Sense and Nonsense: Resurrection & Original Sin

That something is wrong with human nature has been known since ancient times, in all cultures, by any individual who, like Augustine, reflects on himself, on his own life, in the unclouded honesty of his memory. But let me be more accurate: On the whole, human nature seems to be intact; human nature is good, but something seems disordered in the human condition into which we are born and in which we live. The account in Genesis does not allow us to even hint that human nature itself is evil or corrupt. Yet, there is a disorder that each can identify in his own soul that makes it difficult for him to do what he should.

A New Yorker cartoon depicts a handsome New York apartment. A not-so-young but not-so-old couple are sitting in their living room after dinner. The somewhat balding husband is quietly reading the paper. His younger and quite pretty wife is obviously enthusiastic and eager to meet any problem in herself or in the world. Her husband is looking up with some perplexed astonishment as she cheerfully informs him, “Dr. Stolner said it might be nice if I let you see my darker side.” We might ask ourselves why this is funny.

Objectively speaking, we know that we, like the young wife, might indeed have a darker side hidden away someplace. But it has usually been considered more appropriate to follow advice exactly the opposite of that of Dr. Stolner. That is, we should try rather to control and subdue, if possible, our darker side. We should not do something wrong or sinful or disordered just so we can assure our husbands or friends that we are just like anyone else. No doubt, any sensible husband will already know his wife’s “darker side” after a few years of living with her. That we are, in practice, sinful creatures, that we do have a more unpleasant side to our characters, no one can really doubt.

In speaking of Augustine, Father Ernest Fortin pointed out that the difference between Augustine as a Christian and the classical authors like Plato and Aristotle is not about whether they had a common understanding of virtue and of happiness. They do pretty much. If Christians do not wholly agree with the classical authors, it is not so much because the latter were wrong. Rather it is because they were incomplete. They could not determine how to resolve their difficulties in the actual practice of the virtues. On the other hand, Christians for the most part recognized that man in his natural and unredeemed state would find it somehow quite difficult to practice virtue. The Christian theory of grace was simply a recognition that we needed more than ourselves — even at our best, even as philosophers — actually to practice virtue, even though we knew pretty much what it was.

The Catechism teaches that understanding sin in its fullness requires revelation. Aristotle knew there was some basic wickedness in human nature. He could also account for how we generally did wrong, when we did do something wrong. The ultimate meaning of the Fall, however, was only fully understood in the light of the death and Resurrection of Christ. The execution of Christ, the Lamb of God, graphically cut through any suspicion that what we do is not ultimately serious, does not ultimately reach even the Godhead.

The account of the Fall, the meaning of original sin, ought not, I think, be looked upon as some sort of alien imposition, some sort of outmoded doctrine that each of us does not somehow encounter every day of our lives. Original sin is in many ways the most relevant of doctrines, the one we need above most others to understand ourselves, to explain ourselves to ourselves. If I can put it this way, original sin is the foundation of our very dignity because it stands at the basis both of our freedom, our radical freedom and the risk it entails, and of our relation to others. If I sin or do something wrong, what I do is my own fault, to be sure. Yet, since it is a real human thought or action that I do, I cannot avoid affecting others. We are bound together thus both in our virtues, in what we do that is right, and in our sins, in what we do that is wrong. Were it not so, we would live strange lives in absolute isolation from one another both in virtue and in vice, which is clearly not the case.

The Catechism states that “The doctrine of original sin is, so to speak, the reverse side of the Good News that Jesus Christ is saviour of all men, that all need salvation, and that salvation is offered to all through Christ. The Church . . . knows very well that we cannot tamper with the revelation of original sin without undermining the mystery of Christ.” That is to say, the mystery of Christ as we know it, as it is revealed to us, stands in the context of the Fall, of sin. Christ came to this world in which we live to redeem sinners. He did not come to make us feel good. He did not come to restructure society as if this restructuring would somehow solve the problem of our sinfulness in a way external to ourselves, to our wills. Christ came because of our darker sides which is manifest in our sins.

Aristotle already knew that we could usually give a very good account of why we did something wrong. Indeed, this account is the first thing we do when we are confronted with our own wrongdoing. We explain, rationally, why we did what we did. It often sounds very plausible, but of course, we limit ourselves to that part of the story that justifies our deeds. The Christian revelation that Christ came to save sinners is intended to intensify our awareness of our actions, of their consequences, and of our need to acknowledge them in their very disorder. Moreover, we need more than philosophical reasoning to do this. This need is why Christ came into the world, and in so doing He called us to something much more than we might otherwise have been able to expect. So the revelation of the deep disorder of sin is, at the same time, in its remedy, also a revelation of our real destiny, something we could not anticipate, the Resurrection of Christ, the resurrection of the body.

