Original Sin according to the Athanasian Paradigm

Inherited Sin

Many Christians have different thoughts when they hear the words Original Sin, and this is further complicated by the fact that there are often chasms between the high-minded theologians of a given denomination, and the pop-theology of the average member. I once heard someone (within a Reformed/Calvinist tradition) say that we must not assume all infants go to heaven, because everyone is born with a sinful nature that is deserving of God’s wrath. This kind of thinking has led contemporary Orthodox apologetics to conclude that much of Western Christian thought seems to believe we are punished by an angry God because grandpa Adam did something bad once (Though, just because this understanding might be true of pop-theology does not mean it accurately represents the best and brightest of the tradition). Therefore, the natural conclusion is that one cannot be punished for Adam’s sin when Scripture explicitly says “Fathers shall not be put to death for their children, nor shall children be put to death for their fathers; a person shall be put to death for his own sin.”[1] And as St John Chrysostom once wrote:

[H]ow would it follow that from his [Adam’s] disobedience another would become a sinner? For at this rate a man of this sort will not even deserve punishment, if it was not from himself that he became a sinner. What then does the word “sinners” mean here? To me it seems to mean liable to punishment and condemned to death. Now that by Adam’s death we all became mortals[2]

I use Chrysostom here only to borrow his words to make my point about there being a wrong way of interpreting inheriting sin. Because, to be honest, there are some fathers (besides St Augustine) who taught that we do inherit sin. However, Augustine was the one who taught that infants who died without baptism are consigned to hell, in his work against Pelagius (whose belief about infants Augustine interpreted as undermining the purpose of baptism). However, St Gregory of Nyssa stated in his work on this topic that though he believes there is a distinction between the destiny of unbaptized infants and everyone else, the sudden death of a newborn does not provide a basis for supposing that they will suffer torment in hell. The question then becomes about how we ought to understand the transfer of sin and God’s relationship to it. Is there a way to affirm the essential need for baptism without turning God into a machine that has not been programmed to know what to do besides burn the exceptions? I would argue that the violent reading of Augustine to which I mentioned earlier (about infants being destined for eternal hellfire because of Original Sin as understood through the lens of Total Depravity) is not a good paradigm, precisely because it tends to equate the seed of sin at birth and the willful actions of sin, as deserving the same punishment (without taking anything else into account).

If I were to give an (imperfect) analogy to how sin and death relate to humanity, I would say it can be likened to the effect of a drug-addicted mother during her pregnancy. The mother (Adam and Eve) actively chooses to sin by enslaving herself to a substance that will kill her, but she also harms her daughter (all their descendants) in the process, giving her a terminal illness. The child is then born addicted to the drug even before she develops the very will to choose it. Therefore, the child has not inherited a fully expressed sin, in the sense that an infant can immediately go from the NICU to a court of law and be imprisoned for the crimes of her parents. It also does not mean she can be immediately imprisoned for her own sins, because her mental faculties are still in development and unable to make the decision to choose sin. What she does inherit is sin in seed form, and the condemnation for Adam’s sin, which is death/mortality. In other words, an infant does not experience hell because their mortality is the experience of Adam’s condemnation already.

The addicted child then matures and willfully chooses to follow her mother’s way of death (herself dying already), and gets her own children addicted as well, passing it on to the next generations. Paul talks about this in Romans 5-6, showing how the emphasis is not necessarily on the actions of sin (though this obviously plays a part), but on the spreading of death:

Therefore, just as through one man sin entered the world, and death through sin, and thus death spread to all men, because all sinned…Nevertheless death reigned from Adam to Moses, even over those who had not sinned according to the likeness of the transgression of Adam, who is a type of Him who was to come. But the free gift is not like the offense. For if by the one man’s offense many died, much more the grace of God and the gift by the grace of the one Man, Jesus Christ, abounded to many… For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord…[3]

As Hosea says, “I will ransom them from the power of the grave, I will redeem them from death…”[4] And of course, a favorite line among the early Christians, “O Death, where is your sting?” Paul says that the sting of death is sin.[5] Therefore, I find it right to emphasize the biblical doctrine of ‘death’ to the proper places where ‘sin’ currently resides in modern thought. Instead of original sin, perhaps it is less misleading to see it as original death, since it is the law of death that bound all of us formerly in Adam.

