Epigenetics and Original Sin: A Proposal for Further Research

Anyone purporting to offer salvation needs to begin by demonstrating the problem for which they claim to provide the solution. This requires a “fall” narrative of some kind. The Bible’s language presents two parallel streams of thought in tension — legal and metaphysical – to describe this corruption and its transmission.

Scripture’s legal perspective emphasizes how God imputes guilt to Adam’s descendants on the basis of Adam’s legal representation of them in his act of breaking the rules laid out in the covenant between God and Adam (“Thou shalt not eat of the tree…”). On the other hand, Scripture also speaks in poetic metaphor about an evil which now resides at the root of the human heart. This evil is a foreign parasite which has invaded humanity and implanted itself at the deepest core of who we are, causing us to be “born in iniquity.”

Most Christian communities profess some sort of original and residual corruption of humanity, even if they do not hold to the common Augustinean articulation of original sin. St. Augustine hypothesized that we all inherit Adam’s guilt because we were present in germinal form in his semen, but he was unique amongst his contemporaries and predecessors when he argued for the inheritance of both punishment and guilt. Most patristic thinkers were content to argue that we suffered the consequences of Adam’s actions,

The legal explanation was never sufficient on its own, because theologians recognized that the corporate guilt always needed to be paired with a repetition of Adam’s sin at the individual level of each believer. It required an existential supplement to explain why each individual human continued to engage in sinful behavior.

How do we explain the ongoing propagation of this corruption which enslaves each human from the moment or birth, impelling them to repeat the sins of their forefathers? Epigenetics may provide a fruitful line of inquiry to discover how inherited and experienced trauma does not simply alter human beings at the level of their genetic code, but even in how their genes behave and express themselves throughout their course of their lives.

We bear the sins of our forefathers and foremothers in our body, and we pass them on to our children. Might we find here a superior description of the phenomenon which “original sin” names?

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