Aljumuah offers our series of articles by Reform Jewish Rabbi, Allen S. Maller, as a bridge-building effort to promote good relations among Jewish and Muslim communities. We share much in common due to the same source of our prophets and the revelations they received, namely the One God. Indeed, we are both stronger when we work together for justice, peace and mutual understanding. Our profound thanks to Rabbi Allen, who alone is responsible for the views and interpretations expressed herein.
Both Islam and Judaism agree that the Christian belief in ‘Original Sin’ is an unwarranted and overly negative and pessimistic evaluation of the nature of human beings. We can say that the Qur’an and the Torah alike teach that Allah/God made humans with a tendency toward, and a capacity for, both good behavior and bad behavior, but that they are not born into this world with the guilt of someone else’s sin.
Islamic and Jewish concepts of sin are virtual opposites to Christian concepts in many aspects. For example, there is no concept of “sinning in the mind” in Islam and Judaism. To a Muslim or a Jew an evil thought becomes a good deed when a person refuses to act upon it.
Overcoming and dismissing evil thoughts which frequently assail our minds is considered deserving of reward rather than punishment. The teaching of both Islam and Judaism is that an evil thought becomes sinful only when it results in evil behavior —or at least a solid intention and plan to carry out that evil behavior.
But humans do need to be limited by societal and religious restrictions. Humanity has historically dined on the banquet of life with lust and abandon. Examples of orgies of self-indulgence and power-seeking —including the Greek, Roman and Persian empires, as well as those of Genghis Khan and Alexander the Great— show how shameful highly civilized societies can be. But while there are many examples of communal decadence, cases of individual corruption are even more common.
So, good thoughts are not always the first instinct of humankind. As such, the Islamic and Jewish understanding is that the very intention to do good deeds is in itself worthy of reward, even if not acted upon. When a person actually does that intended good deed, God multiplies the reward even further.
Before we focus on the unacceptability of the post-Jesus Church doctrine of Original Sin,[i] let us look at the teaching of Jesus himself.
Jesus was an idealistic perfectionist who strongly condemned bad thoughts as evil temptations:
“But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman to lust after her, has already committed adultery with her in his heart. If your right eye causes you to sin, gouge it out and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to be thrown into hell.” (New Testament, Gospel of Matthew 5:28-29)
But even then Jesus would not have accepted the later Christian concept of Original Sin. How can we know that? Because he also taught,
“Let the little children come to me, and do not forbid them, for of such is the kingdom of heaven.” (New Testament, Matthew 19:14).
How could little children be of “the kingdom of heaven,” as Jesus taught, if —as the Church teaches—all children are going to hell if un-baptized in the Church so as to nullify (in that particular child) mankind’s Original Sin? So it cannot be not true then, that little children, who die un-baptized, are on their way to hell. Nor are they born with original sin, as the Church came to teach after the time of Jesus. And if God is just and merciful, then those un-baptized children are going to the kingdom of heaven —entirely without reference to the ‘Original Sin’ of Adam and Eve. As the Torah states clearly:
“Parents are not to be put to death for their children, nor children put to death for their parents; each will die for their own sins.” (Bible, Deuteronomy 24:16)
And the Torah also states that humans have free will to make moral decisions; and the moral responsibility to do so:
“Then the Lord said to Cain, “Why are you angry? Why is your face downcast? If you do what is right, will you not be accepted? But if you do not do what is right, sin is crouching at your door; it desires to have you, but you must rule over it.” (Bible, Genesis 4:6-7)
So why did Christianity desire to develop the strange religious concept of Original Sin —the concept that the guilt of the disobedience of Adam and Eve was passed on to each and every one of their subsequent descendants? Why? Because without that clearly defined concept, the central doctrine of the Church would not add up. In particular, they needed the dogma of Original Sin to provide a reason why every human being, even very kind, loving and moral monotheist human beings, need to believe that God’s own Son had died on the Cross as a vicarious atonement for mankind’s ancestral original sin [as well as all their own later sins].
