Ancestral Sin vs. Original Sin OR Why Sarx Sucks

In my last post I introduced the thesis of Richard Beck’s book The Slavery Of Death, namely, that death, not sin, is at the heart of the human predicament. It’s no wonder that the first place Beck turns to flesh out this contention is to Genesis 3 where we find the story of Adam and Eve, their disobedience and subsequent exile from the Garden of Eden.

In the Western church we have traditionally read this story as the foundation of what we call the doctrine of Original Sin. This doctrine states that because of the disobedience of our first parents, Adam and Eve, all of humanity has inherited a moral stain and sin nature that renders us inherently rebellious toward God and his purposes. In short, the West has read the problem that this story narrates as a moral one. Sin is the causal agent responsible for bringing death into the world.

The Eastern Church has come at this story from a bit of a different angle. In short, the Eastern Orthodox church understands the introduction of death into the world as the primary focus of Genesis 3. The question that is being answered here is not, “Where did sin come from?” but rather, “Where did death come from?” What can we glean from this passage when we approach it with this question in mind?

First, we notice that death was not a part of God’s original intention for creation. It’s seen as an invasion, as something that is attempting to thwart God’s purposes for his good creation. Beck quotes the following passage from the book of Wisdom* to add to the discussion: “For God created us for incorruption, and made us in the image of his own eternity, but through the devil’s envy death entered the world” (2:23-24a NRSV). This fits nicely with what we find in Genesis 3: it’s the serpent who tempts Eve to disobey God hence, “the devil’s envy.”

But this is not the whole story. As Beck quickly points out, the devil needed willing participants in this story. Again, the book of Wisdom:

Do not invite death by the error of your life, or bring on destruction by the works of your hands; because God did not make death, and does not delight in the death of the living. For he created all things so that they might exist; the generative forces of the world are wholesome, and there is no destructive poison in them, and the dominion of Hades is not on earth. For righteousness is immortal. But the ungodly by their words and deeds summoned death; considering him a friend, they pined away and made a covenant with him… (1:12-16a, NRSV).

Thus, in the Eastern reading of this story death is the result of both the devil’s envy as well as humanity’s summoning of death. Beck summarizes:

…the primary purpose of Genesis 3 might be to provide a story about the origins of death rather than the origins of sin. Phrased another way, Genesis 3 might be less interested in explaining why humans are “depraved” than it is in explaining why we die. We do inherit a predicament from the Primal Couple, but what we inherit isn’t a moral stain. Rather, we inherit the world they have left us. We are exiles from Eden. The world around us is not as God intended it. Death exists, but this was not God’s plan.

This is the key to understanding why the Eastern Orthodox church reads Genesis 3 as the foundation of what they call the doctrine of Ancestral Sin (rather than Original Sin). Placing the emphasis on death rather than sin, the doctrine of Ancestral Sin says that the reason why death is in the world is because of the Primal Couple’s disobedience (our Ancestors’ sin). As their offspring, we now live in a world that is riddled with death and decay. Thus, the condition we inherit from Adam and Eve is, in Beck’s own words, “less moral than mortal.” 

Beck concedes that in the Genesis 3 story sin precedes death but with death now introduced into creation and Adam and Eve’s offspring now infected with mortality, death becomes the operative force behind humanity’s sin. Beck:

As mortal creatures, separated from God’s vivifying Spirit, humans are fearful and survival-driven animals, easily drawn into sinful and selfish practices. Because we are mortal and driven by self-preservation, our survival instincts make us tragically vulnerable to death anxiety–the desire to preserve our own existence above all else and at all costs.

Paul’s use of the Greek word sarx carries this idea, that death is the cause of our sin, into the New Testament. Sarx is used ninety-one times throughout the course of Paul’s letters and so, given the multitude of contexts in which this word is used, it is somewhat difficult to pin down a meaning. The word is often translated as “flesh” but Beck provides his readers with a helpful list of possible interpretations: “human limitation,” “natural limitation,” “weakness of the flesh,” “the weakness of our natural selves,” “the weakness of our human nature,” “the weakness of our sinful nature,” “sinful nature,” “fleshly desires,” and “sinful flesh.” Citing the work of New Testament scholar James Dunn, Beck brings us to 1 Corinthians 15 which he sees as an important passage when it comes to understanding Paul’s use of sarx. In this chapter Paul is discussing the resurrection and the nature of our bodies after the resurrection: “The body that is sown is perishable, it is raised imperishable; 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 [soma], it is raised a spiritual body [soma]” (vv. 42b-44).” According to Paul, embodiment is not lost in the resurrection. The Greek word soma, meaning “body,” is used to describe what we will have post-resurrection. What is done away with in the resurrection is the perishability of our bodies (v.42b). Beck again: “While soma/body will be carried forward in the resurrection, sarx will be left behind. As Paul explains in verse 50, ‘flesh [sarx] and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God, nor does the perishable inherit the imperishable.'” In short, sarx, which according to Paul will be shed at the resurrection, is human frailty and mortality, the very thing that Paul sees as the root of human sinfulness.

