I got the title of this post from something I heard the late Christopher Hitchens say in a debate. He was referencing a 16th century poet named Fulke Greville who wrote, “Oh wearisome condition of humanity! / Born under one law, to another bound: / Vainly begot, and yet forbidden vanity; / Created sick, commanded to be sound.”
As I mentioned in my last post, the first thing that caused me to seriously doubt my faith in Christianity was the problem of original sin. I didn’t even know it was a problem until one day while I was reading a novel by Ayn Rand.
My parents were the type of Conservatives who follow some of what Jesus says and some of what Ayn Rand says while ignoring the many ways in which they contradict each other. Since I was such a voracious reader, they recommended Atlas Shrugged. I had heard of this book many times before and it sounded interesting, so I dove right in. I was thoroughly enjoying it, often pausing to think about what I had read. Then I got to John Galt’s speech. Reading the following passage marked the beginning of the end of my faith.
“Your code begins by damning man as evil, then demands that he practice a good which it defines as impossible for him to practice. It demands, as his first proof of virtue, that he accept his own depravity without proof. It demands that he start, not with a standard of value, but with a standard of evil, which is himself, by means of which he is then to define the good: the good is that which he is not….
The name of this monstrous absurdity is Original Sin.”
Suddenly the problem of original sin was clear: If I was born sinful, then why do I deserve Hell for being sinful? That’s like sending a child to prison for being born crippled. What kind of justice is that?
Even as I read, my Christian mind was already formulating a response: We’re not born sinners; we’re born with a tendency to sin. Then I got to the next part:
“Do not hide behind the cowardly evasion that man is born with free will, but with a “tendency” to evil. A free will saddled with a tendency is like a game with loaded dice. It forces man to struggle through the effort of playing, to bear responsibility and pay for the game, but the decision is weighted in favor of a tendency that he had no power to escape. If the tendency is of his choice, he cannot possess it at birth; if it is not of his choice, his will is not free.”
[Note: You can read the full passage here. I no longer agree with everything Ayn Rand wrote as I did during my Objectivist phase (more on that later), but her thoughts on god and religion are quite good.]
I had planned on reading all of John Galt’s speech in one sitting, but I couldn’t get past this part. I read it over and over again. Finally, I put the book down and went for a walk. As I slowly paced up and down the dirt road leading to the family farm, I prayed for guidance from the Holy Spirit. I knew there must be a way to explain how a perfectly just God could set things up this way. But no matter how hard I prayed, there was no response. Just more confusion.
If we inherit the tendency to sin, either God cannot stop it from being passed on to successive generations (in which case he is not omnipotent), or he set it up this way on purpose (in which case he is cruel given that the world is full of temptations). What would you think of me if I left a hungry child alone in a candy store with the instruction to not eat anything? If I came back and that child had eaten a piece of chocolate, would it be right of me to take him down to the basement and torture him with fire?
Some people argue that god has no choice but to punish evil (again, that would mean he’s not omnipotent and apparently bound by some standard of good and evil higher than himself). But even if that’s the case, then why did he create humans in the first place if he knew the majority of them would end up in Hell? Is his desire to be worshipped so great that billions of people weeping and gashing their teeth is worth it?
The more I thought about it, the more I realized I couldn’t hold this belief and be intellectually honest at the same time. But I held out hope that there must be an explanation. I looked for answers in Christian books and even asked leaders at my church about it. But the responses I got either avoided the question or raised new questions. I suppose I could have forgotten the whole thing and gone with the standard explanation, “God works in mysterious ways,” but that would have been dishonest, and Christianity had taught me the virtue of honesty.