John Paul II has been remarkably persistent in recalling to our attention the reality of original sin. He does not, like so much theology, try to explain it away or minimize it. He sees quite clearly how important it is not merely as a kind of political doctrine to remind us that even our politicians are sinners, but also as a doctrine about our human dignity. Thus, in Centesimus annus, John Paul II remarked that,

mankind, created in freedom, bears within itself the wound of original sin, which constantly draws persons towards evil and puts them in need of redemption. Not only is this doctrine an integral part of Christian revelation; it also has great hermeneutical value in so far as it helps one to understand human reality. The human person tends towards good, but is also capable of evil.

Veritatis splendor explains the grounding of good and evil as themselves irreducible to each other. Redemption is not to be achieved by transforming what is evil into what is good, into insisting politically, personally, or culturally that we call what is evil good or what is good evil. Evil is not good and cannot be made to be. Redemption exists not to deny the distinction of good and evil, not to deny that we as sinners often choose what is evil. Rather, it exists to save us from what is in fact the real depths of the evil that we choose against the right order that God places in nature and in ourselves. Redemption exists to deny to us the self-justification that what we do becomes good on our own or on our polity’s say so.

On the second from the last page of John Paul II’s most insightful new book, we find a passage about original sin that I have, since I first read it, often pondered. It is a passage that is remarkably subtle and illuminating about ourselves and about the disorders in the world that are, in fact, ultimately caused by original sin and its manifestation in our actual sins, and in our efforts to justify ourselves in them. But what is most remarkable about this passage is its vivid awareness that behind the most serious sins, behind their external action in which they appear, which can be forgiven and perhaps repaired, there is something else, something that has to be called almost diabolical.

John Paul II wrote soberly on this point:

Original sin is not only the violation of a positive command of God but also, and above all, a violation of the will of God as expressed in that command. Original sin, then, attempts to abolish fatherhood, destroying its rays that permeate the world, placing in doubt the truth about God who is Lord and leaving man only with a sense of the master-slave relationship. As a result, the Lord appears jealous of His power over the world and over man, and, consequently, man feels goaded to do battle against God.

This is an extraordinary observation about original sin.

John Paul II places the issue exactly in our own pride, in our claim to our own moral world. We ourselves claim to make the distinction between good and evil — we do not discover or receive it. We can actually choose, therefore, to see things in a distorted fashion. We can choose to see God’s world that He has given to us as a loving Father to be rather as an attack against our own self-constructed world. We can even see, in our practical defiance, a kind of haughty nobility in defending ourselves against God Himself. We refuse to have any will but our own. We do see that behind the commandments and the virtues that are given in our nature for our good there is a will, a divine will. It is this divine will against which we rebel.

The resurrection of the body is the Christian answer to original sin — to our own self-created world. What lies behind God’s commands is the will of a Father who wants us, ultimately, to be precisely ourselves. We can only be ourselves if we understand and choose to be what we are: finite mortal beings, to whom has been given not only the grace to be virtuous, but the proper understanding of what God is like, of what He has willed for us. God has decided that we shall rise as His Son rose, who was sent among us to accuse us of sin and to redeem us. God took the risk that we could choose against Him. Still, He gave us eternal life that includes the wholeness of what we are — body and soul. This is the promise of the resurrection that follows on the Resurrection of Christ, who alone enables us to call God Father, and whose will is there in Word, in all we choose even when we choose against God.

Where sin abounds, grace abounds even more fully. This basic Christian teaching is why original sin and the Resurrection of Christ and of our bodies are related in a most paradoxical manner. If we are “goaded to do battle against God,” as the Holy Father observes, it is because we choose to see in every rule and command, in every being, a word we did not make ourselves. We choose to be like gods and thus we cannot see or receive what it is that the Father has given to us. If we win the battle we fight against God, we are left with only ourselves. The men who choose “to be like gods,” to recall the account of the Fall in Genesis, are those who are least like Him. Those who are most like Him receive what they least expected, themselves, yea, even unto the resurrection of their bodies.


  • Fr. James V. Schall

    The Rev. James V. Schall, SJ, (1928-2019) taught government at the University of San Francisco and Georgetown University until his retirement in 2012. Besides being a regular Crisis columnist since 1983, Fr. Schall wrote nearly 50 books and countless articles for magazines and newspapers.

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