It is a fundamental article of the Christian faith that each of us is born guilty and sinful. This truth has been confessed by Christians of all types down the ages. We are born guilty because of the sin of Adam, whose guilt was imputed to us even before we had any opportunity to do anything good or bad ourselves.
We were also born sinful, that is corrupted, and so prone to sin ourselves again and again. Our bent was away from and against God and his laws. Each one of us has piled sin upon sin and guilt upon guilt, adding all of this to what we inherited from Adam. This is our natural condition in this fallen world.
And the reason this is fundamental to the Christian faith is because without this truth of original sin, salvation in Jesus Christ would not be feasible. This is the logic Paul spells out in Romans 5. It is just because God determined that Adam would represent all mankind, so that Adam’s actions affected us all, that Jesus as the second and last Adam could be a representative head too, and thus atone for the sins of his people, the new humanity.
If we all sinned only as individuals, each one freely rebelling against God, then a very different kind of salvation would have been required, wouldn’t it? But this is not the case. We sinned in Adam and so are saved by Christ, the last Adam. This is also, of course, why a real Adam sinning in a real garden matters. So it is fundamental to our faith that we are all born bad, guilty, and corrupted. But are these the only senses in which we are born bad?
The words for ‘bad’ or ‘evil’ in Scripture (both in Hebrew and Greek) are used in a wide range of senses, as they are in modern English. Two broad categories may be helpfully distinguished: moral evil and natural evil, with natural evil being the consequence of moral evil.
Moral evil is sin – that is transgression of, or failure to conform to God’s law (1 John 3:4), whether in thought, word, or deed (Matthew 5:22, Galatians 5:20). Moral evil occurs when creatures, human and angelic, oppose God and break his rules.
Natural evil results directly or indirectly from moral evil: without moral evil committed by intelligent creatures there would be no natural evil. Natural evil includes such phenomena as earthquakes, floods, storms, whirlwinds, accidents, and so on.
Today these are usually called ‘natural disasters’ and sometimes historically ‘acts of God’, and all of them cause an immense amount of human misery. One key subset of natural evil is disease and sickness. We recognise that these are with us because of sin and were not there in the original good creation.
Another subset of evil is ageing, in the biological, not the chronological, sense. The mere passage of time (chronological) is not bad, but the biological decay we all experience during this time is, and, like sickness and disease, leads to death. Indeed, ageing may be understood as death working in us.
We interpret Scripture to teach that these various forms of natural evil arise from sin which can all be traced back to the Fall and thus to the consequences of Adam’s sin in the garden of Eden. But does this natural evil impact the soul? I use soul here synonymously with spirit, to refer to the immaterial element of our selves.
To be clear, the question is not whether our souls are pure and sinless. They are not. They are depraved. From the heart of the natural man, still in Adam, arise evil thoughts and desires which may or may not lead to outwardly manifested sins.
Rather, the specific question is: are our human souls ‘materially’ corrupted? Are our souls like our bodies damaged by the consequences of sin? I think the answer of many Christians would be ‘no’.
We find ourselves in a tradition which has involved discussion about ‘an immortal soul’. Although this concept can simply mean that the soul was created to exist forever (contra annihilationism) it is sometimes bound up with the idea that the soul is not damaged like the body.
I find this very odd. We accept that the world around us, indeed the whole universe, is corrupted as a result of Adam’s sin. It is under the curse and so groans, awaiting its final redemption along with us when Jesus returns (Romans 8). We accept that our bodies are damaged, don’t we?
Above, we have reflected on ageing and sickness involving obvious decay and damage in our bodies. The logic of all of this is that human souls too are damaged, isn’t it? That whatever the substance of our souls is, that this substance, like the physical substance of our bodies, has been subjected to decay and sickness.
The Bible teaches that humans are psychosomatic wholes. Our natural condition is as embodied souls. As such, our souls are intimately and continuously related to our bodies. Such linkage is mysterious but nonetheless real. And this makes it especially difficult to see how the soul does not participate in the full damaging consequences of sin and the curse.
And this is important, because mental illness involves such injury to the soul/mind, as well as related abnormalities we can identify in the brain. People with mental illness have damaged souls: their minds are scarred by the effects of sin, soul damage which cuts through our whole being.