And they also had to believe that God’s own sinless ‘Son’ had died on the cross as a vicarious atonement to ‘pay for’ all humans’ original sin. This became the required belief of Christianity for all humans; otherwise, they would never enter Paradise. As St. Paul wrote in what is now Christian Scripture:
“Therefore, as by the offense of one [Adam] all men were taken to condemnation; so also by the Justice of one [Jesus] many shall be made just.” (New Testament, the Letter of Paul to the Romans 5:18–19)
And as Paul, the real founder of Christianity wrote:,
“For since death came through a human being, the resurrection of the dead [on judgment day] has also come through a human being; for as all die in Adam, so all will be made alive in Christ.” (New Testament, the First Letter of Paul to the Corinthians, 5:21-22)
These words of Paul made it plain to the Fathers of the Church that all human beings inherited Adam’s sin; and were in need of Christian theological beliefs to be saved from hellfire. Thus, once it got the power to do so, the Church started pushing people to be baptized and convert to Christianity; and later, forcibly, with the establishment of the Catholic Inquisition in Spain and Portugal, it started burning Jews, Muslims and non-conforming Christians at the stake when they secretly continued to practice their own religion in private.
This never happened in Muslim states that were guided by the Qur’an’s admonition:
“And had your Lord willed, everyone on earth would have believed [the same religion], all of them entirely. Then, [O Muhammad], would you compel people in order that they become believers? [NO] it is not for a soul to believe except by permission of Allah, and He will place defilement upon those who will not use reason. [Surah Yûnus, 10:99-100]
This is why most Muslim rulers were guided by
“There is no compulsion in religion” [Surah Al-Baqarah, 2:256]
and not by
“we shall drive them out from there in disgrace, and they will be abased” (Surah Al-Naml, 27:37)
Like many other Christian beliefs, the doctrine of “inherited sin” finds no support in the words of Jesus or of the prophets who came before him, who all taught that every man is accountable for his own actions and that children will not be punished for the sin of their parents.
As Prophet Ezekiel states
“The son shall not bear the guilt of the father, nor the father bear the guilt of the son. The righteousness of the righteous shall be upon himself, and the wickedness of the wicked shall be upon himself.” [Bible, Ezekiel 18:20]
This is why the Qur’an likewise states:
And they say, “None will enter Paradise except one who is a Jew or a Christian.” That is [just] their wishful thinking; say, “Produce your proof, if you should be truthful.” Yes [indeed], whoever submits his face in submission to Allah while being a do-gooder, will have his reward with his Lord. And no fear will there be concerning them, nor will they grieve. [Surah al-Baqarah, 2:111-2]
The Qur’an condemns the idea that heaven is reserved only for members of one religious community. Biblical and early rabbinic Judaism also opened the gates of heaven to non-Jews who do righteous deeds; as is found in the Jerusalem Talmud and in Tosefta (Sanhedrin 13:2) where Rabbi Joshua held that “the righteous of all peoples (even polytheists) have a share in the World to Come” and this became the official view of Judaism.
However, during the 3rd to 6th centuries, Christians started persecuting Jews for not believing that “God’s own Son” had died on the Cross as a Vicarious Atonement [ii] for their sins; accordingly, Church authorities said, no Jews could enter heaven’s gates. So in response, the rabbis were forced to reply in kind —by excluding Trinitarian [iii] Christians from heaven. The Qur’an states that both types of exclusion are misguided and false [in the case of Jews who follow the Torah and for Christians who follow the Gospel], and lack any clear scriptural proof; and that no human knows how gracious God will be on Judgment Day.
“We have revealed to you, [O Muhammad], the Book in truth, confirming that which preceded it of the Scripture and as a criterion over it. So judge between them by what Allah has revealed and do not follow their inclinations away from what has come to you of the truth. To each of you We prescribed a law and a method. Had Allah willed, He would have made you one nation [united in religion], but [He intended] to test you in what He has given you; so compete to [do all that is] good. To Allah is your return all together, and He will [then] inform you concerning that over which you used to differ.” [Surah Al-Mâ’idah, 5:48]
And the Qur’an also states, and then repeats:
“Verily, those who believe [in this prophet], and those who are Jews and Christians, and Sabians; whoever believes in Allah and the Last Day and does righteous deeds; shall have their reward with their Lord. On them shall be no fear, nor shall they grieve.” [Surah Al-Baqarah, 2:62; Surah Al-Mâ’idah, 5:69)
To sum up, there is no evidence of the Church’s Original Sin dogma in the teaching of Jesus as found in the four Gospels of Christian Scripture.
The Jesus we see there is a Jewish Prophet who, like non-Orthodox rabbis today, opposes those Torah teachers who were overly focused on the tiny details of diet and strict Shabbat observance. Jesus himself was a tolerant religious pluralist; and this is what his followers should imitate!
[iii] The Church’s doctrine of the Trinity claims that God exists in three roles or ‘persons,’ with Jesus being one of the three divine partners. Jesus thus had become identified as a form of God! For the convoluted doctrine and its development, see: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Trinity#History
Not all Christians were Trinitarian.