Essayist and biographer Alan Jacobs introduces us to the world of original sin, which he describes as not only a profound idea but a necessary one. As G. K. Chesterton explains, "Only with original sin can we at once pity the beggar and distrust the king."
Do we arrive in this world predisposed to evil? St. Augustine passionately argued that we do; his opponents thought the notion was an insult to a good God. Ever since Augustine, the church has taught the doctrine of original sin, which is the idea that we are not born innocent, but as babes we are corrupt, guilty, and worthy of condemnation. Thus started a debate that has raged for centuries and done much to shape Western civilization.
Perhaps no Christian doctrine is more controversial; perhaps none is more consequential. Blaise Pascal claimed that "but for this mystery, the most incomprehensible of all, we remain incomprehensible to ourselves." Chesterton affirmed it as the only provable Christian doctrine. Modern scholars assail the idea as baleful and pernicious. But whether or not we believe in original sin, the idea has shaped our most fundamental institutions—our political structures, how we teach and raise our young, and, perhaps most pervasively of all, how we understand ourselves. In Original Sin, Alan Jacobs takes readers on a sweeping tour of the idea of original sin, its origins, its history, and its proponents and opponents. And he leaves us better prepared to answer one of the most important questions of all: Are we really, all of us, bad to the bone?
In this brilliant account, Wheaton College literature professor Jacobs (The Narnian) traces the idea of original sin from the Bible to the present day. The doctrine has inspired fierce debate for the last two millennia. In every generation, it seems, someone defends the doctrine, pointing to all manner of evidence that people are (as Jacobs, in one of his rare stylistic lapses, too cutely puts it) bad to the bone. Their opponents in turn ridicule the notion, noting the unfettered greatness of human potential. Thus Augustine tangles with Julian of Eclanum, and John Wesley clashes with Rousseau. It is a compliment to Jacobs that in his hands these abstruse theological disputes are utterly engrossing. Jacobs makes clear that he has a dog in this fight he thinks original sin is the most persuasive explanation of the world he lives in (though he dissents, irenically and charitably, from some classic Christian formulations, such as Augustine's view on infant damnation). Jacobs hazards some quirky and intriguing ideas, such as the notion that the kind of kinship created by a universal doctrine of original sin is perhaps as good a basis as any for a brotherhood and sisterhood of humanity, in which no one lords it over anyone else. This book is truly sui generis.