01 March 2009

A Baha'i's Interpretation of "Original Sin"

The concept of original sin has been the lynchpin of Christian theology for centuries. Many Christians interpret the book of Genesis, when Adam ate of the apple from the tree of good and evil, as the downfall of man. It gives their faith in the historical Jesus as the only means by which people can be redeemed of the sin of Adam and be born again of Christ. While giving Christians assurances of their faith, it has turned other people off. Many find it inconsolable that a baby is born sinful and guilty and will be consigned to hell if it dies before being baptized, inconsolable that everybody before the time of Jesus was consigned to hell, inconsolable that everybody who is raised in an isolated area without hearing about Jesus is consigned to hell. For many, including myself, these are disturbing interpretations.

Baha’i’s take the opposite view of human nature. We believe that humans are inherently noble, “A mine rich in gems of inestimable value”. We can choose to polish these gems and express our true nature, or we can ignore our true selves and fall into great degradation. Yet Baha’i’s also claim to believe in the Bible; for us there is a deeper meaning to the biblical idea of original sin.

Paul the apostle speaks quite extensively on the topic of original sin, especially in the book of Romans. The story of Adam and Eve was well known from the Book of Genesis. Paul took it to mean that the sin of Adam was imputed to all men, regardless of their relative morality. The Jewish law was a form of death, an albatross that could not be extricated by human will alone.

"Therefore, just as through one man sin entered into the world, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men, because all sinned-for until the Law sin was in the world; but sin is not imputed when there is no law. Nevertheless death reigned from Adam until Moses, even over those who had not sinned in the likeness of the offense of Adam, who is a type of Him who was to come. ..For if by the transgression of the one, death reined through the one, much more those who receive the abundance of grace and of the gift of righteousness will rein in the life through the One, Jesus Christ." Romans 5:12-17

According to Paul’s story, we were recreated in the likeness of Christ through the mercy which required the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross. This was the meaning of Jesus when he claimed to fulfill the Law in its entirety.

"Do not think that I came to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I did not come to abolish but to fulfill. For truly I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not the smallest letter or stroke shall pass away from the Law, until all is accomplished." Matthew 5:17-18

Through his sacrifice we were saved, not through our own merits, but through the grace of God. We were freed from the law which kept us under the weight of sin, and death.

"Therefore, my brethren, you also were made to die to the Law through the body of Christ, that you might be joined to another, to Him who was raised from the dead, that we might bear fruit for God. For while we were in the flesh, the sinful passions, which were aroused by the Law, were at work in the members of our body to bear fruit for death. But now we have been released from the Law, having died to that by which we were bound, so that we serve in newness of the Spirit and not in oldness of the letter." Romans 7: 4-6

On the surface, these teachings suggest a very linear progression from the fall of Adam, to the naïve attempt by Abraham and Moses to redeem humanity through the Law, to the final redemption via the sacrifice of Jesus on the Cross. There are some obvious logical problems with this interpretation, not the least contained within the Bible itself. Consider the following story told by Jesus.

“Now it came about that the poor man died and he was carried away by the angels to Abraham’s bosom; and the rich man also died and was buried. And in Hades he lifted up his eyes, being in torment, and saw Abraham far away, and Lazarus in his bosom. And he cried out and said, ‘Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus, that he may dip the tip of his finger in water and cool off my tongue; for I am in agony in this flame.’ But Abraham said, ‘Child, remember that during your life you received your good things, and likewise Lazarus bad things; but now he is being comforted here, and you are in agony. And besides all this, between us and you there is a great chasm fixed, in order that those who wish to come over from here to you may not be able, and that none may cross over from there to us.’ And he said, ‘Then I beg you, Father, that you send him to my father’s house-for I have five brothers-that he may warn them, lest they also come to this place of torment.’ But Abraham said, ‘They have Moses and the Prophets; let them hear them.’ But he said, ‘No, Father Abraham, but if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent!’ But he said to him, ‘if they do not listen to Moses and the Prophets, neither will they be persuaded if someone rises from the dead.’” Luke 16:22-31

It is clear from this passage that before the time of Jesus, there was already a distinction between Hades (Hell), the place where the rich man was consigned, and a heavenly place where Lazarus was consigned.

