July 22, 2011

Perspective: What Impact Did Adam's Sin Have on the Rest of Humankind?

Why am I writing this post? See Theology (is) for Girls. And you can read another perspective via the link at the end of this post.

Before answering the title question, let me emphasize: Adam and Eve were actual, historical individuals, specially created by God in His image at the beginning of the world. I don’t have space to defend it here, but Adam’s actual existence is assumed in my answer.

Adam’s sin, eating fruit from the tree that God commanded him not to eat, is briefly described (Genesis 3:5b), but his one act had implications for every person throughout the rest of human history. In the same way that children of alcoholic parents may suffer from Fetal Alcohol Syndrome, poverty, and emotional scarring, the children of Adam suffer the consequences of his sin.

First, we now live in a sin-bruised world. As I tell my kids: It’s a fallen world; stuff breaks. We see the consequence appearing almost immediately after the sin. The previously pleasant callings of subduing the earth and multiplying (Genesis 1:28) now result in thorns (3:18) and heartache (3:16). We get the flu, our pets run away from home. Stuff breaks.

Second, we are sin-filled people. This consequence rears its head pretty quickly, too, “the wickedness of man was great on the earth. . .every intention of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually” (Genesis 6:5). And our native sinfulness is emphasized throughout Scripture: “I was brought forth in iniquity” (Psalm 51:5), “the heart is deceitful above all things and desperately sick” (Jeremiah 17:9) and “none is righteous, no, not one” (Romans 3:10). We tell lies, we fight with our spouses. We love to sin.

But that’s not all.

In Romans 5:12-21 and I Corinthians 15:20-49, we find that children of Adam do not merely share in the consequences of his sin, we also participate in the guilt of his sin.

By guilt, I mean that we deserve the punishment for Adam’s sin (death) because we also committed his crime (eating from the tree.)

Scripture clearly teaches our guilt for Adam’s sin: “in Adam all die” (I Corinthians 15:22a) and “one trespass led to condemnation for all men” (Romans 5:18a). If we stand condemned for Adam’s sin, there must be some way in which we committed the crime with him (or “in” him, as 1 Corinthians phrases it.) How?

First, we sinned in Adam because Adam was, at the time, the entire human race. And Adam carried in his body the rest of us. (Hebrews 7:9-10 uses this same logic to explain how Levi could pay tithes to Melchizedek: Levi was “in” Abraham, though yet unborn.) When Seth is born, we read “Adam. . .fathered a son in his own likeness, after his image” (Genesis 5:3). God does not individually create the successive generations. Adam and Eve brought forth all the rest of humanity, generation by generation, in their guilty likeness; “we have born the image of the man of dust” (I Corinthians 15:49a).

Second, we sinned in Adam because Adam was our representative. After reading Romans 5, we must conclude that there was something special about Adam and about his sin. Nowhere in Scripture do we stand condemned for anyone else’s sin* nor for Adam’s other sins (and I’m sure he committed many!). The “one man’s trespass” (5:15) is unique in the parallel way that the “one act of righteousness” (5:18) by the Lord Jesus Christ is unique. We are made blameless in Christ our representative, because we are guilty in Adam our representative.

All in all, the impact of Adam’s sin is bleak, but not hopeless: “For as by a man came death, by a man has come also the resurrection of the dead.” (I Corinthians 15:21) Praise be to God!

Now, please visit Marian Green at Uprooted and Undone to read a different answer to this question. Then we invite you to comment on either blog with your own perspective!

*A side note: for those of you who love this discussion (I know you’re out there!) and because I'm way over my allotted word count (sorry, Marian) I think Eve’s presence is evidence for a representational/federal view of Adam.
  • The human race was “in” Eve as much as in Adam according to natural generation (Genesis 3:20 “the man called his wife’s name Eve, because she was the mother of all living”);
  • Eve was the first transgressor (I Timothy 2:13-14);
  • but Eve’s sin is nowhere accounted to us, only Adam’s sin is (“the transgression of Adam” Romans 5:14b);
  • therefore (I really wanted to say ergo, but I won’t) Adam seems to have a special, representative relationship to humankind.


  1. Megan! I forgot there was word count! And I l-o-v-e your point on Eve...although I blogged more from her perspective than from Adam's. I was never very good at following directions...Sigh. Sorry! Don't give up on me. This is too much fun. :) Have a wonderful day, Megan.

  2. Hello Megan!

    Thanks for prompting reflection on this important topic! You give two reasons why we are participants in the guilt of Adam's first sin: (1) because the whole human race was in him; and (2) because he was our representative.

    Under number (2), you make some great points about why Adam's sin being imputed to us happens within the context of a special relationship of solidarity and representation that God set up: because we are guilty only of Adam's *first* sin (not his other sins), and because we are guilty specifically of *Adam's* sin (not Eve's, even though Eve sinned first and we were "in" Eve, too). I agree with you that we are guilty of Adam's first sin, and it also seems to me that your reasoning in your second point proves that *mere* solidarity with our ancestors through ordinary descent is not enough to make us guilty of their sins. Given that, I'm interested to know why you put forth two reasons as to why we are guilty of Adam's first sin. How do you see the two points relating to one another?

    Also, it occurs to me that Romans 5:19 is a very important verse when considering this question. Paul says "For just as through the disobedience of the one man the many were appointed sinners, so also through the obedience of one the many will be appointed righteous." (my translation) This gives strong support to your assertion that we are reckoned guilty of Adam's first sin. As you say in your post, it is not merely a case of moral corruption of nature being transmitted to us, but also a case of guilt being legally reckoned to us. Paul uses a word that clearly indicates this: "appointed," or "constituted." Translations that use the word "made" at this point might allow us to miss that point. In the same way, we need to see clearly that salvation in Christ is not merely a matter of a moral transformation through the imitation of Christ's example, but first of all it is a matter of Christ's righteousness being credited to us.

    love in Christ,

  3. Brent, Thanks for asking a question to allow me to attempt to extricate myself! On the matter of Adam as our natural father and Adam as our representative, I would say he is both. That said, I think the natural generation argument is, by itself, insufficient to explain the Biblical text and our guilt. (That's why I bring Eve into it; she seems to point to the fact that our guilt doesn't come by natural generation alone.)

    Thanks for highlighting Romans 5:19. Without so great a guilt, we would have no need of so great a Savior.


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