Original sin has to be one of the most disgusting and emotionally harmful ideas ever invented by humans. Teaching people, especially children, that they are sinful from birth is the epitome of an unhealthy message. It is destructive to self-esteem. As a psychologist, I spend much of my time helping people minimize damaging, negative thinking. For many Christians, this belief cannot be challenged. Without original sin and “the fall,” a supernatural savior is not needed. Most Christians think Jesus died for their sins, and if they believe in Him fervently enough, have enough faith, pray (beg) sincerely enough, and are good enough, they might be saved from their inherent evilness. But they are also told they can never be certain of salvation, and the most perverse aspect of this racket (the payoff comes only after death) is that any failure has to be their fault.
Another way to think about original sin is that humans have to be saved from depravity for just being born human. Many people who think they are inherently bad have deep-seated shame that they can rarely overcome.
Some evangelical and fundamentalist Christian leaders teach that parents must discipline their children harshly to “break their will” and dispel the evil in them. They define a normal independent child as an unlovable sinner who is in rebellion against god. When harsh punishment, shame and fear come from “loving” care-givers, it is very emotionally destructive. Such parenting is child abuse. The Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) study in 1998 found that child abuse is the gravest and most costly public health issue in the United States.
Another aspect of original sin that makes little sense is that people are being punished for someone else’s behavior. Most modern humans don’t think punishing one person for another person’s actions is fair or just. Furthermore, the “sin” attributed to Adam and Eve was simply that they wanted knowledge. As the story goes, they were suppose to obey God without question even before they knew right from wrong. Such mindless obedience to authority is extremely dangerous. No competent parents would want their child to follow that model.
According to the Bible, to forgive sin, God requires a sacrifice – the killing of an animal that is as perfect as possible. This deity, who is defined as all good, even incapable of evil, not only condones killing and even orders killing throughout the Old Testament, he requires killing to be satisfied. Initially he requires killing animals, but ultimately he requires killing his own son. This core of Christianity contains several confusing, despicable messages. Killing an innocent animal or person, even one’s own child, is a loving act. Being sinful will get you punished in hell, and being sinless will get you killed. Jesus was killed because I am sinful. Jesus’ suffering and death will save me from my inevitable sinfulness if I believe in Jesus.
Christian hell is another enigma. It is unquestionably the cruelest and most horrific concept the human mind has ever invented, yet Christians must admit that their omnipotent god either created it or allows it to exist (Isaiah 45:7; John 1:3; Col 1:16). The idea of eternal torture for simply doubting some preposterous claims, failing to live up to unreasonable standards, or not being slavishly obedient is abhorrent. When people fear such punishment or believe they deserve it, they experience emotional distress. No one should have to live with the terror of such extreme torture.
Accompanying the horror of hell is the equally terrifying threat that an invisible, judgmental potentate is constantly watching and knows everything you do. To never have the least bit of privacy and to be continuously judged is emotional torment.
Most people may think of heaven as a good place – the ultimate reward. The problem is that some see it as the only good place. Life on earth is viewed as unimportant, except as a path to heaven. That dogma degrades life and leads to irresponsible attitudes toward valuing and protecting the only life and abode we know we have. Some Christians are even against environmentalism and conservation because they think this world is not our true home or that Armageddon will come soon.
To counter suicide as a means to get to heaven sooner, Christianity had to create a strong belief that only God has the right to control death. That doctrine teaches that any suicide is sinful, including the very reasonable choices some people want to have at the end of their lives to alleviate pain, suffering and meaningless existence. We alleviate suffering in animals much more compassionately than we do in humans. Some Christians believe that only God is allowed to kill – well, except for national enemies, criminals, abortion providers, and homosexuals.
Prayer is another aspect of Christianity that is almost universally seen as good. It is the ultimate sop for difficult or painful situations. Research has repeatedly shown that prayer is at best a placebo that soothes distress without changing the underlying situation. Meditative prayer may have the same beneficial effects as other forms of meditation. However, prayer is harmful when it replaces effective action. It is harmful when it lulls people into thinking they have done something efficacious, so they do nothing more, especially when they could have done something that would have actually worked. Parents who insist on intercessory prayer rather than medical care when a child has an easily treatable condition are committing child abuse. And intercessory prayer can actually make a sick person worse if they think being prayed for means their condition is hopeless. Beliefs are powerful even when erroneous.
These beliefs are certainly not all of Christianity, but they cause great harm because many Christians take them for granted without questioning. It’s time to examine these most basic (and therefore most unexamined) Christian assumptions and use deliberate reasoning to form healthier thinking.