The fourth-century philosopher St. Augustine wasn’t raised as a Christian, and he ran with a pretty sketchy crowd as a teen. They actually called themselves “the Destructors.” (Some things never change.)
One night, while walking home with his destructor friends, Augustine and his gang noticed a pear tree, full of fruit, on someone else’s property.
Augustine later admitted that the pears didn’t even look very good. And none of the boys were hungry. But they stole a bunch anyway. Then they dumped them in a nearby bit of hogs. They didn’t want the pears. They wanted the wrongness of stealing the pears.
Augustine said of the theft, “It was foul, and I loved it. I loved my own undoing. I loved my error—not that for which I erred but the error itself. A depraved soul, falling away from security in thee to destruction in itself, seeking nothing from the shameful deed but shame itself.”
In other words, they loved doing it because it was forbidden. Augustine said it always haunted him why he stole those pears. He didn’t just do wrong; he delighted in doing wrong.
We can all look back and acknowledge some point where we chose the wrong just because it was wrong, because we had inward delight in and attraction to it. We all nurse some secret resentment of God and his authority.
How can I be so sure that you have this attitude in you? Because you and I are sons and daughters of Adam, the first human. And Adam chose to defy God’s authority, rejecting his clear command to avoid the tree of knowledge of good and evil.
Because of that choice, death descended on all people. Even though we didn’t participate, God regards Adam’s act to be ours as well.
This is called the doctrine of original sin.
Paul explains in Romans 5:12 that “just as sin entered the world through one man, and death through sin, in this way death spread to all people, because all sinned” (CSB).
If you’re thinking, “Wait, that isn’t fair! How can we be held responsible for something we had no part in?” then you’re not alone.
This is a major area where I’ve struggled. Many Christian thinkers throughout the ages—like C.S. Lewis—have had a hard time with this doctrine, too. I mean, think about it: The effects of this choice were not insignificant. Because of Adam’s choice, death passed upon us all.
That means every disease, every natural disaster, every painful struggle with cancer, every child born with a birth defect, every divorce, every rape, every war, every case of abuse, even hell itself goes back to this choice—a choice that we’re still held responsible for today.
And we weren’t even there for it.
When our childhood Sunday School teacher first taught us this, my best friend said, “Man, when I get to heaven, I’m going to kick Adam’s tail.”
Paul would say, “Not so fast.”
In calling Adam our representative, Paul is saying God knew that what Adam chose is what each of us would have chosen had we been given the choice.
We cannot say, “No, no. Had I been there, I would have done the right thing,” because that is saying we know more than God.
God is not some passive observer. He is the infinitely wise, endlessly just Creator. He understands everything about us, and he knew that how Adam acted would be how each of us would react in that situation.
Just think about it: You can’t even keep Oreos in your house without being tempted. Your willpower to do good is outmatched by a cookie. Do you really think you could have resisted the temptation to eat from a tree promising God-like power and knowledge?
If you’re struggling with the fact that it doesn’t seem fair to be held accountable for something you didn’t choose, think of it this way: All of us have ratified Adam’s choice at some point in our lives. We’ve adopted Adam’s line of thinking: “I know better than God, “I would rather do what I want to do than what God wants me to do.”
How many times in your life have you known the right thing to do and done the opposite? Remember: Just once is enough to ratify Adam’s decision.
Had our story ended with Adam, we would all be cut off from life forever. But thank God that it didn’t. God sent another Adam who would be faithful where Adam was faithless. Another Adam who, rather than reaching for a forbidden tree, had his arms nailed to a tree of death—all so we could experience life.
In Adam, all have sinned. But praise God, in Christ the sinful can be made whole again.