So how do we make sense of the contradictory ideas that salvation is reliant on a specific event in history, and this account of salvation well before the time of Jesus? Most Christians placed a heavy emphasis on the historical Jesus, even though Jesus stated that The Christ has been around for eternity.

“Your father Abraham rejoiced to see My day, and he saw it and was glad”. The Jews therefore said to Him, “You are not yet fifty years old, and have You seen Abraham?” Jesus said to them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, before Abraham was born, I am”. John 8:56-58

This passage clearly establishes Christ as an eternal spiritual presence. One that was around long before Jesus’s body was ever born into the world. His life, which was evident in the original Word, was also the light of men from the very beginning.

"In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being by Him, and apart from Him nothing came into being that has come into being. In Him was life, and the life was the light of men. And the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not comprehend it." John 1: 1-5

If we are to understand the description of God as spirit and love…

"God is spirit, and those who worship Him must worship in spirit and truth." John 4:24

"The one who does not love does not know God, for God is love." 1 John 4:1

...then it makes sense to view the Christ in much the same manner.

So then there must be a way to understand the historical nature and redeeming act of Jesus in the context of the eternal nature of Christ and spirit? Consider the explanation given by Baha’u’llah on the nature of the prophets and manifestations of God.

"…It is clear and evident to thee that all the Prophets are the Temples of the Cause of God, Who have appeared clothed in divers attire. If thou wilt observe with discriminating eyes, thou wilt behold Them all abiding in the same tabernacle, soaring in the same heaven, seated upon the same throne, uttering the same speech, and proclaiming the same Faith. Such is the unity of those Essences of Being, those Luminaries of infinite and immeasurable splendor! Wherefore, should one of these Manifestations of Holiness proclaim saying: “I am the return of all the Prophets,” He, verily, speaketh the truth. In like manner, in every subsequent Revelation, the return of the former Revelation is a fact, the truth of which is firmly established….
The other station is the station of distinction, and pertaineth to the world of creation, and to the limitations thereof. In this respect, each Manifestation of God hath a distinct individuality, a definitely prescribed mission, a predestined revelation, and specially designated limitations. Each one of them is known by a different name, is characterized by a special attribute, fulfils a definite mission, and is entrusted with a particular Revelation. Even as He saith: “Some of the Apostles We have caused to excel the others. To some God hath spoken, some He hath raised and exalted. And to Jesus, Son of Mary, We gave manifest signs, and We strengthened Him with the Holy Spirit.”
It is because of this difference in their station and mission that the words and utterances flowing from these Well Springs of Divine knowledge appear to diverge and differ. Otherwise, in the eyes of them that are initiated into the mysteries of Divine wisdom, all their utterances are, in reality, but the expressions of one Truth. As most of the people have failed to appreciate those stations to which We have referred, they, therefore, feel perplexed and dismayed at the varying utterances pronounced by Manifestations that are essentially one and the same..." Gleanings XXII
Baha’i’s believe in the idea of progressive revelation which asserts that there is only one religion which has been refreshed and expanded upon throughout history. While the core spiritual message has always been the same, its conceptual framework and the social laws have differed according to the needs of people at their stage of evolution. Jesus himself spoke of progressive revelation using the parable of the wineskins.

"No one tears a piece from a new garment and puts it on an old garment; otherwise he will both tear the new, and the piece from the will not match the old.
And no one puts new wine into old wineskins; otherwise the new wine will burst the skins, and it will be spilled out, and the skins will be ruined.
But new wine must be put into fresh wineskins." - Luke 5:36-3
For progressive revelation to be credible from a biblical point of view, then there must be a deeper meaning to the concept of original sin than has commonly been interpreted. Investigating this deeper meaning, we must first consider the meaning of Jesus’s crucifixion and resurrection from the dead as laid out at the end of each Gospel. Paul gives us a useful place to start.