* The Book of Wisdom is a deuterocanonical (literally means “belonging to the second canon”) book which is read as inspired scripture in both the Catholic and Eastern Orthodox traditions but is relatively unknown in the Protestant tradition. It’s important to note, as Beck does, that the book of Wisdom informs most Christian’s understanding of Genesis 3 as is clear from our discussion above. I’ve written a bit on canonicity and what it means for a text to be “authoritative” here.


Next: Reclaiming Christus Victor


Lent and Death

Nothing says Lent like a good book on death.

So, as a sort of Lenten discipline I’m going to be blogging through Richard Beck’s latest book The Slavery of DeathThere are two reasons why I want to blog through the book:

  1. Re-reading and summarizing each chapter will help me to process the content of the book and reflect a little bit on how it relates to my own life.
  2. I am loving this book and think that it’s well worth a read or, at the very least, more exposure. So if you’re not going to read the book then hopefully these posts serve as a small window into his ideas which, I think, are absolutely worth reflecting on.

If you’ve never read Richard Beck, you should. He’s a psychologist who also happens to have a passion for theology so much of his writing deals with the intersection of these two disciplines. You can familiarize yourself with his thinking by reading his blog which can be found here.

So, onto the goods.

The Slavery of Death begins with a challenge to reconsider how we view the relationship between sin and death. Traditionally for Protestants sin came first and is what corrupted God’s good creation and so led to death. This idea, that death is a consequence of sin, is reinforced by the account of Adam and Eve’s sin in the Garden of Eden and their subsequent exile and separation from the Tree of Life (Gen. 3). Paul seems to affirm this idea in Romans when he famously declares that the “…wages of sin is death” (6:23).

As I mentioned above, if you’re a Protestant you are more than likely familiar with this way of thinking. Interestingly, however, the Eastern Orthodox church tends to emphasize death as the center of the human predicament. For our brothers and sisters in the Eastern church sin is a result of our slavery to the fear of death. A great deal of Beck’s project in this book aims to reclaim the Eastern perspective on this issue and to shed light on many of the passages in the Bible that are usually neglected by Protestants–those that seem to affirm the notion that death, rather than sin, lies at the heart of humanity’s predicament. Take a look at these passages for instance: 

  • 1 Cor. 15:24-26 — Then the end will come, when he hands over the kingdom to God the Father after he has destroyed all dominion, authority and power. For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. The last enemy to be destroyed is death.
  • Rev. 20:13-14a — The sea gave up the dead that were in it, and death and Hades gave up the dead that were in them, and everyone was judged according to what they had done. Then death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire.
  • Romans 7:24 — What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death?
  • Hebrews 2:14-15 — Since the children have flesh and blood, he too shared in their humanity so that by his death he might break the power of him who holds the power of death–that is, the devil–and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by their fear of death.

In each of these passages death seems to be showcased as the main enemy of humanity. In 1 Corinthians death is the “last enemy to be destroyed” before God becomes all in all. In Revelation, death and Hades are the last things to be thrown into the lake of fire. In Romans, Paul attributes his struggles with sin to the fact that he has a body that is subject to death. The author of Hebrews understands salvation as a liberation from the “fear of death.”

Rather than do away with the Protestant formulation (sin leads to death) and replace it with the Eastern formulation (death leads to sin), Beck is aiming to give us a more balanced perspective, one that will allow us to make more sense of the wealth of biblical material that speaks of death as humanity’s main problem. In his own words:

The Bible presents us with a dense and complex causal matrix in which sin, death, and the devil all mutually interact. Consequently, an exclusive focus on sin tends to oversimplify the dynamics of our moral struggles. I argue that a fuller analysis is critical as it will present us with a clearer picture of Christian virtue–love in particular. By exposing the dynamics of “the devil’s work” in our lives, works produced by the “slavery to the fear of death” [Hebrews 2:15], we will be better positioned to resist the satanic influences in our lives, better equipped to do battle with the principalities and powers of darkness, and better able to love as Christ loved us.

It’s no surprise that when you begin to reconsider the foundation of the problem then how we understand the solution changes as well. Thus, salvation becomes more about liberation from our fear of death rather than exclusively focused on the forgiveness of sin. Beck: “Salvation…involves liberation from this fear [of death]. Salvation is emancipation for those who have been enslaved all of their lives by the fear of death. Salvation is deliverance that sets us free from this power of the devil.”

As it turns out, there has been a great deal of ink spilled in the field of psychology over the wealth of negative behaviors that result from our fear of death. This is why I find Beck’s perspective so illuminating: he puts psychology and theology in dialogue with each other and the results are more than interesting.


Coming Next: Ancestral Sin or Original Sin?