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“Ask a Priest: Why Do We Suffer From the Fall of Adam?”
Q: According to Ezekiel 18:20, “A son is not to suffer because of his father’s sins, nor a father for the sins of his son.” Then why do we, the children of Adam and Eve, suffer from the fall of Adam? Why did we inherit original sin? – Isla
Answered by Fr. Edward McIlmail, LC
A: When reading the Bible, it is important to read passages within the whole of Scripture.
This helps us understand things in context. Otherwise, focusing on one passage alone can sometimes lead to an extreme view.
Apparent contradictions can appear in Scripture. The Bible, at times, captures the tension between various interpretations and debates within the community of Israelites/Jews.
Some passages — Exodus 20:5, for instance — emphasize the intergenerational fallout of sin. “For I, the LORD, your God, am a jealous God, inflicting punishment for their ancestors’ wickedness on the children of those who hate me, down to the third and fourth generation.”
Even so, this punishment is put in context. For the next verse (20:6) portrays God as “showing love down to the thousandth generation of those who love me and keep my commandments.”
Other Old Testament texts reject the idea of punishment devolving on later generations, such as Deuteronomy 24:16 and Jeremiah 31:29-30. Later generations might suffer the nasty effects of sins of earlier generations, but not the guilt.
In this particular case, Ezekiel’s primary audience are the Jews in exile. They are downtrodden and discouraged after being taken from their homeland. Ezekiel is trying to enkindle a sense of hope, assuring them that they won’t be exiled forever for the sins of their fathers, even though they are feeling the effects of the sins of their elders.
Here, Ezekiel is talking about actual sins of fathers and sons, not about original sin. (Original sin would have been an unknown concept to the prophet.)
Original sin differs from actual sin. You and I commit actual sin. But original sin denotes a damaged human nature that we inherit from Adam.
The Catechism in No. 404 says:
“How did the sin of Adam become the sin of all his descendants? The whole human race is in Adam ‘as one body of one man.’ By this ‘unity of the human race’ all men are implicated in Adam’s sin, as all are implicated in Christ’s justice. Still, the transmission of original sin is a mystery that we cannot fully understand. But we do know by Revelation that Adam had received original holiness and justice not for himself alone, but for all human nature. By yielding to the tempter, Adam and Eve committed a personal sin, but this sin affected the human nature that they would then transmit in a fallen state.”
So, there you have it: Adam was meant to pass on original holiness, not original sin. It’s a bit mysterious. But it is what it is.
It certainly goes a long way to explain why the world wallows in so much sin and evil. A lingering effect of original sin, even after baptism, is concupiscence, the tendency to sin.
This is why our redemption by Christ is so crucial, and why we need prayer and the sacraments to help us respond to God’s grace.
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