"Therefore we have been buried with Him through baptism into death, in order that as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life. For if we have become united with Him in the likeness of His death, certainly we shall be also in the likeness of His resurrection, knowing this, that our old self was crucified with Him, that our body of sin might be done away with, that we should no longer be slaves to sin; for he who has died is freed from sin. Now if we have died with Christ, we believe that we shall also live with Him, knowing that Christ, having been raised from the dead, is never to die again; death no longer is master over Him." Romans 6: 4-9
What does it mean to die with Christ in order to live with him? Paul is constructive in this train of thought. He clearly distinguishes between the heavenly body and the earthly body.

"But someone will say, how are the dead raised? And with what kind of body do they come? You fool! That which you sow does not come to life unless it dies; and that which you sow, you do not sow the body which is to be, but a bare grain, perhaps of wheat or of something else. But God gives it a body just as He wished, and to each of the seeds a body of its own...There are also heavenly bodies and earthly bodies, but the glory of the heavenly is one, and the glory of the earthly is another." 1 Corinthians 15:35-40
The earthly body must be “united with Him in the likeness of His death”, so that the spiritual body can be raised “in the likeness of His resurrection”.

So also is the resurrection of the dead. It is sown a perishable body, it is raised an imperishable body; it is sown in dishonor, it is raised in glory; it is sown in weakness, it is raised in power; it is sown a natural body, it is raised a spiritual body, if there is a natural body, there is also a spiritual body.” 1 Corinthians 15:42-44

Clearly the physical body of Jesus was not raised as the Gospels seem to suggest and as many Christians believe, but instead his spiritual body manifested in the early Christian community.

"So we, who are many, are one body in Christ, and individually members of one of another." Romans 12:5

So who was Adam in this story? According to Paul, Adam represents the human’s physical nature, the part that must be sown. Christ represents the spiritual nature, the part the must be resurrected.

"The first Man, Adam, became a living soul. The last Adam(Christ) became a life-giving spirit. However the spiritual is not first, but the natural; then the spiritual. The first man is from the earth, earthy; the second man is from heaven, heavenly. As is the earthy, so also are those who are earthy; and as is the heavenly, so also are those who are heavenly. And just as we have born the image of the earthy, we shall also bear the image of the heavenly. Now I say this, brethren, that flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God; nor does the perishable inherit the imperishable." 1Corinthians 15:35-50

It is easy to ask at this point, if original sin has a spiritual meaning instead of a literal one, why wasn’t the Bible more clear about that? Jesus was clear that his message at the time could only be delivered according to the capacity of the people to comprehend it. That is why he spoke in parables, in a figurative language.

"Jesus spoke all these things to the crowd in parables; he did not say anything to them without using a parable. So was fulfilled what was spoken through the prophet: "I will open my mouth in parables, I will utter things hidden since the creation of the world." (Psa 78:2) Mat 13:34-35

He also promised to speak much more clearly the next time around.

"These things I have spoken to you in a figurative language; an hour is coming when I will speak no more to you in figurative language, but will tell you plainly of the father." John 16:25

Paul also alluded to this, claiming that spiritual things cannot be understood using a natural (or literal) mindset.

"For to us God revealed them through the spirit; for the Spirit searches all things, even the depths of God. For who among men knows the thoughts of a man except the spirit of a man, which is in him? Even so the thoughts of God no one knows except the Spirit of God. Now we have received, not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit who is from God, that we might know the things freely given to us by God, which things we also speak, not in words taught by human wisdom, but in those taught by the Spirit, combining spiritual thoughts with spiritual words. But a natural man does not accept the things of the Spirit of god; for they are foolishness to him, and he cannot understand them, because they are spiritually appraised." 1 Corinthians 2:10-14

Today we are capable of thinking much more complex and abstract thoughts than the people thousands of years ago. Science has progressed to a point that the old ways of viewing the universe no longer apply. If Jesus had to speak in parables for people to understand, imagine how much more figurative the language must have been in Old Testament times for people to understand. This is why there are so many impossible stories in the Old Testament. It was useful for people at that time to take the creation story, or the story of Noah’s Ark literally, because the spiritual teaching could not be understood any other way. In this day, we are ready to be told “plainly of the father”.

Abdu’l Baha, the son of Baha’u’llah and the appointed interpreter of his writings, gives a very useful explanation of the meaning of Adam and Eve.
It is worth reading in its entirety