribution is taken out on some member of clan A, even if he wasn't the person that did the original harm.

    3. That's true. It's the in-group/out-group thing. My statement applies at least within the in-group. For transgressions committed by someone who is not in the in-group, any member of his clan might serve as a proxy.