Inherited Death

According to St Athanasius’ work “On the Incarnation,” the central thrust of what he says about the cross of Christ (and the emphasis of his thought) is specifically not on theosis (which is a synergistic reality, contingent upon an individual’s cooperation with God), but rather on the inevitability of the bodily resurrection of all people (a monergistic reality, being the new law of nature, regardless of individual cooperation). Athanasius frequently makes reference to the “law of death,” which is God’s declaration in Genesis that man “shall surely die,” should he choose the way of disobedience and self.[6] Athanasius says “men, having despised and rejected the contemplation of God, and devised and contrived evil for themselves, received the condemnation of death with which they had been threatened; and from thenceforth no longer remained as they were made, but were being corrupted according to their devices; and death had the mastery over them as king.”[7]

Athanasius also uses a lot of legal language when talking about this, but he (and other fathers such as St Ambrose of Milan,[8] St Cyril of Alexandria,[9] and St Maximus the Confessor[10]) are referring to Christ paying our debt to this ‘law of death,’ which is ultimately not about whether we make it to heaven, but whether we will forever remain in the ground after we die. I alluded to this before, but Athanasius speaks very little on theosis in On the Incarnation,[11] so I feel the need to make a distinction. Here is where I think a distinction is being made: Theosis is the salvific (spiritual and bodily) conquering of both death (through Christ uniting humanity in Himself[12]) and sin (the sting of death[13]) through cooperation with Christ, but resurrection is the salvific (bodily) conquering of death alone.

However, I should add that resurrection should not be thought of as being synonymous with resuscitation, because resurrection has a transformational component. Everyone will be resurrected,[14] but how we live in this life will determine the manner of our bodily transformation. Athanasius does specifically say the “faithful” in Christ,[15] so it seems like the positive things he says excludes those who reject Christ. Meaning, they will be resurrected bodily, but not unto a metamorphized newness of life. Therefore, theosis is a reality only for people who want it (being the reward for the righteous), whereas resurrection is already a reality for everyone, whether they want it or not.

This Athanasian paradigm, highlighting Christ’s payment for those under the “law of death” explains so much of both the 1) legal and 2) universal language in the Scriptures. For Athanasius, the legal notion of being saved from the law of death is a salvation that is worthy of our rejoicing in of itself, even without adding the glorious layers of theosis. Therefore, the chief enemy for Athanasius is not inherited sin, but inherited mortality.[16] St Cyril of Alexandria agrees when he said: “Because of death and corruption, the Father hath given the Son as a redemption for us; One for all, since all are in Him, and He above all. One died for all, that all should live in Him. For death having swallowed up the Lamb for all, has vomited forth all in Him and with Him.”[17] Perhaps this emphasis on mortality nuances Scriptures that mention things like being “dead” in our trespasses and sins,[18] like a seed being unable to grow.

In keeping with my former analogy of original sin, the drug-addicted infant is not ‘sinful’ in the sense of being a drug-user since birth, but rather being drugged since birth (which then becomes a catalyst for sinful behavior). Sin is transferable only in an indirect manner—we sin because we have inherited Adam’s death. Scripture says sin came into the world through one man, and death came into the world through sin, and death passed upon all men because all have sinned.[19] Therefore, I think it is accurate to say that for Adam, sin (drug abuse) brought death to all (addicted child). However, for us, death (addicted child) brought sin to ourselves (drug abuse), and we pass death on to our decedents (addicted child), repeating the process.

At the same time, perhaps this also explains universalist readings of Scripture. Perhaps universalism is merely taking passages that refer to the universal salvation from the law of death, and interpreting them within the context of an ultimate salvation. Therefore, I perceive that there is perhaps a need to make a distinction between a synergistic inner[20] and a monergistic outer[21] mode of salvation to bring further clarity to the patristic soteriology of fathers such as Athanasius. At the very least, it would not hurt if such a notion was further explored.


[1] Deu 24:16.
[2] John Chrysostom, Homily 10 on Romans (Rom. 10:19).
[3] Rom 5:12, 14-15, 6:23.
[4] Hos 13:14.
[5] 1 Co 15:56.
[6] On the Incarnation, 3. Athanasius references Gen. 2:17 when speaking on the law of death. However, Cyril of Alexandria says something similar in his commentary on Jhn. 1:29, and he references Gen. 3:19, so it is most likely a combination of these notions that represent the concept of a law of death.
[7] On the Incarnation, 4.
[8] On the Death of Satyrus. “For just as in Adam I am guilty of sin and owe a debt to death, so in Christ I am justified.”
[9] Cyril of Alexandria, Commentary on John, Book 2.
[10] Maximus the Confessor, Quaestiones ad Thalassium, 42. “There then arose sin, the first and worthy of reproach, that is, the falling away of the will from good to evil. Through the first there arose the second – the change in nature from incorruption to corruption.”
[11] He does not do so until his famous maxim “God became man, that man might become god” in chapter 54.
[12] On the Incarnation, 9, 41-42, 52.
[13] 1 Co. 15:56.
[14] Dan. 12:2, Jhn. 5:29.
[15] On the Incarnation, 21.
[16] Cyril of Alexandria in book 2 his commentary on John also speaks of the need for us to be delivered from “imported corruption.”
[17] Cyril of Alexandria, Commentary on John, Book 2.
[18] Eph. 2:1.
[19] Rom. 5:12.
[20] Theosis – being synergistically saved from the sting of death (sin).
[21] Resurrection – being monergistically saved from death itself.

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